Actions

Work Header

Inosculation

Chapter Text

What Hermione Granger minded almost (but not quite) as much as the fact that she was dying, was that she didn't know what she was dying of. It was a worry that plagued her constantly, even as she tried to have a normal conversation with Luna and Neville.

“...No, but then I told him I wasn’t going to stand for differential treatment, and the next time Sarah handed in a paper, he graded it with an E,” Neville was saying. Hermione had missed part of his story, but she took her cue from Luna and smiled.

“That’s wonderful, Neville,” Luna said dreamily. “I’d take some advanced herbology classes myself, but the Quibbler takes up most of my time.”

Hermione made a renewed effort to join the conversation. “I saw your article about thestrals last week. It was lovely,” she said, shifting the pillows that supported her back. She shivered and drew her blankets closer around her.

“I do love thestrals,” Luna agreed, leaning forward in her chair. She reached up to adjust a strand of hair. She wore her blonde locks in an elaborate bun that made her look quite professional. Over the past few years, Luna had lost some of the permanent surprise in her expression. If it hadn’t been for the mushroom-shaped earrings she was wearing, Hermione would hardly have believed she was the girl who used to hunt crumple-horned snorkacks on the Hogwarts grounds. Luna continued, “And the Quibbler is doing quite well. If we published more than once a month, I’m sure I’d never have time to look for nargles.”

Hermione was about to respond when she was interrupted by a violent coughing fit that made her eyes water. It took a moment to catch her breath. When she blinked the tears away, she found Luna and Neville watching her sympathetically.

“They still don’t know what’s wrong with you, do they?” Neville said. “I mean, I know you’ve only been here for three days, but surely they should have some answers by now.”

Before she could answer him, there was a voice from the doorway. “If Miss Granger had come to see me before her arms were littered with inexplicable bruises, she might’ve made the diagnostic process a little easier.” A green-clad healer stepped into the room, followed by a nurse with wispy, greying hair and a reassuring smile.

“Healer Canton,” Hermione said, and the healer nodded at her.

“They do say healers make for terrible patients,” Luna said serenely. “Perhaps healing students have the same problem.”

Healer Canton shook his head, looking at Hermione. “Perhaps. But given that you are constantly surrounded by well-trained medical personnel, I would have expected you to come see me or a colleague at some point during the three months you’ve been ill.”

“I didn’t think it was anything serious,” she protested weakly. “I was just dizzy and nauseous. It happens to everyone.”

“It’s all right, dear,” the nurse said. She looked sternly at the man beside her, with the maternal reproach that could only be managed by a woman two decades someone’s senior. “Healer Canton thinks he can forget his bedside manners when his patient is also his student.”

Canton looked slightly abashed as he took a seat next to Neville. It made Hermione smile a little. She’d met nurse Dora several times over the first three years of her studies as a healer. It was good to have friendly, familiar faces by her hospital bed now that she was ill.

Dora walked to the bedside table and put down several vials holding colourful liquids. “Not more potions,” Hermione muttered, displeased.

“The purple one is a new anti-nausea potion. I suspect it’ll have a better effect than the spell,” Canton said.

“Don’t healing spells work faster than potions?” Neville asked, looking curiously at the vials on the table.

“Normally, yes,” Canton said grimly.

“Spells have weakened effects on me,” Hermione explained. She coughed again and winced at the pain in her chest. “It’s probably a diagnostic clue.”

Healer Canton sighed. Hermione knew the mystery of her illness plagued him as much as it did her. He’d been her supervisor at the School for Magical Healing for two years now. She hadn’t been pleased when she started her studies and learned that her supervisor was famed for being a quintessential Slytherin. At first, she hadn’t liked Canton much – he was unfriendly and brusque, and he continued to treat her as a virtual stranger for months. Eventually, he came to have a certain regard for her, which she suspected stemmed mostly from the fact that she was his best student. Even now, she wasn’t sure whether he was concerned for her sake or worried because didn’t want to lose a promising young healer. Perhaps he simply couldn’t stand being upstaged by a mystery disease.

Dora handed her a vial. “Antidote,” Canton explained.

Hermione frowned. “I thought you said it probably wasn’t poisoning.”

“Probably,” Healer Canton repeated.

She sighed and put the glass to her lips. The concoction tasted vile, which did not help her ever-present nausea. Thankfully, the next vial held the anti-nausea potion.

“No change yet,” she muttered once she’d drank both potions.

Canton lifted his wand and murmured a few diagnostic spells. “Doesn’t seem to have any effect,” he said, frowning. “We’ll give it another hour.” He greeted Hermione and her guests and left the room.

Dora stayed behind for a moment to fluff up Hermione’s pillows and make her more comfortable. “You’ll be up before you know it,” she said.
“I’m a healing student,” she muttered. “I recognise false promises when I see them.”

Dora smiled apologetically and soon followed Canton out the door.

“So what are all these books, then?” Neville asked after a moment of silence. He gestured at a stack of books beside her hospital bed.

“Diagnostics,” Hermione said, rubbing her forehead. “Ow.”

“Headache?” Luna asked sympathetically.

“It’s a fairly common side effect of anti-nausea potion,” she responded. “As if my head didn’t hurt badly enough.”

Neville patted her hand. “We should probably go,” he said. “Visiting hours are almost over, and you look like you could use some sleep.”

Hermione nodded. “Thanks for coming,” she said. Neville and Luna both promised to see her again soon. A minute later, Hermione was alone.

--

Hermione’s studies of magical healing had so far been mostly theoretical. Even so, she’d spent enough time in St Mungo’s to be familiar with many of the nurses and healers. It was strange to be a patient to them now, rather than to see them as colleagues or superiors. She was on the receiving end of many of their diagnostic spells. Healer after healer came in to examine her, but no one could uncover the cause of her steadily worsening symptoms.

Dean and Seamus dropped by to try to cheer her up. Their efforts were soon mirrored by more of her friends: Parvati and Lavender, Hannah and Justin, George and Angelina, and her friends Clarissa and Matthew from healer studies. Ginny, Harry, Ron, and Luna remained her most faithful visitors. Although Hermione was grateful for their visits, they couldn't stop her physical deterioration. The bruising increased; the pain in her head and stomach persisted as a dull ache despite St Mungo's strongest painkillers; the dizziness and nausea sprang up whenever she moved. She surrounded herself with more books and turned her symptoms into a research project. It didn't do any good. Her reading turned up as little as Healer Canton's considerable knowledge.

"Maybe I should just give up," she said to Harry and Ginny in early December. She glanced at the stacks of healing texts that surrounded her. "It's obvious I'm not going to find anything."

"You can't give up," Harry argued. "You never give up. Perseverance always has results in the end, doesn't it?"

"I don't know." She leaned back against the pillows. Her friends looked at her worriedly. She knew she was pale as a ghost, and she could practically feel the resignation on her face. They had every reason to be concerned.

"It'll be okay, 'Mione," Ginny said. "There's still time. Besides, I've yet to see the day you can't find a piece of information in a book."

Hermione smiled at her, but didn't answer. Harry grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "It'll be okay. There's always Healer Canton. You keep telling us he's the smartest man you've ever met."

"That just makes it worse," she muttered. "If even he can't find what it is, nobody can. And even if he does figure it out, that doesn't mean he'll have a cure."

She'd barely finished her sentence when the doors burst open. It was Healer Canton, with a worried look on his face that Hermione found extremely unnerving.

"It's mudblood disease," he said without preamble. Harry stiffened at the word and glared at Canton, who shook his head impatiently. "That's just what it's called, Mr Potter. Read this, Hermione." He handed her a piece of parchment.

She scanned the lines quickly and then read more carefully. Ginny and Harry leaned over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of what she was reading. "Curses based on blood status have been outlawed since 1857!" Harry protested once he'd read the first paragraph.

"Yes, well, it's unlikely that a Death Eater would care," Hermione said distractedly as she continued to read.

"You think a Death Eater did it?" Ginny asked.

"Who else could it be?" Hermione said. "I don't think there's anyone else who would want to kill me. Besides, it wouldn't make sense for anyone but a Death Eater to use something called 'mudblood disease'."

"The spell is attached to the victim's blood status," Harry read aloud, "and kills its victim through multiple organ failure. The process is designed to cause maximum suffering over an extended period of time (six months) in order to prolong the victim's suffering. No cure has yet been found." He sucked in a breath and glanced at Hermione. She was still reading the parchment, although by now she'd been over every line twice.

"Healer Canton, is it true that there is no cure?" she whispered.

"I'm afraid so, Hermione. I'll investigate properly, of course. We'll do everything we can," he responded. "I wouldn't want to lose my best healing student."
She bit her lip. If Healer Canton was being nice to her - trying to make her feel better, even giving compliments - there really must not be much hope.

--

Hermione asked Harry and Ginny to take her healing texts back to the library. She replaced Diagnostic Spells with Illegal Spells Through the Ages, and Healing Systemic Diseases with Blood Status and its Medical Repercussions. Healer Canton joined her in the research, and she was immensely grateful that he would dedicate his valuable time to this hopeless endeavour. Now that they knew what was wrong with her, they also knew what would come next - decreased blood cell levels, kidney failure, liver failure, lung failure, and death. When she had still been searching for the cause of her symptoms, she'd thought that it would help to know what was wrong with her. She knew now that this wasn't the case. The horror of her impending death, which no spell or potion could save her from, could only make her search for answers even more frantic.

The diagnosis of mudblood disease had made it abundantly clear that Hermione's illness was an assassination attempt rather than a natural occurrence. The auror corps set to work finding the culprit. However, it proved very difficult to find any leads. Due to the slight delay in the onset of symptoms, it was impossible even to pinpoint the moment the spell had been cast. Because Hermione had been involved in the Second Wizarding War, she had dozens if not hundreds of enemies, all of whom probably had motivation and access to the right information to curse her with mudblood disease. With a war hero in the hospital, Magical Law Enforcement worked overtime to uncover as much information as they could, but it had no results.

In the meantime, Hermione's condition worsened steadily. She spent Christmas pouring over thick books about ancient rites and blood status. Between Christmas and New Year, two weeks after her diagnosis, she found what nobody had expected: a way out.

"Marriage!" she exclaimed. Harry, who was reading Curing the Incurable in the chair by her bed, almost dropped his book in surprise. His dark hair was even messier than usual, and his glasses had slid down his nose a little. After the war, Harry had ditched his round glasses for a thinner, square-shaped model. Though the change was minor, his round glasses had been iconic enough that the new pair helped him keep a slightly lower profile in public. He now pushed the new pair back up his nose and waited for her to explain her sudden outburst. She took a deep breath and said, "I can become pureblood by getting married!"

"Marrying into a pureblood family gives you the legal status," Harry said, "but it doesn't actually make you a pureblood, does it?"

"Of course not, but the spell isn't dependent on blood," she said impatiently.

"Then how does it-" Harry started.

"The spell reads my legal status; that's what it uses to recognise me as pureblood or non-pureblood," Hermione explained. "It's not dependent on actual blood, because that isn't reflected in anything in the body. Muggleborns or halfbloods aren't physically or magically different from purebloods. So the spell doesn't determine my blood status at all - it's just been programmed to avoid families that are legally pureblooded."

"What does that help? You're not from a pureblood family!"

"You can marry into the legal status. There's a Ministry registry for pureblood families. If I marry one of them, I'll be entered into it, and the spell will automatically avoid me!"

"And then it'll stop?" Harry asked.

"Yes. All of the effects of the curse should be reversed, and I'd be totally fine!" She was giddy with excitement. The prospect of health brought a rush of blood to her pale cheeks.

"You just have to find a pureblood to marry," Harry said.

She frowned, realising she hadn't even thought of that. "Of course," she said. "I don't suppose any of them will be very keen on marrying a muggleborn."

"I wish I could help you out," Harry muttered. "I don't suppose a halfblood will do."

She looked at him in shock. "But you are married!"

"So?" He laughed at her astonishment. "You know that if I could save your life, I would. I could divorce Ginny and marry you, and nothing would have to change. Living with Ginny doesn't technically require being married to her. As long as we don't have to consummate the marriage, I'm sure Ginny would understand - she loves you like a sister, you know that."

There were tears in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered. "I don't think it would work, though. I'm not sure how this registry works, but I doubt halfblood children are entered into it." She took a deep breath. "Can you go to the Ministry and get me a copy of the registry? And I'll need some books on marriage. The magical contracts, the status change, everything."

Harry left after making her promise to rest before she investigated the possibilities any further. Now that she had hope of a cure, however, she couldn't quiet her thoughts. She tried to think of all the pureblood families she knew, and suddenly realised that the Weasleys were probably on the registry. Why hadn't she thought of Ron the moment she knew she'd have to marry? True, she'd never really seen him as a pureblood - she associated pure blood with wealth, snobbishness, and anti-muggleborn sentiments - but she'd always known he was one. On the other hand, she'd radically banished any thought of Ron as a husband after their fiasco of a relationship.

When they got together during seventh year, she'd pictured getting married, having children, and spending the rest of her life with him. Her dreams changed after the war, when they suddenly had time to spend together as a couple. It wasn't unpleasant, but there were little things that made her uneasy. He still shook his head when she wanted to read a particularly long book; he didn't understand why she liked gardening; he accused her of a lack of house pride when she told him her favourite colour wasn't red, but blue. She, in turn, couldn't see why he wouldn't just read Hogwarts, A History. She couldn't empathise with his zeal for the Chudley Cannons, and she didn't understand why he started auror training after all the fighting they had already done. They were little things, but she began to realise that they stemmed from a fundamental lack of interest in what the other cared about.

Harry and Ginny made wedding plans the moment Ginny graduated from Hogwarts. It didn't come as a surprise to Hermione, who had watched the other couple closely. Ron, however, had seemed to take Ginny's upcoming nuptials as some sort of challenge. She was his younger sister; she wasn't supposed to marry first. If she did, he should at least follow soon after. Oblivious to Hermione's doubt, he started talking about wedding dates, honeymoon plans, and naming their children after his parents.

"Just think!" he said one night when he and Hermione were having a drink in a muggle pub. "I'll come home from work, and you'll be waiting for me with Arthur junior and Molly junior."

She was staring at her glass, but his words made her look up. "At home with the kids? Ron, I'm studying to become a healer. What makes you think I won't be working?"

He looked genuinely confused. "Well, someone needs to look after the children," he pointed out.

Exasperation made her voice sharp. "Why would that someone be me? This isn't the Middle Ages! Besides, who says I even want children?"

"But I thought-"

"I don't care what you thought! How about asking me, Ron Weasley? You talk about our marriage like it's some kind of foregone conclusion!"

"Well, isn't it?"

His tone didn't hold the slightest hint of an apology for his assumptions. He didn't understand what was wrong, and for once in her life she didn't feel like explaining it. She let the matter go that time, but she knew she was postponing the inevitable. More and more questions had begun to plague her mind. Did she and Ron even have anything in common other than their mutual friendship with Harry? She couldn't think of a single hobby they shared, and they clearly wanted different things in life. It hadn't bothered her when they were friends, but she'd realised now that Ron simply wasn't what she wanted in a boyfriend. If she wanted to have any hope of salvaging their friendship, she couldn't let this continue.

When she eventually broke up with him, the event could only be described as horrific. Ron flat-out refused to believe she didn't want to marry him. She left him that night without having convinced him, and it took weeks before he understood she wasn't coming back. Even now, more than a year later, Hermione sometimes thought he was still waiting for her to change her mind and come back to him.

She shivered at the thought of marrying Ron to save her life. If it was her only choice, she would have to take it, but she couldn't imagine spending the rest of her life with him. He was still a good friend, but he could never offer what she wanted in a husband.

--

Hermione loved the St Mungo’s staff to bits, but at times they could be terrible gossips. Her illness had been covered extensively by the Daily Prophet: War hero in St Mungo’s – anynomous sources in hospital confirm... The tentative solution to her problem didn’t remain a secret for long. News stories were scarce in late December, and wizarding Britain's journalists were hungry for good gossip. The day after she’d discovered that marriage might save her, the Prophet contained a lengthy article about the spell she was under and the ramifications of it. Hermione could never discover which nurse or healer had leaked the information. On December 31st, a celebrity column confirmed that Harry couldn’t help her: as a halfblood child, he hadn't been added to the registry. Along with it, the Prophet published a list of the pureblood families whose members could save Hermione’s life.

The next day, Draco Malfoy came to St Mungo’s to ask for her hand in marriage.

Chapter Text

Hermione was asleep when Draco Malfoy walked into her room at eleven o'clock on the morning of New Year's Day. She’d awoken early and spent an hour staring at the list of names in front of her. It was not very promising. There had only been about thirty families on the registry in the first place. The Weasleys weren’t among them. Even centuries back, they'd had a strong dislike of anything elitist, and they had chosen not to be registered as purebloods. Hermione half-heartedly explored the possibility of adding their name now, but soon found out that the registry was closed - its only updates were the automatic additions of spouses and pureblood children. Her relief at not having to marry Ron was short-lived, because the people who were on the list probably wouldn't do her much good.

Only twenty-five of the families on the list still had living descendants, and very few were even close to Hermione’s age. To make matters worse, many of the families had been pledged to the Death Eater side of the war. There was virtually no chance of convincing their children to marry her. She'd sent letters to several of the families that she might have a chance with, but had only received refusals in return. Finally, the exhaustion that was ever-present these days took hold of her and put her back to sleep.

At half past eleven, Hermione opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling above her. She considered doing more research, but there was nothing left to find out. With a sigh, she closed her eyes again when she heard a gentle cough next to her. She sat up quickly and found herself staring straight into the face of Draco Malfoy.

She didn't know whether it was the shock of seeing her high school nemesis or the fact that she'd sat up too quickly, but a wave of dizziness hit her that instant and caused her to collapse back to the bed. When the ringing in her ears had subsided, she looked at him again. He was sitting in the plastic hospital chair by her bed, his posture as straight and unforgiving as ever and a dispassionate look on his face. His hair was as blond as Hermione remembered, though he wore it slightly longer than when she had last seen him several years ago. The pointy features she'd despised so much at Hogwarts had become less pronounced as he'd matured to adulthood. She thought fleetingly that he might not be that bad to look at if it weren't for his perpetual sneer.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"That's not the kind welcome I'd hoped for," he drawled. "I have a proposition to make, Granger."

"A proposition?" she echoed.

He looked slightly annoyed that she was repeating his words and nodded impatiently. "That's what I said, yes." He pulled out a copy of the previous day's Daily Prophet and waved it in front of her. "Mutterings in the magical community suggest you're looking for a husband. A pureblood one, no less."

"So?" she said slowly. She knew Malfoy was on the list, of course, but she'd never even given his name a second thought. Of all the candidates, he seemed least likely to even consider marrying her. It was strange and suspicious that he was visiting her, but he'd probably just come to gloat. They'd been enemies since as long as she could remember, after all.

"Nobody on this list is even remotely suitable as a candidate," Malfoy said. He opened the Prophet to the gossip page and started reading the names, interspersed with his own commentary. "The Notts: all currently married. The Evergreens: all either in Azkaban or dead. The Goyles: moved to France and unwilling to associate with anyone muggleborn. The Lowmans: no living descendants. The Crabbes: the only unmarried member of the family is sixty-two. The..."

"I know!" she snapped.

He frowned at her, but put the paper down. "Like I said, you don't stand a chance of getting any of them to marry you."

"And?" she bit out.

"And I'm proposing, Granger. Marry me," he said.

She blinked but said nothing. Any second now, he'd start laughing and tell her he was joking. He couldn't be serious.

"Well?" he asked after a long, awkward pause. Hermione realised he wasn't quite as emotionless as before. His face was tense, though it was well concealed behind the famous Malfoy sneer.

"Um, no," she said.

"You don't mean that," he responded at once. "You say that, but you don't mean it. I just pointed out why I'm your only hope, Granger."

"You don't want to marry me," she pointed out.

"Really? It's odd then, don't you think, that I'm proposing." He smirked at her.

"I don't want to marry you."

"You're dying, Granger. That spell is irreversible except through marriage into a pureblood family. I just explained to you that I'm the only candidate. Of course you want to marry me."

Logic normally comforted her and helped her think. Hearing the truth from Malfoy's mouth, however, did absolutely nothing to soothe her. "I want to marry for love," she mumbled.

"No, you don't," he argued. "I read the Prophet, and I talked to the nurses. You would've married Potter if it had helped. He's head over heels for the Weasley girl, and you're about as much in love with him as you are with me."

"I don't care," she spat. She sat up again and leaned over to him. "I'm not marrying you. I don't trust you. Why are you even here? What is this? Some kind of sick joke to get me to say yes and then leave me hanging? Did you come here to laugh at me? I don't know what you want, Malfoy, but I don't want to spend another minute of my last weeks with you for company, so you'd better go."

He sighed. "Granger, lie down before you faint. This isn't a joke. I promise." He sounded sincere, which was so unusual that she lay back down and said nothing. "Look, I haven't explained myself properly," Malfoy said, "but my proposal is genuine."

"You can't expect me to believe you'd come here out of the goodness of your heart-" she began.

"Of course not. I'm a Slytherin," he said, actually sounding proud of it. "Now let me finish."

"Fine."

He gestured toward the stack of newspapers on her bedside table. "Have you been reading the Prophet?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I've been otherwise occupied."

He glanced at the stacks of books that lined the room and nodded. "I can see that." He went through the stack, grabbed one of the newspapers, and opened it to the fourth page. When he held it out to her, the headline at the top caught her eye. Court date set for Malfoy hearing, it read. "You may not be aware that the ministry is attempting to seize all Malfoy property, including Malfoy Manor. I want to keep it. In order to do so, I need the public to stop seeing me as some kind of junior Death Eater."

"You were a junior Death Eater," she couldn't help but interrupt. He looked annoyed.

"'Were' being the operative word. It's also worth noting that no charges have ever been pressed against me. Regardless of what you think of me, the ministry's claim is invalid. Despite that, it's going to succeed because the Wizengamot hates me. I want to sway their opinion of me. Getting married to a war hero would be just the thing. It's even more likely to be successful because I'd be saving your life." He smirked at her, evidently quite satisfied with his plans.

"So what you're saying is that you want to marry for money," Hermione said. She felt repulsed, talking about marriage as if it were some kind of monetary transaction. At the same time, Malfoy's apparent sincerity filled her with hope. Transaction or not, marrying the blond man beside her could save her life.

Draco scowled at her. "No, Granger. If you want, you can give half of the Malfoy fortune to muggle orphans. I'm marrying to keep the Manor."

"Why would you do that?"

"Are my motives really your concern?"

"Yes," she said without hesitation. "I need to know why you're doing this. I don't trust you."

He answered in a clipped voice. "My father is in Azkaban. I almost never see him. My mother passed away last year. My junior Death Eater status prevents me from getting any kind of job. I have no relatives who aren't imprisoned or dead, and all my former friends have either moved or want nothing to do with me. Malfoy Manor is all I have left. Besides, I grew up there. I don't want to see it transferred to some idiot who's going to renovate or redecorate and ruin it in the process. Does that answer your question?"

Hermione stared at him. He'd never tell her such personal things unless he was serious, would he? His refusal to meet her eyes and the heightened colour in his cheeks convinced her that he was embarrassed to tell her this. Surely that couldn't be faked. On the other hand, Slytherins were known to be excellent liars. She was unsure whether to believe in this apparent sincerity or become extra wary instead. Either way, she couldn't help but start to think in earnest about the possibility of marrying him. He had been right earlier on when he'd said he was her only option. She desperately wished it wasn't so - no matter how sincere or honest Malfoy was, she still disliked him intensely. Spending the rest of her life with him was not a tempting prospect, but it was better than not living at all.

After a long silence, Malfoy spoke again. "Look, it's really very simple. This is just a mutually beneficial arrangement. I save your life. In return, you do whatever you can to help me save my properties. I have every confidence that your political power will result in a favourable outcome, especially since by that point, you'll be fighting for property that is yours as well as mine. Once the trial is over, you won't have to see me, and I won't have to see you. You can live your life however you like."

"I don't want to marry you," Hermione muttered stubbornly.

"It doesn't matter what you want, Granger. I've already been over this," Malfoy said exasperatedly. "You know as well as I do that no other pureblood will want to marry a muggleborn."

She knew he was right, and it annoyed her beyond reason. She glared at him. "Did you have to practice to say 'muggleborn' instead of the other word?" she spat. Why had the fates conspired to have her marry the boy who had once called her 'mudblood'?

Draco was abruptly every bit as irritated as she was. "Yes, I did, Granger," he bit out. "Would you like me to apologise for making an effort? I'd like to point out again that I'm your only hope. I think it's safe to say that you want to live more than I want to have my house. I don't have to do this and I certainly don't have to offer you any favours. If I wanted to call you names while I saved your life, I would. I'm trying to be civil, but you're making it difficult."

It was quiet for several minutes. Hermione wished she could send Malfoy away and just sleep, sleep, sleep until all her pain and doubt and misery disappeared. But it wasn't an option, and she knew it. This was the only proposal she was going to get.

The silence was abruptly broken when Harry walked into the room. “Malfoy,” he bit out. “What are you doing here?”

“Potter.” Malfoy's voice was thick with sarcasm as he continued, “Such a pleasure seeing you again.”

“What are you doing here?” Harry repeated.

“I’m proposing to Granger,” Malfoy drawled, evidently satisfied when Harry stepped back in shock.

“Shut up, Malfoy,” Hermione bit out. She gestured at a chair, and Harry slowly walked to it and sank down. Hermione explained Malfoy’s proposal as concisely as she could. To her relief, the blond man didn’t interrupt.

When Hermione had finished her story, Harry was silent for a long moment. Then he turned to Malfoy. She could see the cold anger in Harry’s eyes. “You cursed her, didn’t you?” he spat. “Your court case has been going on for months, even if it wasn’t in the papers until now. You knew you were going to need a publicity stunt. You cursed Hermione so you could blackmail her into this.”

It was an option Hermione hadn’t even considered. She blamed her perpetual exhaustion, but felt idiotic even so.

Malfoy, it appeared, had also not thought of this idea. “What?” he bit out. He took a deep breath and continued, slightly calmer, “As a matter of fact, I did not.”

“Prove it,” Harry retorted.

“I thought I’d heard something about you becoming a lawyer, Potter,” Malfoy drawled, “but apparently you’re not even aware that innocence does not need to be proven.”

Harry gritted his teeth. “Do I look like the Wizengamot?” he snapped. “I said prove it.”

Malfoy looked exasperated. “How?” he demanded. “An alibi? Do you even know when the spell was cast?”

“Impossible to pin down,” Hermione said. “Besides, you could have an accomplice.”

He looked at Harry, eyebrows raised. Nobody spoke for a moment.

“Veritaserum,” she said suddenly.

“Excellent,” Harry responded, jumping up. “Don’t let him leave the room so he can’t take an antidote.”

Malfoy rolled his eyes as if he thought the entire process to be superfluous, although Hermione couldn’t help but notice that he was also starting to look uneasy.

Harry turned on the spot and disapparated, leaving Hermione with the man who may or may not have cast the spell that was killing her. It was distinctly uncomfortable. Neither of them said a word until Harry returned fifteen minutes later, holding a small box.

"Where did you get it from?" Malfoy asked, looking at the box a little suspiciously.

"I have friends in high places," Harry responded briskly.

He put the box on Hermione’s bedside table and took out a small vial of clear liquid. Malfoy looked at it for a moment, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Relevant questions only,” he suddenly said. “This is about whether or not I cursed her. If you ask me anything else, you’ll regret it.”

Harry glared at him but nodded. “Open up, Malfoy,” he said grimly.

Three drops of veritaserum later, Malfoy’s eyes glazed over. His face slackened ever so slightly, which looked strange and unnatural. Hermione shivered.

“Did you curse Hermione Granger with mudblood disease?” Harry asked. He sounded professional, and she couldn’t help but smile. He’d make a good lawyer one day.

“No,” Malfoy said. His voice was flat and emotionless. Hermione would have thought he’d sound better without his customary drawl and sarcasm, but instead the situation was creepy.

“Did you tell someone else to curse her?”

“No,” Malfoy said again.

“Did you, in any way, cause someone to curse her?”

“No,” he repeated. Hermione wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or not. Malfoy’s innocence – in this matter at least – meant she could marry him and save her life, but that choice had all sorts of ramifications. Besides, this meant the true perpetrator was still at large.

“Do you know who cast the curse?” Harry continued.

“No.”

“Who do you think cast it?”

“It must be one of the Dark Lord’s followers,” Malfoy said, his voice still devoid of emotion. Harry looked disgusted at his use of Voldemort’s old title. “I don’t know who it was, but many Death Eaters and Death Eater sympathisers have reason to dislike…”

“Stop,” Harry said, and Malfoy fell silent. Harry and Hermione looked at each other. “We could ask him about his motives regarding you,” he said quietly.

Hermione glanced at Malfoy, who stared at the wall with his dead gaze. She wanted desperately to know more about him, but she knew it wouldn’t be fair. He was innocent; he was here to save her life, questionable motives notwithstanding.

“He said relevant questions only,” she said.

Harry nodded and took a vial of antidote out of the box. He handed it to Malfoy and instructed, “Drink this.”

Malfoy complied without a word. As soon as the potion hit his tongue, however, life returned to his eyes. “Ugh,” he grumbled, glaring at the vial and then at Harry. “Who brewed the antidote? This is deplorable quality.”

“Too bad,” Harry responded, his voice not entirely free of satisfaction at Malfoy's disgusted expression.

Malfoy put the vial down and looked at Hermione. “Now that we’ve established that I am not the orchestrator of your current situation, perhaps we could return to the matter of my proposal.”

She took a deep breath and whispered, "I'll think about it.”

He nodded and got up. "I need not restate that the nature of our conversation must remain secret. Owl me when you've decided. If you accept, I'll come back to discuss the details," he said. "Don't take too long. It would be rather unfortunate if you were to die before our wedding day."

"For you, you mean?" Hermione couldn't help but ask.

"For both of us," he said, and then he was gone.

--

Hermione sighed deeply and promptly had a coughing fit. Harry patted her back until she’d recovered.

“Well,” he said, “that was an eventful hour. Do you think you’ll do it?”

"I don't really have a choice, do I?" she asked. "I can write to the other families on the list, but I'm afraid it's pointless. Besides, I don't know if any of them are a better choice. Malfoy said that if I went through with it, we wouldn't have to see each other. I could just continue my life. I'd hate to be associated with him in any way, let alone through marriage, but it might not have too many consequences. He seemed willing to negotiate, and I think it's because he needs this, too. With the other people on the list, I'd be asking for favours. They won't be willing to consider my wishes at all. I could be selling into a life of slavery for all I know.”

Harry nodded. "So what's next?"

"I need to think it over some more," she said. "It really isn't much of a choice, but I want to be sure I know what I'm getting myself into. After that, I suppose I'll have to talk to Malfoy to decide on the details. Can you do me a favour?"

"Of course, Hermione, anything you need," Harry said.

"Two favours. First, I'll probably need help negotiating. Can you be here when I talk to Malfoy again?"

Harry pulled a face. "I had hoped I'd never see that smarmy git again, but it's already too late, anyway. I'll be here. What's the other favour?"

"I don't want to tell Ron. He'll explode. He's sure to see reason eventually, but I don't want to listen to his ranting. I don't need to be told how awful Malfoy is, especially not at 90 decibels."

"I'll tell Ron," Harry said. "I should probably go see him right now, actually. He was planning to visit tonight, and he'll need to know what's going on before he shows up here."

They said their goodbyes, and then he left Hermione to her thoughts. She was exhausted but unable to sleep. Twice she was interrupted by a nurse who came to perform a painkilling or dialysis spell. Other than that, she could think undisturbed.

Ultimately she decided there was no use in waiting. She grabbed parchment and a quill from beside her bed and started writing.

Malfoy,

I accept. Please see me tomorrow morning at ten o'clock to discuss the details. Harry will be there as well.

Sincerely,
Hermione Granger

She wrote a letter to Harry to tell him about her appointment with Malfoy and found envelopes for both letters. When a nurse came to bring her food, Hermione asked her to send them at once. She wished she could've used her own owl.

Harry had given her the owl on the day after her break-up with Ron. She'd been watching bad television in an attempt to distract herself - a habit from her muggle past - when there was a knock on the door. It was Harry, carrying a huge, brightly-wrapped present.

"Ron told me you'd gone insane," he told her when they were sitting on her couch. "Actually, I think his exact words were 'bloody mental'."

"I broke up with him," she said.

"I gathered that. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she said, and promptly started to cry.

Harry awkwardly patted her on the back until she'd pulled herself together. "I thought you might need a new friend," he said. "One who appreciates parchment as much as you do." He pushed the present toward her. She opened it and found cage with a beautiful brown tawny owl. It looked at Hermione with curious, wide eyes. She fell in love with the animal at once. Back in the Hogwarts days, she'd desperately wanted her own owl, but her parents had always been firmly against it. Her mother wasn't fond of birds in the slightest, and her father was worried about keeping an owl hidden in a muggle neighbourhood. Now, her own companion and letter carrier was sitting right in front of her. The owl let out a quiet squawk, as if to say hello.

"Oh, I love him," she said, new tears in her eyes. "You shouldn't have, Harry, really!"

"His name is Apple," Harry told her. She couldn't help but laugh at the name, and Harry chuckled as well. "He was named by a little girl, but she couldn't keep him, according to the people at the Magical Menagerie. So now he's yours. I hope he'll cheer you up a bit."

"I'm sure he will," she said.

Harry gave her some owl treats, which she fed to her new friend. Crookshanks came prowling in from the bedroom to meet the new pet. Apple received him with a loud screech. While the two animals got acquainted, Harry gestured at the television, which was on mute. "Is this that terrible cooking show my aunt used to watch? Surely that's not your cup of tea."

"It's a guilty pleasure," Hermione mumbled, blushing.

"Well, turn up the sound," Harry said. "If you like it, it can't be as bad as I remember."

She'd watched television with Harry for hours after that. It had been strangely relaxing, and the memory brought a smile to her face even now, more than a year later.

She missed Apple. Harry and Ginny were taking care of him and Crookshanks while she was in the hospital, but she wished she could've kept her animals with her. Maybe she wouldn't have felt so alone if they had been with her while she was making decisions that would change her life.

--

When Ron showed up that evening, he seemed subdued and resigned. It was better than the outrage she'd expected. He told her about his day at work, but his usual enthusiasm about the Auror programme was lacking. "Are you going to do it?" he asked after a while.

"Do what?" she asked, although she knew exactly what he was talking about.

"Marry the ferret." Ron's face was full of revulsion.

"Yes. I owled him this afternoon to say I'd accept," she said evenly.

"Right." He scowled, and she half expected him to start yelling at her about how stupid Malfoy was. She was surprised when what he said was, "I'm really sorry, Hermione. I wish there was something I could do."

She smiled at him. "Thanks, Ron. It's not your fault, you know that."

"It's not fair," he mumbled. "He's just using you for his own good. You shouldn't have to spend the rest of your life married to that ferret. You should be with me."

She had to put a lot of effort into ignoring his last comment. "Maybe it won't be so bad," she said, trying to convince herself as well as Ron. "He dislikes me as much as I dislike him. We can just stay out of each other's way."

"As soon as he starts treating you badly, I'll come and hex him into oblivion," Ron promised.

She smiled. It was good to hear he cared about her, even if it wasn't in the right way. "Hey, I'm a war heroine. I can defend myself perfectly well."

--

When Malfoy returned the next morning, he and Harry were clearly not happy to be in the same room again. They glared at each other from opposite sides of Hermione's bed. She was a little worried that the men wouldn't be able to stay civil. Despite the mountain of pillows behind her back, she felt weak and barely able to stay upright. If Harry hadn't been there with her, she wouldn't have felt capable of negotiating.

"Why does he have to be here again?" Malfoy demanded. He seemed decidedly less polite than he had the day before. Perhaps he couldn't be bothered to keep up the charade now that she had accepted his proposal.

"Because I want him to be here," she said, before Harry could say something hot-headed. "Besides, you know he's studying to become a lawyer."

Malfoy shrugged. "I understand, but I'll have to warn you that there won't be any official agreements here. We're not writing anything down. I've put silencing charms on the room as I did yesterday. I don't want word to get out about these negotiations. This marriage is supposed to look like I'm selflessly saving you, Granger."

This statement did nothing to make Harry friendlier, but to Hermione's relief he didn't say anything.

"So how is this going to work?" she asked after a moment.

"It's simple. I give you a pureblood marriage; you help me win my lawsuit. As I told you yesterday, the ministry's claim isn't legally valid. Potter can verify it if you so desire. I'll give you access to every relevant document as well as the Malfoy library, which has an extensive section on magical law. You stand up in court to defend me. You talk to the press about how I saved you and how much I've changed. Give an exclusive to the Daily Prophet, give interviews, release statements, everything. I need the Wizengamot to believe the public will turn on them if they go through with this. Once I've won the case, there'll be little need for us to interact. You'll have your own quarters, of course. Certainly the Manor is large enough for us to live separate lives." Throughout this little speech, Malfoy's tone was very matter-of-fact. Hermione still felt uncomfortable at the way he treated marriage as some sort of bargaining chip. She was distracted from this by his last few sentences, however.

"The Manor?" she echoed.

"Yes, the Manor," he said irritably. "Malfoy Manor. You do actually remember that we talked about this yesterday?"

Her eyes narrowed at his condescension. "Of course," she bit out. "I mean, what makes you think I'll come live at your precious manor? I don't need you to give me my own quarters. I have a flat in London."

He seemed genuinely surprised now, although the irritation hadn't left his expression either. "No," he said curtly. "You move into the Manor, or the deal is off."

"What?" she gasped. "That's completely unfair! Besides, why would you even want me in your Manor?"

An exasperated sigh told her she'd apparently asked another question he deemed obvious. "How are we going to convince the wizarding world that you're on my side if you're as far away from me as you can get, Granger?" he demanded. "Surely you understand that this is essential. People are sure to question the validity of our marriage if you live eighty miles away. In addition, it's tradition for those of the Malfoy family to live at the Manor."

"Like it's tradition to marry muggleborns?" Harry snapped, evidently fed up with Malfoy.

Hermione snickered despite the circumstances, but Malfoy was not amused. He sent Harry a scathing look and continued, "Besides, Granger, I have other conditions for which your presence at the Manor is necessary."

"Other conditions?" she asked. There was a tremor in her voice, and she felt light-headed, more so than was usual these days. The past twenty-four hours, she'd been imagining herself back at home, unfortunately tied to Malfoy in name, but otherwise free. Now, it seemed a return to health would have far more consequences than she'd thought. Living at Malfoy Manor... Although she'd been to the Manor before, it hadn't exactly been under pleasant circumstances. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione had been captured by the Snatchers, she hadn't even fully known where she was. The events that took place in the Manor itself had left her with absolutely no desire to go back there. Besides, she shuddered to think of the other things Malfoy could demand of her. After he'd left yesterday, she'd felt as if she were making a choice, saying yes or no to his proposal. But she knew deep down that he could ask anything of her, anything at all, and she'd do it to stay alive. It was a chilling prospect.

"Yes, what other conditions?" Harry backed her up. He was still not cordial by far, but he seemed to have slipped into lawyer mode again. Hermione had to admire his control. He really was cut out for the job.

Malfoy met her eyes. "You understand that you won't ever be able to leave me, since a divorce will have ramifications for your legal status. In the same way, I can't divorce you and marry someone else. This is the only marriage either of us will ever enter into. As such, I want you to give me heirs."

"What?" she sputtered. It brought on a coughing fit, and she couldn't continue speaking until a minute later. "Look, Malfoy, if you're asking me to consummate this marriage, I'll-"

He cut her off with an air of extreme annoyance. "Don't be obtuse, Granger. You're a healer. I'm not asking you to have sex with me; I'm asking you to bear my children."

"Oh," she said. Of course there were multiple ways to conceive without intercourse. Even so, this demand had unsettled her yet again. She'd always known, in the back of her mind, that she'd want children someday. But not now, not while she was still studying, not when the father was a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard.

Malfoy seemed to guess at some of her thoughts. "Not until well after you've completed your studies, of course," he added.

It eased some of her worries, but it was also an uncomfortable reminder that her marriage to Malfoy would outlast her healer studies, could even outlast her life. She took a deep breath and tried to think it through rationally. Under the circumstances, she supposed Malfoy had reason to bring up the issue. After all, he was making a life-long commitment, too. She turned to Harry. "That sounds reasonable," she said slowly, uncertainly. "Is it reasonable?"

Harry did not look happy, but he nodded. "I think so, although I'm surprised he'd want halfblood heirs."

"Potter, if I cared about blood status even half as much as my father, I'd never consider marrying a muggleborn in the first place," Malfoy pointed out.

Harry scowled but changed the subject. "What about other relationships?"

Malfoy looked at Hermione. "I don't much care who you go out with, Granger, but I expect you to discuss it with me first."

"Why?" Hermione and Harry chorused.

"Public image, of course." Malfoy sighed at their incredulous looks. "This isn't anything unusual in the pureblood world. Half the marriages are arranged at least to some extent. Infidelity is generally considered acceptable as long as word doesn't get out to the rest of the world and both parties are aware of what's going on."

It made sense, in a weird, twisted way. Still, Hermione could barely believe she was negotiating her marriage like this. Malfoy didn't seem perturbed at all. Then again, from what he'd just said, he'd probably grown up knowing all about arranged marriages.

Malfoy assured Hermione that she could continue healer training. She'd have her own wing of the Manor and, according to Malfoy, would barely have to see him at all. Fifteen house-elves would be placed under her command - at this declaration, Hermione scowled so fiercely that Malfoy actually looked taken aback - and she'd be able to manage her side of the house however she chose. It was troubling and overwhelming to envision the future she'd have after she became a Malfoy, but Hermione tried to ignore her feelings of anger and grief because they were useless. All her sadness at the imagined future wouldn't change a thing, because it became more and more clear that she didn't have a choice. It was Malfoy or nothing, and nothing meant death. Malfoy knew it, of course; he probably enjoyed her plight. It made her furious, but what could she do?

She made an effort to rein herself in and remain rational. "One more thing," she said, looking intently at Malfoy. "I know I won't be able to divorce you without altering my blood status, but you wouldn't have those consequences. How do I know you won't divorce me as soon as you have your house back?" She heard Harry draw in a sharp breath beside her; he clearly hadn't thought of this possibility yet.

"Because I promise not to," Malfoy said, as if that was any kind of guarantee. When he saw the looks on their faces, he continued, "I'd imagine you don't believe me, though, so how about this: If I divorce you, knowing it will kill you, I can be tried for murder. If you can sway the public opinion in favour of me, he can do the opposite." He gestured at Harry. "So I don't think there's any doubt how that court case would end. I'm in this for life, just as you are." When she nodded reluctantly, Malfoy continued, "Good. I think that's everything. What's the wedding date?"

Hermione looked at Harry, who said, "Better make it soon, for your sake."

"Tomorrow morning," she decided. There was no use in waiting, and she desperately wanted her health to improve.

"Eager, are we, Granger?" Malfoy smirked.

She scowled at him. "I should be feeling better the moment I'm wed, and frankly, I can't wait."

He looked at her pale face for a moment and nodded. "I assume you're not well enough for any grand ceremonies. I'll make sure there's a ministry official to marry us. You'll need a witness. Come to think of it, so do I. Potter, will you do the honours?"

"You want me to be your witness?" Potter said incredulously.

"It's good publicity," Malfoy responded.

He doesn't have anyone else, Hermione thought, but for some reason, she didn't say it.

--

Hermione slept through most of the day after the negotiations. When she woke, she was still tired, she was still sore, and she was still sad and angry and confused. She was relieved to find that she was not alone; Ginny was sitting next to her with a book in her lap.

"Hey, Ginny," she said. Her voice was hoarse. She cleared her throat and immediately had a coughing fit.

"Hey," Ginny responded. She grabbed Hermione's hand. "Harry told me about Malfoy."

Hermione nodded. For a moment, neither of them said anything, but Hermione was glad for the silent solidarity that Ginny offered. "I have to live at his house," she whispered after a while. "Ginny, I have to have children with him. I don't know if I can do this."

Ginny squeezed her hand sympathetically and thought for a moment before responding. "I don't know either," she said slowly, "but I do know you're one of the strongest, bravest people I know. If anyone can do it, it's you."

Once again, Hermione thanked her lucky stars that she knew Ginny. Although they were nearly two years apart in age, she'd always felt a strong connection to the youngest Weasley, which had developed into a strong friendship over the years. Even her break-up with Ron hadn't stopped Ginny from supporting her.

"Thanks," she mumbled. "I know I should be glad about all this - I would've died if it weren't for Malfoy. It's just... he can ask anything of me. I feel so helpless."

"It won't always be like that, though," Ginny said. "Once you're married, he can't back out anymore, and you're in a more equal bargaining position. If you get sick of him in a year or so, I doubt he can stop you from moving out again."

Hermione hadn't thought of that yet, and it cheered her up quite a bit. Ginny smiled when she saw it, and held up the book she was holding. "I brought you something from the library," she said. Hermione leaned over to read the title: Wizarding History of Wiltshire and Somerset. "It contains ten pages of history on your future home."

"Oh, that's great," Hermione said enthusiastically, taking the book from Ginny's outstretched hand. "Thanks so much."

"You're welcome," Ginny said. "Is there anything else I can do?"

"Actually, there is," she responded. "Are you free tomorrow morning?"

Ginny chuckled. "I have practise, but I'm sure I can get a day off for my best friend's wedding."

"In that case, would you be my maid of honour?"

"Absolutely," Ginny enthused. "That's such an honour, Hermione. Thanks ever so much."

"Don't mention it," Hermione said, smiling at Ginny's excitement. "I considered asking Ron to come as well, but he'd probably kill the groom."

Ginny laughed. "My brother the hot-head. I talked to him yesterday. You know he wants the best for you, right?"

"I know," Hermione said a little sourly. "It's just that he's still convinced he is the best for me."

That made Ginny shrug. "Well, Ron will be Ron."

--

Whenever Hermione had dreamed of her wedding, she'd imagined a beautiful white dress, warm summer weather, cheers from friends and family, and most importantly, a groom she was madly in love with. Compared to those fantasies, this wedding seemed even bleaker than it already was. None of her family were there - not even her parents, whom she missed more at this moment than she ever had before. She was wearing pyjamas, and it was raining. Most of all, she was very much not in love with her husband-to-be.

She was glad she'd decided to ask Ginny as her maid of honour. Ginny provided excellent moral support on her wedding day, and Hermione was glad her best friend knew of the true motives for Malfoy's proposal.

The ministry had dispatched a short brunet man in his mid-thirties to marry them. With him and Harry as the final two participants in the ceremony, there were only five people in her hospital room when she and Malfoy said their vows.

The only good thing about the ceremony was her health. Mere seconds after the ministry employee had cast the marriage spell and waved his wand over their clasped hands, the pain vanished. She could practically feel her kidneys getting back to work. The dizzying fog in her brain lifted; the aches in her muscles disappeared. The contrast was so great that she gasped. Until this moment, she hadn't realised how far she'd been removed from her normal health.

"Are you all right?" Ginny asked immediately.

"Yes, fine," she responded, still a little breathless. "I'm fine. I feel great. It worked!"

Healer Canton was not immediately convinced; he subjected Hermione to a long list of spells. Some were diagnostic, resulting in the official declaration that she'd been healed from mudblood disease. Other spells targeted her weakened muscles. Within an hour or two, Hermione felt even better than she had after she'd said her vows.

After that, of course, it took another two hours to complete all the bureaucratic nonsense: signing the marriage contract and getting officially discharged from St Mungo's. She had to promise Healer Canton to wait at least six weeks before resuming her studies. "You're not ill anymore, and I've repaired some of the damage to your body," he said, gazing down at her as she sat, now fully dressed, on her hospital bed, "but you've lost a lot of weight and you've barely moved in weeks. Make sure you regain strength, then come back to finish your training." He turned to Malfoy, who was impatiently waiting for all of the fuss to be over. "I don't know what your motives are, young man," he said, "but you've saved the best student I've had in years. Now that you're her husband, I expect you to make sure she doesn't overexert herself."

Malfoy shook the hand that Canton offered him. "Don't worry. I'll take care of her," he said. Hermione didn't believe Malfoy gave two Knuts about whether or not she overexerted herself, but she kept herself in check and smiled at her husband. Chances were that Healer Canton would at some point be interviewed by Daily Prophet reporters. It would be best if he had reason to tell the press that she and Malfoy were perfectly amicable to each other.

"We're going to the Manor," Malfoy said to her. Hermione took a deep breath. She'd spent an hour the previous day reading up on the history of the Manor and its inhabitants, but it was still a daunting prospect to actually go there. She glanced back at Harry and Ginny, who were still sitting on their plastic chairs.

"Will you be all right?" Ginny asked her.

"I'll be fine," she said. "I'll owl you soon. We'll visit." The worried looks on her friends' faces made her feel even more unsure of herself. She wished she could go home to her little flat in North London. But Malfoy had kept his end of the promise, and now it was time for her to return the favour. She turned to Malfoy. "I'm ready."

Malfoy pulled out his wand and cast a water-repellent charm on her. Before she could ask what it was for, he'd grabbed her hand. She saw him twist on the spot. The next moment, the familiar walls of St Mungo's vanished as they disapparated.

Chapter Text

"You could've warned me you were apparating us," Hermione gasped as they landed.

"Well now, where's the fun in that?" Malfoy said, smirking at her. She glared, but the sight in front of her stopped her from commenting.

She'd only seen Malfoy Manor once. Back then, she hadn't really been in a position to admire the view. Now that she was at leisure to do so, she found that the building in front of her was absolutely breath-taking. The photographs in Wizarding History of Wiltshire and Somerset didn't do it justice. Malfoy Manor was at least half the size of Hogwarts, with many towers and turrets. Everything was immaculately painted in white and various shades of green. Despite the rain and the cold, many flowers in the extensive gardens were still blooming. It was beautiful.

Malfoy saw the look on her face. "Welcome to Malfoy Manor," he said. She noticed that he was smiling just a little. He seemed to be genuinely proud of the house, for which of course he had some reason. Either way, the sincerity of his words made him seem almost human to Hermione. When he saw her watching him, he gestured towards the lane. "Come on."

He started walking, and she followed him. "The anti-apparition wards extend to the gate," he explained as he led her down the lane. His tone reminded her of Snape's potion classes. Regardless of the topic Snape was discussing, he always sounded annoyed and vaguely insulted that his students didn't already know everything there was to know about potions. "Anyone can apparate out, but only those the wards recognise can apparate in. The only other way to enter the house directly by magic is through the floo, which I'll alter so you can use it. If you want anyone else to be able to use it, let me know and I'll alter it for them, too."

They passed a beautiful fountain with statues of magical creatures standing around it in a circle. Hermione wished she could've taken the time to truly admire it, but Malfoy never paused. She promised herself a proper tour of the grounds once the weather improved. She realised it would have to wait until she felt stronger, though; even the walk down the lane left her breathless. It didn't bother her much, since she still felt so much better than when she'd been sick.

Malfoy noticed her shortness of breath. "Don't faint," he warned. "We may be married, but I'm not carrying you through the door."

"I wasn't planning to," she snapped.

The front doors of Malfoy Manor were at least nine feet tall. Hermione was just wondering whether she'd even be able to push them open when they swung inward of their own accord. She found herself in an enormous foyer that was lavishly decorated with rugs and tapestries. "Wow," she breathed.

Malfoy smirked at her condescendingly. "Quite something, isn't it? Not what you're used to?" He didn't wait for a reply, but continued speaking. "Your chambers are in the east wing, but every unlocked door in the manor is available to you should you wish to explore. If you get lost, call a house-elf. If you need me, have a house-elf deliver a note to me. It tends to be about twenty times faster than looking for me. I've gathered all information relevant to the trial in the library, should you wish to start working on that. Tonight I'll adjust the floo network and the wards so you can use them. Any questions, Granger?" Even though he was telling her she wouldn't be stuck inside the house, she felt like she was being shown around her prison cell. After all, this would be her home for the rest of her life, whether she wanted it or not.

"I'm sure I'll be fine. And my name isn't Granger anymore," she responded.

He looked taken aback, as if he hadn't considered this. It took him only a moment to reassert himself. "Of course, Mrs Malfoy."

"Don't," she said, aghast at hearing that title applied to herself.

He raised an eyebrow. "We're not on a first-name basis." Before she could respond to that, he turned and walked away. Just before he reached the end of the foyer, he called, "Ditty!"

Right when Malfoy walked into what Hermione presumed was the west wing, a pop echoed through the room and a house-elf appeared.

"Oh, Mistress Malfoy!" the house-elf exclaimed when she caught sight of Hermione. "You has arrived! Ditty is your servant, Mistress Malfoy!" She ran towards Hermione but stopped at a respectful distance. "Master Draco is telling us you are coming, Mistress! Us house-elves is pleased to serve you!"

Hermione looked at the creature in front of her. Ditty was dressed in a dirty, torn piece of what appeared to be a curtain of some sort. Her skin was filthy. Even though Hermione hadn't really expected anything better, she was appalled at the way Malfoy apparently took care of his house-elves. She'd have to do something about it, she decided. Her experience with the S.P.E.W. had taught her that it was no use giving house-elves freedom, but that didn't mean they could be treated this way. Ditty was practically cowering before her, and Hermione hadn't even said anything yet.

It was a problem for another day, though. She was ravenous and exhausted. "Thank you, Ditty," she said, and the house-elf promptly started crying. Hermione sighed, knowing that further kindness at this point would only make the situation worse. "Take me to my quarters," she said, leaving out the 'please' to avoid more dramatics.

"Yes, Mistress! Ditty is pleased to bring kind Mistress Malfoy to her chambers!" Ditty exclaimed. Hermione cringed at the name, but decided that, too, could wait. Dealing with mistreated elves took time and tact, neither of which she was able to give at this point.

She followed Ditty through extravagant room after extravagant room. "This is Mistress Malfoy's room," Ditty said eventually as she opened a door in a long, dimly lit corridor. Hermione followed her, but had to pause in the doorway.

Her old apartment would've fit into the room in its entirety. It was as beautiful as everything else in the house. There was a four-poster bed of intricately carved wood with a silk canopy. Lined against the left wall stood a wardrobe, a dresser, and a chest of drawers in matching style. The floor was made of smooth oak with carpets so thick they rivalled the mattress. There were two beautiful armchairs with a little carved table between them, a six-foot-tall mirror, and a bookcase that covered half of the wall between the room and the corridor. The opposite wall had enormous windows with broad sills and thick curtains. Unlike most of the other chambers she'd seen so far, this one wasn't decorated in shades of green. Instead, it contained mostly blues and purples. Hermione wondered briefly if Malfoy had deliberately avoided Slytherin colours when preparing for her arrival, but he really wasn't that considerate. She walked toward the bed and sat down. It was delightfully soft, and immediately she wanted nothing more than sleep.

"There is clothes for you in the wardrobe, Mistress Malfoy," Ditty said. "But Master Draco is saying Ditty must accompany to your old house tomorrow to pick up your proper things."

"Good," Hermione said. "When is lunch?"

"Oh, Mistress, you is hungry!" the house-elf exclaimed. "Ditty is bringing you to the dining room. Mistress shall eat immediately."

Hermione had no objections to that. She followed Ditty down the corridor to a dining room that could've easily fit over a dozen guests. While Ditty disappeared to bring her food, Hermione sat down at the enormous dinner table in the middle of the room. It was strange to be by herself in such a big house with all of its grand chambers. She'd never felt lonely when she was on her own in her little apartment. But now, sitting alone at a dinner table with eleven empty chairs for company, she did.

--

The next day brought several orders of business.

First, she talked to Ditty. It turned out that Malfoy had assigned fifteen house-elves specifically to Hermione's part of the Manor. They were under her command, which made her nervous. She knew she couldn't give them clothes - the merest mention of it sent Ditty into a tizzy. Instead, Hermione gave them new rules. "I want you to wear clean pillow cases," she said. She grabbed a purple pillow case out of her chest of drawers and showed Ditty how to cut holes for her head and arms. After a while, she got Ditty to promise her that none of the house-elves would harm or punish themselves. Clearly there was still a lot of work to do in changing the house-elves' mind-set, but it was a promising start.

She explored the east wing for about an hour. Several portraits of Malfoy ancestors questioned her as she walked down the hallways, demanding to know who she was and why she was in Malfoy Manor. When she was about to return to her room, a house-elf appeared with a note from Malfoy.

Mrs Malfoy,

I've adapted the wards and floo network to let you through. Feel free to use them as you see fit.

D. M.

"I should think I will," she muttered. "I'm not your prisoner, Draco Malfoy."

The note brought her to the second task of the day. She took Ditty and a second house-elf named Locky to her old apartment to gather her belongings. She packed her clothes, her books, and Crookshank's and Apple's things.

She'd planned to pick up her animals a few days later - an extra trip would tax what little energy she had, and Apple and Crookshanks each required care. However, she didn't want to be alone in the large, unfamiliar manor that was now her home. When the house-elves disappeared with her boxed-up possessions, Hermione apparated to the Potter residence. Harry and Ginny had bought the little cottage when they got married. It was situated a few dozen miles south of London and was spelled unplottable to protect its inhabitants from overeager reporters. It was one of Hermione's favourite places. Almost everything inside was made of wood. There were large bay windows overlooking fields and little groups of trees. Inside, the house was decorated with just the right mix of style and carelessness.

She landed her apparition jump on the front porch and rang the doorbell. Ginny appeared moments later, her red hair tied up in a messy ponytail. She wore a thin shirt despite the winter cold.

"Hermione!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to rest!"

"I am," Hermione responded, smiling a little. "I miss Crookshanks and Apple, though. Malfoy Manor is a little lonely."

"Come on in," Ginny said, holding the door open. She continued speaking while Hermione followed her to the kitchen. "I've just spent two hours sorting through the books in our attic and bookcase. I must've run up and down the stairs fifty times. Anyway, I was just going to make some sandwiches for lunch; you might as well join me if you want. Harry's out with Seamus and Dean."

They were interrupted by a loud meow as Crookshanks flew from the living room and jumped straight into Hermione's arms.

"Crookshanks!" She hugged the fluffy ginger animal to her chest. "Oh, I've missed you so much!"

"He missed you too," Ginny said, smiling at her. "He wasn't quite as crazy as he used to be at Hogwarts. I'd almost say he moped. Certainly he never did that to me." She gestured at the cat, which was now rubbing its head against Hermione's shoulder and purring at roughly the volume of a small car.

Hermione buried her face in the cat's fur. "I'll be glad to have some company," she said.

"What's the house like?" Ginny asked, taking out cups and plates.

"House? Gin, it's a castle," Hermione said. She sat down at the kitchen table with Crookshanks on her lap. "I never realised it was so big. There must be forty bedrooms. Your whole cottage could fit in the entrance hall, and you can all but drown in some of the carpets."

"Do you like it?"

She considered the question for a moment. "It's very beautiful," she said. "It's just not... mine. I've never lived in any place like it. Maybe it'll be better when I have my own things in my room."

"And Crookshanks and Apple," Ginny said with a nod. She handed Hermione a plate of food and sat down at the other side of the table. "How's your health?"

"Oh, it's so much better," she responded. "No more pain, no more nausea. I'm still quite tired, but it's different somehow. This time, I feel like sleeping will actually make a difference."

Ginny smiled brightly at her. "I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that. This is what it was all for," she said.

"I know. So far, it's easily worth it," Hermione said.

They talked about Ginny's quidditch season as they ate. Ginny had started playing with the Holyhead Harpies the year after she'd graduated from Hogwarts. Molly and Arthur hadn't been too pleased at first that their bright daughter was not pursuing more education, but Ginny's obvious enthusiasm had eventually swayed them. It helped that she was doing quite well on the pitch. After spending a season as reserve seeker, she'd made it to the starting line-up last September. Despite an initial poor start to the season, the Harpies were now rising through the ranks, and Ginny was fast earning a respectable reputation for her snitch-catching abilities.

When Hermione had finished her sandwich, she walked to the living room, Crookshanks still in her arms. She found Apple in his cage by the window. The owl was pleased to see her and hooted in greeting. After she'd fed him some treats and scratched his head, she turned back to Ginny.

"Thank you so much for looking after them," she said.

"It was a pleasure," Ginny responded, smiling at her. "If you ever need an animal-sitter again, just let me know."

"I will," she promised. "Say hello to Harry for me. And give him my thanks, too."

Ginny nodded and stroked Crookshank's bright fur one last time. "Owl me soon," she said. "And good luck at Malfoy Manor!"

Hermione used the floo to bring her animals safely home with her. When she landed in the fireplace of her new bedroom, she found that the house-elves had already unpacked and distributed most of her boxed belongings.

With her own pictures and posters on the wall, her extravagant purple-blue bedroom began to look more like home. With Apple's cage on her broad windowsill and Crookshanks making tumbles on the thick carpet before the fireplace, Hermione felt quite a bit more content with her room than she had the day before. The trip had exhausted her, though. Despite her lack of pain and her general physical improvements, her energy levels were clearly not back to normal. When she curled up in one of her new armchairs with a book, she promptly fell asleep and didn't awake for two hours.

When she did wake up, it was mid-afternoon. It was time to commence her final task of the day, one that she certainly wouldn't be able to finish by nightfall. She had Ditty show her the library, located the stack of scrolls related to Malfoy's court case, and began to read.

--

Hermione decided to give her first exclusive to the Quibbler, of which the next issue would appear in two weeks. Malfoy, who insisted that she keep him up to date with her game plan, had protested vehemently. It had taken every ounce of her self-control not to shout at him when he'd insulted Luna's intelligence and writing skills. She knew the Quibbler wasn't wizarding Britain's most widely read periodical, but Luna had journalistic integrity, which couldn't be said of most of the Daily Prophet staff. Eventually, she convinced Malfoy to let her have her way. Working with Luna would give her the freedom to decide what would and wouldn't be included in the final print.

On her fourth day as a wedded woman, she apparated to the house Luna shared with her father just outside Ottery St Catchpole.

"My father is interviewing someone in Godric's Hollow about his work with nifflers," Luna said as she handed Hermione a cup of tea. "I don't think anyone will disturb us, so you're free to tell me what secret affairs you need help with. Your owl was quite unclear."

Hermione sniffed the tea. With Luna, one could never be sure which herbs or plants were involved. This particular brew, however, was perfectly fine. "It's about my wedding," she said.

"Oh, yes, congratulations," Luna said. "Harry told me you'd married Draco Malfoy. He used to be unfriendly when we were at school, and he did some dreadful things during the war, but he must've turned around if he was willing to help you."

Hermione shook her head. "He wasn't willing to help. He was just making a trade." She sipped her tea and then began to explain the promise she had made in return for her life.

"You want to use the press to convince people to see him as a good person," Luna summed up at the end. "Would you like me to write an article for you in the Quibbler?"

"Yes, actually," Hermione said, glad that Luna had picked up on her plan. "Something big, if you can. An exclusive, with pictures and an interview."

"Certainly," Luna said. She stood up, walked to a desk in the corner of the room, and picked up some parchment and a quill made of an improbably large feather. "If we write the article today and take photos tomorrow, I'm sure we'll be finished in time for this month's edition. Have you thought about what you want to discuss in the interview?"

--

January’s edition of the Quibbler was delivered to Malfoy Manor by express owl on its publication day. The poor owl had found its way through a snow storm, and Hermione was honestly surprised the animal hadn’t got lost along the way. She asked Ditty for some hot chocolate and curled up in one of the chairs in her bedroom with her copy of the magazine on her lap. Crookshanks sat down on top of her feet and watched as she leafed through the pages until she found what she was looking for.

The article was titled Hermione’s Miracle Recovery. Beneath the title were two photographs of her. On the first, she was sitting in her hospital bed, pale and weak, with her hair falling messily around her face. A nurse was casting a dialysis spell that had her flinching in discomfort. The second photograph had been taken at Luna’s house in the sun. It had been carefully arranged to make her look as much like her old self as possible. Her thin arms and legs were covered up by flattering robes; her still-pale face was brightened by a wide smile.

Hermione Granger was in St Mungo’s for six months, plagued by a debilitating degenerative disease. Last week brought a sudden return to health when none other than Draco Malfoy, son of Lucius Malfoy and known for his Death Eater sympathies during the war, saved her life. She sat down with the Quibbler a week after being discharged from St Mungo's.

Hermione, can you explain the nature of your illness to us?

From what we’ve been able to discover, I was cursed last summer. Someone spelled  me with mudblood disease. About a month later I started experiencing many different symptoms that gradually got worse. We learned that the curse was dependent on legal blood status. It was probably designed by pureblood elitists to get rid of those they didn’t consider pure enough.

If the curse was dependent on blood status, how were you cured?

The curse itself can’t be removed. However, we discovered it hinged on the Ministry’s pureblood registry. This is an old list of pureblood families which the spell had been programmed to avoid. The only way to enter myself into the registry was by marriage to someone already on it, which is where Draco Malfoy came in. As someone from an old pureblood family, he was entered in the registry. I married him, and all my symptoms disappeared at once.

Did you ask him to marry you?

I didn’t. It was his idea. To be honest, I didn’t expect it at all. We hadn’t spoken since we went to Hogwarts together.

Were you on good terms at Hogwarts?

No, there was certainly no love lost between us. We were in different houses. Frankly, we didn’t like each other at all, and our differences only became worse in the war. I hadn't spoken to him the past few years. In a way, that makes what he did even more admirable. It's much harder to save a stranger than a friend.

Why do you think he saved you?

I think it's really more a question of 'why not?'. If I had been a position to save someone's life, I would've done the same thing. It's not really that surprising that he would do the same. We should let go of our preconceived notions of who he is because of his last name. He saved me, and I'm intensely grateful for that.

Hermione closed the magazine. The rest of the article contained mostly nonsense about the wedding, her gratitude, and her new life at Malfoy Manor. She knew what it said. Luna had let her read the final version and make changes. There hadn't been many - Luna was an excellent judge of what the public did and didn't need to know and how it had to be worded.

She finished her hot chocolate, picked up the Quibbler and the drafts for her next articles and statements, and went back to the library with Crookshanks at her heels.

The Quibbler exclusive was followed by interviews with the Daily Prophet and Witch Weekly, in which she lauded Malfoy's heroic deed and professed her gratitude. She didn't speak a word about the trial - that wouldn't come into play until the next step of her plan.

When Hermione wasn't speaking to the press, she explored the Manor. She walked through corridor after corridor, peered into rooms, and talked to portraits. The people on the walls had somehow discovered who she was. She found that most of the Malfoy ancestors were thoroughly disgusted that the family now contained a muggleborn girl - they called her 'mudblood' and insulted her in other ways. Hermione asked her house-elves to take these portraits to the attic, where they could insult her together for all she cared. She replaced them with paintings from other parts of the Manor. Several Malfoy ancestors - mostly men and women who had married into the family from other bloodlines - were happy to see some 'fresh blood' in the family, regardless of where it came from. Hermione left those portraits up and filled the spaces between them with paintings of animals and landscapes.

On sunny days, Hermione wandered through the extensive gardens around Malfoy Manor. The grounds were well-kept by the small army of Malfoy house-elves, and she enjoyed the beautiful fountains, winding paths, and gorgeous plant life. Crookshanks had also taken possession of the property. He returned to Hermione's room each morning to spend most of the day dozing, but after dusk he usually disappeared to stake his territory. Every now and then, Hermione ran into him in the Manor or on the grounds. Sometimes he was in the company of another cat: a small, white creature that followed Crookshanks' lead but never let Hermione come near. She decided the white cat must be Malfoy's, although she had no idea what he'd want with it. He certainly didn't seem the type to be in want of cuddly animals.

--

When Hermione had been at the Manor for almost two weeks, she was visited by Miranda Crane, head of the auror office. Hermione had Malfoy give her access to the floo - she certainly wasn't going to ask his permission every time she wanted to have a visitor. He begrudgingly gave her the spells to alter the floo, and she set it up to let Auror Crane through.

Auror Crane was in her early fifties, with greying hair that contrasted sharply with her olive skin. She had a habit of pushing her glasses up her nose, and her glasses had a habit of continually sliding down. "It's been five weeks since we discovered you had mudblood disease," Auror Crane began when Ditty had provided her and Hermione with tea. "As you know, we regard this as a murder attempt, which thankfully was unsuccessful. I'm here to discuss the progress in the investigation."

"I assumed that's why you came, yes," Hermione said. She leaned forward, looking expectantly at her visitor.

"Yes, well," Auror Crane said. She hesitated for a moment. "I'm going to come out and say it. There has been no progress."

Hermione bit her lip. She'd always known, of course, that the investigation into her attempted murder was a complicated process. Even so, she'd had confidence in the auror force's abilities. She'd been expecting good news, despite knowing her case was complicated.

She wasn't given much time to think, however; Auror Crane was speaking again. "I'll give you an overview of what we've tried," she said. She described the investigation: the people they'd talked to, the places that had been visited, the information they'd tracked. They hadn't been able to find anyone who expressed undue interest in the relevant sections of the Wizarding Library of London; nobody had spoken out against Hermione in the press; nobody suspicious had been sighted at her apartment or the School for Magical Healing. There were more than enough people with motives, but it was impossible to track down any particular suspect.

"Does this mean you're ending the investigation?" Hermione asked when Auror Crane had summarised their lack of findings.

"I'm afraid it does," she responded with a sigh. "We'll keep an eye out, of course. Also, we can offer you protection. We take your safety seriously, Hermione."

Hermione knew she meant it. There had been aurors just outside her room in St Mungo's from the moment they knew her disease wasn't a natural one. She remembered one of them had talked to her in the confusing hours after her wedding; he'd offered to join her at her new home to ensure protection. At the time, her improved health and the general confusion of the moment had convinced her that she didn't need a guard. Surely she'd be safe here, away from London? She realised now that she'd never been safe at all. It was a chilling prospect. Even so, she found herself shaking her head.

Auror Crane raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? If it's your husband you're worried about, I assure you we'll be able to convince him to take your safety seriously." It seemed the Quibbler article had not managed to convince Auror Crane of Malfoy's good intentions. It was a good thing her media campaign had only just begun.

In truth, Hermione had not even considered Malfoy's opinion, although she was sure his outrage at auror houseguests would be something to behold. "It's not that," she said. She took a deep breath and explained, "I know I might be a little safer with someone watching over me, but... even your best staff could never protect me from every possible attack. If these people still want to kill me, they'll find a way. I'd rather protect myself and not let my life be influenced by them."

"As you wish," Auror Crane said. "Don't hesitate to let me know if you ever change your mind. And of course, we will let you know if we uncover any new information regarding your case."

Ten minutes later, Hermione was alone again. She replayed the conversation with Auror Crane in her head and found it even more depressing than before. If the culprits were never caught, would she have to live with a constant threat hovering over her?

She decided to distract herself. There was work waiting in the library - her media plan wasn't going to execute itself. As she walked through the long corridors of Malfoy Manor, however, she felt decidedly less secure than before.

--

Despite these new worries, her strength increased with each day. Within three weeks after her miracle cure, she was aching to resume her studies - she'd already missed months of classes and was eager to get back to work. However, when she went to see Healer Canton, he insisted that she needed the full six weeks for her recovery. He assured her that she'd be able to catch up before the end of the year, even if she took another three weeks off. Hermione reluctantly relented. She was glad for the diversions of her publicity plans - without them, the remaining twenty-one days before she could resume her studies would've seemed much longer despite the distractions of her new abode.

She rarely saw Malfoy. He showed up in the library occasionally to track the progress of her game plan, but Hermione had no idea how he passed the time. She was a little curious what he did all day, but deep down she didn't really care. Her gratitude towards him for her good health was moderated by the knowledge that he had only saved her in order to save himself. On the occasions that she did speak to him, his mood vacillated between cold and downright uncivil. He invariably called her 'Mrs Malfoy', with a strange ironic tone that annoyed her to no end.

Hermione hadn't seen him for four days when he walked into the library while she was going over legal documents with Harry. The white cat trailed behind him.

"What's he doing here?" Malfoy sneered.

"Helping you win a court case, Malfoy," Harry bit back.

"Why?" Malfoy demanded, scowling.

"I'm a law student. You saved my best friend's life. It's the least I could do. I'm representing you in the court case, as will be publicly announced about two weeks beforehand. As your legal counsel I strongly advise you to not pull that face when we're in court."

Malfoy looked suspicious and annoyed. After a moment of consideration, he said, "Two war heroes for the price of one, hmm? Should've thought of it myself. Well, carry on, then. I have a lawyer I need to go fire. It seems his services are no longer necessary." With those words, he turned and left the library.

Harry glared at the place where Malfoy had just been standing. "Every time I think he can't possibly get any more obnoxious, he proves me wrong. Why am I doing this again?"

"Because you're you," Hermione said. "Come on, let's get back to work. I think we've got the time-table down for this month, but I still want better planning for the last four weeks before the case."

--

Another Prophet interview later, Healer Canton finally allowed her to return to work. She'd missed nearly four months of medical training and couldn't wait to get back to learning. She had been far ahead of her year-mates, but now she found herself in the unfamiliar position of lagging behind them. Her scheming for the Malfoy Manor trial kept her busy, so she couldn't catch up just yet.

It was strange how little her life had changed, in the end. True, she'd replaced her private research projects with the legal technicalities of the court case, and she was taking care of fifteen house-elves as well as Crookshanks and Apple. But she was still spending six hours every weekday learning about healing spells in the company of Matthew and Clarissa. She still met Harry, Ginny, and Ron every Friday night at a muggle pub to catch up with them. She still went shopping in Flourish & Blotts to find rare, beautiful books. She was a little less carefree - often, she found herself looking around nervously when she was out in public, as if the mystery person who had given her mudblood disease was lurking behind a corner. But there was never anyone watching her, and gradually her fear and unease seeped away.

In the back of her mind, she knew the ramifications of her marriage would eventually catch up with her. Even though Malfoy had told her she could date outside their marriage, she didn't want to start a relationship that didn't have a future. Eventually, Malfoy would start asking for the heirs she'd promised. She tried not to think too much about the fact that no matter what her life brought, it would always include Draco Malfoy.

In late February, a month before Malfoy's court case, she started the next phase of her publicity plan. It included another Quibbler article, which Luna was once again kind enough to write and publish. So far, few people had made the link between Malfoy's recent good deed and his upcoming court case. Hermione had expected more of the earlier articles to mention the trial, but it hadn't happened, presumably because the trial wasn't really a big news story. Draco wasn't his father. Although the public still shivered at the Malfoy name, ordinary wizards and witches didn't seem to care about Malfoy Manor as much as the Ministry did. It was Hermione's task, therefore, to carefully point out that someone who had recently done a good deed was about to lose all of his property due to a Ministry claim that wasn't even legal. However, it would not do for people to link this observation back to Hermione, which was where Luna came in. The Quibbler had become quite well-read since its recent exclusive. Once the article was published, it wasn't a day before the Daily Prophet cottoned on to this new bit of gossip and asked her for a statement.

With Hermione the War Heroine involved, the Malfoy trial was suddenly big news. It became even more so when Harry Potter suddenly stepped up as Malfoy's legal counsel. Harry could still barely take two steps before a reporter asked for a comment on the length of his stride. The fact that he was suddenly involved in the convoluted case of the Malfoy lawsuit was fuel for the fire. Malfoy Manor was overrun with owls from reporters asking for interviews and statements. Because Harry and Ginny's cottage outside London was unplottable, the press waited for him in front of the Academy for Magical Law. Ron, as the third of the Gryffindor trio, was also a target for interviews. Hermione hadn't asked him to be involved. She knew he still resented that Malfoy had taken Hermione's future - something Ron regarded as his own. Ron declined to give any statements to the press, and Hermione was just glad he hadn't elected to give away Malfoy's motives in marrying her.

Two days before the court case, Hermione gave Malfoy one last update of where they stood. Harry had already talked to him several times about the trial, in an office in the Academy for Magical Law, where everyone could see them. Now, in the Malfoy library, she once again went over all of the specifics of her approach. "So the newspaper articles and the interviews have portrayed you as an upstanding citizen," she concluded. "I didn't refer to the trial when the marriage was revealed, and you shouldn't refer to the marriage during the trial. They're separate events, but of course with my involvement, and Harry's to boot, the Wizengamot will be aware of the ramifications of taking your property. Judging by the owls from readers the Prophet has been getting, the public opinion of you now mostly consists of admiration. I don't think anyone will dare to lay a finger on the house."

Malfoy gazed silently at the stacks of newspapers and parchment on her desk in the library. "I really don't see why you weren't sorted into Slytherin," he said. He was out of the room before Hermione realised it was a compliment.

--

In the end, the court case was a formality. The ministry laid some half-hearted charges against Malfoy and demanded his property as payment for offenses made mostly by Lucius and Narcissa. Harry gave an hour-long speech that wiped away every claim laid against Malfoy and ended by detailing his personal belief in Malfoy's reformed status. He didn't mention the marriage, but he didn't have to. Malfoy made a brief statement in which he pled innocent to all charges. The Wizengamot left the room to discuss the case and came back within ten minutes. The verdict was not unanimous, but it was there: innocent. Claim invalid. The Malfoy property would remain Malfoy property.

That night, Hermione was sitting in her arm chair, reading and sipping hot cocoa, when there was a knock on her bedroom door. "Come in," she called, and the door opened to reveal Malfoy.

She'd never seen him in her part of the Manor. Even now, he didn't come into the room. He just stood in the doorway, gazing at her for a minute with a strange smile on his face. It was the same smile she'd seen when he'd first shown her the Manor. "Thank you," he said after a long period of silence. She gazed at the strange, fascinating, infuriating man she was married to.

"You're welcome," she said, and meant it.

Chapter Text

"I'm finally caught up on my studies," Hermione announced to Ginny. It was late May, and they were sitting on cushioned garden chairs on a lawn surrounded by flowers in every colour. The weather was uncharacteristically warm for the time of year, and Ginny was spending all Saturday with Hermione. She wasn't normally free on the weekends due to her quidditch matches. With the season over, however, she had more time to spend with her friends. She and Hermione had swam in the crystal clear pool in the back of the gardens, and now they were drying off and enjoying the sun.

"So you know how I've been handing in six papers every month instead of two? Yesterday Healer Canton said I should stop writing so many or I'd surpass the others again," Hermione said.

"Well done," Ginny said. "I don't know how you do it. You've really caught up quickly. This means you can start your internships in September, doesn't it?" Ginny asked.

Hermione nodded. "But I still have to pass my finals. I'm taking this weekend off, but I'll have to spend most of June revising. It's more than worth it, though, because I'm really looking forward to working with patients. I've really enjoyed all the studying in the past years, but it's even more exciting to start the real work," she enthused.

They fell silent and enjoyed the sun's warmth for a while. Hermione had always liked the summer; she didn't do well in the cold, and warming charms weren't the same as basking in the sun. Now that she lived in the Manor, with its beautiful gardens, summer was bound to be even more enjoyable. There were fruit trees everywhere on the grounds, and the flowers were always so arranged that there was something blooming everywhere you looked.

"Did you ever hear back from Auror Crane?"

Hermione had been close to dozing off when Ginny's question roused her. "No," she said with a sigh. "I don't suppose I'll ever know who tried to kill me."

"It's a bit scary, isn't it?" Ginny asked sympathetically.

"It scared me at first, yes," Hermione said. "I could still be in danger. But I've never seen anything to make me think I'm still a target. I haven't seen anyone, I haven't received any threats, and I haven't been attacked again. Maybe they gave up. Maybe they'd made their point. Or maybe mudblood disease was the only plan they had. To be honest, I'm not sure."

"Maybe whoever did it regretted it after he'd cast the spell," Ginny said.

"Exactly," Hermione agreed. "Perhaps my would-be murderer is as glad for Malfoy's intervention as I was."

"So how's Malfoy, then?" Ginny asked. Hermione could hear the curiosity in her voice.

"How do you mean?" she said evasively. She'd known Ginny would ask about Malfoy - she nearly always did when it was just the two of them, and it had been a while since that had happened. Hermione wasn't sure what to say about him, though.

Ginny chuckled. "Well, he is your husband. Surely you know how he's doing."

Hermione shrugged, which wasn't easy lying down. "Not really, Gin. I've barely even seen him since the court case. He shows up in the library once in a blue moon to get a book, but he never comes to my side of the Manor and I don't go to his. When I do see him, he doesn't really talk. I don't think we've spoken more than twenty words since the trial."

"Aren't you curious about him?"

"Not really. What is there to be curious about? I saw quite enough of him when we were at school. You know how unpleasant he was, not to mention his involvement with the Death Eaters."

"That was years ago," Ginny countered. "You don't really know what he's like now."

"'Unpleasant' is what he's like. Have you seen how he treats his house-elves? He sneers whenever I see him and he never says a word." Hermione heaved a sigh. "I don't know what you want me to do, Ginny. I've never been friends with him, and I don't see any reason to start now."

"I'm just saying," Ginny said, "that you don't really know him. Aren't you at least curious about what he does when he's not around you? Does he have some sort of job?"

This was a question that actually had occurred to Hermione before. Of course she was curious about it - curiosity was in her nature. She'd just never pursued the matter. Sometimes, when she hadn't seen Malfoy for days, she could almost convince herself she wasn't married to someone she disliked so much. Trying to find out more about him was dangerously close to accepting that he was a part of her life, which was a line she didn't want to cross.

Ginny, perceptive as ever, didn't need to be told about this. "You realise you're stuck with him for the rest of your life," she said, which was as blunt as it was accurate. "You might as well find out what you're stuck with."

Hermione didn't know how to respond to that, but she pondered their conversation after Ginny had left. It had been almost five months since her wedding, and perhaps it was time to face the facts. It probably wasn't a good idea to ignore Malfoy's existence for the rest of her life.

--

She didn't see him for about a week after she'd talked to Ginny. The next Saturday, she was studying in the library when he walked in the door. Instead of ignoring him completely, as she usually did, she turned her head and watched as he walked into one of the aisles and soon returned with a thick volume under his arm. When he saw her watching, he raised an eyebrow.

"Yes? Anything I can help you with?" he asked sarcastically.

"Just wondering what you're reading," she said evenly.

He looked deeply suspicious, which made sense because she'd never asked him anything like this before. Even so, he held out the book so she could make out its title: Hemlock and its Uses in Modern Potionmaking. "Was that all?"

"That's all," she said, but she kept watching him until he turned on his heel and marched out of the library. She decided right then to adopt a new project: finding out who she was married to.

"Tell me about Malfoy, Ditty," she said that night. Ditty was sitting on a footstool next to her arm chair. Over the past few months, Hermione had slowly coaxed the elf into taking more liberties in her presence. Ditty now spoke fairly freely to her, but she still refused to 'disgrace' Hermione's other chair by sitting on it, and she steadily refused to stop calling Hermione 'Mistress'.

"What does the Mistress want to know about Master Draco?" Ditty said. Although she had taken a liking to Hermione - presumably because she'd never been treated so well in her life - Ditty's primary loyalty lay with Malfoy. He had been her master and owner for much longer. Hermione wasn't sure how much Ditty would want to tell her. Even so, it was worth a try.

"Well, what does he do? He doesn't have a job, does he?" she asked.

Ditty wrung her hands nervously. "Master Draco doesn't have a job," she confirmed. "But Ditty isn't knowing what Master Draco does, Mistress. Ditty was working in the east wing of the Manor even before Mistress moved here."

"Surely the other elves know. Don't you talk about it among yourselves?"

"Oh no, Mistress! Master Draco is getting angry with us if us house-elves gossip about him. And us wouldn't talk about Master Draco if he isn't wanting it. Us are good house-elves," the little creature said.

"I know," Hermione said. She thought for a moment. Malfoy had his own house-elves. Perhaps she ought to talk to them? Then again, they didn't know her well and would be even less likely to say anything. An idea suddenly came to her. She'd been meaning to do something about the deplorable conditions the other house-elves were living in, and doing so could also draw Malfoy out of his shell. "Ditty, remember how I taught you to make uniforms?"

"Of course, Mistress!" the house-elf responded. "Ditty likes wearing uniforms. I is very glad Mistress has asked her to."

"So am I," Hermione said. "I want all of the house-elves to wear uniforms. Malfoy's house-elves too. Can you go and tell them so?" Ditty looked troubled, so Hermione continued, "I'm as much in charge of this house as he is. If he objects, tell him I ordered it."

"Yes, Mistress Malfoy," Ditty said.

"Ditty, I've told you a thousand times to call me Hermione," she said, knowing it wouldn't help.

"Mistress knows Ditty cannot call the Mistress by her first name," the house-elf said, wringing her hands. "Ditty is being respectful. Ditty is a good house-elf."

"Well, how about Mistress Hermione, then?" Hermione said.

"Yes, Mistress Hermione," Ditty said excitedly, clearly happy to have found an acceptable compromise. "Is there anything else Ditty can help the Mistress with?"

"I'm fine, Ditty, thank you," she said. Ditty nodded, and with a snap of her thin fingers, she disappeared.

--

After her house-elf management provocation, Hermione felt sure she wouldn't have to make the first move. Malfoy would almost certainly be drawn out of his solitary confinement. She was not disappointed. On Sunday afternoon, she took a brief respite from her studies. She was sunbathing on one of the many smooth lawns when she heard footsteps on the path next to her. She sat up and saw Malfoy marching towards her. Behind him shuffled a house-elf she didn't know, wearing a green pillow case and wringing his hands exactly like Ditty did when she was nervous.

"Mrs Malfoy," Malfoy said, striding onto the lawn and looking down at her. She felt uncomfortable with him towering over her and quickly stood up. He was still taller by several inches, of course, but at least she'd evened out the playing field a little. "Why are all my house-elves suddenly dressed in these ridiculous... uniforms? I do believe that when we were negotiating, I told you that you could manage your own house-elves. If my knowledge of the English language hasn't forsaken me, 'yours' does not include 'mine'."

She pursed her lips. "We're married. What's yours is mine," she shot back. "Besides, I wouldn't meddle in your house-elf affairs if you would just treat them properly."

"If what's yours is mine, maybe I should just order your house-elves back into the rags they deserve!" Malfoy responded. "They're just servants. Who the hell cares?"

"I do, and so should you. They're living creatures! You wouldn't treat a crup like you treat your house-elves, Malfoy. Besides, the better you treat them, the harder they'll work."

He laughed. "What would you know? They're not loyal because you treat them one way or the other. They're loyal by default. Aren't you, Toddy?"

"Yes, Master Draco, sir," the house-elf whispered, peering up at Malfoy with big, shining eyes.

"See?" Malfoy said. "Now, I don't care about those uniforms one way or the other, but from now on, don't stick your nose in where it doesn't belong, will you, Mrs Malfoy?"

She stared at him for a moment, almost speechless in her anger. "You're so infuriating," she spat eventually.

His steel grey eyes turned even colder. After a long minute, he turned and stalked off, with Toddy obediently following him.

"Ugh!" Hermione groaned when he was out of sight. She lay back down on the grass and tried to enjoy the sun, but she was too frustrated. How was she supposed to talk to him when he antagonised her with every word?

--

"It doesn't make any sense at all," she told Harry and Ginny the next Friday. Ron had begged off from their weekly pub night because he was feeling under the weather. This gave Hermione a chance to talk about Malfoy, which was a subject she normally avoided. Her friendship with Ron was still not back to normal, and any mention of 'the ferret' would turn his mood foul for the rest of the night. Once or twice, he'd even repeated his comment that she should've been with him instead of Malfoy. She didn't understand it. It should have been abundantly clear that she wouldn't marry him even if she could. She wished he would get over her and be done with it - his strange moods had ruined their night out on more than one occasion. The opportunity to talk about Malfoy was not the only reason Hermione was secretly glad Ron wasn't there.

They were in a pub in muggle London, where they wouldn't be recognised and could have a drink in peace. Hermione had told her friends about the strange, aggravating conversation she'd had with Malfoy. "Then I saw him again on Wednesday when I was sitting in the gardens," she said. "He was walking over the grounds, and I know he saw me, but he didn't even acknowledge my existence. I just don't understand."

"He's Malfoy," Harry said. "I don't think understanding him is even possible. The house is big enough; can't you just ignore him?"

"For the rest of my life? At some point, it's probably helpful if we can exchange four sentences without getting into a fight," Hermione said. When neither of her friends responded, she continued, "Besides, he wants children. If we want any hope of raising them properly, we're going to need to be on speaking terms, aren't we?"

"You're right," Ginny said. "It wouldn't be fair to your kids if you never spoke to him."

"But when I do talk to him, he just fights! He can barely be civil, and neither can I. I really don't get it. Surely he understands that if we're going to have his precious heirs together, we can't be fighting all the time! Besides..." She took a deep breath. "I may not know what he does all day, but even I can tell that he doesn't see many people. In St Mungo's, he told me most of his old friends are dead, and the rest of them abandoned the Malfoys when they defected. He doesn't have a job. For all I know, he doesn't even leave the Manor. By all accounts he should be aching for any kind of company. Doesn't everyone need social contact?"

"Maybe he's scared," Ginny said.

Harry chuckled. "Well, he definitely is a coward."

Ginny shoved his arm. "Be serious." She looked back at Hermione. "If all of his friends have deserted him, maybe this is some sort of protection, like a shield. Hurt before you get hurt."

"He was like this at school, when he did have friends," Hermione countered.

"Then maybe he doesn't know any different," Ginny said.

"Are you defending him?" she said disbelievingly. "I'm sorry, Ginny, but I really don't think there's any excuse for his behaviour."

"This isn't an excuse," Ginny said. "It's just a reason. Look, all I'm saying is, don't give up on him too easily. If you talk to him more often, he might learn how to build a proper friendship."

"Malfoy and friendship. My wife has gone insane," Harry said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.

"Shut up, Harry," Ginny said. "Just think about, Hermione."

She honestly did think about it, but for once, that didn't do her much good. No matter which way she spun it, Malfoy was and remained an annoying pureblood snob. She couldn't just ignore the way he strutted around the house like he was the king of wizarding Britain; she couldn't forget his condescending sneers and smirks whenever he saw her; and she simply had to point out how appallingly he treated his house-elves. Apparently, Malfoy couldn't keep his mouth shut either. Before the confrontation about the house-elf uniforms, he'd barely spoken to her. Afterwards, he seemed intent on riling her up at every occasion.

--

"Look at him! He can barely walk!" Hermione exclaimed. She gestured toward the house-elf who was following Malfoy into the library. The creature wore a green uniform and was carrying a stack of over a dozen thick volumes. He tottered under the weight of the books.

"So?" Malfoy sneered, striding up to the desk she was revising at. "If he can barely walk, that means he can still walk."

As if on cue, the house-elf tripped over a sheet of parchment. House-elf and books went tumbling over the soft library rugs. He immediately sprung up and started collecting the books, apologising in a high-pitched voice.

"I told you so," Hermione said, torn between laughing at Malfoy and pitying the house-elf.

Malfoy looked absolutely livid. "Put those books away, you idiot!" he bit out, and the house-elf complied with a frightened squeak.

"You don't have to yell at him," she protested. "Those books were too heavy for him. No wonder he tripped! You could at least have let him use his magic."

"Why should I? He's got arms," Malfoy pointed out.

"So do you," Hermione shot back.

He glared at her for a moment and then snatched up the piece of parchment the house-elf had tripped over. "Oh, look at that. The Differential Application of Burn Healing Spells to Chemical and Heat Burns, by Hermione Granger," he said in a sing-song voice, which abruptly turned cold as he continued, "I could be wrong, but something tells me this particular piece of parchment belongs to you. I can imagine you'd want to throw away this meaningless tripe of an essay, but I don't approve of leaving it on the floor for my house-elf to trip over. Perhaps it would be a good idea to manage your own house-elves in a way that keeps the library clean, rather than to comment on the way I manage mine."

"Meaningless tripe?!" she shouted, jumping up from her chair. "I spent hours on that essay, and I'll have you know it was the best in my year! At least I do something with my life, Draco Malfoy, instead of sitting around some stupid Manor all day being idle and doing Merlin knows what and mistreating house-elves just for the fun of it! I can't help it if your life doesn't serve any purpose other than to make mine miserable, but I'm not going to stand here and listen to you insulting my hard work!"

"You have no idea what I do all day!" he suddenly exploded. "Why don't you shut up about things you don't know anything about, you stupid-" He cut himself off abruptly and clenched his fists. Hermione jumped back in shock when he suddenly bellowed, "NOCKY!"

The green-clad house-elf came running out of an aisle. Malfoy glared at Hermione for another moment and then turned and left, exactly like he had in the gardens, with Nocky on his heels.

--

Her third year of healer training ended with some notoriously difficult exams at the start of July. Under normal circumstances, Hermione would've started revising sometime in January. Now, she had only caught up with her year-mates a month before the finals. As the weeks progressed, she became absolutely frantic to get through as much revision as possible in what little time she had left. She cancelled her Friday nights with Ginny, Harry, and Ron and dropped every other non-essential event on her calendar. Every night, she sat down in the library and studied. It was all she could do to thank the house-elf that brought her tea.

"Busy, are we, Mrs Malfoy?" Malfoy drawled from behind her four days before her first exam.

"Shut up, Malfoy," she said without looking up from her book.

"Why would-"

"I said shut up," she spat, turning around with fire in her eyes. "I have finals on Monday!"

She fully expected him to make some sort of snide insult, but to her astonishment, he left her alone after that.

Hermione's exams involved a half-day of practical spell-work and two days of writing that left her fingers sore. First, she performed countless charms and spells for Healer Canton and Healer Prince. Then she sat with her seven year-mates in a little room in the School for Magical Healing, just north of Green Park in London, and answered question after question on never-ending scrolls. She described spells, identified potion samples, outlined patient procedures, and labelled illustrations. When she put her quill down on Wednesday afternoon, she felt tired but fairly content.

She chatted with Clarissa and Matthew for a few minutes, but soon they all said their farewells and went home to recover from the stress of their exams.

When Hermione walked into the foyer of Malfoy Manor, the first thing she saw was the little white cat bursting forth from the west wing. It ran over the carpets, carrying something white between its teeth. Crookshanks followed immediately after, in hot pursuit of his fellow feline.

"Hey," Hermione called. "Crookshanks!"

Her ginger monster slowed, halted, and turned to her. After a moment of contemplation, Crookshanks abandoned his chase and trotted to Hermione to rub his face against her legs.

The white cat, no longer pursued, slowed down and finally stopped just before the entrance to the east wing. Hermione lifted Crookshanks into her arms. "I thought you were friends with the little white one," she said. Crookshanks meowed and snuggled closer to her.

"So what about you, then?" she asked, turning to the smaller cat. It sat and looked at her, and she could see now that it was holding parchment in its mouth. "What's that? Did you steal something from the library?" She put Crookshanks down, who apparently decided that Hermione could handle the situation and disappeared through the front doors onto the grounds.

Hermione cautiously approached the white cat, crouching down when she got close enough. It shuffled away from her at first, but eventually let her near enough to stroke its head. This seemed to be some sort of catalyst, as the cat immediately dropped the parchment. It rolled onto its side and began a purr that was surprisingly loud for an animal so small.

"Does he not give you enough attention?" she asked, continuing to pet the animal as she reached for the parchment with her other hand.

"I don't believe you have any reason to accuse me of animal abuse," drawled a voice from behind her.

She almost fell over in shock and turned around angrily to find Malfoy sneering at her. The contentment from her exams abruptly faded and was replaced by irritation. "Your cat is tiny," she said. Already her voice was sharp. "It could easily be underfed. And considering how you treat your house-elves, I have no faith in your dealings with anything non-human. Come to think of it, I also have no faith in your dealings with anything human."

"Merlin, not the house-elves again," Malfoy muttered, rolling his eyes. "Socrates is not small. Perhaps she seems so in comparison to your ginger abomination of a cat. She receives all the care she needs. Not that it's any of your concern."

The white cat slid from underneath Hermione's hand, wandered over to Malfoy and began to circle his legs. "Socrates?" she repeated in disbelief as she stood up. "You named your cat after a muggle? A male one, no less?"

Malfoy gave her a disdainful look. "Socrates was a wizard, Mrs Malfoy. I don't know what sort of muggle indoctrination your parents let loose on you, but rest assured that the vast majority of Greek philosophers were magical folk. As was almost every other important figure in the history of mankind, of course." Before she could respond, he continued, "What's that?" He gestured at the parchment in her hand.

"Your cat had it," she said, realising she still didn't know what she was holding. She smoothed it out and found herself looking at a letter. It was written in a rounded, female script. The first line was Dear Draco; it was signed Love, Pansy. "Pansy Parkinson?" she said in disbelief. Malfoy immediately crossed the few steps that were between them and snatched the letter out of her hand.

"Give me that," he snapped. "I realise your upbringing was deplorable, but surely you were at least taught not to read other people's letters?"

"Well, don't let Socrates run around with them, then," she retorted angrily. "Still involved with your girlfriend from Hogwarts, are you? I thought your precious pureblood culture taught you to inform your wife when you cheat on her!"

He glared at her. "I'm not involved with Pansy Parkinson," he said, enunciating with care. "Now mind your own business." With those words, he turned and stalked back into the west wing, leaving Hermione annoyed and frustrated.

--

To nobody's surprise but that of Hermione herself, she passed her exams with flying colours, top of her year. She went out with Ginny, Harry, and Ron to celebrate. Harry had had exams two weeks ago and had done quite well. He was by no means head and shoulders above the rest, but this suited him just fine. It proved, Harry said, that his teachers weren't just grading him by his name. The auror programme had also had its exams in June. Ron had scraped by and passed his exams with barely a point to spare, mostly because he'd done the vast majority of his studying in the week before his tests. Ginny's quidditch season had ended in mid-May, but because of her friends' exams she'd waited until now to celebrate the Holyhead Harpies' success in the British and Irish Quidditch League.

They exchanged stories of their finals and reminisced about the Good Old Days back at Hogwarts. Hermione didn't mention Malfoy, and Ron stayed upbeat all night. At midnight, they got one last round of drinks.

"To a new school year," Hermione said, lifting her glass.

"I don't think so," Harry laughed. "To summer holidays. Ron, what are you getting up to this month?"

 "I'm visiting Charlie," Ron answered. "I've been meaning to take a look at what he gets up to in Romania. It's about time I go see him."

Harry and Ginny were spending a few weeks at the Burrow. "You should come with us, Hermione!" Ginny enthused. "Mum's been wanting to see you. It'll be fun!"

Hermione's plans had so far consisted mostly of preparing for her internships and exploring every inch of the extensive Malfoy grounds. There was no reason she couldn't take off to the Burrow for a few weeks. With Ron off to Romania, she wouldn't run risk of having to spend too much time in his company. "Why not?" she said after a moment's deliberation. "It'll be nice to have a break from the Manor."

"I can imagine," Ron said. She was pleased to see that he didn't seem angry; he merely looked sympathetic. Perhaps things between them were finally starting to heal.

--

On the other hand, there was certainly no healing between her and Malfoy. Almost every time they ran into each other, it turned into a fight. It made no difference what she did or said. If she didn't start an argument with a well-aimed jab at his haughtiness or his abhorrent behaviour to his servants, he'd pick a fight himself by commenting on her studies, her household management, or her habits. It was incredibly frustrating. More than once, she recalled what Ginny had said months ago in St Mungo's: now that she and Malfoy were married, he was no longer holding all the bargaining chips. She could even move out of the Manor; there would be little he could do to stop her. Although the thought was tempting at times, moving back to London felt like admitting defeat. Malfoy Manor was hers as much as it was his, and she wouldn't let herself be bullied out of it. Besides, she'd promised to live here. Breaking that promise would be unworthy of a Gryffindor - the kind of behaviour she'd expect of Malfoy rather than of herself.

However, some time away from the Manor started to become more and more desirable. She was glad when, at the start of August, she could pack her bags to visit the Weasleys. She told Ditty she'd be away for two weeks and apparated to the Burrow.

Molly was overjoyed to see her and showered her with attention, questions, and delicious food. Hermione played board games with Harry and Ginny, walked around Ottery St Catchpole, and explained the inner workings of electric radiators to an excited Arthur. It was lovely to be with the Weasleys. Their treatment of her warmed Hermione's heart. Even though she wasn't Ron's girlfriend anymore, Molly and Arthur still treated her as part of the family. Anyone might've thought Molly had her hands full with her many children, but there was always room for more in the Burrow. Hermione had seen it in the way Molly mothered over Harry from the moment he came into the Weasleys' lives. Now, Hermione was as much of an orphan as Harry, in a way: Her parents still wandered around Australia, unaware of the fact that they had a daughter. Molly had made it her mission to care for Hermione too.

She'd never told the Weasleys the truth about her marriage to Malfoy. In the beginning, before the trial, it had been too dangerous. One word to the wrong person could uproot her entire publicity plan. After that, she'd simply been so busy that she hadn't taken the time to properly stay in touch with Molly and Arthur. The warm reception she received now made her feel a little guilty. One night, when George was visiting as well, she asked him, Molly, and Arthur to sit down and told them the whole story.

"What an idiot," George said when she'd finished speaking. Hermione looked at him in confusion, and he continued, "If he'd just saved your life first, and then asked nicely, you'd have run this whole publicity scam for him, wouldn't you? Same results with a lot less animosity."

She frowned. "Maybe. I don't think he's capable of anything other than extortion, though."

"Probably not," George allowed. "Either way, you must've had a rough time dealing with all this."

It brought a smile to her face. "Yes, It's not easy sharing a house with him," she said, though she decided not to elaborate. It was good to be away from the constant fighting; she didn't want to think about it too much now.

"I'm so sorry to hear that," Molly said, putting her hand over Hermione's. "If there's ever anything we can do to help you, please let us know, dear."

"I will," Hermione promised.

--

Hermione returned in late August and found, much to her surprise, that entering the Manor felt like coming home. She'd grown used to the size and extravagance of the Manor - she'd even come to like it. She was glad she'd remained firm in her decision to stay at the Manor. The weather was good, and the house-elves had opened many of the huge ornate windows. Warm evening air blew through her hair when she stood at the window of her bedroom and looked out over the beautiful grounds. The sun was setting behind her, bathing the smooth lawns and the gorgeous trees in front of her in soft light.

"And where have you been?"

She whipped her head around and saw Malfoy striding towards her. She knew at once that they were about to have a terrible fight. Generally, Malfoy looked merely annoyed when he saw her, but this time he looked livid. His normally pale cheeks were flushed with anger, and his jaw was tense. She'd never before been scared he'd physically hurt her, but at this moment she was glad to have her wand in her pocket.

"Well, you I haven't missed," she sniped.

His expression turned even colder, which Hermione wouldn't have believed was possible. "I asked you a question," he bit out.

"And not very politely, I might add," Hermione said. She knew she was only riling him up even further, but she couldn't stop herself. Would it have killed him to ask his question in a normal tone of voice? Why should she be civil when he clearly wasn't even trying?

"Where. Have. You. Been?" he spat.

"I'm not some kind of prisoner, Malfoy," she told him, trying hard to remain calm and failing miserably. "I'm free to go where I want, when I want."

"Have I locked you up? Tied you down?" he demanded. He was still enunciating every word as if one missed consonant would cause the world's end. "I don't care what you do with your life, but I won't have you disappearing for weeks on end without giving me notice. Where were you, huh? Traipsing around some European capital with your secret weasel lover?"

"What?!" she exclaimed, furious at the mere suggestion. "I've come through on every promise I made you, Malfoy! You know as well as I do that neither of us could back out once we got into this, so I didn't have to save you in the trial, but I did! What makes you think I wouldn't keep my other promises? Just because you're an untrustworthy Slytherin arse doesn't mean I am! I'll have you know that I haven't seen Ron in weeks, and I certainly don't have romantic inclinations for him. Although," she added, hoping her next words would sting, "I'd imagine being married to Ron would beat being married to you by a landslide. Even if he is poor and hot-headed and insensitive, that's better than living in the finest house in the country with some high-and-mighty Slytherin pureblood who doesn't have a sincere bone in his body but still thinks he's better than everyone else!"

Malfoy suddenly shoved her. Her back slammed against the window sill, and she gasped at the impact. He closed the distance between them with one step. She could feel the heat of his body leaning over hers. "You hypocrite," he sneered. "As if you're not returning the favour, thinking you're better than me because I have this on my arm." He pulled up his sleeve and held up his hand so the ugly black mark was inches from her face. "Born on the right side of the war, weren't you? Does that give you the right to pass judgment on the rest of us? It's funny that your two main arguments for hating me are that I'm a pureblood and a Slytherin. I thought you would have a problem with prejudice based on blood status, but apparently, I was wrong!"

The rage in his eyes frightened her. He was so close she couldn't get to her wand without him noticing. Her back ached where it had hit the window sill, and she felt less and less sure that he wouldn't seriously hurt her.

"I was at the Burrow," she said meekly. "The Weasleys' house. With Ginny and Harry."

Her surrender took the fight out of him at once. He seemed to realise how close they were standing, and his eyes widened. He hastily took a step back. Before he could say another word, she ducked around him and fled her room.

There were no more fights after that. Instead of showing up every few days to argue with her, Malfoy now avoided her like the plague. She didn't see him at all for the rest of the month. As the bruise on her lower back faded and all stayed silent in the Manor, she was forced to conclude that the project of getting to know Draco Malfoy had been a complete and utter failure.

Chapter Text

On the tenth of September, Hermione started her internships. At eight in the morning, she and the seven other fourth year healer students were gathered in the staff room of St Mungo's. Healer Canton and his colleague, Healer Prince, were standing in front of them with a list of names and placements.

"As you know, you will complete your internships in pairs, the same pairs throughout your two years of training," Healer Prince said. She looked sternly at them over her glasses. It reminded Hermione of Professor McGonagall. "You are expected to cooperate with your partner to ensure you make the most of these internships. However, I must remind you that all reports will be written alone, not together." She met each of their eyes.

"These are the placements," Healer Canton said. "David and Maria, ward for creature-induced injuries. Hermione and Matthew, ward for accidental spell damage. Kate and Clarissa..." Hermione glanced over at Matthew, who smiled at her. She was immediately glad she'd been placed with him. The tall, dark-skinned wizard had been a friend to her since the very beginning of healer studies. They'd quickly formed a trio with Clarissa, an optimistic witch who single-handedly defined the words 'outspoken' and 'extraverted'. Matthew was much calmer. He was highly motivated, straight-forward, and friendly to patients and co-students alike. In the first three years of their training, Hermione had worked with him on assignments several times. It had been a positive experience. He was always keen to debate the finer points of diagnostics with her. Although he couldn't match her for knowledge, he worked hard and was quite a quick learner. Hermione wouldn't mind working with him for the next two years.

Once the names had all been read out, they were free to leave the room and report to their assigned wards.

"This is just the placement for you, Hermione," Healer Canton said as she and Matthew were leaving the room. He walked with them to the elevator. "Spell damage has a great diagnostics department. It's a superb opportunity for you to live up to your potential."

"I'm looking forward to it," Hermione said earnestly. She'd been interested in diagnostics since her first year of studying. Every illness or injury became an exquisite puzzle that required great care to figure out the correct answer.

"So, the spell damage ward," Matthew said when Healer Canton had left the elevator on the second floor. "Should be good."

"Absolutely," Hermione said. "I think it'll be great. And I'm glad we were paired up."

"So am I," he said with a smile. The elevator doors opened, and they went to find their healer coach.

The internships involved four eight-to-two shifts at the hospital and a half-day of classes per week. The students were also expected to spend several hours each day studying and writing internship reports. Fourth year healer training was well known for asking too much of its students; it was quite common for students to drop out during the first or second internship. Hermione felt prepared, though. Now that Malfoy no longer showed up to distract her, the library was an excellent place to study. It was one of her favourite rooms in the Manor, although there were some aisles with dark arts literature that she studiously avoided. Not only was the library full of books, it was also one of the cosiest places in the house. It was decorated in dark wood with the inevitable green rugs and tapestries. There were several comfortable chairs. Along one wall were two mahogany desks, their drawers stocked with parchment, quills, and ink. There were no portraits to distract her - some of the Malfoy ancestors in other parts of the house still had a bad habit of glaring at her whenever she passed by. The lights in the library were not too bright, but still perfect for reading. The chairs were soft and comfortable. Crookshanks often accompanied her and curled up on her lap, on a corner of her desk, or on one of the other chairs.

For the first month, everything went swimmingly. Her internship coaches were pleased with her work at the hospital; Healer Canton was pleased with her progress in class. She got along well with Matthew and the older colleagues at the hospital. She didn't see Malfoy at all, which caused her to briefly wonder whether he'd fallen off the face of the earth. Then again, she didn't really care. After their last fight, she was quite glad to be rid of him.

She celebrated her birthday with her friends on September 19th. She'd invited Harry, Ginny, and Ron to the Manor for dinner. Ron hadn't been to the Manor before, and he seemed simultaneously overwhelmed and annoyed by the splendour of the house. She was afraid he'd start making hostile comments again, but he was soon distracted by the new surroundings and the excellent food the house-elves had prepared for them.

After dinner, they went to a pub and met up with some Hogwarts classmates and Hermione's fellow trainee healers Matthew, Clarissa, Anne, and David. They had a great time. She talked to Hogwarts friends she hadn't seen in months and got a chance to introduce them to her fellow healing students.

Everyone knew about her marriage to Malfoy, of course, since it had been covered at length in the media. It was a hot topic of discussion, and Hermione had to answer dozens of questions. She tried her best to avoid any inquiries about her and Malfoy's current standings. To her relief, Ginny helped by steering the conversation away from her marriage whenever she could. However, after almost everyone had left, Ginny returned to the topic herself.

"So I noticed you did your best to avoid talking about your husband tonight," she said conversationally.

Hermione sipped her drink. She didn't particularly want to think or talk about Malfoy, but it probably wouldn't be so bad with Ginny. "There isn't much to say about it. I haven't seen him in a month."

"I thought you ran into him every now and then," Ginny said.

"Not lately," Hermione answered. "We fought a lot this summer. It ended with him calling me a hypocrite because I judged him on his blood status."

"Well, don't you?"

Hermione stared at her friend. "Whose side are you on?"

"Yours, of course," Ginny said easily. "Doesn't mean he's automatically wrong. I mean, you do hate purebloods, 'Mione. You have some excuse, but it is sort of hypocritical."

 Hermione shook her head emphatically. "No. That would make sense if he were actually a good person. Then it would be unfair to judge him by something he can't help."

"So what you're saying is: you don't like him, so you're allowed to be prejudiced."

"Yes. No! Look, you don't get it."

"No, you don't get it," Ginny said. "I know you won't like to hear this, but what if he's right? What if he's trying to be a better person? Would you give him a chance?"

"Of course I would!"

"Really." Ginny did not sound convinced. "If he'd shown up in the hospital back in December and said he wanted to save your life, no ulterior motives, would you have believed him?"

"But he'd never do that," Hermione said.

Ginny nodded as if she'd expected the answer. "That, right there," she said, "is prejudice."

--

Long after Hermione's birthday was over, Ginny's words were still on her mind. Was she really being unfair to Malfoy? Maybe if he'd offered to save her life without asking for anything in return, she should've believed him. But he hadn't, had he? Then again, Ginny had a history of being right about things like these. Hermione resolved to give Malfoy another chance, though the idea didn't make her happy. The next time they spoke - if they ever did again - she would try her utmost to keep an open mind and not start a fight.

As it turned out, however, it would be a long time before she spoke to Malfoy again. For one thing, she didn't go looking for him, and she didn't see him at all until more than a month later. For another, when she did see him, not a word was spoken between them.

He showed up unexpectedly on a Tuesday in late October while she was studying in the library, his white cat trailing behind him. Because she hadn't seen him in two months, she jumped a mile when he suddenly walked into her field of vision, carrying a stack of books and parchment. Socrates found Crookshanks lying on one of the chairs and curled up next to him. Malfoy sat down at the desk next to hers, put down his things, and started working. Hermione expected him to say something to her, but he didn't acknowledge her at all, though he must know she was there. Perhaps he, too, had decided to stop fighting.

She didn't get much learning done that night. Every few minutes she found herself staring at the man next to her, wondering why he was there, what he was studying, whether he was going to talk to her - but he never did.

He didn't speak the next evening, either. Just as the day before, he showed up while she was studying, sat down at the other desk without a word, and began to pour over the books he'd brought. He didn't so much as glance her way. On Thursday he didn't show up, but on Friday he was there again. This time he was mostly writing. He didn't turn up during the weekend, but on Monday he returned and spent the afternoon and evening reading. On Tuesday he seemed to be multitasking. He accio'ed a dozen books and got up several more times to go search the library shelves.

Weeks passed in the same vein. As Hermione wrote essays, filled out internship paperwork, and studied for her classes, Malfoy sat by her in complete silence, working diligently on whatever it was that he did, while their cats played or napped in various corners of the library. In the beginning, Hermione could barely think of anything but the possible reasons for this bizarre behaviour. What was the point of studying in the library? He'd never done it before, not in all the months she'd spent at the Manor. Why start now, and why do it without saying a word? Even at St Mungo's, his behaviour plagued her. As she tended to patients, as she met with the diagnostics team to discuss difficult cases, as she talked and joked with the other interns and the nurses, Malfoy was always on the back of her mind. She debated talking about it with Ginny, but she wasn't sure she'd like what Ginny had to say. The youngest Weasley hadn't mentioned Malfoy since their conversation on Hermione's birthday, but Hermione was sure Ginny still had far too much to say on the matter. Eventually, she got used to Malfoy's presence, but every now and then she still found herself glancing over at him and wondering what he was up to.

It was Harry who eventually brought him up during one of their Friday nights in late November. "So how's Malfoy?" he asked.

"Who cares about Malfoy?" Ron interjected immediately, a belligerent look on his face.

"Shut up, Ron," Ginny said. "Have you been talking to him at all, Hermione?"

"No," Hermione said, "but I think we have shared study sessions now."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked.

"Well, he started showing up in the library to study," she explained, "but he never says a word. It's very strange."

"Have you tried talking to him?" Ginny asked.

"Why should she? That ferret can't be fun to talk to," Ron mumbled.

"As if you're fun to talk to," his sister snapped. "Some people here actually want to know how Hermione is doing."

"I'm fine. It's just very strange. Even when we run into each other on the grounds or in the house, he doesn't sneer at me anymore. He just... looks at me. I haven't talked to him - I'm afraid it would just turn into more fighting," Hermione said. "I wish I knew what he was up to."

"No good, I'd bet," Ron muttered.

"Maybe he's lonely," Ginny suggested.

"He should be," Ron said.

"Shut up, Ron," Hermione barked at him. "I'm trying to talk about something that's important to me!"

"Why would Malfoy be important to you? Did you forget what he did? He's a Death Eater! He called you a mudblood and he tried to kill Dumbledore!" Ron was livid. He put his hands flat on the table and leaned towards her across the table. "I don't know how you can even look at that slimy Slytherin pureblood after everything he's done!"

It was a shock to hear her own words repeated back to her. Your reasons for hating me are that I'm a Slytherin and a pureblood, Malfoy whispered in her head. It wasn't completely true, because Ron was at least a little bit right. Malfoy had tried to kill Dumbledore, he'd called her a mudblood, and he'd bowed to Voldemort. The question was: was that really what she was blaming him for now?

She realised Ron was still waiting for an answer, but she wasn't sure what to respond. Harry saved her. "Let's just drop it," he said. Clearly Harry had had enough fighting for a lifetime during the war. As Hermione struggled to find another subject to talk about, she noticed Ginny watching her with a tiny smile on her lips.

--

"No, Mrs Nolan, his skin won't be permanently green," Dora painstakingly explained for the twelfth time to a frightened mother. Mrs Nolan's eight-year-old son Tom was grinning at Hermione and Matthew. They had just finished checking him for any spell damage other than his bright green left hand. He seemed to be much more amused by the accident than his mother.

Mrs Nolan looked at Hermione. "Are you sure it's not permanent? Has this happened to other children before? Oh, I've told him a thousand times not to touch my wand, Healer. I really have."

"I'm sure, Mrs Nolan," Hermione promised. "It should wear off in about a day." She turned her attention to the boy. "You should listen to your mother, Tom," she admonished. The child didn't seem impressed.

Matthew leaned down to look Tom in the eye and said, "It's very dangerous to handle a wand without training. You could've spelled your hand off." This seemed to have some impact on the child. He nodded at Matthew and quickly ran to his mother, who had paled significantly at the thought of spelling off a hand. Before long, mother and child had been ushered off. Hermione glanced at the clock, which indicated time to go home.

"Finally!" she said. "What a day. I thought it would never be over. I feel like I haven't had time for breathing since the moment I arrived."

"It's always like this in December," Dora responded with a smile. She reached behind her head to fix her bun of greying hair, which had come undone some time during the day's fuss. "First everyone who has to work on Christmas takes a day or two off to prepare for the holiday season. After that, you trainee healers leave to enjoy your Christmas cheer. All the while the flu season is picking up, which means we have more patients while half the staff is home on a prescription of bed rest."

"If only we could cure that one," Hermione mused.

"I'm sorry to leave you in this chaos, Dora," Matthew said. "Helen said there were over two dozen still in the waiting room just now. We should really go, though - we've already done overtime this week."

"And we have to study for our midterms," Hermione added.

"We'll be all right," Dora said. "You've both been a great help today."

They told Dora goodbye and walked to the St Mungo's staff room.

"How's the studying going?" Matthew asked her.

"I don't know. I'm behind schedule," she responded.

"You'll probably be fine," he said with a chuckle. "If your track record is any indication, you'll come out top of the year."

"We'll see," she responded. "How are you doing?"

"It's a lot of work," he sighed. "I shouldn't have done overtime this week, but you've seen how busy the staff is."

They reached the staff room and waved their wands at the red orb in the corner which kept count of how many hours they'd worked. After they had thus signed out of their shifts, they said their goodbyes.

Hermione apparated to the Manor. In the summer, she'd often apparated to the grounds instead of the house, just so she could walk for a bit and enjoy the gardens. Now, in December, it was icy cold. She avoided being outside in the rain and the wind as much as she could, and this time she apparated straight to her bedroom. She changed from her St Mungo's work shirt into her most comfortable sweater and departed to the library. Malfoy wasn't there yet, but then she hadn't expected him to be. He almost never showed up before she did, which had at times made her wonder whether he was keeping track of where she was. She didn't like that idea much and hoped he simply had some kind of business to do in the mornings that prevented him from showing up until later. Some days he didn't show up at all, which gave credence to the idea that book learning wasn’t all he did.

The midterms for which she was studying would take place just before Christmas. As a trainee healer on her first internship, she didn't have to work shifts during the holidays. In two more weeks, she'd have a well-deserved break from her studies and work. She was looking forward to it, since the last few months had been quite intense. First, though, she had to pass her midterms, which required extensive knowledge of advanced diagnostic spells.

Hermione was fifteen pages into summarising the fourth chapter of Diagnostic Spells for Musculoskeletal Ailments when she heard footsteps. A moment later, Malfoy sat down at the other desk. He'd spent the last few days drafting some kind of essay, which he now took out again. He started reading it, jotting notes in the margins of his parchment every now and then. By now she was used to their silent study sessions and could mostly resist the urge to watch him work. She simply focused on the relative merits of the two most common spells for assessing bone brittleness.

She was distracted, however, when a sudden pop announced the arrival of a house-elf. "Nocky is bringing the hot chocolate Master Draco is asking for, sir," said the house-elf who had once tripped over Hermione's parchment. She glanced over and saw Malfoy nod briskly. Nocky put a steaming mug on Malfoy's desk. To Hermione's surprise, the little creature then walked to her desk and handed her a mug as well.

Nocky vanished before she could thank him - not that she'd dare to do so with Malfoy present, for fear of sparking a fight. She stared at her mug for a second, and then looked at Malfoy. She found that he was watching her as well. He lifted one eyebrow, as if daring her to comment. When she didn't say anything, he turned back to his parchment.

Hermione tried to resume her work but failed miserably. It was absolutely impossible to concentrate in the face of this new puzzle. She stared down at her work for a few minutes before giving into temptation and looking at Malfoy. He was writing diligently, though, and didn't seem to notice her at all. She made another attempt at working, then looked again. He was sipping his chocolate and tapping his quill's soft feather against the desk, apparently deep in thought. She wrote: The other spell, however, but she'd forgotten what it was about the other spell.

She grabbed the mug, which of course was green, and took a sip. The hot chocolate was delightful; the house-elves knew just what she liked.

"What are you writing?" The words were out of her mouth before she knew she was planning to say them.

He looked up, startled, but there was barely a pause before he responded. "An essay on obscuring the taste of various poisons." He nodded toward the mug she was sipping from. She reflexively put it down and was surprised to see him break out into a grin. "I'm joking," he said, and there was genuine humour in his eyes. "I am writing about poisons, but there isn't any in your chocolate."

She blinked at him, unsure of what to say. What possessed him to suddenly start pulling her leg? The strangest thing was that it didn't seem like he'd wanted to scare her. The joke had been just that: a joke.

"What's that, then?" he asked evenly, gesturing at the book she was summarising.

"Midterms. Diagnostic spells for musculoskeletal diseases," she responded mechanically. He nodded again. After a few long, silent seconds, he went back to his essay.

Neither of them said anything for the rest of the afternoon, until Hermione got up, gathered her books and made to leave the library. Just as she walked out the door, she heard Malfoy say, "See you tomorrow."

She turned back to him, but he had his eyes trained on his work. "See you tomorrow," she responded quietly. The silence, it seemed, had been broken.

Chapter Text

Hermione was both excited and a little unnerved by the sudden change in their odd relationship. She was beginning to believe it might be possible to get on friendly footing with her husband. Now that he seemed willing to talk to her and even play jokes on her, there was a chance they'd progress to the point where they could discuss serious matters, such as their future children. However, with her midterms coming up so soon, she didn't want to be distracted in her study sessions. Even though she was curious what would happen when she next saw him, she decided to do the rest of her midterm preparation in her own room, where she wouldn't run risk of being interrupted. Studying, after all, came first for Hermione.

She took her midterms on the 19th and 20th of December. Her studying paid off, as always, and when she left the examination room she felt fairly confident she'd done well. Whatever her results would be, she would at least have a break from school and work until the 7th of January. As she was putting her quill away, Matthew also exited the exam room.

"How did it go?" he asked when he'd shut the door behind him.

"I think I'll be all right," she said.

He chuckled. "Right. You should be more confident, Hermione. To my knowledge, you've never done badly in any test."

"I don't know," she said evasively. "How did you do?"

"Pass grade, I'm quite sure. I had some trouble with question four, though," he said, leaning against the wall. "The case study. Which spells did you put down?"

"I'd assess bone density with Ossus Vissue and Ossus Potentus, then check for breaks," she responded.

Matthew sighed. "I've only put down one density spell. Well, we'll see what comes of it. Are you doing anything fun for Christmas?"

"I'm visiting the Weasleys," Hermione responded. "What about you?"

"Visiting my parents," he said, grinning as he continued, "It should be fun. My mother gets all hung up on her traditions, this time of year, and my father complains of how he doesn't understand the point of it all. It's hilarious." Matthew's mother was a pureblood from a purist family. She'd married a muggle, whose racist Caucasian family in turn had hang-ups about their son marrying a person of colour. From what Hermione had gathered, the marriage had caused quite an uproar back in the days.

"Sounds good," Hermione said with a smile.

"Absolutely. Well, I should go, Hermione. I'll see you in the new year."

"Happy Christmas," she told him. He disapparated, and she soon followed his example.

The weather had cleared up over the past week. It was still quite cold, but the sky was blue and a watery sun cheered up the bare vegetation. Hermione apparated to the gates to walk over the grounds. With the magical gardening of the house-elves - and on occasion Hermione herself - the grounds had flowers blooming all year long, no matter what the weather brought. Now that the sun was shining, she could brave the cold to admire them.

She circled the Manor, trying to keep track of how many different species of flowers there were. After a while, she neared the west wing. When she looked up at the house, she suddenly found herself looking straight at Malfoy. He was standing at one of the many windows on the second floor, staring down at her. He looked strangely sad, even vulnerable. When he noticed that she was looking at him, too, he immediately turned away and disappeared from view.

It abruptly occurred to her that her sudden absence from their study sessions might have made him feel like his advances towards her were being rejected. She had decided to focus on her midterms because it was important for her, but she hadn't even considered what it would look like to him. After their fight in August, it had been Malfoy who took the first wary steps back in her direction. All she'd done was make a resolution to stop arguing with him. He, on the other hand, had approached her in the library. He'd found a way to cohabitate with her without their mutual antagonism. And once he'd acclimatised her to this, he'd made the offer of hot chocolate and even joked with her. In return, she'd unthinkingly shut him out within a day after his careful attempt at communication.

She felt a surge of guilt flow through her. Whatever mistakes Malfoy had made over the course of their marriage and before, the current situation - in which he was clearly hurting - was her fault. Her mind replayed Ginny's words about giving Malfoy another chance and about the loneliness he must be feeling. She spent the walk back to her bedroom trying frantically to think of a way to fix it. As she made her way to the east wing, she kept looking around, fearing she'd run into Malfoy. She had no idea what she could say if that happened.

In the end, it was her conversation with Matthew that gave her an idea. He'd mentioned that his mother cared about her Christmas traditions. Perhaps Malfoy would share that opinion with her. "Ditty!" she called as soon as she was back in the relative safety of her quarters.

The house-elf popped into view a second later. "Mistress Hermione, is you all right?" she asked when she saw Hermione.

"I'm fine," Hermione responded. "I need you to tell me something. What does Malfoy do for Christmas?"

"Ditty isn't knowing, Mistress," Ditty said, shaking her head emphatically. "Last year Master Draco did not celebrate Christmas at all. Ditty thinks this year he won't celebrate either."

"Good," Hermione muttered, which earned her a reproachful look from Ditty.

"Ditty thinks Mistress should not be happy that Master Draco isn't celebrating," she muttered.

"It's good because we're going to have a Christmas dinner," she said. "Ditty, get Wolly and Tanny. We're going shopping. Oh, and I'll need you to tell me everything about the Malfoy Christmas traditions."

While Ditty looked for the other house-elves, Hermione sent an owl to Molly Weasley, who had invited her over for Christmas. She wrote that she wouldn't be able to join the Weasleys' celebrations until the late afternoon on Christmas day.

Ditty, Wolly, and Tanny appeared just as Apple flew away with the letter for Molly. Hermione took the house-elves through the Leaky Cauldron and into Diagon Alley. They spent most of the afternoon and the entire next day in the shops. It was the first time she'd spent a large amount of money from the Malfoy vault. She felt a little guilty about all the Galleons she was wasting on decorations and luxurious food without Malfoy's knowledge, but the money was hers as much as his now. Besides, hadn't he told her she could give half of it away to Muggle orphans if she so desired? She suspected all hell would break loose if she actually went through with such a plan, but still, the offer stood.

The house-elves had joined in her excitement and were enthusiastic about throwing an old-fashioned Malfoy Christmas dinner, even if there would be no guests but Malfoy and Hermione. They regaled her with tales of grand dinners they'd had when Malfoy was younger, and they rattled off recipes for plum puddings and stuffed turkey. It amazed Hermione, as it had before, how fond they seemed to be of Malfoy and his parents, even though they'd never been treated well and seemed to be very glad she was treating them differently. Perhaps Malfoy had had a point when he'd said they were loyal by default, although that didn't excuse his abhorrent behaviour. She made the house-elves promise not to tell Malfoy about the Christmas goings-on. She was sure they wouldn't keep secrets from their master under normal circumstances, but a winter surprise seemed to meet the criteria.

They decorated Hermione's dining room. She had the house-elves replace the grand dinner table with a smaller but equally impressive one. They hung ornaments and lights in her enormous fir tree and put candles all around the room. She took out Hogwarts, a History and spelled her dining room ceiling to temporarily resemble the Great Hall of Hogwarts. She let the house-elves put up holly and ivy branches, although she firmly drew the line at mistletoe. When the dining room was done, it looked breathtakingly beautiful - the perfect mix between Malfoy tradition and Hogwarts memories.

Hermione was so lost in her preparations that she didn't fully realise what she was getting herself into until it was the day before Christmas and she had to write her invitation to Malfoy. It hit her then that there were dozens of ways in which this could go terribly wrong. She might've misunderstood his behaviour; he might not want to talk to her at all. Besides, a dinner wasn't the same thing as a study session - it involved conversation and proximity and all manner of opportunities for awkwardness. She rewrote her invitation at least half a dozen times. She discarded long letters which explained why she'd invited him and short invites that seemed too impersonal.

Eventually, she gave up. She grabbed a new sheet of parchment and wrote:

Malfoy,

Please consider yourself invited to Christmas dinner in my quarters at 1:00 pm tomorrow, December 25th.

Yours.

She didn't know with what name to sign. She well remembered being told that they were not on a first name basis, but she could hardly sign with Mrs Malfoy. In the end, she just folded up the parchment and gave it to Wolly before she could change her mind again. "Please give this to Malfoy," she said. Wolly disappeared with a pop, which left Hermione to start worrying in earnest. What if he thought this entire idea was stupid? What if she'd ruined everything last week and he'd revert back to arguing with her? What if he didn't show up at all?

Hermione didn't get much sleep that night, and she spent most of Christmas morning quietly going insane with nerves. A hundred thousand times she wished she'd never come up with this infernal idea, but it was too late to retract her invitation now without being even more insensitive than two weeks earlier.

At noon, she changed into her dress robes, which were not really that much different from a muggle prom dress. She'd purposely chosen a dark green dress. Green went nicely with the Christmas decorations and was also clearly Malfoy's favourite colour. It couldn't hurt to make a point about dropping her prejudice against Slytherins, since that would definitely be one of her New Year's resolutions. Ditty and Tanny helped her put her hair up into a bun. She was ready. "Wish me luck, Crookshanks," she whispered to her ginger friend, who rubbed his head against her legs. The small gesture bolstered her confidence, and she quickly went to the dining room before her nerves could get the better of her again.

She sat down at the dining table, a round mahogany antique that could seat four people but was now laid for two. "You is going to be fine, Mistress," said Ditty, standing faithfully by her chair. "I is sure Master Draco will enjoy his dinner."

"Let's hope so," she mumbled. Ditty went to help the other house-elves prepare the food, leaving Hermione to her thoughts.

She wasn't sure if her nerves would've been able to handle Malfoy being late, but thankfully he showed up at one o’clock on the dot. Hermione's seat faced the door, giving her a perfect visual when he strode in. At first glance he looked poised as always, but when she looked closer she could see he was tense: his jaw was clenched and he couldn't seem to keep his fingers still, even though she'd barely ever seen him fidget before. She realised he was at least as nervous as she was, and the thought calmed her immensely.

However composed Malfoy looked when he first walked in, the interior of her dining room threw him off at once. He halted in the doorway, and his eyes roamed over the many decorations. After a moment, he looked up, where the enchantment revealed that it was just beginning to snow.

"You spelled the ceiling," he said evenly, still staring upwards.

"Yes," Hermione said. "Like the Great Hall."

He nodded, made his way over to the table, and sat down. Hermione knew she should say something else - he'd offered the previous comment, which meant it was her turn by all accounts - but she drew a blank. Ditty and Tanny saved her by appearing with sherry. She noticed suddenly that they were wearing new pillow cases, green with embroidered red holly berries and fir trees. It made her smile a little.

When the house-elves disappeared and they began sipping their sherry, silence returned to the room. Malfoy drummed his fingers on the table, although not firmly enough to make a noise. Everything Hermione considered bringing up seemed trite and unworthy of mention. In the end, it was Malfoy who broke the silence again.

"So," he said slowly when he'd nearly finished his sherry. "Christmas dinner. What brought this on?"

"Repayment for the hot chocolate?" she offered.

"Well, you certainly don't do things by halves," he responded, gesturing around the room.

She nodded, unsure what to say to that. The house-elves returned to bring their starters, and they began eating in silence. The dumplings were made according to an old Malfoy recipe and tasted excellent, although she suspected she would have enjoyed them more if she hadn't been so nervous.

"How did your midterms go?" Malfoy asked when they'd finished their starters. He may or may not have been as nervous as she was, but he was a good sight better at making small talk. Then again, he'd probably been brought up with dinners twice as boring (but not half as tense) as these.

"It- They went well, I think," she stammered, feeling like a complete idiot. "I'll get the results in January."

The house-elves returned to bring stuffed turkey, roast potatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts, and a host of other food. Malfoy seemed appreciative of all the traditional dishes. In general, Hermione supposed, the dinner wasn't going as badly as it could be. She just wished she knew what to do about the silence.

Malfoy didn't save her this time. They dug into the turkey and the vegetables, but he didn't speak a word. Even though she should be used to the silence, considering all their studying in the library, she wished desperately for something to say.

Finally, she remembered she'd never really found out what Malfoy did all day. There were more subtle ways to lead into that topic, though, so she said, "Obscuring the taste of poisons?"

He looked up, and she thought she saw relief on his face before he schooled his features. "Just poisons; I made up the taste part. It was an essay on the factors that influence the paralysing effects of mugwort and pineapple juice in oil-based poisons brewed at different temperatures."

She'd studied potions, both at Hogwarts and during her healer training, but this sounded beyond her reach. "You're interested in potions, then," she concluded. She'd guessed as much, but it was good to know for sure.

He chuckled. "You could say that. I'm planning to take the potion master's exam in two years."

She did the maths in her head. "That's very soon. Isn't it usually taken at twenty-five?"

"It is," he said, without further elucidation. She'd have to look into that when she got a chance.

They turned their attention to their plates again. Hermione felt marginally better after this short bit of conversation. They hadn't had a fight yet, which was quite an accomplishment, and she'd contributed by bringing up his essay.

The house-elves exchanged the remains of the turkey for Christmas pudding and trifle. The Malfoy recipes were excellent; Hermione couldn't remember the last time she'd had such a Christmas dinner even at Hogwarts. They didn't speak during dessert. Malfoy had gone back to tapping on the table. When the plates were cleared away and he stood to go, Hermione suddenly remembered her present.

"Oh," she said, quickly walking to the Christmas tree. "I got you something." She returned with the present, wrapped in green paper with a silver bow. In contrast to his earlier composure, Malfoy now looked outright curious. She handed him the little parcel, and he unwrapped it.

She'd spent a long time trying to come up with something to give to him. Eventually she'd ended up in Flourish & Blotts. She hoped her choice would be to his taste - given that she'd recently confirmed he was interested in potions, he would probably like it.

"A Short Guide to Seeds as Potion Ingredients," he read aloud, quickly flipping through the pages. "That doesn't sound bad. I don't think I have it yet."

"I know. I've been in your library," she said.

"Mine?" he said as he turned to go. "What's mine is yours."

As soon as he was out the door, she sank down into her chair again. The house-elves appeared to clear off the table.

"How was it going, Mistress Hermione?" Ditty asked.

"That was the most awkward dinner ever," Hermione sighed. "Under the circumstances, I suppose we'll have to consider it a success. He seemed to enjoy the food, at least."

"Ditty is thinking Master Draco liked it," the house-elf responded.

"Let's hope so," Hermione said. "Thanks for all your help, Ditty. I loved your Christmas uniforms."

"You is most welcome, Mistress!" Ditty was nearly dancing with joy at her praise. "Us house-elves is glad we could help you."

"I'm leaving you with a terrible mess to clean up. I'd help you, but I have to pack for the Burrow... Oh! I forgot to tell Malfoy about it." She jumped up and ran out of the room, hoping to catch him before he'd made it back to his own wing. To her surprise, she was just in time to see him hastily disappearing around the first corner of the hallway. She wasn't sure how much time had passed since he left her dinner party, but it certainly should've been enough to cross that distance fifty times.

"Eavesdropping?" she called out.

He came back a moment later, evidently aware that denial would be useless. She had to resist the urge to laugh at the combination of embarrassment and haughtiness on his face. He didn't respond to her accusation, and instead asked, "What is it?"

"I'm going to the Burrow this afternoon. Ron and Ginny's parents' house. I won't be gone long - maybe three or four days," she said. "I just... thought I should let you know. The last time I went there, you..." She trailed off, not sure it would be a good idea to mention their fight in August.

She would have thought he would regain his poise now that she was dropping the matter of his eavesdropping, but he only looked more uncomfortable. "Yes," he said. "About that..." She waited, but he said nothing.

"Yes?" she asked.

A look of determination crossed his face. "I shouldn't have pushed you." She blinked. Was this an apology? After a moment, he nodded briskly at her. "Enjoy your time at the... 'Burrow'." The customary Malfoy smirk was suddenly back on his face when he added, "Tell the Weasel I said 'hi'."

Then he turned and disappeared. This time she could hear his footsteps fade into the distance.

--

"Merry Christmas, Hermione!" Molly exclaimed as soon as she walked into the Burrow. The Weasley matriarch was standing at the stove, her face red with the heat of the oven and the exertion of her work.

"Merry Christmas, Molly," Hermione responded, putting down her duffel bag to give her a hug. "Still hard at work? Don't you know it's the holidays?"

"Oh, dearie, we postponed Christmas dinner until you got here so you'd be able to enjoy it with us," Molly told her.

Hermione, who wasn't sure anything would ever fit into her stomach again after all of the house-elves' delicious food, burst out laughing. "Oh, Molly, you didn't!" she exclaimed. "You really shouldn't have. I've already had my stuffed turkey, you know."

"Well, I'm sure it wasn't as good as the Weasley recipe," Molly told her with a smile. "Christmas dinner wouldn't have been the same without you, Hermione. Go see the others, now, they're all in the living room. And have Ginny help you with your things. You'll be staying in her old room, of course."

Hermione obediently walked into the living room, where the entire Weasley family had gathered. George, Angelina, Bill, Ron, and Charlie were playing Exploding Snap at the table; the others were occupying the sofa and all manner of different chairs that had been rounded up from every part of the house. "Merry Christmas, everyone," Hermione called over the din of conversation. She was greeted by a chorus of hellos and Merry Christmases. Arthur abandoned Percy in favour of coming to ask her about muggle Christmas traditions. Once she'd explained yet again that muggles celebrated Christmas in much the same way the magical world did, she went to get Ginny. The youngest Weasley was sitting on the sofa, leaning against Harry, who was stroking her hair. It served as a reminder to Hermione that despite the success of today's dinner party, her marriage was still a far cry from anything resembling normal. The thought made her a little sad, but she shook herself and went to get Ginny, who immediately went upstairs with her to help her make the bed.

"Just a pillow case and we're done," she said when they were nearly finished. "I think Mum's about to serve dinner."

"I don't know how I'll eat more," Hermione groaned. "I've barely recovered from this afternoon's dinner."

Ginny looked at her quizzically. "Who did you have Christmas dinner with, then? Mum said you'd written in November to say you'd be here on December 24th, and then you wrote again last week to say you'd be a day late."

Hermione knew her conduct hadn't been entirely according to the etiquette guidelines. "I hope I didn't hurt her feelings," she said. "It's just that... Well, I had dinner with Malfoy."

"You did not," Ginny said. "The last I knew, you weren't even speaking!"

"I know. To be fair, today's dinner wasn't exactly rich in conversation. The food was good, though. The Malfoys have several recipes-"

"Do I look like I care about Christmas pudding?" Ginny exclaimed. "Tell me about this dinner! Whose idea was it?"

Hermione chuckled at her friend's enthusiasm. She sat down on the newly made bed and patted the covers beside her. When Ginny had sat down as well, she launched into her story: the hot chocolate, Malfoy's strange sudden urge to make jokes and small talk, her stupidity in abandoning the study sessions, and the Christmas dinner she'd organised as a solution.

"How was it?" Ginny asked excitedly.

"I don't know. It went okay, I think. We didn't fight; that's something. I don't think we spoke more than ten sentences each, though. Oh, and after the dinner, when I told him I was coming here, I think he apologised for one of the fights we had last summer. Well, he didn't really apologise, he just said he shouldn't have, um..." Hermione had never told Ginny that Malfoy had shoved her against the wall in one of their fights, and in the light of this day's positive events, it didn't seem appropriate to bring it up now.

"Even if it wasn't quite an apology, it's certainly a step in the right direction," Ginny said.

"What is the right direction, though? I haven't a clue where we're going with this." She looked at her red-headed friend. "You have some ideas, though. You've always told me I should be talking to him. What do you think of this?"

"Gin!" Harry's voice floated up from downstairs. "Your mum is asking how much longer it's going to take to make that bed."

Ginny jumped up. "What do I think?" she repeated, gesturing for Hermione to follow her. "I think as compatible husbands go, you could've done a whole lot worse than Draco Malfoy."

It wasn't until the next day that Hermione could ask what in Merlin's name Ginny meant by that. First came Molly's dinner, which was as delicious as it was rich and had Hermione taking only small portions. After that, they gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents - another traditional event that had been delayed until now just for Hermione's sake. Then there was mulled wine and mince pies. Hermione longed to grill Ginny about her cryptic remark, but she didn't feel safe doing so in the living room. Everyone knew she was married to Malfoy, of course, but not everyone knew how they coexisted. The Weasleys, bless them, didn't ask too many questions. They probably just assumed she stuck to her wing of the Manor and he stuck to his. She didn't want to spark a group discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of befriending her husband.

The next morning was just as hectic. There were just too many people in the house to have any chance of a private conversation. However, when Charlie, Percy, Bill, and Fleur left after lunch, the house quieted down. Ron, George, and Angelina were recruited by Molly to start on the monstrous pile of dishes. Arthur was engrossed in the muggle How To guides Hermione had given him; Molly disappeared upstairs to do laundry.

"Let's go for a walk," Harry said to the girls. It had continued snowing through the night, but now the sun had come out and the weather seemed extraordinarily suitable for a nice stroll. The three of them bundled up to protect themselves against the cold and trudged out into the snow. For a while, no one spoke. The view surrounding them was simply spectacular: the fields and trees were covered in two inches of white powder. It didn't take Harry long to find out that its consistency was perfect for a snowball fight. Half an hour later, all three of them had copious amounts of snow in their hair, and Ginny was squealing because Harry had stuffed a handful down her neck.

They calmed down a little after that. Harry helped Ginny get the snow out of her collar. He grabbed her hand as they continued walking.

"Ginny told me you had dinner with Malfoy yesterday," he said out of the blue.

Ginny smiled apologetically at Hermione. "I didn't think you'd mind. Saves you telling the story twice."

"It's fine," Hermione said. "But Ginny, what did you mean when you said we were compatible? We're polar opposites!"

"What makes you say that?" Ginny asked.

"Well," Hermione started, but then she stopped short. She had been going to say that he was a Slytherin and she was a Gryffindor, or perhaps that he was a pureblood and she wasn't, but those ideas wouldn't cut it with Ginny. Besides, she wasn't so sure anymore that they would cut it for herself, either. "We grew up totally differently," she said eventually.

"So did Harry and I," Ginny said. "I'm not saying you're identical twins. Think about it, though. For starters, he's obviously intelligent if he's planning to take the Potion Master's exam at twenty-three. He's driven and diligent, too. There isn't anybody telling him to study or work, but from what I hear he's shown up in the library practically every day for months. He has a sense of humour, although perhaps the poison joke was in bad taste." She chuckled at her own pun. "He's willing to admit he makes mistakes, albeit begrudgingly. He has a moral compass. Even if it's not quite aligned with yours, he at least thinks physical intimidation was going too far."

Hermione whipped her head around. How on earth had Ginny deduced that?

"I'm not stupid, 'Mione," Ginny said.

"I'm missing something here, aren't I?" Harry said.

"It makes sense," Ginny said. "You had a bad fight last August - worse than anything before. He got physical, or threatened to. Decided that he had gone too far and withdrew completely. You didn't see him for two months, and now he's clearly attempting to initiate some sort of friendship. In my opinion, you can't afford to let this opportunity slide. Not just because he's your husband and you're looking at sixty more years with him, but also because, as I just explained, I wouldn't be surprised if you can easily find some common ground."

It was hard to escape Ginny's logic, but it was also hard to admit she'd been wrong. "Harry, what do you think?" she asked.

Harry sighed. "I don't like him," he said. "And you should realise you don't owe him anything. Especially not if he did hit you last summer."

"He didn't hit me, he pushed me," Hermione corrected. "And I think I'd just called him a high-and-mighty Slytherin who thought he was better than everyone else."

"You're defending him," Harry said in astonishment. "Maybe Ginny is onto something."

 "I'm not defending him," she said automatically. Then she frowned as she went over what she'd just said in her head. "Well, maybe I am. He did sort-of apologise for it."

"See?" Ginny said. "I know you've got years of history, and I'm not blaming you for having trouble coming to terms with it. He's not completely unsalvageable, though - and neither are you."

They fell silent after that. Before long, they were back at the Burrow, where Molly had them sit by the fire and drink tea to warm up. Ron invited Hermione for a game of wizard's chess, and she had a few uncomplicated hours of fun with her ex-boyfriend, whose brilliant strategizing won him both chess games they played.

Hermione spent three more days at the Burrow. It was thoroughly relaxing to be away from home and have no responsibilities whatsoever. With her midterms behind her, she didn't have to think about studying until after the holidays. There were no worries about running into her husband and no complicated reasoning about whether this would be a good or a bad thing. Ron was full of festive cheer and seemed to have momentarily forgotten his jealousy and anger. Angelina and George, whose shop was closed until New Year, joined the four friends for games of exploding snap, snitch snatcher, and gobstones.

She went back home on the 29th of December. "Don't forget to talk to him," Ginny said. "When you come visit us on New Year's Eve, I want to hear good news."

"We'll see," Hermione said, smiling as she hugged her friend. "Thanks, Gin. I'll see you in a few days." She said her goodbyes to the other Weasleys and Harry, and then she apparated to the Manor.

She unpacked her bags and cuddled with Crookshanks for a while. After going up to the owlery to see how Apple was doing, she wandered around the house. By the third time she passed the library, she admitted to herself that she was hoping to run into Malfoy. Even though talking to him would probably be as awkward as their Christmas dinner, her curiosity tempted her to give it a try. Eventually, she decided to sit in the library. She didn't have any studying to do, but Harry had given her a novel for Christmas, and it was waiting to be read. The library was as good a place as any to get started on that. Malfoy probably wouldn't show up - she didn't even know if he was aware that she'd returned - but trying couldn't hurt.

She walked back to her room, found the novel, and returned to the library. To her surprise, Malfoy was already there. He was seated at his customary desk, engrossed in a book. She couldn't see what it was, but judging by the notes he was taking, it wasn't leisure reading.

When he heard her enter, he started and turned around. "Welcome back," he said.

"Thanks," she said, making her way over to an armchair about ten feet from his desk. Socrates, who had been chasing a dust mote near the window, ran over to her and lay down on her lap. Malfoy returned his attention to his work as Hermione stroked Socrates and opened the book to the first page. She didn't start reading, though. Instead, she watched him as his eyes flitted across the lines of his book.

"It's the holidays," she said after a few minutes.

He looked up and raised one eyebrow. "Yes, it is," he drawled. "Brilliant observation."

She pursed her lips at his sarcasm. "I mean, why are you working? You should have a rest."

He frowned, and she feared she'd somehow crossed an invisible line, but his voice was neutral when he responded, "I took Christmas and Boxing Day off."

Hermione didn't dare pursue the issue further and lowered her eyes to her novel. As she read, though, Malfoy's efforts at studying didn't sit well with her. Even she, perpetual bookworm, had taken two weeks off studying for Christmas. Surely it wasn't good for him to be so focused on his studies. Not that I care, of course, she thought.

When he closed his book and got up to get another one, she looked up. "No," she said.

He turned and stared at her. "No?" he repeated.

"No. You're taking a break," she said, picking up Socrates and putting her on the ground. "Wait here."

She put her book down and ran out of the library, leaving Malfoy standing. She covered the distance to her room in record time and found her wizard's chess set. She rarely played, but the games she'd had with Ron had reminded her how much fun it was. She expected Malfoy could play chess. The game would distract him from his studies, and it had the extra advantage of not requiring conversation.

With the chess board and the box of pieces in her hand, she returned to the library. Malfoy had ignored her instructions and was seated at his desk with the book, but he looked up at once when she came in. His eyes flicked to the chess set.

She grabbed her wand and transfigured one of the chairs into a low table, big enough for the chess set. Then she sat in her armchair and set up the board.

"Well?" she asked, looking up at Malfoy. He didn't respond, and she clenched her hands. This move had been an enormous gamble. If he ignored her and went back to studying, it would be embarrassing, to say the least.

He turned to the book on his desk. Before she could begin to process the mortification, however, he shut the book, put away his quill, and got up. With measured steps, he walked to the chair next to hers and sat down. Socrates jumped onto his lap, and he scratched the cat's head. She immediately began purring. He studied Hermione's face for a moment, looked at the board, and said, "Pawn to E4."

She resisted the urge to sigh in relief. Instead, she concentrated on the chess board. She could never beat Ron, but she was still a fairly good player, and she did not plan on letting Malfoy win.

Other than to state their moves, neither of them spoke throughout the game. The atmosphere was a little tense, but it didn't come close to Christmas dinner. They were well-matched as chess players, but after ninety minutes it was Hermione who cornered Malfoy's king with a move by her queen. "Checkmate," she said, hoping he wouldn't take his loss badly.

He looked a little chagrined, but conceded, "You win. Good game."

"I learned from Ron. He's very good," she said.

"I wouldn't have thought the Weasel had the brains for chess," he drawled.

She was a hair's breadth from getting angry, but instead of snapping at him, she took a deep breath and said, "Rules."

"What?" he asked, thrown off course.

"If we're going to make this work, we need rules," she said. "His name is Ron or Weasley. The same goes for Harry."

Thankfully, he didn't ask what 'this' was - she wouldn't have known the answer. Instead of a sarcastic comeback, he responded with, "No negative comments about Slytherin."

"Or Gryffindor," she said.

He nodded and continued, "Don't mention the war."

She burst out laughing, and he stared at her in astonishment. "I'm sorry," she mumbled when she'd composed herself. "It's... it's a joke. From a television... never mind. A muggle thing."

He raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. "No involvement in my house-elf management."

That was a hefty price, but sacrifices had to be made. Perhaps she could amend the rules later if 'this', whatever it was, did work out. "No snide remarks about muggles or muggleborns."

"Or purebloods," he countered.

She nodded, and they both fell silent for a minute. "Agreed?" she finally asked.

"Agreed," he said. "Now, if you don't mind, I'll get back to my studies."

As Hermione put the chess pieces in their box, she couldn't help but think that she'd definitely have good news on New Year's Eve. Ginny would be pleased... and so was Hermione.

--

Hermione spent the next two afternoons reading in the library, while Malfoy studied at his desk. Both times he got there before she did; it was the opposite of most of their earlier study sessions. Now, when she entered, he looked up, nodded in greeting, and resumed his work. Then she curled up her armchair with Crookshanks or Socrates and read. She looked at him every now and then and invariably found him working with great concentration.

"Any plans for tonight?" she asked in the late afternoon of the last day of the year.

"No," he said without looking up.

"But it's New Year's Eve," she said.

He put his quill down and met her eyes. "Contrary to what you seem to think, I do in fact own a calendar. I'm perfectly aware of the date."

"I mean, shouldn't you..." She trailed off, not sure what she should suggest. She knew he didn't have anyone to spend the evening with. He probably hadn't actually chosen to have an empty schedule for the night. Clearly her last sentence hadn't been a good move. He looked irritated; his expression dared her to continue her train of thought.

She changed her tack. "Do you want to visit Harry and Ginny with me?" The words were out of her mouth before she could think it through. She was sure Harry and Ginny wouldn't object, though. Ginny would probably be cheering. Harry might not like Malfoy, but he was curious enough about her husband's current attitude to put up with him for a night. Ron, who certainly wouldn't be amenable to such an idea, was spending New Year's Eve with George and Angelina.

It was not the right thing to say. Malfoy didn't even answer her; he just sneered at her and started reading again. With a huff, she got up from her chair and left the library. If he wasn't even going to respond, fine, she'd leave him to his precious books.

--

Four hours later, she was sipping wine in front of a roaring fire in the Potter cottage.

"What a year, eh?" Harry said. He and Ginny were curled up on the couch together, with Hermione sitting cross-legged on the rug before the hearth.

"I know," Ginny responded. "I liked this one. Second in the Quidditch League last season, third position halfway through this one. Not bad at all."

"I'll say," Hermione agreed. "You did great, Gin. You too, Harry - just six more months and you can call yourself a lawyer."

Harry laughed. "I'm looking forward to it. Of course I've already had my first proper court case last February, when I defended Malfoy."

"Yes, that was quite something." Ginny chuckled. "It's still funny you helped Malfoy keep his house."

"It's my house, too," Hermione said, "and I'm forever grateful. The Manor is amazing."

"I know. And how are its inhabitants?" Ginny asked.

"Gin!" Harry chastised. "You promised me you wouldn't grill Hermione about Malfoy tonight. She's probably sick of talking about it with us. Tonight can be Malfoy-free."

"It's fine," Hermione laughed. "Actually, Harry, you got quite close to spending the evening with him. I invited him over, but as you can tell by his absence, he declined. He wasn't very polite about it, either."

"Really? Tell me everything you said," Ginny commanded.

"Ginny," Harry protested.

Hermione laughed. She didn't mind telling her friends about what had happened. They shared everything, after all. Besides, her earlier conversations with Harry and Ginny had proven to be quite useful in figuring out where she stood with regards to Malfoy. She told Harry and Ginny about the chess game, their rules, and her invitation to tonight's gathering.

"Maybe he thought you were making fun of his loneliness," Harry suggested.

"Or he thought you felt sorry for him, and he didn't want your pity," Ginny added.

"I don't think I would've accepted an invitation by, say, Pansy Parkinson to spend an evening with Malfoy, either," Harry confessed, which made the girls laugh.

"I don't suppose it was a very smart move," Hermione said. "Let's hope he just forgets I asked."

"What's the plan now?" Ginny asked.

"I think once the holidays are over, we'll have study sessions again. Maybe there will even be conversation," she responded. "He seems to want this. Whatever 'this' is."

"Friendship?" Ginny suggested.

The words 'friendship' and 'Malfoy' didn't fit in the same sentence, but Hermione realised that thought was merely a reflex. She voluntarily spent time with him every day; she was willing to make an effort to get along with him; she hoped to build some sort of relationship with him that would last.

"Yes, friendship," she said.

--

Hermione slept in until eleven the next day, having arrived at the Manor at three in the morning. Once she'd had a leisurely breakfast, a stroll around the house, and a cuddle with Crookshanks, she went to the library. She'd finished Harry's book and now brought a Charles Dickens novel with her.

Malfoy was already studying. Hermione wondered how he'd spent the night yesterday. Surely he hadn't continued to work on his potion master's degree? Would he have stayed up alone until midnight to see the new year begin? She wanted the answers, but she knew better than to ask after yesterday's disastrous attempt to discuss his plans. To her relief, he greeted her as if yesterday's tension was long forgotten. She returned his greeting and sat in her customary armchair.

That afternoon and the next passed in silence, apart from short greetings. The day after that, she expected another silent afternoon. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, though, Malfoy got up and put his books away. He didn't usually leave this early. As she turned her head to watch him go, he met her eyes and said, "We're having dinner tonight. Dining room, my wing, six o'clock. Wear something nice."

Without another word, he walked out of the library, leaving Hermione thoroughly confused in his wake. She didn't have much of a choice but to obey his strange invitation, though she had absolutely no idea what had brought this on. At five o'clock, she went back to her chambers and took out dress robes - dark blue, this time. After finding jewellery to match and doing up her hair, she walked to the west wing. She hadn't been here often. Last spring, when she was on a mission to find out more about Malfoy, she'd walked through the corridors a few times. It had always been a little uncomfortable, though. The rooms in which she, Harry, and Ron had briefly been held prisoner were somewhere on this side of the house, and she didn't care to relive those memories.

Eventually, she had to call Ditty to show her to Malfoy's dining room. Once the house-elf had given her directions, it wasn't long before she reached the place she was looking for. Malfoy's dining room was a little smaller than her own, though not by much. She suspected he'd had an overly large dinner table as well, but like she had at Christmas, he'd had it replaced with something more suitable for a two-person dinner. The room was lit by candles and a fire in the hearth.

The master of the house was sitting at the table. He hadn't seen her yet, and she took the chance to observe him quietly for a few moments. He too was wearing dress robes, making her wonder whether Malfoy dinners were always this formal. The solemnity of his clothes was counteracted by his posture, though. Evidently unaware that he was being watched, Malfoy was slouched in his chair, drumming on the table with his fingers as he waited for her. The sight made her smile a little.

She coughed quietly, and he immediately sat up straight and turned to her. "You're late," he commented. In lieu of responding, Hermione simply walked to the table and sat down opposite of him.

House-elves appeared to serve wine and food. The entire situation was very reminiscent of Christmas day, but Hermione realised she was much more comfortable this time around. She was still uncertain of what to say or do, and there was always a chance one of them could blow up over something the other said, but something had shifted now that they had agreed to try to be friends.

"What's the occasion?" Hermione asked after a few minutes of strangely comfortable silence.

He raised his eyebrows. "With all your recent attempts to tell me the date, I'm surprised you don't know," he drawled.

She shook her head impatiently. "I know the date. It's January third."

To her surprise, he started laughing. "You're saying you honestly don't remember?"

"Come on, what is it?" she demanded, torn between irritation and amusement.

"It's our anniversary," Malfoy said, still chuckling.

That threw her. She thought back and realised he was right. Last year in the hospital, she honestly hadn't paid attention to the date. Afterwards, she'd spent weeks essentially denying that she was married at all. Considering the circumstances, perhaps it was to be expected she wouldn't be able to recall her own wedding date.

"Oh," she muttered, still reeling from the thought that it had been a whole year since she got married.

"Yes, oh," he said. "Happy anniversary, Mrs Malfoy."

"And to you, too," she replied automatically.

He sipped his wine. "Quite the year, wasn't it?" he mused.

"Absolutely," she agreed. They fell silent again as they finished their starters and began the main course. The food was excellent, of course. Hermione suspected these were more old Malfoy recipes. She'd have to ask the house-elves to prepare them more often.

"What have you been studying this week?" she asked when they were halfway through their stuffed quail. Potions was a safe topic, and it was also interesting.

"Mostly sleeping draughts," he responded. "The standard one we studied in first year, but also some more advanced ones with various effects. The depth of sleep, length, and side effects can all be influenced by brewing the potions differently. I've been doing some spell diagrams to track the effects in preparation for an essay."

"Spell diagrams?" she asked.

"Yes. It's a technique for visually mapping the effects of the components of a spell, or in this case a potion. We weren't taught it at Hogwarts because it's complicated and requires knowledge of runes. Beauxbaton does teach them. My father advocated for their use at Hogwarts when he was on the school board, but he was outvoted. He taught me during the summers."

"So how does it work?"

"I can show you next time we're in the library," he responded. "It's essentially a representation of magical effects using arrows, symbols, and colours to map out every aspect. Despite the name, it works on both spells and potions."

She was always keen to learn new techniques and grilled him about the spell diagrams until she had some idea of what they looked like. Then he asked about her internships, and she explained about the spell damage ward and the diagnostic practice she was getting. Before she realised it, an hour had passed in conversation without an unkind word from either of them.

The house-elves cleared away their dessert plates as silence descended upon the table once more. Malfoy finished the last of his wine. Hermione wasn't sure whether to stay or go. Despite this uncertainty, she actually felt quite content. The evening had gone exceedingly well. Her first anniversary was more cause for celebration than her wedding itself.

"I have a present for you," Malfoy said.

"Oh," Hermione said. "Should I have got you something as well?"

He shook his head. "Certainly not. Family tradition has ruled in your favour. On anniversaries, the husband provides the gift, and it's always jewellery. I hope you don't mind, because if you do, I'm afraid it'll be rather a recurrent problem."

She chuckled and shook her head. "I don't mind."

He produced a small box, green with a silver bow. "Always the green," she pointed out, only to wonder if that had been too close to a Slytherin jab - that would be against the rules.

Malfoy didn't seem to mind, though; he simply gestured toward the present. She removed the wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside was a silver chain, from which hung a blue crystal in the shape of a water droplet.

"It's beautiful," Hermione said. It really was - the colour was just to her liking, and the pendant was neither too large nor too small. For a moment she simply sat and admired it. Then she took off the necklace she was wearing and replaced it with the new one. When she looked back at her husband, she found him smiling, something she'd only seen a few times before. "Thank you," she said earnestly.

"You're welcome," he said.

She got up, one hand still tracing the blue stone around her neck. "I'll see you in the library," she said. He nodded, and she took that as a sign that it was indeed time for her to leave. When she turned back in the doorway, he was no longer looking at her, but he was still smiling.

Chapter Text

The next afternoon, Malfoy showed Hermione his spell diagrams. They looked like an amazingly complicated jumble of the interrelated magical effects of his potion ingredients. He explained again how it worked and obliged her when she made an attempt at mapping out Wingardium Leviosa. He was a rather impatient teacher. However, she was a fast enough learner that he was willing to put up with her efforts, though the tutoring session wasn't free of sarcastic remarks. Once she understood the basics of spell diagramming, she went to her own desk and started on her studies again. Her internships and classes would restart in a few days, and it was time she started preparing. They worked in silence for the rest of the afternoon.

Life soon returned to its normal rhythm. Hermione's internship in the spell damage ward would end in early February, and she was determined to make the most of the few weeks she had left. Her classes had shifted from diagnostics to remedies for muscle and bone problems. It was hard work, but she'd never minded that.

Her Friday nights with Ginny, Harry, and Ron picked up again. Ron seemed less sullen in her presence now than he had in the months before. She was glad of it and decided not to question the change; she simply accepted it as it was. They still avoided the topic of her marriage for fear of provoking Ron, but she kept Harry and Ginny updated whenever they visited each other without him.

The biggest change from her life before Christmas was the atmosphere in the library. She and Malfoy still weren't talkative by any stretch of the imagination, but now the silence was companionable more than anything else. Every now and then, one would ask the other what they were reading or what essay they were working on. Hermione learned that Malfoy was indeed planning to take his exams a full two years earlier than normal. It seemed an impossible task to her, but Malfoy appeared confident in his ability to achieve it. Although he took no formal classes and did nearly all of the work independently, he did regularly visit a potion master to discuss problems with and to ask questions. He was also highly motivated; he often studied until long after Hermione had stopped for the day. Occasionally, he didn't show up in the library for an entire day. However, she'd invariably learn the next afternoon that he'd been brewing. Studying potions required large amounts of practical experience. Malfoy brewed a wide variety of potions each morning; the longer recipes sometimes kept him at his cauldron until late in the evening.

One night, she went to the library at midnight to get a novel for some light reading. She found Malfoy in the library, working at his desk. Socrates was sitting on a stack of books on the corner of his desk, her tail curled around her paws. Malfoy had his back turned to Hermione, but before she could greet him, he was already speaking. She soon realised, however, that he didn't know she was there. "If you wouldn't keep staring at me, perhaps I'd be able to get some work done, Socks," he said. He reached out and scratched his cat's head.

Perhaps Ginny was right that Hermione had more things in common than she thought; apparently both of them talked to their cats. That, however, was not what stood out to Hermione most. "Socks?" she repeated. Malfoy twisted around and stared at her. When he realised she'd overheard him, bright spots of red appeared on his cheeks, but he said nothing. "You call her Socks?" Hermione said, walking further into the library.

"What of it?" he said defensively.

"Nothing," she said quickly, realising that she might be upsetting him. "It's just..." She resisted the urge to say 'cute' and instead finished, "...not what I'd expect from you."

"Maybe you don't know me very well," he said curtly. "Was there something you wanted?"

"I'm just here to get a book," she said. She walked into one of the aisles and found herself a novel. When she returned, she walked over to his desk and looked at his parchment. He was working on a spell diagram. "I didn't think you'd still be here," she said. "Isn't it a bit late to be working?"

"This was on the planning for today," he said. "I wouldn't be working anymore if I could figure out where the mistake is. The effects aren't adding up."

She scratched her head, leaning over his desk as she examined the parchment more closely. "You forgot the leeches," she said after a moment.

He glanced at her and then at the parchment. His eyes widened. "I did," he said, tracking the lines of the diagram with his finger and then adding a symbol for the leeches. "How did I miss that? More to the point, how did you see it? Surely you haven't brewed polyjuice potion before."

"I have, actually," Hermione said. She sat down on the edge of her desk, facing Malfoy. "At Hogwarts. Second year."

He stared at her for a long moment. "You're having me on," he accused. "You did not brew polyjuice when you were twelve."

"But I did!" she protested. "Well, I'd just turned thirteen, really. I brewed it in the unused girls' bathroom on the second floor. I nicked the recipe book from the library and the ingredients from Snape."

He looked torn between scepticism and amusement. "Unbelievable," he said after a while. "Polyjuice at thirteen. You're mental. What on earth did you need it for?"

She bit her lip, suddenly wishing she hadn't started this story. It was dangerous territory. He seemed to catch onto her hesitation, but it only made him more eager. "Well?" he demanded when she didn't say anything.

"Don't, um, don't take this the wrong way," she began, carefully watching him to make sure she didn't upset him somehow, "but Harry and Ron used it to impersonate Crabbe and Goyle so they could spy on you."

"What!?"he exclaimed. He still seemed more disbelieving than angry, though, which gave her the courage to continue.

"We thought you were the Heir of Slytherin," she said. He motioned for her to keep talking, so she went on, "We wanted to know what you were up to. I laced desserts with a standard sleeping draught and left them for Crabbe and Goyle to find. Then we took their robes and some of their hair. Harry and Ron changed into them and went to your common room. I wasn't there, of course, but I think you insulted both of them to their faces." She chuckled at the thought of Ron and Harry, having to listen to Malfoy call them names. "Also, you weren't the Heir of Slytherin, of course. It was a wasted effort, in the end, but I still know the recipe."

He shook his head. "Do you have any idea in how many different ways you could've blown up the school?"

"I do now," she said. "Back then, I didn't even think of that. I needed to brew it, so I brewed it. It wasn't that good, of course - I think the effect only lasted about forty-five minutes."

Malfoy laughed, astonishment still on his face. "Merlin. Why aren't you studying potions?"

"I like healing better," Hermione said. "Although I must admit it's interesting to keep up with what you're learning about."

Shaking his head, Malfoy traced the lines on the diagram one more time. "You are one extraordinary witch, Hermione Malfoy," he said. It was strange to hear him use her first name, especially combined with the last name she still barely thought of as hers. It was even stranger that he'd just complimented her. "I wouldn't have thought you had it in you."

"Maybe you don't know me very well," she said lightly.

"Indeed." He looked at her for a moment. "In light of the recent additions to this diagram, I think I should call it a night," he continued. He folded up the parchment and closed his books. She waited until he stood up and walked with him to the door. He held it open for her, and she was reminded that despite his incivility to her in the past, he had been brought up with the highest forms of etiquette.

"Thank you," she said as she walked past him.

"Good night," he said.

"Good night."

--

In the first week of February, the fourth year trainee healers handed in their last internship report of the semester. On the 11th, a Monday, Hermione and Matthew started their second internship in the department for magical diseases. Although that wasn't Hermione's favourite topic, it was still exciting to start work in a new place. Since this was the ward she'd stayed in herself while she was suffering mudblood disease, she knew most of the staff quite well. She was already used to working with Matthew and was looking forward to resuming their cooperative working relationship. Healer Canton also worked in this ward, which meant he'd be the supervisor of this internship. With all these familiar faces, Hermione was sure the next few months would bring a lovely combination of friendship and learning.

It became easier every day to spend time with Malfoy. They hadn't fought in months, and there were fewer and fewer uncomfortable moments. Even so, she knew they were still avoiding topics that they would eventually have to talk about. Neither of them mentioned the other's Hogwarts house, the Malfoy house-elves, or the Second Wizarding War. They didn't talk about their parents; they didn't talk about Malfoy's lack of friends or his disdain for hers. Essentially, they ignored their shared past and acted only in the present. Hermione went along with it, because she wasn't willing to risk what they had now. Besides, she was well aware that there would be more than enough time to touch upon the difficult issues. Perhaps if they took a few months, or even a few years, to learn to appreciate each other's company, they'd be able to deal with their differences later.

She found out one evening in March that the potion master's exam wasn't Malfoy's only object of study. "It's private research," he told her when she inquired after the topic he was working on.

"Private research? Into what?"

"Potions, of course," he said. "I'm trying to refine the brewing process of the standard painkilling draught. The current recipe is very volatile and incredibly vulnerable to mistakes, which is why the potion has so many side effects. I'm looking for ways to make it more efficient."

"Is it part of the examination?"

He shook his head. "As I said, it's private research. If I get results, I can sell them to the Apothecary and St Mungo's, although money isn't the objective so much as interest in the topic."

"It does sound interesting," she agreed. "Have you found anything?"

They ended up discussing Malfoy's preliminary results at length. Hermione had learned about several painkilling spells as well as potions and could contribute in various ways to Malfoy's extensive knowledge of the brewing process of this particular remedy.

"What time is it?" Malfoy suddenly asked. Hermione, who had been sketching out a spell diagram for a localised painkilling spell, looked up from her work.

"I don't know," she said, pulling out her pocket-watch. "My goodness, it's ten thirty! I was supposed to read at least another chapter for class!" She hastily put away the spell diagram.

"I didn't mean to keep you from your studies," he said. She smiled, because that was as close to an apology as he ever came.

"It's fine. I'll just read for another half hour and do the rest tomorrow. You'll have to keep me updated on your research, though," she said.

"I will," he promised.

Although she'd lost a night of studying, she couldn't help but hope that they'd have another chance to work together. It felt like the next step forward: first they'd worked side by side without interacting, then they'd begun to discuss their respective tasks, and now they had an opportunity to share work.

She had her wish granted three days later, when Malfoy asked her opinion on the effects of willow bark as the tertiary pain-reducing ingredient of the draught. It resulted in another two-hour conversation.

"I need to have a better schedule," she said after the fourth time she'd failed to complete the day's work due to a research discussion. She put away her quill and closed her ink bottle. "How's this: weekdays are for school and work, Saturday afternoons are for research."

"I have no objections," Malfoy said. "Although I suppose if you join the project in earnest, it means I'll have to share the spoils of it with you, too."

She laughed and handed him her latest page of notes on painkilling draughts. "You already do. What's mine is yours, remember?"

--

The weeks flew past. Hermione's classes continued to be engaging; her internship was as great as she'd expected it to be. As much as she enjoyed her time at St Mungo's, however, she came to look forward more and more to the weekend. Every Saturday from one to six, she and Malfoy discussed his week's progress in the brewing experiments and reading he'd done. She poured over thick books about the history of pain remedies and memorised recipes for the most-used draughts since the 18th century. She proofread his essays on the side effects of tar and the relative advantage of red peppers over willow bark. There were always more books to read, more spell diagrams to draw, more recipes to examine. Finally, in early May, the research had progressed to the point that Malfoy wanted to start brewing. He'd asked his mentor, Potion Master Frayser, to take a look at their recipes. The man had approved of their theoretical work and agreed that the brewing was all that was left to do.

"Where do you brew?" Hermione asked when she realised she'd never considered this.

"I have a laboratory. Obviously. It's in the west wing."

"Do you need help?" She knew the recipes he would use and was well aware that they were not particularly difficult. Her question would probably be answered with some sarcastic remark. She'd come to enjoy their Saturdays, though, and didn't want to see the cooperation end.

"No," he said, and she sighed, turning to her book. A moment later, he was speaking again. "However, I may need company, since the actual brewing process is likely to be rather boring."

She looked up to find him grinning at her, evidently aware she'd been disappointed when he said no. Even though he was laughing, she knew he wasn't ridiculing her. She had the feeling that if she wouldn't join him for brewing, he'd miss their Saturdays as much as she would.

--

A week later, at eleven o'clock in the morning, Hermione asked Ditty to give her directions to Malfoy's lab. As she walked down the corridors - third to the right and down the stairs, Mistress - she had the strangest feeling she'd been there before. This was a part of the Manor she hadn't explored before, so she chalked the feeling up to déjà vu, until she walked into the lab. Recognition hit her like a bludger to the stomach. Suddenly her head was filled with images of a black-haired woman, screeching at her, mudblood mudblood mudblood, tell me where you got that sword, crucio!

She was barely aware that she'd made a noise, but she vaguely saw Malfoy coming towards her.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"I don't- I'm not-" she stammered, trying to think through the sounds and sights that were invading her senses. She needed to get out of the room, but she couldn't think of how to move her legs.

"What's wrong?" he demanded, more urgently now.

"I- Your aunt, she... it was here, back when..." She couldn't get her thoughts to form sentences, which added frustration to the terror and confusion she was already feeling. Her heart was racing, and she felt as if she could black out at any moment.

"Oh. Oh," she heard him say. "Oh Merlin. I didn't realise..." He trailed off. After a moment, he put a hand on her shoulder and guided her out of the room. In a daze, she let him take her up a flight of stairs, then through a set of doors and corridors she didn't recognise. Moments later, she found herself in a comfortable chair and a house-elf was handing her tea. The servant vanished when she'd accepted the mug. She looked around, trying to focus on her surroundings rather than the memories of that dreadful day. The room around her was mostly green, white, and mahogany. There was a canopy bed to her right. She realised she was in Malfoy's bedroom. Malfoy himself was sitting in a chair a few feet away from her. He was watching her, but his face was unreadable.

Hermione sipped her tea and took a few deep breaths. She hadn't had such strong memories of the events at Malfoy Manor in years. After the war ended, she'd had a series of nightmares, but they'd faded eventually. She'd talked through what happened with her friends and felt like she was mostly over the trauma, but clearly that hadn't been the case today.

"Are you all right?" Malfoy asked.

"I think so," she said, annoyed to hear a tremor in her voice.

They fell silent. Hermione's heartbeat slowly returned to normal. When she'd almost finished her tea, he spoke again. "I think we have to change the rules."

"What?" she said. The moment the word was out her mouth, she bit her lip in anticipation of his response. She knew he never had the patience to repeat or explain himself, and she wasn't sure she could deal with his sarcasm now.

However, his voice was not unkind when he answered, "The rules we made in December about what we discuss. It seems to me that it would be useful if at some point we spoke about the fact that you were tortured in this house while I stood there and watched."

She flinched at his choice of words but tried to respond calmly. "Now?"

He shrugged, but the intensity with which he was watching her belied the casual movement. "In light of this morning's events, you may of course postpone it until a later date, if you wish. Perhaps also a place where you're more comfortable."

She smiled weakly. "Now is fine."

He called a house-elf and demanded more tea. She considered bringing up the house-elf issues - now that the rules were off the table, he couldn't object - but she knew it wasn't the most important topic they had to discuss. She stared at her lap, wondering whether she was supposed to speak up first and what she should say. After the silence had dragged on for several minutes, she realised he wasn't going to be the first to speak.

"I don't get it," she said. "How could you... I mean, look at you." He blinked at her, and she realised she wasn't making any sense. The tea had calmed her, but it seemed her brain function was still not back to normal after the recent shock to her system. She took a deep breath and tried again. "Look, you're not half bad, Malfoy. I used to think you didn't have anything to redeem you, but you do. You're smart, and ambitious, and quick-witted. So why did you... Why did you join Voldemort?"

Malfoy looked away from her, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. For a moment she thought he wasn't going to respond at all, but eventually he said in a low voice, "You know how I was raised. Pureblood superiority and the family name above all. My father taught me to look down on muggles and muggleborns. He told me about the Dark Lord, too. I looked up to my father and believed what he said. I thought becoming the Dark Lord's follower would help restore the world to the way it was meant to be. When I actually met him, it was quite different, of course. He was terrible, unforgiving. By then, it was too late to back out. He charged me with an impossible task, threatened to kill my parents if I didn't do it. Even then I couldn't..." He was still looking away, toward the green-canopied bed in the corner. Instead of drumming his fingers, he'd now clenched his fists.

"In seventh year it became clear to me what the world would be like if our side did win," he continued. "I knew it wasn't what I wanted. I still believed what I'd been taught, but I didn't want to sacrifice my life or my freedom. It wasn't worth it, even if it could rid the world of everyone but purebloods. It didn't matter what I wanted, though; I was in too deep. When you and Potter and Weasley showed up here at Easter, I thought that was the end for you." He chuckled mirthlessly. "Which goes to show, I suppose: never underestimate a Gryffindor. I wanted you to make it out alive, but I felt like there was nothing I could do." He suddenly leaned forward, resting his lower arms on his knees and - finally - meeting her eyes. "I was wrong," he said, enunciating each word with care. "I should've done something, anything, to stop my aunt from doing what she did to you. To help you and the others escape. I apologise."

She didn't doubt the sincerity of his words, but it still wasn't easy to come to terms with the fact that he'd stood by and watched Bellatrix torture her. Even so, she could recognise the value of this apology from the man who hadn't said 'sorry' once in the sixteen months of their marriage. After a moment, she nodded.

"Are your beliefs now the same as they were back then?" she asked quietly.

"No," he said, his tone implying that his answer should've been obvious.

"What changed your mind?" Perhaps that, too, was a question he felt she should already know the answer to. But his current opinion of muggleborns really was a mystery to her, and now that they had finally broached the difficult topics, she wanted to find out all she could.

He didn't respond immediately. He leaned back in his chair again and appraised her for at least a minute, but she couldn't discern his emotions from his expression. When he did answer, his voice was firm. "You did," he said. "After the war, I had time to think about what I stood for. Most of my ideas didn't hold up to scrutiny. I found out that the Dark Lord was a halfblood. Then I did some research into blood status. The whole concept turns out to be flawed. Pureblood families have guarded their status for the past eight hundred years or so, but before that time there was so much intermarriage with muggles that there is essentially no difference between my blood and yours. However, there was still the matter of different upbringing, which of course is also an easy reason to look down on someone else. I altered my prejudices but still held onto them. Then I married you. To save my own skin, of course - or rather my own house. In the first year, it wasn't so difficult to pretend you were nothing but a nuisance. The past few months, though... At this point, I can't deny you're at least as good a witch as anyone else, muggleborn or not and regardless of how you were brought up."

"Thanks," she said. Despite the stress she'd just been through, she found herself smiling at his compliment. She traced the rim of her mug with her finger, watching as the slight movement of the mug made waves in the few sips of tea she had left. Part of her would have liked to end the conversation now, but she knew he shouldn't be the only one with a confession. "I need to apologise, too," she said after a while. She looked up to find him watching her curiously. He looked marginally more relaxed after his apology - the nervous finger movements were gone, at least. "Last autumn, Ginny asked me what I would've done if you'd come to the hospital and offered to marry me without asking for anything in return. No ulterior motives. I said you'd never do that, and she told me I was prejudiced. I didn't believe her then, but she was right."

"But I wouldn't have done it," he said, frowning in confusion.

"I don't think that's the point," she responded. She paused, trying to think of a way to explain herself. "You know, at the Battle of Hogwarts, not a single Slytherin stayed behind to help us fight. I used to think it was because all of them were on the other side of the war, because they were all evil. If any of them had defected, though, what would have happened? I think we'd have locked them up rather than let them help. I don't know what you would've done in sixth year, or in seventh year, if we'd offered to help you if you joined our side. Maybe you would have made the same choices, but it was still wrong not to make the offer. I'm sorry we never gave you a chance, not once in seven years - regardless of whether or not you would have taken it."

He looked at her thoughtfully for a long moment. "Thank you," he said. His face was unreadable, which was frustrating. Hermione wanted to know whether he agreed with her and what he thought of her apology, but his opinion on this matter remained a mystery despite the candid conversation they were having.

They finished their tea and put their mugs down in synchrony. Despite the earlier strain on her emotions, Hermione realised she now felt quite comfortable. The rule change had been long past due. Having the difficult issues out on the table had cleared the air a great deal. She pulled her legs up and curled up in the armchair.

"So you wouldn't have done it?" she asked after a while. "Saved me, I mean, if it hadn't been for your house."

"I thought that wasn't the point," he drawled, leaning back in his chair.

"I'm a curious girl," she responded, glad the mood was lightening a little. She was thankful for the conversation they'd had, but it had also left her feeling worn out.

"I wouldn't have done it, no," he said curtly.

"Would you do it now?" she probed.

"To save your life? Yes. Of course."

She smiled. "I meant to save someone you don't like."

"Who says I like you?" he teased with a smirk. Then he grew serious. "No. I don't think I would. Does that bother you?"

She thought about it while he watched her intently. "No," she said eventually. That answer earned her one of his very rare smiles.

"There's something I've been wondering about," he said. He tapped his index finger on the arm of his chair. "In December, after the hot chocolate, why did you stop showing up in the library?"

"I had midterms coming up. I didn't want to be distracted by your riddles. I'm afraid I didn't think at all about what it would look like to you," she confessed, hoping her words wouldn't upset him. It was months ago, but she knew it had been an insensitive thing to do. "Then I realised you must've thought I was turning down your attempts at communication, so I decided to have a surprise dinner party," she went on.

"Yes, that certainly was unexpected," he said evenly. She assumed that was his way of admitting he'd thought she had been rebuffing him.

"The second dinner was a surprise for me," Hermione said. "I still can't believe I forgot our anniversary."

He looked away again, his expression unreadable. "I don't blame you. I'm well aware this marriage isn't something you would ever have chosen for yourself."

She hesitated, because even though their relationship was much better than it had been a year ago, that was still true. "It's not so bad."

His eyes flew back to her, and he scrutinised her face for a long moment. "No, it isn't," he agreed, his voice warm. One corner of his mouth pulled up in a half-smile. A moment later, however, he seemed to realise he'd lost some of his customary inscrutability. He took a deep breath and sat up a little straighter. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," she said with a small smile. It was true. Her shakiness from the sudden confrontation with her memories hadn't gone entirely, but she was immensely grateful for the events of the past hour. "Thank you. For everything, I mean."

"You're welcome," he said, getting up from his chair to indicate that he considered the conversation over. "Come on, let's have lunch. After that, we can get back to the draught, although obviously we don't have to start brewing."

She followed him to his dining room. It looked different now that it wasn't lit by a fire and candles but by the bright May sunshine. The small table had indeed been replaced by a far grander one; Hermione counted sixteen chairs.

"Why didn't you keep the small one?" she said as they sat down at one end of the enormous table.

"This one was here when I grew up," he responded.

A house-elf popped into the room. "Lunch for two," Malfoy ordered.

"Yes, Master Draco, sir," the house-elf said obediently. It popped out of the room again and returned a minute later with two plates of salad Niçoise. A second house-elf appeared with drinks.

"Anything else, Master Draco?" she asked.

"No," Draco said curtly, and when the house-elf didn't vanish fast enough, he added, "Well, don't stand there. Clear off." With a frightened squeak, the house-elf disappeared.

Hermione sighed. "You know I disagree with the way you treat them."

He glanced at the clock in the corner. "Look at that. Less than two hours after we change the rules, and you mention house-elves. You exceed my expectations."

She glared at him. "Would it kill you to be nice to them?"

"No, I simply don't see the point," he said, starting on his salad.

"For one thing, it's inhumane," Hermione said, slipping into lecture mode. "House-elves have feelings just as much as humans do. You're hurting them with every harsh word. They're sensitive creatures, you know. For another thing, your treatment does have effects on their loyalty. Do you know how Sirius Black died?"

"He was killed when my father was imprisoned. What does that have to do with anything?"

"He was betrayed," she said. "He had a house-elf named Kreacher, and he treated him terribly. Kreacher hated Sirius, but he had to obey his orders. When Sirius told him to get out, meaning out of the kitchen, he took the command to mean he could leave the house. He went to your family and helped to lay a trap at the Ministry, which got Sirius killed." Draco didn't say anything, so she continued, "Kreacher passed to Harry, Sirius' heir. Harry didn't treat him well, at first, because Kreacher had got his godfather killed. When Harry did start being nice to him, Kreacher changed allegiance. He led the house-elves in the Battle of Hogwarts."

There was still no response. She started on her salad, which of course was delicious. After a few minutes, he said, "I'll think about it." She decided that was really the most she could ask for.

After lunch, they went to the library to work on their research. There wasn't much more they could do before brewing, except to catalogue all the information they had gathered so far. Hermione noticed that Draco didn't seem too happy to be doing this boring task. Even so, he didn't suggest brewing on his own, for which she was grateful.

"Next week, you should start brewing," she said when it was nearly time to adjourn their weekly session.

"I can move the laboratory to another room," he responded.

"No, leave it. It's fine. You can start the experiments on your own. Maybe I'll come join you some other time."

"All right," he said, "but you should meet me for dinner afterwards. I'll have to keep you updated."

She wasn't so sure that was the reason for this invitation, but when she looked at him, his expression was all innocence. "Deal," she said.

--

On Sunday, when she knew she wouldn't see Draco, she invited Ginny over and updated her on the latest developments. Ginny was two parts excited and one part smug, reminding Hermione that she "totally saw this coming".

At St Mungo's that Monday, she had trouble concentrating. The conversation she and Draco had on Saturday had already seemed strange while she was having it, but in hindsight it felt more and more like they'd entered some new phase in their relationship. Their lunch together and his dinner invitation only added to that idea.

Unfortunately, her distracted mind-set caused two careless mistakes: a miscast diagnostic spell resulting in a false positive and a lost case report.

"What's wrong with you, Hermione?" Healer Canton demanded, shaking his head. "I'm not used to this from you."

"I'm sorry!" she said. She rummaged frantically through the file cabinet in search of the report and finally found it in the drawer for spare parchment. "I don't know what got into me. I'll pay more attention, I promise."

"Are you all right?" Matthew asked during their break.

"I'm fine," she said. "Just... distracted."

"If there's anything I can help with, let me know," he said. It made her smile, but she wasn't about to trouble him with tales of her complicated relationship with Draco.

"Thanks, Matthew," she said, "but I'm really fine."

The rest of the day went well, but she still came home tired and annoyed at herself for messing up. As it turned out, Draco wasn't having a good day either. He didn't show up in the library until after dinner. Even then, he barely said a word when she took a moment to complain about her day, except to inform her that he'd had to re-brew a potion after a failed attempt.

They worked in silence for the rest of the evening. At ten o'clock, she'd finally completed the day's assignments. She closed her books and stood up from her chair.

"Good night," she said.

"Good night, Hermione," he said distractedly, only to freeze when he realised what he'd said. "I mean, uh..." He turned to her, and she had to laugh at the deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face.

"Good night, Draco," she said. Despite her terrible day, she fell asleep that night with a smile on her face.

Chapter Text

The next Saturday, Hermione went down to Draco's chambers to have dinner with him. She wasn't wearing dress robes this time - she had a feeling these dinners might come to be a regular occasion, and she certainly wasn't going to dress up for each one. When she reached Draco's dining room, she found he'd apparently had the same thought: he wore his normal robes just as she did.

"Late again, Hermione," he pointed out when she walked in. The novelty of hearing her name from his lips had not yet worn off, despite the number of times he'd used it over the past week. He hadn't called her "Mrs Malfoy" in months - names were hardly necessary when it was always just the two of them - but now he used her given name in each greeting and with every other chance he got. She'd taken to doing the same. It was strangely pleasant to get these frequent reminders that they were now on a first-name basis.

"I'm sorry, Draco," she said demurely as she sat down.

"Oh, you're forgiven," he responded magnanimously. "So listen, I tried the first two alterations today..."

--

Hermione's relationship with Ron had improved over the past few months, to the point where she thought it was time to invite him over the Manor. He'd visited on her birthday, but since then she'd only seen him with Harry and Ginny for company. However, he'd given up his habit of making irritating comments about her relationship with Draco, and Hermione thought he might finally have dropped the idea of a future with her. She had consequently owled him to invite him over on Sunday afternoon for a few rounds of chess.

From the moment she met Ron at the gates of the Manor, however, she knew she'd made a mistake. Much like on his first visit, Ron seemed torn between awe and anger at the very sight of the grounds. She'd planned to give him a tour of the Manor, but she no longer thought it would be a good idea to expose him to all the splendour of the house she'd come to love. Instead, she led him directly to her bedroom. As they walked, he told her about auror training and listened to her stories about St Mungo's. On the surface, it was like old times, but Hermione didn't feel at ease.

Once they'd reached her bedroom and a house-elf had brought tea, Hermione wasted little time in setting up the chess board. Ron drew the white pawn and had the first move. Soon after, they were both firmly engaged in the game. It lasted less than an hour before Ron toppled her king.

"Come on, 'Mione, you hardly put up a fight," Ron complained.

"I know!" she groaned. "Let's go again. I'll try and do better this time." They returned the pieces to their original positions. This time it was Hermione who made the starting move. She did a better job of keeping Ron at bay now, and she was beginning to relax.

"Hermione, do you know where I left-" Draco, suddenly standing in her open doorway with an armful of parchments, cut himself off abruptly when he saw Ron. His voice turned sharp. "Weasley." Hermione looked up just in time to see the neutral expression on his face replaced by the famed Malfoy sneer. She steeled herself for Ron's inevitable outburst. This was just her luck; Draco hadn't been to her bedroom since the night after the trial, but he just had to show up the one time Ron was visiting.

"Malfoy," Ron bit out. "What are you doing here, ferret?"

"This is my house, Weasley," Draco retorted. "I might as well ask what you are doing here."

"I'm visiting! And what gives you the right to call her by her name?"

"In case you missed the news, Weasley, that's my wife we're talking about."

"Your wife is right here, Draco!" Hermione interjected. "And she'd appreciate it if you wouldn't talk about her as if she weren't."

She desperately needed Draco to be on his best behaviour in order to prevent escalation, but of course his only response was, "Whatever, Hermione." That offhand dismissal did nothing to calm Ron, who was rapidly turning as red as his hair.

Hermione huffed in exasperation. Of course it was too much to ask for Draco to use his manners when there was a Weasley in the room. Ron looked as if he was about to explode; she needed to get Draco out before her ex-boyfriend tried to hex him. "Draco, what you're looking for is probably in the library. Search my desk if you must. Now, if you don't mind?" She gestured toward the door. "As you've noticed, I have a visitor."

Draco looked back and forth between her and Ron for a moment. Then, to her relief, he gave a curt nod. "Weasley, pleasure seeing you again," he drawled, before turning and leaving as quickly as he'd appeared.

She leaned back in her chair, knowing she wouldn't have to wait long. As expected, it took Ron less than three seconds. "You let him call you by your first name?!" he burst out.

"Yes, I do," she said, trying to bite down on her irritation. "I've known him for a year and a half, Ron; it shouldn't be such a surprise."

"The last I heard, you didn't talk to him at all!"

"I would have told you about this if I hadn't known all along you'd overreact," she said. She wished she knew a way to calm Ron down. Once he got going, there was usually no stopping him.

"Overreact? I'm not overreacting," he exclaimed. "Hermione, have you lost your mind? That ferret doesn't deserve-"

"Don't call him that," she interjected fiercely. "He doesn't call you 'weasel' anymore, so maybe you could return the favour!"

"Sure, I'll go ahead and call him Draco." Ron's voice was mocking. "Have you gone mental, 'Mione? Has..." He trailed off, and suddenly looked concerned. "He hasn't got you under some sort of spell, does he? The imperius curse, or something?"

"Of course not," she fumed. "Stop making those insane assumptions. You don't know him, Ron, you don't know what he's like!"

"I know enough! He's a Slytherin Death Eater and that's all I need to know! You've lost your mind, Hermione! What's got into you?"

"Just hear me out," she pleaded. "He's not what you think, Ron, I promise. I got to know him."

"Oh, did you!" Ron shouted, jumping up from his chair. "Well, I'm not going to! That slimy ferret stole my future, and you think I'm going to play nice with him?"

"Your future?" She jumped up as well and strode towards him. "What do you mean, your future?"

"Well, he married you, when-" he started, but she didn't give him a chance to continue.

"When what? When you were supposed to? Ron, I broke up with you," she spat. "We were never going to end up together! If I wasn't married to Draco I would be blessedly single and I wouldn't have to deal with the two of you fighting over me like two dogs over a bone!"

"Be reasonable, 'Mione," he began. He'd finally calmed down a little, but now she was furious herself.

"Good advice, coming from you," she spat. "I'm going to say this one more time, Ron Weasley: I am not, and never will be, in love with you. If you can't handle that, you'd better go. Don't bother coming back until you can make an effort to be a friend, because frankly, Draco is doing a damn sight better than you!"

Ron gave her a look of revulsion. The next moment, he disapparated on the spot.

Hermione heaved a sigh, and then noticed that her bedroom door was still open. She doubted her favourite Slytherin would have been able to resist that particular temptation.

"Draco Malfoy, get your arse in here," she called.

"Dear me, the dreaded full name," he drawled as he came to lean in the doorway, seeming completely unapologetic about his eavesdropping. "Point of interest, Hermione Jean Malfoy, my middle name is Lucius."

"Was there any reason you couldn't clear off?" she demanded.

"I don't like him and I don't trust him," Draco said. She was about to give an angry retort when he continued, "I don't mean to imply you can't defend yourself. I know you're perfectly capable of that. I just wanted to make sure he didn't try anything funny."

The thought that he'd been concerned for her safety did much to calm her. She sank back into her chair. "Sit," she commanded, gesturing toward the other armchair. He raised his eyebrows, but sat down in the chair Ron had just vacated. "Was it really necessary to stake your territory?" she asked, glaring at him while he looked back seemingly unaffected. "My house, my wife. I don't understand why you always insist on the greatest civility and then suddenly treat me like this when he's here! Are you trying to make this difficult for me?"

"I don't like him," Draco defended.

"He's my friend!"

"That's not what you said just now."

She huffed angrily. "It's none of your business whether or not I'm on good standing with him! You're my friend as well, and it's your job to make my life at least a little easier by acting like the decent human being I know you are, even when you're in the company of people you don't like."

He looked away, frowning, and she gave him a moment to think it through. "Fine," he said after a while. "Next time one of your other friends shows up, I'll be a saint."

--

Hermione didn't hear anything from Ron in the next week. It made her sad to think she'd really lost his friendship. Even though their romantic relationship had shown her that they didn't have much in common, they'd still been friends for years. At Hogwarts, they'd always had a great time together. She didn't want to lose him, but at the same time she knew her budding friendship with Draco meant more to her now than the strained relationship with Ron.

She debated staying home from pub night that Friday. It wouldn't do to spend an evening with Ron now; she knew Harry's and Ginny's presence would not be able to diffuse the tension. On Thursday, however, Ginny owled her to say that Ron had cancelled and to ask her whether she knew what was wrong. So it was that at nine o'clock that Friday night, she was explaining to Harry and Ginny what had happened with Ron last Sunday and what had happened with Draco a week earlier.

"My brother's an idiot," Ginny said.

"I don't know," Harry said. "I mean, obviously Ron should let go of you, but he still has a point. I know you're happy Malfoy is talking to you, but I just don't trust him."

"I'm not asking you to trust him. I'm asking you to trust me," Hermione said. "I know what I'm doing."

"Well," Harry said, "as long as I don't have to like him, it's all fine with me."

"I can hardly make you like him," Hermione said. "Although it would be easier if you could get along. I may have to have you meet him at some point and renew your acquaintance in a more mature way than you did when you were eleven."

Harry looked distinctly unhappy at that prospect, but Ginny said, "I'd love to."

Introducing Ginny and Draco wasn't actually a bad idea, Hermione decided. Draco had promised to behave next time he met one of her friends, after all. Besides, even if he was his sarcastic, acerbic self, Ginny would probably see right through it, the same way Hermione had learned to do. In addition, Ginny didn't have as much bad history with him as Hermione's other friends. She knew what he'd done during the war, but she hadn't directly experienced it, and at school she hadn't been as big of a target of his bullying.

"Sure," Hermione said. "Why not? Come over on Sunday."

"And don't forget to bring your wand," Harry added wryly.

--

"Would you like to come and have tea with Ginny and me tomorrow?" Hermione asked Draco the next evening after they'd had dinner in his wing.

He stared at her. She waited for the inevitable snarky response and was not disappointed. "What is this, Meet a Weasley Every Week? With the speed at which they reproduce, I'm not sure I'll ever catch up."

"If you make a comment like that in front of her, I'll hex you," she promised, but then she shifted to a more pleading tone. "Come on, Draco."

"I don't see the point," he said curtly.

"Ginny wants to meet you; she's curious about who I spend all my time with. I promise you'll like her. It won't be like with Ron."

"I should hope not," he drawled. "If all of the Weasleys are secretly hoping to marry you, I might have a hard time keeping hold of you."

She laughed. "Ginny is married to Harry."

He raised his eyebrows and said, "Is an affiliation with Potter supposed to convince me to meet her?"

"Just meet us for tea," she entreated. "Please?"

He eyed her speculatively. "If you help me brew next week. I'll move the lab. Or rather my house-elves will, but I'll be nice to them about it."

"You're unbelievable!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe we're bargaining about this."

"Slytherin, remember?" He grinned. "Well?"

"Fine!" she said, torn between amusement and exasperation. "Have it your way. I'll come help you brew; you'll have tea with us tomorrow. My wing, three o'clock. Good night, Mr Slytherin."

She got up and walked off. Just as she was leaving the room, he called after her: "And you're still having dinner with me, too!"

--

Hermione couldn't deny that she was a little nervous about having Draco and Ginny meet. Ginny was her main ally and support, the person who had convinced her to give Draco a chance. It meant Hermione was fairly confident Ginny would like him, but it also meant it would be a bigger blow if their meeting didn't work out.

On Sunday afternoon, she and Ginny were playing Exploding Snap in her bedroom while they waited for Draco. Hermione had considered using the drawing room in her wing, but she never sat there - her bedroom was plenty big enough, and she was much more comfortable there. She'd asked the house-elves to bring an extra armchair for the third member of today's party.

"Don't expect him to be nice," she warned Ginny while they played. She trusted Draco to show more manners than he had with Ron, but he was sarcastic and blunt at the best of times. It could only be exacerbated when he was nervous, although of course Draco would never admit to that.

Ginny laughed at her. "Stop worrying," she said. "I'm sure we'll get along just fine."

"He doesn't have a history of getting along with people," Hermione responded, glancing at the door to make sure it was closed. It wouldn't do for Draco to overhear them talking about him.

"I know, but you get along with him, don't you? This isn't just because you're stuck in a house with him," Ginny pointed out.

"Of course not," Hermione said, quickly hitting the stack of cards with her wand when a double picture showed up. "I think the first year of our marriage made it clear that the Manor is big enough for us to coexist entirely without interaction. I spend time with him because I like spending time with him."

"Then he can't be all bad," Ginny said, collecting the next point with a flick of her wand.

Before Hermione could respond to that, there was a knock on her door. A glance at the clock told her that Draco had once again demonstrated a perfect sense of timing. "Come in," she called.

Draco strode in, looking perfectly casual and at ease save for the fact that he was tapping his fingers against his robe. "Afternoon," he said. "Weasley." He nodded curtly toward Ginny. It wasn't quite friendly, but it was at least civil. Hermione relaxed marginally.

"Call me Ginny," the youngest Weasley responded as Draco sat down. He looked at her for a moment but didn't respond.

Hermione called Ditty, who appeared with tea and cookies. Nobody said anything as she put her tray down. Ginny seemed completely relaxed. She was the polar opposite of Hermione, who desperately wished she knew what to say to jumpstart the conversation. Draco was sitting perfectly still, posture straight and face unreadable, looking every bit the aristocrat he was.

"So," Ginny said after a moment, "Hermione tells me you're studying potions. How is that going?"

It was the right thing to say, Hermione realised. It had always been relatively easy to get Draco to talk about potions. Their studies had been the first thing the two of them had bonded over.

Draco willingly explained the topics he was working on, prompted occasionally by more questions from Ginny. He countered by asking what she did, which prompted an enthusiastic story about the Holyhead Harpies. When asked about his current quidditch exploits, Draco told her he still flew regularly. Hermione listened to the conversation with a smile on her face.

"You know," Ginny said when they'd finished their second cup of tea, "you're much more fun to talk to than my brother made me believe."

Draco glanced at Hermione before responding, "I don't think you should believe everything your brother says." The disdain for Ron was clear from his words and expression, but he remained fairly polite.

"I know. Ron's a bit crazy sometimes," Ginny said, chuckling. "We all are, though - comes from growing up in such a large family. I don't know how my mum did it. Yours sure had it a lot easier."

"Yes. Then again, she died," Draco said bluntly. Hermione had been looking at her teacup, but she abruptly swivelled her head around. He looked calm and dispassionate as always, but she thought she could see sadness in his eyes.

"Sorry," Ginny said. All three of them fell silent, until Ginny quietly asked, "How did she die?"

Hermione realised suddenly that she didn't know the answer to that question. She'd been married for seventeen months and didn't even know how her mother-in-law had died, simply because she'd never bothered to find out. She hadn't asked Draco or the house-elves, and she hadn't looked up the information. She wasn't given much time to think about this, though, for Draco was already replying.

"Heart attack in her sleep. Her house-elves found her the next morning." There was no emotion in his voice, but Hermione didn't believe for a second that he was as indifferent about it as he seemed.

Ginny nodded, and they fell silent again. Draco drank the last of his tea and got up. "Thank you for the tea," he said to Hermione, and then to Ginny, "It was nice meeting you."

"Likewise," Ginny said with a smile. He nodded at the both of them and left.

"Well," Hermione said, after checking he'd closed the door behind him, "what did you think?"

"He seems decent enough," Ginny said. "I didn't know mentioning his mother was going to be such a conversation killer, though."

Hermione sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Can you believe I didn't even know how his mother died?" she said.

"Didn't you ask?"

"I couldn't at first, and then it just never occurred to me. I feel bad, Gin." She looked at Ginny earnestly. "I didn't know he still flies, either."

Ginny thought for a moment. "Usually, when you get to know someone, you ask them lots of questions, right? And you tell them about yourself. But with you and him, all of your history meant it was better not to ask anything. Now that you can, it seems strange to do so because you've already known him for so long. That doesn't mean you can't still ask."

"I don't know," Hermione said quietly. "He might not take it well."

"It'll be fine. He didn't get angry with me, and he barely knows me. That means he definitely won't react worse with you. He cares about what you think of him," Ginny said confidently.

"Does he? I don't know, Ginny."

"Of course he does. He kept looking at you, checking if he hadn't said anything inappropriate." She sounded absolutely sure of herself.

"I'll think about it," Hermione promised. Ginny seemed satisfied with that answer. The rest of the afternoon, neither of them mentioned Draco. All in all, his second Weasley meeting was a far greater success than his first one.

Chapter Text

The first Saturday in June was a warm and bright day. Hermione found herself in Draco's relocated lab, chopping valerian leaves into tiny fragments. Six feet away, Draco was gently stirring the beginnings of 'Painkilling draught; adjustment 9b', in a large cauldron. Beside him on the wall hung a large sheet of parchment with the recipe for this particular experiment. The most important diversion from the traditional recipe was the type of cauldron. The standard recipe was brewed in a brass cauldron; they were using copper. Copper was more stable but diluted some of the effects. Their revised recipe was meant to counteract this negative consequence, but the only way to test whether it worked was to brew it.

Hermione had spent much of the past week thinking about Sunday's conversation. She had eventually resolved to start asking Draco about his past, but now that she was actually in his lab, she didn't know how to begin. As a result, they were both silent as she put the valerian aside and took out two measures of dried maggots to grind them.

After a few minutes of quiet work, Hermione couldn't take it anymore. She glanced over at Draco to make sure he wasn't at a time-sensitive or tricky part of the brewing. He had moved to mixing rapeseed oil and ashes in a steel cup. "Why didn't you ever tell me about your mother?" she said, before she could talk herself out of it again.

He stiffened, but didn't look up. His voice was notably devoid of its usual sarcasm when he responded, "I didn't know you cared."

She thought about that for a moment as she ground the maggots to a fine powder. "I do care," she responded softly. When she glanced at him again, he was nodding, but he didn't answer. They continued chopping, crushing, mixing, and stirring.

"What was it like, growing up in the Manor?" she asked while she brought him her prepared ingredients.

"It was grand," he answered immediately and with conviction in his voice. He added the valerian and four crushed pineapple leaves to the mixture in the cauldron. Hermione was done for the moment and hopped up on one of the counters to listen. He continued, "There was so much space. I used to play hide-and-seek in the house with Vincent, Greg, and Amber. That's Greg's sister. My mother spelled orbs for us that would glow if you went in the right direction, but even so it would take hours." He was smiling as he stirred. Hermione leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes.

"I had a private tutor," he continued, "and my parents were rather strict about my education. Studying every weekday and homework on Saturdays. But every Sunday I was allowed to go anywhere on the grounds and in the house for the entire day. There isn't a corner of the Manor that I don't know. I'd just wander around the whole day. Sometimes Blaise or Theodore or Michael would visit and come with me; that was even more fun."

"Michael?" Hermione asked, trying to remember the other Slytherins' first names.

"Michael Corner. Got sorted into Ravenclaw," Draco said. He paused for a moment to complete the next stage of brewing. Hermione watched as he took out an oak rod to do thirty-three clockwise stirs, for which he must not lose count. When the potion turned its proper shade of mint green, he added the mix of oil and ashes. The cauldron released a puff of white smoke. Draco nodded in satisfaction. With a wave of his wand, he adjusted the fire to a higher temperature. "I learned to swim in the pond when I was six," he said, leaning back against the wall as he waited for the potion to heat up. "When I was nine I got my first broom, and my father taught me to fly." He was smiling as he went on, "It was glorious. I don't think I've seen you fly much, but you're really missing out. Once I knew my way around a broom, I spent every Sunday afternoon practicing. Only to be bested by Potter at school, of course. Merlin, that was embarrassing."

Hermione chuckled. "Well, you were still a good flyer," she said.

"Of course I was; I'd been practising for years! From what I've heard, Potter had never even seen a broom before." He shook his head, apparently still outraged years after the fact.

"That's Harry for you. It's all or nothing," Hermione said.

"Well, it rather ruined quidditch," Draco responded, frowning at the memory. "And for the record, I did not buy my way into the team. My father promised to give us all brooms if I made it through the try-outs. I didn't tell the team until after they'd chosen me."

She laughed and said, "I apologise, then, for suggesting that you bribed the team. It sounds like you had quite some experience under your belt."

"That's why they picked me, I think," Draco said thoughtfully. "I was reasonably good because I'd worked very hard, but I'm not that talented. I certainly didn't catch any remembralls on my first flight."

Hermione smiled. That sounded very much like a compliment for Harry, although she suspected Draco would promptly deny ever having said anything in Harry's favour.

The potion was hot enough, and they resumed brewing. As they did so, Draco continued telling her anecdotes from his childhood. After an hour or two, four flasks of Adjustment 9b were cooling down in a corner. Hermione had learned that Draco had taken classes in politics, French, Latin, mathematics, and the arts from a very young age. He'd been raised mostly by his mother. In the early years, his father had been a strict background figure who appeared almost exclusively when there was a need for punishment. Later on, Lucius had transformed from a jailor into a teacher and had been someone Draco looked up to. Despite the man's harsh attitude toward his son, Hermione gleaned from Draco's stories that Lucius had cared for him. 

"How is he now?" Hermione asked as Draco prepared the cauldron for Adjustment 10. She cleaned the bowls they had been using and started chopping again. She didn't care all that much about Lucius Malfoy's well-being, but he was Draco's father.

"Not good, obviously," Draco said. "Azkaban isn't as terrible a place to be as it was once. There aren't any dementors now, of course. Still..." He trailed off. After pouring the next potion's base of water and date vinegar into the cauldron, he continued, "For starters, he still believes to this day that muggles and muggleborn witches and wizards are better off dead. He defected because he disagreed with the Dark Lord's methods, but he did agree with his goals. To see those ideals eradicated... It's not easy. Besides, he has no allies, no friends left. He betrayed the Death Eaters by defecting at the Battle of Hogwarts, so he's hated and spurned by them. Anyone who was on the winning side of the war doesn't care much for him either. His refusal to commit his thousandth crime doesn't excuse him from the nine hundred and ninety nine he did stoop to. I doubt anyone speaks a kind word to him, not since my mother visited while she was still alive."

Hermione listened as she minced and crushed, unsure what to say. To her, Lucius Malfoy still embodied the idea of a Death Eater - a self-serving, cunning, and cruel man who believed in his own superiority to the bitter end. At the same time, he was Draco's father. Draco loved him.

"Do you ever see him?" she asked quietly.

"I've only visited him a few times," Draco said. "At first, he was glad when I came. Glad to see someone who didn't hate him, I suppose. These days, it's a bit different. I've changed since the Hogwarts days. He knows how I feel about his beliefs, and that obviously doesn't make him happy. Also, he knows I married you." He paused again to add willow bark to the potion. Hermione turned to face him, slightly curious what sort of vile things Lucius had spewed when he'd learned of their union. Draco looked up and sighed. "I probably shouldn't tell you all the names he's called you. Suffice it to say that he was less than happy with my choice."

"You're tainting the family name, I assume?" she probed.

"Among other things," he said. He gauged her expression and continued, "He would've been furious if I'd chosen any muggleborn, but I had to go for the woman who's also a war heroine - who defeated any chance of having a pureblood wizarding Britain - and who forever ruined my chances of being top of our year at Hogwarts. You may be the person he likes least in the entire world, more than even Potter."

Hermione found herself smiling. "I would be insulted," she said, "except I hate him as much as he hates me." Then she realised whom she was talking about. "Sorry," she added.

He shook his head and turned back to his cauldron. Hermione wasn't sure what to do or say. It wasn't until a minute or so later that Draco spoke. "Feel free to speak of him however you wish. There's no need to apologise. I know what he did to you."

"Still, he's your father," she said.

"I'm aware," he said, turning to face her again. He thought for a moment before he continued speaking. "You don't need to like him for my sake. And I'll be able to tell if you lie, so you may as well be honest about what you think of him."

Hermione nodded. "I'll keep that in mind. When did you last visit him?"

"Boxing day," Draco said. "I usually visit on Christmas day, but as you know I was otherwise engaged this year." He smirked at her. "Of course, I elected not to tell my father why I was a day late. I may not want to put him on a pedestal anymore, but that doesn't mean I want him to die of shock."

"He doesn't know we're friends," she said.

He turned back to his cauldron. "Absolutely not," he said. "To him, it's bad enough that you're in the family at all, even though it was a decision to save the Manor. To think I'm actually talking to you... He'd be disappointed in me, I suppose. Not that I care much, of course," he added not entirely convincingly.

"Of course," Hermione agreed, the barest trace of irony in her voice.

They fell silent as they continued to work on the potion. "What about your parents?" Draco asked a while later, when Adjustment 10 was nearly done and Hermione had started preparing the ingredients of 11a. "It occurs to me that I don't even know whether they're alive. I ought to have asked before."

"It's fine," Hermione said. "I never asked about your parents, either. My mum and dad are in Australia. I haven't seen them since seventh year."

"Why not?" Draco asked, turning to look at her inquisitively.

She bit her lip. "You know how it was back then. The muggle world was under siege. There were disasters everywhere; muggles went missing at every turn. Parents of witches and wizards were even more of a target. I wanted my parents safe, but they refused to go. I altered their memories and sent them off to Australia. They don't remember me."

"Merlin," Draco said. She glanced over to find him staring at her with a shocked expression. "Can't you bring them back?" he asked.

She shook her head, trying to will herself not to cry. She usually tried not to think of her parents too much. "I can find them, of course, but it's really dangerous to use memory alteration spells twice after such a large alteration. I'd risk turning them insane if I tried to restore their memories of me. They're better off staying where they are now."

She took a deep breath to steady herself and walked over to the counter next to the cauldron to bring Draco her prepared ingredients. As she put down the bowls, Draco put his hand on her shoulder for a brief moment. "I wish there were something I could do," he said sincerely.

It made her smile a little. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and breathed out slowly. "I'll be fine," she said. "At least I know they're all right."

He nodded and turned back to the cauldron. Harry or Ginny would've hugged her, she thought vaguely. Then again, even a hand on her shoulder was unexpectedly sweet of him. She turned back to her counter to chop more valerian.

--

"Do you have any plans for Wednesday?" Draco asked that night while they were eating dessert.

Hermione thought for a moment. "Internship 'till two, of course. Then I’m going to visit Ginny… Wait, no, that’s on Tuesday. No, I don't have plans."

"Good," he said, "because we're going out for dinner."

She put down her spoon and stared at him. "We're what?" she asked.

He rolled his eyes. "Do you have a hearing problem?"

"Why are we suddenly going out for dinner?" she asked, ignoring the jibe.

"Does a man need a reason to take his wife out for dinner?" he drawled. He looked completely innocent, but Hermione didn't trust it.

"Other men? No. You? Absolutely," she said.

He sighed and leaned forward a little, looking at her intently. "I just want to go out for dinner. No ulterior motives," he said earnestly.

She recognised those words. Eighteen months ago, she wouldn't have believed him if he'd used them in his marriage proposal. Since then, she'd decided she should trust him more. "Sounds like fun," she said, although she could hear the uncertainty in her voice.

Draco smirked at her. "Oh, it will be." A house-elf popped in to take away their dessert plates. "Thanks," Draco said, a little distracted. He didn't notice Hermione's double-take. Since when did he thank his house-elves? The servant didn't even seem surprised. He must've taken her house-elf advice to heart.

--

That Wednesday, Hermione arrived in the foyer at half past five, wearing light blue dress robes and the necklace Draco had given to her on their anniversary. She was not late this time, but even so Draco was already waiting for her. He smiled when he saw the blue pendant. "You look nice," he commented. Hermione blushed and muttered a "thank you".

He held out his arm. "We're apparating," he clarified, although she would've suspected so without explanation. There had been no mention yet of where they were going. She put her hand on his arm, felt him spin, and was pulled through space.

When the suffocating sensation of apparition faded, Hermione found herself, impossibly, in a place that looked more luxurious and upper-class than the Manor. Draco saw the look on her face and chuckled. "Les Chevaux Magiques," he clarified with a perfect French accent. "A restaurant near the end of Diagon Alley. I take it you've never been?"

"I've never been," she confirmed. "Are those coat racks inlaid with gold?"

Before Draco could respond, a waiter in immaculate robes came to greet them. Draco and the waiter exchanged a few words about reservations, while Hermione examined the carved mahogany, silk draperies, and gold around her. She was wearing her best dress robes, but she suspected they'd cost less than one square foot of curtain in this incredible restaurant.

They followed the waiter to a little booth and sat down. Wine was ordered, after which the waiter disappeared. "This place is unbelievable," Hermione said, still in awe.

Draco looked like he could barely hold in his laughter. "Depends on your standards," he said innocently.

"My standards include the Manor, but this is still over the top."

"You don't mind, do you?" he asked, more seriously now. For a moment she thought he actually looked worried.

"Of course not. It's just not what I'm used to," she said.

"Just wait until you taste the food," Draco responded. "You'll wish you'd known this place your whole life."

That prediction came true - the food was exquisite beyond anything Hermione had tasted. Draco seemed in a better mood than she'd ever seen him. She still wasn't sure what had brought on this sudden trip to the restaurant, but she felt less and less like questioning it.

"That was amazing," she said when they'd finished their desserts and were sipping port. "Have you been here often?"

"A few times a year," he said. "With my parents, of course. It was tradition."

Hermione smiled. "Like the opera for me and my parents."

"Opera?" He frowned. "Is that a muggle thing?"

She stared at him for a long moment and then took her watch out of her purse. "If we leave now, we'll be in time," she said.

"In time for what?" Draco asked, confused.

"The opera. Let's go."

Ten minutes later, she was leading a complaining Draco through the Leaky Cauldron and into muggle London. "Tell me where we're going," he insisted. "What is this opera and why do I need to be dressed like this?"

"Don't be obtuse," she said with a grin, glancing at the suit she'd transfigured his dress robes into. "You know muggles wear different clothing. You'd draw far too much attention in dress robes."

"You're still wearing yours," he protested, struggling to keep up with her.

"Muggles have dresses like these," she explained as they darted across the Strand.

"Well, why don't they have robes like mine? I look ridiculous!"

"On the contrary. You look dashing," Hermione said. Draco muttered something under his breath, but she had no time to ask what he was saying. They turned around a corner. "There: the Royal Opera House," she said. She was glad she hadn't yet dropped her habit of bringing muggle money wherever she went, because even as it was they were only just in time. Draco still looked bewildered and out of his depth, which was quite a change from his usual demeanour.

"Wait here," she told him when they'd entered the lobby. She stepped up to the counter and inquired about the evening's performance.

"I'm sorry, Miss, we're all sold out," the woman behind the counter told her. Hermione groaned. That was just her luck. They'd have to come back another day. Then again...

"I'm sure something can be arranged," she said sweetly. Good thing she'd been practicing her wandless magic, and heaven knew she was proficient at memory alteration spells. A few whispered words later, the woman was handing her two tickets, looking friendly but vaguely confused.

"Have a nice evening, dear," she said as Hermione turned back to Draco. To her amusement, the richness of the Opera House's foyer seemed to have calmed him down, to the point where his bewilderment had been replaced by the customary sarcasm.

"Would you care to explain to me what we're doing here?" he drawled as Hermione handed him a ticket. "What is this?"

"We're seeing an Italian opera called Tosca," she informed him. "It's a performance. You'll like it, I promise."

He inspected his ticket for a moment. "Fine," he then said. "Lead the way."

The opera was a resounding success. Hermione had seen Tosca before but didn't mind seeing it again. Draco quickly moved from wary and uncertain to quietly enthusiastic – every time she glanced at him, he was smiling more widely. It was endearing, although she'd never dare to tell him that.

Besides enjoying the opera itself, Draco seemed nothing less than impressed at the general splendour of the Opera House. Hermione wasn't sure how much he'd seen of the muggle world, but his parents had indubitably described muggles to him as a classless, uncouth lot. The lavish interior of this building, coupled with the champagne, finger sandwiches, and intermission ice cream, seemed to be persuading Draco that muggles were not to be outdone by anything the Malfoys could come up with. Hermione decided their next visit to muggle London would have to include fish and chips and a visit to a football match, or Draco would start thinking the entire world was as high-brow as his own manor.

"What did you think?" Hermione asked when they were standing outside the Opera House again.

"It was good," he said. "I didn't know muggles had things like this."

 Hermione smiled. "They need good entertainment as much as wizardkind do. My parents and I used to go here at least twice a year. Come on, let's go home."

They found a quiet alley and apparated to the Manor. In the entrance, they stood facing each other for a moment or two, both unsure what to say. "Thanks for the lovely dinner," Hermione said eventually.

"Thanks for the opera," Draco replied, one corner of his mouth pulling up in a smile.

"You're welcome," she responded. "Oh, your robes!" A quick wave of her wand lifted the transfiguration spell and put Draco back into his dress robes.

He chuckled. "That's better."

"There was nothing wrong with that suit," Hermione protested. "I transfigured it just fine."

"It was still odd," he said. "Well, thanks again, Hermione. I had a good time."

"Me, too," she said quietly. He nodded at her and turned, walking towards his own wing. Hermione watched him go until he'd left the foyer. Then she, too, made her way to her bedroom.

--

Neither of them mentioned their night out during their study sessions that week, or even on Saturday when they spent the entire afternoon brewing. Still, it felt to Hermione as if something had shifted. The cultural exchange solidified their cautious movement toward telling each other more about their pasts. It was no longer uncommon to ask a question about the other's youth. Draco's experience at the opera seemed to have gone a long way toward convincing him that muggles weren't so uncivilised after all, and he started prompting Hermione to tell him more about her pre-magic lifestyle. More often than not, this resulted in long explanations about electricity, cars, and unmoving photographs - all concepts that Draco could barely wrap his mind around.

Hermione's internship ended in mid-June. She finished her reports and then spent the next week studying for her finals. Once the examinations had passed, she told Matthew, Healer Canton, and the rest of the St Mungo's staff good-bye for the summer. The last few months at the hospital had been great, but now she could devote more time to their research. The potions had all been brewed and tested. Two of their adjustments were a success: more stable brewing than the original, yet still the same painkilling effects. This needed to be documented, which was a task Hermione did not mind taking on.

"What's your date of birth?" she asked on a Friday afternoon in the library, when she was writing up the author information for their research report. She realised she didn't even know his birthday - she'd have to remember and organise something.

Draco poked his head out from the aisle in which he was looking for a book. "June 5th, 1980," he told her. There was a strange reluctance in his voice.

She started to write it down, but suddenly sat up straighter. "Wait. That was weeks ago!" she exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me? We should've celebrated."

He walked back to his desk with the book in his hand, but didn't sit down yet. Instead, he put the book down and he leaned against the side of the desk so he was facing her. He tapped his fingers against his thigh. "We did celebrate," he said after a moment. "We went out for dinner and saw Tosca."

"What?" she said. She made a quick calculation in her head and realised he was right. "Draco Malfoy! Do you mean to tell me that was your birthday party and you didn't even say so? I thought... You said you had no ulterior motives!"

"I didn't!" he said defensively. He was looking at her warily. "I just... I just wanted to go out for dinner!" She frowned at him exasperatedly. Surely he understood that a birthday dinner wasn't 'just' dinner. He threw his hands up in frustration when he saw the look on her face. "I always went there on my birthday. With my parents. I just didn't want to go alone, all right? I thought I'd ask you. I didn't think you'd mind!" He looked almost panicked as he tried to explain himself. Hermione realised she was overreacting and made an effort to calm down.

"Why didn't you just tell me it was your birthday?" she asked more quietly.

"I don't know," he said, looking away. She could see his uncertainty: in the way he pressed his lips together, in the tension in his shoulders, the nervous movement of his fingers. It saddened her to think that even though she'd learned to trust him, he clearly didn't trust her to the same extent. Apparently, he didn't even believe she'd want to celebrate his birthday with him.

"Draco," she said. He met her eyes for a moment, then looked down at his hands. She collected her thoughts and said, trying to make it as clear as possible, "I don't know what you were afraid I'd do if you told me-" He opened his mouth, possibly to contradict that he'd been afraid, but she held up a finger to stop him and continued, "but I'm pretty sure your fears are ungrounded. I would have liked it if you'd told me it was your birthday. If you didn't want any presents, you could have told me so. And if you'd asked me to dinner, rather than telling me we were going, I absolutely would have said yes." He looked at her for a moment, digging his teeth into his lip. Then he nodded. He still didn't look at ease, and Hermione wished she could somehow show him she meant it.

She thought for a moment, got up, and crossed the few feet that separated them. "Happy birthday,” she said.

That made him smirk. "Thank you," he responded.

Suddenly, she found herself stepping forward and throwing her arms around him. He stiffened, and for a moment she thought she'd crossed a line and he'd push her away, but then he relaxed ever so slightly, and she felt his hand ghosting over her shoulder blade. When she stepped back, he was blushing, but she wisely decided not to comment on that. Instead, she smiled at him and returned to her desk to finally write down his date of birth. 

Chapter Text

With her internships and finals behind her, Hermione had two months to spend however she wished. Because Draco was studying independently, he didn't have an official summer break. Given that he'd taken a total of two days off over Christmas, Hermione suspected he might simply keep working. In the absence of classes, she'd taken on the duties that came with documenting their research. This meant that he had at least a little more free time. Even so, he was still at work nearly all day. Hermione resolved to make sure he'd take some sort of break, but she wasn't sure how to go about this. They saw each other nearly every day for several hours, whether in the library for studying or in the lab for brewing, but they rarely met up outside the context of their studies. Their Saturday dinners were the only exception to this rule, and Hermione was keen to add some other events. She considered various activities around the Manor, but eventually decided that a trip to some other region or country would probably be necessary to persuade Draco to give up his studies for as long as a week. A bit of investigation into the possibilities made her decide on Italy as an ideal destination; there was enough culture and history to amuse them both. July wasn't normally a good time of the year to explore Italian culture, but with judicious use of cooling charms, it should be manageable.

She wasn't sure whether she'd be able to convince Draco to go with her, but it surely couldn't hurt to try. She waited for the opportune moment, since she knew his mood was probably an important factor in his response. It wouldn't do to disturb him during his studies; whenever she did that, he was even more acerbic than usual. Instead, she broached the topic of travel during a Saturday dinner. Due to good weather, they were sitting on the balcony of Draco's parlour. The balcony was nowhere near the size of his dining room, but it was still easily large enough to fit a dinner table. Draco was leaning back and enjoying the sun, his eyes closed and a vague smile around his lips. Hermione finished her last spoonful of ice cream.

"Have you ever been to Rome?" she asked when she was done.

He opened his eyes, blinking against the bright light. "No," he said in a questioning tone.

"Want to go?"

"What, now?" he asked, mystified.

"Not right this second," she said, "but yes, now. It's summer. I don't have classes or work until September, and you ought to take a break."

"No, I don't," he argued. "I'm fine."

She shook her head and answered, "I know. Of course you are. But breaks can be good, even if you don't strictly need them."

He smirked at her. "Nice reasoning. If you have a good proposal to make, I'm willing to listen."

"As I said, we ought to visit Rome. I've been there once, when I was eight, but I don't remember it well. I do know it's a beautiful city, though. There are lots of museums about art and history. We could apparate to it in two jumps. There's a wizarding hotel, too."

"You've done your research," Draco commented. To her annoyance, his tone held no clue about what he thought of her plan.

"Of course I have," she said. It was tempting to push on and ask whether he'd go with her, but she resisted and held her tongue. House-elves appeared to take away their dessert plates and bring drinks. When the servants had vanished again, silence descended for a few minutes.

"It's a good plan," he eventually acknowledged. "For how long are we going?"

Hermione sighed softly in relief. "We can leave this Monday and come back Saturday," she said. "It's a bit last minute, but it should be fine. I'll owl the hotel tonight."

"Eager, are we?" he said with a smirk.

"I can't lose an opportunity to drag you away from your studies," she teased. "You might reconsider if I give you the chance."

He chuckled. "Monday it is."

--

They arrived at Della Strega Albergo on Monday afternoon after a double apparition jump. The hotel was run by an elderly witch, who came to the lobby to greet them when they arrived. She handed them flyers about the prime apparition points of the city and presented them with the keys to their rooms. The hotel was not as luxurious as the Manor, but it was perfectly suitable for Hermione, and Draco did not seem to mind downscaling in grandeur. After they'd separated to bring their luggage to their rooms, they met up again in the lobby to go explore the city.

As Hermione soon learned from Draco, Rome was a wizarding tourist destination as well as a muggle one. It turned out that Draco had been well-educated in Rome's wizarding history by his childhood tutor. Hermione, in turn, was knowledgeable about the muggle history of the city. Her parents were enthusiasts of Italian culture past and present, and they'd often told her stories about the Roman gods and men who had influenced so much of Europe's early civilisations.

They'd barely walked for ten minutes when they spotted a landmark that was significant to wizards and muggles alike: an obelisk.

"The hieroglyphs..." Draco begun, just as Hermione said, "Obelisks were..."

They looked at each other in challenge. "Wizarding history should clearly take precedence here," Draco said, "because we're both capable of magic."

"Privileging the history of one's own people over that of other nations or groups is a core mistake," Hermione countered. "It's a hallmark of historical bias and a way of demeaning others who are unlike yourself."

"Perhaps," Draco allowed. "On the other hand, wizarding history is habitually ignored by the vast majority of the world population. To let wizards take precedence here would be an act of minority emancipation rather than an assertion of wizarding superiority." Hermione tried to think of a response but wasn't fast enough. After a second or two, Draco continued, "As I was saying, the hieroglyphic writing employed by the Egyptians is largely based on runes, which had been used by wizards for centuries..."

It soon became custom with every landmark to bicker for a minute or two over who got to tell their story first. Eventually, either of them would simply launch into the tale, and the other would desist and listen quietly. At the next piazza, Hermione explained the myths that had inspired the fountain they were looking at. Draco countered by telling her how wizards had adapted bronze alloys to be better suited for making statues.

At dusk, they found themselves at a pizzeria. Draco declared the food to be 'absolutely uncivilised' and then proceeded to pretend he wasn't enjoying it. Hermione let him complain and contentedly ate her own pizza.

They did everything tourists were supposed to do. On Tuesday, they saw the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum, all the while regaling each other with historical tales. The next day, they visited the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, and they walked along the Via Appia just outside Rome. Thursday was spent visiting the National Museum of Rome and the art galleries of Villa Borghese. They agreed that Bernini's marble statues were the finest things they had yet seen and concluded their visit to the villa with a long walk through its gardens. Before they'd left England, Hermione had feared they might tire of each other's company after a week in close proximity. Much to her surprise, she found herself almost dreading the moment when they would need to retreat to their separate bedrooms at night.

Friday found them trekking through the city on foot to see as many piazzas as they could. They ended at the Piazza Navona, sitting on a bench and eating gelato as they gazed at its magnificent fountain and obelisk. It was very hot; the sun was melting Hermione's ice cream nearly as fast as she could eat it. In the past few days, only the abundant use of sun protection charms had prevented Draco's pale skin from getting terribly sunburned. He was almost tanned now, and his hair was even more blond than before.

In the past eighteen months, there had been many times Hermione had wished fervently that she wasn't married to Draco. At any moment, if someone had offered her a way out, an opportunity to divorce him without dying, she would've seized the opportunity. Now, at the sun-warmed piazza, with Draco sitting so close their arms were almost touching, she wasn't so sure.

--

Returning home felt like plunging into a cold bath, but only because it was raining in England. Hermione was on her toes the first few days, wondering what their return to the Manor would do to the bond that seemed to have been forged in Italy. Much to her relief, there was neither a decrease in their cordiality nor in the time they spent together. Although Draco had gone back to his studies immediately after their return, it appeared he was taking more breaks than before. Suddenly, he was inviting her to games of chess and Exploding Snap. When the weather improved, he came to join her when she was swimming in the pool or sunbathing on the lawn and even handed her a broom and told her to come flying with him. Hermione was a passable flyer but had never found much pleasure in the activity. She still didn't really like it, but she secretly enjoyed watching Draco fly. When on a broom, he was less restrained than usual. She could read the thrill of speeding through the air on his face.

When Draco was studying, Hermione worked on their research report. They had been keeping a good record as they worked, but even so it took her several weeks to properly compile the information into an article. Eventually, she found herself holding a neatly bound stack of parchment, the front of which read Improvements for the Recipe of Standard Painkilling Draught: Stable Brewing with Fewer Side-Effects, by Draco L. Malfoy and Hermione J. Granger.

"It's done," she announced, holding up the parchment for Draco to see. He inspected it for a moment.

"Good," he said curtly. He didn't sound as happy as she'd like him to, but she chalked it up to disappointment that their shared project was finished.

"I'll owl off the copies," she said.

"Sure." He turned back to his own work, leaving Hermione feeling vaguely dissatisfied as she sat down to write the accompanying letters. They were sending their research to the department of magical patenting at the Ministry. St Mungo's would also receive a copy; Hermione and Draco were hoping to publish in the hospital's medical research journal. After that, they would probably be able to sell their patent to St Mungo's for further development and experimentation with their drug.

Once the letters had been written, Hermione went up to the owlery to send them off with Apple and Draco's owl Archimedes. Back in the library, she took out the books she'd be working with in September and started reading - it could never hurt to get ahead a little.

The next morning, she was distracted from Draco's still-sour mood by an owl from Ron. She hadn't spoken to him since their fight in May; they'd ended up taking turns for hanging out with Harry and Ginny on Fridays. Now, however, she got an uncharacteristically long letter from him. He apologised for the way he'd behaved in the spring and then went on without a beat to announce that he had a girlfriend, and 'Would you mind if I brought Sandy to the pub on Friday?' It made Hermione smile. The letter was Ron's blunt honesty personified. She owled back to accept his apology and say that she'd love to meet his girlfriend.

Strangely enough, Draco's mood barely improved over the course of the week. There were no more chess invites. When she talked to him in the library, his answers were short and blunt, if he answered at all. Hermione tried not to take too much notice of it, but it was slightly disheartening. She was glad when she could make her escape to the pub on Friday.

"Hey, Hermione," Ron said as soon as she walked in. "Glad you got my owl."

She smiled and nodded at him. Just like that, their fight was over, and she turned her attention to the short, dark-haired girl sitting next to Ron. "I'm Hermione," she said.

"Sandy," said the girl. "Nice to meet you, Hermione."

They had a great evening. Sandy was lovely. Hermione learned that she had attended Beauxbaton despite being British, because her parents didn't believe in mixed schools. She was enthusiastic about her experience at the French school. After graduating, she'd returned to England and found a job at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. She had met Ron when he came to visit George, and they'd hit it off at once. Sandy had a sweet disposition that brought out the best in Ron, who was clearly completely smitten with her. Ginny and Harry had met her before and were quite enamoured of her, which was an opinion Hermione soon shared with them. After everything she'd been through with Ron, she could only be happy he'd found someone who fit him much better than she ever could.

Ron seemed to have lost most of his anger in the wake of this romantic development, but it still didn't seem like a good idea to bring up Draco. Hermione told the others of her finished research and the hopes she had of receiving a patent, but after that, she mostly listened. Ginny seemed tempted several times to ask her something, but each time she stopped herself at the last moment. Hermione was not surprised, therefore, to see Ginny's owl Ella arrive the next morning with a letter.

Hey Hermione, it read,

I'm dying to interrogate you about your summer. Fancy a cup of tea tomorrow, three o'clock at our place?

Love,

Ginny.

Clearly, bluntness was a family trait with the Weasleys. Hermione sent a confirmation back with Ella and went to the library to read. Draco wasn't there, which was a little unusual. Given his erratic behaviour over the past few days, however, Hermione figured it might do him good to be alone for a few hours. She revised her opinion on that matter when a house-elf appeared with a note.

Hermione,

Unfortunately I am unable to attend our customary Saturday dinner this week.

Sincerely,

Draco

She threw the note down in anger. What was wrong with him? He was the one who had started the tradition of their Saturday dinners. He'd never missed one before; in fact, he'd always seemed eager. She tried to think of anything she might have said or done to irritate him, but couldn't remember anything. The worst was that he didn't even offer an explanation. Why couldn't he tell her what was wrong, like a normal person would? She considered writing an angry note back, but that could only escalate the situation. The last thing she wanted to do was bring back last year's fights.

--

She met up with Ginny and Harry the next afternoon to update them on the events of the summer. She told them about Les Chevaux Magiques and the opera, which she hadn't mentioned before. It was tempting to also discuss Draco's behaviour when she found out it was his birthday, but it felt like betraying his trust to mention an interaction during which he'd seemed so vulnerable. Instead, she launched straight into her tale of Italy. Talking about everything they'd done brought back all of the happiness she'd felt in Rome. Ginny was almost squealing with excitement by the time she was done.

"I'm so glad things are working out," she said. Hermione decided not to mention the past week. Draco's moods were unpredictable and erratic, and she didn't feel like making a big deal out of the situation if everything was likely to be back to normal within a few days.

"I am, too," she responded. "What do you think, Harry?"

Harry thought it through for a moment. "You seem happy," he said. "I don't get it, but he really means a lot to you, right?"

"He does," Hermione said, realising how true it was.

"Then who would I be to object?" Harry said.

--

It was unfortunate that just as Hermione came to realise how much their friendship meant to her, Draco started to withdraw from her completely. Contrary to Hermione's expectations, things were not back to normal the next week.

"Now that the Painkilling Draught is done, are we taking on another project?" she asked him on Tuesday in the library.

"No," he said curtly, without looking at her.

"What? Why not?" she asked, trying to swallow her disappointment.

"I have to focus on my studies," he said, still staring straight at the parchment on his desk.

She wanted to respond, but didn't know what to say. Part of her wanted to shake him and demand that he tell her what was wrong, but she knew it wouldn't work. It would probably only intensify his irritation. She watched him as he worked, seeming completely impervious to her gaze. It was frustrating beyond belief, but there was nothing she could do.

He cancelled dinner again the next Saturday. She stopped running into him on the grounds. There were no more invites for swimming, flying, or chess. Within the span of two weeks, Hermione's best friend had morphed into a total stranger who didn't speak to her at all. She'd never had a lovelier summer, but at the end of it, she found herself back to where she'd been ten months ago.

Chapter Text

September brought no change in Draco's attitude. He still showed up in the library and was therefore not completely ignoring Hermione's existence, but he may as well have been. He never started a conversation and gave one-word replies whenever she attempted to talk to him. Hermione tried not to let it get to her, but it was difficult. His frustrating lack of response was in such stark contrast with his cordial behaviour over the summer that Hermione could scarcely believe he was the same person. She wanted to know what was wrong but didn't know how to bring up the issue. The last thing she wanted to do was spark a return of the previous year's fights or drive him even further away.

She had some distraction when her internships and classes started up again. Like last year, she was spending four days a week at the hospital. This semester, she would be stationed at the ward for creature-induced injuries. The healer in charge of the ward, Healer Winslow, had a reputation for being difficult to work with. He was young - especially given his position as head of a ward - and was known for his competitiveness, particularly towards female healers. With this prospect, Hermione was glad that at least she would once again be in the company of Matthew.

"Hey, Hermione," Matthew greeted when she met him in the staff room before their shift. "So how was your summer?"

"It was good, thanks," she said. It wouldn't do to heap her worries and annoyances on Matthew. Besides, her summer had been great, at least until a few weeks ago. "I went to Rome. I visited the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum, the Sistine Chapel... It was lovely." She decided not to mention Draco. Matthew didn't know much about where she stood in regards to him. Given the recent complications, it was best to keep it that way.

"Sounds good," Matthew said. They started on their way to the creature-induced injury ward on the first floor. "I'm guessing it was sunny there - you look tanned."

She nodded. "Absolutely; it was steaming hot. Thank goodness for cooling charms. What have you been up to?"

"I went to Egypt with my family," he said. "Saw the pyramids and everything. It was great fun. My little sister almost died from excitement. Then we got separated from my little brother in Cairo, which was less fun. He disappeared somewhere in a busy street. We wanted to track him with charms, but you can't go walking around a muggle city with your wand out. Then my dad called magic 'useless', which didn't go over well. It was a bit tense. My mother and sister were in hysterics by the time we found him. Turned out he wanted to buy souvenirs and was persuaded by this trader to go into a shop... Anyway, it all worked out in the end."

"It must be odd to have one magical parent and one non-magical," Hermione mused.

"Usually it's fine," he responded. "They grew up very differently, of course, but they respect each other. In tense situations there's occasionally a bit of contention. Normally the magical folks in the family don't use too much magic around the house. Even when we do, my dad is pretty comfortable with it. It's actually worse for my brother, I think. David used to be really jealous of Martha and me. I suppose it's not easy being the only non-magical sibling. And there isn't anyone he can talk to about it, except for Dad. His friends are all muggle; he's not allowed to tell them about us."

They had to halt their conversation when they reached their supervising healer's office. However, even this short exchange reminded Hermione how nice it was to have someone to share stories with. She was glad to have Matthew at her side again. He was consistently friendly and amicable, unlike her unpredictable husband. She could trust Matthew not to drop her like a stone whenever he got sick of her.

Healer Winslow looked up from a stack of paperwork when Hermione and Matthew reported to his office. "Ah, my trainee healers," he said. He looked them up and down. His eyes lingered on Hermione for a moment. She abruptly felt uncomfortable. "You're late."

Hermione glanced at the clock, which read two minutes past eight. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Sorry," she said.

Winslow pursed his lips. "You'll be stationed at different parts of the ward," he announced, "so you can each show what you're worth. I won't have you relying on each other to compensate for your weak points."

Matthew glanced at Hermione, then responded with a neutral, "All right."

Winslow assigned Hermione to the emergency department and Matthew to diagnostics. It made her wonder whether the healer knew diagnostics was her favourite field and purposely assigned her elsewhere. She tried hard not to think the worst of Winslow, but his piercing stare sent chills down her spine.

--

The first week of her internship was challenging. Hermione didn't know anyone in this department and barely saw Matthew at all. Thankfully, the emergency department's staff were all friendly enough. After a few days, Hermione started to relax a little. She even came to enjoy the work at the department. It wasn't her favourite, but it wasn't too bad. It could never hurt to get some experience in different areas. After her healer training was over, there would be more than enough time to specialise.

As she acclimatised to the emergency department, however, there were two major frustrations in her life. The first was Draco's continued refusal to acknowledge her existence; the second was Healer Winslow. She didn't see her supervisor very often, since he didn't spend much time in the emergency room. When she did see him, however, it was downright dreadful.

"Matthew," he said, the first time the two trainee healers came to evaluate the workweek with him. There was a beat before he added, in a lower voice, "and Hermione." Matthew glanced at her a little uncertainly, and they both sat down in the chairs next to the healer's desk and took out parchment and quill. "How was your week?" Winslow asked, looking at Matthew.

"It was fine," Matthew said. "I enjoyed the work. There was one patient I had some trouble with." He described the case and mentioned the diagnostic spells he'd performed.

Healer Winslow turned his attention to Hermione. Just like during their first meeting, it made her feel uncomfortable. There was something predatory in his gaze. She was disgusted by the way his eyes lingered on her chest for just a moment too long. "What would you have done?" he asked.

"The same spells as Matthew, except I wouldn't check for snake venom," she responded, trying not to show how much Winslow's gaze affected her. "You've already ruled it out with the second spell you performed, since it would make the limb glow blue if snake venom was involved."

Matthew nodded in agreement, quickly jotting down what she'd said, but Healer Winslow said, "It can never hurt to double-check." Matthew glanced up uncertainly, and Hermione had to resist the urge to shake her head. Of course it could hurt to double-check - each spell had its repercussions, however slight. Besides, an unnecessary spell was a waste of time and effort.

Throughout the rest of the meeting, Healer Winslow opposed nearly everything Hermione said, all the while alternating between smirking at her or focusing exclusively on Matthew. She was exhausted by the time an hour had passed and they were free to go home.

--

As the weeks passed and the temperature dropped, so did Hermione's mood. Her previously enjoyable afternoons in the library were rendered tense by the silence that hung over her and Draco like a blanket. Every day, she wished for a change, but it never came. Almost against hope, she sent Draco an invitation for dinner on September 19, her birthday. Rather than accept her invitation, however, all he did was send a house-elf with a note and a present. The note held a flimsy excuse about having too much work. The present held a novel, which she put in the back of her wardrobe and resolved not to read. She went out for dinner with Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Sandy instead.

She sought distractions from Draco by spending more time with other friends. She visited Luna, had coffee with Neville, and helped Dean and Seamus (who had finally gathered the courage to ask one another out last year) move into their new flat. Over the summer, she hadn't spent much time with her friends, and it was good to renew the communication lines and catch up. However, none of them knew about her strange friendship with Draco, and she was too unsure of their reactions to tell them. The visits were fun but ultimately unsatisfying.

St Mungo's had turned from an escape into its own source of trouble, because the situation with Healer Winslow continued to frustrate her. He seemed to look down on her, but she couldn’t tell why. The fact was, however, that he paid much more attention to Matthew than to her, except when he was watching her with his leering, almost lustful stare or making condescending comments. Hermione was almost glad now to be working alone most of the time, for whenever she was with Matthew, Winslow left no opportunity untouched to remind her of her place. On the other hand, whenever she was alone with Winslow, she was even more uncomfortable. The way he looked at her body made her shiver.

"I just don't know what to do," she told Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Sandy on a Friday night. She'd explained how Healer Winslow treated her, much to the outrage of her friends.

"He seems like a terrible supervisor," Sandy said. "Can't you ask someone for help?"

"Like who?" Hermione said with a sigh.

"That other healer," Harry said. "The one who treated you when you were sick. What was his name, Stanton?"

"Canton," she said. She'd considered seeing Canton, but doubted he'd be able to help her.

"Yeah, him." Harry nodded. "He's involved in your training as well, isn't he?"

"Yes, he is, but I'm not sure that's a good idea." She sighed. "What can he do? Besides, I can't prove anything. What if Canton doesn't believe me and Winslow finds out about it? That would only make things worse."

 "I'm sure he'd believe you," Ginny assured her, but Hermione remained doubtful.

--

Five weeks after the start of her internship, she found herself in Winslow’s office on a Tuesday morning, defending her actions in a case at the emergency department. “Analgesics were the first priority,” she said, “because the patient was obviously in pain. I knew this localised painkilling spell wouldn’t worsen the bite.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Winslow countered. “You hadn’t diagnosed the injury. Administering the painkilling spell without knowing the cause of the pain was irresponsible.”

“Visual inspection of the affected area revealed absolutely no indication that it could have been an acidic poison,” Hermione protested. “Besides, the man told me what bit him!” She watched helplessly as Winslow shook his head. She knew she’d acted according to the protocol. Her actions had been virtually without risk, but Winslow was her supervisor and could essentially say what he wanted.

“A diagnostic spell would have been safer,” Winslow repeated. “Matthew, what do you think?”

Matthew glanced at Hermione. For a moment, she was afraid he’d disagree with her as well. It wouldn’t be a strange thing to do. She couldn’t expect him to take her side over that of their superior. “If visual inspection and the patient’s story didn’t indicate an acidic poison, I would also have administered an analgesic spell first,” he said. Hermione exhaled in relief.

Winslow nodded. “I suppose it was not completely unreasonable,” he conceded, looking only at Matthew. It was more proof that he disagreed with Hermione because of personal reasons rather than because she was actually wrong, but she didn’t comment. She was glad when they could leave the office and return to their duties.

“What an idiot,” Matthew said. “You were totally right to use analgesics first.”

“I don’t know what he has against me,” Hermione said.

“Probably just jealous ‘cause you’re smarter than he is,” Matthew said easily. “Come on, one more hour and we’re free to go home.”

--

The last hour of the day involved two difficult patients who wouldn’t listen to a word Hermione said. She went home tired and frustrated. When she went to the library to study, she was greeted by silence, as always. Draco was working but didn’t even look up when she came in.

She sat down at her desk and tried to concentrate on her work. Ten minutes in, she moved from one book to another in the hopes that another subject would help her attention span. She had no such luck. The letters danced on the page. All she could think about was Winslow’s stupid smirk as he told her she was wrong, even though she knew she wasn't.

“Are you all right, Hermione?” Draco said. She turned to find him watching her, worry on his face.

It made her furious. What gave him the right to ignore her for weeks and then suddenly pretend to be worried because she was upset? She threw her books down and stood up. “As if you care. Leave me alone!” she bit out, and fled from the library.

--

Her mood did not improve the next day. At the end of her shift, her first internship report was returned to her and she found that Winslow had graded it as Acceptable. It was a pass grade, but she hadn’t received any grades lower than Exceeds Expectations in years. Winslow’s smile as he handed her the report nearly drove her insane.

She fled to the staff room and ran into Matthew. “Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked when he saw her face.

“Got my internship report back,” she muttered. She handed him the parchment.

“An A?” Matthew said with a frown. “How on earth did you not get an O? Do you think…” He glanced at her again and noticed the tears in her eyes. “Come on. What you need is a cup of tea.”

He put a hand on her shoulder and guided her to the elevator. A few minutes later, they were on the top floor, in St Mungo's tea shop, which was a good deal quieter than the staff cafeteria. Matthew had got tea for the both of them and was now reading her report while she sipped at the cup.

"This is good," he said after a while. "Better than mine, certainly, and I got an E."

"I just don't know what to do about it," Hermione said with a sigh. Matthew's concern and immediate action comforted her a little, but she still felt out of sorts.

"You should see Canton," Matthew said, taking a sip of tea.

"What can he do?" she muttered.

"Everything. He's in charge of healing studies, so he's essentially Winslow's boss, at least in this situation. Besides, you're his favourite student and you've clearly been wronged. You have proof now, too. I bet Canton would give this an E at least," he explained, tapping the report. "You should really go see him, Hermione. He won't stand for this."

She wasn't sure whether Canton would really take her side in this. What if he agreed with Winslow? Perhaps her report really hadn't been as good as she'd thought.

When she'd finished her tea, Matthew stood up. "Come on. I'll go with you. I can testify that he treats us differently."

It was rather nice to have someone else take charge for a little while. She followed Matthew to Canton's office.

When Canton heard what had been going on in the creature-induced injury ward, he was outraged. Within fifteen minutes of entering his office, Hermione had obtained a promise that Canton himself would take over her internship supervision and re-grade the report. She'd continue to work in the same department, but would report to Canton rather than Winslow. "If he gives you any more trouble, just let me know," Canton said. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention."

She heaved a sigh when they were standing in the staff room again. It felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

"Feel better?" Matthew said with a smile.

"Much," she responded with feeling. "You were right about Canton. Thank you for going with me, Matthew. I really appreciate it. If there's anything I can do, let me know."

He looked at her speculatively for a moment. "Well," he then said, "you could go on a date with me."

It was so out of left field that for a few seconds, all she could do was stare at him. "I'm married," she said eventually.

"I know," he said cheerfully. "But it's one of those unions of convenience, right? I know the customs; my mum's a pureblood, remember? I assumed you could date."

Hermione blinked, not sure what to say. "I can, yeah," she managed after a moment. "I, uh... I'll have to discuss it."

"Okay," he said slowly, looking a bit doubtful. "Is that a tentative yes, or are you trying to let me down easy by not saying no directly?"

She bit her lip. Really, why shouldn't she go out with him? She liked Matthew. He was great. "It's a tentative yes," she said. He broke out into a smile, looking so genuinely pleased that she couldn't help but smile as well. "I'll talk to Draco and get back to you tomorrow," she promised.

"All right," he said, still grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. "I'll see you tomorrow, then." The smile was still on his face as he disapparated.

--

The library was empty when Hermione sat down to study. She was a little nervous about discussing the issue of dating with Draco; there was no telling how he'd react. Mostly, though, she felt relieved and upbeat, which was quite a change from her average state of mind in the past month. She was incredibly glad to be rid of Winslow, and being asked out by Matthew was flattering and exciting. However, her excitement somehow also intensified the irritation she felt about Draco's behaviour to her. When she heard his footsteps behind her, she resolved to just get this over with as quickly as possible.

"Hermione, I-" he began.

She cut him off. "Can I go on a date with someone?" she asked, without looking up from the work on her desk.

It was silent for a moment, but then Draco said, "Be discreet about it." His voice was clipped.

She turned to find him watching her with no discernible emotion on his face. "Discreet?" she echoed, frowning at him.

"If next week's Prophet headline reads Married war heroine kisses boyfriend at Fortescue Ice Cream Parlour, you'll be in trouble," he said, still completely impassive. She didn't know why his lack of reaction disappointed her. Hadn't she wanted to avoid a fight?

"I'll be discreet," she said curtly, and turned back to her books. After a moment, she heard Draco leave the library. She wondered briefly why he'd come to the library only to leave so soon, but quickly decided she didn't really care.

--

She owled Matthew straight away. It wouldn't be fair to make him wait longer than necessary.

Dear Matthew, she wrote,

I have a green light as long as I'm 'discreet'.

Hermione

Apple returned within an hour, a note tied to his claw.

My apartment, then? Saturday, 6:30? I'll have the fireplace open for you.

Matthew

She wrote back, Looking forward to it.

In anticipation of Saturday, she wanted to talk to Ginny. In the past two months, she hadn't said much about Draco. She knew Ginny wanted more information, but for some reason the youngest Weasley had decided not to pry. Hermione was grateful, but felt that Ginny deserved to know what was going on. Harry, too, should know what the last few months had been like. She owled them and dropped by through the floo that night.

"I have a date on Saturday," she announced when Harry had presented her with biscuits and a mug of tea.

"With Draco?" Ginny asked at once, apparently very pleased with that idea.

"No!" Hermione exclaimed. "Of course not. With Matthew."

"Oh," Ginny muttered, seeming put out. "Well, okay."

"Allow me to compensate for my wife's lack of enthusiasm," Harry said. "That sounds great, Hermione!"

Hermione chuckled. "Thanks, Harry."

"What brought this on?" Ginny asked. "And what does Draco think of it?"

"I should really start with the summer," Hermione began, "because I'm afraid I've been holding out on you." She told them about Draco's strange, erratic behaviour in August, how he'd withdrawn from her, and how much this autumn resembled last year, before they'd become friends. Then she explained how Matthew had helped her that afternoon and then asked her out. "I don't know what Draco thinks of it," she concluded, "because he hasn't told me. I don't know what got into him, but it's pretty clear I'm persona non grata again."

"Something must've triggered it," Ginny mused. "Are you sure you didn't say anything he might've interpreted wrongly?"

"I don't know," Hermione said. "If I did, he should've told me instead of treating me like a pariah. Either way, I think the important thing is that I have a date on Saturday." She smiled at the thought.

Ginny examined her for a moment. Then she smiled and said, "Right. A date with Matthew."

"Sounds like fun," Harry said.

"Yeah, sounds like fun," Ginny said, but her heart didn't seem to be in it.

--

Hermione didn't see Matthew during her internship the next day. She was glad she'd sent him an owl, rather than having to look for him in St Mungo's. She did see Canton, who came to evaluate her first five weeks of internship with her and re-graded her report with an O. It only made her feel more grateful to Matthew, because she doubted she'd have had the courage to go to Canton without him.

That afternoon, Draco was absent from her study session. Hermione tried to ignore that fact and focus on her upcoming date instead, but it wasn't easy. Throughout all of his silence and irritability, Draco had remained a faithful visitor to the library. He hadn't missed a single afternoon in the past two months, not even for brewing. Now, it seemed he'd finally taken her 'leave me alone' comment to heart. Rather than helping her concentrate, however, his nonattendance left her distracted. She spent most of the afternoon trying fruitlessly to figure out where she'd gone wrong this summer and whether there was any chance of restoring their relationship.

--

She'd never visited Matthew's apartment and was rather nervous when she flooed there. Matthew had mentioned before that he lived in Southend-On-Sea. One of the many benefits of apparition and floo was the speed with which one could commute to the other end of the country. It negated the need to live in a city as expensive as London. When she'd stepped out of the fireplace, she found herself in a small but nicely furnished living room. It had large windows overlooking the Thames estuary. The sun had already set, but it was still bright enough outside to enjoy the view.

"Is that you, Hermione?" Matthew called from behind a door. She followed the sound of his voice and found herself in the kitchen, where he was peering into the oven. "Hey," he said, smiling at her. "Hope you like lasagne."

"Sure," she said, smiling back. Her nerves dissipated. Matthew was easy to be around; this date was nothing to fear.

"Good," he responded. "It needs another ten minutes. Come on." He led her back to the living room. She sat down on his sofa, and he handed her a glass of wine before occupying a chair. It was quiet for a moment.

"I talked to Canton again yesterday," Hermione said. She told him about her re-graded report and how glad she was to be rid of Winslow. They talked for a while about their internships. Now that they were stationed at different parts of the ward, they each had their own anecdotes about crazy patients. After ten minutes, they moved their conversation to the dinner table. The lasagne was great, as was the ice cream Matthew served as dessert.

"That was delicious," Hermione said when they'd finished the meal. She felt quite content to be sitting here with Matthew. She didn't really feel in love and wasn't sure where this would be going, but at least they'd had a lovely evening.

"It's probably nothing compared to what your house-elves cook up," Matthew said with a chuckle. "Living the high life, right? My mum used to hate it. She was only too glad to find a perfectly ordinary bloke to marry."

"I can imagine," Hermione said. "I like the Manor though. I missed my old apartment at first, but I'm used to the grandeur now."

"So what's it like, being married?" Matthew asked.

Hermione wasn't sure how to answer that. "How do you mean?" she said evasively.

"It's obviously not a normal marriage," he said. "So what is it? Do you see him at all? I'm guessing you're friends or something. He did save your life, no strings attached - that sounds like a good place to start a friendship."

Hermione chuckled. "Actually," she said, "that's not quite what happened. This is classified information, of course, but it was not a 'no strings attached' kind of situation." She summarised the events that had led up to her marriage. Before long, she found herself telling him of the strange, complicated relationship she'd built up with Draco. Matthew had never gone to Hogwarts but had been home-schooled by his mother. Consequently, he didn't know Draco at all and knew little about his involvement in the war other than the media coverage of last year's trial, which had been largely coordinated by Hermione. Unlike nearly everyone else Hermione knew, Matthew wasn't biased against Draco. Besides that, he was a good listener: attentive and quiet save for the occasional question. She even told him of Italy and the silence that had descended on them afterwards.

"I'm sorry, I've been talking forever," she said when her story was finished.

"I like listening," Matthew said. He was looking at her thoughtfully. "Let me put the kettle on." He stood up and took the dishes to the kitchen. When he returned to the table, he still seemed deep in thought. "So," he said after a moment. "What did you think of tonight?"

She blinked at the straightforwardness of his question. "Um," she hedged. "I'm not sure. I mean, I had fun, I really did, it's just..." She trailed off.

"Just that you see me as a friend," he finished for her.

"Well, yeah," she said, feeling a blush creep up her cheeks.

"Right," he said. He went to the kitchen to make tea and returned a moment later with two mugs. When he was seated again, he tapped his fingers on the table. It reminded her of Draco. "So," he said again, "I realise this is an intrusive question, but... do you have feelings for him? Draco, I mean. Because to be honest, you sort of sound like it."

"I- What?" she sputtered.

He chuckled. "That would be okay, you know. If you did."

She raised her eyebrows. "You wouldn't mind?" she asked sceptically.

"Well, of course I would mind," Matthew responded. "Look, I really like you, Hermione. You're great. But it doesn't seem like your heart is in this, and if that's because it's really somewhere else, I'd prefer to just know for sure."

That made her think in earnest about whether she thought of Draco that way. She'd never considered it, and certainly it would only complicate the strained relationship they had. "I don't know," she said finally.

Matthew nodded. "Okay. Well, either way, I suspect it's best if I don't pursue you."

"I'm sorry," she said. She meant it. She could see how easy it could be to be with Matthew. She wouldn't ever be able to marry him or move in with him, of course - her agreement with Draco prevented that. But she could picture more dates with Matthew, could imagine sharing things with him that she couldn't share with Draco. As she thought of it, however, she knew it wouldn't be fair. He was right: her heart wasn't in it.

"No worries," he said lightly, though he didn't seem as chipper as before. They drank their tea in silence. For the first time that night, things threatened to get awkward. Before Hermione could get overly anxious, though, Matthew said, "So I ran into Winslow yesterday. Boy, was he ever in a foul mood. I don't think he was too pleased to be kicked off supervision."

"Really? What did he do?" Hermione asked, and just like that, the tense atmosphere was gone.

--

Hermione ended up staying until late. When she flooed home at midnight, she felt relaxed and content. She wasn't sure how disappointed Matthew was after being rejected, but the rest of their night had been fun, and he hadn't seemed too disheartened.

As she undressed and got ready for bed, she remembered the question he'd asked her after dinner. Suddenly, she found herself wishing she could talk to her mother. It was impossible and she knew it, so she usually tried not to think of her parents too much. Now, a vivid memory came to her of the time she'd told her mum how she felt about Ron. Her mother had been so understanding, so kind about it...

She resolutely banned the thought from her head. Rather than dwell on impossibilities, she picked Crookshanks up from his corner of the room and hugged him to her chest. "What do you think, Crookshanks?" she whispered. "Do I have feelings for him?" She didn't want to think about it, but now that Matthew had brought up the issue, she'd have to face it and think it through logically. The truth was that she'd been a long way towards falling for him in the summer. Looking back, she could see it: the hope that he'd show up when she was swimming, the excitement she felt each time he asked her to play chess, the warm feeling she got when she was watching him smile as he sped around on his broom.

Then, of course, Draco had dropped her like a stone. She'd never been able to figure out why he withdrew from her so suddenly, but her newfound realisation brought new possibilities to the fore. What if he'd seen through her and noticed she no longer saw him exclusively as a friend? She considered the option as she curled up under her blankets. It wasn't impossible that Draco's abrupt refusal to talk to her was his way of rejecting her. Certainly Draco's methods of dealing with relationships were unorthodox enough.

If that was so, it meant Draco was willing to give up their friendship in order to deter her from falling in love with him. Either he hadn't valued what they had, or he really didn't want to be confronted with romantic aspirations. Given how he'd gone out of his way to spend time with her after their return from Rome, Hermione guessed it was the latter. This meant that she had to accept the hopelessness of her attraction to him. Draco clearly wasn't interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with her.

She knew her feelings for him would probably not last forever. Even so, it was a chilling prospect to be stuck in a marriage full of unrequited love. Despite this, it cheered her up immensely to have a rationale for Draco's behaviour since August. Knowing the suspected cause meant she could think about solutions. There had to be a way to restore their friendship. Spending more time with Draco would intensify her feelings for him, but it was better than not talking to him at all.

Crookshanks seemed to sense that she could use some company and curled up beside her pillow. She reached out and petted him. "What's the best way to get our friendship back?" she whispered. Crookshanks purred. "That's not helpful," she said, chuckling quietly. "I should probably start out slowly, see if he's still willing to talk to me. Then I can gradually increase contact. Like boiling a frog by slowly warming the water - although really, the science behind that metaphor is seriously flawed."

It was just barely light enough for her to see Crookshanks yawn. It made her smile. "Fine, I'll go to sleep," she said. She pulled the blankets up to her chin and closed her eyes. With so much to think about, however, it took a long time for her to fall asleep that night.

Chapter Text

Hermione was pleased to find that Matthew treated her completely normally on Monday. She ran into him in the cafeteria during her break and feared for a moment that their date would cause a change in their friendship. As soon as she heard his cheerful "Hey, Hermione!", however, she knew she'd underestimated him.

"Hey," she said, gesturing to the seat next to her.

"How's your day?" he asked as he sat down with his coffee.

She decided not to mention that all she'd been able to think about for the past two days was Draco. Instead, she said, "I had a patient this morning who works with fire crabs. He got burned by one and insisted that I use venenum quietus to treat it."

"What? That makes no sense," Matthew said, sipping at his cup. "What did you do?"

"I tried to explain the difference between a snake bite and a burn wound, but he didn't want to see reason, even when two of the nurses corroborated my explanation. He even pulled the 'you're just a trainee' card. I told him venenum quietus would only make it worse and offered a choice between standard topical burn cream and nothing, at which point he relented rather quickly. The entire argument took at least thirty minutes, so I was in a rush to catch up for an hour afterwards."

"Some people," Matthew said, shaking his head. "At least you had an interesting morning, though. I've only had boring patients today. The best thing that happened was that Winslow showed up with a stain on his shirt and nobody told him."

Hermione chuckled. She drank the last of her tea. "Well, I should get back to work," she said. "I'll see you around."

"Good luck," he told her.

"Likewise," she said, and left the cafeteria.

--

When Hermione went to the library that afternoon, Draco was already there. The sight of him - his familiar straight posture, his short platinum blonde hair, his smooth pale skin - was more of a shock than she'd expected. She'd seen him nearly every day for more than a year now, but it was different now that she'd acknowledged how she felt about him. She knew she'd once thought he was ugly, but she could hardly imagine it now. Though he wasn't a model or a movie star, she'd come to appreciate his features to the point where she couldn't really remember otherwise. Looking at him brought a blush to her cheeks.

She was glad to find him there. He'd been absent on Friday, and she'd feared he might stop showing up at all. That would be detrimental to any plans she might make to win back his friendship. Over the past few days, she'd decided that his presence in the library must mean he hadn't completely shut her out. If he'd gone back to studying in his wing of the Manor, that would've been an indication that he wasn't open to any kind of relationship with her. Now she had a shot at befriending him again, if she went about it rationally.

She observed him quietly as he worked, trying to decide what her first move would be. Whatever she did, it was pivotal that she didn't show him how she felt about him. She forced herself to focus on her studies for a few hours, first. It was true that her relationship with Draco was more important than studying, but she knew she couldn't tempt him into a conversation until he'd got some work done. She might as well use her time while she waited. When she'd summarised an entire chapter of liver disease spells, she summoned up her Gryffindor courage and turned to Draco. "Fancy a game of chess?" she said, careful to keep her tone neutral.

He looked up in surprise, probably because she hadn't attempted a conversation in weeks. For a moment he just stared, his features completely unreadable. Hermione fully expected him to continue working without a word, but then he responded, "Sure."

He still looked guarded as they moved from their desks to the armchairs and Hermione brought out the chess set. He relaxed marginally once the game was underway, but he didn't say a word other than to instruct his chess pieces. Hermione didn't speak either. The entire situation was highly reminiscent of last December. She hoped Draco would notice the resemblance as well and recognise this game as the silence-breaking attempt that it was.

When he eventually toppled her king, he looked up and met her eyes. Sheer force of will was the only thing that kept her from blushing as she looked back. She still couldn't discern any emotion on his face as he said, "Good game." He got up and went back to his desk.

She had to resist the urge to sigh. He'd agreed to the game, so her attempt hadn't been a complete failure. Still, the mask he'd drawn up was incredibly frustrating. She didn't understand why he felt the need to close himself off so completely. All she could do, however, was continue to carefully lure him back out.

The next day, she tried again. Once more Draco agreed to play chess with her, although not a word was said that wasn't related to the game. It soon became a habit: at five o'clock, after a few hours of studying, Hermione would bring out the chessboard. Draco would join her silently, and they'd play.

A frustrating side-effect of acknowledging her feelings for him was that they came back in full force now that she was in close proximity with him each afternoon. It led to a number of unfortunate losses at chess, but thankfully Draco didn't seem to suspect the reason behind her distraction. He remained largely unemotional. Every now and then, though, she'd catch him looking at her with the strangest expression on his face. She couldn't tell if he looked sad or irritated, and the expression always vanished as soon as he realised she was watching him.

--

Hermione invited Ginny over two weeks after her date with Matthew when she realised her astute friend must have known how she felt about Draco. She remembered Ginny's disappointment when she'd announced she was seeing Matthew rather than Draco. Besides, Ginny had always seemed the biggest fan of her growing friendship with her husband. In light of Hermione's recent epiphany, it surely couldn't hurt to talk to Ginny.

The weather was unexpectedly nice for October standards. Their robes were warm enough for a walk over the grounds. By the time Ginny had updated her on the latest Holyhead Harpies strategies, they had reached Hermione's favourite corner of the grounds: a little bench overlooking a field of ever-blooming roses that the house-elves had planted last year.

"I think I might be in love," Hermione confessed as they sat down on the bench.

"With Matthew?" Ginny asked.

"With Draco," she corrected, which prompted an astonished stare from Ginny.

"Two weeks ago, you said 'of course not' when I asked if you were dating him."

"I know," Hermione sighed. "To be fair, I'm certainly not dating him."

"All right, tell me what's going on," Ginny ordered. Hermione obediently updated her friend on the last two weeks: her date with Matthew and the revelations that came of it, as well as her tentative attempts to rekindle her friendship with Draco. Ginny listened silently, watching her closely as she spoke.

"I'm not sure what to do," Hermione said at the end of her tale. "I want to be friends with him again, like we were in the summer. Now that I've put a name to what I feel, though, it just gets worse with every time I look at him. And he's made it quite clear over the past two months that he doesn't appreciate my feelings for him." She sighed. It was great to be able to talk to Ginny, but it really didn't solve any of the actual problems she had.

"Are you sure that's why he pushed you away?" Ginny asked thoughtfully.

"What else could it be?" Hermione said. "I've tried to think of a reason for months. This is the first theory that even remotely makes sense. It has to be."

"Right," Ginny said. "Well, on the plus side, you have eighty-odd years to change his mind."

"I don't think that's what I should be aiming for," she responded with a shake of her head. "I just want to have our friendship back. Any words of wisdom?"

"It seems as though you're already on the right track," Ginny said. "Just build up the relationship again and hope this won't be an annual thing."

Hermione chuckled. She liked Ginny's clear advice, but couldn't help thinking it might not be that easy. She couldn't describe how Draco's brooding unnerved her. Increasingly, she started to feel that his glum moods were prompted by sadness rather than anger, but she couldn't think of why he'd feel that way. It was a constant reminder that she still hadn't conclusively solved the puzzle that was Draco Malfoy.

"Also," Ginny said after a moment, suddenly looking quite stern, "I know you're not going to do this, but I feel the need to tell you anyway: you should consider talking to him and asking why he's not talking to you anymore."

"You're right: I'm not going to do that." Hermione was firm. "I don't want to fight with him, and I'm sure that's what would happen. You don't know how fast he can explode over something like that."

"I'm Ron's sister; of course I know," Ginny responded with a chuckle. "Draco isn't the only hothead in the world. As I said, though, I know it was futile advice."

"So why say it?" Hermione said tersely. The last thing she wanted was to play mind games with Ginny as well as Draco.

"So I can say 'I told you so', when the time comes," the redhead responded lightly. "And maybe you'll think of me if ever there is a chance of an honest conversation."

"An honest conversation. Right." Hermione sighed again.

Ginny took pity on her and stopped her jest. "Hey, I'm sure it'll be all right in the end," she said. "You have all the time in the world, remember? You can draw him out. I know it."

--

Ginny's last prediction came true over the next few weeks. Slowly but surely, Draco allowed her to resume some of the friendship they'd had over the past few months. After a few more rounds of chess, she decided to alter her strategy a little and add a new aspect to her plan.

"Listen to this," she said suddenly, breaking the silence of their study session. She held up the book she was reading. "The safest spell to analyse the extent of renal failure is reno nosce. And then this book" - she grabbed Diagnosing internal injuries and opened it to the chapter on kidneys - "says Although reno nosce is often considered the safest spell for analysing kidney damage, reno percepte is preferable. Neither of the books offer any kind of reasoning. How am I supposed to know which charm to pick? I hate it when the books are inconsistent."

Draco was watching her intently, looking vaguely surprised but mostly impassive. He tapped his fingers on his desk. For a moment, the room was silent. Hermione was about to turn back to her book when he said, "Look them up in The Index of Medical Spells and Their Components, Volumes One Through Six. Second aisle, third bookcase. It lists the spell components. Draw a spell diagram and find out for yourself. Then start hoping it's the extra credit question on your exams."

She hadn't really expected a response at all. In fact, she'd predicted she'd need to shower him with stories for days or weeks until he even acknowledged that she was talking. The current outcome, of course, was far better. She decided not to push her luck by continuing the conversation, but instead accio’ed  the Index and spent the next half hour exploring the differences between the diagnostic spells. When she'd finished the spell diagrams and glanced over at Draco, she found him watching her. He turned away as soon as she caught him, but this time she was sure he'd looked sad.

--

The next day she told him about a complicated case she'd dealt with at the hospital. He didn't react beyond a nod, but she could tell he was listening. It was a slow process, but she was finally getting somewhere. Their daily chess games continued, and Hermione carefully added ever more conversation to the rest of their study sessions. There was no way Draco was unaware of what she was doing, but he seemed to be tolerating her efforts. Occasionally, he'd make a comment about what she was telling him, although usually he remained silent. Even when he didn't say anything, though, it was different from what it had been in September. Rather than actively ignoring her, Draco now watched her as she spoke, listening attentively. It encouraged Hermione to continue with her plan.

Increasingly, however, she was starting to doubt they would be able to return to the friendship they'd had this summer. Something in Draco had changed. He'd never been exactly upbeat, but since August he seemed to have lost whatever happiness he did possess. She feared that at some point she'd have to confront him about this, but she felt sure that that would destroy the feeble bond she was creating. Exactly as Ginny had said she would, Hermione steered clear of that thorny topic.

"Canton evaluated my second report today," she told Draco one afternoon in late November, when she arrived at the library to find him writing.

He looked up from his work. As always, having him look at her made butterflies flare up in her stomach. She resolutely pushed the feeling away. It was useless to dwell on her attraction to him. She was about to continue speaking, confident he wouldn't respond, when he said, "I thought Canton was your supervisor last year."

She realised she'd never told him about Winslow. In the weeks when she'd suffered from Winslow's unfair conduct the most, she'd also been suffering from Draco's silent treatment. For a moment, she considered not telling Draco at all. It was his own fault for not being her friend in September. However, she was making an effort to show she trusted him. Honesty was paramount. "He was. I had a different supervisor in September, but I switched because he was treating me unfairly."

Draco looked surprisingly different from his normal impassivity. He seemed torn between anxiety and outrage. "How?" he said, the question almost a demand. For a split second, Hermione expected him to run off, brandishing a wand to whomever was doing her injustice. The idea that he'd be protective of her made her smile.

 She briefly explained Winslow's conduct. It was difficult to explain the sense of alarm she'd felt at the healer's lingering gaze, so she focused instead on his constant need to negate anything she said and the way he'd graded her assignments.

"For how long did this go on?" Draco asked.

"All of September and most of October. It was rather miserable, until I went to Canton and he took over supervision," she responded, deciding to leave Matthew out of it. She knew Draco wasn't attracted to her and wouldn't care whether or not she was dating, but she didn't want to watch the nonchalance with which he treated her love life.

"You should've told-" he started, then cut himself off.

"Told you?" she finished for him. He looked away. Her plan of non-confrontation abruptly went out the window, and she forgot her romance troubles in light of her exasperation. "You weren't listening, Draco," she said sharply. Immediately after she'd done so, she wished she hadn't. What if she'd gone too far and pushed him away again?

Rather than react with anger or silence, however, Draco said, "I know." He was still looking away.

It was a favourable enough reaction for her to try pushing her luck. "Why did-"

He cut her off. "I'm sorry." He met her eyes. She knew the apology doubled as a warning. He'd rather apologise than explain himself, which was a testimony to his extreme reluctance to disclose his reasons for shutting her out.

She sighed. As much as she wanted to hear an explanation, there was clearly no chance of getting one. "All right," she said instead. He smiled at that, but it didn't reach his eyes.

--

The next day, Draco was the first to speak up in the library. "Any fun patients today?" he asked when she'd sat down with her books. She looked up in shock. He smirked at the astonishment on her face.

"Um, well..." She scrambled for words, praying he would attribute her incoherence to surprise at his question, rather than to her inability to concentrate on anything but the exact colour and shade of his eyes. Finally, she found her voice. "I had this one patient who presented with symptoms of exposure to large-tailed scrufflers..."

From that day on, he matched her efforts at rekindling their friendship. He was still more reserved than during the summer, and Hermione continued to have trouble discerning his emotions. However, he now started conversations, offered information about his studies, and brought out the chess board before Hermione could prompt him. She felt that they were friends again, yet their situation remained distinct from the closeness they'd experienced in Italy. This lack of warmth unfortunately did nothing to still Hermione's ever-growing attraction. She fully expected to gradually habituate to the sound of his voice, but after a few weeks she still felt a thrill run through her whenever he spoke. The shock of his appearance in the library never faded, even though she knew he'd show up. She lay awake at night thinking of him, calling herself an idiot for fostering even the slightest hope that he might return her feelings.

Chapter Text

Although Hermione's attraction to Draco continued to plague her, life was certainly much better than it had been in September. With Canton as her supervisor, she was thoroughly enjoying her internship. She didn't see Matthew too often, since they had different supervisors now as well as being stationed at different departments, but when she did see him he was as friendly as ever. Despite frequent distractions during her study sessions, her classes were going well. Her friendship with Draco continued to improve despite his lack of emotional reciprocity.

"We're going to have to put our chess matches on hold," she told Draco in early December. "I have midterms coming up, so I have to study more." She didn't tell him that she'd considered moving her study sessions to her bedroom. His presence at the desk next to hers continued to impede her ability to concentrate. However, last year's attempt to move her study sessions had proved disastrous, so she was unwilling to repeat that strategy.

"All right," he said. "I won't distract you." As soon as he looked away, she found herself smiling ruefully at that statement.

On a Friday, about two weeks before her midterms, she was alone in the library close to midnight. Draco had quit studying almost two hours earlier, but Hermione was determined to finish revising the chapter she was working on. When she was nearly finished, she ran across an illustration: a spell diagram of a dialysis spell. The diagram was slightly different from the technique Draco had taught her and held symbols she wasn't familiar with. She was sure Draco would be interested in it as well. With a quick wave of her wand, she copied the illustration onto a blank piece of parchment. She walked over to his desk, but just when she was about to put the parchment down, she noticed the stack of books on the corner. The top book was a dark blue, leather-bound tome titled Blood Status and its Magical Repercussions. She knew it well; it wasone of the books she'd studied extensively when she had been suffering from mudblood disease. To her knowledge, the book was barely concerned with potions. She picked it up to examine it more closely. The book beneath it was Illegal Spells Through the Ages, which she was familiar with for the same reason. Her curiosity piqued, she put down the copied illustration and picked up the other books to see what their titles were.

Beneath the books was a stack of parchments. The top one held a spell diagram. Above the diagram, Draco's neat handwriting spelled the words mudblood disease. With growing alarm, Hermione sank down into Draco's chair and examined the parchments. There were essays and pages of notes with such titles as Potions as a method of counteracting long-term spells, Oil bases in potions with prolonged effects,and Effects of mudblood disease on the magical core of wizardkind. Various spell diagrams portrayed the precise workings of the spell Hermione was under. There were different drafts of recipes, some with half the ingredients crossed out again. Beneath the recipe with the most alterations and deletions, Draco had added four words in an untidy scrawl far removed from his normal script: It must be possible.

She could feel the blood pounding in her ears. When she held up the parchment to inspect Draco's notes, she could barely hold her hand still. The acute sense of betrayal at the discovery overshadowed all else. She could hear his voice in her head when she'd asked him if they were doing a new research project: 'I have to focus on my studies.' Instead, he'd worked to dissolve the spell that bound him to her. He'd been looking for a way to divorce her, to get rid of her.

It was a miracle she didn't splinch herself on the way to his wing. Ignoring all rules of propriety, she apparated straight from the library into his bedroom. She didn't care if he was awake or asleep; this would be discussed at once.

Draco was lying on his bed, reading a book with Socks curled up by his side. He jumped up in shock when Hermione suddenly appeared. Within moments, he was standing by her side, looking confused and worried.

"What-" he began, but before he could get another word out, she threw the stack of parchment on the floor between them.

"What the hell is this?" she demanded. To her irritation, she found that her voice was high and uneven with emotion. He looked down and paled considerably at the sight of the documents.

"Have you been going through-" he said, but she cut him off again.

"Tell me what you think you're doing," she spat.

His eyes flickered nervously back and forth as if he were looking for an escape route. "It's research," he said eventually. His voice was even, but she could hear the tension.

"Research into mudblood disease," she bit out. "You've been going behind my back! How long has this been going on? Is this why you thought you could completely ignore me for months?!"

"No, that's not..." He trailed off, running a hand through his hair. "Calm down, Hermione. I can explain."

"Well, you'd better have a great explanation, Malfoy!" she yelled. She didn't even realise she'd used his last name until his eyes narrowed and his apprehension was abruptly replaced by anger.

"I don't see what the problem is," he snapped. "I'm trying to give you your freedom back. Perhaps instead of complaining, you could make an attempt to be grateful."

"Grateful?" she repeated in disbelief. "Grateful that you've been deceiving me and treating me like a pariah? Should I be happy that you've been sneaking around, trying to find a way to get rid of me? I can't believe this! I thought- Back in Rome, I thought-" She stomped her foot, frustrated at her inability to form a sentence. Tears sprung to her eyes. "I thought you cared about me at least a little!" she bit out eventually. Her voice cracked on the last word.

"You have no idea how much I care about you!" he retorted.

She might not have caught on to the significance of the words if he hadn't immediately stepped back, if the anger in his eyes hadn't been replaced at once by horror at the unwilling confession.

"What?" she whispered. Her anger dissipated at once.

He clenched his hands into fists and looked away. "Nothing," he said sharply, but she knew it wasn't true.

It was suddenly impossible to convince herself that he only saw her as a friend. Every inference she'd made over the past few months, every reason she'd invented for his strange conduct, and every explanation for her recent discovery had to be re-evaluated.

After a few agonising seconds of silence, he continued speaking, still staring at the parchment on the floor. "Forget what I said. I'm finishing that bloody recipe so you can get your life back and Idon't have to watch you date whatever handsome healer you've met." He turned and stalked away from her, toward the window. She stood frozen for a second, still reeling from her discovery, but then she ran after him and grabbed his wrist. He pulled his arm free but turned around.

"Since when?" she said, unsure why she was even asking.

He didn't meet her eyes. She watched as he tried and failed to cover up his sadness with irritation and indifference. "June. May. I don't know," he said curtly. He blinked several times in rapid succession. "Does it matter?"

"No," she said, and kissed him.

For a moment, his lips were unresponsive against hers. Just when she was beginning to wonder if she'd gone too far, she felt his hand against the side of her neck. His lips parted and he was kissing her back, his breath soft on her skin. Warmth rushed through her body and made her skin tingle. Before long, however, he broke away with a quiet gasp. "Don't play games with me, Hermione," he pleaded in a low voice, staring past her at his bedroom wall. There were tears in his eyes.

"I'm not, I'm not," she said. She realised with a sinking feeling that he had convinced himself - just like she had - that what he felt couldn't be mutual. That was why he'd pushed her away, why he'd seemed so guarded even when they were renewing their friendship. Months and months of hopelessness and dogged determination to set her free from what he believed was a marriage she didn't want. The thought chilled her to the bone. How had she not seen this before? She lifted her hand and cupped his cheek until finally his gaze met hers. "I promise I'm not playing games," she said. Then she closed the few inches that separated them and threw her arms around his waist.

He released a shuddering breath, and then his arms were around her back, holding her to him. She smiled and rested her head on his shoulder. Gradually his hands stopped trembling. He sighed deeply. For a few minutes, neither of them spoke.

"I thought you were dating someone," he whispered after a while.

"One date," she said. "With Matthew. Do you know what he said?" She felt Draco shake his head. "He asked what it was like, being married. I told him about you. Then he said, 'Do you have feelings for Draco? Because that's what you sound like.'" She chuckled at the memory. "I realised he was right, so I decided to stop dating."

"And are you willing to start dating again?" he asked quietly. "With me, obviously," he added, as if their current position allowed for any other interpretation of the question. She briefly considered teasing him about it, but the uncertainty in his voice held her back.

"Absolutely," she said.

--

Ten minutes later, Hermione had transfigured Draco's chair into a settee, they'd both sat down, and she was leaning against his side with her head on his shoulder. He had his arm around her. She closed her eyes. It was tempting to simply focus on the feeling of his warm body against hers, and perhaps to fall asleep in his arms, but she knew she shouldn't.

"We have to talk," she said quietly. She wanted to look at him, but she'd purposely seated herself so they wouldn't be facing each other. She knew he'd find it easier to talk that way, and for today she wanted to indulge him.

"Yeah," he said. Judging by his voice, at least, he was more relaxed than he'd been in months.

When he didn't offer anything else, she said, "Why did you push me away in August?"

"Can't you guess?" he said.

"Yes, but my guesses so far have been downright terrible. Can't you tell me?" she responded.

He chuckled. His finger moved in random patterns over the sleeve of her robe. "I realised you didn't want to be married to me," he began. She resisted the urge to correct him. "I read up on your curse and found that it should be possible to counteract it with a potion. Once I knew that there was a way to set you free, I had to try it. Keeping you here when I knew how to break the curse... You'd be a prisoner. But..." He fell silent, his finger still moving in circles and squares over the dark fabric of her clothing. After a while, he continued, "It was difficult. Knowing I'd have to let you go. I thought it would be easier if I didn't prolong it."

"So you broke off our friendship before it could deepen and it would hurt even more," she summarised. He hummed in agreement. "Did you consider..."  - she bit her lip, but ploughed through - "how I would feel?"

"Of course," he answered without hesitation. "I knew you wouldn't like it. But it wouldn't be as bad for you. You weren't as invested. Also, you had... other friends." Even without his facial expressions, she could hear the pain in those last few words. She couldn't grasp the magnitude of what he'd tried to do for her - sever his only friendship to save her from their marriage.

"What made you think I wasn't as invested?" she asked after a moment. There would be a time to discuss his actions, but she was still curious what had triggered him in August to start looking for a cure for her.

"You were dating someone else two months ago," he said a little impatiently. "You didn't have feelings for me then."

"I didn't realise until then," Hermione corrected. "Besides, my date in October doesn't explain your reasoning in August."

He sighed. She could feel it as well as hear it, pressed against him as she was. "Your name," he said.

"What?" she responded in confusion. "What about it?"

"You don't remember?" he asked, surprise in his voice. After a moment, he continued, "Improvements for the Recipe of Standard Painkilling Draught: Stable Brewing with Fewer Side-Effects, by...?"

"Draco L. Malfoy and Hermione J. Granger," she finished automatically. She gasped as the realisation hit her. "Granger. My maiden name. You thought..."

"I thought that clearly you don't want to be a Malfoy." She could hear the bitterness in his voice.

Abruptly, she twisted until she was sitting on her knees on the sofa, facing him. He watched her, startled, as she put a hand on his shoulder. "Get rid of that present tense," she said, looking him in the eye, "because I very much want to be a Malfoy." A smile pulled at his mouth as he nodded. She leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to his lips, and then curled up against him once more.

After a moment, he resumed, "I thought that clearly you didn't want to be a Malfoy." This time, he sounded as happy as she wanted him to be.

"It was a habit. I grew up as Hermione Granger," she said. "I don't think men realise how disconcerting it is to change your last name. Also, I must admit that I spent the first year of our marriage trying very hard to believe I wasn't your wife. Either way, I didn't think about how I signed the manuscript at all."

"So you weren't..." He trailed off.

"I wasn't trying to tell you I wanted out," she told him. "I thought about it in Rome. What I'd do if someone offered me a cure for the curse."

"And?" he inquired.

"And I didn't know. Back then, I only thought of you as my best friend, but even so the thought of losing you was painful," she said.

"What about now?" He still sounded uncertain. Hermione suspected it would take a while to teach him she was serious.

"Now? Well, if some crazy trainee potion master showed up today with a stack of parchments and recipes..." She glanced at the documents lying forlornly on the floor about ten feet from the sofa. "I would tell him I'm afraid he's stuck with me for the rest of his life, because I don't want his cure. I want him. In case you were still in any doubt, that's you." She bit her lip as soon as she realised what she'd said. She meant it, but she wasn't at all sure what Draco would think of this much commitment. After all, he'd only asked her to date her.

He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, and she sighed softly in relief. "Yes, I could tell," he muttered. They fell silent.

"It's late," she said after a minute or so.

"Yeah," he agreed. Neither of them moved.

"Why did you start talking to me again?" she asked another while later.

He took so long to respond that she half suspected he'd fallen asleep. Eventually, he said, "I couldn't do it. Ignore you, I mean. It wasn't so bad in the beginning - I told myself it was self-preservation. I also told myself it would get easier, which turned out not to be true." He sighed. "I... missed you. Very much."

She reached up and laced her fingers through his. "I missed you, too," she whispered.

"When you started talking to me again, I couldn't resist," he continued quietly. "I knew- I thought it would make things harder, when I'd have to let you go, but I didn't have enough willpower left. I'd also started to think you might be more affected by my silence than I'd previously realised. At first, you just seemed annoyed at me, which I'd expected. Then you seemed sad, at times, and furious at others. You snapped at me, even."

It took her a moment to realise he was referring to her angry retort after one of her meetings with Winslow. "That was a bad day," she explained. "I told you about my horrid supervisor. He was so frustrating - he looked at me like I was a piece of meat, and he discounted everything I said. I didn't know what to do about it. On top of that, you hadn't talked to me in weeks, and I had no idea why. Then, all of a sudden, you started asking me if I was all right. I think I thought you were mocking me."

"I wasn't," he said.

"I know," she responded. She shifted a little to find a more comfortable position against his chest. He stroked her hair.

"I'm sorry," he said after a while. "I should not have shut you out. I'm very sorry."

"Two apologies," she teased. "I didn't think I'd see the day, Draco."

He chuckled. "Shut up," he said good-naturedly.

"Apology accepted," she said.

Neither of them spoke for a while, and Hermione found herself drifting off. Before she could really fall asleep, however, she roused herself. "I should go."

He groaned. "Must you?" he complained.

She smiled. It was hard to believe that it had been less than two hours since she made her discovery; already he was much less restrained. "Yes," she said. "We both need sleep."

He sighed. "Fine."

She sat up and turned to him. He didn't look content. "What's the problem?" she asked quietly.

He looked away, confirming that she'd been wise not to have all of tonight's conversation face-to-face. "I don't want you to go," he said. "I know I'll convince myself..."

"That it's not real?" she finished. He nodded tersely. "I'll come back tomorrow to show you it's real." Part of her - almost all of her - wanted to stay and fall asleep in his arms. It could hardly be considered inappropriate; they were married, after all. But she didn't want to move too fast. They were only dating.

He nodded, meeting her eyes. "Dinner, then?" he asked.

"Breakfast," she said, smiling at him.

He laughed. "Brunch," he countered. "It's two hours after midnight; I'm sleeping in. Eleven, my dining room."

"Deal," she said. He leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. She kissed him back eagerly.

"If you don't go now, I'm keeping you here," he warned, wrapping his arms around her waist.

"I'm going," she said. She stood up, pulling him with her. He kept his arms around her and kissed her neck. She leaned back against him for a moment, closing her eyes. Then she gently untangled his arms and turned to face him. "Dream of me," she said, smiling at him.

"I'll do my best," he said with a grin.

She kissed him one last time and turned to go. "Oh, wait," she said. She pulled out her wand. "Accio self-inking quill," she said. The quill flew over from Draco's desk and landed in her outstretched hand. Bending down to the stack of parchment on the floor, she quickly found the most-altered recipe. Beneath Draco's It must be possible, she wrote:

Perhaps, but it's unnecessary.

Love,
Hermione Malfoy

She sent the quill back to its place. Then she folded the parchment in two and handed it to Draco. He looked at her in confusion. "It's proof," she said. "In case you manage to convince yourself it wasn't real."

He kissed her in lieu of responding. For a minute, she forgot all her plans of leaving.

"I'm going," she eventually managed to say. "See you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow," he said, guiding her toward the door and out of his room. She walked down the corridor and glanced back when she'd nearly reached the first corner. Light pooled out from his bedroom into the dimly lit hallway. He stood in the doorway, watching her go with a smile on his face. This time, it definitely reached his eyes.

--

It took Hermione well over an hour to calm down enough to sleep. Every time she came close to slumber, she'd be hit anew with the realisation that she was dating Draco, and it would jolt her awake. She knew this would be a terrible weekend for revision, and she didn't even care.

When she walked into Draco's dining room the next morning, he was standing at the window, gazing at the December rain. She crossed the room and slipped her hand into his. "Hey," she said.

He smiled. "Hey," he responded, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

She leaned against him for a moment so they could watch the grey clouds together. There was a pop behind them, and they turned to see Nocky watching them with wide eyes. "Bring the-" Draco began, but the house-elf cut him off with a squeal.

"You is with Master Draco!" he exclaimed, pointing at Hermione and bouncing up and down in excitement. "I is so happy! Master Draco is talking about you for months! He is saying you are the-"

"Nocky!" Draco snapped, aghast. Nocky immediately covered his mouth with both hands.

"Nocky is sorry!" His voice was muffled by his fingers. Hermione glanced at Draco to find that he'd gone beet red. She had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

"Get the food," Draco bit out. Nocky vanished with another pop.

"Have you been gossiping about me with the house-elves?" Hermione teased, squeezing his hand.

He was still blushing. "No," he said, but they both knew it was a lie.

"I told you they were good company," she said, smiling as she pulled him to the table.

"Well, I'm never telling Nocky anything again," Draco vowed. His lips twitched with a smile, although he still looked mostly embarrassed.

She reluctantly let go of his hand to sit down. "If I ask your house-elves what you've said, what will they tell me?" she asked curiously.

 "I'd like to think they would remember orders and not tell you anything," he responded ruefully as he sat down opposite to her, "but given this little scene with Nocky, I'm not so confident about it." She shook her head at his evasive reply, but didn't press. After all, she hadn't told him how she'd longed for him over the past months, either.

Nocky reappeared with two other house-elves, bearing platters of food. The other house-elves were jittery with excitement, leaving Draco and Hermione in no doubt that the entire manor was now aware of recent developments. "I is very sorry," Nocky said anxiously to Draco as soon as he'd put his food on the table.

Draco sighed. "It's fine," he said, prompting Nocky to exclaim his gratitude for having been forgiven. It took a full minute of reassurances before he disappeared with the others.

"You said they'd be more obedient if I treated them better," Draco said when they were alone again, "but they left more quickly when I was still threatening them."

"They like you better now," Hermione said, spreading marmalade on her toast and taking a bite. When she'd finished chewing, she said, "Remember last year, when Nocky dropped those books in the library and we got into a fight? He was really scared of you then."

"I remember," he responded lightly, taking a cinnamon bun from one the platters in front of them. "He tripped over your essay, which I then insulted. After that, I think you accused me of sitting around doing nothing all day."

Hermione cringed at the memory. "I did," she acknowledged. "That must've stung."

"A little," he admitted, "given that I was studying ten to twelve hours a day."

"Potion master at twenty-three," Hermione said, smiling. "Do you still think you're going to make it?"

"With all of this research I've spent my time on? Not a chance," he said.

"But you were already doing research last year," Hermione said in surprise.

He chuckled. "Yes, I was, but it was on and off. A few hours a week at most. I'd been working on the painkilling draught for years. It was an on-going project, but sometimes I wouldn't look at it for weeks."

"Then why..." she said, confused.

"You were obviously enthusiastic about it. There were so many forbidden topics that it seemed like a good idea to have a shared project, for something to talk about," he explained. "The first time I mentioned the painkilling draught, we spent the rest of the night discussing it. I brought it up again a few days later, and the same thing happened. That seemed promising, so I spent some more time on it, to make sure I'd have progress to report when it came up again. Things snowballed from there."

She laughed in astonishment. "I never realised."

"You weren't supposed to." He smirked at her. "But I'm flattered that you'd think I can study for potion master in two-thirds the usual time and still spend three days a week on other affairs."

"What about your second project? The past few months?" she asked quietly.

He finished his bun before responding. "That took even more time away from my studies," he admitted. "I just wanted to get it over with. As you could probably tell from the paperwork, however, it wasn't a simple task. It didn't help that I found absolutely no enjoyment in doing it." He looked away, his eyes unfocused as he remembered what had clearly been a dark time for him.

Hermione was almost sorry she'd brought it up, but she needed him to talk to her and be honest. A lack of communication lay at the heart of the past few months' problems. She watched him for a moment. "Thank you," she then said. He raised his eyebrows in question. "For trying to save me," she clarified. "You could've hidden what you knew and kept me here, but you didn't. It was a terrible idea to go behind my back and work on that recipe, but it was also very selfless of you."

He smiled, but the haunted look hadn't left his face yet. She continued teasingly, "Of course, it wasn't very Slytherin. Considering how courageous it was, one might even say it makes you look like a Gryffindor. We ought to redecorate your bedroom in red and gold."

"Hey," he protested indignantly, laughing in earnest now. "There's a lot you can say about me, but I draw the line at being called a Gryffindor."

"How about Hufflepuff, then?" she asked innocently.

"Ew," Draco responded emphatically. She laughed at the look on his face. He continued, "The only passable house other than Slytherin is Ravenclaw. Although I do know of one Gryffindor who isn't too bad." He smirked at her.

She smiled but shook her head. "Not too bad? What kind of compliment is that, Draco?" she admonished, surprised to find she sounded almost flirtatious.

He gazed at her thoughtfully for a moment. "All right," he said slowly, "how's this: What I think Nocky was going to say earlier is that I've been telling the house-elves you're the cleverest witch on the planet."

Hermione couldn't have stopped smiling if she'd wanted to. "Thanks," she said quietly. He smiled back at her, and they continued their brunch.

--

Later that day, Hermione reluctantly parted from Draco to study in the library. She did have midterms coming up, after all, and Draco had brewing to do. However, not much came of her attempts to study; she was far too distracted. Every two seconds her thoughts would drift to Draco: his smile, his eyes, his voice, the things he'd said during brunch and the night before...

In the end, she revised one chapter instead of the three she'd planned. It wasn't satisfactory, but she really couldn't bring herself to care about charms and spells when she had the prospect of spending the evening with Draco. She couldn't recall ever being so in love - the mere thought of curling up to him on the couch again made her tingle with warmth.

She gave up at half past five and went to find Draco in his lab. When she came in, he was performing stasis spells on his cauldron to preserve the potion until the next stage of brewing. He didn't notice her at first, and she used the opportunity to quietly observe him as he worked. It was hard to understand how she'd ever seen him as nothing more than a nuisance or a threat; now, the mere sight of him brought a smile to her face.

Draco finished the last spell, enclosing the cauldron in a softly glowing orb to seal it off. He glanced at the door, where he found Hermione already waiting. His eyes lit up. "How long have you been standing there?" he asked.

"A few minutes," she said. "You were busy. I didn't want to interrupt. How did the brewing go?"

"It was terrible," he said, but he was grinning as he put away his supplies.

It made Hermione laugh, because it so exactly mirrored her feelings about her own attempts to study. "Distracted?"

"You could say that." He tucked his wand away and walked over to Hermione, pressing a kiss to her lips and then pulling her into a hug. She sighed contentedly, wrapping her arms around his waist. They stood like that for a long moment, until Hermione finally stepped back a little. She found him smiling at her and couldn't help but smile back.

"Let's go have dinner," she said, grabbing his hand.

--

Four hours later, they were lying on a blanket on Draco's balcony. It was icy cold outside, but it had stopped raining and the sky was clear. Hermione had spelled a bubble of warmth around them, and they were watching the stars. She looked sideways at Draco. His eyes were fixed on the constellations above them, and there was a smile on his lips. She guessed she'd seen him smile more in the past twenty-four hours than in all of the four months before that. It was hard to believe she was the cause of it.

"I can see Draco," she said, gesturing at the constellation in the north.

"Of course," he said. "It's circumpolar."

"It never sets, I know," she responded. "I took astronomy. Lots of your relatives are named after stars and constellations, aren't they?"

He nodded. "It's a Black family tradition. My father agreed to let my mother name the children. It was probably in the marriage contract."

"I'll never understand pureblood traditions," she sighed. "Why would you want to make a legal settlement over children's names? Surely these things can be arranged in good faith."

He chuckled. "Did you know 'Malfoy' is French for 'bad faith'? Surely you won't find it hard to guess how we acquired the name. Either way, marriage contracts are more of a failsafe. When it's tradition and everyone always does it, you don't have to ask for signed proof in cases where you really don't trust the other party. That, in turn, means you don't have to admit that you don't trust them. Really, it's all just politics."

"Does it never tire you?" she asked.

"Why would it? I'm used to it. Besides, politics are interesting. Understanding them requires a certain kind of skill and logic, as well as a knowledge of psychology. It's all mathematical from there. My rise to popularity within Slytherin was the logical consequence of the way I conducted myself - coupled with family influence, of course."

She thought it over as she stared at the constellation that had given her husband his name. Draco-the-constellation was light years away. Draco-the-man was just now lacing his fingers through hers as physical proof of how nearby he was.

"So. May, June?" she asked quietly after a while.

"Yeah," he responded. He glanced sideways at her but soon returned his attention to the night sky. "I..." He hesitated.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," she added when nothing more seemed to be forthcoming. He chuckled.

"I know. I don't mind, though. Not in light of... recent developments." There was another pause as he gathered his thoughts. "I ought to start at our wedding," he eventually said. "I'm afraid to say I saw you exclusively as a means to an end. Marriage was a business transaction, which as you know is not uncommon in pureblood circles. To be frank, I didn't like attaching myself to you. I resented it even more over the summer, when all we did was fight."

"Why didn't you just avoid me?" Hermione asked.

He sighed and bit his lip. His voice was quiet when he responded, "I suppose fighting was better than being alone. After my mother died... It drove me insane, at times, to be on my own in the Manor. I spoke to the house-elves, of course, but I didn't make the most of their presence because I barely considered them sentient. I exchanged letters with former classmates occasionally, and I visited Potion Master Frayser, but I didn't see too many people." Hermione hesitantly moved towards him and rested her head against his shoulder. She wasn't sure if he'd appreciate the comforting gesture, but to her relief he shifted towards her as well.

"I mostly blamed you for the fights," he admitted. "Until the last fight, that is. You should know that I've always considered it my father's greatest weakness that he put his hands on my mother when they got into arguments. It didn't happen often, but I witnessed it a few times when I was young. It disgusted me to think I'd..." He trailed off, shaking his head. After a moment, he continued, "You looked genuinely afraid, that time. Until then, I'd really only seen you angry or irritated. I knew I'd made a commitment to you, whether I liked you or not. But rather than providing you safety and security, I was violent and frightened you. I was... I am ashamed of it. It wasn't who I wanted to be, so I backed off."

Hermione wanted to reassure him, but didn't know what to say. After all, what he'd done had frightened her, and it had been wrong. Eventually, she decided it was a topic for another day. "And I didn't see you for months," she prompted.

"Exactly. I decided the best solution was not seeing you at all. I didn't like you; you didn't like me. There was no point to any more fights or discussions."

"Sounds reasonable," Hermione said, and he smirked. "What changed your mind?"

"I started our confrontations in the first place because I didn't want to be on my own," he reminded her, his tone suggesting she should've thought of this herself.

"Of course," she muttered. "So when you weren't talking to me anymore, you were alone again."

"I didn't really need to talk to you, though," he said. "Simply being in your presence met my goals. Therefore, it stood to reason that there had to be some way to do it without fighting."

"Hence the meetings in the library."

"Indeed. Once I'd started that, it quickly became difficult to see you as someone totally different from me. Of course I always knew you were hard-working," he said, one corner of his mouth pulling up in a smile. "You had a reputation at Hogwarts, not to mention you came top of our year in every class we shared. Still, it was different, sitting side by side every day. It made me curious. When we started talking over Christmas, it turned out you weren't quite as bad as I'd always thought." She shook her head, smiling at his careful phrasing.

"It only took a few rules and manoeuvers with potions research, and suddenly we were friends," Draco said. He tilted his head to rest it against hers. "Of course, it was still superficial, until we altered the rules in May."

"Was that what... changed things for you?" Hermione asked. It was difficult to decide which words to use when he was being so careful in his phrasing; she didn't want to say the wrong thing and scare him off.

"It was part of it," he said. "Before May, there were too many uncertainties. I didn't know what you thought about my past, and obviously we were avoiding too many subjects to have any semblance of a normal friendship. Afterwards..." He paused. "Remember when we started using first names?"

"Yes, of course, Draco," Hermione said, smiling at the memory. They'd used each other's name at every opportunity.

"It was surprising to find how much of a difference it made," he said quietly. "It was addictive, in a strange way, to hear you say my name. For one thing, I saw it as proof that we'd moved past everything that happened during the Hogwarts years. I doubt that that explains how much it mattered to me, however." He paused, absent-mindedly running his fingers over the back of Hermione's hand. "I suppose that should've been my first clue to... how much you meant to me. I didn't realise, though. I assumed it was because our friendship was different from previous experiences." He sighed. "We talked much more, after that. We went out for my birthday, too. Even so, it wasn't until late June that I realised..." He trailed off. "It was that day you found out about my date of birth. You were livid, of course. In retrospect, I don't know how I ever thought I'd get away with not telling you. Either way, at the end of that discussion, you embraced me."

She resisted the urge to chuckle at his formal choice of words. "I did," she acknowledged.

"It was a shock to the system," he said wryly. "It put a few things in a different light." He shook his head again. "Before I could think through what it meant, we were in Rome. By the time we got back, I was head over heels, no doubt about it. Every time I looked at you..." He didn't finish the sentence.

"What?" she prompted after a moment.

He turned his head and met her eyes. Fingers ghosted over her cheek. With a small smile on his lips, he leaned in and kissed her so thoroughly it left her quite breathless. "Every time I looked at you, I wanted to do that," he said, smirking at her as he lay back down, "and I knew I couldn't."

"I doubt I'd have objected," she said faintly.

"Yes, well, I didn't know that, did I?"

"Because you didn't ask," Hermione quipped.

He sighed. "Fine, yes, I should've talked to you. From what I've heard, though, it took you all seven years of Hogwarts to get together with Weasley. Your track record is worse than mine."

Hermione laughed. "The last thing I want to talk about now is Ron," she said, "but you're right. Neither of us are very good at communicating."

"We'll work on it," Draco said, nuzzling her cheek with his nose. She never would've thought Draco was the type to cuddle, but here they were, curled up on a blanket under the winter sky. Unexpected as it was, she absolutely wasn't complaining.

"Can I tell Harry and Ginny?" she asked after a brief moment of silence.

"About us?"

"Yes, what else?"

"If you want to, of course. They're your friends," he said matter-of-factly.

She met his gaze. "Will you come with me?"

He raised an eyebrow. "No," he said curtly.

Hermione had expected that reply, but she didn't like to hear it. She considered trying to convince him to change his mind. It probably wouldn't work, though. "Okay," she said after a moment, keeping her gaze fixed on the stars.

She could feel his eyes on her and realised his refusal might not have been as firm as she'd thought. "Why would you want me to come with you?" he asked, confirming her suspicions.

"They're my friends," she said. "I want you to know them. I want them to know you." Be honest, Hermione, she reminded herself. "Also, I suppose..." She hesitated. "I suppose I was curious to see whether you'd do it, if I asked you to."

Both his eyebrows were raised now. "Were you experimenting on me?" Rather than being angry, he seemed amused. "I told you, you should've been sorted into Slytherin, Hermione." He gazed at her for a moment. "I'll consider it," he said eventually. "Girl Weasley wasn't so bad."

"You know they have first names, don't you? There's no need to refer to Ginny by her gender," Hermione said crisply.

"As for Gryffindor's Golden Trio," Draco continued, his smirk the only indication he'd even heard her comment, "you've rather disproved my prejudices, but Weasley - excuse me, Ron - was worse last May than he'd ever been at Hogwarts. I don't really know what to expect of Potter, though he was fairly civil when he was acting as my legal counsel."

"Only one way to find out what he's like now," she responded.

He sighed. "All right, all right. I'll come," he conceded.

"Thanks," she murmured, curling up and shifting even closer to him. He wrapped an arm around her.

"When will this dreadful event take place?" he said after a moment.

"Tomorrow?" she suggested. "I was going to visit them anyway."

"Best to get it over with, I suppose," he grumbled, but she could both hear and feel the chuckle that accompanied his words.

"Absolutely," she agreed with a grin.

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning, Hermione made a Floo call to the British and Irish Quidditch League and acquired four tickets to that afternoon's Kenmare Kestrels - Puddlemere United Quidditch match. She almost never went to matches other than to see Ginny play, but for this particular occasion it seemed like a good idea. Of course, the others were all Quidditch fans, which meant there'd be a positive atmosphere. If the situation got awkward, at least they'd have a Quidditch match to distract them.

Once she'd acquired the tickets, she sent Apple off with the invitation for Harry and Ginny. They responded within the hour. If the handwriting hadn't given Harry away, the brevity of the letter would have. She felt sure that Ginny wouldn't have been able to keep herself from asking at least a dozen questions about Draco. Harry had merely accepted her invitation and professed to look forward to the match. Hermione secretly doubted he would be all that glad to see Draco, but she hoped she could take his answer as a promise of good behaviour.

While she had been making arrangements, Draco was re-brewing yesterday's potion. She went to find him in his lab after she'd received Harry's owl. He was in a delicate phase of the recipe, so she hopped up onto one of the counters and watched him work without interrupting.

After a while, he took a birch branch from beside the cauldron and started a slow stir. He turned to Hermione. "You look excited. What did you do?" he asked, one eye on the potion.

"We're seeing the Kenmare Kestrels play Puddlemere United this afternoon," she told him.

"We are?" he asked, his eyes lighting up in enthusiasm.

"Yes, with Harry and Ginny. Did you know you and Harry support the same Quidditch team?" Hermione asked, laughing at Draco's affronted expression. "I think Ginny wants the Kenmare Kestrels to win, mostly because the Harpies really need Puddlemere United to lose. You and Harry can cheer Puddlemere on together."

"That seems exceedingly unlikely," he said drily.

Hermione chuckled but didn't respond, because Draco's potion had changed colour. He added willow bark to the cauldron, stirred again, and added crushed flowers. After a few minutes of ingredient additions - coupled with several more changes in colour - Draco increased the temperature of the fire. "Once it boils, it's done," he told Hermione, glancing over at her with a smile. "What team do you support?"

"I'm not into Quidditch enough to have a team," she said. "I'll help Ginny root for the Kestrels, I suppose."

"What, you won't support your husband?" he asked in mock disbelief.

"You won't be alone; you'll have Harry," she teased. Draco rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to respond, but Hermione gestured at the cauldron. "Your potion is boiling."

"Shit," Draco muttered, quickly turning to inspect his brew.

The potion was proclaimed satisfactory and stored in a diamond flask. They went to have lunch - in Hermione's dining room this time, for the sake of balance - and soon found it was time to go to the Kestrels' stadium.

"Be nice," Hermione said to Draco, quickly pecking him on the cheek.

"I'm always nice," he said innocently. He seemed composed and calm, but Hermione could tell from the look in his eyes and the nervous movement of his fingers that he wasn't as confident as he seemed. It made her wonder how often in the past ten years his self-possessed attitude had been merely a mask.

"No, you're not," she told him fondly. "Please, please don't start a fight with Harry. Even if he's unpleasant."

"I won't," he promised. "Let's go."

They apparated to the south face of the stadium, where they'd agreed to meet with Harry and Ginny. Hermione's friends weren't there yet. Draco sighed and leaned against the wall of the stadium, tapping his fingers against his robe. Hermione grabbed his hand to still them.

"You'll be fine," she said. Draco was about to respond, possibly to deny that there was any reason why he shouldn't be fine, when there was a pop of apparition and Harry and Ginny appeared. Hermione quickly let go of Draco's hand - holding hands seemed like a rather blunt way to announce the current state of their relationship, especially to Harry. Ginny already knew of Hermione's feelings, at least. However, if the way Ginny was currently staring at their hands was any indication, Hermione's move hadn't been quite fast enough to keep her unaware of recent developments.

Harry hadn't noticed anything amiss. "Hey, Hermione. Malfoy." He nodded briskly at Draco, with the same professional manners he'd shown two years ago when he was helping Hermione negotiate her marriage.

"Potter. And Potter née Weasley," Draco responded in equally polite tones. When Harry and Ginny had appeared, he'd straightened up a little, and the nervous movement of his fingers was back.

Ginny laughed, not at all affected by Draco's formal greeting. "Please, no," she said. "I've told you to just call me Ginny."

"Let's go," Hermione said, gesturing to the others to follow her.

"The entrance is the other way," Harry said.

"Not if you have a sky box," Hermione responded.

"You got us a sky box?" Harry asked. "You didn't have to go through all that trouble."

"Trouble?" Hermione shook her head. "Harry, any one of us four can get a sky box at the mention of their name." Harry looked disbelieving, and Hermione had to stop herself from laughing. No amount of harassment by reporters or fan mail by owl could convince Harry of the true extent of his celebrity status.

Hermione led the others around the stadium to the separate entrance that led to the sky boxes. There was a woman welcoming visitors at the door. She looked rather bored until she caught sight of Harry, at which point she straightened up at once. Then she seemed to realise who the others in the party were. She looked positively flustered now. Even among the rich and famous wizardry who hired luxury boxes, Hermione's party of four was still exceptionally high-profile.

"Mr and Mrs Potter, Mr and Mrs Malfoy," she simpered. "Welcome to the Kenmare Kestrels Coop."

They were led to their box, which had been reserved especially for them despite being far too large for four people. It was situated in the middle of the pitch, in prime position for an excellent view of the match. The setting was rather reminiscent of the Quidditch World Cup, when Draco's parents had sneered at her for being muggleborn and insulted Arthur Weasley's lack of wealth. Hermione hoped the outcome of this afternoon's gathering would be more positive.

The four of them sat down in the front row of the box, Draco and Harry each on one side with the girls between them. They were supplied with food and drinks by waiters who couldn't stop staring at Harry's scar. A glance at her watch told Hermione there were still fifteen minutes left until the start of the match. Harry slouched in his chair, in direct contrast to Draco. Away from the places where he was most comfortable, Draco fell back on the aristocrat manners he'd been raised with. He looked polite but not particularly friendly, and Hermione had to remind herself of what he was like when they were home and he could relax.

"Which team do you support, Draco?" Ginny asked, leaning forward to inspect the pitch.

"Puddlemere," Draco responded curtly. He glanced at Harry.

Harry seemed as surprised as Draco had been to find out they supported the same team, although perhaps not quite as insulted. "Me too," he said.

"So Hermione says," Draco said with a nod. Hermione saw Harry raise an eyebrow. She realised he'd never even heard Draco use her first name. She sighed, at once unsure she'd be able to tell Harry about her and Draco.

Out of sight from Harry and Ginny, Draco grabbed her hand and squeezed it. The wordless encouragement made her smile. Suddenly it was not so difficult to reconcile the aristocrat in the seat beside her with the man whose face lit up in a smile when she walked into his lab. She laced her fingers through his.

"I'll help you cheer for Kenmare," she told Ginny.

"Good," Ginny said. "Puddlemere had better not win, or they'll knock us out of second place."

"They have better chances than Kenmare," Draco said.

"I don't know. Needham and Countie are the Puddlemere beaters today and they really aren't that good," Ginny said, sipping her champagne.

"That may be true, but Harrison is the best seeker in the league," Draco responded. "Also, Kenmare has a terrible keeper."

"Oh come on. Cheatham isn't that bad," she said.

"Yes, he is," Draco and Harry said simultaneously. They glanced at each other, looking equally chagrined. Ginny burst out laughing, and Hermione chuckled as well.

"We'll see," Ginny said. "I'm still rooting for Kenmare, even if their keeper is voted worst in the league by both of you."

The teams came out onto the pitch and gathered around the centre circle. The referee brought the four balls into play. The snitch zoomed off, glinting faintly in the December sunshine before disappearing altogether. A moment later, the quaffle and bludgers shot up into the air and the game was in play. The seekers veered off in hot pursuit of the snitch, while the Kenmare Chasers were the first to take possession of the quaffle.

Five minutes into the game, Puddlemere was the first team to score. It prompted a groan from Ginny, a cheer from Harry, and a smile from Draco. "See? Terrible keeping, right there," he told Ginny, who looked rather irritated.

"Just wait," she said. "Kenmare will get 'em back."

The next two goals were indeed for Kenmare, which cheered Ginny up but sent the men into lower spirits. Meanwhile, there was no sight of the snitch. The sun had disappeared behind some clouds and it had begun to drizzle. The sealed-off sky box protected them from the weather, but the conditions made work far more difficult for the Seekers.

The next hour brought another thirteen goals from Puddlemere and nine from Kenmare. The Puddlemere captain called for a ten-minute time-out. Harry went to find a bathroom and waiters came to bring more refreshments. After a while, the game picked up again. The chasers bided their time, and for fifteen minutes there weren't any goals.

Ginny leaned back in her seat, taking a bite from one of the cucumber sandwiches that the waiter had brought them. "With these conditions, we could be another while." She glanced at Hermione, who was suddenly sure she didn't like what was coming. "So! Any particular reason for today's invitation?" Ginny asked in a faux-innocent tone. "I thought you were going to use this weekend for revision. That's why you cancelled pub night, right? And you were only coming over for an hour or so today. At least, that's what you said last week. Then suddenly we got your owl." She looked at Hermione expectantly.

"Um, well," Hermione hedged. She glanced at Draco, who hadn't let go of her hand throughout the match. He raised an eyebrow but said nothing. She hadn't really expected him to. It had taken enough effort to convince him to come here in the first place. "I need to tell you guys something," she said. She could feel her heartbeat in her throat and took a deep breath. "Actually, we do."

"You're dating," Harry said matter-of-factly, without even taking his eyes off the pitch. Hermione blinked in shock. When she didn't say anything, Harry looked over at her, smirking a little. "I'm not actually that obtuse," he said. "Besides, Ginny tells me things, you know. And you've been holding hands with him all afternoon."

Hermione reflexively tried to let go of Draco's hand, but Draco didn't let her, instead grasping hers more firmly. "Oh," she mumbled, unsure what to say. Harry's calm reaction was the polar opposite of what she'd expected, and it rather took the wind out of her sails.

Ginny, on the other hand, was positively bouncing with excitement. "Since when?" she demanded.

"Friday evening," Hermione responded.

"I think it was technically Saturday by then," Draco interjected with a smirk.

"What happened?" Harry asked. His voice was even, and he was watching the match again. Hermione couldn't tell how he felt about any of this. It was frustrating. Harry wasn't usually this hard to read.

She glanced at Draco,trying to decide how to describe their midnight encounter on Friday. The fight, the kiss, Draco's attempt at brewing an antidote - it all seemed too personal and intimate to tell Harry or even Ginny.

In the end, she didn't have to say anything at all; Draco was willing to save her this time. "We had a rather heated discussion, which led to some accidental confessions. Suffice it to say that we discovered a certain... mutual regard for each other," he said. His careful explanation made Hermione smile, but Ginny wasn't so pleased.

"So many words, yet you haven't told us anything," she said with a pout.

Draco smirked at her. "I think I'll leave the rest to your imagination."

"So?" Hermione said to Harry, who was watching Draco now with an inscrutable expression on his face. What if he thought Draco was leading her on? She knew how hot-headed Harry could be, even though he'd mellowed out after the war. Her fingers trembled against Draco's.

"All right," Harry said after a moment.

Hermione sighed in relief, but was startled when Draco said, "I don't need your permission, Potter." She looked at him in shock. He'd promised to behave, hadn't he? What was he thinking, antagonising Harry this way? Before she could react, however, Draco continued, "But I do appreciate it. Thank you." He pulled his hand from Hermione's to offer it to Harry, and Hermione realised with a stab of shame that she'd underestimated his willingness to cooperate with Harry.

Harry hesitated for only a split second before shaking Draco's hand. The two nodded briskly at each other and then turned back to the game.

"We missed a Puddlemere goal," Draco complained when he saw the scoreboard.

"There's the snitch," Ginny said suddenly. She pointed at some place high above the Puddlemere hoops. Harry and Draco nodded vigorously, while Hermione sought the skies in vain for a glimpse of the little golden ball. Clearly, the experience that the others had had as seekers at Hogwarts - and in Ginny's case even beyond that - helped them to find the target. Eventually, she gave up and focused on the seekers instead, who were far easier to spot than the tiny snitch. They were battling it out in the sky, fighting for the lead in their pursuit. The blue-clad Puddlemere seeker was inches ahead of his rival as they sped through the air. Suddenly, a bludger flew at them out of the blue and narrowly missed the two seekers. When they had regained their bearings, the snitch was gone.

"Puddlemere would've had it." Harry heaved a sigh. "The beaters should've kept up with that bludger."

"I told you the Puddlemere beaters are terrible," Ginny said. "And speaking of 'I told you so', Hermione," she continued, grinning, "admit it: I was right."

"About what?" Draco cut in.

"Ginny!" Hermione shoved her friend's arm. Ginny looked at her impatiently. "Okay, you were right." Hermione could feel a blush creeping up her cheeks.

"About what?" Draco repeated.

"I'll tell you later," she said. She certainly wasn't going to tell Draco about Ginny's predictions and admonishments while she and Harry were listening in.

Draco looked like he might complain, but thankfully he kept himself in check. "Fine. Tell me at home," he said.

Hearing the Manor referred to as 'home' made her feel warm inside and brought a smile to her lips. Draco saw it and quickly brushed his hand against her cheek in a gesture of affection before returning his attention to the game.

The Kestrels brought the score level with four goals in ten minutes. Ginny became ever more cheerful. Harry and Draco took turns lamenting the deplorable performance by the Puddlemere beaters, who clearly weren't in top form. A goal from Puddlemere brought them in the lead again.

"Look, the snitch," Draco said. He pointed a little to his left, where it was hovering quite close to their sky box, as yet unnoticed by any of the players. This time, it was near enough that even Hermione could find it without much trouble. The little golden ball drifted slowly closer until it flitted right in front of them. It was only inches away but impossible to reach behind the glass that separated their box from the pitch.

Suddenly the Puddlemere seeker saw his target. The snitch whizzed away with the seeker in pursuit. Within moments, the Kenmare seeker was following his rival, but this time he was far behind. The Puddlemere beaters kept the bludgers in check now. Half a minute later, Puddlemere's seeker held the snitch in his hand and the visitor's stands were exploding with cheering fans.

"Yes!" Harry said, pumping his fist and cheering with the other fans.

Draco grinned at Hermione, who commiserated with Ginny over the Harpies' drop in standings. The Puddlemere players flew a circle around the pitch with their seeker in the lead, still holding the snitch up for all to see. The Kestrels dejectedly left the pitch.

"Puddlemere deserved the win," Harry said, still smiling.

"Fine, yes, they did," Ginny said, sounding a little irritated. "Don't rub it in; it's bad enough that they're taking second place. I know it's our own fault after we lost yesterday."

"You played the Arrows yesterday, didn't you?" Draco asked. Though it wasn't the first time, Hermione was still a little surprised he joined the conversation of his own accord. She was glad that the afternoon was going so well, though. Frankly, she hadn't dared hope for this much.

"Yes, we did," Ginny said. "They were up by twenty points when their seeker caught the snitch. Our coach was livid. Quite rightly, of course - the Arrows are in second-to-last place. We should've been able to beat them with one hand tied behind our backs. Certainly I should've been the one to catch the snitch."

"You're playing Puddlemere next week, though," Draco said. "You can take second place again if you do well enough - which I hope you don't, obviously." He glanced at Harry. For a moment he seemed to debate whether he should talk to him, but then he said, "Who do you cheer for when she plays against your team, Potter?"

Harry seemed startled to be addressed by Draco, but answered willingly enough. "Puddlemere. I like it when Ginny wins her matches or catches the Snitch, but not when it's against my team. The ideal league standings still have the Harpies in second place."

Draco nodded. The four of them watched as Puddlemere finished their lap around the pitch and disappeared into the locker rooms. The people in the stands began to file towards the exits.

"Do you want to come and have dinner at our place?" Ginny asked.

Hermione glanced at Draco, who shrugged, clearly leaving the decision to her. She was tempted to accept the offer, but after a moment, she shook her head. It wouldn't do to push her luck. She guessed the men would be rather on edge after the friendly but slightly tense hours they'd spent together. Hermione decided to give them a chance to relax.

"Some other time," she said.

Ginny nodded, and Harry said, "We'd best get going then, Gin."

"All right," Ginny said, getting up. They walked to the back of the sky box, where there was room enough to do the twist that apparition required. "Thanks very much for taking us to the match," Ginny said, leaning in to hug Hermione. "We should do this more often. Draco, it was fun seeing you again."

"Likewise," Draco said.

"Thanks, 'Mione," Harry said. He turned to Draco and said, "I guess I'll see you around... Draco." The last word sounded like it cost a tremendous amount of effort to say.

"Certainly. Until next time," Draco responded politely. Harry and Ginny took out their wands and disapparated.

Draco seemed to become more comfortable at once: his shoulders relaxed, his hands stilled, and his face looked more friendly and open. Hermione knew his formal manners were a bad defence mechanism; Harry and Ginny would both like this relaxed Draco more than the aristocratic one. However, she didn't comment. "That was fun," she said instead.

Draco nodded. "Sure," he said. "Are you glad you told them?"

"Definitely," Hermione said, "and they liked you." She stepped closer to him and laced her fingers through his. "Thank you for coming with me."

He smiled and brought his lips to hers. The novelty of kissing him hadn't worn off in the slightest. "You're welcome," he said when they broke apart for air. He raised his free hand and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Let's go home."

"Home," Hermione agreed.

--

It was strange to go to work the next day. The weekend had been so life-changing and unexpected that going back to St Mungo's felt like stepping into a different world. The hectic hospital environment seemed in sharper contrast to her quiet manor than usual. Even more than the Manor, St Mungo's made it seem as if the whole world had shifted on Friday night. Hermione had trouble concentrating on her patients rather than on Draco, who invaded her thoughts every half minute. It made her wonder whether she'd ever be able to study for her midterms, which were now little more than a week away. Even with the weekend of revision she'd already missed, her test anxiety still wasn't strong enough to dispel her thoughts of Draco.

Perhaps her lack of concentration was why it took her more than two hours to notice that something really was different than before the weekend. At half past ten, she helped a witch who had been pecked by an aggressive owl. As Hermione administered a painkilling spell and spread salve on the wound, the woman did nothing but stare at her. It wasn't entirely unusual; she was well-known for her actions during the war and had made extensive appearances in the media after she married Draco. These days, however, most people showed no more than mild surprise at seeing her.

She put gauze on the wound and spelled an adhesive to prevent it from becoming undone. "You're all set," she told her patient.

"Thank you, Healer," the woman said. She got up and walked to the door. Before she left, however, she turned back around and said, "I was in Gryffindor, you know. I can't believe you'd want a Slytherin." Before Hermione could respond, she left.

"What?" Hermione muttered. She hadn't heard a comment on her marriage in months, let alone a negative one. She shook it off, however, and went on with her work.

As she went to fetch her next patient from the waiting room, she realised there were more people watching her. Had it been like that all morning? How had she missed it? Confused and worried, she mechanically went through the motions of treating her next patient. When she was done, she was glad to find that it was time for a coffee break.

She went to the cafeteria and got herself a coffee. "Hermione!" she heard when she was looking for a place to sit. She looked around and saw Clarissa waving her over.

"Hey, Clarissa," she said as she sat down. Clarissa swept her dark hair behind her and leaned closer to Hermione.

"So how come we didn't know about your budding romance?" she inquired, looking excited and ready for a nice bit of gossip.

Hermione almost choked on her coffee. "What?" she demanded, her thoughts racing.

"You and Draco," Clarissa said impatiently. "You never told us there was something going on between you. For two years you pretend he's just an acquaintance living in your house, and now I have to find out like this!"

 "Like what? How do you know about us?" Hermione asked in alarm, peering around to see if anyone was listening in on their conversation.

"Haven't you read the Prophet?" her friend said, suddenly looking a bit concerned. "Oh dear. You might not like this."

"What was in the Prophet?" she gasped.

Clarissa looked around, got up, and walked to a table where two healers were discussing a case. A Daily Prophet lay forgotten to the side.

"Excuse me, Healer Mackey, may I borrow your newspaper?" Clarissa asked. The healer gave a nod of assent and continued speaking without a pause. Clarissa returned with the Prophet. She put it on the table and gestured at the front page.

The first thing that caught Hermione's eye was the photo. It was rather dark and gritty, but she could still clearly see what it depicted: Draco kissing her at the Kestrels' stadium, just after Harry and Ginny had left. The kiss ended and she saw Draco's lips form the words 'you're welcome', after which he reached up to tenderly brush her hair away. They were both smiling. The movement broke off and the picture looped to the beginning. Hermione's eyes were wide as she began to read the accompanying article.

Romantic developments in war hero's forced marriage

This Sunday at the Kenmare Kestrels' Coop, the Chasers weren't the only ones who scored. Hermione Malfoy (née Granger) and Draco Malfoy attended the Kenmare - Puddlemere Quidditch match this weekend. The resulting images of their passionate kiss leave little to the imagination. Hermione's marriage was originally a bid to save her life, but it has clearly turned into more.

Hermione married Draco Malfoy nearly two years ago, when... Hermione skipped the backstory and found the paragraphs that detailed yesterday's Quidditch outing.

Since their wedding, the couple has rarely been seen in public together. This weekend, however, they attended a Quidditch match at the Kenmare stadium. According to anonymous sources, they were in the company of Hermione's friends: Holyhead Harpies' star Seeker Ginny Potter and her husband, Harry Potter, the Man-Who-Lived-Twice. They watched the match from a luxury box. Although Harry and Draco had a troubled relationship in school and during the war, all their enmity seems to be over.

The same can certainly be said of Hermione and Draco, who 'seemed very much in love' according to the photographer who managed to document their kiss. At the Prophet, we wonder what has prompted the romance between the two. Is it Hermione's gratitude because he saved her life? Has Draco been swayed by Hermione's bravery during the war? Or have these two young people found a soulmate in one another?

"Merlin." Hermione took a big gulp of her coffee, found that it was far too hot, and nearly spat it out again. She swallowed with difficulty.

Clarissa was watching her worriedly. "I thought you'd have seen it," she said. "Oh, Hermione, you really don't look well. I'm sorry for bringing it up. I honestly thought you'd seen the Prophet and didn't really mind."

"I mind," she managed to say, taking a smaller sip of coffee now. "Oh, this is really bad. I hadn't even told the Weasleys about Draco and me." She sighed miserably.

"Oh no," Clarissa said sympathetically. "But Harry and Ginny knew, didn't they?"

Before Hermione could respond, they were joined by Matthew. "Hey, Hermione, Clarissa," he said, sitting down at the table. "What's going on?" He noticed Hermione's despondent expression and looked at her in alarm. "Is something wrong?"

"Don't you people read the paper at breakfast?" Clarissa asked. Matthew looked at the Prophet, saw the photograph, and did a double-take. Hermione pushed the paper toward him, and his eyes quickly scanned the article while Clarissa and Hermione looked on.

"Wow," he said after a minute. He looked up at Hermione. "I don't know whether to congratulate or console you." Hermione smiled ruefully, and Matthew continued, "When did this happen? I mean, of course you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

"I might as well," Hermione said with a sigh. "As the Prophet points out, this picture leaves little to the imagination. But I'm warning you: if tomorrow's paper contains the line 'An anonymous friend confirms...', I'll kill you."

Clarissa and Matthew promised nondisclosure. If the situation hadn't been so miserable, Hermione would've laughed at the way they eagerly leaned forward to hear her story. "It's only been since Friday," she said. "We told Harry and Ginny yesterday. Nobody else knows, and this isn't how we wanted to announce it."

"I can imagine," Matthew said.

"I really thought we were alone," Hermione continued. Considering the angle at which the picture had been taken, someone must've been standing behind the door to their sky box. As Hermione recalled, it had a window through which someone could've photographed them. She glanced at the picture again and was hit by the full realisation that all of wizarding Britain had seen it or would soon see it. Thousands of people were watching her kiss Draco. Her stomach churned.

 "Do you want to go home? You could take sick leave. Clearly these are taxing circumstances," Matthew said.

Going home to Draco. The thought was tempting. By now he'd have seen the article as well - he read the paper after breakfast every morning, before he started the day's brewing. She wasn't sure how he'd take it, but certainly he wouldn't be happy. Finding comfort in being together was a nice prospect, but... "I can't," she said. "I mean, I shouldn't. I don't want people to think this affects me, even if it does." She drank the last of her coffee. "I should get back to work."

"Good luck," Matthew said.

"Yes, good luck, and just so you know..." Clarissa tapped the picture in the paper. "You're a really cute couple."

--

The rest of the day was terrible. It hadn't been good to suspect that everyone was staring at her, but it was worse to have her suspicions confirmed. Whenever someone looked at her for more than a few seconds, she couldn't help but think that that person had watched her kiss Draco. People seemed to be whispering about her, although she hoped she was imagining it. She ran into Winslow twice, who sneered at her even worse than usual. Two nurses and a healer asked her about the article, but she couldn't be sure whether they were just curious or wanted to sell information to the Daily Prophet or Witch Weekly. In the end, she didn't answer their questions beyond confirming that she was involved with Draco.

Finally, it was time for her to go home. She'd never signed out of her shift more quickly. Seconds later she had apparated to her bedroom. It took only a few minutes to change and go to the library, where Draco was already studying. A Daily Prophet lay face-down on the corner of his desk.

He turned when he heard her footsteps. The anger and frustration on his face left absolutely no doubt that he'd read the article. Even so he smiled when he saw her. He stood up as she walked overto him, and pulled her into a hug. She rested her head against his shoulder. After a while, they simultaneously moved back a few inches. There was turmoil in Draco's eyes, but then he pressed his lips to hers and she forgot about their problems, because all she could think for the moment was that he was a really, really good kisser.

A minute or so later, Draco was in his chair again, and Hermione was perched on the edge of his desk.

"You have an owl from Ginny," he said, gesturing towards a stack of letters on Hermione's desk. "There are also a few dozen from Prophet readers." His voice was bitter.

"Did you get any?" she asked quietly.

"Two to tell me I'm a sneaky Death Eater and four to tell me I'm a good kisser."

"Nothing you didn't already know, then," Hermione said. Draco's lips twitched.

"I hope you didn't get harassed at work," he said.

"People stared at me, and I didn't know why until Clarissa showed me the paper," she responded. "It was worse when I knew what was going on." She heaved a sigh and continued, "Merlin, I'm so embarrassed."

"Me too," Draco muttered. "I should've made sure we were alone."

"It isn't your fault," Hermione said. She ran a hand through her hair. "I wanted to catch up on revision today, but I suppose I'll have to go visit Molly now."

Draco nodded. He knew how much Molly and Arthur had done for her after she lost her parents. "When were you planning to tell her?"

"Not today and certainly not via evidence in the Prophet," she said ruefully. "I was thinking next weekend, but it'll have to be this afternoon. She's probably already read the paper. As has everyone else." Her eyes widened suddenly in realisation. "Ron. He's going to kill me. Or you - yes, probably you."

"I'd like to see him try," Draco said darkly. "I know how to obscure the taste of various poisons, remember?"

"Stop it," she said, not sure whether to laugh or cry. "I don't need a fight between you and him on top of all this." She jumped up as yet another thought struck her. "Oh no! George knows, too. I'll never live this down." She could already imagine the jokes he would make. Before she could dwell on that for long, however, she remembered something else. "Oh, Draco, what about your father? Does he read the Prophet?"

"Even if he didn't, this kind of news spreads like wildfire," Draco said.

"Should you... should you go see him?"

"Already have. First thing this morning. I figured it was best to get it over with." Draco sighed, but didn't say more.

"How did it go?" Hermione asked quietly. Lucius hadn't even known she and Draco were on speaking terms. The prospect of his reaction was not a good one.

"Slightly better than I expected," Draco said, looking down at his hands. "Which is to say that it didn't go very well. But I don't really... I don't want to talk about it." He met her eyes, an apologetic expression on his face.

She wanted to know more, but it was his decision to keep it to himself. She nodded and said, "All right. I should go to the Weasleys, then."

He looked relieved that she dropped the issue. "Do you want me to come with you?" he asked.

The offer made her smile. She suspected he made it solely for her benefit. "You don't have to," she said. "I'll be all right. But thank you."

"You're welcome," Draco said, which reminded her of the photograph that documented him saying the same thing. His thoughts appeared to go in the same direction, because he said, "I think I had a heart attack this morning when the Prophet landed on my breakfast table."

Hermione chuckled. "I choked on my coffee when Clarissa asked me why I'd never told her about us."

Draco shook his head. "I suppose this was bound to happen eventually. We're both rather well-known."

"I was hoping it wouldn't be three days into our relationship," she responded bitterly. "But maybe this means the worst is behind us."

Draco nodded. "You should go read your owls and visit the Weasley clan. You'll feel better afterwards. Perhaps you can get some revision done."

"I hope so," she said, touched by Draco's concern. "Will you be all right if I go?"

He nodded. "Of course."

She turned to the stack of letters and found Ginny's. As Draco returned to his work, she sat down and tore open the envelope.

Hi!

I'm sure you've read the Prophet by now. I'm really sorry for the both of you - this is a terrible way to go public. I'll talk to Ron and Sandy so they know what's going on. If there's anything else we can do, let us know!

Love,
Ginny

P.S. Harry asks why Draco pretends to be an emotionless snob while we're there, when clearly he does care about you.

The letter made Hermione smile. She appreciated Ginny's support, though she wasn't sure what to make of the postscript.

"Ginny says we should let her know if there's anything she or Harry can do," she told Draco.

"Maybe he can help us sue the Kestrels," Draco responded with a wry grin. "I have reason not to doubt his abilities as a lawyer."

Hermione chuckled. "I doubt a lawsuit would help, although I'm sorely tempted." She turned to the other letters. There were nineteen of them, and she knew none of the senders. With nervously trembling fingers, she opened the first envelope.

It turned out the response to the article was overwhelmingly positive. People congratulated her on finding love and commented at length on their kiss. Reading the letters was mostly awkward but also quite nice. Only one of the letter-writers called Draco's sincerity into question and warned her about trusting Death Eaters. All of the other owls were friendly and encouraging.

"I'm going to see Molly," she said after she'd read all of the owls, including the two new ones that arrived while she was reading. "I think I'll be back in an hour or so."

"Good luck," Draco said. She kissed him goodbye and apparated to the Burrow.

--

Molly was making tea when Hermione stepped into the kitchen. George was sitting at the table with the Daily Prophet in front of him. Hermione belatedly remembered that Weasley's Wizard Wheezes was closed on Mondays and that George was in the habit of having tea with his mother every week. She braced herself. George did not disappoint.

"There's our little lovebird," he said as soon as he caught sight of her. "Have you brought your boyfriend?" He gestured at the newspaper, and Hermione cringed at the sight of the now-familiar picture.

Molly swivelled around. "Hermione!" she said. To Hermione's relief, she didn't sound angry at all. The Weasley matriarch at once came over to hug her. "Don't mind George," she said. "He left his manners at the shop today." She levelled a severe stare at her son.

George grinned. "Sorry," he said.

"How are you doing, dear?" Molly asked as she pulled out a chair and gestured for Hermione to sit down. She went back to the stove and poured boiling water into the teapot.

Hermione sank down onto the chair. It was nice to have Molly mother her a little. "I'm all right," she said. "It was a rather shocking morning."

"I'll say," George cut in. "Imagine my surprise when I opened the newspaper and-" His mother looked at him so angrily that he shut up. It made Hermione chuckle.

Molly grabbed a chair for herself and sat down. "George, let Hermione tell her story."

Hermione related her day at the hospital. "When I got home, I decided I should visit you first," she concluded. "I'm so sorry you had to find out this way. It really wasn't my intention."

George had sobered up a little during Hermione's story. "Why didn't you tell us earlier?" he asked. "Ginny and Harry knew, didn't they?"

"Only since yesterday," Hermione said. "I didn't tell you earlier because there isn't an 'earlier'. We've only been together since Friday. I was going to visit later this week to tell you."

Molly shook her head sympathetically. "I'm awfully sorry that this happened," she said. "It's not a nice beginning."

George was looking at the photograph. "It isn't. But you know," he said thoughtfully, "maybe you should be grateful for this picture. I wouldn't have believed he's good enough for you if you'd told me. This, however..." He gestured at the paper, where Draco was smiling at her, reaching up to brush her hair away. "I've never seen him like this."

Hermione realised it was true. The photographer had caught Draco off guard - he hadn't known someone was looking at them. The picture showed Draco as he really was, rather than the mask he adopted when he knew people were watching. Harry's postscript suddenly made sense to her, and if George's reaction was any indication, the picture might be good for something. Perhaps this evidence, unfortunate as it was, would help her convince her friends and acquaintances that Draco was serious about her.

Molly poured tea into mugs and handed out some biscuits. "Would you like to explain how this all came about?" she asked.

Hermione nodded. She nibbled at her biscuit for a moment. "I suppose it started last year," she said, "because up until Christmas we didn't talk very much."

With questions from Molly and George, it took more than half an hour to summarise the past year. When she'd related the events of last weekend, she found the Weasleys both smiling at her. "I'm glad, Hermione," Molly said. "When you had to marry him, I was afraid it would ruin your chances of finding romance."

"Which clearly isn't the case," George said, "because this passionate kiss leaves little to the imagination."

Hermione recognised the words from the article and glared at him. "George, you're terrible," she said. "I'm embarrassed enough as it is."

"Oh, don't be," George said with a grin. "So when will we get to meet this new, improved Draco Malfoy?"

"I don't know," Hermione said, "but if you don't behave I won't be inclined to bring him here, ever."

George laughed. "I'll behave."

"I'd love for you and Draco to celebrate Christmas with us," Molly said, smiling at her.

Hermione looked doubtful. "I don't think he'll want to," she said slowly, hoping she wouldn't hurt Molly's feelings. "Besides, Ron will be here, won't he? They'll get into a fight, I know they will. I can't even imagine what Ron must've thought of this article."

"Oh, Ronniekins," George muttered. "If my brother is stupid enough to begrudge you your happiness, he's the one who should be banned from Christmas dinner."

"We aren't banning anyone," Molly said. "If you do want to come, Hermione, I'm sure we could prevent the boys from starting an argument."

"I'll tell Draco," she promised, though she knew what the answer would be. Even if Draco didn't flat-out refuse to come with her, she knew he wouldn't really want to. Spending a day with a dozen people he didn't know or like was the height of discomfort. If she had to attend some sort of celebration with all of Britain's rich elite, she'd feel just as uneasy. "In fact, I'll go tell him straight away. I should go home and revise for my exams, anyway."

"Don't get distracted by his lips," George said.

"Shut up, George," she mumbled. She certainly wasn't going to admit how appropriate his warning was.

"I'm glad you stopped by, dear," Molly said, yet again fixing George with a stare. "Don't worry about Ron too much. If he gives you any trouble, just let me know. I'm still his mother."

"Ronniekins will get what's coming to him if he puts so much as a toe out of line," George added.

"Thanks," Hermione said. "I'm lucky to have you both."

--

Draco was still at his desk, reading a potion recipe book. Hermione stood behind him and put her hands on his shoulders. "I'm back," she said.

"I can see that," he said, tilting his head back to look at her. She leaned over and kissed him, which turned out to be rather complicated in this upside-down position. It made them both laugh.

"How did it go?" he asked.

"It went well," she said. As she spoke, she ran her hands through his hair, which made him hum in pleasure. She told him how Molly and George had reacted and ended by repeating Molly's invitation. As predicted, Draco was highly sceptical at the idea of spending Christmas with the Weasleys. He kept most of his sarcastic commentary in check, but he sighed in relief when Hermione said she hadn't really considered the offer. "We can just have Christmas dinner in my wing again," she said. "Like last year."

"Although hopefully not as awkward," Draco responded with a smirk. "I'd like that. Now get on with your revision, wife dear." He gestured at the books on her desk.

"Yes, oh husband of mine," Hermione said, chuckling at the title. She reluctantly left him and went to her own desk. Draco called for a house-elf to bring her tea. Soon she found herself quite engrossed in her medical texts.

--

Much to her surprise, the owl that she received from Ron that night wasn't a howler. Instead, he wrote:

Hey Hermione,

Rotten way to announce your relationship. Hope you're well. I think you're making a mistake, but I've been wrong before, so who knows? See you Friday.

Ron

It hurt that he thought she was making a mistake, even though she hadn't expected anything different. Still, the letter was much more friendly than she could've dreamed. She read it to Draco, who had finished his studies for the day and was reading a novel in one of the library's armchairs. "What on earth has Ginny said to him?" she said when she was done. "He admitted that he's been wrong. In writing, too. He's usually at least as stubborn as you in these things."

Draco grimaced at being compared to Ron. "Perhaps she's knocked some sense into him with a few bludgers," he suggested.

"She would." Hermione chuckled. "Well, I'm glad Ron takes it so well."

"We'll have to thank Ginny," he said.

Chapter Text

 

For the rest of the week, Hermione spent every spare moment revising. Draco provided her with encouragement and steaming mugs of tea. He also kept her company in the library even when he wasn't studying. She didn't have the heart to tell him that he was her biggest distraction. Besides, she really didn't want him to go. It filled her with warmth to glance over at the armchair and find him there with a book. It was difficult to stop looking at him once her eyes had drifted in his direction. Her gaze lingered on his face or his hair - the softness of his blond strands was familiar to her fingers now, and she wanted more of it. It was cold outside and clothing covered most of his body, but her eyes still strayed to every bit of visible skin. Whenever he caught her looking at him, he inevitably made some remark about her lack of concentration, but more often than not he was smiling. The contrast between his happiness and his black moods in autumn couldn't be greater.

At the hospital, she continued to be in the spotlight due to the recent media attention. Patients and colleagues alike asked questions or made comments, and she was always stared at. A few times her patients turned out to be undercover reporters for Witch Weekly or the Daily Prophet. She ignored them as best she could, but she was glad every day when she could escape the public scrutiny and return to the comfort of her home.

She had dinner with Draco every night, alternating between his wing and hers. During dinner, he told her about his studies. He also asked endless questions about her patients at the hospital and inquired whether she'd been harassed by reporters. Spending every day with Draco reminded her of last summer. Their relationship was different now, but in some ways it felt as though the dark, lonely autumn hadn't happened at all. They'd simply continued where they'd left off, growing ever more comfortable in each other's company. Just as she had in Rome, Hermione half expected that there would come a moment when she'd need her space, but just as in Rome she found herself disappointed at the end of every day when she parted from Draco.

After dinner, they'd often stay up late talking or kissing. But they each spent the nights in their own wing, and neither had yet broached the topic of changing that particular habit. Hermione wanted to, but she wasn't sure enough of Draco's reaction. On the night of their first kiss, he'd asked her to date him. She was keenly aware that this was far less of a commitment than her own words later that night. Since then, he'd never alluded to the status of their relationship. At the same time, his actions spoke louder than his words: the sacrifices he'd made for her last autumn spoke of far more than 'just dating'. Every now and then she found him watching her so intensely that she felt he'd stop at nothing to keep her safe and to keep her with him. Yet he never said a word about how he felt. She wasn't sure what to make of it. With all her attention on her midterms, she didn't have the mental energy to think at length on the confusing messages that Draco was sending.

She wanted to study throughout the weekend, but in the end she decided not to cancel her pub night. She hadn't seen Ron and Sandy in two weeks. After Ron's encouraging letter, he deserved an opportunity to talk to her about the changes in her life. He was still her friend, and she appreciated the effort he was making with regards to Draco, even if what he did really wasn't much. To this end, she told Draco goodbye at eight o'clock on Friday night and apparated to the Leaky Cauldron. She'd briefly considered inviting Draco along, but that would almost certainly ask too much of both him and Ron.

As usual, the five friends went from the Leaky Cauldron into muggle London until they found a pub that looked inviting. Staying in the Cauldron inevitably meant that one of them would be recognised. The chances of that were even higher now that Hermione had recently been in the news.

Not much was said until they were all seated in the corner of a muggle pub and had been provided with drinks. They were all silent for a moment. The events of the past week seemed to be acting as the metaphorical elephant in the room.

It was Sandy who broke the silence. "How are you, Hermione? You must've had a rough week."

Hermione smiled at her. The past few months, she'd come to know Sandy as a sweet, caring girl, and this question proved it once again. "I'm all right," she said. "It's been rather crazy, especially at work. The good things outweigh the bad, though." She'd gladly appear in a dozen more newspaper articles in order to be with Draco.

"How's Draco taking it?" Harry asked. She was surprised he asked the question. She'd assumed he tolerated Draco for her sake, but she wouldn't have thought he really cared how her husband felt.

"Better than I am," she said thoughtfully, "but then he doesn't get as many stares."

"Why not?" Sandy asked.

Hermione hesitated. "He doesn't see a lot of people," she said. "He still isn't happy about the article or the picture, of course." She sighed.

"Maybe he shouldn't have kissed you, then," Ron cut in. He looked rather repulsed at having to mention Draco kissing Hermione, but at least he was talking to her.

"No, he should've waited until we were at home," she amended with a half-smile. She wasn't going to pretend to Ron that she was on board with the idea of not being kissed by Draco.

Ron grimaced, but didn't say anything. Ginny hid her grin behind her hand. "Mum said you came to see her on Monday," she said.

Hermione nodded. "George was there, too," she said.

Harry grinned and said, "I wish I'd been there. He must've had a field day."

"I thought there'd never be an end to the jokes," Hermione agreed. "He was supportive, though, which was nice." She glanced at Ron. "What do you think of it?" she asked after a moment. She wasn't sure whether she'd like the answer, but she wanted Ron to know that she cared about his opinions.

Ron sighed. "I don't understand what you see in him. He treats you terribly," he said.

"He doesn't," Hermione denied quietly.

"Doesn't he?" Ron challenged. "I visited last spring, remember? He talked about you as if you weren't even there! It wasn't respectful at all! 'Whatever, Hermione'," he quoted, imitating Draco's sneer so well that Harry and Ginny burst out laughing. Ron looked at her expectantly. He didn't seem to be angry, but he clearly wanted an explanation.

Hermione bit her lip, trying to decide how to respond. The worst of it was that Ron was right - on that occasion, Draco had been deliberately antagonistic toward Ron and had disrespected her in the process. She ran a hand through her hair. "I know he was unfair to you," she said. "And to me as well, which I called him out on afterwards." Ron nodded brusquely. She was glad he managed to keep a clear head for once.

"Look," she continued after a moment. "He doesn't like you. He didn't like you when we were eleven, and he doesn't want to give you another chance because he's a stubborn fool sometimes. I'm sorry he was rude to you. But he isn't like that to me. Not anymore." She looked down at her hands.

"What's he like, then?" Ron asked. She looked up to find all four of the others watching her, curious to hear her response. It made her blush.

"I don't know," she murmured, shaking her head. "He... We look after each other. He keeps me company while I study, even when he's done with his own work. He's studying to become a potion master, you know - he wants to take the exams earlier than usual. We used to debate ingredients and recipes for hours and hours over the summer. I guess you could say he challenges me. Intellectually, I mean." She traced the rim of her glass. She didn't talk about Draco all that much. She'd kept Ginny and Harry updated and she'd once told Matthew about her marriage, but it was different to have to really describe him. "He likes listening to my stories about the hospital. Or maybe he just likes listening to me. He offers to kill anyone who annoys me, but he doesn't mean a word of it." She smiled at the thought and took a deep breath, trying to find more to say. "He went to see Harry and Ginny with me, even though it made him uncomfortable, just because I asked him to. He even offered to come with me when I went to visit Molly. And he looks at me like..." She shrugged, not sure how to explain the warmth and reverence in Draco's eyes without sounding like a madwoman.

"Like in the picture," Ron said.

"I suppose," Hermione said, uncomfortably reminded that everyone, everywhere, had seen Draco look at her like that. Nobody responded. "That's what he's like," she said eventually.

She looked at her four friends. Ginny, Harry, and Sandy were smiling at her. Ron sighed. "I'm not going to be friends with him," he warned.

Hermione knew it was as close to approval as she'd get. She nodded in relief. "You don't have to," she said.

"That's what she told me last year," Harry said, "and now I'm calling him Draco."

Ginny laughed. "Yeah, so you know what's coming, Ron."

Ron looked disgusted, and the others all laughed at him. "I'll keep calling him Malfoy, thanks," he grumbled.

"As long as it isn't 'ferret'," Hermione said with a chuckle.

"If he doesn't call me 'weasel'," Ron responded challengingly.

"He hasn't since last year," she said, "so you have no excuse."

"Sure I do. Payback for tormenting me in school," Ron muttered.

Hermione sighed. She couldn't deny that Draco had treated Ron - and her and Harry, and pretty much everyone else - abominably in school. "I know he treated you badly," she said quietly. "I just... I'm asking you to let it go. For my sake if not for his."

"All right, all right," Ron said. "I'll let it go."

She smiled at him. "Thanks, Ron. You're the best."

Ron grinned at that. "So, Harry," he said, "any interesting cases this week?"

As Harry started to describe the week's work at his attorney office, Hermione sighed quietly in relief. On the whole, her conversation with Ron had gone much better than she'd dared to hope. Perhaps, someday far in the future, she'd be able to have her friends and her husband in the same room without having to fear they'd kill each other.

 --

Hermione took her midterms the next week. She went into the exam rooms in trepidation, sure that her lack of revision time would cause her to fail these tests. At two o'clock on Wednesday, she wrote the last lines of her exams. She'd been able to give an answer to all of the questions, and she felt marginally more secure now of getting a passing grade. Her friends laughed at her for even considering the notion that she wouldn't get an E at the very least.

"You're too insecure," Draco told her when she was home again and told him about the exams. "Of course you passed. You never do anything else. I doubt it even matters how much you've revised."

She wasn't convinced, but his encouragement made her smile. "We'll see who's right when I get the results," she said. "How's your work coming?"

He gestured at the parchment in front of him. "I want to finish this essay and brew two batches of Forgetfulness Potion No. 3, and then I'll be done for the year."

With some effort, she'd convinced Draco to take two weeks off for Christmas. He didn't want to lose even more time in finishing his studies, but he'd eventually given in to the temptation of spending the holidays with Hermione.

"I'll go do Christmas shopping with the house-elves so you can finish your work," she said. "What's on your wish list?"

He looked up in surprise, as if he'd forgotten that Christmas involved presents. "I don't know," he said. "I'm sure you can think of something. What do you want?"

She smiled. "You don't have to get me anything. It's your turn to give presents at our anniversary."

For a fleeting moment, she thought he looked nervous, but then he chuckled and the expression disappeared. "All right," he said. "Go do your shopping.”

She called Ditty, Nocky, and Toddy. They went to Diagon Alley to get a Christmas tree and ingredients for dinner. It was very reminiscent of last year, only this time she was far more sure of what she was doing. Last year, she’d feared that Draco might not show up to dinner at all. This time, there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that they’d have a lovely Christmas.

When nearly all of the shopping was done, she sent the house-elves home with their purchases. She stayed behind and roamed the stores for something to give to Draco. She didn’t want to give him a book, like she had last year, but she had trouble coming up with a better idea. A new chess set, potion-making tools? Suddenly her eye was caught by the large windows of Quality Quidditch Supplies, where shiny brooms were laid out for all to see.

She knew Draco’s current broom was old – he still used a Nimbus 2002, which he’d received somewhere halfway through Hogwarts. It didn’t take long to decide that she’d get him a new one. It took much longer to listen to the salesman’s endless litany about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the many different brooms. She wasn’t sure whether his enthusiasm stemmed from having a rich celebrity in his store, or whether he just lived for selling brooms.

When he'd described several brooms, the salesman started asking her questions about what she wanted in a broom. "Are you going for speed? Or would you prefer to have more agility options? The Cleansweep just introduced a new line that specifically focuses on easier movement."

"I don't know," she said, looking at the brooms a little despairingly. "It's for someone else. I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I’m not into flying." She glanced at her watch. It was just past office hours. "You're open until six, right?"

"That's right, Miss," the salesman responded.

"All right. Let me go get a friend to help me make the decision," she said.

Two minutes later, she was knocking on Harry and Ginny's door.

"Hermione!" Harry said when he saw her. "What are you doing here?"

"Do you want to go broom shopping with me? Ginny can come too, if she wants to," Hermione said without preamble.

Harry's eyes lit up in excitement. "Right now? Ginny is out having dinner with some teammates, but I'd love to," he said. "And it's about time you got a new broom."

"It's not for me," she said with a chuckle. "It's for Draco. A Christmas present. I was at Quality Quidditch Supplies, but I didn't understand a word of what the salesman was saying, so I decided I'd call in some help."

Harry looked doubtful. For a moment, she was afraid that the prospect of buying something for Draco would put Harry off. In the end, Harry's enthusiasm about brooms won out. "What does he have now?"

"A Nimbus 2002," Hermione said.

"Okay," Harry said with a nod. As he spoke, he quickly grabbed warmer robes and gloves to protect himself against the cold. "And he had a 2001 before that. All right, he favours agility over speed, then, which makes sense given his flying style."

"I'm sure it does," Hermione muttered. "Isn't the Nimbus fast, though?"

"Sure," Harry said, "but you could get faster. The Cleansweep Eleven was out before the 2002, and it was the choice for speed. And the Firebolt 2 is as fast as the Nimbus, but it reacts differently to altitude changes. If he opted for a Nimbus, he favours ease of movement over anything else. The newest Nimbus isn't much good, though, so we should probably consider the new Cleansweep Agile, the Firebolt 3, or the Comet 360."

Hermione blinked at him and said, "Let's just go to the shop so you can discuss this with that overenthusiastic salesman. I'm sure he'll be glad to have a fellow expert to talk to."

Harry laughed, and they apparated back to Diagon Alley. Soon after, Harry was debating the finer qualities of the newest Cleansweep, Firebolt, and Comet with the salesman. Hermione kept her distance, admiring the shiny brooms while Harry asked questions about how the different models reacted to speed, height, and movement.

"Who is this broom for?" the salesman asked Hermione while Harry was giving the last two options - Cleansweep Agile and Firebolt 3 - one final inspection. The man looked curious but not overly so.

Before Hermione could respond, Harry cut in, without taking his eyes off the Firebolt's handle. "Is this confidential?"

Hermione realised she hadn't even thought of the possibility that the salesman might give out information to the media. That could ruin her surprise for Draco and embarrass her even more to all of wizarding Britain.

"Absolutely, Mr Potter," the salesman said calmly. "Information about our customers is not released to anyone under any circumstances. We sell to Quidditch players nationally and internationally. We'd be out of business within weeks if we started leaking facts about our customer's brooms, or in fact any of their purchases. Would you like to see our policy in writing?"

Harry shook his head. "No, that's all right." He straightened up and turned to Hermione. "You should get the Agile," he said.

"I'll do that, then," she told the salesman. He nodded.

"All right, Miss. Would you like an engraving on the handle?" he said.

"Um, yes," she said. She blushed under the expectant gazes of both the men. "'From Hermione, with love'. It's for my husband," she added.

"I suspected as much," the salesman said, smiling kindly at her. "He's lucky. This is a great broom."

She made an appointment to pick up the broom the next day, and then she and Harry left the store. "Thanks for asking me to come along," Harry said. "That was fun."

Hermione laughed. "You're welcome. I'm glad you could come; I wouldn't have known what to do without you. Now I can be sure I've got the right present."

"So what are you doing for Christmas, then?" Harry asked.

"Just staying home," Hermione said, smiling at the prospect. "I might visit the Weasleys on Boxing Day, but I don't think I can convince Draco to come with me. Will you and Ginny be there?"

"Yeah, we're celebrating with Molly and Arthur. Charlie is coming over from Romania, too."

"That's great," Hermione responded.

"Oh, before I forget," Harry said, "Would you and Draco like to spend New Year's Eve with Ginny and me? George will be there, too. Angelina's going to South-America with her parents, but George couldn't go, because he has to open the store again right after the new year."

"What about Ron and Sandy?" Hermione asked.

"They're visiting her parents. I wouldn't invite Draco if Ron were going to be there. The holidays are a time of peace.” Harry grinned at her, and she chuckled.

"I'd love to come. I'll ask Draco.”

"All right, let us know when you've decided.” Harry glanced at his watch. "I should get home."

"Thanks again," Hermione said.

--

The next few days passed in a blur. Hermione went shopping again to find presents for her friends and made endless preparations for Christmas. Draco seemed to have found the holiday spirit as well. He helped her to decorate the tree and put up the ornaments. They told each other stories of childhood Christmases with their families and at Hogwarts. Draco attempted to sing Christmas carols and Hermione laughed at his inability to keep a tune, though she didn't fare much better herself.

"Do you want to spend New Year's with Harry, Ginny, and George?" she asked Draco at dinner on Saturday.

He looked at her thoughtfully. "Their house or the Manor?" he asked after a moment.

"Does it matter?" She was a little taken aback by his question.

"It does, yeah," Draco said, looking down at his hands. If she thought about it, it wasn't so strange. She knew he was more comfortable at home than elsewhere.

"If it were at the Manor, would you want to?" she asked.

Draco nodded. "I'd be fine with that, yes," he said.

"I'll let them know," she responded.

--

"It’s nice to be away from St Mungo’s for a bit," Hermione said on Monday, two days before Christmas. She and Draco were walking over the Manor grounds, making a tour of all the places where flowers still bloomed in December.

"I can imagine," Draco said. "You’ve worked hard. Aren’t internships notorious for how much work they present?"

"It isn’t actually that bad," Hermione responded. "Third year at Hogwarts was much worse."

Draco frowned. "Wasn’t that when you took every subject, even though that’s impossible, and nobody could figure out how you managed to do it?"

She chuckled. "Yes, it was."

"I think one time Pansy and I were both complaining about you, and then we found out you’d been a know-it-all to both of us at the same time, but in different classes," he said. He squeezed her hand to soften the insult in his words.

Even so, Hermione pursed her lips at the comment. "Yes, I may have been," she said noncommittally.

They stopped for a moment to admire a number of large red flowers by the path. When they were walking again, Draco said, "So how did you do it?"

"Do what?" she asked.

"How did you attend two classes at once?" he responded a little impatiently.

"McGonagall got me a time-turner," she answered. "I went to one class, then back in time to take the other class."

She glanced at Draco to see that he looked surprised and annoyed. "Time-turners can only be obtained by special permission from the Ministry, and you were given one because you wanted to take more than ten classes?" he demanded.

"Yes," she said. "Is that bad?"

"Talk about Gryffindor privilege," Draco seethed. He let go of her hand and gestured angrily as he continued, "When I applied for an eleventh subject, I was told it was impossible to take more than ten without causing a timetable crash."

"Maybe your grades weren’t high enough?" she suggested tentatively.

He looked at her askance. "My grades were fine, thank you. I was just a hair’s breadth below you."

"Maybe there was some other reason," she said.

"Face it, Hermione; I wouldn’t have received special privileges no matter how high my grades were," he said, still furious. "Giving time-turners to Slytherins would’ve been considered the aiding and abetting of future criminals."

"Well, wouldn’t it have been?" she asked. "Would you have used it responsibly?"

"Did you?" he demanded, looking highly sceptical. "Are you saying you never used it for anything but double classes?"

"Well, no, but it’s different-" she began, but he cut her off.

"Yes, because your reasons are automatically better than mine," he sneered sarcastically. "Please tell me more about how Gryffindors and Slytherins are perceived as equals! I thought you said last spring that Slytherins shouldn’t be distrusted by default!"

"I didn’t distrust you by default," she snapped. Thinking about the Hogwarts days brought back the old anger at Draco. "I distrusted you because you looked down on me from the get-go. I was 'the other sort', remember?  I distrusted you because you insulted me, and you tried to get Hagrid fired, and you helped Rita Skeeter write disgusting articles about Harry so nobody believed him when he tried to warn everyone about Voldemort’s return. Then you got in the Inquisitorial Squad and took points from Gryffindor left and right, which was hardly necessary given that Slytherin received fifty points when you betrayed Harry’s attempts to save the school from that stuck-up toad Umbridge!"

"Yes, let’s talk about house points," Draco bit out. He stopped walking and turned to face her, a mocking sneer on his face. "What’s this? Is Slytherin winning the House Cup? Let’s find a Gryffindor who did something vaguely heroic and give him two hundred points, because Merlin forbid that the Great Hall be adorned in green!"

"Fine, Dumbledore was unfair! Does that give you an excuse to take points from me for being muggleborn? I don’t care how you were brought up or what they taught you in Slytherin or whether anyone was prejudiced against you. Nobody forced you to be a bigoted fool – that was all you!"

Draco clenched his fists and looked away. "I thought I’d made it clear to you that I’ve changed my mind," he said, marginally calmer.

Being brought back to the present took the fight out of Hermione. She bit her lip. "You have," she said, "I know you’ve changed. It’s just that you’ve… you caused me a lot of grief in school. It’s not easy to forget."

He met her eyes. "I know."

For a moment, neither of them said anything. Then Draco took a deep breath and put his hands on her shoulders. "I’m sorry," he said. "I really am. You don’t have to forget that I did all those things. Just…"

"I’ll try not to hold them over you," she said.

"Yes, that," he said with a half-smile. He took a deep breath and reached out to take her hand in his again. She squeezed his fingers. After a moment, he changed the subject. "Do you want to go see the greenhouses?"

--

On the day before Christmas, presents started coming in by owl. Hermione was surprised but pleased to find that Draco had been sent presents as well: one from Harry and Ginny, one from Molly, and one from George, which was addressed to the both of them. The last one made her cringe in anticipation of what George might have come up with.

She put the presents under the tree, covered them with anti-detection spells, and forbade Draco to open them or even look at the cards. He seemed to be under the assumption that they were all for her except the one that she'd got him, but even so he complained about not being allowed to see them.

"How else am I supposed to make predictions about what's in them?" he said, pouting as he watched her arrange the packages beneath the tree.

She stood up and joined him on the rug beside the hearth. "You put your brain to use," she suggested teasingly, "or is that too much to ask? I thought you were supposed to be cunning and brilliant."

"I am cunning and brilliant," he said haughtily.

"Oh, please," she said. "You can't even guess what I got you." Over the past few days, Draco had indeed made several attempts to figure out what she'd bought him. However, Hermione was still hiding his present in her room. The other packages were all far smaller, and consequently Draco hadn't made any Quidditch-related guesses.

He looked at her speculatively. "Maybe I can get you to tell me," he said.

"I'd like to see you try," she challenged.

With one quick move he was leaning over her and pinned her to the rug. Before she could react, he was tickling her until she begged him to stop. "I'll never... tell you," she managed between bouts of laughter. Finally, he relented and kissed her instead.

"Fine," he said in mock hurt. "Don't tell me. You realise you're ruining my reputation as a Slytherin. I can't even get my wife to tell me what's in my present."

She just laughed at him and pulled him down for another kiss. Eventually, they were lying next to each other on the rug, staring up.

"You should spell the ceiling again," Draco said. "Like the Great Hall."

"I'll look it up later," Hermione promised, entirely unwilling to get up at the present time.

He rolled over on his side to look at her. "Hermione," he said quietly.

She turned to face him as well. "Yes?"

He shook his head, smiling warmly at her. "Nothing. Just... glad you're here," he whispered.

She smiled and stroked his cheek. "Me too."

--

Hermione woke early on Christmas morning. Still in her pyjamas, she went to the dining room and put Draco's new Cleansweep Agile under the Christmas tree. It was neatly packed in a rectangular box with green wrapping paper and a silver bow. Ditty lit a fire for her in the hearth. Then she sat cross-legged on the rug, with Crookshanks on her lap, to watch the fire and wait for Draco.

He showed up early, too: it wasn't yet eight o'clock when he came in. His pyjamas were green, of course. Hermione chuckled. "Merry Christmas," she said. "Do you even own anything that isn't green?"

He smiled and sat down next to her, reaching out to stroke Crookshanks. "Merry Christmas," he responded. "Do I have to?"

She leaned against him. "Green is fine," she said. She added in teasing tone, "Your present from me is green."

He turned to the tree at once, probably to eliminate any red packages from his list of possibilities in an attempt to guess what she'd got him. "Hey, that present wasn't there before," he said accusingly when he saw the large package.

"Maybe Father Christmas forgot to bring it earlier," Hermione said innocently.

"Let's open presents," Draco urged. His enthusiasm made her smile.

She lifted Crookshanks off her lap, walked to the tree, and checked the cards on the presents. She tossed one of them to Draco and returned with one for herself. "That one's for you," she said.

He looked at the card. "From Molly Weasley?" he said, bemused.

"It's probably a jumper," Hermione warned. "You can open it; I'll go second."

Draco nodded and carefully tore away the wrapping paper. Molly had indeed made him a jumper and also sent him chocolate frogs.

"It's green," Hermione said, chuckling at Draco's nonplussed expression.

"So it is," he said. "And it has a D on the front."

"This is her 'welcome to the family'," Hermione explained. "She makes them for everyone." As she spoke, she opened her own present from Molly, which contained a blue jumper with an H on the front. "See? They're nice and warm." She put the jumper on over her pyjamas.

Draco looked doubtful, but followed her example. "I suppose it could be worse," he commented, but he didn’t seem quite comfortable. Hermione had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. Draco in a jumper was something she’d never expected to see.

Hermione went and got more presents. They took turns unwrapping them, although the majority of the presents were for Hermione. Draco was surprised with every present he received. Harry and Ginny had sent him tickets to the National Opera, which he was very happy with. Hermione received mostly books, and they bickered for a while over whether the Malfoy library could ever contain enough to satisfy Hermione's thirst for reading. Eventually, they reached George's present. It was slightly squishy, like one of Molly's jumper presents.

"I'm a little scared of this one," Hermione confessed. "You never know with George."

Draco chuckled. "Here, I'll open it."

He took the package from Hermione, picked up his wand, and cast a rapid series of charm detection spells. They came out negative, and he put his wand down and carefully unwrapped it. When he pulled the paper aside, he revealed some kind of colourful cloth. They both sat staring at it for a moment. "It's a quilt," Hermione said uncertainly. She pulled the package toward her and took out the quilt, which was embroidered with images of different plants and animals. It was beautifully crafted, but she couldn't think of a reason why George would give it to them. As she folded the quilt open, a note drifted to the floor. She picked it up and unfolded it. In George's loopy, untidy script, it said, For the marriage bed.

She could feel a blush creep up her cheeks as Draco leaned over her shoulder to read the note as well. What would he think of this? They hadn't broached the topic of sleeping in the same bed or anything that came with it. They probably should discuss it, but Hermione suspected Draco was as nervous as she was about the issue. Trust George to play into their insecurities for a laugh. He was going to pay for this, she vowed to herself. She glanced at Draco, who bit his lip and looked away.

"Right," she said after a moment. "The thing with George is that you mustn't let him get to you." She folded up the quilt and put it aside. Draco exhaled slowly and then nodded. Just like that, they put their awkwardness away with the quilt and returned to their presents. There were only two left: Draco's for her, and hers for Draco.

"I'll go first," she said. Draco's present was small. He'd wrapped it in blue paper rather than the traditional red or green. She pulled off the paper and revealed a cardboard box. As Draco watched apprehensively, she took off the lid.

Inside was a miniature silver dragon, inlaid with blue and purple stones. She looked at it in wonder and ran a finger over its little head. As soon as she touched it, the dragon moved, stretching itself. She pulled her hand back in shock.

"It's a guardian," Draco said. He was watching her intently. "It watches over you while you sleep. It can gauge the intentions of intruders and it'll protect you if necessary."

"It's beautiful," she murmured, gently stroking the dragon's back with one finger. "I love it. Thank you."

"You're welcome," he responded, smiling at her enthusiasm.

She gently put the dragon to the side. "Now it's your turn."

Draco eagerly tore at the green wrapping paper of his present. Within seconds, he'd revealed the box that said in big letters: Cleansweep Agile.

"An Agile!" he exclaimed, opening the box at once to admire the sleek broom inside. "I love it," he said. "This is the best broom in production. How did you know?"

"I asked Harry," she confessed. "He said your previous choices in brooms and your flying style suggested you preferred ability over speed and that therefore the Agile was the best choice. I took his word for it."

"He was right," Draco said as he took out the broom. He spotted the engraving on the handle. When he looked up, his eyes were shining. "Thank you," he said earnestly. He put the broom down and pulled her into an embrace, holding her tightly to him. "Thank you so much."

"You're welcome," she whispered.

--

Christmas dinner was as lovely as she'd expected. The house-elves had outdone themselves, and the Malfoy recipes didn't disappoint. Nothing was left of last year's awkwardness. Instead, they had quite the romantic dinner for two. Afterwards, they spent the afternoon breaking in their Christmas presents: Draco went outside to try his new broom, while Hermione sat in front of the window with one of her new books. She took turns reading and watching him fly. It was difficult to decide which of the two was more enjoyable.

She visited the Weasleys the next day and was bombarded with questions about her and Draco.

"I thought you were going to bring him," George said when she'd finally managed to find a quiet place on the couch. He sat down beside her.

"I told you he wouldn't want to come," she reminded him. "He's gone to visit his father. But don't worry, you'll see him on New Year's Eve."

"As well as the precious Manor," George said, grinning in anticipation. "All the riches and splendour of the wizarding elite. By the way, I hope you received my Christmas present."

"We did, thank you," she said stiffly.

George barked out a laugh at her expression. "Have you used it yet?" he asked.

She glared at him. "No. I wouldn't trust a present from you further than I could spit," she said. "It could be spelled to burst into flames."

He grinned. "Hermione, what kind of person do you think I am? I would never think of spelling that quilt to harm you or Draco."

"But you would think of spelling it," Hermione said dryly.

George just laughed. Before she could press the issue, they were interrupted by Charlie, Bill, and Fleur. Soon after, Hermione was engaged in a game of Exploding Snap, and George was talking to Percy. There were no more opportunities to question George on his Christmas present.

--

A week later, Hermione and Draco were sitting on the sofa in front of the hearth in her wing, waiting for their friends to arrive. They'd had the house-elves bring some extra furniture to her dining room and transformed part of it into a comfortable place for their small party. Draco had wanted to use the parlour, which was customary when receiving guests. However, Hermione had convinced him that her dining room, with its Christmas decorations, was currently a far nicer place to be.

Footsteps in the hallway announced the arrival of their first guest. Moments later, Toddy came in, followed by George. "Evening," he said, strolling over to hug Hermione.

"Hey," Hermione said. "I thought you were going to Floo over."

"I did," George responded, "but I think I got the wrong exit. I had to take a free house-elf tour of the whole place to get here. How many fireplaces does this house even have?"

"Twenty-seven," Draco said promptly, getting up to shake George's hand. "Good to see you. It’s been a while.”

"Yes, it must be six years ago that we last faced off on the Quidditch pitch," George said, shaking his hand and then seating himself in an armchair. "I might have forgotten what you looked like if it hadn’t been for that lovely picture in the Prophet."

Hermione held her breath. She'd warned Draco about George, but there was really no telling what either of them would say at any point in time. She was a bit nervous for tonight, and this wasn't a very good opening move on George's part.

To her surprise, Draco didn't seem perturbed in the least. "I wouldn't go so far as to describe that picture as 'lovely'. The lighting was terrible," he said calmly, a faint smile around his lips.

Before George could respond, the fire in the hearth flared up and Harry and Ginny stepped out. After a few minutes, everyone was settled and provided with drinks.

"I love what you've done with the ceiling," Ginny said. "It's just like Hogwarts. How did you do it?"

"It's not a very difficult spell, at least not when you only want a temporary effect," Hermione responded. "I read about it in-"

"Hogwarts, a History," Harry interrupted, grinning at her. "You never change, Hermione."

As was their custom on New Year's Eve, they spent a while discussing the events of the past year. They talked about Ginny's best snitch catches, Harry's first few cases since he'd finished law school, Hermione's internships, Draco's studies, and George's newest products at the shop. Draco didn't speak unless prompted, but he seemed quite content with watching the others talk. He was also clearly more at ease than he had been at the Quidditch match, even though there was an additional person with them. Hermione was glad he'd asked to have this gathering at the Manor.

"Draco, have you ever been lucky enough to enjoy any Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes goods?" George asked suddenly while they were discussing his latest line of products.

As usual, Draco seemed startled to be addressed at all, but he recovered quickly enough. "Why yes," he drawled. "In fact, I once enjoyed the benefits of your Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder while guiding Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Unfortunately - or, with the benefit of hindsight, rather fortunately indeed - I exhausted my supply before running into Harry's friends. Perhaps you ought to consider selling it in bulk."

Hermione wasn't sure why Draco would want to bring up the battle of the Astronomy Tower, but she had to admire the way in which he did so. With his words, he'd distanced himself from his earlier actions. He'd also used Harry's given name for the first time. Hermione suspected their guests were left with little doubt concerning Draco's alliances, all without him explicitly delving into details of the war.

"Thanks. I always appreciate customer feedback," George said with a grin. He didn't seem affected by Draco's allusion to more serious topics.

"Good," Draco said. "Out of curiosity, does your store inventory include magical bedding, by any chance?"

Harry and Ginny looked mystified, but George burst out laughing. "I don't have any on sale," he said. "I am, however, always happy to customise for individual clients."

Hermione shook her head at the men's jest, glad that Draco and George seemed to be getting on well.

"What do you need magical bedding for?" Ginny asked in a bemused voice.

"I don't need magical bedding. I merely happened to, ah, run across it recently and wondered if it was a Weasley product," Draco said. He levelled his gaze at George, who only laughed harder. Hermione chuckled, but decided George's quilt was certainly not to be trusted.

"I think we're missing something," Ginny said to Harry. Harry nodded, looking from George to Draco and back.

"It's almost midnight," Hermione said quickly. She was sure of it: one more prompt from Harry or Ginny, and George would launch into a detailed explanation of his Christmas present to her and Draco. The embarrassment would be unendurable. She didn’t know what had prompted Draco to bring it up in the first place, but she suspected he might have discovered what was wrong with George’s quilt.

George grinned at her but relented. "It is. Time for more champagne, then?"

Ditty and Tanny appeared as soon as he'd spoken the last word. Their glasses were refilled, and they watched as the clock ticked away the last minutes of the year.

"Who's going to give me my midnight kiss?" George asked when 2003 was but seconds away. "Hmm, Ginny's my sister, Harry is like a brother, and Hermione is like a sister. It'll have to be you, Draco."

"I can't. I'm like a brother-in-law," Draco said, without missing a beat. "Besides, I think my midnight kiss is reserved for someone else." He winked at Hermione, who chuckled.

"Sorry, George," she said.

"Oh well. Saves me a lengthy explanation to Angelina," George responded.

"Hush," Ginny said. "Only twelve more seconds."

They counted down together. Draco did indeed kiss Hermione at midnight, though rather more chastely than usual now that they had company.

"To the new year," George said, lifting up his champagne glass.

"To the new year," the others echoed.

Draco got up, pulling Hermione with him. "The house-elves are lighting fireworks," he said.

"They are?" Hermione asked excitedly.

He grinned at her, seeming to forget for a moment that they weren't alone. "Surprise. Come on," he said. He led her to the window, and they were soon followed by the others.

The Manor grounds were still dark, but soon enough the first rocket lit up the sky in a cascade of colours and shapes. Hermione had grown up with muggle fireworks, which were far less spectacular. The occasions on which she'd seen magical fireworks had been few and far apart, and she still wasn't used to the splendour. She leaned against Draco, her eyes wide as she gazed at the beautiful display outside. He put an arm around her shoulders.

"That was amazing," she said, when the last light had faded and they'd all returned to the sitting area. "Great idea."

"It wasn't mine," Draco said.

"Whose then?" Harry asked, frowning.

"Nocky's," he responded. At Harry's confused expression, he clarified, "House-elf. He was rather overexcited at the prospect. They hadn't had a chance to light fireworks in years."

"Since when do you listen to house-elves?" Harry asked in astonishment. Ginny elbowed him in the ribs, and George chuckled. "Ow," Harry complained, but he looked a little abashed.

"Since last summer," Draco responded calmly. He glanced at Hermione. "Someone told me they have feelings."

Harry still looked disbelieving, but he didn't ask any more questions.

"They were beautiful fireworks," Ginny said to break the silence.

"They were all right," George said. "You should've bought them from my store. Then it would've been even better."

"Yes, or you would've accidentally sold me your infamous Wildfire Whiz-bangs, and my manor would've exploded," Draco said dryly.

George laughed. "I wouldn’t have dreamed of it," he said.

They spent another hour in pleasant conversation before Ginny announced that she wanted to go home. "Already?" George said in disbelief.

Ginny smiled at him. "Sorry. I'm just a bit tired. I think I may have caught something - I've been feeling under the weather."

Harry went home with her, but George decided to stick around a while longer. With just the three of them, Draco almost automatically joined the conversation more. Hermione was pleased to find that the two men seemed to communicate quite easily. Before she knew it, they were three hours into the new year, and George announced that he was leaving. Once they'd wished him goodnight and he'd disappeared in the Floo, Hermione curled up against Draco on the sofa. "Did you have fun?" she murmured. The champagne and the late hour made it difficult to stay awake.

"Yes," Draco said, sounding a little surprised at the realisation. "George isn't too bad."

She smiled. "I'm glad you get along." She yawned and snuggled closer to Draco. He wrapped his arms around her and snuck a hand between her robes to caress the skin of her belly. Before she knew it, her eyes had fallen shut.

--

Hermione awoke the next morning in her own bed, still wearing the previous night's clothing. It took her a moment to remember where she'd fallen asleep, but then she realised Draco must've somehow brought her to her bedroom.

"How'd I get to my own bed?" she asked him at brunch.

"I carried you," he said, smiling a little. "I figured it wasn't worth waking you up again."

"Very considerate," she responded. "By the way, what are our anniversary plans? I haven't forgotten this year."

"Dinner in my wing," he said.

"That's not much different from usual," Hermione responded.

He smiled. "I suppose not. It's tradition, but we could do something else if you want."

"No, it's fine," she said. "Should I wear anything specific?"

He pursed his lips speculatively. "The blue dress robes," he said after a moment.

"The ones I wore last year?" At his nod, she continued, "What, for old times' sake?"

He shook his head. "Because you look really good in them," he said after a moment, looking just the slightest bit embarrassed at telling her so.

She blushed at the compliment. "All right. Maybe you should wear a muggle suit again," she teased. "Like when we went to the opera. That looked good on you."

"I might as well," Draco muttered.

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked in confusion.

"Nothing. You'll see," he said cryptically, a strangely apprehensive expression on his face. Hermione raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment.

They spent the rest of the afternoon flying. Draco's new broom was exactly to his liking. He'd persuaded Hermione to use his old Nimbus, which was better than her second-hand Cleansweep. With only two of them, they couldn't play quidditch, but they played Catch the Snitch instead. Hermione was terrible; she managed to catch the snitch once against Draco's eight. Even that one time was luck more than anything else. Switching brooms didn't help, although the Agile was significantly better than the Nimbus.

"I may have to invite Ginny or Harry over some time. At least they'll put up a fight," Draco teased after the ninth time he caught the snitch.

"There's a reason I never played quidditch at Hogwarts," she told him. "Let's go inside; I'm freezing. It's time for hot chocolate, a fire, and a good book."

--

To her astonishment, Draco was indeed wearing a suit when she came to have dinner on their anniversary. When he saw the look on her face, he raised his eyebrows as if daring her to comment.

"See? Just as dashing as on your birthday," she told him, pressing a kiss to his lips.

"And you just as beautiful as last year," he said, "although this time I'm more appreciative of it."

She blushed and sat down at the table. Nocky and Toddy came to bring food. As Hermione had expected, this dinner was not much different from many they'd had over the past few weeks. However, Draco seemed slightly more on edge than usual, which confused her. She debated asking him outright, but decided to wait until after dinner. When they'd finished dessert, and she was about to broach the issue, Draco was faster.

"I have a present for you," he said, just as he'd had last year.

"Yes. Jewellery, right?" Hermione said with a smile. She'd almost forgotten about this tradition, even though she was currently wearing last year's necklace.

"Yes," he said. He bit his lip, and she realised that for some reason, the present was the cause of his nervousness. He produced a small package wrapped in gold with a silver bow.

She could feel Draco's eyes on her as she untied the bow and gently tore off the paper. Beneath it was a black velvet box. She glanced up at Draco, who was watching her intently. He motioned for her to go on, and she carefully lifted the lid.

On the velvet lay two rings: simple golden bands, one slightly larger than the other. Her breath stuck in her throat, and she looked up at Draco.

"They're wedding rings," he said. "I mean, you'd guessed that, of course. I thought... I wanted to show you that..." He took a deep breath and looked down at the table. "I know I'm already married to you, so I couldn't really... Anyway, I looked up muggle marriage customs. And apparently they have rings. I thought it would be fitting, given your background. I hope I got it right. If I didn't, you'll have to-"

"Draco," she interrupted quietly. "You're babbling."

He bit his lip again. "Yes. Sorry."

With trembling hands, she picked up the little box and stood up from the table. Draco looked at her, anxiety in his eyes. She circled the table and held out her hand. He stood up uncertainly. She smiled at him. "Here, give me your hand," she said. He complied, and she picked up the larger ring. Carefully, she slid it onto his finger. Then she took the other ring and gave it to him. He took her hand in his and put the ring on her third finger. Still holding her hand, he looked up, and his eyes met hers. She could read the relief on his features.

"I considered diamonds," he said, one corner of his mouth pulling up in a smile, "but I thought you'd like these more."

"I do," she said, and then realised the double meaning of her words. She blushed. Draco caught on as well and chuckled.

"Do you?" he said quietly, his eyes shining with mirth and happiness.

"I do," she repeated confidently.

"Me too," he whispered.

They stood like that for a while. "I love you," Hermione said.

"I love you too," Draco responded. He let go of her hand, pulled her closer to him, and pressed his lips to hers. She kissed him back eagerly.

Ten minutes later, they were lying on Draco's bed. His expensive bespoke suit jacket lay discarded on the floor. His shirt was unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, and he was lying on the bed with Hermione leaning over him. She ran her fingers along a series of pale scars on his chest. "Where'd you get these?" she asked quietly.

"Sectumsempra," he said. "Prefects' bathroom, sixth year, courtesy of Harry."

"Oh, I remember," she muttered. "Harry didn't know what the spell did, you know. Not that that's an excuse."

"I know." Draco closed his eyes as Hermione continued to trace the faint scars. "I was trying to use the cruciatus on him. If he'd known what sectumsempra did, the use would still have been justified. Although I'd much rather not have those."

She leaned down to press a kiss to the scars. "I don't mind them at all," she said.

A smile pulled at his lips. He half-raised his left arm. "What about this one?"

She traced the dark mark on his forearm. It had faded considerably since Voldemort's downfall, but it was still visible. "Not that one, either," she said. "It's just a scar."

Draco leaned up on his elbows and met her lips in a kiss that left them both breathless. They were both panting when he lay back down so he could rest his hands on her hips. "Would you..." He had to pause to inhale and get his breath back. "Would you like to stay the night?" His cheeks were flushed; his pupils were wide with lust and longing; his hair was in disarray. He'd never looked more beautiful to Hermione.

"Yes," she said. "In fact, I would love to."

 

Chapter Text

Hermione woke up the day after their anniversary in an unfamiliar bed, but with Draco's very familiar face inches away from hers. He was fast asleep, his features relaxed and peaceful. She smiled and closed her eyes again.

She couldn't say how much time had passed when she awoke the second time. This time Draco was awake and watching her, a vague smile around his lips. When she opened her eyes, he reached up to brush his hand against her cheek.

"Good morning," he said quietly.

"Morning," she mumbled. She rolled over until she was lying flush against him.

He chuckled quietly. "Does this mean we're not getting up?"

"Yes," she said. "Shut up. I'm sleeping."

"Not a morning person, are you?" She could hear the smile in his voice.

"No," she mumbled, although really her mood wasn't that affected by the early hour. Mostly, she just wanted to spend the rest of the day exactly where she was now.

Draco chuckled again and wrapped his arms around her. "Go back to sleep," he whispered, and she did just that.

The third time she woke up, Draco was sitting up with his back against the headboard. He was holding a book in one hand and stroking her hair with the other. She felt marginally more motivated to actually get out of bed this time. As a result, they were being served breakfast some thirty minutes later by giggling house-elves.

"I know the house-elves are aware of everything that goes on in the Manor, but they could be more subtle about it," Hermione said when a bouncing Toddy had very nearly dropped a plate in his excitement.

Draco laughed. "I don't think 'subtle' is in their vocabulary," he said.

When they'd finished their breakfast, they returned to his bedroom. As if they'd rehearsed it, they stopped just short of his bed and looked it, then at each other.

"Should I, um, should I move in here?" she asked, suddenly a little nervous.

He put a hand on her shoulder. "If you want," he said. "Or we could alternate; I don't want to prioritise my wing over yours. And of course you don't have to... spend every night with me unless you want to."

"I want to," she assured him. That earned her a kiss, and it was a while before she could continue speaking. "I'd never make you sleep in a room that isn't green. I'm not sure you'd live," she said, which made him chuckle.

"I think I could manage," he said, "but only for you."

"You don't have to," she said. She'd grown attached to her wing over the past two years, but she knew Draco's preference for the rooms in which he'd grown up was far greater. It would cause her no hardship to have to relocate. "I think there's some green in George's Christmas quilt, so it can adorn your... our bed."

She was surprised at the wide grin on Draco's face. "Oh yes, let's do that," he said.

"What?" she asked suspiciously. "I suppose he did put some sort of spell on it, didn't he?"

Draco laughed. "He did." He went to his dresser and retrieved the quilt. "It's cleverly hidden - I couldn't detect it with charms or spells." As he spoke, he unfolded the quilt and held it in front of him. "See? Nothing wrong with it. Except..." He turned part of the quilt over so the other side was facing Hermione and then held that part in front of his arm.

"It's transparent," Hermione said with a frown. "And what happened to the sleeve of your... Oh."

Draco laughed. "Yes. It's not just transparent - it spells your clothing to be transparent as well."

"And you'd like to see it on the bed." Hermione shook her head, but she couldn't help chuckling. "We'll have to get back at George."

"I already have," Draco said, folding the quilt up and tossing it onto the bed. "On New Year's Day, I wrote thank-you notes to the people who sent me presents, according to pureblood custom. I infused his with an undetectable Sneezing Potion."

Hermione burst out laughing. "You're diabolical," she said.

--

The last days of winter break flew past. Hermione's house-elves moved her clothes and other belongings from her wing to what was now the master bedroom. Every time she remembered that she no longer had to part from Draco at night, the thought caused butterflies to erupt in her stomach.

She received an owl telling her that her midterms had been graded with an O, and Draco took her to the opera to celebrate. She told him the story of how she'd altered the receptionist's memory when they were here on his birthday. This time, thanks to Harry and Ginny's Christmas present, they could get in legally.

Before she knew it, she was back at St Mungo's. The commotion over her relationship had died down somewhat, and work was a pleasant place to be. She could sit in the cafeteria with Matthew and Clarissa without being accosted by the press or her colleagues. Her patients once again just saw her as a healer, rather than a celebrity. She was still in the emergency department, but every now and then Canton would deploy her on an interesting diagnostic dilemma.

She remembered how she'd abandoned her friends over the summer, and made sure this time to stay caught up with Dean and Seamus, Neville, Luna, and the Weasley family. She could never convince Draco to visit any of them with her, but he seemed to like the fact that she continued to invite him every once in a while.

Draco and Hermione finally received word from the Ministry's patent office regarding their Painkilling Draught project. They had been awarded a patent, which they could now sell to St Mungo's. This required far more paperwork than Hermione had hoped and expected. It kept her and Draco busy throughout several afternoons and evenings. On other nights, they played games, debated books, went flying, or even watched films. Hermione had introduced Draco to television, which he found to be odd but fascinating.

She took him to a football match, in keeping with her resolution last June that he should be acquainted with more of muggle culture than just the opera. They watched Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 1-0. Draco seemed vaguely amused by the concept, but he spent a good portion of the match making snide comments, which ranged from, "Their keeper only has one goal to guard and he still can't do it," to "It's a good thing there's a time limit on these matches, since they don't seem to be able to score more than once an hour." In the end, he pronounced broomless sports to be 'vastly inferior to Quidditch' and wondered how Hermione could dislike his favourite sport when it should shine extra brightly in comparison to football. When they returned home, however, he did profess his thanks for the outing. He proved his sincerity with a kiss, which soon turned into something quite unsuitable for a photograph in the Prophet.

Hermione was surprised to find one afternoon that Draco had been owling back and forth with George. "He wanted the recipe for the Sneezing Potion," Draco explained after she'd inquired who he was writing to. "Apparently, it's a good product for the shop. We've been debating the ingredients."

"Heaven help us if you and him start working together," Hermione teased. "Tell him hi for me."

"I will," Draco promised, and he continued to write his letter.

--

In February, Hermione's third internship began to draw to a close. One Friday morning, as she was bandaging a patient with an insect sting, a note flew into the room and bumped against her. She excused herself to the patient and folded it open.

Hermione,

Please see me in my office for a diagnostics case on which I require your view.

A. Canton

She finished helping her patient and then made her way to Canton's office, hoping the case would be interesting. When she opened the door, however, she was shocked to find Ginny sitting in the patient's chair.

"Ginny," she said, frowning in worry. Her friend looked pale and slightly anxious. Canton looked serious, but then he always did.

"Please have a seat, Hermione," he said. "Mrs Potter, as I understand you are acquainted to Healer Malfoy."

"We're best friends," Ginny said, glancing at Hermione.

"Indeed," Canton said. "As I told Mrs Potter, Hermione, I want to present her case to you. Mrs Potter, if you could be so kind as to describe your symptoms for Healer Malfoy."

Ginny sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Well, you remember I was feeling under the weather at New Year's," she began. "I was tired and had a few headaches that week. It went away, but then a few days later I got nauseous. I thought I might be pregnant, but the spell was negative, so I thought nothing of it. Then I began to feel dizzy all the time..."

Hermione listened in growing shock and horror as Ginny described symptom after symptom that she recognised, that she knew. The waxing and waning of the symptoms, the order in which they appeared, the very terminology with which Ginny described her faints - it sent chills up Hermione's spine as she sat and listened. She tried to keep her demeanour calm and professional, but she'd never had a more difficult task.

Ginny fell silent, watching Hermione attentively.

"Did you do the diagnostic spell?" Hermione asked Healer Canton. She barely even noticed that talking to another healer with a patient in the room was a severe breach of bedside manners.

"I wanted to bring you in first," Canton responded. "As you know, the spell isn't without repercussions."

"Yes," Hermione said briskly. "Gin, this may bring on some dizziness." Without waiting for a response - another breach of the rules - she cast the spell. She watched with fading hope as the pattern of light surrounding Ginny turned purple, then red. Ginny shook her head and blinked several times to shake the disorientation that Hermione was all too familiar with.

Hermione swallowed with difficulty, then cleared her throat. "Ginny," she whispered, "you have mudblood disease."

--

Hermione never knew how she made it through the rest of the day. Healer Canton sent her back to her own department after promising to take good care of Ginny. She returned to the emergency room, but she must've worked in a daze, because when she finished her shift, she barely remembered anything about it.

 She went to see Ginny but found that Harry was with her. He was sitting on the edge of her bed, both her hands in his, and they were talking quietly. They looked far calmer than she felt, although they were both pale as a sheet. Hermione considered going in, but it felt like intruding. Finally, she apparated home instead.

Draco wasn't in the library yet. She felt a sob build up in her throat when she saw his empty chair. She knew it was an overreaction caused by the shock from earlier, but even so she could barely hold back her tears. She had to forego apparition for fear of splinching herself, and instead hurried to Draco's lab on foot.

He swivelled around when he heard her near-running footsteps and almost dropped his wand when he saw her face. With one quick spell, the potion in his cauldron vanished. "What's wrong?" he demanded as he strode toward her. They met in the middle of the lab, and she threw her arms around him and burst into tears.

He made awkward attempts to console her but was clearly anxious to find out what was going on. Eventually, she managed to say, "Ginny came to the hospital. She has mudblood disease."

"What?" Draco demanded.

Hermione took a few deep breaths and told him what had happened at the hospital that day. He held her for another moment and then conjured a chair. "Here, sit," he said, gently pushing her down. "Wait here."

He apparated away and returned in the same fashion a minute later, holding a stack of parchment. He called for a house-elf, and Nocky promptly appeared in the lab. "Here's what we do," Draco said to Hermione. "You're going to let Nocky bring you something to drink. When you've calmed down enough, you should visit Ginny. I'm sure she needs you there right now - you of all people know what she's going through. I'm going to go to the library and get back to this." He held up the parchment, and she recognised the spell diagram on the front. It was the cure Draco had tried to invent for her. Strangely enough, she hadn't even thought of Draco's recipe - all she'd been able to think was that Ginny was dying unless she divorced Harry and found a pureblood who was willing to marry. Hermione's eyes lit up in hope.

"Do you think we could save her?" she asked eagerly.

He thought carefully before responding, "I don't know. I'm fairly sure it should be possible to devise a cure, but we're on a bit of a deadline. Don't tell Ginny about it yet; we shouldn't give her false hope. I'll go through what I have so far and see what the status is."

She nodded. "All right."

Draco kissed her forehead. "I'll try everything I can," he promised. "You can come and help me when you're back."

When he'd left to start his research, Hermione followed his advice and had Nocky bring her tea. After she'd calmed down enough, she went back to St Mungo's.

One of the advantages of being on the staff was that she could see Ginny outside of visitor's hours. When she came in, Ginny was holding a book, but her eyes weren't moving, and she didn't seem to notice Hermione.

"Hey, Gin," Hermione said quietly as she sat down on one of the hospital chairs.

Ginny looked up, startled. "Hey," she said.

"How are you feeling?" Hermione asked. It was a standard question, but she didn't know what else to say.

"All right," Ginny said. "I mean, I'm just a bit tired and I have a headache, but it's not so bad. I don't... It doesn't feel like I'm... like I'm dying."

Hermione bit her lip. She'd had ample training on how to talk to sick people, but it didn't help her now that her own best friend was terminally ill.

"What's it like?" Ginny asked quietly. "What's going to happen? You know. You've felt it."

Hermione took a deep breath. "It just... gets worse," she mumbled. "All of it. Like your body gives up."

"I'm scared," Ginny whispered.

Hermione nodded and grasped Ginny's hand. "I know," she said, fighting her tears. "I am, too."

--

Draco and Hermione spent the entire evening evaluating Draco's progress on the cure. On the night she'd discovered his project, she hadn't examined his work beyond ascertaining the object of his studies. Now, he explained to her what options he'd considered and what difficulties he had run into.

"I still think it's possible," he said when he'd summarised his findings. "I'll postpone my studies, of course."

"You will?" Hermione said. Draco raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, rhetorical question. I just didn't expect you to... you know."

He shrugged. "She's your best friend; how could I not help? Also, don't tell anyone I said this, but I think it's the right thing to do." He smirked at her, and she smiled despite the emotional upheaval of the day. "You'll have to help me whenever you have time," Draco continued. "Last spring, when we worked on the Painkilling Draught, your input was invaluable."

"Of course I'll help," Hermione said.

"Should we tell her we're working on this?" Draco asked.

Hermione thought about it for a moment. "I think so. I know it's not a guaranteed solution, but at least it'll give her some hope. That was the worst, you know - thinking I would never know what was killing me, and then when we did find out, thinking there weren't any options." She smiled wanly. "Of course, then you showed up with your proposal, but I doubt anyone will rush in to marry Ginny."

--

The next day was a Saturday. St Mungo's visiting hour started at eleven in the morning, and that hour found Harry, Hermione, and Draco sitting around Ginny's bed.

"Have you told the aurors?" Hermione asked after Ginny had informed her guests that she felt no worse than yesterday. She looked as pale as the day before, and now she also had bags under her eyes.

"Of course," Harry said. He, too, looked like he hadn't caught a wink of sleep that night. He also clearly was not happy to have Draco's company at his wife's sickbed, despite tolerating him at New Year's. "It's the first thing we did."

"I don't know how much good it can do." Ginny sighed.

"Well, even if it can't save you, at least it might limit the damage to the rest of Harry's friends," Draco said.

"My friends?" Harry frowned.

"I'd say it's clear someone is attempting to get to you through attacking your friends," Draco responded.

Harry shook his head. "If they wanted to get me, why not just attack me instead?"

"Why do you think? You're a legend. The Man-Who-Lived-Twice; you're practically immortal. I wouldn't dare to lay a finger on you if I were them."

"You didn't have a problem laying a shoe on me and breaking my nose in sixth year," Harry muttered.

"So why did they attack Hermione first?" Ginny asked.

"Hermione was the more obvious choice," Draco responded, ignoring Harry's comment. He turned to Hermione. "You're a war heroine yourself, and you have the dubious honour of being mentioned in the disease's name. It increased the chances that you'd find out what was wrong with you. Revenge doesn't work as well if the victim doesn't know why they're being targeted. The name of the disease would point in the direction of the culprits, which is what they wanted - remain anonymous, yet still show you clearly from what corner the attack originated."

"But it didn't work," Hermione prompted when he stopped talking. "You stepped in."

"So I did," Draco agreed. "I don't know why we didn't hear from them after we were married. They may have been making new plans. Either way, they were spurred into action when our relationship became public. I suspect a proper union between us added insult to injury. It must have been what prompted this second attack." He nodded at Ginny, who was listening intently. "The story in the Prophet mentioned that you're friends with Hermione as well as being Harry's wife. It made you the perfect target, and here we are."

"Who do you think they are?" Ginny asked.

"I don't know," Draco said. "Death Eaters or Death Eater sympathisers, I'd wager, but I imagine you thought of that yourself. I may know them, but I haven't spoken to anyone from the Dark Lord's reign in years. It could be any one of dozens of people who supported him and are still at large."

"Do you think there's a chance of catching them?" Ginny asked.

"Perhaps," Draco said, "but I doubt it'll help you."

"They might know a counter-spell," Harry said. He looked torn between suspicion and eagerness. Draco's ability to reason out the culprits' motives had been a reminder of his past, which wasn't a good way to endear himself to Harry. At the same time, Harry was understandably desperate to find a cure for Ginny.

Hermione shook her head. "There is no counter-spell," she said.

"We didn't find one," Harry argued, "but that doesn't mean they don't know one."

Draco took out a piece of parchment and put it on Ginny's bed. It was the spell diagram for mudblood disease. "This is the disease," he said.

"What kind of drawing is that?" Ginny asked, leaning over the parchment.

"A spell diagram," Hermione responded. "It maps the properties of spells and potions in a schematic way."

"Here's the caster," Draco said, indicating one of the runes. His finger moved across the parchment. "Target, spell direction, and effect. This rune indicates that the spell is dependent on outside intelligence; in this case, that's the Ministry registry for purebloods. Positive information negates the entire process, which is why Hermione doesn't suffer the effects anymore despite still being under the spell. In all other cases, the spell affects the body in several ways." He tapped four runes that surrounded the symbol of the target. Then he pointed at several curved lines and their accompanying rune. "This part is why it's no use searching for a counter-spell. There's a shield charm embedded in the spell that guards against any other spells. It's virtually impossible even to fight the symptoms with magic, let alone lift the spell entirely."

Harry glared at him. "Did you draw an entire picture just to show us that there's no hope?" he bit out.

"No. I drew a diagram to prove that there is."

Ginny's head shot up at Draco's words, and she looked at him attentively. "What do you mean?" she demanded.

"There is hope," he said, "but I have to warn you that it's not much." Ginny nodded, and he continued, "The embedded shield charm makes your disease highly resistant to spells and charms, but that resistance does not extend to potions. There is no specific protection against antidotes."

"So can you make a cure?" Harry cut in. He seemed to momentarily forget his suspicions in light of this possibility.

"Maybe," Hermione said. "We're not sure yet."

"An antidote would have to negate the main effects," Draco said, once again gesturing at the runes surrounding the target rune. "That in itself isn't impossible - there are substances available which would cancel out each of these problems. Unfortunately, those ingredients are highly toxic. Any one of them would be deadly, and a combination of them would kill you stone dead before the disease ever could."

"So what does that mean?" Harry asked.

"It means we need to make a potion that contains an antidote to mudblood disease as well as an antidote to its own toxins. The second set of ingredients can't cancel out the first, or the entire effect will be lost," Draco said. "It's an incredibly complex problem."

Ginny bit her lip. "Well, if you've got this far in just a day, you can get the rest of the solution too, right?"

"I didn't get this far in just a day," Draco said quietly.

"What do you mean?" Ginny asked, frowning in confusion.

"I'm sorry, Ginny, but..." Draco gestured at the spell diagram. "This was the easy part, and it took me three months."

There was a moment of silence. "Three months?" Ginny repeated. "How do you mean?"

Draco looked reluctant, but eventually, he explained, "I worked on this from August until early December last year."

"What? Why?" Harry demanded suspiciously. "Did you expect this to happen?"

"Of course not," Draco bit out. "I didn't do it for Ginny. I did it for Hermione." He ran a hand through his hair, looking rather flustered. He'd lost all semblance of cold politeness. "I thought she didn't want to be married to me, and I figured... Look, it doesn't matter. The point is: I started on a cure. It took me two months to find out what I could about the spell and to get a complete diagram. It took another month to find the components necessary to cancel out the effects. I tried for several weeks to incorporate them in a potion that isn't lethal yet still works, and I didn't get anywhere. I would've continued, but I didn't, because, well..." He fell silent and gestured awkwardly at Hermione.

"Because I found out and told him not to," Hermione said.

"That's why you got together in December," Harry muttered. "This is the 'discussion' you mentioned, isn't it? The one with the accidental confessions."

Draco still looked rather embarrassed, and Hermione decided to come to his rescue. "It is, but it doesn't really matter, does it? What's important is that without this, we wouldn't have a hope of finding an answer in time."

"We still might not be able to do it," Draco warned, in control again now that the subject had changed, "but there's a chance. Meanwhile, you should try to find a new husband."

Harry glared at him. "Why?" he bit out.

"Two reasons," Draco said. "First, I have no guarantee that there'll ever be a cure, and you should spread your chances of finding a solution. Second, it's what the culprit or culprits will expect you to do. If you don't attempt to find a pureblood, they'll suspect you have some sort of back-up plan. They might panic and set up another attack, which is the last thing we want."

"Do you think we'll have any chance of finding someone?" Ginny asked.

Draco pursed his lips. "I highly doubt it. Purebloods who were proud enough to enter the registry aren't likely to want to marry someone who fought against the Dark Lord. It makes matters worse that you're already married. Divorce is frowned upon, so being a divorcée won't increase your chances. It does help that you're a pureblood yourself. But I suspect that whoever is behind this would have ascertained that there's nobody to help this time. They wouldn't want to be upstaged again."

"You're remarkably attuned to how they think," Harry pointed out, looking at Draco with narrowed eyes.

"I spent years currying favour to the Dark Lord. Of course I know how they think," Draco said sharply. "I'll remind you that I'm helping you. If you could drop the suspicion, that would be nice."

Harry glared at him, but didn't respond. Hermione put a hand over Draco's. "Come on, we should head home," she said. With Harry tired, scared, and frustrated, there was no telling what would happen if she let the conversation drag on. "We'll let you know if we find anything," she promised Ginny.

Chapter Text

Ginny was released from the hospital eight days later. Pain-killing remedies worked as well in her own house, and there was nothing else St Mungo's could do for her. Unable to participate in Quidditch training, she was stuck at home with very little to distract her from her disease. Despite frequent visits from her family and friends, she had trouble filling the many hours in each day with worthwhile pursuits.

Hermione tried to visit as often as she could, but it wasn't easy. The weeks after Ginny's diagnosis were a frantic jumble of studying, work, and research. She had to finish her third internship and start on her fourth, which involved new patients and new places and elaborate reports and assignments. She barely had a minute to herself, and there was little time to talk to Draco. When they did talk, almost all of their conversations were centred around the possible cure. As promised, Draco suspended his studies in order to spend all of his time on developing a solution. Hermione wasn't sure whether he was motivated by a concern for Ginny, a desire to see Hermione happy, or the temptation of curing the incurable. Either way, the immense difficulty of the project seemed to inspire him. On occasion, his dogged determination even outshined Hermione's.

Best efforts notwithstanding, six weeks brought them no closer to a cure. On a Saturday morning, after two particularly frustrating hours, Hermione dragged Draco away from the library. "You need a break," she told him, "or you'll go mad. Come on, we'll go see Ginny."

"To tell her we've made no progress?" Draco muttered.

"To keep her company," she corrected. "Let's go."

She regretted her insistence five minutes later upon discovering that they weren't the only visitors. When she stepped out of the Floo, she saw Ginny lying on the couch, cushions propped up behind her back and head. Harry sat in a chair close to her. The armchair by the fire was occupied by Ron.

Hermione barely had time to start feeling panic before Draco stepped in just behind her. Ron's expression shifted into a frown. To her relief, she felt Draco's fingers against her hand in a reassuring gesture. It gave her some confidence that he'd at least attempt to behave. Even so, she knew this visit could turn into a disaster.

Her worried glances were matched by Harry, who looked from Draco to Ron and back before hesitantly getting up to move up extra chairs. "D'you want something to drink?" he asked.

"Coffee, please," Hermione and Draco said simultaneously. Coffee was rarely found in the Wizarding world, but over the past months, Hermione had worn down Draco's resistance and got him to try it. As she'd more or less expected, he'd grumbled and whined about its bitterness and then promptly fell into the habit of drinking it every day.

Ron raised an eyebrow but didn't comment on Draco's choice of muggle drink. Harry disappeared to the kitchen to make coffee, and silence descended on the living room. Ron and Draco watched each other. Draco's face was impassive; Ron looked back with barely concealed disgust. Hermione prayed silently that they'd control themselves.

"How are you, Ginny?" she asked to break the silence.

Ginny seemed grateful for the question. Hermione had no doubt that she, too, was keenly aware of the tension in the room. "I'm all right," she said. She told them about her visit with Healer Canton the previous day and mentioned a new anti-nausea potion she'd been given. Harry returned with the coffee, and Hermione had to suppress a chuckle when she saw he'd brought Draco a green mug.

"Thanks," Draco muttered when he was handed his drink. Ron raised an eyebrow, and Draco met his gaze, a challenge in his eyes as if he dared Ron to comment on his display of civility.

Hermione told her friends about her week at the hospital and answered Ginny's and Harry's queries, but the atmosphere remained tense. Again, Hermione regretted bringing Draco here without checking if there were other visitors. The vast majority of Ginny's friends were people who had been at Hogwarts with them, and none of them were fond of Draco.

"Have you heard back from the Goyles or the Kendricks?" Draco asked when they'd exhausted the topic of Hermione's work.

"The Goyles haven't responded," Harry said, "and the Kendricks declined. They weren't polite about it, either."

"What did you write to them?" Draco asked.

"Explained the situation and asked for their help," Harry responded, his tone betraying that he thought his answer obvious.

Draco shook his head. "No wonder they declined. Considering that you're a lawyer, you're remarkably bad at pureblood politics, Harry."

Ron was now glaring at him in earnest, and Hermione held her breath. Harry ignored the jab and simply watched Draco until he elaborated.

"These are purebloods. They're proud enough to register as such. The last time I saw the Kendricks, they were waxing lyrical about the merits of blood purity. You helped thwart their purposes not five years ago, and Ginny wasn't exactly uninvolved in the war, either. Besides that, all Weasleys are considered blood traitors, even though they've kept their bloodline pure, just because they don't actively advocate for purity. There's nothing to endear you to them."

"So?" Ron said sharply.

"So, Weasley, it's no use asking them for help," Draco responded. He turned to Harry and Ginny again and explained himself, enunciating his words as if he were talking to children. "They won't want to do you any favours. You'll notice that I wasn't doing Hermione favours when I married her. I was making a trade. You ought to do the same. Find out what they want. Bargain."

Ron looked furious at Draco's words and tone of voice. Even Harry looked disgusted, and Draco sighed. "I know it seems unreasonable to you," he said, slightly more compassionately, "but this is how it works." He thought for a moment. "The Kendricks... From what I know, they're wealthy enough, so it's no use offering money. They're doing well enough within what's left of pureblood society..." He frowned in thought, then snapped his fingers. "Their oldest son has been married for twelve years now, and he hasn't had a child. I'd bet they can't conceive. I'm assuming you've asked for the younger son's hand. Offer to have his child so they'll have an heir."

"What?" Ron demanded. "You can't expect Ginny to... to... She's not going to cheat on Harry!"

Draco rolled his eyes. "What is it with you people," he said, shaking his head. "You're just like Hermione when I brought this up in our negotiation. You don't have to have sex to have a child, Weasley." He glanced at Ginny, who looked unhappy but resigned. "It's not what you want, I know," Draco said quietly.

"It's not," she whispered, and the sight of her, pale and worried on the couch, made Hermione's stomach twist. "You're probably right, though."

"I thought you were going to find a cure," Ron grumbled. "Instead you're telling my sister to have some stranger's child! Weren't you supposed to be smart enough to fix this?"

"I'm trying," Draco snapped. Ron had evidently hit a sore point, which was no surprise given the morning's proceedings. "What are you doing to 'fix this', Weasley? I haven't seen you in my potions lab!"

"We're trying to find the casters," Ron said defensively.

"How's that going to help? They won't have a cure!" Draco bit out.

"Yes, how is the cure?" Harry interrupted in an attempt to prevent escalation.

Draco sank back in his chair and sighed. "It's not coming along well," he admitted, glaring at Ron as if daring him to comment. "We're not a single step closer to a solution than we were two months ago. I've run over every possible permutation of ingredients that could counteract the toxic effects, but everything I add results in a cascade of cross-effects." He blew out a breath and continued. "We keep running into new problems. For example, I tried counteracting the cactus juice with oak leaves, but they interact with the wolfsbane and render the goat hairs inactive, so one of the curse's effects is still up and running. I could use oak bark instead, but that only works in a gold cauldron, which I can't use because of the poppy seeds. If I use lacewing flies, the cactus juice is no longer toxic, but it affects how the panther lilies interact with the potion's base. I'd need to find a different species of lily, but none of the other options can be combined with phoenix tears." Harry, Ginny, and Ron were staring at him now, blank looks on their faces. Draco shook his head and leaned forward, speaking more slowly as he explained, "There are over thirty ingredients in the lethal form of the cure, and it requires dozens more to neutralise the toxic effects. Everything needs different bases and cauldrons; everything requires different brewing times or spells or orders. There are just too many factors."

Ron had had the basics of the potion explained to him a few weeks earlier, when Hermione, Harry, and Ginny had spent most of an evening convincing him that Draco was honestly trying to help. He seemed lost now in the cascade of information, but he frowned in thought as he tried to make sense of it all.

"Can't you split it?" Harry asked. "Make it two potions instead of one. Give her the cure first, then the antidote to the cure. You could work with different bases."

Draco shook his head. "It has to be one potion. You don't understand how potent the cure's toxic effects are. There wouldn't be enough time to administer an antidote."

"Can't you give the antidote first?" Ron asked. Draco watched him, eyebrows raised sceptically. Ron made a heroic effort to ignore it and continued, "That's possible, right? Make a potion that protects against the effects of the cure. It's like the muggle thing. Immunolation? Immunosation? Then you could use different bases." He saw that Draco was still staring at him and grew defensive. "I know, I know, you've thought of that already and it's a dumb idea," he added, half self-deprecating, half annoyed. "I'm just trying-"

"I hadn't," Draco said quietly, eyes still fixed on Ron's face.

"Hadn't what?" Ron looked puzzled.

"Hadn't thought of it. Why haven't I thought of that?" Draco responded. Hermione could almost sense his thoughts picking up speed as shock was replaced by a rapid examination of this new possibility. "That's brilliant, Weasley. I bet..." He trailed off, lost in thought.

"It is?" Ron looked flabbergasted at receiving a compliment from Draco and was staring at him in suspicion.

"It is, yeah," Draco said absently. He turned to Hermione. "Isn't it? It would allow us to use the corn oil base for the first part."

"And we could brew the cure in brass," she said breathlessly, stunned by the sudden course the conversation had taken.

"You mean I actually thought of something that Malfoy, the Great Potion Master, hadn't thought of?" Ron said gleefully.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "I think your surprise is a testimony to the frequency of that event," he drawled. Ron scowled, but didn't pursue the matter.

"So does this mean you can make a cure after all?" Ginny said quietly.

Draco turned to her. "I don't know," he said slowly. "I'm at least more hopeful than I was this morning, though."

"That's not saying much," Harry muttered.

"Much more hopeful," Draco amended. "In fact, uncivil as it is, I may have to cut this visit short so I can get back to work."

"Need help?" Hermione inquired as he got up.

He considered for a moment, then shook his head. "Maybe later. Take a break; you've been working all week."

"So have you," she countered.

He shrugged, a slight smile pulling at the corner of his lips. "I'll see you at lunch," he said, ignoring her reasoning. Hermione suspected he might've been more willing to explain his decision if they hadn't had an audience. "Harry, Ginny, thank you for the coffee. And the mug," he said. Ron looked puzzled, but Harry and Ginny both snickered.

"You're welcome," Harry said. "We'll see you around."

"Weasley," Draco said, nodding at Ron.

"Good luck," Ron muttered, apparently with some effort. A moment later, Draco had disappeared through the fireplace.

--

When Hermione flooed home an hour later, she found Draco scribbling notes at his desk in the library, a stack of books at his side. "Hey," he said distractedly. She leaned over to kiss him, which meant she had his undivided attention at least for a moment.

"Had fun with Ron?" Draco inquired, smirking.

"I did, actually," Hermione responded, sitting down on the arm of his chair. "Though perhaps not as much as you did. 'That's brilliant, Weasley,'" she intoned. "I didn't know you had it in you."

"'Brilliant' may have been an exaggeration," Draco said, "prompted, I'm sure, by the shock of hearing him say anything intelligent at all."

"Don't go back on your words," Hermione said. She gestured at the books and parchments with new spell diagrams. "It looks to me like Ron's idea has had an impact. How are you doing with it?"

"It's promising," Draco acknowledged begrudgingly, but a smile pulled at his lips. Hermione knew he was happier with the development than he let on. "Could you get Medicinal Properties of Pine Tree Species for me?"

"Of course," Hermione said. Five minutes later, she too was busy going through books and writing notes.

--

It was the first Tuesday in May, three weeks after Ron's idea. Draco and Hermione were back at the Potter residence to present Ginny with their cure. Hermione knew Ron visited on Tuesdays, but had nevertheless asked Draco to come with her. Both men ought to be present for this explanation. Ron had been instrumental in bringing it about; Draco had done most of the work and would also give most of the explanation.

Ginny's couch had been transfigured into a bed weeks ago, since she no longer moved to the bedroom at night. She was still being cared for at home, but with six weeks until the mudblood disease completed its course, she'd soon have to be moved to St Mungo's. She slept through most of the day, much as Hermione had in the later stages of the disease. Now, however, she was awake and watched Draco and Hermione with wary eyes.

"Draco, are you going to tell me what you and Hermione have been up to?" she demanded when everyone was seated. "Hermione won't tell me anything." Hermione cringed at how feeble and weak Ginny's voice sounded. Harry met her eyes, and Hermione saw her own sadness and fear reflected in his gaze.

"Indeed I am," Draco said. Ron and Harry both sat up straighter, and Ginny fixed her eyes on his face. Draco looked around the circle before carefully saying, "I think we have a cure."

Ron and Harry simultaneously sighed in relief, and Ginny closed her eyes for a moment. Before any of them could speak, however, Draco continued, "I have to warn you that it's an experimental potion. We don't have time to test it, let alone determine if it has long-term side effects. We won't know if it cures you until we give it to you; in fact, we won't know if it kills you until we administer it. The only reason I can even consider giving it to you is because not taking it means certain death."

"I don't need a safety briefing," Ginny said, her voice sharp despite its lack of volume. She took a deep breath, but it made her cough and it was a moment before she could speak again. Hermione well remembered the feeling. When Ginny had recovered, she continued, "Just tell me what it is. You know I'm going to try it."

Draco nodded brusquely. "Very well. I expected no less," he said. "The cure consists of three potions. The first is an immunisation; it protects your body against specific toxins and strengthens your organs. We'll couple it with two spells which also have protective effects. As you know, spells can't be used to cure you from your disease, but we can still use them to fight off the toxic effects of the cure we're giving you. Forty-five minutes after the first potion and the first set of spells, we'll administer the second potion. This is the actual cure, which attacks the effects of your disease. After you've had it, you should no longer have mudblood disease. The cure, as you know, contains various toxins. The first potion will have immunised you against most of them, but we haven't been able to include immunisation against some of the slower-working poisons. Therefore, there's a third potion, which is a fairly standard antidote. You'll have to take three doses of it over the course of several hours. Depending on your physical condition, you'll also have to undergo various healing spells."

Ron and Harry looked dazzled by all of the information, and Ginny was looking at Draco with a slight frown on her face. "I'm not sure I understood all of that," she confessed.

Hermione felt herself smile a little and offered a shorter explanation. "There are three potions. Immunisation, cure, antidote. Together with a barrage of spells that Healer Canton and I will administer, the end result should be that you're weak and tired, but cured."

Draco shook his head ever so slightly at the oversimplification, but didn't object. Ginny, Harry, and Ron were nodding now, though Harry still looked doubtful.

"What are the risks?" Harry asked after a moment.

Draco sighed. "The risks are myriad. If Hermione and I miscalculated, which is a very real possibility, we could blow up the Manor while we brew. If we do manage to brew it, we'll have no way to ensure we did so correctly. We have theories about the colour and consistency of the final brew but no hope of verifying them. Furthermore, we can't test the potion. There's no animal that both magically and physically resembles wizardkind enough, and testing on wizards would be highly unethical."

"Never bothered you before," Ron muttered.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "That was then," he said curtly, before turning back to Ginny. "All of which is to say that even if we have three potions by the end of the brewing process, they could kill you at once, paralyse you, leave you in pain for the rest of your life, give you a few weeks more to live, or cure you. And if you're cured, there could be unforeseen side effects next month, or next year, or thirty years from now."

Ginny shrugged. "I don't have a choice, do I?"

"I don't suppose you do," Draco said, looking down at his hands. "I'm not trying to dissuade you. I know what your choice will be." He sighed. "Mostly, if you are going to die, I'd rather have it be by someone else's hand than mine."

Nobody knew what to say to that. Eventually, it was Draco who broke the silence again. "Any luck with catching the culprits?" he asked. "I wouldn't like to administer the cure before they're caught."

"Why?" Ginny asked.

Draco looked mildly annoyed, evidently convinced that the answer was obvious. "If you're cured, it'll be in the Prophet before you can say 'quidditch'. This would be the second time they're thwarted. They might resort to drastic measures, since they'll know their default curse has been rendered useless. You'll certainly be in danger of a new assassination attempt. Considering that I've been central to curing both you and Hermione, I don't doubt that I'm next on the list. Ergo, I would prefer to have the culprits locked up in Azkaban before I start handing out vials of the Elixir of Life."

"They haven't been caught," Ron said curtly. When he saw Draco's disapproving expression, he continued defensively, "Half the auror division is working on the case. We were close last week. One of our spell analysts had found the source of the spells, in a block of buildings in a little town off the south coast. We ambushed the place, but they must've known we were coming. There were at least two of them, and they attacked us with an unknown spell that seemed to make us stop breathing."

"It made you what?" Draco demanded, abruptly sitting up in his chair. Hermione watched him a little worriedly. Did this spell have significance for him?

Ron, too, was wary as he responded. "Well, you know," he said slowly. "It was a spell we'd never heard of. We don't know the incantation, but it produces this kind of green-blue light. When you get hit, it feels like you can't breathe. Your chest moves and everything, and our healers said we didn't actually stop breathing, but it feels like it."

"Oh, Merlin," Draco whispered.

"Do you know it?" Hermione and Harry asked at the same time.

"It's Pansy's spell," Draco said.

"Pansy?" Ginny frowned.

"Pansy Parkinson. She came up with it in seventh year. You weren't at school," he said, gesturing at Ron, Harry, and Hermione. "Not that it would've mattered - she kept it secret, of course, at least from other houses. Most of the Slytherins knew. She tried it out on us in the later stages. I think what you could learn from this is that you shouldn't systematically deny Slytherins a place in the auror force - they would've recognised the spell," he concluded, but he sounded less snide than usual.

"She was your friend," Hermione murmured in the stillness of the room.

"Classmate," Draco corrected, though when he looked at Hermione, his eyes betrayed that he wasn't unaffected by this revelation.

"More like girlfriend," Ron said disgustedly. "Harry told me how cuddly you two were on the train in sixth year. And the entire year after, for that matter."

"Shut up, Weasley," Draco bit out. "I don't recall asking for your opinion. I just gave you a lead in your case. Go and arrest her."

"Right," Ron mumbled. "You probably need to come into the office to testify about this officially."

Draco sighed. "I suppose I should," he muttered. "Let's get it over with, then."

"I'll apparate us," Ron said as he got up.

Draco looked at him for a moment, considering. Then he shook his head. "Just tell me where to apparate," he said. "I've been told you splinched yourself twice."

Ron glared at Hermione, but told Draco where the auror headquarters were and apparated away.

Hermione wanted to ask if Draco was all right. She was sure the news about Pansy had hit him harder than he was admitting. However, she knew he wouldn't appreciate her questions, especially with Harry and Ginny watching them.

Draco met her eyes. "We'll talk when I get home," he promised, and then he twisted on the spot and disappeared.

"That was unexpected," Harry said, looking from Ginny to Hermione and back.

"If it is Pansy, maybe this will get her caught," Ginny said quietly. She was even paler than usual.

"I never thought it would be one of our old classmates," Hermione said.

"Much less one of Draco's old friends," Harry added. "It could have been him." Hermione shook her head impatiently, and he held up his hand. "I know, he changed. It just hits a little too close to home, I suppose. We knew Pansy."

"We knew she was a Death Eater to be," Hermione muttered.

"We thought the same about Draco," Harry responded. "And we had reason, too. It's strange that they started out in the same place, and now they're fighting against each other. Draco didn't know it was her until now, but he's been trying to cure her curse."

"I think he was upset," Ginny said.

"He was," Hermione admitted. She was worried about him - clearly this news had been quite a shock. "I should probably go. He might get home before long."

--

In fact, Hermione had been reading on the sofa for several hours before Draco walked in close to midnight. He dropped down onto the sofa unceremoniously and sighed. Hermione put her book on the coffee table, and Draco moved over to lean against her. He put his head on her shoulder.

"That bad?" she asked quietly, reaching up to stroke his hair.

"I have new respect for the auror force's interrogation techniques," Draco said. "I wasn't even a suspect, although I'm sure some of the aurors thought I was. Either way, they dragged every ounce of information about that spell out of me."

"Pansy's spell," Hermione prompted.

He chuckled quietly. "Don't worry. I won't withhold the details of that revelation's effect on me."

She felt a blush creep up her cheeks, but Draco didn't seem to mind her inquisitiveness. He shifted to rest more comfortably against her side, and she looked down to see that he'd closed his eyes.

"I guess I just didn't think she was still so radical," he said. "We exchanged some letters after the war - the last few of them after we were married, in fact. You even found one once, when we were still fighting all the time, remember? I knew she didn't agree with my change of mind, but I never expected this."

"Were you together in sixth year, like Ron said?" Hermione asked. She knew she should probably be more concerned with how Draco was currently feeling, but she had to admit she was curious.

Draco shrugged. "Not in the way you think, I expect. For one thing, it was understood that she'd marry Ernest Greengrass."

"What?" Hermione blurted. "Who is that? And what do you mean, it was understood?"

"It was arranged, obviously. Ernest was at Durmstrang, two or three years above us. He's Daphne's and Astoria's cousin," Draco said. "The Greengrasses and the Parkinsons wanted to affirm their ties, I assume. He'd finished school by the time the War reached its peak, and he joined the Dark Lord. If I recall correctly, he was killed in the Battle of Hogwarts, so Pansy couldn't marry him in the end. Either way, in sixth year we both understood she'd marry him at some point. It wasn't like you Gryffindors' romantic notions."

"Then what was it like?" she asked curiously.

Draco chuckled. "Well, what do you think? She was good-looking. She evidently thought I wasn't too bad myself. Besides, I was popular, which must've helped to endear me to her."

"I will never understand Slytherins," Hermione muttered. "What happened to liking each other?"

"We did," Draco responded. "She was smart, she was ambitious... She made the right insults about you and Harry and the general non-Slytherin student population, which scored points with me. I suppose she liked me too, for similar reasons. It just wasn't our main motivation, the way it might have been yours."

"So then what happened?" Hermione prompted when he stopped speaking.

"We were teenagers. What do you think happened?" he said impatiently. Hermione didn't respond, but waited quietly. After a moment, Draco continued, speaking quickly. "We fooled around in Hogwarts' secret corners and thought we were very grown up. In hindsight we had no idea what we were doing, but it was fun. Exhilarating. I'm sure you vividly remember your own first sexual experiences." He cleared his throat awkwardly, and Hermione found herself smiling. "Then the War picked up and we had better things to do," he concluded.

"But you wrote letters?"

"She wrote to me a few months after the Battle of Hogwarts," Draco confirmed. Hermione looked down at his head on her shoulder. He still had his eyes closed and looked quite peaceful. It was a testament to how far they'd come that he trusted her with this aspect of his past. Draco continued, "We gauged each other's opinions on what had happened. It was soon clear to me that she regretted the turn things had taken. She still supported the Dark Lord; she wanted blood purity and lamented that blood traitors and muggleborns were roaming free. I'd wanted the Dark Lord to lose the War since sixth or seventh year. Besides, I was just starting to rethink my views on blood purity in general. I told her about some of my new ideas. She tried to convince me to see things from her point of view again. When she realised she couldn't, we dropped the topic and simply exchanged updates on our life. She caught wind of our marriage and wrote to ask me what in Merlin's name I was thinking. I attempted to explain; she attempted to persuade me that I'd lost my mind. After two or three more letters, she stopped writing."

"Did you mind?" Hermione asked. Draco didn't respond at first, and she thought he might be tiring of her questions. So far, however, he'd been quite willing to talk to her.

After a moment, Draco did respond. "A little," he admitted quietly. "This was back in the days when I spoke to very few people. I didn't like losing our correspondence. It was clear, however, that we weren't going to see eye to eye again. As such, there was little point to continued contact."

"You're so rational about it," Hermione muttered.

"Relationships are rational. They have a purpose; there are methods to achieve your ends. At least that's how I see it." She felt his shoulders lift in a shrug. "I know not many people agree. Certainly you don't."

"It's not that I disagree," she said with a shake of her head. "It's just... not always easy to rationalise how you feel. To see the rules and mechanisms when you're in the middle of it."

"I can't deny that," Draco muttered. He sighed. "I know you probably want to talk about this more, but can we just sleep? I'm tired."

"Of course," she said, pressing a kiss to his forehead before getting up from the sofa.

Ten minutes later, they were in bed. Draco pulled Hermione close to him. "Thanks for listening," he murmured in her ear. "Pansy never did, you know. Not at Hogwarts, not in the letters. She read them, of course, and I talked to her at Hogwarts. She just never really heard what I was saying. You do."

"Duties of a good spouse," Hermione whispered back. She found his lips with her own and kissed him. Then she continued, "And Pansy Parkinson may be a brilliant spell designer and a clever, ambitious girl, but she's an idiot for not realising that everything you say is worth hearing."

Draco's lips were still against her cheek, and she felt him smile. "I love you," he whispered. It was the first time he'd said it since their anniversary and the first time it was not a response to her own declaration.

"I love you too," she whispered, and snuggled up even closer to his chest.

Chapter Text

Two days after Ginny had consented to take the cure, the ingredients started coming in by owl. The counters and shelves of Draco's lab were soon filled with dozens upon dozens of neatly labelled jars, boxes, and pots. Before Hermione and Draco could start brewing, however, they had to enlist the help of Healer Canton. To this end, they invited him over on Friday night.

It was rather cold for May, but some warming charms helped create a pleasant atmosphere on one of the Manor's balconies. After coffee and biscuits had been served by Ditty and Nocky, Canton gazed out over the grounds for a moment. Then he glanced at the stack of parchments beside Draco's chair before turning to his hosts.

"You have a beautiful home," he noted. "But may I ask what prompted the invitation?"

"Certainly," Draco said. "We wish to discuss something with you. It pertains to Ginny Weasley, your patient and our friend."

Canton pursed his lips. "You do realise I'm bound by patient confidentiality?" he said evenly.

"We're not going to ask you for information. In fact, we're going to disseminate some," Draco said. "First, though, I do have one question: Do you believe mudblood disease to be incurable?" Hermione rolled her eyes at the direction in which Draco was taking the conversation, but didn't comment.

"It is incurable," Canton said. "Mister Malfoy, I understand your concern for your friend, but if you invited me to tell me I should be making more of an effort to heal her, I'm afraid I-"

"On the contrary," Draco said. "I think you'll find your effort will be nothing compared to ours."

Canton looked at him with an unreadable expression. "Do explain yourself," he said.

"Let me, Draco," Hermione said. Clearly, the two Slytherin men had no idea how to get to the point quickly. She turned to Healer Canton. "Draco and I, though mostly Draco, have invented a potion-based cure for mudblood disease. Draco is a potions student. Our knowledge has proved sufficient to devise a cure, although we had some help from another friend."

Canton was staring at her as if she'd lost her mind. "That's not possible. I'm sorry, Hermione, I know you want Ginny to get better, but mudblood disease is incurable. Don't think I haven't looked into it myself. I even gave thought to a solution with potions, but there were too many variables. You can't have-"

"With all due respect, Healer Canton," Draco said, "you're wrong." He reached over and picked up the stack of parchments. "Are you familiar with spell diagrams?"

"To some extent," Canton said, now looking rather annoyed. "I've never studied them extensively, but I know the basic principles."

"Good," Draco said. He put aside the top two thirds of his stack. "This is background information on each of the ingredients and all aspects of the brewing procedure, which I'll be happy to provide you with at a later date. First, however, allow me to give you an overview of the cure." With a wave of his wand and a quietly murmured spell, he projected the contents of the top parchment into the air in front of them. He gave Canton several seconds to absorb the spell diagram, and then launched into a detailed explanation of their plan.

It took a full forty minutes for Draco to give his overview, during which time Canton didn't speak a word. It unnerved Hermione. She'd attributed his initial disbelief to the fact that he didn't know how much they'd achieved, but what if his continued silence was some indication that there was a problem? Perhaps she and Draco had made some terrible oversight and their cure could never work.

Once Draco fell silent, Canton turned to her. "Is this why your latest internship reports have been consistently below your usual Outstanding?" he asked. She could discern neither approval nor disapproval from his tone.

"I suppose so," she mumbled, looking down at her hands.

"Well," he said. It was quiet for a moment. "I assume you need me to perform the spells in this plan. At least two casters are required, and you're certainly not qualified," he continued, nodding at Draco. He sighed. "Experimental cures require copious amounts of paperwork. If you'd let me in on this sooner, I might have been able to avoid working overtime to get it all done."

Hermione guiltily looked down at her hands. They hadn't wanted to announce their project until they knew it worked, but of course she hadn't meant to inconvenience Healer Canton. Given the stakes, however, it was more important to secure his aid than to dwell on the past. "Does that mean you'll help?" she asked tentatively.

He raised an eyebrow at her. "You do realise that this plan of yours is brilliant? If I help, I'll be able to take at least some of the credit." She couldn't tell whether he was joking. Draco was grinning; it must be a Slytherin thing she simply wasn't in on.

"Do you think it will work?" she asked.

"I'd say the odds are fifty-fifty. I'll have to study your additional material," he said, gesturing at the paperwork by Draco's side. "There might be side-effects that you've missed. I'd recommend having another potion master check your recipe, too. At first sight, however, this is clearly very well rooted in theory. It's outstanding work. Were it not for the fact that you've collaborated with another student, Hermione, I would recommend handing it in for extra credit." He smirked at her. "When do you wish to administer the cure?"

"We'll need to brew it first," Draco said. "Perhaps as an extra credit assignment, Hermione could take next week off work and join me in the lab?"

Healer Canton frowned. "I'm not supervising Hermione during this internship," he said, "but I'll make a floo call to Healer Prince. Hermione, in the unlikely event that she does not grant you a week off work, stay here regardless, on my authority. It would be foolishness to attempt these brews alone or with a partner who isn't intimately familiar with the recipes."

Draco nodded. "We'll start brewing Monday afternoon. The moon will be full, which is necessary for the antidote. May is not the ideal time of year to brew the immunisation potion, as I'm sure you've seen from the recipe, but it will have to do. By Saturday, we should be done. If all goes well, we'll administer the cure the Monday after that, on the nineteenth."

Canton nodded. "Given Ginny's condition, she'll have to be readmitted sometime next week. It's best to administer the cure in the hospital, where we'll have the best chances of dealing with any emergencies that may arise." He looked from Draco to Hermione and back. "If that's all for now, I'd like to have another look at your additional information to ensure that everything is in order."

"We have extra copies," Hermione told him. "Feel free to take this home and go through it when you have time."

Canton nodded and stood up. Draco handed him the stack of parchment.

The healer looked at each of them in turn. "I feel the need to reiterate that this is an astonishing project," he said. "Few healers or potion masters could do it. For two mere students to produce this work, this impossible cure..." He shook his head. "I'm impressed. I cannot wait to see where your careers take you."

--

When Canton had left, Draco and Hermione returned to the balcony. Hermione walked to the balustrade to watch the sunset. Draco soon came to stand behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "That went well," he murmured.

"Now all that's left is the brewing," she responded, tilting her head back to lean against him.

"Do you think we can do it?" he asked quietly.

She resisted the urge to offer meaningless encouragement that Draco would never buy. Instead, she thought about it for a long moment. "Probably," she said eventually. "We're a good team. Have been for a while now. Remember when we started brewing the Painkilling Draughts last year?"

He nodded; she could feel the movement against her head. "The brewing went well, but the first time you walked into my lab was rather disastrous."

She shivered at the memory of those frightening moments of déjà vu, and he tightened his arms around her. "It was," she acknowledged. "On the other hand, it led to us changing the rules and talking."

"And that led to Les Chevaux Magiques and Tosca," he whispered against her neck, "and to you hugging me for the first time, and Rome, and to this whole dreadful autumn, and to you finding out what I was up to and agreeing to date me, and then to you saying 'I do' when I offered you a ring."

"Escalated quickly, didn't it?" Hermione mumbled. She turned around to face him and, more importantly, kiss him. He hummed in pleasure and tilted his head back so she could kiss his neck. She slid her hands underneath his robe and shirt, and they gave up talking entirely for the moment.

"Bed," he mumbled in her ear a few minutes later.

"Isn't it rather early for bed?" she teased, sliding the tip of her nose along his jawline.

He leaned back to mock-glare at her. "You're dangerous, you know that?" he grumbled.

She smirked at him. "I know. Come on, let's go to bed."

--

On Saturday, they received an owl from Healer Canton. He suggested a slight alteration to the antidote potion and to one of their spells. They'd also sent their plan to Draco's mentor, Potion Master Frayser, and received a further three suggestions for the potions. They spent most of the weekend memorising the recipes and dividing up the tasks for the week's brewing process. As Draco was far more proficient at brewing, he would do the majority of the cauldron work, while Hermione would prepare ingredients, brew during the easier stages of the potions, and assist with some of the more complicated processes. They were each well aware of the risks. One false move could blow up their cauldron. Even if they both escaped such an event unscathed, it would almost certainly be the ruin of their potion. With Ginny's condition worsening by the day, they might not have time for a second attempt. As such, their planning was occasionally tense and resulted in quite a bit of snapping at one another.

On Sunday evening, when they were going over the last recipe at Hermione's desk, the floo in the library suddenly flared up, and Ron came tumbling out.

"Hey," he said, and continued without preamble, "We caught Parkinson."

Hermione and Draco simultaneously put down the paperwork they were holding. "Really?" Hermione demanded, getting up from her desk and gesturing at one of the armchairs. "Sit down," she said, and continued in one breath: "What happened?"

Ron took one armchair, Hermione the other. Draco came to join them and sat on the arm of Hermione's chair. It was a rather uncharacteristic pose for him, and Hermione suspected he was staking his territory. However, she was too worried and curious to give it much thought. Instead, she focused on Ron.

"When we found that abandoned building I mentioned last time," Ron began, looking at Hermione and studiously avoiding Draco's gaze, "Parkinson and her helper got away because of that spell of hers. We found some clues to where they might have a second hide-out, but we still couldn't get very far. Then you gave us her identity." He nodded at Draco, but didn't meet his eyes. "It was still pretty hard to find her, but we questioned her relatives and used some locator spells to search her out. We found a couple of places she visited a lot. This morning, she was thick enough to show up at one of them. She was with Gregory Goyle."

Hermione glanced at Draco, but he seemed less surprised by this than he had when he'd recognised Pansy's spell.

Ron continued: "We did prior incantato on their wands. Turns out they each did one of the mudblood disease curses. They've both been apprehended as suspects in the attempted murders of you and Ginny. If the charges go through, which I guess they will, they're looking at ten years in Azkaban. Maybe more if we can make it a political crime. And there might be a charge for torture somewhere in there, 'cause it's a cruel curse. But the lawyers will have to figure that out. Either way, I think you're safe to give Ginny her cure." He paused and finally met Draco's eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was flat, as if he were forcing the words out. "Thanks for the lead."

Draco nodded at him. "I suppose it was only fair after the help you gave us," he said evenly.

They fell silent. Ron and Draco were now watching each other, while Hermione looked back and forth between the two. After a moment, Ron cleared his throat. "So how's the cure?"

"We were just going over it one last time," Hermione said. "We start brewing tomorrow."

Ron nodded. Hermione imagined she could physically feel the tension in the air.

"We probably should get back to work," Draco said after a moment.

"Yeah," Ron said. "I'll get going, then. Just thought you'd like to know."

"Yes. Thank you," Draco responded curtly. Ron frowned at him, nodded at Hermione, and disappeared through the Floo.

Draco sighed, getting up off the arm of Hermione's chair. "Well, I suppose that's that."

"Pansy and Goyle," Hermione said.

"Yeah," Draco said. He walked back to her desk and sat down. "I suppose it makes sense. Gregory never was one to think for himself. I'm not sure why he was sorted into Slytherin. Either way, when I was no longer there to tell him what to do, he must've turned to Pansy."

"Would you say you were friends with him?" Hermione asked as she joined him.

He leafed through their parchments to find the documents they'd been discussing. "I probably would've said so, back in the Hogwarts days," he said absently. "In retrospect... not really. It wasn't an equal relationship. Pansy... Pansy I was friends with. Blaise, too. Gregory and Vincent just did what I said because I was smarter, because my father was more powerful than theirs, because it was easier to follow orders than to think for themselves." He found the correct recipe and the accompanying information. "We were at step eight, weren't we?"

Hermione nodded. "Yes. The freezing charm. If you do the charm, I'll add the dried oak bark."

"You have a window of about seven seconds," Draco said. "I expect a colour change to dark brown at this point, but it's one I'm not sure about."

"We'll have to wait and see. What's next?"

"Seven clockwise stirs with a yew branch," Draco said. "After that, it has to simmer for four hours. Then comes the second stage..."

--

At nine o'clock on Monday morning, Hermione crushed five poppy seeds and thus began the brewing of the Impossible Cure, as they'd termed their project after Canton's remark. Healer Prince had given her permission to miss a week of work and extended the deadline for her next internship report. The entire week, therefore, consisted solely of brewing.

The situation was highly reminiscent of last year's Painkilling Draught project. Hermione was quite as tense as she had been the year before, although for entirely different reasons. She was no longer unsure what to say to Draco, but the stakes for these potions were much higher.

They took breaks whenever the brewing process allowed it, which was not often. Each of the three potions was complex on its own; now their brewing was intermingled in an intricate schedule. Whenever one potion was simmering or in stasis, another needed a spelled ingredient addition, two hundred stirs, or a rapid heating or cooling. They took turns tending the potions at night and slept little.

"Where are the crushed mung beans?" Draco asked on Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm trying to count," Hermione snapped. Sixteen, seventeen... She slowly turned her beech branch through the antidote, which was nearly finished. So far, its brewing had gone as expected. It currently had the soft blue colour they'd predicted for this stage of brewing. It would be finished before nightfall, at which point they'd reach a slightly calmer phase of their schedule. To say Hermione was looking forward to it would be an understatement.

Draco waited impatiently until she'd reached twenty-three, looking back and forth between her potion and the gold cauldron that contained the immunisation potion. When she lifted her branch, he repeated, "Crushed mung beans?"

"I don't know," Hermione said. "I'm pretty sure you're supposed to crush them yourself."

"Certainly not," Draco said with a frown. He gestured at one of the parchments on the wall. "You should've done it before you added the flies to the antidote."

She wiped the sweat off her forehead. "Well, I didn't, and I'm busy now," she told him, waving her wand to increase the heat beneath her cauldron. Draco was right, and she knew it, but she'd been working non-stop since five o'clock that morning. She was not in the mood for admitting her mistakes.

Draco sighed in exasperation. "I'll crush them," he decided. "You'll have to watch both cauldrons for now. At least the cure is in stasis." He nodded at the third cauldron, which was encased in the shimmering bubble of a stasis spell.

"Fine," she grumbled.

He stalked off to retrieve the mung beans from the shelf. Hermione divided her attention between her cauldron and his, in which the immunisation potion was bubbling away. It was currently dark brown and had the consistency of sludge. All in all, it looked rather disgusting. Of their three potions, the immunisation was least like traditional potions, and they hadn't been able to make many predictions about its appearance during the brewing process. All they'd guessed was that the end result should have a purple hue and low viscosity.

The antidote reached its boiling point. "Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble," Hermione muttered absently as she poured half an ounce of goat saliva into the potion, stirred twice more, and watched it turn a darker shade of blue. She waved her wand again to bring the heat down.

"Are you even watching my potion?" Draco asked from the other counter, where he was crushing his beans.

"Yes," Hermione lied, quickly glancing over to the gold cauldron. The immunisation potion was still bubbling and hadn't changed.

Draco sighed exasperatedly. He returned with the crushed beans and stirred them into the sludge. "Look, if you're too tired to keep brewing, just say so," he said.

"And then what would we do?" she demanded, turning to her counter to start slicing rose stems. "I can hardly stop brewing. I can't even take a break, because we don't have proper stasis spells figured out. I've spelled my feet four times in the last hour to make them stop hurting, but it just doesn't help anymore!"

"I'd just rather not mess up one of these potions because of careless mistakes," Draco said.

"I'm not making mistakes!"

"I'm just saying, if you want Ginny to be cured-"

"Yes, that's what I want," she snapped. "I don't even know what you want. For all I know, you're just in this for the glory of curing the incurable!"

"Really?" he demanded. "We've been working on this project for three months, and you choose to question my motives during this highly volatile brewing process? You have to interrupt the most complex and demanding aspect of this cure?" She said nothing, putting her newly sliced rose stems aside and moving on to basil leaves that needed to be minced. After a moment, he continued speaking. "I don't want Ginny to die. I like her. Besides, she doesn't deserve to die. Harry doesn't deserve to lose her, and neither do you." He paused. Hermione turned to look at him. He was stirring his cauldron; the fire beneath it cast strange shadows on his face.

She knew she ought to be mincing leaves, but she didn't look away when he continued, "I owe everyone on your side of the war a debt. This... Maybe it's a way to redeem myself. I don't know. And yes, I like that it's a challenge, that nobody has managed anything like this before, that it requires all of my mental capacities. Doesn't mean I wouldn't do it if it was easy and monotonous and boring."

She set her knife down and walked over to him. He turned and met her eyes. "Sorry," she said. She pecked his cheek. "I shouldn't have snapped at you or doubted your motives. I'm just... tired." He lifted one corner of his mouth in a smile, but before he could say 'I told you so', she added, "But not too tired to brew. I'll pay more attention."

He nodded. "Go mince," he told her, and she did just that.

--

On Saturday morning, the addition of a pint of olive oil turned the immunisation potion into a smooth liquid. An hour later, when Draco added the penultimate ingredient, it turned a very satisfying shade of purple. He heaved a sigh of relief that was mirrored by Hermione. She'd finished her last task fifteen minutes earlier and was now sitting on one of the counters, watching the final stage of the brewing. Vials of the cure and antidote were standing on the opposite counter; the immunisation potion was the last to be finished.

Draco stirred a measure of powdered snakeskin into the potion. He extinguished the fire beneath the cauldron with a wave of his wand. Hermione watched as he retrieved several vials from a shelf and ladled the potion into them. A minute later, the vials were stoppered and labelled and stood next to the cure and the antidote. Draco rubbed his hands over his face. "Done," he muttered.

 "Come here," Hermione said.

He moved over to stand between her legs. She wrapped her arms around him, and he hugged her back.

"You smell like vanilla," he said.

"It's in the cure," Hermione responded.

He chuckled. "I'm guessing there's also sweat in the cure. If not, you really need a shower."

She poked a finger into his stomach, and he made a noise of protest. "Like you don't smell just as bad," she grumbled.

He stepped back and held out his hand. "Well, the brewing is done, so I don't see why we can't go and fix that," he said. She smiled and jumped off the counter.

--

Ginny was asleep when Hermione, Draco, Healer Canton, and Dora walked into her room in St Mungo's on Monday. Molly and Arthur were on chairs in a corner; Harry was sitting by Ginny's bed. He had his hand against Ginny's on the bedcover, and Hermione was struck by the difference between Harry's hand and Ginny's pale, almost translucent skin.

The new arrivals shook hands with Ginny's parents and with Harry. It occurred to Hermione that this was the first time in years that Draco saw Molly and Arthur. However, nobody was in the mood for lengthy conversations. Everyone knew what was at stake, and Hermione couldn't guess which of the room's occupants was more nervous.

Healer Canton woke Ginny while Draco and Hermione set their vials on the bedside table and poured the first potion - the immunisation - into a glass that Dora provided.

"Are you ready?" the healer asked Ginny.

Ginny looked around the circle of people around her. "I'm not going to say goodbyes," she said hoarsely, "because I have every expectation that this will work. But I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you that I love all of you." Arthur wiped away a tear. Nobody seemed to know how to respond. Ginny nodded at Healer Canton. "I'm ready."

Healer Canton and Hermione cast their four spells, which took less than half a minute. "Drink this," Draco said, handing her the glass of immunisation potion. "You have to finish all of it. I suggest doing it in one go."

Ginny looked at the glass of purple liquid a bit doubtfully. Then she steeled herself, put the glass to her lips, and drank it all down. Draco let out a breath, and Hermione had to close her eyes in relief. This potion had been the most unpredictable, and she suspected they'd both given some thought to the possibility that Ginny would keel over dead after one sip of it.

When she put the glass down, her face was such a picture of disgust that it made Harry and Molly chuckle despite the tension. "That was awful," she whimpered. "Draco, what was in there?"

Draco shook his head. "You don't want to know."

Hermione remembered a certain jar of crushed mice droppings and decided Draco had the right idea.

"Now what?" Arthur asked quietly.

"We wait," Draco said. "The next potion can be administered between half an hour and an hour from now. We're taking the safest option and waiting forty-five minutes."

Hermione wouldn't have believed that a company of eight could be silent for forty-five minutes, but nobody spoke a word until Draco stood up to pour the second potion into a new glass. Hermione joined him to prepare the antidote.

"This is the dangerous one, right?" Ginny said.

"Yes," Draco said. "It should make you feel better, but some of the ingredients are toxic. After you drink this, you'll take the first dose of antidote. Also, Hermione and Healer Canton will perform several more spells."

He took a deep breath and handed her the glass. "Have at it."

This glass contained only a few sips. Ginny drank it in one go, as with the immunisation. She blinked several times. "My vision's clearing," she said, wonder in her voice. Almost immediately after, an expression of pain crossed her face. "My stomach," she mumbled.

Draco had already pressed the glass of antidote into her hand. "Slow sips," he instructed. Ginny complied, while Canton and Hermione began spelling to counter the hazardous effects of the cure.

Fifteen minutes later, Ginny had finished her glass of antidote and all spells had been performed. She was sitting up in bed, with Canton rattling off diagnostic spells at her. The others were waiting anxiously to hear what the verdict was.

Canton finished the last spell and put his wand down. "Congratulations," he said. "You no longer have mudblood disease. How are you feeling?"

"Loads better," Ginny said. Then her mouth fell slack, her eyes rolled back into her head, and she slumped down. Draco jumped forward, but by the time he caught her, she was already unconscious.

Chapter Text

"What happened?"

"What's going on?"

"Is she all right?"

"Ginny, wake up!"

A cascade of voices made it impossible for Hermione to think. She stared at Ginny, whose closed eyes revealed she was still unconscious. Draco had lowered her to the bed, and Healer Canton was twirling his wand, muttering spells at breakneck pace.

"Hermione, diagnostics for brain injury, now," he instructed between spells. She felt her thoughts go back to work and raised her wand to begin the basic set of spells to assess brain function.

"Brain injury?" Harry repeated, his voice breaking. "What the hell did you guys do to her?"

"Dora," Draco snapped, gesturing toward Harry, Molly, and Arthur.

Dora would normally have something to say about being thus addressed, but this time she relented. She turned to Ginny's relatives. "You'll have to wait outside," she said firmly. Ignoring all protests, she guided the three non-medical personnel out of the room. Hermione vaguely heard her promise something about keeping them updated.

The brain injury spells came up negative, much to Hermione's relief. She moved on to other assessments at Canton's direction. Draco sat down in a corner with their paperwork and began looking for clues as to what had gone wrong. Dora alternated between helping with spells and going out to the hall to keep Harry, Molly, and Arthur updated on their progress. In the meantime, Ginny didn't seem to be getting worse, but neither did she show any signs of waking. Minutes passed, then half an hour, then an hour.

"Ah," Canton finally, flicking his wand experimentally. "Hermione, look at this." He gestured at the soft light that Ginny exuded in response to the diagnostic incantation. "I just performed aequilibriam revelio."

"It's a vestibular problem," Hermione said with a frown.

"Of what nature?" Draco asked, looking up from the parchments in his lap.

Hermione thought for a moment. "It must be the calcium from the eggshells in the antidote," she said slowly. "Perhaps coupled with the nettles in the cure? If the calcium built up in her inner ear, it could have caused balance problems, nausea, vertigo... Ginny wouldn't have noticed because of all the other potions and spells we used. Besides, she was in a sitting position, rather than standing. Vestibular problems can cause fainting and diminished consciousness in severe cases. Coupled with the stress she was under and the fatigue..." She trailed off, looking at Healer Canton to see if he agreed with her.

"Exactly," the healer said. "I should be able to remove some of the calcium, although there may be permanent damage. I expect she'll wake up once the pressure in her inner ears decreases."

Dora left to retrieve the appropriate potion from St Mungo's apothecary. Canton performed an additional spell to confirm his diagnosis, while Draco made a note of the side-effect.

Ginny awoke mere minutes after Canton had spelled the potion into her stomach. "What happened?" she said weakly when she saw Canton leaning over her, Hermione and Draco close behind. "For how long was I out?"

"You had some problems with your vestibular system. It's part of your inner ear that controls balance and can cause dizziness and fainting," Hermione said. "You've been unconscious for about an hour."

"Is it fixed?" Ginny mumbled as she sat up. Healer Canton supported her when she swayed slightly.

"Not entirely, and you're still weak," he said. "Mr Malfoy, bring the second dose of antidote." Draco complied, while Dora left the room again to inform the others of Ginny's recovery.

When Ginny had finished another glass of potion, she was instructed to lie down again. "You should get some rest," Canton told her. "In a few hours, we'll wake you for your final dose of antidote and we'll check your ears again."

She nodded, and within seconds her eyes fell closed.

--

What Ginny needed most was sleep and nourishment. She dozed throughout the day, waking only to drink her last dose of antidote and several glasses of Basic Nutrition Potion. Then she slept soundly from dinnertime until late the next morning. Her brothers and friends dropped by to peek in, all relieved that she was doing relatively well. Nobody was allowed to stay for long, however. Healer Canton was cautiously optimistic, but Ginny was not out of the woods yet. Her inner ear problem persisted, albeit more mildly, and there was no telling whether more side-effects would present themselves.

On Tuesday morning, Hermione had to go back to work. Her current internship was in the department for potions and plant poisoning, one floor above Ginny in the magical bugs and diseases department. She had a hard time concentrating on her work after being away for over a week. Whenever she had a few minutes of spare time, she quickly descended to the second floor to visit her friend. On her lunch break, she found both Harry and Healer Canton with Ginny. She was sitting up in bed, supported by pillows. Harry was holding her hand, once again looking almost as tired and worn-out as Ginny.

"Ah, Hermione," Canton said. "Do come in. I was about to discuss our current standings with Ginny and Harry. If they don't mind, you might as well join us."

Ginny gestured at a chair, and Hermione sat down. "How are you feeling?" she asked Ginny.

"Much better than before," Ginny said. "Everything seems so much clearer, like it was misty and now it's not. And the pain is gone. I feel like I could sleep for a month, and all of my muscles feel weak, but it's so great to not be in pain. Was that what it was like for you, when you were cured?"

Hermione nodded. "It was. I remember... just being so relieved. When you're in pain all the time, it becomes your new normal. Then when it's suddenly gone, you realise how good it is to live without pain."

"Exactly," Ginny said. She turned to Healer Canton. "So what's the news?"

Canton leaned forward a little. "Hermione's potion did what it was supposed to do," he started. "All of the mudblood disease's harmful effects are gone. However, your body is still quite weak. You've lost a lot of weight, and your muscle strength has gone down considerably due to your lack of movement over the past months. You may remember that Hermione was allowed to leave St Mungo's almost immediately and that her recovery time was less than two months. I can't give you the same results, unfortunately. You suffered from the disease for slightly longer. More importantly, the nature of your cure is rather different, and various ingredients in your potions will slow your recovery. I'll be keeping you here for another week at the very least, and it'll take you three to four months to regain your old energy levels. On top of that, it seems your cure has caused two major side effects."

Hermione looked at him attentively, trying to control her anxiety. She only knew of one side effect. Although she knew virtually every side effect was preferable to death, it was still her and Draco's creation that had cured Ginny, and they were the cause of any adverse effects that might occur. From the corner of her eye, she saw Harry lean forward attentively as Canton began speaking.

"First, it seems your magic may be temporarily affected," Healer Canton said. "It's an issue that should resolve itself in time, but you may have difficulty performing certain spells. It may take quite an effort to perform even a Lumos at first. Your magical core is depleted if your body is malnourished or otherwise weak, and the potions you've ingested have exacerbated the problem. However, as your body recovers, so should your magical abilities. I expect you should note improvement within weeks and regain normal use of magic over the span of several months."

Ginny looked worried at this idea, but she nodded in understanding. "What's the other side-effect?" she asked. "Is this the system with the difficult name that's in my ear?"

"The vestibular system," Hermione supplied.

"Indeed," Canton said. "Your inner ear was damaged by calcium build-up from a combination of ingredients in two of the potions. The inner ear controls balance and spatial orientation. Damage, as you've experienced, may lead to fainting, dizziness, nausea, and disorientation. I've been able to remove most of the calcium. Unfortunately, however, the inner ear is a sensitive organ. Some of the damage may not be reversible."

"What does that mean?" Harry asked, biting his lip in worry.

"It's difficult to tell," Healer Canton told him. He met Ginny's eyes again. "We can't predict the extent to which your vestibular system will heal. However, it is entirely possible that you will have permanent problems of balance or an increased tendency to faint. I expect you will be able to walk and run normally, but it could mean you have permanent trouble apparating. You may also need to stand up slowly out of sitting or lying positions." Canton paused for a moment, and then continued, "I am hesitant to make more predictions when there are so many uncertainties, but I must warn you that it is possible you'll have trouble flying."

"Flying," Ginny repeated in a whisper. "I won't be able to play quidditch."

"Fuck," Harry muttered. Hermione could see his fingers tighten around Ginny's.

"We don't know yet," she said quietly. "We won't be able to tell for a few more weeks."

"Right," Ginny muttered. "I know anything is better than mudblood disease," she continued, meeting Hermione's eyes. "So even if I couldn't get my magic back, even if I never fly again..." She bit her lip. "Even then, I'm so grateful to you and Draco. Remember that. And tell him, okay? Tell him he's a great friend." She sank down into the pillows surrounding her. Hermione stood up and walked over to the bed to squeeze her hand.

"I will," she said. "Now sleep some more, all right?"

Ginny nodded and closed her eyes. Healer Canton murmured a goodbye and left the room. Hermione met Harry's eyes across the bed.

"Quidditch," he mouthed, horror in his eyes.

"I know," she responded, moving her lips without making a sound so she wouldn't keep Ginny up. "I'm sorry."

Harry shook his head, but didn't reply. Hermione stayed for another minute until Ginny's breathing evened out. Then she, too, went back to work.

--

Draco was at work in the library when she came home. He had not yet returned to his studies, but was instead analysing their recipes for more information on Ginny's side effects.

"Hey," Hermione said, walking over to kiss him in greeting.

"How was work?" he asked.

She leaned against his desk. "It was alright. Difficult to get back in the swing of things."

Draco nodded sympathetically. "I can imagine. How's Ginny?"

"Tired and worn out. Poor girl, I remember how she feels," Hermione said. "It's far better than the pain of the disease, of course, but it's disappointing how long it takes for your body to recover."

He looked away, drumming his fingers on the desk. "And I made you work for me," he said quietly.

She put her hand on his shoulder. "Yes, you did, you idiot," she said fondly. "If it helps, I was glad to have something to do until Healer Canton allowed me to get back to my studies. Besides, it saved the Manor. You're not the only one who loves this place."

"I still shouldn't have demanded your help," he said with a frown.

"If you hadn't, I'd never have married you, remember?" Hermione said. "I wouldn't have believed you could propose to me without ulterior motives. I probably would've thought I was entering a life of slavery, or that you'd somehow back out of your promise, or that you were just messing with me."

He smiled and reached for her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. "In retrospect, then, bartering for your hand was clearly the best bargain of my life."

"Of course. What more could you wish for than me?" she said lightly.

Draco leaned over to kiss her and then changed the subject. "Did Ginny have any more side effects?" he asked.

Hermione nodded. "Canton expects she'll have temporarily weakened magic," she said. "She might not be able to perform some spells, or it'll take more effort."

Draco looked shocked, far more than Hermione had felt when she'd heard of it. "We turned her into a squib?" he demanded, aghast.

"Only temporarily," Hermione stressed. "It could be worse; she should be back to normal within a few months."

He was still frowning. "We should look into what caused it," he said. "How did Ginny react?"

"She was worried, but not unduly so," Hermione said. "It is only for a while, after all." She was a little puzzled by Draco's reaction. "It's only a mild side effect, really," she added.

He raised an eyebrow. "Loss of magic is never mild," he said. "What if it hadn't been temporary? If I were Ginny, I may have preferred mudblood disease."

Hermione looked at him in surprise. "Clearly you've never actually had mudblood disease," she muttered. "You'd rather die a painful death than lose your magic?"

"Probably," Draco said. "Wouldn't you?"

"No!" she retorted. "Of course not. Magic is important to me, and I'd hate to give up healing and apparition and being able to move objects and doing transfiguration. I'd be devastated, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to live anymore."

He thought for a moment. "I suppose it's different for you," he said. "You've lived in the muggle world, even if you were only a child back then. You know people who live without magic all the time. You know what kind of career you could have if you didn't have magic."

She nodded. "If I couldn't be a healer, I'd want to be a doctor. That's the muggle equivalent. I'd have to start learning all over again, though."

He snickered. "Like that would be a problem, Lady Bookworm. What about me? Muggles don't make potions, do they?"

Hermione shook her head. "They have medicine, though. You could go into chemistry, I suppose, but it would be quite different." She sighed. "Ginny may not lose her magic permanently, but she might still have to make a career change if the damage to her vestibular system is permanent."

Draco frowned. "Of course. It would impede flying. What did Canton say about it?"

"It's hard to make predictions," she responded, "but the prognosis isn't good. To fly professionally, even the slightest balance problem is an impediment."

He sighed unhappily. "I'd hate to have caused the end of her quidditch career."

Hermione nodded. "I know. Ginny said she's grateful, though. Even if she can't fly again. She wanted me to tell you you're a great friend."

A smile slowly spread across his face. "What a Gryffindor thing to say," he muttered, but Hermione knew he couldn't be more pleased.

--

Hermione was once again in a rush to catch up in her studies. With three months of potion-making behind her, she'd barely given thought to the fact that her last finals were coming up. In less than six weeks, she'd have one more set of exams and finally graduate from Healer Studies. She'd have to choose a specialisation and find a place to work at St Mungo's or a smaller clinic somewhere in the country.

Ginny gathered strength in St Mungo's, slowly regaining her magic but not her balance. Meanwhile, Hermione scrambled to get as much revision done as possible. Draco returned to his studies. He'd had to give up his hopes of taking his final exam before the end of the year. Instead, he'd given himself a one-year extension and planned to take his exams next December, eighteen months from now.

Nearly two weeks after taking her cure, Ginny was discharged from St Mungo's. She was still thin, pale, and weak, but she was on the road to recovery. On Saturday night, the day after she returned home, she and Harry threw a party to celebrate.

Draco had complained about having to attend, but he knew he couldn't escape this. In Harry's invitation, he'd specifically addressed them as the 'guests of honour'. Hermione felt a little sorry for her husband; she knew he'd be nervous in a room full of people who had spent much of their lives hating him.

"You'll be fine," she promised when they were standing at the fireplace. "Harry and Ginny and George will be there."

"Of course I'll be fine," he muttered. She smiled and stood on her tiptoes to kiss the tip of his nose. He smiled with one corner of his mouth. "Let's just go."

The moment they stepped into the Potter cottage, they were surrounded by Ginny's friends and family, all simultaneously trying to express their gratitude. Hermione was torn between laughter and pity when Draco was pulled to the side by Molly, who hugged him so fiercely that Hermione feared for his ability to breathe. Before she could make a rescue attempt, she found herself shaking hands with and being patted on the back by a cluster of red-headed Weasley brothers, interspersed with their wives and girlfriends.

"You 'ave saved someone who is a sister to me," Fleur told her, throwing her arms around Hermione. "You and 'im are 'eroes!" She gestured at Draco and leaned in to whisper in Hermione's ear, "'E must be part Veela like me, 'e is so blond and 'andsome!" Hermione giggled and hugged her back.

She smiled and nodded her way through the hugs and handshakes, until she found herself standing in front of Harry. She'd barely seen him since Ginny's healing on account of her revision and work.

He grabbed her hands and met her eyes. "I'll never be able to thank you enough," he said.

"There's no need, Harry, you know that," she responded, shaking her head.

He hugged her tightly. "If there's anything I can do, ever, for you or for Draco..." He trailed off, seeming lost for words.

She smiled, nodding. "I'll be sure to let you know."

She escaped to the couch after that, where Ginny, Luna, and one of Ginny's teammates were watching the chaos in front of them. Ginny had already thanked Hermione a thousand times at the hospital. The teammate, Rosianna, just nodded at her and said, "You rule, girl."

Luna smiled serenely. "I don't think Draco is enjoying himself very much," she said.

Hermione leaned back and watched her husband, who hadn't yet escaped the Weasleys. Those who had already spoken to her and Draco were now chatting amongst themselves, but Draco was close enough that the girls on the couch could still overhear his conversation when he came face to face with Ron.

The two men looked at each other awkwardly for a moment. Then Ron said, "I'm not gonna say I owe you or something, because I don't, but... I guess you don't owe me anymore, either."

After a beat, Draco nodded brusquely. "We're even, Weasley," he said, holding out his hand. Ron shook it, then almost immediately turned away.

Hermione and Ginny chuckled. "Those two," Ginny said, still grinning. "You do go for the headstrong guys, 'Mione."

She laughed. "What can I say? I'm quite happy with where that's brought me."

"You and Draco do seem quite suited to each other," Luna said.

Draco found a chair in a corner of the room and was soon engaged in a conversation with George.

"You thanked him for me, didn't you?" Ginny asked Hermione.

She nodded in response. "He said you were being very Gryffindor about it."

The other girls laughed. "Isn't it weird?" Rosianna asked. "I mean, even after the War, Gryffindor and Slytherin are barely cordial." Rosianna was two years younger than Ginny; she'd completed her final years at school after the Battle of Hogwarts. She continued, "Gryffindor/Slytherin couples aren't totally unheard of, I suppose, but it's still not common. And the rivalry was far worse during the war. Not to mention..." She trailed off, looking a little uncertain.

"Not to mention we were both involved in it," Hermione added, and Rosianna nodded in agreement. "It is a little tense sometimes. In the beginning, we literally had a rule about not mentioning the other's house. It's better now, but I don't think he'll ever stop being condescending about Gryffindors. And I can appreciate his Slytherin qualities sometimes, but I doubt I'll ever truly like Slytherins as a group."

"I don't blame you. They are a bit evil," Rosianna said with a chuckle.

Hermione shook her head. "But they're not, that's the thing. Being Slytherin doesn't mean being evil; it just means being ambitious and cunning and resourceful. It means doing everything you can to reach your goal."

"Isn't that a recipe for going too far, though?" Rosianna asked.

Hermione frowned in thought, but eventually shook her head. "I don't think so. It's easy to take ambition in the wrong direction, like Voldemort did, or Pansy Parkinson. Maybe it's easier for Slytherins to go wrong than for others, but that doesn't mean they have to. If someone's goal is to be the leader of a company, or to invent new charms, or to beat incurable diseases..."

"Then those diseases will no longer be incurable," Ginny cut in.

"Every house can mean good things or bad things," Luna said. "Ravenclaw can really help you to learn and to love learning, but many people in my house look down on the other houses because they believe we're the only ones who are making the most of their Hogwarts education."

Their conversation was cut short when Molly and Arthur came over to thank Hermione, to hug her, and to pretend they weren't crying. All the gratitude began to make Hermione feel a little awkward, and she started to feel more sympathetic towards Draco's reluctance to be here. She'd now talked to every person in the room, though, which meant most expressions of gratitude were behind her.

"How are your balance problems?" Luna asked Ginny when the Weasley parents had left the four girls alone again.

"Not much better," Ginny said with a small sigh. She made an effort to smile, but Hermione could tell the subject was a difficult one. "Healer Canton says he can't rule anything out for sure, but it's very unlikely I'll be able to keep playing quidditch."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Luna said quietly. "Are you feeling very sad about it?"

"A little," Ginny responded, looking down at her hands. "I really enjoyed being with the Holyhead Harpies. It was the best job. I always knew it wasn't a lifetime career, of course - sports never are. I just didn't expect it to end so soon."

Hermione bit her lip, trying not to feel guilty. Ginny saw and grabbed her hand. "Not your fault, remember? I'll be fine," she said. "I'm thinking about going into sports journalism. Or maybe coaching, though I suppose I'm a bit young for that."

"Just make sure you recover first," Rosianna said. "You're supposed to rest the whole summer, right?"

Ginny nodded. "I'm going to be bored out of my skull," she said.

"At least I had a court case to think about while I was recovering," Hermione said with a chuckle. Rosianna frowned in confusion, but didn't comment. "I'm sure you can find something to do. And you'll get closer to your old energy levels every day."

"I can't wait," Ginny said.

Luna got up to talk to Harry, and Bill took her place to ask Hermione how they'd found their solution to Ginny's disease. After that, she talked to Harry, George, and Draco, then to Ginny's other teammates Brandon and Anna. Before she knew it, the guests began leaving and the party drew to an end. Ginny was obviously exhausted, but her eyes were alight with pleasure after seeing so many of her friends. 

"We should head home," Hermione told Draco when everyone but they and Ginny's parents had left. Draco had spent a while simply observing the party from his quiet corner but was now talking to Harry again.

He nodded and bid Molly and Arthur goodbye. Molly hugged him again and Arthur gave him a handshake that lasted just long enough to get slightly awkward.

"Thank you for the invitation," Draco said, turning to Ginny.

"Well, of course we invited you," Ginny said with a chuckle. "Thanks for being here. And for, you know, everything else."

"Yeah. Thanks," Harry said. He hugged Hermione, then turned to Draco, who held out his hand. Harry hesitated for a moment, then pulled Draco in for a hug as well. It was brief but left Draco thoroughly floored. He hid his surprise tolerably well, but Hermione could tell and had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

"Let's go," she said, grabbing Draco's hand and turning to the fireplace.

Draco was muttering something about Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs when they arrived back at the Manor. Hermione laughed. "Looks like you're Harry's friend now. How many Galleons would you have bet against it ten years ago?" she asked.

"Half of the Malfoy fortune," he said as they walked to their bedroom. "Almost as much as I would've bet against you and me."

She shook her head. "See," she said teasingly. "You aren't right as often as you think. Not so smart after all, are you?"

"You insolent witch," he grumbled, moving over suddenly to pick her up and throw her over his shoulder.  She narrowly avoided squealing in shock and laughed breathlessly while he carried her the rest of the way. He tossed her onto their bed and kicked off his shoes before hopping up as well to lean over her.

"Did you just throw your shoes on the floor?" she asked in mock outrage. "You're always so meticulous."

"Why else do we have house-elves?" he responded with a smirk.

She tried to glare convincingly through her laughter and pushed against his chest until he rolled over. Then she tried to take off her own shoes while he distracted her by poking her stomach.

"Draco Malfoy, you nuisance," she complained. "You're as immature as a preschooler sometimes."

He chuckled. "I just sat through four hours with a bunch of people who may or may not still hate me, some of whom I don't particularly appreciate," he said, "so I think I've earned the right to act out a little."

"It wasn't so bad, was it?" she  asked, finally managing to take off her shoes and lying down next to him.

"It was fine," he admitted. "It was good to see George again."

"And you talked to Ron," she said.

"Yes. I could tell you were eavesdropping, you know," he said, twisting his neck to smirk at her.

"Friends with Harry, a civil conversation with Ron... Clearly today is a day of miracles."

"As long as you don't expect me to be friends with Weasley," he warned.

"I don't," she said. "You and Harry aren't really as different as you think, but you and Ron... You really have nothing to bond over. I'm just happy you're not arguing."

"Good," he said. He rolled over to face her and pulled her to him. Hermione closed her eyes and they fell silent. Eventually, they mustered the energy to change into pyjamas and moved from above to beneath the covers. He wrapped his arms around her, like he did on most nights, and she revelled in the feeling of safety and belonging that it gave her.

"What do you want to do on your birthday?" she asked after a while.

"You remembered," he mumbled, clearly already half asleep.

"Of course I did, you goose," she said.

"Dinner and opera, like last year?"

"Sure," she said. "I'll make the reservations."

"Thanks," he responded, briefly pressing his lips to her cheek.

"See, I do say yes to your birthday plans when you ask," she said quietly.

"I know," he said. "I just didn't know it then." He sighed; she could feel his breath on her cheek. "You've no idea how stressed I was about asking you to Les Chevaux," he said. His voice was still a little sleepy, and Hermione briefly wondered whether he'd be this forthcoming if he were fully awake. "You brewed with me all the time, and we had dinner together, but we'd never left the Manor. I thought if I just told you that we were going, you couldn't say no."

She chuckled. "You wouldn't have stopped me from saying no if I hadn't wanted to come."

"Obviously. I just didn't have a clue what I was doing."

"It made me sad, you know," she whispered.

"What?" he asked.

"That you didn't trust me. You didn't have enough faith in our friendship to believe I'd come with you if you just asked."

He sighed quietly, sounding more awake when he spoke again. "Did I hurt your feelings?"

"No, it wasn't that." She shook her head and struggled to find the words to explain herself. "I suppose I didn't take it personally. It's just... I've always trusted my friends. It occurred to me that maybe you'd never had that, or didn't have it anymore."

"I trust people," he said slowly, thoughtfully. "Just not as much or as fast as you. Besides, I didn't doubt your honesty or your intelligence or your motives. I only doubted your regard for me."

"You were insecure," she said.

"I suppose," he said reluctantly, and she guessed he didn't like to think of himself as anything other than self-assured.

"That's fine, you know," she said, reaching up to run her hand through his hair. "Everyone is insecure sometimes. Case in point: we spent months both convinced that the other didn't and couldn't have feelings for us."

She felt him chuckle. "Glad that issue was resolved," he mumbled.

"Me too."

They both fell silent. Eventually, she felt Draco relax further as he drifted off into sleep. She followed his example not long after.

--

Other than to celebrate Draco's birthday, Hermione worked virtually non-stop for the next six weeks. She was frantically revising for the largest exams she'd yet had. Draco, meanwhile, was attempting to catch up on his studies as well. To Hermione's surprise, he twice went to pay a visit to George. According to Draco, he was helping with some products for the shop as an 'interesting study-related project', but Hermione suspected he simply enjoyed George's company.

Her last internship ended midway through June. She told the nurses and healers goodbye and turned to revision full-time. Draco occasionally made attempts to distract her, going so far as to all but drag her to the swimming pool or the quidditch pitch. Mostly, however, she studied.

She was exhausted but triumphant when she put her self-inking quill down at noon on a Wednesday in July. "Done," she mouthed to herself. Just then, the examiner called everyone forward to hand in their scrolls. Hermione put her spare quills in her bag and followed her fellow fifth year healer students to the desk at the front of the room.

Their scrolls were sealed with a spell. "The results will be owled to you within three weeks," said the examiner. "Enjoy your holidays, everyone!"

"Question two was horrible," Clarissa moaned when she, Hermione, and Matthew had left the exam room. They began to walk toward the building's exit as Clarissa complained. "I swear I went over the intestinal healing spells at least seven times during revision, but I still didn't know the right sequence!"

Matthew nodded. "I hadn't expected that level of detail," he said with a sigh. "I think I got them right, but I did have to make a few guesses. Questions three and four were all right, though."

"Yes, I didn't have a problem with those," Clarissa agreed. "What about you, Hermione?"

"I think I did fairly well," she said, smiling at her friends. "The first question tripped me up until I remembered huso vivanti could be used to aid the potion. Then it went well from there."

"I've never heard you that positive after an exam," Clarissa said, laughing. "Now I know you'll have an Outstanding."

"Like we didn't know that already," Matthew said, grinning at her. "So Clarissa, did you make up your mind about what you’re doing next year?"

"I have a traineeship with the Liverpool Clinic for two years," Clarissa said. "Liverpool doesn't have a very large Wizarding population, but there are enough magical folk in the area to support the clinic. It has three healers and one trainee position."

"That's great," Hermione said enthusiastically. "Are you staying in London? Liverpool is just close enough for a comfortable apparition jump."

"I think I'm staying. I love my apartment," Clarissa said. "But perhaps when I'm used to the Liverpool area, I'll move there. We'll see what happens. And you, Hermione?"

"I'm staying at St Mungo's," she said. "I'm doing a three-year traineeship in the spell damage ward. It focuses on diagnostics."

"I would've thought you'd go into potions, or into magical diseases," Matthew said. "What with your recent medical triumph." The news of Ginny's miraculous cure had of course made every news outlet known to the wizarding world.

Hermione shook her head. "Potions are interesting, and I love working on them with Draco, but diagnostics is more suited to my tastes," she said. They reached the exit just she was about to ask what Matthew was going to do. Before she could do so, however, he said, "Hey, that's Draco, right?"

He gestured to the other side of the street. Hermione followed his movement with her eyes, and sure enough, there was Draco. He was leaning against the wall of a dilapidated building opposite the School for Magical Healing. To Hermione's astonishment, he was wearing muggle clothes: a pair of jeans and a shirt. She didn't know whether he'd bought the clothing or transfigured it from his robes, but it looked surprisingly good on him. Some sort of basket stood by his feet.

"That's Draco, yeah," she said, frowning in confusion. Before she could begin to consider what Draco was doing in London, Matthew was already crossing the quiet street. Clarissa followed him, and Hermione hurried to catch up.

"Hey," she said when they reached Draco, leaning in to kiss him in greeting. She wasn't sure how he'd react to public displays of affection, but it wasn't as if their relationship was a secret. He didn't object, kissing her back and grabbing her hand. "What are you doing here?" she asked.

"You just had your finals," he said with a shrug. "I decided some form of celebration was in order, so I took a day off studying."

"You did what now?" Hermione asked, staring at him in surprise.

Draco smirked at her but didn't repeat himself or explain. "Who are your friends?" he asked instead.

"Oh," she said, turning to the others. "Draco, Clarissa, Matthew," she continued, indicating each of them in turn.

"Nice to meet you," Draco said, although his glance to Matthew was not entirely friendly. Matthew either didn't notice or pretended not to.

"Likewise," Clarissa said, smiling widely at Draco. "Well, it looks like you have plans, Hermione. I'll see you around, yeah?"

"Of course. Are we still going to Fortescue's next week?" Hermione asked.

"Definitely. I'll send you an owl about it," she said. "Bye, Matt. It was good to see you, Draco." She looked around, saw that the street was devoid of muggles, and disapparated.

Matthew said his goodbyes soon after and disappeared like Clarissa. Hermione looked at Draco, then at the basket by his feet. "What's in there?" she asked.

"Food," he responded. "We're having a picnic."

"You're kidding," she said, and he laughed at her surprise.

"Certainly not," he said. "I'm quite serious. We're going to a park. You'll need to transfigure your robes." She grabbed her wand and changed her robes into muggle clothing. He nodded in approval, picked up the basket, and took her hand. "Let's go."

He asked her about her exams as they walked, and she told him some of the questions and answers. Before she knew it, they'd reached Green Park. Draco sought out a quiet corner on one of the well-kept lawns and set down his basket. To Hermione's amusement, he took out a red-and-white cloth and spread it out.

"You've come prepared," she pointed out as she sat down on it.

 "Of course," he said, kneeling next to her and unpacking the basket. "I did have some help. Every time you think Nocky can't possibly be more enthusiastic, he reaches new heights." He handed her a glass of pumpkin juice.

Hermione giggled and took the glass. "It's cold," she said with a smile. "Thank Merlin for food preservation charms. I'm glad this picnic isn't completely muggle."

Draco unpacked sandwiches, miniature quiches, and fresh fruit. "This may be the cutest thing you've ever done," Hermione said. He pulled a face, and she laughed again. "Too Hufflepuff? All right, this is... it's the nicest secretive Slytherin thing you've ever done."

"Just eat your sandwich," Draco grumbled, but he was smiling as he sat down cross-legged on the cloth.

They watched the other park visitors as they ate, Draco commenting occasionally on the ridiculousness that was muggle summer clothing.

"Can I ask you something?" Hermione asked when they had moved on from the sandwiches and quiche to slices of watermelon.

Draco looked at her attentively. "Of course," he said, looking curious and the tiniest bit uncertain.

"When you proposed to me," she began, "in St Mungo's, you said you wanted me to give you heirs." She looked at her hands, unsure how to continue.

"That isn't a question," he pointed out after a moment.

She glared at him, but continued. "Well... do you still want heirs?"

He tapped his fingers against his knee. "Regardless of the promises you made back then, I would never force you to have children if you don't want to," he said after a moment.

"That isn't an answer," she said.

He chuckled. "Touché," he muttered. He met her eyes. "It's not about heirs, or bloodlines, or the family name," he said. "It wasn't about those things even back then. I just didn't want to tell you or Harry that I wanted children. Which, yes, is still something I want." He averted his eyes again.

Hermione nodded. "Okay," she said.

When she said nothing more, he looked at her in disbelief. "Surely you aren't leaving it at that," he said. She could tell he was nervous about her response and took pity on him.

"I want kids too," she said, and he sighed quietly in relief. She continued, "Probably not for a few more years, though."

"That's fine," he responded, smiling now. "I'm not finished with my studies for another eighteen months, and you have three years of traineeship ahead of you. Besides, we're only twenty-three."

She nodded and shifted closer so she could lean against him. "Exactly," she said. "It's good to know you still want it, though."

"It's good to know you want it," he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.

"You could have asked," she pointed out.

"I know," he said.

She sighed contentedly, and they fell silent, watching couples walk hand in hand and families play with Frisbees and balls.

"This is the perfect way to start the summer," she said after a while.

"Of course it is. I came up with it," he responded. She shoved his arm. "When does your traineeship start?"

"September," she said. "Six weeks of vacation. We should travel again."

"Pick a destination."

"Australia," she said without thinking. It was the first thing that came to her mind.

 Draco leaned away from her a little to be able to see her better. "Your parents," he said.

She took a deep breath. "Yeah," she said after a moment. "My parents."

"Do you want to see them?" he asked quietly.

She bit her lip. "I don't know. It might just make me miss them more, but... I want to make sure they're all right."

He pulled her close to him again, and she felt him nod. "Let's do it," he said. "We'll go together. It'll be okay." He pressed a kiss to her forehead.

She smiled and moved closer to him. "Yes," she whispered. "It'll be okay."

THE END