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Falling Dark

Chapter Text



August 30, 1998

Damp. Soft. With a hint of coconut from the gorse still blooming on the hills. And chill, laced with a promise of autumn just round the corner.

Hermione Granger took another lungful of crisp air before opening her eyes.

What it tasted most like, was home.

Home.

The word floated through her mind like a bittersweet melody as her feet touched solid ground and her body swirled into solid existence, toes pointing at the stone viaduct that led to Hogwarts Castle: her only true home now—at least for one more year. She looked down and across the arching span. In May the bridge had been in ruins, but it looked solid and passable now.

She took another breath and a small step forward, an irrational fear clutching at her heart that at her touch, the castle would toss her backward or worse, disappear into myth and mist. Did she belong here anymore? Was it home still?

Her foot touched down and she felt the wards, stronger and more wary now, reach out and turn her over like a stone found on a riverbed, look inside her cracks and fissures to what she was. And in a split second she was found to belong, drawn in by the magic that called out from the ancient grounds to the same force that sang through her blood.

Hermione breathed a sigh of relief, of exultation, and stepped again, more confidently. She clutched the small leather bag at her side and started to walk, slowly at first and then briskly, across the bridge.

It was growing dark and a wispy fog hung about the middle of the span, obscuring the other side, but she could see light and sense warmth beyond, although she did wonder what her human welcome would be. Regular students wouldn't come for another two days, and the letter Hermione had received had said only that eighth-year students should arrive before the 1st by means other than the train.

She mulled over the idea, as she strode through the breaking mist, robes billowing behind her, that she was early. She laughed a little to herself. That would be in character. But she'd been so restless at Grimmauld since she'd returned from Australia…

A frown touched her brow as she finally cleared the fog and could see the castle for the first time. She squinted past the flying boar statues as a figure materialized in the dim, standing on the old stone steps, straight and proud, peaked hat cocked to one side.

"Ms. Granger! I thought it was you." Professor McGonagall's burred Scottish consonants rang out as she started down the steps.

"Professor!" Hermione surged forward, hands outstretched, quite forgetting herself. But McGonagall's warm clasp met hers and they shook awkwardly and enthusiastically for several moments. Hermione felt tears prick her eyes and noticed the headmistress dashing something from the corner of her own as well.

"It feels very fitting," McGonagall said, stepping away and looking Hermione up and down, "that you're the first student back."

Hermione smiled and warmth spread through her chest. "So I am early."

"Nonsense. Just on the right side of punctual." McGonagall turned with an ushering motion. "Now come inside and out of the wet. Dinner will be served soon. Is that your only bag?"

"Yes, I left my trunk with the Weasleys to put on the Express."

"Excellent." They turned through the doorway and into the entry hall, Hermione looking around to catalogue damage and repair, both of which were in evidence.

McGonagall's gaze followed hers. "Work has been constant," she said, looking up at a pillar which had clearly taken a blast from a spell. "But there is still much to be done."

Hermione nodded, realising she could feel a contraction of energy, the castle pulling in on itself. She pushed her magic out to feel the damage and trace the small tendrils of renewal.

McGonagall watched her. "These walls have seen a great deal in a thousand years." She reached out and touched a block of thick stone. "But it may take a good long while this time." She breathed in sharply, but then patted the wall. "Best thing for it is to have the students back, learning, doing magic. Free of fear."

"Absolutely. And when will the others arrive? The other eighth-years, I mean?"

"I expect tomorrow. Possibly early the next day."

Hermione saw that they were approaching the stairs to the Headmistress's Office and felt faint surprise, which McGonagall seemed to sense.

"I thought we'd have dinner together in my chambers," she said. "The Great Hall is… rather cavernous when the students aren't here. Unless you'd rather get settled in first?"

"No, dinner sounds lovely." Hermione couldn't imagine refusing. Also, she hadn't eaten in hours—too busy with packing and goodbyes—and she was suddenly famished, if a little intimidated at the idea of a tête-à-tête with Minerva McGonagall.

The headmistress again seemed to intuit Hermione's feelings because she stopped walking and faced Hermione, her habitually stern features softening. "You know, I don't intend to treat you like students, those of you who are returning. As far as I'm concerned, you're adults who are here for independent study. You've fought in a war. Let's start as we mean to go on."

"I'd like that," Hermione said slowly, willing to accept even if she felt very far from adulthood most days.

McGonagall nodded once, then turned up the stairs with a beckoning hand.


"You've been in Australia until recently, correct? I saw Arthur at the Ministry last week and he apprised me of everyone's news." The headmistress indicated a small, richly set table in the corner of her office and Hermione sat down, then picked up a snowy napkin and laid it in her lap.

"Yes," she said. "I went in June, after the funerals." She'd gone after the dust had settled—once Harry had moved from the Burrow to Grimmauld and told her he'd be OK on his own for a while. Once they'd talked Ron out of going to Norway and he'd arranged for Annika to come to London instead. Once Harry and Ron had decided to take the Ministry up on the offer to start Auror training early.

"And you were there for a while." McGonagall motioned and the bowl in front of Hermione filled with a clear, aromatic soup. Hermione's goblet also filled, with a dark, ruby red liquid. She reached for it and sipped delicately. Wine. She couldn't help the questioning glance she darted to the headmistress.

McGonagall smiled kindly. "As I said, you're an adult now."

Hermione nodded and drank more deeply. "Yes," she nodded. "I was in Sydney much longer than I'd intended." She'd meant to come back in July. She hadn't wanted to leave Harry for so long and she'd wanted to be in Britain in case Draco— "But the healers, the progress we were making, required my presence."

"And are your parents fully recovered?"

"Very nearly. It's really just a case of filling in gaps now. The most difficult times to reconstruct are those before I was cognisant."

"Of course. But there are methods for that. And when do the healers think they can return to England?"

"Ah." Hermione set down her spoon. The soup was onion; savoury and delicious. "They have, ah, decided to stay. In Sydney." She looked away.

McGonagall's "Oh?" was soft and sympathetic.

"Yes," Hermione continued, picking up her spoon once more. "They love it there and when they remembered their old life, they were saddened by the idea of going back to it. I think it was quite hard on them when I joined the magical world." She looked directly at McGonagall, who surprisingly broke the eye contact and looked down.

"Yes, I imagine it was," she said after a bit. "We should do better there. For our muggle families."

"Yes," Hermione nodded. "We should." She dipped her spoon in the soup. "Also, my mum is pregnant. They want to raise my brother-to-be in their new home."

"Oh! Well that's…"

"Quite," Hermione said, looking up with a tight smile. "I'm very happy for them. How many eighth-year students will there be total?"

McGonagall paused before answering. "Ahh, as of now, eight. But numbers may fluctuate with circumstances."

Hermione wanted very much to know if Draco was among the eight, but couldn't think of a way to ask. Despite thinking about him almost constantly, she hadn't seen or heard from him since the Manor. She closed her eyes against the memory of that, but then opened them again, watching her empty soup bowl exchange for a plate of salmon and new potatoes.

He'd done exactly as they'd promised each other, exactly as she'd wanted. He'd even managed to protect Harry without raising too much suspicion. But she knew he'd be devastated over what had happened and what he hadn't done. She wanted to see him so badly and for so many reasons, but foremost was to reassure him that he'd done right that day.

"Who?" Hermione cleared her throat. "Who are the eight?"

"Other than yourself currently the list is: Ms. Bones, Mr. Corner, Mr. Thomas, Ms. Greengrass, Ms. Parkinson, Mr. Nott and Ms. Padma Patil." McGonagall ticked along on her fingers.

Hermione's heart gave a glad little thump for Theo. It would be so good to see him. It was surreal somehow that the last time they'd been together they'd been dancing at the disco in San Cipriano. But her brain swerved quickly as McGonagall came to the end of the list without mentioning Draco. She tried to stay in the present but the headmistress's voice started to seem very far away.

Where was he and what he was doing? How was he? How were they? Well-worn thoughts. She knew only from whispered conversations overheard before she'd left for Australia that the Malfoys were in custody and that the Ministry was deciding how to reveal their contributions to the war effort. But she'd seen nothing so far. She'd thought by the time she returned there would be an announcement or a statement of some kind…

She was so desperate to see him.

Mcgonagall gave a little cough and Hermione realised she'd been staring at nothing. "A varied group," she managed to say.

"Yes. A good mix. All excellent students. I expect the pilot to be a success."

"Pilot?" Hermione sipped her wine, still only halfway attending.

"Yes, if this works as well as I expect, I intend to offer eighth-year studies to all interested students going forward."

"What a marvelous idea."

"Well." Mcgonall cut forcefully into a potato. "I've got to do something to shake things up. General enrollment is down forty percent in the regular student population."

"Forty percent?" Hermione's eyes went wide, her full attention back on the headmistress.

"Yes," McGonagall said, more than a hint of bitterness in her voice. "The first year class is reduced by a third and most of the muggle-born students from all years declined to return this term. Many non-muggle families pulled their students too. And there are hedge schools that have sprung up in some of the magical villages to meet demand." She sighed. "And of course some were just too traumatized after the battle to ever want to come back here."

"That's awful." Hermione shook her head. "I hope it's not permanent."

"I expect it will resolve itself as time goes by, but any student who experienced last year…" McGonagall pressed her lips together and looked away.

"I heard a little bit about it from Ginny and Neville," Hermione said softly. "But they didn't want to talk about it much."

"Unsurprising."

It was silent, but for the clink of cutlery, until McGonagall spoke again. "And I understand Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley have begun Auror training?"

"Yes." Hermione nodded. "They started over two months ago."

"And of course Mr. Longbottom is in New Zealand on that herbology apprenticeship."

Hermione nodded again. Neville had left right after the funerals too. He'd seemed happy to get away and go somewhere new. And having finally met his grandmother, Hermione could hardly blame him.

"And how is Ms. Brown? Have you seen her recently? I know you became quite close last summer. She told me about it last term."

"Yes!" Hermione smiled, happy to speak of a lighter topic. "She's out of St. Mungo's as of last week. All healed and they think no, ah, lasting lycanthropic effects."

"That's wonderful to hear." Warmth infused McGonagall's normally austere features. "And what will she be doing?"

"She's apprenticing with a dressmaker in Diagon Alley. Very excited about it. It's a wonderful fit for her."

McGonagall nodded. "And she and Mr. Zabini…?"

Hermione started and then remembered Lavender had told her that she and Blaise had made no secret of their relationship at school last year—and suffered quite a bit for it at the hands of the Carrows. Lavender had hinted at dark doings with Theo as well. Hermione hadn't wanted to pry into painful topics when Lavender was trying to heal, but she wondered about the extent of what had happened.

"Yes, they are still together. He's got no plans to come back, correct? I haven't actually seen him since the battle. We keep missing each other." A source of frustration since she wanted to ask Blaise about Draco and hadn't wanted to burden Lavender with it.

McGonagall shook her head. "No, I received a negative response from him. I believe he'll be doing something in a professional capacity for his mother. There are some efforts afoot to reveal his true role over the last year." She picked up her wine. "It's not a good time to be seen as neutral."

Hermione took a breath. Here was the chance to bring up Draco, but she'd have to be discreet. Their relationship was still a closely kept secret and she didn't want it out until she talked it over with Draco himself. "Anyone else... thinking of coming back, but undecided?"

"I'd hoped for Ms. Parvati Patil, but she couldn't be persuaded." McGonagall shook her head once. "And a few more Hufflepuffs—although we are trying to downplay house divisions with you eighth-years." Her gaze flicked up to Hermione, who nodded slowly, still focused on how to introduce the Malfoys as a topic.

"And the Ministry efforts," she said slowly, trying a different angle, "to rehabilitate certain people or names. How is the progress there?"

"Slow." McGonagall's mouth tightened and she blew out a breath. "As you know, there were some prominent double agents who did invaluable work—Severus, the Malfoys, Horace, Mr. Zabini and even Mr. Nott after his father died—but it will take time for people to accept, and I fear some will never garner sympathy no matter how much they did. There are those who will always say that it wasn't enough." She looked into Hermione's eyes "Old prejudices run deep and they run both ways."

Hermione nodded distractedly. She hadn't known about Theo and worried for the risks he'd taken.

McGonagall applied herself to the last of her salmon and Hermione took a deep breath. "The Malfoys," she said, toying with her fork. "I'd wondered particularly about them. I understand they took... tremendous risks. And of course I saw it, when Ron, Harry and I were captured and sent to Malfoy Manor. Draco helped us that day and I just wondered if… he might have been in the list of eighth-years. He was always such a strong student," she finished lamely.

"Second only to you. And of course." McGonagall looked at her swiftly. "You were in the same city last summer, weren't you?" She held Hermione's gaze, her eyes sharp. Hermione nodded, trying valiantly to give nothing away.

Finally McGonagall looked down as her dinner plate exchanged for a bowl of lemon syllabub.

"I'd hoped I'd see Draco here too," she said after a while, picking up her spoon. "I'd hoped all of the students who missed seventh year would return, although I knew Potter and Weasley would be a long shot." Her mouth quirked briefly and Hermione gave a little smile too.

"And I haven't given up on Mr. Malfoy," she said after a moment. Hermione's heart began to race. "Perhaps after whatever it is the Ministry is doing... I'm told very little up here, you know." She looked up with an exasperated light in her eye. "Even when it pertains to my students."

Hermione nodded, feeling suddenly buoyed by hope. Draco might still come. She let her mind wander over what an eighth year here together would be like and she felt herself lighten. Walks by the lake, nights in the astronomy tower, study dates in the library—everything they'd dreamed about when they'd lain in her bed in San Cipriano. Suddenly her heart took off and soared—it came to her all at once that they'd done it, made it through to peace and safety, and one way or another they'd be together without having to hide. And any obstacles they'd face now were nothing compared to what they'd already been through. They'd get through anything left together.

Hermione couldn't prevent the smile these thoughts brought to her lips, although she tried to hide it in her dessert bowl, quickly finishing the delicious concoction and looking up at the headmistress, who was watching her closely. Hermione tried to school her features but was suddenly overtaken by an enormous yawn.

"Oh, pardon me," she said sheepishly.

"No, no you must be exhausted," McGonagall said, rising to her feet. "Let's go and I'll show you the eighth-years' quarters. You'll be housed differently from the regular students."

"Right. You said something about deemphasising the House divisions?"

"Yes, you'll all live together in the lower floors of the North Tower. We've reserved three for you. Girls rooms on the third floor, boys on the second and a common space on the first."

Hermione nodded along as she followed the headmistress out of the main building. They crossed briskly into the back portion of the castle, an area Hermione had visited very little, since she'd never had an interest in Divination, which was housed there in the top floors.

Climbing the stairs from the North Tower's ground floor, they came to a large room dominated by a set of huge windows that looked out toward the Quidditch pitch—or would when it was light outside. Hermione had a quick impression of well-stocked bookshelves, large study tables, soft couches and squishy chairs tucked casually about. All were in deep, comforting colors, but carefully devoid of the distinctive Hogwarts House hues or symbols. She also noted an almost cafe-like area with round tables and upright chairs. McGonagall saw her looking and nodded toward it.

"You'll be of course welcome to take meals in the Great Hall, but we thought that it might be nice for you to have your own dining space as well."

Hermione nodded as they made their way to a staircase that branched off from the common space.

"Boys' rooms are here." McGonagall gestured to a corridor as they alighted on the second floor, then kept climbing. "And the girls' floor is here." They stopped at the top of the third floor steps. "Everyone has their own room and bathrooms are at the end of each corridor." McGonagall pointed down the high-ceilinged hall. "Since you're first here, you can choose which room you'd like. Although Ms. Parkinson and Ms. Greengrass asked to share, so don't take the larger one with two beds."

Hermione smiled, then poked her head into each of the remaining three rooms, all of which were equipped with a bed, wardrobe and large, sturdy desk. She finally ended up taking the third room down, mostly because she liked the wallpaper, which featured tiny purple thistles blooming on a cream background, and the blanket on the bed, which was a soft tartan in shades of mauve and sage.

"Lovely choice," McGonagall said, smiling at the tartan. She looked back up at Hermione. "Well, unless you have any questions, I suppose I'll leave you to it. Meals will be at the regular times and you can take them here or in the Hall. The Express will be arriving day after tomorrow, but I expect the other eighth-years will trickle in before then. Likely this wing will be full tomorrow evening."

Hermione nodded and frowned a little, realising how few friends she had in the crop of eighth-years. She found herself quite desperate to see Theo and wondered if he and Daphne had become close again. It would also be good to see Dean. And she'd always thought she'd get along with Padma Patil if given half a chance. Susan and Michael were enigmas, but Hermione hoped they'd turn out to be friends—or at least friendly.

And of course Ginny would be here soon.

Waving to the headmistress as she made her way back down the stairs, Hermione shut the door to her little room and lit the sweet brass lamp on her bedside table with a soft Lumos. She looked around, noting details she'd swept over before, like the cushioned window seat on the sill, the neat fireplace on one of the walls and the small white sink standing in the corner under an old-fashioned mirror.

These must have been staff rooms at some point—or maybe servants' quarters? Or perhaps McGonagall had just conjured them into being because they were needed. The Castle's mysteries never ceased to amaze.

Hermione yawned again and opened her leather bag, drawing out her pyjamas and toiletries, glad to have the little sink. After her ablutions, she sunk into the soft mattress of the bed, realising she could see out the window to the owlery from where she lay. She watched birds swooping back and forth in the moonlight as her eyes grew heavy, the long day and large meal robbing her of her usual need to read before sleep.

She let her eyes close and her thoughts went immediately, like footsteps on a well-worn path, to Draco. Would he come? Would he lay with her in this little bed and hold her in his arms? Kiss her until she couldn't breathe, touch her until she couldn't resist?

She had to believe he would; she hoped for it so desperately. But she hadn't heard from him, and it had been so long. She was worried deep down—about the Manor and what had happened there. About his ability to get past it.

But, she fisted her hands into her sheets, she'd just make him if she had to. Like she'd done in San Cipriano. She wouldn't stand for anything less, and she knew now that he couldn't resist her.

And if he didn't come to school, she'd track him down wherever he was as soon as she could. She wouldn't let a day go by once she knew how to get to him.

She took a deep breath and settled more deeply into her pillow, sleep overtaking the workings of her mind.

She loved him and she couldn't, wouldn't, let him slip away.

Chapter Text

Hermione awoke to sunlight slanting across her pillow. Throwing back her duvet and going to the window she looked out on the green, dew-heavy grounds, where a warm glow was just starting to cross the lawns and banish the shadows from corners of stone. She put her fingers to the glass and took a deep breath.

She was here. And today might be the day.

Excitement flooded her and she turned from the window in a rush, suddenly anxious to be going and doing. To be ready. She gathered her things and rushed down the hall to the washroom, which was high-ceilinged and bright: tiled in white and flooded with muted light from frosted windows. Stepping into the hot shower stream, she hummed as she lathered, washing the dirt of travel and transition from her person, her mind thrilling at the idea of having a schedule, tasks and structured things to do. Being busy and orderly sounded like heaven after the last scattered year of her life.

And of course Draco might come today. Or she might hear from him.

Smiling at the thought, Hermione let warm water sluice over her upturned face for one final, blissful minute, then closed the shiny silver taps and grabbed her towel from the nearby hook. She didn't have her dressing gown yet, but could tell from the stillness in the corridor that she was alone in the wing, so she hurried back down the hallway to her room with just the towel wrapped around her, giggling at the memory of running into Theo while similarly attired that one morning in San Cipriano.

It seemed like thousand years ago, but the warmth of that day and that conversation flowed over her as she dressed, taking a little care with her selection of a long, fitted wool skirt and a favorite dusty purple jumper, Draco and the possibility of seeing him always an easy leap from thoughts of last summer--even though she knew it was a long shot. Her conversation with McGonagall last night had given her very little reason to believe he would appear today, but just being here where they'd dreamed of reuniting gave Hermione more hope than she'd had in months.

Her smile faded as she moved from the wardrobe to the mirror and began twisting her hair into a long plait, delivering herself a little lecture as she worked. She needed to be sensible and focus on the positive. Be patient. She'd waited this long for Draco and she could wait a little longer still. And use this time to focus on launching her studies in a meaningful way.

Hermione mulled these thoughts as she left her bedroom and made her way toward the common room and breakfast, glad that she had a cozy, private area in which to eat rather than having to sit in an enormous, mostly empty Great Hall by herself. She was also looking forward to a strong cup of tea, a rack of toast and a long think over how to attack the year from a pedagogical standpoint. She couldn't believe she hadn't grilled McGonagall last night over course selection and structure. She must have been more tired than she'd realised.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Hermoine made her way toward the café-like area, noting a stack of parchment residing in the center of each table that she didn't think had been there the night before. She pulled one toward her as she sat and doctored the tea that had appeared quickly on the table, settling in with a deep sigh.

The papers appeared to contain course descriptions and Hermione was soon engrossed, conjuring a quill to underline and circle things as well as make notes in margins and next to intriguing passages. Surprisingly, the documents indicated there would be no set program for eighth-year course-work. It seemed the older students could take what they wanted within the bounds of reasonable scheduling, with most courses offered via audits of seventh-year classes. Only Charms, Transfiguration, Defense Against Dark Arts and Potions would be designated as eighth-year specific.

"Interesting," Hermione muttered, scribbling furiously as she put together an ambitious plan that included the four core courses as well as (through a balletic bit of scheduling) Advanced Arithmancy, Alchemy and Ancient Runes. She was agonising over whether to cut History of Magic from her curriculum—on the one hand, she'd read extensively on the subject and felt well-prepared for the N.E.W.T.: on the other, it seemed wrong to leave out such a core subject—when she heard the sound of voices echoing up the stairs from the ground floor.

Hermione started out of her academic reverie, her mouth dry as she watched the doorway to the common room. McGonagall appeared first, her pointed hat bobbing energetically as she swept a hand before her and turned to usher two students into the room. Hermione instantly recognised Dean Thomas's dark, curly head and next to him a pale girl with wispy, light brown hair: Susan Bones. No tall, elegant figure or glint of platinum appeared behind them and Hermione sighed at herself in exasperation. She really had to stop expecting to see Draco around every corner, but at the same time, she feared it couldn't be helped.

She stood. "Dean! Susan!" she called, rushing out from behind the table and walking quickly to them, a smile of welcome on her lips.

"Hermione, hey!" Dean's kind face shone with warmth as he stepped forward to pull Hermione into a quick hug. Hermione hugged him back, a memory of Harry sitting on her couch in San Cipriano flashing through her mind. She wondered what Harry had told Dean about his revelations to her, and at the same time resolved to let Dean take the lead on any conversations in that direction. Pulling back, she smiled into his eyes and gave him an extra squeeze before stepping back and turning to Susan, who gave a shy if friendly greeting. The three of them stood chatting for a moment as Dean and Susan took in the common room area. Hermione also showed them the schedule of classes, and took the opportunity to direct a few quick questions to McGonagall about how many courses the Headmistress thought it was wise to attempt.

"I agree that your grasp of magical history is more than sufficient for the N.E.W.T., Ms. Granger," McGonagall said, a decided gleam in her eye. "And I do believe seven is the absolute limit for the eighth-year courseload, considering the rigor the four core classes will offer." Her tone told Hermione no time-turners would be on offer this year.

"Yeah, blimey, Hermione. I'm only going for the main four plus maybe one more elective," Dean said, his eyes wide.

"Same," Susan nodded. "I'll probably do Herbology along with the core courses."

Hermione nodded at them, suddenly distracted. It would probably be wise to do Herbology now that she thought about it, but what would she drop? Her three extra courses were recommended for those seeking a Department of Mysteries position at the Ministry (the most rigorous departmental requirement), but Herbology would really help her understand Potions in a more dimensional way…

Hermione realised she was muttering to herself when Dean laughed and patted her on the arm. "It's really good to see things getting back to normal," he said.

Hermione snorted. "Sorry. I'm just so excited to be back!"

"Never apologise for your academic passions, Ms. Granger," McGonagall said crisply before turning to Susan and Dean. "Although I should leave you to your breakfast and show Mr. Thomas and Ms. Bones to their rooms."

"Absolutely. I'll see you both soon," Hermione said, waving the other students off with promises to connect later.

She drained her teacup as she watched them go—she'd had enough breakfast and her eye was caught by the gorgeous day that appeared to be developing outdoors. One had to seize on nice weather when it appeared in the north of Scotland. Looking between the deep blue sky and the heavily marked paper in her hand, Hermione frowned. It occurred to her that Care of Magical Creatures was most definitely not on her list and she should probably go tell Hagrid that in person. And say hello, and deliver him the note and care package Harry had sent up with her. A walk to his hut would also be a good outlet for the excess energy she'd been feeling all morning. She certainly couldn't sit here and jump every time a new student arrived. Thank gods there was only one more day without classes.

Decided, Hermione tucked her course papers under her arm, summoned the parcel from Harry and set out, her steps clattering as she skipped down the stairs and out into the soft sunshine.

"Don' be a stranger, now!" Hagrid's rumbling tones spilled out of the window that framed his bearded face.

"I'll be back and soon!" Hermione called, quickly and discreetly divesting herself of a rock cake she'd buried in her pocket earlier. She chuckled as the petrified pastry hit the ground under a bush; some things never changed and she was so immensely glad for that.

Turning down the path, she smiled up at the massive clouds crowding the horizon and lengthened her stride back toward the castle, which stood huge and hulking, its gothic spires almost seeming to pierce the fluffy white. The interview with Hagrid had been easier than she'd thought—he'd shown more affectionate resignation than disappointment over her course choices, and it had been lovely to catch up. Even if it did continue to surprise her that her professors seemed more like peers than remote paragons now. Although Hagrid had never been quite that, had he?

Hermione shook her head fondly as she reached the castle entryway and ran quickly up the stairs. Her avoidance of Hagrid's baking had left her very eager for lunch, which she thought she might take to the shore of the lake. Not thinking, she moved down the hallway to the right in the direction of Gryffindor Tower, but then stopped, checking herself with a rueful smile. It was left to the North Tower now—another thing to get used to.

Looking up at the castle's soaring arches as she walked, Hermione felt the echoing silence of the empty space. Her eyes passed over the columns lining this long hallway, and she noted a few were still cracked or crumbling; damage sustained during the battle. One in particular looked as if a spell had knocked the top third sideways, where it was balancing somewhat precariously.

She paused, laying a hand and then her forehead against its base, visions of that day suddenly crowding her mind: the frantic fury of it, the confusion and the smoke, the blood, the perfect stillness when Harry had returned. A fabric of terror pierced by cuts of joy, and ultimately replaced by a tide of grief that had swamped them all and would probably never quite let go.

Hermione's buoyant mood ebbed away on the remnants of that tide and she breathed against the stone, then looked up and pointed her wand steadily at the broken bit of the column.

Her Reparo was uttered low and with the power of her memories behind it. The stone gave a shriek and then snapped back into place with a crumbling groan, a few pebbles from the floor flying up to fill in the last of the cracks. Hermione patted the pillar with satisfaction and then pointed her wand at a few of the other cracked columns and mended them too. Who knew if she was supposed to be doing it, but she didn't rightly care. She wanted to help and this hallway seemed to have been neglected thus far.

By the end of it, she'd done wandwork on every column in the line and swore she could feel a faint hum of gratitude coming from the stone, which she patted once more before moving again toward the North Tower. She was truly hungry now, so she made her way quickly, hoping she wasn't too late for a sandwich or a hunk of bread and cheese.

"Oh, you beauty," she said under her breath as she hurried into the common area and spotted lunch platters still standing on the café tables. She quickly loaded a plate and transfigured it into a paper sack, then grabbed an apple and bit into it as she ran up the stairs to the girls' floor and hurried down the hall, wondering which room Susan had chosen. Her question was answered as she passed the door next to hers and spotted Susan within, magicking clothes onto hangers and into her wardrobe.

"Hullo!" Hermione said with a little wave of her sandwich bag. "How do you like the room?"

"Hi!" Susan smiled. "It's just lovely, isn't it?" She gestured and Hermione gazed over the space, which had a yellow, floral motif, very unlike Hermione's muted mauves and greens. It was pretty and sunny—perfect for a Hufflepuff. The thought rose unbidden and Hermione chastised herself for it, making a quick vow to try and stop dealing in stereotypes.

"It is." Hermione said. "Isn't it nice to have fireplaces too? They'll be cosy once it turns colder." Susan nodded and Hermione waved her lunch bag again. "Have you had lunch?" she asked, feeling a little shy, but pushing through it. She didn't know Susan well, but by all accounts she was a friendly person and now Hermoine's next door neighbor. "I'm about to take these sandwiches down to the lake…"

"Ohh, I ate already. Sorry, Hermione. Another time for sure. If I didn't have all this unpacking—" Susan looked almost upset that she had to decline.

"No, no, it's fine! Another time." Hermione nodded. "I'll leave you to it, then."

Susan thanked her and Hermione withdrew to her own little room, the encounter pulling her mind back to San Cipriano, when she and Lavender had first 'met'. She laughed to herself at the memory, realising with a rush just how much she missed Lav and wished she were here. They could have had such fun—shared a room and likely all of their clothing and shoes.

Of course—Hermione pulled her jumper off and exchanged it for a lighter shirt—she understood Lavender's reasoning for not coming back. Last school year had been… difficult… in ways Hermione knew she could never fully understand. And Lavender's memories of the battle must be terrifying on a whole different level. But it didn't change the fact that Hermione missed her. So much. And Susan, although willing and kind, was clearly no Lavender.

Hermione stood for a moment before suddenly gathering her jumper and throwing it over her shoulders. She picked up her lunch bag and course materials too, deciding no more moping today. She'd focus on the positive if it killed her. Hands full, she shoved her apple back in her mouth as she backed out the door to her room and closed it with her hip. Trying to hold everything so it wouldn't drop, she turned to stride down the hallway…and ran almost directly into Pansy Parkinson.

There was perfect silence for several beats while Hermione looked up into Pansy's startled, slightly hostile face, feeling like an idiot with an apple stuck in her mouth. She shifted a few things, reached up and slowly drew it out.

"Uh, hello." Hermione hoped her voice sounded neutral and not shaky like she felt inside. She hadn't had a chance to think about the Parkinson issue and the fact that she'd be sharing close quarters with someone who: A) had historically bullied and hated her; B) had suggested giving Harry to Voldemort during the Battle; and C) had slept with Hermione's boyfriend.

This was much worse than when she first faced Lavender in Italy.

"Hey," Pansy said, her voice soft but with a touch of belligerence. Interestingly, Hermione could see a flush of red staining the light brown skin of Pansy's jaw and lower cheeks. She flipped her long black hair behind her shoulder and her dark eyes seemed to challenge Hermione.

Hermione opened her mouth, but no sound came out. "Let's start as we mean to go on." McGonagall's words from the night before ran through her mind. But how did she mean to go on with people like Pansy? The things McGonagall had said about house unity surfaced, as did an image of Draco's face when he'd apologised for his behaviour at school. But then Hermione remembered Pansy's incredulous expression when she'd offered Harry up for slaughter—like Pansy couldn't believe it was even a question. Anger followed and Hermione could see Pansy notice it, then cross her arms almost protectively across her chest. Her face grew cold and Hermione saw in a flash how it could be—them going on as enemies, sniping at each other, never moving forward—and when (if) Draco arrived he'd have to choose sides...

Hermione made a split-second decision. She'd try the high road. For as long as Parkinson reciprocated, at least.

"Settling in?" she asked with a valiant attempt at a polite smile.

"Uh..." Pansy blinked, seeming unsure of how she was supposed to act too. "Trying to." She looked over her shoulder with an elegant half-shrug. Hermione noted that the door of her room was standing open and there was movement inside.

"Pans, if we move the beds this way I don't think the wardrobes will fit!"

"No, I'll make them, Daph!" Pansy turned totally and walked toward her door, but then stopped and turned back toward Hermione, clearly at a loss.

Hermione felt rooted in place for some reason and was still staring dumbly when another girl appeared in the doorway.

Daphne Greengrass.

Hermione looked at her and it was so strange to not know someone, yet know so much about them. She felt the same sort of disconnect as when she'd first seen Theo in San Cipriano. Like she'd gone to school with this person for a good part of her life, yet never spoken with them or even really looked at them. If someone had asked her five minutes ago to describe Daphne she'd not have been able to say much other than, "Blonde? Not too tall. Pretty, I think?"

But standing before her was a human being with a past, heartbreak and hardship. Someone who loved and was loved by a person Hermione held dear.

Hermione swallowed and stepped forward, holding out her hand. "Hi, I'm Hermione."

Daphne, who had stopped in the doorway, blinked several times. "Of course you are," she finally said, the slightest quirk lifting the corner of her mouth. But she stepped forward and clasped Hermione's hand, just at the moment when Hermione realised how stupid it was to be offering to shake with someone she'd technically known for eight years.

"Uh, sorry," Hermione said, dropping Daphne's palm quickly. "I just. Uh. Anyway, hope you like the room!"

"It's great. Yeah. How's yours?" Daphne brushed her fringe away from her wide blue eyes and Hermione realised she wasn't exactly right in her memories. Daphne was blonde, but a dark, muted shade—and she was taller than Hermione remembered. Her shoulder-length hair was not primped or even styled. She was also wearing muggle jeans and a t-shirt. And unlike Pansy, standing to the side in a crisp white blouse and chic black trousers that looked like they'd come off a Paris runway, she didn't radiate rich, Slytherin princess at all. She did radiate something, though. Words like 'cool confidence', and 'strong sense of self' ran through Hermione's mind like she was reading them in a muggle magazine article about developing one's self-esteem.

She tried to focus. "Mine's really nice. I can see the owlery from my window," she blurted, cheeks heating at the soft snort she heard from Pansy's direction.

"That's cool," Daphne said, ignoring Pansy and keeping her eyes on Hermione. She leaned in the doorway and crossed her arms, that quirk turning into an almost-smile, and Hermione wondered in a rush if she and Theo had talked last year and what this girl knew about them, about her.

"I think we should try spelling the wardrobes together, to make one larger closet," Pansy said, obviously trying to steer the conversation back to where it had been before Hermione had blundered in.

"Oh, so you can take over half of mine?" Daphne shot back.

"Well, you don't need much space for four muggle shirts and two pairs of ratty jeans," Pansy said with acid sweetness.

Daphne rolled her eyes at Hermione and Hermione found herself laughing a little. The idea that she might like to get to know Daphne floated through her mind. But Pansy was frowning, so Hermione made a little motion to go and turned down the hall. She'd probably done enough building and mending for one day.

Also, she was still starving.

Hermione was almost at the stairs and thinking keenly about her sandwiches when Daphne's voice came from behind her. "Hey."

Hermione turned; Pansy was nowhere to be seen and Daphne leaned out the doorway. Hermione realised in a flash that her t-shirt had the Nirvana happy face scribbled on it.

"You like muggle music," Hermione said, pointing.

Daphne looked down. "Yeah." She laughed a little. "I do."

Hermione nodded, wondering why Daphne had stopped her.

"I just wanted to say, uh," —Daphne shrugged a little— "that it was nice to meet you."

Hermione felt a swift smile cross her features. "Likewise," she said with a nod before turning and continuing down the stairs.

Hermione looked out at the sparkle on the surface of the Black Lake, deciding that early autumn was truly her favorite season at Hogwarts. Despite the events of the last few years, something in these first days of September always portended new beginnings—sharpened quills and the turning of fresh pages. And no matter how bad it had gotten, a new school year had always been cause for a certain type of celebration in her soul.

Hermione sighed, shifting on the grass to hug her knees to her chest as a light wind lifted a tendril of hair from her cheek. She hoped this year would be what she wished for—satisfying, productive—a balm over the wounds of the past. She hoped she'd made some steps in that direction today.

Tension banded her shoulders, so taking a breath, Hermione willed herself to relax, using a technique the healer who'd worked on her parents and showed her, focusing on her breaths and loosening her neck. She let her arms fall, reaching beside her to pluck a blade of grass as something dark caught the corner of her eye. She absentmindedly pulled the blade up and stripped it, inhaling its green scent as she turned to see what was there—McGonagall come to have another chat? Or maybe Draco—?

But what she saw—a gasp cracked from her throat and she was up and running before her thoughts had time to catch up, a gurgle of joy spreading through her chest.

He was tall—taller than when she'd last seen him, and leaner too. Not the insouciant golden boy of San Cipriano days, but a paler, more somber presence—until his beautiful smile broke over his face.

"THEO!" Hermione half laughed, half cried as she launched herself at him.

He laughed too as he caught her and pulled her close, his arms going around her tightly.

"You're here," she mumbled into his shirtfront.

"I'm here. You're here. It's so good to see you," he said after a few moments, pulling back and bracing his hands on her upper arms.

Hermione just smiled at him before squinting into his face. "You're taller," she said accusingly, realising she had to angle her neck more sharply than before to look at him.

His smile widened and his eyes crinkled. He bowed his head slightly, "Apologies."

"And where the hell have you been!?" She hit him on the arm. "I expected to see you in London ages ago!"

"I could ask you the same," he said with a raised brow. "In fact, I seem to remember a promise to sit together in the Great Hall a year ago…"

Hermione felt her face heat. "Oh fuck, Theo. You know how wracked with guilt I was, am, over that."

He laughed. "I'm definitely going to keep using it too. Be forewarned."

Hermione rolled her eyes and stepped away. "Arse." She took his hand and swung it lightly, smiling again. "I really am so glad to see you."

"Likewise," he said. "And I was in London. I visited Lav but you'd gone off to Australia. And I was back in town yesterday, but told you'd already hared up here. Ships in the night," he said airly, a ghost of his old charm emerging.

Hermione smiled and shook her head. "Pity we missed each other," she murmured.

"Can I come sit with you now, though? Catch up?" Theo's smiled faded and Hermione was struck again by the change in him. More serious, less playful, hair shorter and skin paler, a shadow in his eyes that had deepened.

She frowned; the war had had its way with them all, hadn't it?

"Of course," she said. "Nothing I'd like more. I even have an apple and some bread and cheese left from lunch if you're hungry."

"Excellent." He took her arm as they ambled down toward the lake shore. "Although, what I could really do with is a smoke and a glass of that good white we drank so much of in Italy."

"Mmm." Hermione leaned into him. "That would be lovely." She looked sharply at him. "But you're not still smoking! You said you were going to quit!"

"Only under extreme duress," he said, the old twinkle in his eye.

They settled on the grass and Theo accepted an apple from Hermione's bag. "I wonder if we will be allowed to drink and the like," he mused, throwing a quick glance back up at the castle.

"Oh, I can answer that," Hermione said, filling him in on her dinner with the Headmistress.

"Blimey," he laughed. "This year is seeming more and more tolerable by the second."

Hermione laughed too, but then sobered. "Got to be better than last year," she murmured, looking out over the water.

"Fuck. Yes." Theo's voice was more than bitter and Hermione glanced at him. His face was taut, almost angry, and she was reminded again of the ones who had stayed behind to fight here in their own ways.

"Tell me how you've been," Hermione said softly, reaching out to touch his arm. "What you've been doing and what it's been like. I've missed you."

Theo looked at her, seeming to come back from somewhere deep inside, his face relaxing. "Where to begin," he said with a little shake of his head.

Hermione stayed quiet until he spoke again.

"Well, my father died in October of last year, so things changed quite a bit at that point."

"Of course, god. Sorry for your loss." Hermione grimaced.

"Don't be." Theo flicked his eyebrows and gave a travesty of a smile. "But yeah," he rubbed the back of his neck. "Despite being an only child and the last leaf on the Nott family tree, it had somehow not occurred to me that I was going to have to take over so much when the old man kicked."

Hermione nodded, thinking of her parents in a hospital room in Sydney. She knew something of the burden of being the only one.

"There was a lot to untangle?" she asked.

"Massive amount." He shook his head. "The estate in the North, the London house, the fact that I wanted to eradicate every connection to dark magic that my family had accumulated over several centuries—and do it while Voldemort was in the ascendency."

Hermione shook her head slowly, "How—"

"Very carefully," he smiled. "I sold a lot of stuff under the guise of needing money—which wasn't totally untrue. Used the transactional work to gather information for the Order too."

"I'd wondered," Hermione said, touching his hand. "McGonagall mentioned something about your contributions. I hope you didn't take terrible risks." Her mind went to Draco and she frowned.

Theo's eyes crinkled again. "Oh, you know me—nothing too drastic."

But somehow Hermione thought the risks had been quite big and probably more than a bit reckless. She made a soft tutting sound and Theo turned to her with a slightly exasperated smile. "Oh, that's rich coming from you. I followed your exploits with more than a bit of trepidation, you know."

Hermione waved a hand as he began a low chuckle and nudged her on the shoulder.

"OK, OK!" she finally said. "No scolding for risk-taking."

"Thank you very much." He smiled, but then his eyes swept the grounds around them and his face fell. "It wasn't good here. Last year, you know. I had to do something."

Hermione touched his hand again. "Want to tell me about it? I heard a little from Neville and Ginny, but they didn't want to—"

"I don't blame them," he said shortly. "Don't blame them if they hate me either."

"Oh, Theo." Hermione felt a helpless bubble of grief and rage rise up her throat. She wished she could have been here, been two places at once, somehow.

"I just. Had to play a part, you know? Lord Nott." He made a fist and tapped it against the grass. "It was good for my role, good for getting information. And I won't lie, good for self-preservation." His mouth worked. "Maybe someday I'll get to tell them." He glanced at her. "At least Lav knew the truth."

"We'll tell them. I'll tell them," Hermione said, tears thickening her speech. "I'll make sure."

He gave her a sad smile and nodded.

"So you picked up information and passed it?" Hermione asked, swallowing the lump in her throat. "Information you gathered in selling off your family's... dark things. Did that mean time away from school? Were you here much at all?" Her mind darted again to Draco—was it possible they'd seen each other? Somehow she didn't want to ask outright just yet.

"Oh I was here. A lot." Theo's voice was tight. "I received much better intel right here." He rapped the ground again.

"How?" Hermione was confused as she watched his face twist.

"Alecto Carrow." Theo practically spat the name. "She liked me quite a bit."

Hermione felt her chest tighten as realisation dawned and dread rose. "Oh, Theo." She moved close to him and put her hand on his back, which was rigid.

He breathed in and out heavily before gently shifting away. "It was worth it." He nodded at the horizon. "Because we won. It was all worth it. Last year, that awful day. All the blood and death."

"You were there!" Hermione said. "I never saw you, but I looked and I wondered—"

"I was there and I saw you. Briefly." He attempted a smile. "You were amazing. All of you."

"But where were you? What were you doing?"

"Oh, I was working my own angles." Theo's face went blank and Hermione felt a cold trace travel up her spine. He looked away and looked back, visibly willing his face to lighten. "I'll tell you more about all that someday when we're not sitting in the sunshine and seeing each other for the first time in more than a year."

"OK," Hermione said gently, before they lapsed into a companionable silence, the soft lapping of the lake a soothing constant.

"I met Daphne," Hermione said suddenly, looking up. "I mean, met her again. You know what I mean." She shook her head as Theo chuckled.

"Yes, I do. Like that day at the language institute in San Cip. When we first got to know each other." He looked down at her, the old warmth and mischief in his eyes.

"Exactly. I thought of that day too!" Hermione laughed and nudged him. "I liked her," she said.

"I'm not surprised." He picked up a rock and threw it in the water.

"Did you see her today? How are things between you?" Hermione tried to read his body language, but he was carefully shuttered.

"They're better than when I last saw you," he said, his voice very neutral. "I made an effort last year, like we discussed. I think she knew I was trying."

"What did she think of your…activities here? Was she involved?" Hermione wanted to tread lightly as this was clearly an even more painful subject than she'd ever imagined.

"We were all involved. No bystanders allowed." Theo heaved another rock. "Slytherin House versus the rest, as always."

Hermione was starting to get an idea of what she Harry and Ron had avoided and it made her stomach twist.

"You did what you could," she said. "I know you did."

Theo looked over at her and squinted, nodded once. "I'll take that," he said, a slight smile starting to lift the corner of his mouth. "And Daph did help. Her family started getting close with Voldemort last year. They're very wealthy, you know—and there was something about large 'donations' to the Death Eater cause. In exchange for something, I'm sure--not that I know what it was. Daph hated it and was kept in the dark as a result. But she picked up what she could and passed it to me. It definitely broke the ice, brought us closer."

Hermione nodded thoughtfully and Theo squinted out over the water. "She's dating Michael Corner now, though," he said.

Hermione's hand darted out. "Shit, Theo. I'm sorry."

"No, it's fine. He's cool. It's cool. He'll be here this year, you know. With us."

Hermione sighed. Even though this new Theo was very different from the boy she knew in San Cipriano, she could still read him well enough to know when he was bluffing.

He looked over, saw her face and his nose wrinkled. He reached out and put a quick arm around her shoulders. "It's really OK. I'm happy being her friend. I have some practice with that, you know."

Hermione snorted a quick laugh. "Theo!" She bumped against him and he pulled her close, then let her go with a grin.

"Anyway Daphne," he continued. "I think she sees me as less of a complete cad than before. She even had a drink with me one warm night back home. On my terrace." He gave an expansive wave and Hermione laughed. He smiled. "And you liked her."

"She was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt."

Theo tipped his head back and laughed, his serious facade slipping completely. "Yeah, she's gotten into that kind of thing. It started as a rebellion way back when. Her parents abhor anything muggle. But then I think she found she actually liked it."

"Were you involved in this campaign?"

"May have been. How do you think I knew the words to all those songs at the disco?"

Hermione laughed. "Of course." Her thoughts went to last summer and eventually she sighed.

"Do you miss it as much as I do?" Theo asked, all mirth gone from his voice.

"God, yes." Hermione rubbed her temple. "So much."

"I think it...broke something in me," Theo said speculatively, skimming another rock out at the water. "Like I'll never be quite happy again unless I'm sitting in the square there drinking a cold glass of wine or trundling down the lane to the pools in my little 500, wind in my hair." He smiled at Hermione, but his eyes were sad.

"I know exactly what you mean," Hermione said slowly, her gaze on the crags and glens in the view ahead, so different from the mellow warmth of Italy—and her mind on moments there—laughing with Lavender in the flat, serving a customer at the café, sliding her arms around Draco as they leaned into a curve on his bike.

"Have you heard from him?" Theo asked softly.

Hermione started, although she guessed she shouldn't be surprised at his perceptiveness. "Am I that obvious?" she asked.

"A bit. To me." But his smile was gentle.

"No." Hermione heaved a huge sigh. "I haven't." She picked up her own rock. "I'd bloody well like to, though. You haven't heard anything, have you?"

"No, I would have told you." Theo shook his head. "Last time I saw him was in our flat the day I left. I'd sort of wondered if I'd meet him out there somewhere those last few months, but nothing. I tried to ask about him, keep tabs, but never heard anything important." He looked down at her and frowned. "I worried about him. Just like I worried about you."

Hermione felt tears sting her eyes and start to spill over.

"Hey, hey," Theo said, putting his arm around her this time. "I'm sure he's fine. The Ministry is just dicking around with the questioning and documentation and how they want to reveal the Malfoys' part in all this. Merlin knows they've had me in for enough interviews and my role was much smaller. At least they're trying to do it right." He squeezed her. "It's only a matter of time until he contacts you. It's got to be soon now too. Swot that he is, he'll likely show up here for eighth year and the two of you can blow everyone's minds by French-kissing in the Great Hall."

Hermione gave a watery chuckle and wiped her eyes. "What an image, Theo." Although it hadn't been far off from some of her fantasies. She took a huge breath and let it out. "I just worry, though."

"Why? Just the time that's gone by?" Theo tilted his head, his eyes suddenly rather sharp on her.

"No, I just. We did see each other out there. I was at the manor." Hermione sniffed as Theo's eyes widened. "It's not general public knowledge yet, although I'm sure it's only a matter of time until someone writes a book." She shook her head then spoke in a rush, "Anyway, I was Crucioed by Bellatrix and Draco was there. And I'm dreadfully fucking afraid that he's not going to be able to forgive himself."

"What? The fuck?' Theo turned fully to her, his face stricken. "You were what? And he didn't say anything? Do anything?" His brow lowered.

"No! But that was what we agreed and what I wanted him to do. He did exactly right, Theo. If he'd blown his cover or mine, ours, in that moment—god, it would have been devastating. It could have changed everything, the course of the war." Seeing Theo's face Hermione put her hand out. "I swear I'm not overstating this."

"No, no." He blinked rapidly. "I believe you. But fuck. I don't know if I could have watched you Crucioed. He must have been out of his mind."

"I'm sure," Hermione murmured, fretful. "But it was right." She twisted her hands in her lap. "I just really need to see him, Theo. To make sure."

"Yeah," he nodded. "Yeah."

Hermione let out a caught breath. She felt Theo's hand on her back now, his fingers curling over her shoulder with a steady pressure.

"Don't worry," he said. "He'll come around. He always does for you."

Hermione nodded and put her hand over his. Knowing that Theo understood her worry comforted her somehow.

"Anyway," she said after a few moments, attempting briskness. "Let's not wallow in the sad past and unknown future, shall we? Let's go up to the castle and shock everyone with our friendship."

Theo laughed. "That's the spirit. I'd like to test this eighth-years-can-have-wine rule too." He stood up and extended his hand to Hermione. "Also," he said, the twinkle very strong in his eye as she grasped his palm and stood, "I believe you owe me a dinner."

Hermione swatted him, but then hugged him close to her side. "I do. I definitely do."

Chapter Text

"I can't stand this anymore!" Ginny threw her quill down and flopped back in her chair.

Hermione carefully filled in the last half-moon of her rune translation before looking up. "You know, in some ways you're worse than your brother and your boyfriend," she said.

"I'm not! At least I finished the first section and I think it's mostly correct." Ginny shoved her parchment across the table. "And I didn't copy off of yours once."

Hermione pulled the parchment to her and centered it in the circle of light coming from the library lamp, eyes skimming over Ginny's work. "This looks great," she finally said. "I take it back. This wasn't an easy translation either."

Ginny looked at Hermione's paper. "But you're done and that looks professional level. How are you so good at this stuff?"

"How are you so good at a Wronski Feint?"

"Talent. And a lot of practice."

"Exactly."

Ginny moaned. "Please remind me why I took Ancient Runes again?"

"Because you're interested in Bill's job and Gringotts requires it for trainees," Hermione said as she sat back and stretched. It was nice to be in a class with Ginny for once and she'd definitely been joking in comparing her to Ron and Harry; Ginny was actually a great student—hardworking and very sharp.

"I should forget that and focus on the professional quidditch player track instead," Ginny said as she pushed her chair back. "And speaking of that, I think I'll get out of here and go down to the pitch. Any interest in doing some flying?"

"Hmm," Hermione said, beginning to gather her things. She'd asked Ginny about improving her performance on a broom, and this brisk Saturday afternoon seemed like a good time to put that in practice. A week into the term and she was all caught up on her core coursework with only some Arithmancy reading to finish before her elective work was also complete. The professors seemed to be easing the students in after the upheaval of last year. And as indicated in the introductory materials, the eighth year courses were rather loose compared to the usual Hogwarts structure—mostly reading and independent study. The classes she was taking with the seventh years were more traditionally structured, but still starting off rather light in Hermione's opinion. She hoped things would get into gear soon, though.

"OK, let's do it," she said, making a split-second decision.

"Ace," Ginny said, slinging her bag over her shoulder. "I think you just need some basic instruction on core techniques and then a bit of practice before you're totally proficient."

"Good, I'm tired of having such a glaring hole in my magical achievements," Hermione said grumpily as they trooped down the stairs and outside.

Ginny snorted and patted her arm. "We can't all be good at everything."

"Hmph." But Hermione smiled, taking a big lungful of crisp air as they started down the path to the quidditch pitch.

"Bit cool today." Ginny stared up at the clouds scudding across the sky. "Good flying weather, though," she said, her words soon reinforced by the number of people zipping around goalposts and loping quaffles back and forth as the quidditch pitch came into view.

Hermione groaned. "I hate when there's an audience."

Ginny squinted at the pitch. "Yeah, it's a bit crowded. Think you feel comfortable enough to fly some distance? We could head for one of the small glens and work there."

Hermione weighed the prospect of a long ride against all the swooping and diving going on above her head. "Yes, I think I could do it if we go slow."

"I'll grab you one of the old Cleansweep 50s," Ginny said as she ducked into the equipment room, a smirk on her face.

"I refuse to understand that joke!" Hermione called, kicking at the ground and watching someone in Hufflepuff robes do a daring roll for a practice snitch. Just watching the angle of descent made her stomach drop. She shook her head, sometimes she couldn't believe so many of her friends—and Draco—did this for fun. She leaned against a bleacher pole. Draco. A week in and still no word from him. She'd tried to bury her rising anxiety by immersing herself in Hogwarts life—and Ginny's arrival, the Sorting Ceremony, the start of classes,Theo and the other eighth years had been distracting, but only to a point. And in certain quiet moments she just couldn't help dwelling.

Ginny came back out, two brooms in her hands. One looked sturdy, but the other was suspiciously sleek. Hermione fixed her with a glare. "Slowly," she said. "We go slowly, right?"

"Yes. But once we get there and you're doing your figure eights, I'm getting some real practice in."

Ginny grinned and handed Hermione the sturdy broom.

"Fine," Hermione said. "Let's get this over with."

Flying over the glens surrounding Hogwarts wasn't actually half bad. Hermione stayed low, grasping her broom handle in a death grip, every muscle tense, but her eyes feasted on the endless craggy landscape passing under her. Patches of heather and gorse, still blooming in weathered purple and rich gold, broke the unrelenting green, looking like bursts of color from a painter's palette. And the shifting, cloud-dotted sky threw the land into dramatic shadow and shade.

Hermione breathed deeply as Ginny signaled from up ahead where she was skimming back and forth very fast and sharp. Following her hand motion with a whistle, she hung a sharp left and disappeared over a small ridge. Hermione took this as a command to follow, so she did, albeit more slowly. When she crested the hill, she saw Ginny waiting in the middle of a small, pretty glen, sitting on her broom cross-legged and cross-armed.

"How was that?" she called as Hermione came to a slightly abrupt stop and stumbled off her broom.

"Damn it." Hermione righted herself and looked up. "Fine."

"We'll work on landings in a bit," Ginny smiled.

Hermione nodded, then brushed off her knees and looked around. "This is beautiful," she said, taking in the valley's steep emerald sides, her eye following the snaking pattern of a small creek that bisected it.

Ginny nodded. "I found it third year. I don't think a lot of people know about it, or if it even has a name. I come here when I want to be alone." She shrugged and hopped off her broom, then threw herself down on the mossy ground. "Not that I need it so much, lately. Alone time in abundance."

Hermione lay down next to her, digging her fingers into the moss carpeting the ground. It was springy and surprisingly soft. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"Just, Potter gone. All of my brothers... A lot of friends moved on or… not around anymore." Ginny's voice thickened and she gestured upward. "I miss two years ago, you know?"

"Yeah," Hermione said, understanding forming a heavy knot in her stomach. She was trying to put a good face on this year, but so much had changed. "How are things with you and Harry?" she asked, turning to face Ginny. "Everything OK there?"

Ginny heaved a huge sigh. "I don't actually know." Her voice sounded even closer to tears now.

"Oh no." Hermione reached out and touched Ginny's arm. "I thought this summer—that you'd worked it all out." She felt terrible that she hadn't been monitoring this situation more closely. She'd known that Harry and Ginny had gotten back together after the battle. Ginny had been at Grimmauld a lot in the first few weeks after Fred, when Molly wouldn't leave her room and Arthur was focused on caring for her. But then Hermione had gone to Australia and there'd been preparations for the school year and she'd sort of forgotten to check in. She knew Harry had been down and distant after what he'd gone through. She'd hoped being with Ginny had helped.

"I thought so too," Ginny said, dashing a finger at her eye. "But right before I came up here he started getting quiet and then he encouraged me to stay at home the last few days before I left, and then it's just been distant and strange ever since." She breathed out heavily. "You know Potter's not the best correspondent. So doing this via owl has been—"

"Yes, god, I can imagine," Hermione said. The one note she'd gotten from Harry since she'd arrived here had been three lines long. It would be impossible to carry on a relationship via letter with him. "You need to see him. Do you have plans for him to come up?"

"No." Ginny flung an arm over her eyes. "That's the problem. He won't come up, Hermione. He told me he can't. He can't do it. Not yet."

Hermione looked at Ginny sharply. "Not even to Hogsmeade?"

"No."

"And you can't go to London."

"Not without my parents' permission and they'd never grant it. Molly's too old-fashioned and I can't even fathom asking my dad."

"Shit." Hermione sat up and stared across the glen.

"And then there's all that stuff with Dean," Ginny mumbled, her arm still over her face. "I know he shared that with you."

"Yeah?" Hermione said softly, wondering exactly what Ginny meant.

"I just worry, or maybe get the impression, that he wants to be free again. To explore or whatever. Or at least not be tied to someone who's stuck up here." Ginny sighed loudly again. "I don't entirely blame him, you know?"

Hermione pulled up a handful of moss and held it to her nose. It smelled earthy and damp. She chose her words carefully. "I can see that too. But I also know that he cares deeply for you. Loves you. He'd do anything not to hurt you."

"That's what worries me!" Ginny shook her head. "That he'll continue this in a bid to not hurt me." She made a frustrated sound. "Anyway, enough about my sad love life."

"Are you sure?" Hermione asked gently. She hated it that there seemed to be no good solution to this.

"Yeah," Ginny sat up and looked away. "I owled him two days ago and offered him a way out. We'll see what he says, although I figured if it were a strong 'no' I'd have heard from him by now."

"Oh, Ginny." Hermione put her arm around her friend's shoulders. She privately agreed that if Harry hadn't responded right away, he was probably wording something carefully. Which didn't bode well.

"Seriously. Enough about me." Ginny tossed her head and swiped a fast finger under her eyes. "I've been meaning to tell you, I'm annoyed that you totally LIED to me about you and Theo Nott in Italy. You were obviously quite close." She jabbed Hermione in the side and Hermione made a face. "Did you ever—?" Ginny wiggled her shoulders back and forth.

Hermione held her gaze for a moment then smiled until Ginny's eyes started to widen.

"Oh my god you DID! What did you do!?" Ginny yelled, straightening up, all traces of melancholy gone.

Hermione laughed. "We kissed. Once."

"Fuck ME!" Ginny stared at Hermione. "Wait. Why just once? He's fucking fit."

Hermione took a deep breath. She'd been pondering how to tell Ginny about Draco and this seemed like the moment. At least they were well out of shouting distance from other people. "Well," she said slowly. "There was someone else." She looked at Ginny significantly until Ginny's mouth started to drop open and her eyes went so wide that Hermione could see bright white all around her irises.

"NO," Ginny said.

Hermione nodded slowly.

"FUCKING NO WAY." Ginny pointed at Hermione, her face a picture of shock. "I mean I know he didn't kill Dumbledore and all, but he went back! He helped the other side!" Her face started to flush and Hermione held up a staying hand.

"No, no Gin. He didn't. He was actually a double agent. It was top secret until, well, now. But his whole family. Ever since that night the Death Eaters first attacked here. The Malfoys passed information the whole time."

"Okayyy." Ginny sat very still for several moments, the hectic red of her face starting to fade. "But he was still the world's biggest prat. Especially to you."

"He apologised—repeatedly—for all that."

Hermione watched Ginny while several emotions chased over her face. Finally Ginny opened her mouth and punched Hermione hard on the arm. "You hooked up with Draco fucking MALFOY!" Her voice rose until she was almost shouting. "I mean, I won't deny he's bloody fit. How was it?" Her stare intensified. "Was he cold and commanding? Or does he have a secretly hot core hiding under the icy facade?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Oh my god."

"Well!?" Ginny gestured. "Spill, Granger!"

"He was... surprisingly sweet." Hermione looked down and played with a piece of moss, memories from San Cipriano flooding her mind. "It was... lovely," she stammered, "and good and…" Tears started in her eyes and she took a deep breath.

"Oh shit." Ginny's voice was incredulous. "This was serious." She shifted her head until she made Hermione look at her. "This wasn't just hooking up."

"No," Hermione said softly.

"So you fell for him. Are you in love with him?" Ginny's voice rose toward top volume again.

Hermione looked down again and nodded once.

"Oh fuck. Wait, but when you were at Malfoy Manor?" Ginny put a hand out and braced it on Hermione's shoulder. Hermione knew Harry had shared some of that story with her.

"Yeah. We had an agreement. That we wouldn't say anything if we saw each other."

"Oh my god. That must have been awful. I'm so sorry, Hermione." Ginny's hand rubbed briskly up and down her arm and Hermione grasped it.

They sat in silence for a moment and then Ginny straightened. "Wait, does Ron know about this!?"

"Yeah," Hermione laughed a little. "We told him on the endless camping trip. In the most remote corner of England we could find."

"WE? Wait, Potter knew!?"

"Yeah." Hermione nodded. "He was actually there the night Draco and I got together."

"'The night Draco and I got together.'" Ginny stared out at nothing, repeating the words in a disbelieving tone. "Top five things I never thought I'd hear Hermione Granger say. And Harry was there..." She shook her head, then looked up again. "I can't believe he didn't tell me!"

"Well, I asked him not to. It all had to be top secret. The less people who knew the less dangerous it was to all of us."

Ginny nodded slowly and they were silent for a long time. Finally Ginny spoke. "Fuck, I don't really know what to say. I may need a few days with this."

Hermione barked a short laugh. "Fair."

"And you're really in love with him?"

"Yes." Hermione nodded again.

Ginny blinked hard. "So what's happening now? Where is he? Have you seen him?"

"I don't know and no," Hermione said, digging her fingers into the moss again. "I've been expecting to hear from him every day since the battle. But nothing. There's been nothing. I don't know what the bloody Order or Ministry or whoever are waiting for."

"God. Yeah. They need to reveal the Malfoys' roles so they're not hated."

"Exactly. And Theo. Blaise Zabini and his mother. There were others who helped as well."

"Fucking. Hell." Ginny looked at Hermione and shook her head.

"It's been a bloody year, Gin," Hermione said, tears starting in her eyes. "A year since I've been with him." A sob erupted from her chest and Ginny reached out with a sound of sympathy. "I don't count that nightmare at the manor," Hermione said, wiping her eyes. "I just want to see him. Touch him."

Ginny reached out and hugged Hermione to her. "I'm so sorry," she murmured. "Can't quite wrap my head around it," she said and Hermione laughed through her tears. "But I'm so sorry. And it has to be soon," she said, laying her head on Hermione's. "You'll see him soon."

"It has to be," Hermione whispered. After several moments, she took a deep breath and peered up at the sky, which seemed to be lowering. "Here now. Aren't you supposed to be helping me not be the most hopeless flyer to come out of Hogwarts? We should do that before it starts raining, which it seems like it wants to do."

"You're right and I am." Ginny glanced at the sky then jumped up and held out her hand. "Come on. Let's start with takeoffs and landings."

"I'm just saying they're starting us awfully easy," Hermione said, spooning raspberries onto her yoghurt.

Theo, who was in the act of bringing a bite of sausage to his mouth, lowered his fork and laughed. "You're mad," he said. "I spent three hours in the library yesterday and I still haven't finished my Potions write-up or the Arithmancy proof."

"Oh, is the proof giving you trouble?" Hermione took a sip of tea. "I can help you with it. There's this one glitch in the fifth step that can muck it all up."

"Yeah, that's right where I'm stuck." Theo shook his head, picking up his fork again.

"You should have asked me!" Hermione nudged him and he shrugged and grinned, reaching across her to grab the salt and pepper. Hermione noticed Padma Patil, who was at the next café table, watching them, a wrinkle between her brows. Michael Corner, sitting next to Padma, also glanced at them and then said a quick word out of the side of his mouth to her. She looked down quickly, busying herself with jam and a slice of toast. Hermione shrugged internally—Hogwarts still seemed to be getting used to a friendship between Theo Nott and Hermione Granger.

"Hallo!" A voice boomed behind them and Hermione started then twisted around to see Ernie MacMillan dropping into the chair next to her. It was Sunday breakfast and their little eighth year eating area was buzzing. Ernie had been at every table this morning and it seemed like it was their turn now. A late addition to the eighth-year group, he seemed to have appointed himself a sort of class statesman.

Hermione was trying not to be annoyed by it.

She cut her eyes to Theo, who shrugged the tiniest bit, his mouth curling up at one corner as Ernie's overloud voice rang out again.

"Hermione! I wanted to chat with you about the committee," he said, helping himself to a cup of tea from the pot at Hermione's elbow.

"The committee?" Hermione murmured.

"Yes! As the inaugural eighth year Hogwarts class, it behooves us to build a plan for coming years to follow," Ernie rumbled, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms fatuously. "Things like setting a social calendar, working up a class motto, modeling house unity, creating a structure." He pitched forward, resting on an elbow. "A blueprint, to use a muggle term." He chuckled in a self-satisfied way that made Hermione's teeth grind together. "And I think you, Hermione Granger, would be an excellent addition to the planning committee."

Hermione raised her brows very slightly and tilted her head toward Theo next to her.

Ernie coughed. "And you too, Nott," he mumbled. "If you're so inclined."

"I'm not," Theo said, wiping his mouth and reaching for the tightly rolled Daily Prophet that had just been dropped at his place by a large barn owl. He shook it out and held it a bit ostentatiously in front of his face.

Ernie looked relieved, which annoyed Hermione, so when he turned expectantly back to her she made him wait a bit for her answer. She was also having a furious internal debate. On the one hand, she didn't really relish being on some sort of social committee, but on the other, she clearly needed more to do with her time. And she couldn't let Ernie just run everything.

"OK," she finally said, thinking of McGonagall's words about her hopes for the year. "I'm in, Ernie."

"Excellent!" Ernie clapped his hands loudly. Theo flinched and Hermione stifled a giggle. "You, me, Padma," Ernie said, holding up his fingers. "That's three out of four houses. Uh, former houses. Oh Daphne!" Ernie looked over Hermione's shoulder. "Maybe you'd be interested in the planning committee!" His voice rose in volume again and Hermione looked up to see Daphne Greengrass had approached their table. She felt more than saw Theo's attention sharpen.

"Definitely not, Ernie." Daphne's low voice was decisive, but not rude. "You should go ask Pansy, though." Her eyes met Hermione's and a glint of humour flared in them. Hermione bit down on a smile.

They all looked over at Pansy, who was sitting alone at the furthest table, fastidiously brushing toast crumbs from her fingers as she perused a muggle fashion magazine.

"Er, quite." Ernie said, shifting in his seat.

"Excellent idea, Daph," Theo drawled from behind his paper. "Pans is a real joiner and she loves to listen to other people's ideas." Hermione kicked him under the table and saw a swift smile cross his face. "Run along, MacMillan," he continued. "Don't miss your chance."

Ernie stood and nodded then moved off toward Pansy looking like he was approaching a Hungarian Horntail.

"That wasn't very nice, you two," Hermione murmured.

"Not very nice to Pans," Daphne said, watching Ernie as he sat down next to a frowning Parkinson.

Hermione laughed sharply and Daphne grinned at her. "I'm here about our Potions project," she said. "When do you want to meet?"

"Ah," Hermione said, mentally reviewing her calendar. Slughorn had made "the alliterative Ms. Greengrass and Ms. Granger" partners on the first day of class and Hermione found herself quite happy with the arrangement. By all indications Daphne was a competent student: organised and thorough. "How about tomorrow after five in the library?" she suggested.

"Works for me," Daphne said, tapping the table. "How's it going, Theo?" She peered around Theo's paper.

"Fine, yeah." Theo lowered the pages and smiled, his expression so sweet compared to how it had been with Ernie that it clutched a little at Hermione's heart.

"Great—" Daphne started to say, but then stopped, her eyes darting to the cover of the Daily Prophet in Theo's hands, "Is that Draco?" she said sharply, her voice loud enough to attract several glances.

Theo, his eyes wide, turned the paper so that he could see the cover—a motion which Hermione seemed to see through a thick glass as a ringing started in her ears.

"Bloody hell," Theo muttered as he smoothed the paper on the table. Hermione couldn't stop herself reaching out for it and pulling it toward her. Theo let her have it, a concerned look crossing his face.

The picture was small—below the fold—and accompanied by a bold headline:

MALFOY FAMILY SPOTTED AT MINISTRY

Announcement Expected Regarding Role

Hermione watched dumbly as the image looped: Lucius and Narcissa's backs as they stepped into an elevator in the main atrium at the Ministry of Magic with Draco behind them, looking tall and thin in stark black robes. It was only his back too until the last moment, when he looked over his shoulder in the direction of the camera.

Hermione couldn't prevent a little gasp from leaving her lips as she saw his face for the first time in months. There were deep shadows under his eyes and his cheekbones were sharp, but he was still beautiful, his hair gleaming in the bright light of the flashbulb. Hermione reached out a finger to stroke across his image just as a small cough from Theo sounded. She stopped the motion, looking up and around her in a bewildered sort of way. Luckily no one was watching her except for Theo, who frowned.

"One has to wonder what the Ministry is playing at." Ernie's rumbling tones intruded on Hermione's consciousness. "Bloody criminals. Why aren't they in Azkaban awaiting trial?" Hermione looked over to see him shaking his head, his face bright red. She caught a similar motion from Padma, who was muttering something to Michael as they peered down at their own copy of the Prophet.

"There must be a reason, Ernie." Daphne's clear voice was the next Hermione heard. She saw Pansy Parkinson nod and murmur her assent.

Hermione felt like telling them all right there and then what the reason was, and she opened her mouth, her cheeks heating. But again Theo made a noise and shook his head the slightest bit.

"Whatever it is," he said quietly. "It will be best to let it come out through official channels. Most effective." His eyes intensified on Hermione. "The blurb says they're at the Ministry to meet with officials and that an announcement will be made in a matter of days. Let's all reserve judgement until then." He raised his voice on the last part and looked around the room challengingly.

"Yes," Hermione finally spoke, her voice feeling rusty. "I agree, Theo." She cleared her throat, watching as everyone's attention focused on her with varying degrees of surprise. "I want to hear all the facts first."

There was a moment of perfect silence while everyone just stared at her, looking like they thought she'd lost her mind. But then as if on cue, they all went back to eating and chatting, a low hum rising in the room again.

Hermione swallowed on a lump in her throat, her eye catching Daphne's. Daphne tilted her head and her eyes narrowed, then she blinked and shook her head.

"Anyway," Daphne said. "Tomorrow for Potions, Hermione. Glad you're well, Theo. Been meaning to tell you—Astoria's coming up to school this year after all. Her treatment has been really successful and she's feeling strong."

"Oh right, brilliant," Theo said, but he sounded distracted. Hermione's gaze had gone to the picture of Draco again. She couldn't seem to pull her attention away.

"Well, I'm off," she heard Daphne say. "Got some Herbology homework demanding my attention."

Theo murmured something and Hermione heard Daphne leave. She looked up as Daphne walked over to Michael and dropped down to kiss him on the cheek. He stood and they left and then several people seemed to be pushing chairs back from tables and walking out of the room while Hermione looked back down and watched Draco's photo loop and loop.

After a few moments she heard Theo speak softly. "Are you all right?" He pulled the Prophet gently toward him and picked it up, folding it so the picture of the Malfoys was obscured.

Hermione looked up again, her mouth opening and closing. "No," she finally said.

"You want to get out of here?" Theo asked, looking over his shoulder.

"Where?" Although Hermione didn't really care. She'd go anywhere right now.

"Hogsmeade first and then you'll see." A ghost of Theo's charming smile crossed his face. "I've been meaning to show you something." He stood. "Come on. I promise it will be a distraction. And then I'll let you help me with the Arithmancy proof." His full grin emerged and Hermione was astounded to feel a very small laugh bubble up her throat.

"OK," she said, standing too, then grabbing the paper and tucking it under her arm as they went.

"Lucky you're wearing muggle clothes today," Theo said as they walked briskly down the path to Hogsmeade.

"Why?" Hermione looked at him, puzzled. He'd been very closed-mouth about their destination, although he'd dropped a few cryptic little hints. She had to admit that it was (mostly) working to keep her mind off the picture of Draco and its implications—and anything was better than spiraling alone in her room. "Wait," she continued. "You're wearing muggle clothes!" Theo was indeed looking very dapper in a close-fitting black jacket, jeans and trainers.

"Well-spotted," he grinned. "And we're almost there."

They emerged off the path into the village and Theo guided them toward the Three Broomsticks, but then past the door and down a small alley to the back of the pub, where there was a sort of vacant lot, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by rangy bushes.

"What is this?" Hermione said as Theo kept walking toward the far corner of the lot. He just grinned and sped up, homing in on an area that Hermione noticed had the tell-tale haze of a disillusionment charm. She was about to speak up again when Theo muttered a Revelio under his breath and a distinct car-shaped object, draped in some sort of cover, came into view.

"You have another car!?" Hermione yelled.

Theo aimed his wand at the cover and it lifted then folded itself as his face lit. "Want to take a drive?" he asked with a little flourish.

"Oh my god, Theo!" Hermione smacked him on the arm as she walked around the vehicle, which appeared to be an older Land Rover of some sort. "When? How?" she sputtered.

"I bought it last year after my father died," he said, producing keys and unlocking the driver's door. A gust of warm, dusty scent— not unpleasant—wafted out of the car's interior. "I just missed the freedom of getting around like I did in Italy. And to tell you the truth, I missed the muggle world. I wanted a way to go out into it. So I figured out how to buy a car and I did it." He shrugged. "It really saved me to be able to escape last year. I'd just say I was walking to Hogsmeade and then disappear."

Hermione was shaking her head slowly. "Amazing," she breathed.

Theo jumped in and reached over to unlock the passenger door. "Come on," he said, beckoning to Hermione, who clambered up onto the worn leather seat. She looked over at him and he looked back at her, his expression so impish and self-satisfied that she laughed out loud.

"Here we are again," she said, thinking of the first day after the language institute in San Cipriano.

"Here we are again," he said and his face went serious for the briefest moment before he looked down and started the car's rumbling engine.

"So Rosemerta must know," Hermione said, gesturing around her.

"She does and she's been very helpful. She likes me, you know," Theo replied with a glint.

"Of course she does." Hermione shook her head. "And muggle registration? UK driving licence?"

"Eh." Theo shrugged as he threw the car into gear, backed it around and nosed it toward what Hermione now saw was a small opening in the bushes surrounding the lot. "I have some charmed pieces of paper."

Hermione laughed again. "Of course you do."

They passed through the opening and onto a small track that led up a gentle hill away from the village. "I've never even noticed this!" Hermione said, craning her neck. "Does it lead to a muggle road?"

"After a fashion," Theo said. "Couple of farm roads first. Hence the type of vehicle." He patted the car's dashboard as they continued to bump down the track.

"I never knew there was any sort of connection between the muggle surrounds and Hogsmeade." Hermione was a bit chagrined that she'd never even considered this.

"It's very hard to detect and heavily warded against muggles from the other side." Theo wrenched the wheel to take a sharp turn. "You wouldn't see it if you weren't magical."

"Fascinating." Hermione settled back in her seat as a light rain began to mist against the Rover's windows. "And you've been around. In the muggle countryside." She waved her hand. "I've never even done that!"

"Yeah," Theo nodded. "It's brilliant. Whisky country, you know. Very pretty. Nice people. Couple of good pubs that I've found. The beach isn't too far." He smiled at her. "We can explore."

Hermione smiled too, suddenly feeling better than she had in weeks—even with the news about Draco hanging over her head. Theo was right about the freedom, the idea of going somewhere and doing something new where no one knew them… Just like in Italy. She sighed aloud.

"What?" Theo glanced over as they finally left the unpaved track and turned on to what looked like a real road.

"It's just lovely," Hermione said. "Reminds me of San Cipriano." She laughed a little as she peered out the windshield. "Although the weather is a bit different." Theo smiled and nodded. "And the car is a smidge bigger."

"Heyy, there will be no remarks about my Fiat," Theo said. "I loved that little car. It was hard to let her go."

"Emphasis on little. Remember that first day when you just leaned all the way across me?" Hermione shook her head. "Cheeky."

Theo laughed long and low and Hermione squinted over at him. "What was your game that day, Nott? I've always wondered. Did you take that class because you knew I was in it?"

"Absolutely." Theo's grin widened.

"But you barely knew me!"

"Yes, but I wanted very much to fuck with Draco." He raised an eyebrow in her direction. "I could already tell he was... taken with you."

"But that was like two days in! All we'd done was argue at the bookshop!"

"Oh, but he'd seen you around town and at the pools. It was rather obvious. But he wouldn't admit it. So I just decided to push some buttons. For fun." Theo laughed, but then his face relaxed. "I didn't expect to like you so much myself."

"Oh, Theo." Hermione felt a welling of guilt over her behaviour toward him last summer. She'd been a bit of a cad, she knew.

He held up a hand. "No, none of that. I just mean that I liked you as a person. Right away." He grinned. "Of course, I also liked kissing you. But I think we're past all that now."

"Theo!"

He laughed. "Sorry, couldn't resist. But yeah, that first day I was really turning it on. I admit it."

"I could tell." Hermione directed her smile out the window.

"Could you? And here I think I'm so subtle."

"You're about as subtle as a freight train."

"Oh, come now!" Theo was really laughing and Hermione joined.

"Where are we going?" she asked after a few minutes, wiping at her eyes. They'd gotten some speed up and were zooming through a gorgeous countryside of swelling, sheep-dotted hills and lush fields. The deep grey sky looked brooding and Hermione was glad for the warm jumper she'd put on that morning.

"Thought we'd go look at the sea. Maybe get lunch?" Theo suggested. "What do you think?"

"I think that sounds lovely." Hermione reached across the seat and rested her hand on his shoulder. "Thank you for this."

Theo glanced swiftly at her and his eyes crinkled. "Any time."

Hermione hurried into the café room early Wednesday morning, grabbing a piece of toast off one of the tables as she looked around. Damn it, no papers and no owls—the Prophet delivery hadn't come yet. She threw a quick wave at Susan and Padma, who were sitting across the room, so engrossed in a textbook that they barely looked up in response. They appeared to be the only ones present, which was a relief. Hermione had been coming in every morning since Sunday to intercept the paper, eager for further news of the Malfoys, and after the commentary on the last article, didn't really want an audience when it came.

She reached over and poured herself a cup of tea, sipping and scanning nervously until she heard the telltale rustling of a phalanx of owls skimming into the room. She reached up and caught a tightly rolled newspaper from one of the birds' talons before rushing out the door and up the steps to the girls' floor. She didn't even want to see Theo, as it would mean chatting before she got to see this morning's news.

She made it to her room and slammed the door, then moved toward her desk, shaking out the paper with trembling fingers. There'd been nothing since Sunday, but that article had mentioned an imminent announcement…

Just then she caught a glimpse of faces and—oh god, this was it. Hermione sucked in a sharp breath and frantically smoothed down the newsprint, first taking in a line of formal portraits of Lucius, Narcissa and Draco, large and imposing above the fold, and then reading the headline above them in a faltering whisper:

DOUBLE AGENTS: MALFOYS' WARTIME ROLE REVEALED

Prominent wizarding family uses connections to Death Eaters to aid in Voldemort's Defeat. Full contributions of additional former sympathisers officially recognized by Ministry of Magic.

Rapidly skimming the text, Hermione's eye picked out bits of the article as she read along:

 

 

"...family went into hiding in June of 1997. ...passed information gleaned from Death Eaters living in their home. ...actions protected individuals vital to the war effort."

Relief started to thrum through Hermione's veins. This was good. All of it was very good. The Ministry weren't skimping on information or praise. Shoulders starting to loosen, she focused on the page again as her gaze caught on Draco's name.

 

 

"...Draco Malfoy's contributions significant as those of his parents. ...saved Albus Dumbledore. ...protected Harry Potter… tremendous strain …one so young."

Hermione gave a sort of sob in the quiet of her room. Oh, Draco. Seeing the words in print somehow drove them straight into her heart, and she ached for him and what he'd been through. Tracing a finger over the letters of his name, she read again.

 

 

"...all statements verified by pensieve and Veritaserum. ...full Ministry pardon and official recognition."

A full pardon and official recognition… Hermione sagged with relief. This was even more than she could have hoped for. Surely no one could doubt Draco and his family now. And she and Draco would really be free to— She rubbed a hand over her forehead as a smile began to bloom on her face. It grew as she looked down at the paper again, reading further down the page to see mentions of Theo, Blaise and his mother, Horace Slughorn and a few others. Even a short recap of Severus Snape's story, which had been published in full in the days just following the battle.

This was all good. So good. It meant real repair and healing could begin.

Tears of happiness pricked Hermione's eyes as she zeroed in on the final words of the piece, reading carefully when she saw Draco's name again.

 

 

"When asked about the toll of their actions and his hopes for the future, Lucius Malfoy speaks only of going home. The months of occupation and in Ministry safe houses have clearly taken their toll on the family, which Narcissa Malfoy seems to confirm as she nods in silent agreement. Posed the same question, Draco Malfoy looks weary for his tender years and is quiet a long while before he speaks. "The toll was, is…" Mr. Malfoy shakes his head and seems unable to speak for a moment before trying again. "I'd just like to finish school and get my N.E.W.T.S. before, ah, settling down," he finally says.

A sentiment any member of the wizarding world can surely understand.

Hermione read these last words over and over, her lips moving and her brow furrowing. The toll… God, she hoped Draco wasn't killing himself over that. She hoped he could put it in perspective, not dwell on what had been necessary. And settling down—what a strange turn of phrase. What did it mean? They'd spoken of traveling after school… She looked up, her hand drifting up over her mouth, her mind a thousand miles away.

Only a rapid tapping on her door brought her back to reality, and she started, getting up to open the heavy panel, wondering if it would be Theo. But it was Ginny, breathing like she'd run all the way down from Gryffindor tower, the Daily Prophet crumpled in her hand. Hermione had a moment of guilt for not checking in with her since the weekend; she didn't even know if Harry had responded to her message yet.

"You've seen it?" Ginny said, holding up the paper.

Hermione nodded as if in a dream.

"It's everything you wanted, Hermione. They're totally cleared," Ginny said, stepping into the room and taking Hermione's limp hand.

"I know," Hermione said. "But I can hardly believe it."

"Me either," Ginny said. "I didn't doubt what you told me, but seeing it here… Official. It's all anyone can talk about upstairs." She shook her head. "And did you see the last bit?" She pointed to the bottom of the article and looked up. "He says he wants to finish school."

Hermione could only blink, she was suddenly so overwhelmed. "Finish school," she repeated, nodding slowly.

Ginny squeezed her hand. "You know what this means," she said. "He'll be here any day now."

Chapter Text

Hermione had pictured Draco's arrival at Hogwarts in many ways; maybe he'd stride into the Great Hall and just... pull her into his arms. Or maybe there'd be a soft knock on her bedroom door one night and she'd open it to his tender smile. Or perhaps he'd find her in the library, her name a sweet breath on his lips.

What she never expected was for him to just show up in Charms class on a random Wednesday three weeks into term. Sitting in the last row, tall and stark, as she walked in—laughing—with Theo.

She stopped, almost choked, felt the colour drain out of her face.

His eyes locked on hers and so many things rushed in on her at once. He was pale to the point of illness, he looked deathly tired, she wanted to go to him, she wanted to hear his voice, touch his hands resting on the desk, he was so beautiful, she wanted, she wanted.

She took a halting step toward where he sat at the very back of the classroom, but at the moment she moved he looked down, broke the thrumming contact their locked gaze had built between them. And at the same time—she felt it as if it were happening to someone else—a very small touch on her elbow. Theo. Reminding her of where they were, somehow reassuring her that there would be time. In the very near future.

Hermione felt herself snick back into the present moment, recognising the heightened attention in the room, seeing the slightly puzzled look on Professor Flitwick's face, realising she was blocking the bloody door.

She moved quickly and with a shake of her head, sliding into her habitual seat in the first row, willing herself not to turn around and stare at Draco. The murmurs of the other eighth-years as they took in his presence eddied around her. She saw Theo turn and dip his head in greeting and Parkinson's face light as she walked into the room.

Then Flitwick started the lesson and all went quiet.

What had just happened?

Hermione heard nothing of the first two-thirds of the lecture as she frantically played the ten seconds after she entered the room over and over in her head. He had looked at her, yes. But what had been in his look? Not tenderness or love, but a... wariness. Something in it reminded her of the darker days in San Cipriano, when he'd been keeping himself from her.

And why hadn't he sought her out before this morning? Why had he let their first meeting be like this?

Fuck.

Yes, a part of her had expected this, but that didn't make it any easier. Hermione's hands clenched around the corners of her desk, her stomach dropping as her breaths became fast and shallow. She thought for a moment she'd have to leave the room, but instead she knocked her quill jerkily to the floor and twisted to pick it up, taking the chance to glance at Draco again.

He was looking at her too, and in the unguarded moment, his expression was raw. Etched with love—there it was—but also sorrow. Hermione's heart fluttered with both hope and fear and she mouthed the first desperate words that came to her mind: I missed you.

She saw the message hit him like an arrow. His face relaxed and there was the tenderness she had looked for—just for a second—pure and sweet as a melody. His mouth opened, and fleetingly she wondered what he'd say back.

But he looked down instead.

And didn't look up again.

Hermione grasped her quill with trembling fingers as she straightened back into her seat, feeling as if she stood on the edge of a sharp, steep cliff. Rocking forward would land her in despair, she knew this.

She knew this, she knew this.

But. It was not in her nature to do so. To slide. She was much more likely to cling, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Had always been that way, sometimes to her detriment.

'She was nothing if not tenacious.' Hadn't she told him as much in Italy?

Hermione took a deep, shaking breath, feeling herself edge back. She'd just have to do it again, wouldn't she? None of his objections could stand in the face of her determination. She'd blow through them like a Bombarda. And besides, she hadn't even talked to him. She was reading a lot into a couple of looks in a crowded classroom.

Squaring her shoulders, she forced herself to focus in on Professor Flitwick's words as he discussed one of the more intricate atmospheric charms, bowing her head and putting ink to parchment, letting her natural optimism reassert itself. Honestly, everything would be fine. As soon as she talked to him.

Even if she had to do a lot of talking.

But she'd prevail—just like before. There was no other option, really. And she'd show him that as soon as she could.

Ending her note with a bold stroke of her quill, Hermione even allowed herself a small smile. Yes, she'd talk to him. Preferably as soon as this endless class was over.

Unfortunately Hermione's plan was a case of easier said than done.

First, Flitwick detained her after class to ask about a note she'd put in her latest essay. Then she'd come to Alchemy a bit late as a result, managing only a significant look at Draco's bowed head as she hurried by him on her way to her seat. Then he'd vanished through the door while Hermione had still been gathering her things as class ended, and been absent from lunch.

Hermione, actively fighting off panic by this point, had been unable to find Theo to ask which of the rooms in the boys' corridor was Draco's, otherwise she would have camped outside it. Trying not to let his slipperiness prod her toward the edge of the cliff again, she'd told herself over and over that it was just coincidence that kept them apart. She'd see him and talk to him soon. It was only one part of one day.

She did catch glimpses of him throughout the afternoon, but always at a distance, always just out of reach. By the last class period, she was fuming, feeling like fate was actively toying with her.

She slid into her seat next to Ginny, who gave her a wide-eyed stare.

"Fucking hell, he's here," she whispered unnecessarily, her face already having told Hermione that she'd heard the news. "Have you spoken?"

Hermione pulled her Ancient Runes text from her satchel and glanced around the classroom. Draco didn't seem to be taking this course. "No," she said, trying to hold back the tears that were suddenly pricking her eyes.

"What?" Ginny hissed. "How can that be?"

"I don't know. I saw him first in Charms and he looked strange and I've been trying to talk to him all day, but he's, he's—" Hermione stared down unseeingly at her desk. "It feels like he's avoiding me, Gin."

She glanced up at Ginny's concerned face and felt the tears begin to spill over. "No, no!" Ginny reached out to her. "It's got to just be the first day madness. He's probably run off his feet. Getting used to everything again." Her voice dropped to a whisper as Professor Babbling rapped smartly on her podium. "You'll talk tonight," she said as she turned to face the front of the classroom.

Hermione sighed and gave an expressive shrug before trying valiantly to focus on the lesson. Only marginally successful, she felt as though she blinked three times and the class was over. She breathed out a frustrated sigh as she gathered her books—she hadn't absorbed anything and this was a difficult bit of theory they were going over. It was really unacceptable to let her studies slip this way…

Ginny gave her a look. "Breathe," she said, standing from her desk and frowning at Hermione. "It's going to be OK. Don't let yourself get spun up before you've even talked to him."

Hermione nodded as they walked out of the classroom. "You're right," she murmured. But she couldn't help her eyes scanning the crowd in the hallway, clocking the absence of broad shoulders and gleaming platinum. She forced herself to take a breath and turned to Ginny as they entered the stream of students heading toward the Great Hall.

"And how are you doing?" she asked, nudging Ginny gently with her shoulder. Harry's owl had finally come back the previous week with a very muddled reply—a far cry from the unequivocal affirmation Ginny had been hoping for.

"Eh, I'm OK." Ginny shrugged. "It wasn't unexpected and I'm basically back where I was before the summer. I'm trying to tell myself it's for the best. At least I can focus on living my life here and not feel like half of me is 500 miles away."

Hermione grimaced. She wished she could somehow make the situation the best it could be for both of her friends. "That's a really mature way to look at it."

"Yeah, but don't look in on me when I wake up at three in the morning and can't stop thinking about him." Ginny gave her a sad smile and Hermione reached out and squeezed her arm. Suddenly her fingers tightened and Ginny made a noise of protest.

Draco had appeared. Up ahead, walking perpendicular to their path from the entrance hall and toward the Great Hall, his beautiful profile in sharp relief against the dim of the shadowed corridor.

And he was with someone.

A dark-haired girl Hermione didn't recognise: she lifted her face to his and spoke as he glanced down and replied. There was nothing particularly intimate in the exchange, but it still had Hermione's gut sinking and blood boiling at the same time.

"Who the fuck is that?" she breathed.

Ginny, who had managed to free her arm and was rubbing it briskly, looked up. Hermione thought she heard her whisper 'shit' under her breath, but aloud Ginny said, "That's Astoria Greengrass. Daphne's sister. She hasn't been to school in a few years, but she's in my year."

Ginny's voice was carefully neutral, but Hermione could feel her sharp focus. She tried to calm the riot of emotions, but just the fact that Draco was talking to anyone enraged her. When she'd tried to find him all day.

"Right," she said, starting forward more quickly. "I'm just going to—"

"Hermione," Ginny said, and her voice must have carried because Draco looked up and over. Their eyes locked and Hermione felt red creep into her face. She saw it echoed in his just before he said a quick word to Astoria and ducked away with her… down the hall that led toward the Slytherin common room.

Hermione sucked in a single shocked breath, and before she let it out, her feet were following where they'd gone, a shaking rage taking hold of her.

"Hermione." Ginny's arm shot out and pulled her back and against the wall of the hallway. "You won't even know the password," she hissed. "You don't want to do that down there. With that audience. Breathe."

Ginny twisted around and forced Hermione to make eye contact, her chest moving up and down in an exaggerated way. Hermione strained against her at first, eyes darting toward where Draco had gone, but eventually let herself focus on Ginny's anxious face.

After a moment she pulled back. "It's OK. I'm OK now," she said, nodding quickly as Ginny slowly relinquished her hold on Hermione's arm.

"Yeah?"

Ginny still sounded unconvinced, so Hermione mustered up a brief smile. "Yeah. It's fine. Of course I trust him." She shook her head and blinked, forcing herself to lighten. "He's probably in a class with her, like I am with you. I'm just going to go to his room tonight. I'm sure everything will be resolved then."

Ginny nodded once. "That sounds right. Look, I've got to get to the pitch for practice. Are you really OK?"

"Absolutely. You go." Hermione waved her off airily.

But in reality, she was anything but.

Hermione stepped softly off the stair and walked a bit furtively into the eighth-year boys corridor, looking around as she began to move down the dark hallway. It was late—past ten—and the line of doors was mostly silent, with just a soft thrum of barely discernible music coming from one of the rooms. Probably Theo. She'd run him to ground earlier in the eighth-year common room and he'd told her where Draco's room must be.

Draco himself hadn't been at dinner or anywhere to be seen afterward. The fact that Hermione was no longer surprised by this caused her stomach to do the now-familiar dip she'd been experiencing since Charms class this morning.

Charms class this morning.

It seemed like about a million years ago at this point. Hermione rubbed her forehead and frowned at the floor, her steps slowing. But then she looked up, sped up. She was absolutely determined to not let this interminable day end without seeing him face to face.

She reached the last door on the right and paused, taking a deep breath before she raised her fist and knocked softly. There was no light spilling out from under it, but she didn't care. If he was asleep, she'd wake him. If he wasn't here, she'd wait.

There was no answer, and no stirring of movement from inside the room. Hermione put her ear right up to the door and listened, not caring if she looked desperate. She didn't hear anything, but something in her felt a presence. Some part of her knew he was in there, stretched out on the bed, eyes staring wide in the dark. She could almost feel the edge of his watching and waiting.

Waiting for her to give up and leave.

Tears did spill from her eyes this time, the ones she'd been holding in all day. She knew he was doing it because of what had happened at the manor. She knew it. He was sitting in there wracked with guilt. Thinking it was better to just stay away, and push her away.

Well, he was wrong.

Hermione's fingers went to the doorknob and twisted viciously, although she knew it would be locked and warded. She jiggled the door uselessly, but stopped just short of shouting his name through the panel.

Turning her back to the door, she slid down it and crumpled to the floor, hoping he heard the movement and felt her pain. Hoping in some fierce part of her that he was crying in the dark too.

Memories from San Cipriano flashed through her mind; she and Draco dancing around each other, her reaching out, him pushing her away. She felt right now like she had after the night in the bookshop, when they'd come together so passionately, then he'd thrown up an impenetrable wall. Did she have the strength to chip away at it again? To come bashing through no matter the cost? Would he let her this time? The war had changed so much. She knew she wasn't the same person as before.

She twiddled with her wand and waited for a few more minutes, hoping that he'd change his mind or that she'd (mercifully) see his tall figure in the hallway. But there was nothing. So finally she pulled a folded paper from the pocket of her dressing gown; her last resort, for today at least.

She smoothed it open and read her own words—"We need to talk. Nothing has changed."—then with a soft sigh, she slipped it under the door.

The next day was brutal. Hermione barely slept, then rose early and camped out in the café— hoping that if she stayed there all through breakfast she might catch Draco. Of course he never appeared. In fact, she didn't see him all day except for in the classroom, first in Defense Against Dark Arts, or 'Defensive Magic' as it was now called, then in Arithmancy. He slipped in late both times, eyes straight ahead, and seemed to disappear before Hermione even registered that class was over.

She blew out a sigh of frustration as she left the Arithmancy classroom with Theo. Did he think he could do this all year?

Theo heard her sigh and looked over. "No luck talking to him?" he asked softly.

"Nope," Hermione said, shaking her head. "He's definitely avoiding me."

"He's avoiding me too," Theo said. "I saw him yesterday afternoon coming out of the dungeons and called out to him, but he pretended he didn't hear me." His brows drew together and his jaw tightened. "I wonder what's going on. What the fuck he's playing at…"

Hermione glanced at him and felt the corner of her mouth lift slightly. "Well, if you looked like that, I can see why he didn't stop."

Theo's eyes darted to her in surprise, then he huffed a short laugh. "Glad your sense of humour is still intact," he said.

"Barely," Hermione muttered, mouth drooping again. "Speaking of the dungeons, Theo, does Draco know Daphne's sister?" She felt a cold thread of uneasiness uncurl in her belly as she asked the question, but a sort of compulsion forced the words from her lips.

"Astoria?" Theo looked puzzled. "I mean, I suppose. Through general Slytherin gatherings and pureblood family things through the years. I'm sure we were all together at the Manor at some point in time." He waved his hand. "But no, I wouldn't say they really know each other." He paused and stared off into the distance. "Unless it's something recent," he said, so quietly Hermione almost didn't hear.

The curl of uneasiness coiled. "Something recent?"

"Well, just… the family were away a lot of last year. I noticed when I was at Nott House after my father died. Daph was in school, of course, but the rest of them were gone from the estate. I think it had to do with Astoria's treatment, but I don't know where that was." His blue gaze flicked to her. "Why do you ask about her?"

"I just... saw them, walking together yesterday. Talking. And it seemed strange when he—" Hermione felt her cheeks flush. "When he won't talk to me."

"Bloody hell," Theo spat, his face tensing again. Then seeing her expression, he softened his tone. "That is a bit strange. I can ask Daph if you want."

"No, no." Hermione shook her head rapidly. "It's probably nothing. And nothing I want anyone knowing about at this point."

Theo nodded. "I understand." But the worry in his eyes didn't make Hermione feel any better.

After Potions, which was her last class of the day and where Draco again pulled his invisibility routine (other than when he'd—rather hilariously—been partnered with Ernie Macmillan and had snorted aloud in what sounded like shocked dismay), Hermione hadn't even tried to seek him out, instead returning to her room to sit unseeing at her desk.

What was she going to do? She drummed her fingers on the smooth wood, considering her angles and letting her brain focus on the problem almost academically. Part of her had hoped that today would change things—that her note would spark something and snap Draco out of whatever ridiculous state he was in. But instead he seemed to have doubled down, his infuriating behavior even worse.

She was sure tomorrow would be the same. She was sure that his plan was to push her away until she left him alone. For her own good.

Bloody making decisions for her again.

Hermione's jaw worked as she looked out the window, until suddenly she stood and slapped her palm on her desk. Well, she could double down too. Thus far, she'd been trying not to make a scene, trying to preserve the secrecy around their relationship so that they could decide together how to reveal it.

But, she took a sharp breath, she'd tear this fucking castle down before she let him slip away. Some part of him must know that—he was fooling himself if he was banking on her silence.

Tonight. She'd wait until it was late and she knew he'd be in his room. And then she'd shout herself hoarse until he opened the fucking door and talked to her.

Hermione looked at her watch as she strode down the boys' corridor, not making any effort to hide her approach this time. Half eleven. It was unlikely he'd have anywhere else to be—or hide—at this hour.

Approaching the door, she raised her fist to pound, then stopped, arrested by the faint strip of light emanating from under it... and that fact that it winked out as her very audible footsteps drew near.

Hermione felt anger boil up her chest, and before she knew what she was doing, she pulled out her wand and pointed it to her throat, whispering a spell and putting her lips straight to the door.

Her words, uttered low, were amplified through the wood by the spell. "Draco Malfoy I will give you one chance to open this door before I start yelling." Voice cracking and fingers curling against the panel, she continued in a sort of sob. "I will not allow you to do this to me, do you hear me? I will not."

There was total silence for a beat then two… then the door finally wrenched open and he was there.

Tall, barefoot. In muggle jeans and a black t-shirt, hair brushed back from his forehead. Beautiful, pale, his expression pained.

Hermione's fingers itched to reach out and grab his slim hips. Pull him against her. Slant her lips over his and never let go.

He shifted, his breath pulling in quickly, as if he could bloody tell what she was thinking. And with his movement she caught a whiff of his scent, which washed over her in a flood of memory... and desire.

She stepped forward, drawn almost involuntarily, "Draco."

His gaze swept over her face, stopped at her lips, and she could have sworn he swayed toward her too. But then like a flash, his face shuttered and his arm flew up to block the door.

Hermione pulled up short, shock stiffening her spine. She opened her mouth and blinked at the tears suddenly stinging her eyes.

"What are you doing?" she said through gritted teeth. "Let me in." She looked over her shoulder. "Or we do this in the hall. At top volume."

Draco grimaced, but stepped back, letting Hermione stride into the room. She pulled the door closed behind her, barely noting the familiar shapes of bed, wardrobe and basin against deep blue walls.

Draco pulled out his wand and muttered a silencing charm, retreating to the corner of the room and leaning against his desk chair. Waves of tension seemed to roll off of him and his eyes were dark slate on hers.

"What the fuck is going on?" Hermione hissed, well past caring about giving him the benefit of the doubt.

He opened his mouth and started to speak, but took a halting breath instead. Then he closed his eyes. "You shouldn't be here," he finally said, the words sounding as if they took a supreme effort to force out. Hermione saw him brace his hands against the chair back, knuckles white.

What was wrong? He seemed almost in pain. Hermione started to advance toward him, but he threw a quick hand out to stop her.

"What is happening, Draco?" she whispered.

He only shook his head.

Hermione felt desperation well inside of her. "If this is about the Manor," she blurted. "I forgive you. I. Forgive. You. You did what we agreed. The exact thing I asked you to do." She spread her hands wide. "Do you think I would have wanted you to give away the whole war for me? God, no. I was so relieved when you didn't say anything, Draco. You know me. That's why I made you promise."

She watched him through this recitation. Watched the emotions flit over his face. Dismay, guilt, pain. He started shaking his head and his voice came out raspy, stilted.

"You shouldn't... even... want me."

"But I do!" Hermione pushed away from the door again, almost reaching him, her fingers so close to brushing the soft skin of his forearm. "For always, Draco. I lo—

"NO." The word rang out like a shot, stopping her words and stopping her movement. He shrank back dramatically, pressing into the shadows against the far wall of the room and pushing a brutal hand into the hair at his temple. His breath was fast and loud in the silence and Hermione saw his gaze dart to the sink in the corner. She wondered if he was going to be sick.

"What do you mean?" she asked after a moment, taking a small step back as tears began flowing freely down her cheeks. "I waited for you. I want you. I want to be with you. Together, like we planned." She looked at him, stricken. "Don't you want the same?"

There was a long, terrible pause that stretched in the little room until Hermione could barely stand it. Tears had started down his cheeks as well, but he didn't move from his position as far away from her as he could possibly be. "No," he finally said, his voice breaking.

"Draco?" Hermione reached out a trembling hand. This was different, so different from Italy. She had no pull here, she could sense it. No amount of talking or raging would sway him. Not when he wouldn't even touch her, would barely look at her.

"Why?" she whispered, the word coming from the most broken part of her.

He would only shake his head, his jaw taut and his fists clenched at his sides.

Hermione looked down and a sob ripped from her throat, then another, but no soft words or loving arms came to comfort her.

"Go away." Draco's voice finally sounded in the room, the words slow, as if speaking were still an incredible effort.

Hermione's head snapped up and she recoiled in hurt.

There was an expression of utter bleakness on his face, but as she watched, it transformed and he stood straighter, his features becoming icy and remote. "Stay away…" he said, his voice gathering strength. "Stay away. From me." His eyes narrowed to silver shards, and Hermione watched in horror as he pointed to the door, as if to tell her to get out.

She continued to look at him, but his gaze slid past her, his face remaining set. Then slowly, he dropped his arm and turned until his back was fully to her, crossing his arms and staring out the window at the inky night.

It was as clear a dismissal as she'd ever received and Hermione sagged, suddenly needing the support of the wall behind her.

She couldn't see, couldn't breathe. The atmosphere in the room was so cold that she began to shiver, despite the embers of a low-burning fire in the grate.

"I'll go," she finally said, reaching deep within herself for some well of strength. "But you'll listen to me, even if you don't want to hear it. I do love you, Draco. And I don't understand or accept this. You promised me. We promised each other."

He failed to turn around at her words, but his answering shrug was eloquent—and devastating.

Holding back a sob, Hermione reached blindly for the door and wrenched it open, hurling herself out of the room and down the hallway as fast as she could go, moving like a wounded animal toward a quiet place where she could sob out her pain.

Chapter Text

Hermione slammed the door behind her and ran blindly. Stumbled as she felt her way down the hall, which was now totally dark. Great, hacking sobs threatened to erupt from her throat, but she tried to keep them in. Head down as she reached the landing, her toe caught on an uneven stone and she stumbled, pitching awkwardly toward the downward flight of stairs.

"Hey, hey." Hands reached out and steadied her arms, righting her. "Hermione, god. Are you OK?"

Hermione lifted her head to see Theo's concerned face.

"Shit. No you're not. Are you coming from his—?" Theo looked down the hall, looked at her again, then nodded to himself as if answering his own question. "Come on, let's get you to your room," he said softly, putting his arm around Hermione's shoulders and starting to walk her up the stairs.

Hermione could only nod and slump against him. She was in such a freefall of panic and hurt that she could barely register what was happening. She could hear her own breath ragged in the quiet space.

"It's OK," Theo murmured as he walked them toward her door. "Just keep breathing, but try to slow it down. Deep breaths."

They made it to Hermione's door and Theo unlocked it with with a soft Alohomora. Hermione walked in and stood, staring blindly out the window, her hand going to her lips.

She could hear Theo moving about behind her, lighting a fire in the grate and doing something with her bedding. "Do you want to talk about it?" he finally said, his voice soft.

Hermione opened her mouth but all that came out was a sob. She doubled over, clutching at her desk chair, hearing Draco's cold voice, seeing his face just before he'd turned his back on her.

"Shit, shit," Theo whispered and she heard him come over, felt him spin her gently and pull her to him. His arms went around her and his hand stroked her back. "It's OK," he said. "It's OK. Let it go."

Hermione tensed at first, but then as the tide of hopelessness and pain overcame her, she let herself lean against him and just cry.

He held her for a long time, whispering soothing things, until she felt the first storm ease. She sniffed and he pulled a tissue from the box on her desk. She let go of him to dab it to her face. "Sorry," she mumbled as she noticed his wet shirtfront.

He just shook his head as he held her by the shoulders and looked into her face. "What happened?" he asked. "Is he being a noble arsehole again?"

Hermione shook her head, stepping back and crumpling onto her bed. Theo had pulled back the covers and as she looked at her cool pillow, a wave of exhaustion overtook her and she suddenly wanted nothing more than to fall onto it in a deep, endless sleep.

"He—" she tried and couldn't finish. She took a deep breath. "It was different than before. He said he... doesn't want me. Told me to stay away from him." Tears started from her eyes again and flowed freely down her face. "He, he, shrugged when I told him I loved him."

Theo, who had been drawing a glass of water from the sink, stopped and turned. Hermione looked up and his face was set with rage. Water flowed over the rim of the glass into the sink. "Fucking hell," he breathed, his voice tight. "What the fuck is he playing at?" He turned off the taps and handed the glass to Hermione absently. "Right. I'm going to go down there and—" He walked toward the door and put his hand on the knob.

"Theo! No! No." Hermione put a restraining arm on his. "Please, that won't help anything. It won't help me."

Theo stopped, his hand relaxing and his shoulders dropping. He took a deep breath. "All right," he said, turning and visibly softening his expression. "How can I help you? What do you need?"

"To sleep," Hermione said, looking longingly down at her bed. "Just end this black hole of a day." She sighed. "Of course, I'll probably lay awake all night instead."

"Wait!" Theo said eagerly. "I have some Dreamless Sleep in my trunk. From last year when my insomnia was bad. I'll go get it for you."

"Oh, that would be such a relief, Theo. Thank you." Hermione rubbed her forehead distractedly, the feeling of unreality that had started somewhere in Draco's room threatening to completely overtake her.

"Anything else? Hot milk? Tea? ...Whisky?" Theo's mouth quirked up the slightest on the last one and Hermione gave a sad little huff.

"Just the potion, thanks."

He nodded and reached for the door again.

"And Theo?"

He stopped, face attentive.

"Do not knock on his door."

He looked to the side. "What if I just yank it open? Hit him very quickly?"

"No!" Hermione tried for a glare.

Theo smiled as he slipped out of the room. "I promise I'll be right back."

"Well that's just total fucking bullshit!"

Hermione cry-laughed as she took in Lavender's pose through the floo flames. Hand on hip and and chin down, Lav strongly resembled Molly Weasley at her most annoyed.

"No, I'm serious!" Lav said. "What the actual fuck is he playing at?"

"I know. I don't know. What the fuck indeed." Hermione trailed off in a sad little muddle as she scooted closer to her fireplace, relieved beyond belief that she'd overheard Susan at lunch talking about floo-calling her mum from her room. The idea to contact Lavender had come immediately to mind and Hermione had rushed to her room as soon as classes ended.

Even after a night of unbroken sleep thanks to Theo's potion, Hermione had walked like a zombie through her school day, wishing alternately for her mum, Harry, and most of all, Lavender. Of course Theo had been a huge comfort the night before, and Ginny (who had taken one look at Hermione, sworn under her breath and vowed to murder Draco in several colourful ways) hadn't left her side most of the day. But Lav was the only one who had really been there for all of it and would truly understand.

Hermione felt her face crumple as she looked at her friend through the flames.

Lavender's posture softened and she tutted. "Oh, my darling. I wish I were there."

"Me too!" Hermione said, letting the tears she'd been holding in with an iron will all day loose down her cheeks. She reached for a tissue and blew her nose. "I'm sorry," she said, "I'm such a watering pot."

"Nevermind that." Lavender waved her hand. "Tell me exactly what he said. Don't leave anything out." She settled herself cross-legged and peered at Hermione.

"That's the problem!" Hermione swiped at the undersides of her eyes. "He barely said anything. It was more his manner. Like he, he—" she broke into fresh tears. "Like he couldn't stand to be around me."

Lavender made more soothing noises and Hermione collected herself enough to recount her confrontation with Draco, including the aftermath with Theo.

"And you asked him why, but he never really answered," Lav said slowly.

"No, and I had truly thought it was guilt over what happened at the Manor. But it felt like more than that." Hermione shrugged. "Or I don't know, something entirely different."

"The war changed everyone." Lavender's face was grave. "It's hard to understand what he went through or what might have happened to him. Especially since he won't bloody tell you."

"I know." Hermione looked down and picked at a stray thread on her hearth rug. "I also saw him walking with this girl."

"Before he talked to you?" Lavender's outrage came loud and clear through the flames.

"Exactly. And it didn't seem like anything. Ginny said that maybe they have a class together, but it felt like more than that. He looked… caught out… the first time I saw them."

"Which girl is this!?"

"Astoria Greengrass. Daphne's little sister."

Lav looked nonplussed. "She's barely been at school, though. How would they even know each other?"

"Right? I don't know and neither does Theo."

"Hmm." Lavender was silent for a moment, looking pained. Finally she said, "I could ask Blaise."

Hermione drew in a sharp breath. "Oh. I don't know."

"I mean, I'm not sure he'd tell me anything even if he knows. Especially if Draco asked him to keep it to himself."

"Has he seemed like he's hiding something? Or burdened by something?"

Lav looked away. "I haven't actually spoken to him in a while."

"What!?" Hermione felt dismay. Were all the San Cipriano bonds just breaking down?

"Yeah, he's been in Paris for ages. Ever since I was released from hospital. We've tried a few times to do this," Lav gestured back and forth between them, "but it's not been great. In my experience, boys generally aren't good at distance."

Hermione nodded, thinking of Harry and Ginny. "Are you OK?"

"I'm fine." Lavender gave an airy shrug. "And he'll be in London next week. We'll talk then. I'll see if I can feel him out about Draco. VERY subtly!" she said, seeing Hermione about to speak.

"OK, thank you." Hermione looked down then back up. "But what do you think I should do, Lav?"

Lavender blew out a big breath and steepled her hands. "Well. My usual advice would be to hammer away at him. Like you did in Italy when he was being an idiot. You could just see then that he was ripe for the picking," she mused, staring into space. "But," she snapped back to attention. "This does seem different. The level of the dismissal."

Hermione winced, remembering Draco's finger as he pointed to the door, his shrug when she told him she loved him. "It did feel very different," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Lavender tapped her chin. "This time, I think you need to be cautious," she said slowly. "You put everything on the line in San Cipriano and you did it again last night. If he's going to reject you—especially like that—after what you had together, then I have a really hard time telling you to put yourself out there again. I think it's time to go into protective mode. Take a step back and take care of yourself." She caught Hermione's eye and held it. "I wish I were there to help you." She tensed. "And to give him the telling off he bloody deserves."

Hermione laughed. "I think Theo wants to do that. I had to physically restrain him last night."

"I'm glad he was there for you," Lavender said. She looked at Hermione speculatively and opened her mouth, but then closed it. After a moment she spoke again. "But seriously. Step back and don't get involved with whatever Draco is trying to work out. Let him be an island or a broody loner or whatever shite he's playing at." She pointed through the flames. "It's his turn to come back to you this time. If you'll have him by that point."

Hermione straightened her shoulders, Lavender's words giving her more strength than she'd felt since she'd first walked into Charms class and seen Draco sitting there. "Focus on myself," she repeated.

"Ignore him. Pretend like he's a tall, blond puff of smoke. Honestly, that's the only strategy that helped me maintain myself around Ron at one point."

"That's good advice," Hermione said, rolling the idea around in her mind. Holding herself aloof instead of pushing felt less exhausting, at least. And she did need to return her attention to her schoolwork, which—if she hadn't already been rather far ahead—would have suffered the last few days.

"Keep me apprised," Lavender said and Hermione nodded. "I mean it!" Lav widened her eyes. "Use this floo anytime—or I even have one at the shop if you're desperate during the day. Also, I want you to come down and visit me. Theo said something about there being very few restrictions on your movement?"

"That's true," Hermione said, perking up. She could go visit Lavender for a weekend if she wanted, couldn't she? "Let's plan on that. Once I get my head together somewhat."

"Or before. If you need an escape." Lavender's voice was tender and Hermione nodded, a lump rising in her throat again.

"Thanks," she whispered.

"Of course!" Lav said. "ANYtime. And keep your chin up, all right? You're worth ten of him!" She made a fist and pumped it. "Oh, I wish I could hug you."

"Thank you. Me too." Hermione was overtaken by a watery yawn. It had been another exhausting day.

"Go to bed," Lav said. "Try to sleep. Sleep is good."

"I will." Hermione blew a kiss as she banked the flames on a waving Lavender then dragged herself toward the bed.

The next few weeks were a curious mixture of rawness and numbness. Hermione clung like a lifeline to Lavender's advice, refusing to look at Draco and valiantly attempting to pretend like he didn't exist. It mostly didn't work—she remained constantly aware of him—but it did allow her to claw her way through the days. However, each time she let her guard down and caught a glimpse of him, (her eyes dragging to his face like he was a fucking magnet) a knife twisted in her heart and a feeling very close to panic overtook her mind.

And it didn't help that he was sometimes looking back—that sometimes her wayward glance would catch an expression on his face that wasn't remote or cold, but instead quite the opposite. Like once when she'd been sitting in a window seat in the eighth-year common room, resting her eyes after concentrating on a complex alchemical equation. She'd gotten the feeling someone was watching her and had looked over to see Draco in the doorway, hand braced on the frame as he seemed to drink in her presence.

Of course, the minute she'd become aware of him he'd vanished.

And another time, when Ginny had dragged her out to the Quidditch pitch. They'd almost run into him coming out of the supply room (so gorgeous in his leathers that Hermione had actually bitten down on her tongue). He'd glanced down at her for an unguarded beat and she'd been certain he'd known what she was thinking. His eyes had glowed and a spark had practically arced between them. But then Ginny responded to his muttered "pardon me" with a strident, "Fuck off, ferret," and the moment had broken.

It took Hermione hours, sometimes days, to recover from these incidents. And it infuriated her that she couldn't control her reactions or make them go away, but the fact was, she couldn't.

So she had to fake it. Keep busy and carry on.

Theo was a huge help and Ginny as well. They seemed to have an unspoken agreement to keep Hermione distracted. So her flying improved markedly and she and Theo logged some serious mileage in the muggle countryside around Hogsmeade, visiting villages and pubs and taking some really blistering walks up a few of the steeper hills.

She also continued to talk regularly to Lavender and even had a slightly awkward call with Harry and Ron, who were practically living together at Grimmauld now. Both were outraged on her behalf, with Harry more sympathetic than Ron, whose reaction contained more than a little 'what did you expect' energy.

And of course Hermione threw herself into her studies, redoubling her attention on her core coursework and requesting special research assignments from Professors Sinestra and Slughorn, which kept her deep in the library stacks for hours on end.

So she was well-occupied. And some of the time it helped. But there were also moments when nothing and no one helped. When a word or a sound or the way light fell through a window would throw her back into memories of San Cipriano—of lying in bed with Draco on a lazy afternoon, or walking into the bookshop and seeing his smile, or kissing him against a sun-warmed rock at the pools.

Then she'd remember him turning his back on her, shrugging at her declaration of love.

And those were the moments when she wondered how she was going to get through this, when

trying to move on felt impossible.

And the process wasn't helped by the fact that Draco still seemed to be spending time with Astoria Greengrass.

Hermione couldn't help but notice it: him walking the halls with her, sitting with her at a table in the library, speaking to her outside the entrance to the dungeons.

Each observation felt like a piece of mounting evidence.

And she found herself becoming a bit obsessive over Astoria, who was petite with a fall of long, dark hair, and huge, watchful eyes. Unlike Daphne's casual coolness, Astoria had a precise, cultivated air that set her slightly apart from other students. She seemed older somehow—a little above the Hogwarts milieu. And in the times Astoria noticed Hermione noticing her, Hermione perceived a slight hint of something—was it mockery?—in her expression that was truly provoking.

Only the fact that Astoria and Draco's interactions always seemed rather perfunctory, with none of the heat or sweetness Hermione had shared with him, kept her from going completely around the twist. But she was desperate to know why they were together so much and what they were to each other.

It took great restraint not to blurt these questions to Daphne while they worked on their labs in Potions, and eventually Hermione's burning curiosity reached such a pitch that she gave Theo the go-ahead to ask her himself, then tried rather unsuccessfully to be patient waiting for his report.

"So I talked to Daph," he said one crisp September night about three weeks after Draco's arrival, dropping into a seat opposite Hermione in the eighth-year common room.

Hermione looked up in nervous surprise from the runic text she'd been reading. "Oh?" She closed the book and leaned forward, her heart beginning to race.

Theo nodded. "It was about what I expected," he said, a warning tone in his voice. "She doesn't know much."

Hermione gave him a questioning frown and he spread his hands. "Look, it's putting it mildly to say that Daphne and Astoria aren't close. Never have been, and the distance of the last few years has really exacerbated that, I think." His face was sad for a moment before he continued in a whisper. "But what Daph did say is that Astoria and their parents went to Malfoy Manor during the occupation."

Hermione blinked rapidly, her stomach dropping. So there was some kind of connection. She'd highly suspected it, but to hear it confirmed was jarring.

"It was something to do with Astoria's treatment, like I'd thought," Theo continued. "That's all Daph would say, though." He leaned closer and looked to the side. "I couldn't tell if she didn't know anything more or if she was hiding something. But it was clear she didn't want me to pry. The association with the Death Eaters has got to have the family on edge, even if they weren't actual supporters."

"Do you know that they weren't?" Hermione was aware that certain families, like Pansy Parkinson's, had walked a very thin line in this area, but ultimately been left alone by the Ministry post-war.

"Well, as I believe I mentioned before, Cygnus Greengrass is a nasty piece of work." Theo looked darkly at the floor. "But he's never been known as an outright dark wizard. Reason my father didn't like him, actually," he snorted.

Hermione grimaced and put her hand out to touch his arm.

"But," Theo continued, "Cygnus is absolutely loaded and highly unprincipled. And Astoria is the apple of his eye. So if there was a deal to be done with anyone, including Voldemort." He mouthed the name, trailing off and looking at Hermione significantly.

She nodded slowly, nauseating ideas sprouting in her mind. So Astoria and Draco had been thrown together. Perhaps she'd been there for him when he was in his darkest place and a bond—or something more—had sprung from that. Although if that were the case, why Draco hadn't just told Hermione he'd fallen for somebody else? He'd seemed to have no problem being almost cruel…

Hermione shuddered despite the warmth from a crackling fire in the common room's huge hearth.

"I don't think it's insignificant," Theo was saying. "And I'd know more if he would fucking talk to me, but he still refuses."

Hermione shook her head. Draco seemed to have seen it necessary to cut Theo out of his life as well. It wasn't totally surprising, considering how close she and Theo had gotten, but she could tell it bothered Theo and that upset her too. "I'm sorry about that," she said.

"No, it's nothing really. I just thought we'd gotten to be almost friends there at the end." Theo shrugged. "Of course, I did want very badly to hit him a couple of weeks ago, so maybe he can sense that." He gave Hermione a half-smile and she almost laughed.

"Anyway, Astoria," he continued. "No matter what strange shit is going on, he's nothing with her like he was with you. I don't think you need me to tell you that."

Hermione's heart flickered for the briefest moment, but she tamped it down. "Yes, but what does it even matter?" She made an impatient gesture. "I don't know why I'm torturing myself with it."

"I mean, I understand." Theo flicked a quick glance toward the cafe area, where Daphne and Michael had just sat down. Hermione watched as Michael said something into Daphne's ear that made her laugh.

Theo leaned back and blew out a long breath.

Hermione gave him a sympathetic look. "Yeah," she said, crossing her arms and slumping down.

"Couple of sad cases we are," Theo said, also slumping.

Hermione smiled then straightened and picked up her textbook. "Well, knowing all this hasn't made me feel any better," she said. "I guess It's back to my extreme avoidance regime from now on. Maybe I can find a charm to just... erase him from my field of vision, especially when he's with her."

"That would be nice," Theo murmured, his eyes drifting back to Michael and Daphne again.

"Ignore, ignore, ignore," Hermione chanted quietly, Theo's soft snort sounding in reply.

Unfortunately for Hermione, it soon became very difficult to ignore Draco.

McGonagall, who had largely been absent from the eighth-years' sphere thus far, appeared unexpectedly one morning at the end of their Defensive Magic class and gave a presentation about a program she was launching around her pet themes of unity and reconciliation.

"It will be school-wide, multi-faceted and student-led," she said, unrolling a scroll containing a diagram with a series of pictures and small moving figures, all conveying a general sense of coming together and harmony.

"Each class year will participate, and we're using several tactics. For example, discussion groups, partnering, shared activities and even muggle therapeutic techniques. But for this group," she looked up, eyes bright, "we thought it might be effective for our oldest students to act as instructors for our youngest."

She'd then gone on to outline a plan wherein pairs of eighth-year students would act as mentors to a cross-section of first-years from each of the four Houses. They'd be expected to meet weekly and conduct an interactive discussion/lesson around a concept supporting reconciliation.

McGonagall made a few remarks about the instructor pairs themselves being examples of inter-House unity, so it was with a sense of horrified inevitability that Hermione heard her name read along with Draco's as one of the pairs.

Her eyes darted to him and saw him rigid, his jaw set as he stared fixedly at the headmistress. And Hermione watched in dismay that turned quickly to anger as he approached McGonagall after class and spoke in a low voice to her, his posture tense. The headmistress's eyes flashed to Hermione, then back to Draco with frigid disapproval and she swept out of the room with barely a word. Draco stood, staring after her, his fist clenching and unclenching as Hermione felt her anger blossom into outrage.

"Honestly, it won't be that bad, Draco," she hissed as she walked by him toward the door. He flinched when she said his name, which made her even more angry—and her irritation carried her through the day, making her think if she could just stay mad at him, she might have a fighting chance of getting through this thing.

Of course the feeling had faded, and she was quickly overtaken by anxiety at the idea of having to actually conduct a discussion with him. How in the world were they going to model unity when they were so divided? How was she going to speak to him without bursting into tears?

Her feelings on the whole thing were so muddled that Hermione didn't even try to organise a planning session, instead totally uncharacteristically ignoring the need for preparation and arriving for class the first evening with nothing more than a few vague discussion points sketched out.

She looked down nervously at her notes as students started drifting into the small classroom McGonagall had assigned them on the fourth floor of the Astronomy Tower. Draco hadn't arrived yet and it crossed her mind fleetingly that he might just not show up. The idea raised her ire again and she clung to the feeling as she watched the first-years settle themselves into seats.

They looked so small, their movements an endearing mix of tentative and awkward. Hermione's heart went out to them as she checked the attendance sheet that had appeared on her desk this morning. What a year to start school. It was terrifying enough to leave one's family at age eleven, but she couldn't imagine doing it on the heels of such violence and fear. She wasn't surprised that the numbers were down in the first-year class.

The minutes ticked by as Hermione checked the bodies in the classroom against the seven names on her list. It appeared there was a boy and girl from each house except for Slytherin, which had a blank space where the girl's name should be. Probably not enough students to fill the spot—Slytherin House had been particularly hard hit by the post-war drop.

It also appeared that Draco wasn't showing up. Hermione found her foot tapping as she watched the clock tick closer to the five p.m. start of the class, irritation rising again. So he was just going to leave it all to her, was he? She felt her brows snap together but then caught the Ravenclaw girl looking at her with faint alarm, so she forced her features into what was probably a very insincere smile.

Finally, the clock struck five and Hermione turned to the class, nerves bubbling up her throat. She opened her mouth and was just about to greet the group when the door swung open and Draco swept in, tall and austere in his dark robes. Every head turned to him as he flicked Hermione a quick glance. She glared at the clock in response and his cheeks flushed slightly as he leaned against a chair in the back of the room.

"Uh, welcome class," Hermione said, her eyes still on Draco and her voice coming out a bit weak. She cleared her throat and forced her attention to the students in front of her. "Welcome to our, ah, 'Unity Group'," she said, reading the course name from the attendance sheet. "I'm Hermione Granger and I'll be one of your instructors or, er, discussion leaders."

She looked expectantly at Draco.

"Draco Malfoy," he said shortly, keeping his eyes on Hermione's. "Your other instructor."

"I suppose we can start with introductions," Hermione said after a slightly overlong pause in which she got rather lost in Draco's stare.

"We know who you are," a girl in a Gryffindor tie said quickly. "And you." She twisted in her seat to give Draco a look. His brow went up, but the girl didn't look flustered at all.

Hermione decided she liked her.

"Ah, OK," Hermione said. "All of you, then. Let's go round and have your names and a sentence about what you'd like to get out of this class."

The two Hufflepuffs—Cora and Max—went first, both citing wanting to understand their fellow students better. Then the Gryffindor girl, Eloise, said she was looking forward to debates on pressing topics. Hermione smiled at her, her eye catching very briefly on Draco's.

The Gryffindor boy, Jamie, looked like he'd rather be anywhere else, but finally said, "Promote, uh, unity? I dunno," when pressed. Beatrice, the girl from Ravenclaw, gave a nuanced answer about becoming a more critical thinker, but the Ravenclaw boy, Peregrine, was so shy he would barely speak.

Hermione finally let him pass to the Slytherin boy, Reggie, who said, "I don't know what any of us are supposed to get out of this. Seems daft to me."

Hermione opened her mouth to respond, but Eloise beat her to it. "Daft?" she asked, "How can you say that when it's the headmistress's express wish that we explore this?"

"Explore what?" Reggie shot back. "Getting rid of the Houses?"

"If necessary." Eloise lifted her chin.

Hermione looked at her notes and cleared her throat. "That's actually very relevant, Eloise, Reggie," she said. "The first topic I thought we'd discuss—unless Draco has something else planned?" She looked at him until he shook his head once. "Anyway, the first topic on my list is the House system itself. What are the pros and cons of having Houses? What are our feelings about Sorting? How about stereotypes and fitting in?" Hermione looked up at the group and saw some nods. "What are some thoughts, then?" she asked.

Eloise's hand shot into the air, so Hermione nodded at her, ignoring a palpable flash of amusement from the figure in the back of the room.

"I think we should abolish them," Eloise said with finality.

"Oh, here we go." Reggie let out a loud sigh.

"Hey." To Hermione's surprise, Draco leaned over and rapped his knuckles on Reggie's desk. "Let her speak. You'll have your turn in a minute." Reggie went red, but nodded and Draco moved back.

Hermione tried not to be impressed.

"They're archaic and divisive," Eloise spoke again. "They're also limiting of the human personality. And their effects extend long into people's lives—often in detrimental ways."

Hermione ignored Reggie's flapping hand and looked around the room. "Anyone have something to add to that before we explore the other side's argument?"

"They set up rivalries," said the Hufflepuff girl—Hermione checked her notes—Cora. "My older sister laughed when she heard you two were teaching our class." She turned a blunt and assessing look on Hermione and then Draco. "She said you didn't get along very well, which wasn't a surprise because Gryffindors and Slytherins never get along."

Hermione heard Draco cough and felt heat creep up her neck. She felt she could quite cheerfully murder Minerva McGonagall right at this moment. "Er, that's right," she forced out. "We didn't get along in the past. But we've, uh, found common ground more recently."

Draco coughed again. "Quite," he muttered.

Hermione suppressed a glare at him. Common ground, her arse. "And I'm good friends with Theo Nott, who is also a Slytherin," she said a little stridently.

"Oh he's very good-looking," Cora interjected. A murmur of assent went around the room. "Are you just friends?" She blinked up at Hermione, who felt herself start to sputter.

"That's hardly appropriate, Cora." Draco's cold voice sounded. Hermione chanced a look at him and saw a muscle twitching near his eye.

"Beatrice!" Hermione practically shouted at the Ravenclaw girl. "What are your thoughts?"

"Hey, you've skipped me," Reggie whined.

"OK, fine," Hermione said. "Reggie, then Beatrice." She eyed the Slytherin boy.

"I just think it's daft to get rid of a system that's worked for over 1000 years," he said, crossing his arms.

"Appeal to tradition, of course," Eloise muttered under her breath.

"And what's wrong with tradition?" Reggie said, glaring at her.

"It's not a proper argument," Beatrice interrupted. "It's a logical fallacy, which interestingly brings me to the point I was going to make." She looked to Hermione who nodded at her to go ahead. "I would probably have argued along with Eloise before I arrived here," she said. "But the first night after the Sorting everyone gathered in the Ravenclaw common room and a big group of us started talking, which turned into a friendly debate, and before long we were naming our favourite logical fallacies and everyone understood what everyone meant. It was magic." She smiled. "I felt I'd found my people."

"Ravenclaws," Reggie said under his breath.

"Now, now, I enjoy a good logical discussion myself," Hermione said heartily.

"But weren't you almost a hatstall?" Draco's voice cut in smoothly. "Bit too warm for Ravenclaw in the end, though, weren't you?"

Hermione was brought up short. Had he really just referenced that night in San Cipriano? Her silly theory? Bastard!

She glared at him, mouth open, and he had the grace to look away, his cheeks pink.

Hermione tried to collect herself. "Peregrine, Max, Jamie?" she said faintly, eye going to the clock. Only ten minutes left in class, thank god. "Anything to add?"

"My dad's disappointed I'm a 'puff." A big blonde boy in a yellow tie spoke slowly.

"Oh no! Why?" Hermione focused on him.

"He's a Gryff and my older brother too. They're both big into Quidditch. Wanted me to join the team and make it a legacy." He shrugged. "I feel really bad about it."

"Shouldn't feel bad about where you're sorted," Cora piped up. "Besides, Hufflepuff's great. Tell your dad he's off." She gave Max a firm nod and he smiled a little.

"You're right, Cora. Hufflepuff House has had some truly great witches and wizards in its ranks," Hermione said, thinking of Cedric and Tonks.

"Yeah, but Gryffindor's got Harry Potter." Jamie spoke up, giving Hermione a cheeky grin.

"Who is friends with people of many houses," Hermione retorted.

"Not him," Cora said, jerking her thumb toward Draco. "My sister says you hated each other."

Hermione had an unholy desire to laugh, but she looked at Draco and tilted her head instead. He closed his eyes slowly and shifted against the desk.

"That's fair," he finally said. "To tell you the truth, I was a bit jealous of him when I was younger and it made me act like a little git." The room broke out in shocked whispers, but Draco talked over them. "I can tell you this, though," he said. "The last time I spoke to him, he shook my hand."

The whispers intensified before an awkward silence fell over the class. Hermione was caught between wondering about Draco and Harry's last exchange and thinking about how to frame closing remarks when Cora's voice piped up again. "Is Harry your boyfriend, then?" she asked, her freckled face turned back to Hermione.

"No, he goes out with Ginny Weasley," Jamie cut in before Hermione, shocked into speechlessness again, could reply. "She's fit and really good at Quidditch."

"None of this is appropriate discussion," Hermione called over the din that had erupted in the room, unable to escape the distinct impression that she'd totally lost control of the class. The clock turned mercifully over to six and she raised her voice again, trying to compete with the sound of gathering up and scraping chairs.

"Next class will be this time next week. Draco will be leading the discussion." Hermione sent him a look and he blinked at her. "In the meantime, think of at least three things we could do here at Hogwarts to promote unity. We'll expect you to have them ready next week to kick off the dialogue."

A chorus of responses, ranging from groans to more enthusiastic reactions met Hermione's ears as the students shuffled out the door. She watched them with a sense of unreality, wondering what the bloody hell had just happened.

Suddenly the urge to laugh overtook her and she looked instinctively to Draco, who was still lingering in the back of the room.

He was looking at her too, but his face was anything but amused. Instead, he was unguarded—like he'd been when she'd caught him watching her in the common room window seat—and his face held a raw intensity. The smile faded from Hermione's lips as everything that had happened rushed in on her again.

She moved toward him, almost involuntarily. But the moment she did, he started, shuttered and walked swiftly out the door.

Hermione sat in Ernie's eighth-year committee meeting later that night, not listening to a word anyone was saying and instead running the Unity class over and over in her mind.

Had there been flashes of connection between Draco and herself? Or had her overeager brain imagined it? She sighed—she was probably reading way too much into common decency and a modicum of politeness. He'd been forced to interact with her, so he'd interacted—and at the bare minimum level.

She tapped a finger lightly on the table. Lavender had said to make him work for her this time and she needed to stick to that, and not attribute farfetched motivations to the smallest exchanges.

Nodding almost imperceptibly, Hermione tuned back in to Ernie, who was droning on about a muggle Halloween party he wanted to put on next month.

"The only way McGonagall would agree to the event is if we limit it to seventh- and eighth-years," he was saying.

"That sounds right," Padma spoke up. "We don't want it to be too big."

"Or be dealing with fifteen year-olds drunk on butterbeer," Pansy drawled. "It's a costume party, yes?"

"All of the muggle trappings, absolutely!" Ernie said. "It's a handy tie-in to the unity work we're all doing. Muggle-kind, wizard-kind, you know." He looked around the table, finishing with a wink at Hermione. She barely noticed, the word 'unity' having drawn her thoughts back to that evening's class.

"Hermione?" Ernie's questioning, and somehow also condescending, tones broke into her reverie.

"Er, yes?" she said, flustered.

"Can we count on you?" Ernie held her gaze, a very serious look on his face.

She blinked at him.

"For the party," he prompted. "Will you supply your muggle expertise to make sure we do it authentically?"

"Uh, OK. Yes." Hermione suppressed a sniff. Really, how had she gotten herself roped into what was essentially a social committee?

"Excellent," Ernie said, making a note on the parchment in front of him. "Let's move on to the next agenda item: our eighth-year class motto!"

Hermione's brain immediately took the opportunity to wander again.

Why had Draco looked at her that way at the end of the class? Should she be pushing him just a little? Was there a place somewhere between making him come to her and standing idly by?

Or was all of that just a recipe for more heartache.

She looked down and doodled on her agenda. She truly didn't know, and she absolutely hated the uncertainty.

Chapter Text

"N equals 72?" Draco's voice sounded hesitant as he looked up from his Arithmancy text to Professor Vector, who stood at the front of the classroom.

Hermione glanced over her shoulder at him. His uncertainty wasn't misplaced because he'd gotten the calculation wrong. She knew exactly where, too. He'd forgotten to reduce x by half before completing step six of the proof. She'd done it herself on her first pass through the problem set and only discovered her mistake when she'd gone back to check her work.

"Not quite, but the error you've made is in a tricky spot." Professor Vector's gaze swept over the rest of the class. "Anyone know where Mr. Malfoy's gone wrong?"

Hermione repressed the desire to snort. The rest of the class remained quiet and still, so she raised her hand.

"Ms. Granger." Professor Vector nodded at her.

She shifted to look at Draco again. He was watching her, but as soon as their eyes met, he became very focused on his notes, scribbling something that Hermione knew was a meaningless excuse to avoid looking at her.

A familiar dart of annoyance flashed and she turned back around. "He missed a calculation in step six of the proof."

"And why is that important?"

Professor Vector raised her brows, obviously wanting Hermione to explain the process to the class, which was emitting an almost tangible air of confusion. Hermione was mulling how best to do so when an idea born of her irritation with Draco bolted forth.

"Well, it's sort of like... a ladder," she said.

"A ladder?" Professor Vector sounded intrigued.

"Yes, one of those old library or bookshop ladders on runners."

Draco coughed and a quill clattered to the floor in his corner of the room.

Professor Vector directed a slight frown in his direction, then nodded at Hermione. "Go on."

"Well," Hermione turned around and addressed her remarks toward the class. Draco was staring even more fixedly down at his textbook and she saw him shift in his seat. She continued, her voice strong and clear. "Each step of the proof has to be completed properly before you ascend to the next one. And to do so, you have to sort of glide back and forth between the various principles, pick them out then apply them. In this case, in step six you had to use Wenlock's principle of reduction and halve the figure before ascending to step seven. I believe that's where Mr. Malfoy got twisted around on the, er, rung."

Hermione watched Draco as she finished speaking, noting a brilliant flush had crept up his jaw and that his hand was making what looked like the same mark over and over on his parchment. He glanced up and she caught his eye, which widened briefly on hers before he looked away again.

Hermione allowed herself a small smile.

Served him bloody right.

She'd mostly been adhering to Lavender's 'stay away, act like he doesn't exist' advice, but Draco had unlocked something in her with his reference to San Cipriano the night of the first unity class. She'd been looking for ways to prod at him ever since.

She turned fully back around, pleased with herself. Professor Vector was praising her analogy—"Very astute, Ms. Granger!"—and moving on to the next problem in the set, so Hermione relaxed into her seat, letting her mind dwell on the situation with Draco a little.

As the weeks had stretched into October, she'd found herself more able to get along. Oh, the pain was still there, and could still stab at her sharply, but she found herself more able to live with it. She didn't want to examine too closely the fact that Draco's reactions to her were definitely fuel for feeling better—that some part of her was chipping away at him, albeit in a much more indirect way than she had in Italy. And although he remained aloof, never speaking to her except for very perfunctorily in their unity classes, she could tell she was wearing him down.

This was basically what she told Lavender when she floo'd her after Potions that evening to share the ladder story.

"Oh my fucking god, that's priceless!" Lav fell over on the floor cry-laughing as Hermione finished recounting the exchange in Arithmancy. "You absolute bad-arse, bitch!" she gasped, wiping tears from under her eyes. "Oh, I wish I could have seen his face."

"He looked like he needed to go somewhere and be alone, if you know what I mean. Red, moving around on his chair." Hermione giggled at the memory and Lavender slapped the floor.

"Legend," Lav said after she stopped wheezing and sat up. "Well, I'm glad you're at the stage where you can fuck with him. And laugh about it."

Hermione shrugged. "He still won't talk to me, though."

"Are you feeling like you're getting over him at all?" Lavender tilted her head. "Is this 'moving on because I don't care as much' fuckery?"

"Nooooo." Hermione frowned, then explained her theory about the chipping away.

"Well that's not necessarily a bad thing," Lavender said, tapping her chin. "I mean, we don't want you throwing yourself at him, but if you still want him you should feel him out. Especially if he's responding." She screwed up her face. "Besides, I still say there's something fishy going on that you might be able to untangle. IF you want to make that effort," she said, holding up a finger.

Hermione sighed loudly. Did she want to make an effort? Part of her really wanted Draco to come to her this time. "Maybe I'll just keep on with the current course," she said. "It's about what my dignity can withstand. And it's not like there's a lot else going on up here."

Lavender nodded seriously, but then her face brightened. "Well, but tell me about this Halloween party you mentioned last time! Sounds like a great opportunity... Everyone drinking, wearing sexy costumes, getting a little loose." She wiggled around suggestively.

"Oh, I doubt Draco will come," Hermione said. "He's barely even at mealtimes. He must have some sort of deal with the house elves to have food delivered to his room." She scowled. Except for the times she'd seen him sitting with Astoria at the Slytherin table in the Great Hall, of course. So much for house unity.

"Oh I'd be very surprised if he didn't duck in." Lavender's smile was sly. "What are you wearing?"

"Well, I was going to be a Spitfire Girl, but Ginny says it's not sexy enough."

"First of all, solidarity to Ginny— woman after my own heart—and second, what in the world is a 'Spitfire Girl'?"

"They were female airplane pilots in World War II," Hermione said eagerly. "Incredible feminist role models. I thought I could wear a flight suit and goggles…"

"And end up explaining to everyone what you are all night, including a lesson in muggle history? And why does 'flight suit and goggles' sound unflattering?" Lavender narrowed her eyes. "I mean, these Spitfire Women do sound amazing, but maybe it's not the right note to strike on this particular night when we want Draco to eat his heart out?"

"Maybe not," Hermione grumbled. It would be frustrating to try and explain her costume to magical folk, even those who had paid attention in Muggle Studies class. And some small, but vocal, part of her did want to look pointedly spectacular at the party. "Ginny said I should be a fairy with her," she said out of the corner of her mouth.

"Oh, now that's fun! A lot of scope for going really over the top. Ginny's good with hair and makeup spells, right?"

"Yeahhh. She has some idea about making my hair really dramatic."

"I love it!" Lavender clapped her hands. "Not that I want you objectified," she said. "I just really, really want Draco to suffer."

"You are ridiculous." Hermione laughed grudgingly.

"It worked before!" Lavender sang.

"OK, OK!" Hermione conceded, thinking of the party at their flat in San Cipriano and especially what had happened afterward.

Lavender sobered and squinted through the flames at Hermione. "Well, whatever you do," she said, "try and have a good time for you. You can't let his ridiculousness rule your every moment."

Hermione nodded. "I should probably get to this Charms essay," she said with a sigh.

"SO glad I'm not in school anymore!" Lavender trilled. "Keep me updated, though. I need full approval over this costume concept!" she called.

Hermione agreed and then waved as Lavender blinked out of sight.

"So I'm coming to your room after dinner to talk costumes," Ginny said as they walked out of Alchemy the next day. "I'll bring some dresses and things."

"Right," Hermione agreed. "But nothing too wild—or short—OK?"

Ginny just grinned before turning to walk down the corridor toward the Great Hall. "See you tonight!" she called over her shoulder.

Hermione stood staring after her for a moment before heading in the direction of the Divination Tower. Honestly, everyone was going insane over this Halloween party. Ernie had taken to bending her ear about it nightly and Ginny had told her before class that some sixth-years were caught with an aging potion in a clear attempt to subvert the age line. Shades of Fred and George and the Triwizard Tournament. Hermione smiled sadly at the memory as she took the stairs to the eighth-year common room. She'd even heard her Unity students chattering about it before class the other night. Madness. Although from what she understood, all such celebrations and social events had been banned the previous year, so maybe it was understandable.

Saying a quick hello to Susan and Michael, who were the only ones in the café, Hermione took a sandwich off a platter and went out the door again, making a split-second decision to spend lunch in the library so she could look up one of the translations Professor Babbling had introduced in class today. She knew she'd seen a different interpretation of one of the runes in an old text and wanted to check on it.

Deep in these thoughts, she made her way to the library's great double doors and moved through the mostly deserted chamber toward the proper section. Finding the book in question, she took it to a table near a window and was soon engrossed. The text showed that she'd been right about the alternate translation and Hermione took some notes, excited to share her find with the professor.

As she wrote, a hum of slightly overloud conversation began to intrude on her consciousness. Irritation prickled and Hermione broke off mid-sentence to look for the source of the interruption. An abrupt motion caught her eye and she squinted through the shelves at a table several rows down.

She fumbled her quill, immediately riveted by what she saw.

It was Astoria Greengrass. And she appeared to be having a heated conversation with someone. Hermione couldn't hear the words, but she could make out heightened emotion in the tenseness of Astoria's posture and gestures.

Hermione craned her neck, eager to see who the other conversant was, a mean little part of her hoping it was Draco and that they were having a tiff. But as she watched, another hand and arm came into view, gesturing back at Astoria forcefully. Graceful, light brown skin, crisp white cuff; it was Pansy Parkinson, Hermione was sure of it.

She frowned as Pansy stepped forward and confirmed her suspicion. Tall frame bent toward Astoria and neck taut, Pansy said something to Astoria that made the other girl flinch back and shake her head quickly. Astoria then shouldered past Pansy and hurried down the central corridor toward the library doors.

How very strange.

Hermione watched Pansy sink down into a seat and mostly out of sight, her movements now heavy and loose.

What in the world did those two have to argue about? If anything, they'd seemed close since the first few weeks of school, close enough that Hermione had noticed it. In fact, just the other day she'd remarked to Theo that Pansy seemed to spend as much time with Astoria as she did with Daphne, and much more time than the two sisters spent together. Theo had said it was odd and confirmed that Pansy had always been Daphne's friend. Hermione had gone away wondering about it—wondering if Pansy was shoring up some friendship bulwark with Draco and Astoria for the future—a thought which had made her stomach twist. Everyone fitting into their neat little pureblood boxes.

The whole thing had made Hermione consider if the very messiness of her relationship with Draco had been part of the problem for him, part of what made him cut her off. Yes, they'd had passion and love in Italy, but she didn't fit easily into his life here at all. There would have been challenges to their relationship from all sides. And maybe he'd just decided that was too much. So much simpler to just do what was expected...

Hermione breathed out an angry sigh, her eyes sliding to the window where, as if her thoughts had conjured him, Draco appeared. Striding around the corner up the path from the greenhouses, his black robes billowed behind him in the brisk autumn breeze that had been sneaking around the eaves of the school all morning. He looked preoccupied and Hermione wished she knew what he was thinking. About her? About them? Did he think about any of it at all anymore?

Suddenly, Astoria stumbled out of the building and practically into Draco's path. Hermione's reverie broke and her attention lasered in on them as Draco reached out to brace Astoria's slender arms, concern flashing across his face. Simultaneously flaring with jealousy and hating herself for it, Hermione watched as he slid his hands down to Astoria's wrists, leaned into her and spoke, the intimacy of the movement almost undoing any calm Hermione still possessed.

Astoria said something in return, freeing her hand and dashing a curled finger at her eye while Draco looked down at her. She wouldn't look up at him, but Hermione could tell she was speaking, and Hermione's gaze was riveted on Draco's face as he watched Astoria's bent head, his features transforming into a look of surprised realisation. After a while, he leaned down and said something almost directly into her ear. She shook her head decisively, still looking at the ground. Draco went very still and Hermione saw pure anger in his face, but in a flash it was gone and he stepped back,coldness banking over his features. He said one last thing before turning on his heel and walking away. Astoria didn't look up until he'd disappeared over a rise in the path, then turned to go herself.

Hermione's mouth dropped open and her quill slipped from her fingers. What the hell had just happened? The tiff she'd been hoping for? She didn't know whether to give in to the sneaky little current of joy that wanted to zip through her veins or be worried that Draco and Astoria were close enough to have such a passionate exchange. What had provoked Astoria so thoroughly? Something Pansy had said? And what had she told Draco to cause such a reaction in him? Was he angry at Pansy? Resentful of Astoria? Angry for Astoria? What did it all mean? And the perennial question: what the fuck were he and Astoria to each other? Hermione felt almost frenzied to know, even if she feared the answer.

Huffing out a frustrated breath, Hermione's eye caught on the clock. "Shit," she hissed, shoving books and papers into her bag. She was going to be bloody late to Transfiguration on top of everything else.

As she hurried down the hallway, Hermione couldn't help running the scenes she'd just witnessed over and over in her mind. Her practical side asserted that it was probably all nothing, that she wanted to see things, so her heightened state, she was seeing them. But another part of her recalled Draco's face and the anger there—the way Astoria had run from Pansy, and Lavender's words about something being amiss.

Had she given up too easily? Let Draco slip away without enough of a fight? Or was she witnessing him getting closer to someone he cared about?

None of the possible answers to these questions felt satisfying in the least.

"I'm not wearing this!" Hermione tugged at the hem of a very short, extremely stretchy white dress as she stepped out from behind her wardrobe door, which was currently doubling as a makeshift changing area.

"Whyyyyy!?" Ginny looked up from the copy of Witch Weekly she was perusing on Hermione's bed. "You look fucking fit."

Hermione tried simultaneously to pull the front and back of the dress down while she twisted in front of her mirror. "I'm practically showing my fanny… and my arse," she muttered.

"OK, OK, you may have a few inches on me and that one is very er, brief," Ginny admitted. "I bought it last summer in Ireland. You should see what the muggle girls wear on a night out there. The tallest heels, my gods."

Hermione shook her head in horror, then ducked back behind the wardrobe door. "That was the last of them," she called, fingering the filmy pile of dresses draped over her chair. "Which did you like best?"

"I guess the shiny copper sheath, although I was planning to wear it," Ginny said, frowning. She heaved up off the bed and went to Hermoine's wardrobe. "We really need you to be the winter fairy anyway. You sure you don't have anything that would work?"

"I doubt it," Hermione said, pulling on her dressing gown and peering in behind Ginny. "Look on the left behind that wool coat. Some of my things from Italy are tucked away back there."

Ginny practically climbed into the wardrobe and started shoving hangers around. "So I agree that what you saw with Astoria and Pansy was weird," she called, her voice muffled by layers of fabric.

"Right? I asked Theo about it and he thinks it's strange too. Says Pansy and Astoria shouldn't know each other well enough to fight."

"This is cute," Ginny said, shoving a hanger with Hermione's pink, cotton dress from San Cipriano out behind her. "Too casual for this costume, though. And the wrong color."

"Yeah." Hermione took the dress and held it against her frame. "I wore this all the time in Italy," she said, her voice trailing off as her mind went back—to the café and Draco sitting in a corner table, brushing his finger over her thigh and telling her how much he liked this dress. She flushed and pushed the hanger rather abruptly back at Ginny, who took it and hung it back up.

"This red one is cute too, but also not right for a costu—heyyyy!" Ginny's voice lilted up into excitement. "This is perfect. Perfect colour and fabric."

She began to wheel around and Hermione knew what would be in her hands before she actually saw the deep blue satin.

"You were holding out on me!" Ginny crowed, holding up the dress, the one Hermione had been wearing the night she and Draco— But that memory was too painful and she quashed it.

"Not that one," she said automatically.

"Why the FUCK not?" Ginny gave her an extremely skeptical glare as she held the dress up and examined it from all angles. "This is gorgeous and I'm absolutely certain you look stunning in it. Plus it screams winter fairy." She slid the dress off the hanger and handed it to Hermione, who stared at her dumbly.

"Put it on," Ginny said, jutting her chin toward the wardrobe door.

"Ginny, I really— This one has, er, sentimental value," Hermione said lamely, fingering the dress like it was electrified.

"Oh, did Draco like this one a lot?" Ginny's arms crossed.

Hermione just looked her.

"He did!" Ginny's eyes narrowed. "Then it's double, triple perfect and if you don't wear it, you're an idiot."

Hermione held out for another minute before she made an angry noise and disappeared behind the wardrobe door.

Slithering into the blue satin was like falling back in time. She could almost feel the warmth of her San Cipriano flat, taste the cigarette she'd tried with Theo the night she'd last worn this. She could definitely remember the feeling of Draco slowly pulling down the zipper she was now trying to do up.

She stopped and let her shoulders fall, bowing her head and breathing deeply.

"Well let's see it!" Ginny said, her bright gaze peeking around the wardrobe door. "Merlin and Morgana, yes!" A huge smile split her face. "That is a great dress."

"It is, isn't it?" Hermione said softly, smoothing down the rich fabric. She stepped in front of the mirror and twisted this way and that. The dress was still beautifully flattering, even if her skin was paler and her hair darker than the last time she'd worn it.

"We'll conjure some wings," Ginny was saying as she flitted around Hermione in the mirror. "And your hair will be down, but I think with some cool plaits. Glitter on the shoulders for sure."

"I've not said I'm wearing it."

"And why the hell wouldn't you?" Ginny put her hand on her hip. "Because it brings up some precious memory with the platinum arsehole? Fuck him. He can deal with it." Ginny adjusted the straps over Hermione's shoulders. "It's not like you rejected him," she said under her breath.

The words threaded through Hermione's mind. It was true wasn't it? Draco had rejected her. Again and again. Which, now that she thought about it, made her feel really done with trying to guard her words or actions around him. Who or what was she trying to protect? And didn't she want to put her best self forward at the party? Let him see what he was missing. She'd admitted as much to Lav.

She squared her shoulders and met Ginny's eyes in the mirror. "You're right."

"I am? You'll wear it?" Ginny's expression moved rapidly from annoyed to excited.

"I will." Hermione nodded once.

"Ohh, this is going to be such an ace night!" Ginny said, squeezing Hermione's shoulders.

Hermione looked down and took a huge breath. "I hope so," she said with a frown.

Chapter Text

Hermione swept shimmering grey over one eyelid and pulled back to check her reflection in the mirror.

"Sufficiently smoky," she murmured, then applied the same to the other, yelling, "It's open!" in response to a vigorous knocking on her door.

"Good, you're already dressed," Ginny said as she backed into the room, various bags and parcels clinking in her arms. "Oh, and you're on to eye makeup!" She peered at Hermione's face. "Good start, but we're going to have to amp that up about ten times."

"Really? I thought it looked nice."

"Nice is not what we're going for. Look at me!" Ginny stuck her face into Hermione's and blinked rapidly. Her makeup was extreme, with bronze and yellow blocks extending far past her eyelid and all the way up to her brow. Her hair, teased up and slicked back at the sides, heightened the effect.

"Yeah, you look incredible," Hermione said, eyes sweeping from Ginny's tall laced boots, over the copper leather dress and up to the wings, like gossamer autumn leaves, sprouting from her shoulder blades.

"Autumn fairy, at your service!" Ginny performed a little curtsy. "Now let's get you up to snuff."

She descended on Hermione and about thirty minutes later, leaned back with a satisfied smile.

"Yes. I believe we are a go," she said, walking around Hermione and checking her handiwork.

Hermione spun to the mirror and examined herself too. Her modest grey eyeshadow had been deepened and extended until her eyes looked like dark, sultry pools. Prismatic white glitter dusted her cheekbones and forehead like sparkly frost, and extended into her hair, which Ginny had braided tightly along the sides of her head then teased out to ridiculous volume past her shoulders. White-tipped silver wings and crystalline platform heels worked with the deep blue of her dress to complete the effect of dark, alluring winter.

"Blimey," she said. "I hardly recognize myself."

"You look glorious." Ginny smiled in the mirror. "He won't know what hit him."

Hermione shook her head then lifted her foot. "I still don't know about these." She peered doubtfully at the huge plastic heel and glittering straps encasing her foot.

"Oh no, those are necessary. Your legs look fucking fantastic," Ginny said in a tone that reminded Hermione very much of Lavender. "Shite, but I forgot the cushioning charm. Here." She waved her wand at Hermione's feet and whispered an incantation.

Hermione felt the pressure on her toes and arches ease. "Ahhh," she said. "Yes, I think I can do this now." She turned to the door. "Are we ready?"

"Ooh, one more thing!" Ginny rummaged in one of the bags until she withdrew a small phial. "For hangovers," she said, shaking it. "Catriona made it. She's the spring fairy. Quite talented at potions."

"Thanks." Hermione placed it on her bedside table. She doubted she'd need it, but didn't want to dampen Ginny's enthusiasm about the night ahead.

"Are you ready to do some damage?" Ginny asked, striking a pose in front of Hermione's door.

Hermione laughed and reached around her to open it, letting in the sounds of excited chatter and music already drifting up from the rooms below. "Absolutely," she said.

"OK, so this actually looks bloody amazing." Ginny spun in a slow circle once they reached the eighth-year common room.

"All credit to Pansy Parkinson." Hermione shook her head. "It's absolutely stunning what she was able to do with the cheap decor Theo and I picked up in the muggle village last week."

"I think it's the blend of muggle and magical that's so impressive," Ginny said.

"Why, thank you Weasley, Granger." A languid voice with an ever-present hint of disdain sounded from behind Hermione's right shoulder.

She wheeled around to see Parkinson, dressed as a black cat in skin-tight pantsuit, ears and perfectly applied face makeup.

"Fantastic work," she said, lifting a shoulder at the room, where cut-outs of witches and ghosts, grinning jack-o-lanterns and cotton cobwebs blended with floating candles, smoking cauldrons and actual ghosts, who were gliding around corners and fading through walls dramatically.

Hermione watched them, bemused, hoping this party hadn't depleted Nearly Headless Nick's deathday guest list too severely.

"Thanks," Pansy said, sounding bored. "It wasn't easy to do with Ernie breathing down my neck every second. He wanted to leave the overhead lights on, can you imagine?" She blinked rapidly before waving a hand at someone across the room. "You two look great," she said before striding away.

Hermione's mouth dropped open and she looked at Ginny, who grinned at her. "We do look great," she said, elbowing Hermione in the side. "Ooh, there's Catriona and Jasmine!" she said, pointing to the door.

Hermione looked over at the two seventh-year girls, one a blonde in a riot of chiffon and flowers and the other dark skinned and dark-eyed in a flowing gown of rippling gold.

"Spring and summer!" Ginny called. "Let's go make a complete set."

Hermione let herself be led and stood chatting to the other girls for several minutes before hunger and thirst drove her to the part of the room that had been set up with refreshments. Again the spread was a mixture of muggle and magical; pumpkin pasties next to popcorn balls and a huge, claw-footed punch bowl squatting like a beast in the middle of it all. Hermione peered over its side to see a thick, orange liquid—roiling and belching small puffs of green smoke.

"You've got to try it! It's my own recipe!" A booming voice startled Hermione and she turned to see Ernie, in a toga and long white beard, standing behind her. He picked up a cup and filled it from the gigantic bowl, then held it out to her.

Hermione took it gingerly. "Thanks, Ernie. What's in it?" She lifted the cup to her nose and inhaled. It smelled like melted candy floss, pumpkin and a whole lot of alcohol. The combined effect was not appetizing.

"Oh a little bit of this, a little bit of that," Ernie said airily, picking up his own cup and draining it. "I call it Pumpkin Juice Punch."

"Er, very creative," Hermione said with a weak smile, discreetly moving her cup away from her mouth without sipping it.

"So what do you think!?" Ernie said, waving an expansive arm at the room. "Did we pull it off? Does it feel like an authentic muggle Halloween bash?" He wiggled his fake, white eyebrows up and down.

"Absolutely. And then some." Hermione said as the strains of Thriller met her ears. "The music is a particularly nice touch. How did you work that out?"

"Dean rigged up a player. Michael helped with the songs. I didn't realise how important that part of it was." Ernie shrugged. "Seems a little silly to me."

"But very authentic," Hermione said, noticing Ernie eying her full punch cup. He opened his mouth to say something, but Hermione headed him off, looking over his shoulder and across the room. "Oh, I think I see the other fairies calling me," she said shiftily, beginning to move off. "Number one rule of muggle parties: must mingle!" She waved her cup at him as she strode across the room toward nothing in particular.

She was about halfway there when a hand grabbed her elbow and a voice hissed in her ear. "Please tell me you didn't drink that."

"Theo!" Hermione stopped and gave him a quick hug. "You look great," she said, stepping back and taking in his jeans, plaid shirt and puckish cap. He was absurdly handsome in the get up. "Are you a… musician?" she asked, noting the guitar strapped to his back.

"Muggle folk singer," he said. "And you, wow." He shook his head and whistled silently, then his eyes narrowed. "Wait, is that the dress from that night in—?"

"Mmm-hmm," Hermione smiled, raising her glass to her lips without thinking.

"Seriously, do not drink that," Theo took the cup from her hand and set it forcefully down on a small table. "I saw Ernie making it earlier and he mixed in every kind of muggle booze, including beer, glopped a vat of pumpkin juice over it, then threw in what looked like belching powder." He shuddered and Hermione made a face.

"What you want to do," Theo said, leading Hermione back to the food table, "is pour yourself a hot apple cider." He ladled steaming liquid into a mug. "Then add a little of this." He produced a silver flask from his shirt pocket and tipped it into the cup. "Or a lot." He added another healthy splash before handing it to Hermione.

"What is it?" she asked, inhaling the tang of warm apple, sweet vanilla and the zip of some kind of strong spirit.

"American bourbon," Theo said. "I picked up a few bottles last week when we were out shopping for muggle Halloween things."

Hermione blew on the steaming liquid, then took a tentative sip. The mixture was delicious, sweet and spicy at the same time. She took a bigger drink, widening her eyes at Theo. "Good," she said through her mouthful as he laughed.

"Right?" he said, eyes dancing. "There's more hidden in this bookshelf over here." He gestured for Hermione to follow him and pulled a bottle from behind a lit candle in an alcove. "Help yourself. Or just come find me. I charmed my flask to automatically refill."

Hermione took another delicious sip. "I will definitely do so."

"Just be careful. It's deceptively strong." Theo took a pumpkin pasty off of a platter as they walked back to the main room. "Want some?" Hermione nodded and he tore it in half. She took hers and ate it mechanically, eyes scanning the space, which had started to fill.

Would Draco come tonight? Lav and Ginny both seemed to be sure of it, but Hermione was not. He'd been such a hermit, hiding in his room except for classes and flying. She'd said as much to Lavender tonight when she'd called her before getting ready, but Lav had just laughed.

"Judging by the way he's been acting toward you, I'd say he's still ah, invested, in your goings-on. He won't be able to resist checking in on you."

Or, Hermione thought gloomily, he'd be dragged to the party by his… whatever Astoria was to him. So annoying that she'd just made the age cut-off to attend.

Hermione shoved the last bit of her pumpkin pasty into her mouth—it was actually delicious with the cider—just as Theo's eyes brightened on someone behind her.

"Meow," he said, a grin lifting the corner of his mouth.

Hermione turned to see Daphne also dressed as a cat, albeit a much more scruffy one than Pansy, with fur at her wrists and neck and a patch over one eye. She was also wearing a Stray Cats t-shirt.

"Nice touch," Hermione said, pointing at the shirt.

Daphne grinned at her. "Pans forced me into a costume, so I did it my way. You look bloody fantastic," she said, gesturing at Hermione, who blushed. "And what, pray tell, are you, sir?" she asked, turning to Theo.

He gave a slight bow. "Wandering minstrel at your service."

"Can you actually play this thing?" Daphne plucked one of his guitar's strings.

"He can!" Hermione chimed in. "He taught himself in Italy."

"And I'll have you know I'm much better now than my pathetic attempts then may have led you to believe." Theo said. "I practiced a lot last year. The small glen was witness to my improvement."

Daphne's face went a little serious. "Yeah, any excuse to get away."

She and Theo looked at each other and Hermione felt a silent communication flow between them. She was reminded that they'd been friends for a very long time, and an unexpected wisp of homesickness for Harry and Ron pricked at her.

"Oh, there's Michael!" Daphne said, waving across the room. Hermione caught the quick change in Theo's expression just before he took a deep drink from his flask. "What is he?" Daphne was squinting in the distance. "He wouldn't tell me what his costume was, but I don't get it…"

Hermione looked over. Michael was dapper in an old-fashioned muggle suit with his dark hair slicked back under a dove grey top hat. At his side was a portrait of a horrifically ugly old man.

"Oh that's brilliant!" Hermione said, clapping her hands under her mug.

Theo and Daphne looked at her blankly.

"It's a very famous muggle novel. Wait," she turned to Daphne, "is Michael muggle-born? I always assumed he was pureblood."

"Half-blood," Daphne said. "His dad's a muggle. One of several reasons my parents hate me dating him."

Hermione tilted her head. "How did I not—? Anyway. The book is called The Picture of Dorian Grey and it's about a man who is granted a wish to stay young and beautiful, while his enchanted portrait ages, displaying the ravages of his myriad sins and vices. Morality tale, you know—and a brilliant costume idea," she said, gazing at Michael with new interest. She'd always assumed he was one of the snobbish pureblood set, but between this and the music (Don't Fear the Reaper was now swirling in the air around them), there seemed to be more to him than she'd thought. And of course, he was dating Daphne, which showed good taste.

"Sounds like something a dark wizard would do," Daphne said, recalling Hermione to the conversation.

"Yes, I do wonder if Oscar Wilde had some kind of connection to the magical world," Hermione murmured, still looking at Michael, who noticed them and tipped his hat. Daphne smiled and started across the room, giving a quick wave over her shoulder to Theo and Hermione.

Theo, still staring a little sharply as Daphne pushed Michael's hat back to kiss him, opened his mouth to say something. But just then a seventh-year girl dressed as a muggle mermaid bore down on them and shrieked his name.

"You have to play me a song!" she called, already sounding a little tipsy. "You promised."

Hermione intercepted Theo's quick glance with a grin and a little shooing motion, so he raised his brows, tipped his flask into her cup one more time and started toward the girl, who took his hand and drew him toward a gaggle of brightly coloured mermaids on one of the sofas.

Hermione drifted back to the drink table and ladled some more cider into her bourbon, willing herself not to keep scanning the room for white-blonde hair and broad shoulders.

"The winter fairy, I finally found you!" A jolly voice came from over her shoulder and she turned to see Dean, dressed as a very convincing Freddy Krueger.

"Oh my god, I love it!" Hermione said, looping a quick arm around his neck. The bourbon was coursing through her now and she felt very free.

Dean smiled and clicked his knife hand at her. "Nice to have someone get who I am for a change."

"Oh, are they all totally confused?" Hermione said, gesturing to the room.

"Yeah. I just keep telling people I'm a kind of muggle boggart—but one who can actually kill you."

Hermione laughed then called out a quick hello to Susan, who was walking toward them in what looked like a Helga Hufflepuff costume.

"You look great!" she said, giving Susan an air kiss on the cheek. Susan thanked her and returned the compliment, then clinked her glass of punch to Hermione's mug.

"Is that stuff drinkable?" Hermione asked, noting that Dean also had a half-finished cup. "I heard Ernie had an interesting method for putting it together."

"Yeah, I was there," Susan said. "Tried to steer him away from the belching powder, but he thought it would be too good a joke." She rolled her eyes. "The first few sips are challenging, but it gets more tolerable as you go."

Dean nodded. "Third cup going down much easier than the first two," he said with a laugh.

Just then a bouncy song came on the sound system and a wave of people surged to the dance floor.

Hermione saw Susan look at Dean, bite her lip, then take a big drink of punch.

"Want-to-dance?" she asked him in a rush.

A slow smile spread across his face, so wide it showed his dimple. "Yeah, OK," he said and Hermione could swear she saw a blush in his cheek. Susan's answering smile was also huge.

They just looked at each other for a moment and then Susan started. "Oh, uh, sorry to abandon you, Hermione," she said, sounding flustered.

"No, no! Get out of here!" Hermione made pushing motions at the floor. "I need to find Theo anyway," she said, thinking about a top-up for her drink.

Susan and Dean headed off with a wave. A quick glance around the room proved that Theo was still entangled with the mermaids. Not wanting to insert herself in all of that, Hermione remembered the bottle in the alcove, which she found after a little trial and error. After her drink was replenished, she watched Theo for a moment, thinking he looked like one of those sailors entrapped by sea sirens just before being dragged to a watery grave.

She giggled into her cup at the thought.

"What's so funny?"

Hermione looked up in surprise at the smooth, slightly unfamiliar voice. It was Michael Corner, half-smiling at her, his top hat tipped at a rakish angle.

"Just Theo," she gestured with her mug. "Looking like he's about to become a cautionary tale in a marine legend."

Michael laughed and Hermione noted that he was quite handsome in a dark and elegant way. She'd never really registered it before. Maybe it was the 19th century get-up. Or the bourbon.

"Your costume is so good," she said, shaking her head. "I literally clapped my hands when I saw you."

"Thanks, I think you may be the only one who knows who I am. Dean's not really the literary type, and I'm not sure which of the seventh-years are muggle-born."

"Well, you impressed me. Also," Hermione knocked her fist against his upper arm. "How did I have no idea that you're a half-blood?"

Michael's teeth glinted briefly and he rubbed where she'd hit him. "I guess I don't advertise it hugely," he said after a beat. "Not that I'm ashamed or anything. It was certainly well-known in my House."

"Yeah the bloody House system," Hermione said, waving her mug around in an irritated way. "There're only forty of us in a year and yet I barely knew anyone outside of Gryffindor until last summer." She slurped at her mug before remembering it was almost pure bourbon and immediately falling into a coughing fit. Michael whacked her on the back, asking if she was OK.

"Fine, fine," she sputtered.

"What have you got in there?"

"Err, some whiskey from Theo, but I'm supposed to mix it with cider and I haven't quite made it back to the refreshment table."

"Sounds a lot better than what Ernie cooked up, although I seem to be powering through it." Michael tipped his cup upside down with a rueful smile.

"Oh, and I meant to tell you," Hermione said, finding her train of thought a bit all over the place. "The music is brilliant! Ernie told me it's your mix." She gazed out at the dance floor, where people were whirling and twisting to Stevie Wonder.

"Yeah, my dad is mostly adapted to the magical way of life, but music is one of the places he draws a firm line. So I have a lot of education in this area."

"Well, cheers for bringing it to this lot." Hermione lifted her mug in salute.

"What about you?" Michael asked, stepping a little closer, his voice dropping.

"Me?" Hermione felt suddenly very aware of him and the fact that they were standing in a rather shadowy corner. She took a tiny step back.

"Yeah. You know muggle literature. Do you like muggle music too?" Michael leaned an arm on the bookshelf over Hermione's head.

"Ahhh yeah, probably not as much as Daphne, judging by some of her t-shirts."

Hermione wasn't sure if she imagined the tiny pulse of annoyance that crossed Michael's features at the mention of his girlfriend's name.

"Yeah," he muttered, dark eyes darting over to where Daphne was laughing with Pansy.

"God," Hermione said, a little over-loud. "I feel like I'm monopolizing you. And him." She pointed at the portrait, wondering if Michael's costume wasn't a little more apt than she'd thought.

"Oh we're quite happy to be monopolized by the prettiest girl at the party." Michael lifted the portrait at her in a playful way, but his words were accompanied by a slow smile and a rather intense look.

He leaned even closer and Hermione felt herself flush, flustered and angry by whatever the fuck he was playing at.

And of course, right at that moment, Draco appeared in the door.

Hermione made an abrupt movement and Draco's eyes went straight to hers. She saw him register Michael's presence and posture, and then what she was wearing. His jaw tightened and his eyes ran over her in the briefest flash of shocked surprise before he buried it under a wall of icy blankness.

Hermione then realised he was standing with Astoria—and that they were in matching bloody costumes.

Heat flooded up her face and a pounding started in her ears. Michael was saying something, but she didn't hear it. She was too focused on Astoria's hand on Draco's arm and her face looking up into his as they walked in looking like Count and Countess fucking Dracula.

OK, maybe that was an exaggeration.

Astoria certainly looked every inch the gothic vampire with long black dress, cape, white skin and dramatic makeup, but Draco was just dressed in black jeans and a muggle t-shirt. Looking bloody fit in them too—and reminding Hermoine very viscerally of holding his lean torso on a speeding motorbike.

She ground her teeth.

Then she noticed a drop of red blood at the corner of his mouth.

So they were matching.

Hermione's fist clenched and unclenched.

"I need a drink," she said, interrupting whatever Michael was going on about and striding toward the refreshment table. She reached it and sloshed cider into her mug, then took a long swallow, the bourbon going down smoothly now.

She didn't realise Michael had followed her until she caught Theo, now free of the mermaids and talking to Ginny, giving her a funny look.

Michael was still talking, but all Hermione could see was Draco, his back to her as he and Astoria chatted to some seventh-year Slytherins.

"Shouldn't you go find Daphne?" she snapped, absolutely over Michael's attempts to flirt with her while his girlfriend was right there. He blinked and Hermione narrowed her eyes at him until he departed, his face red. Hermione stood for a while, watching Draco and drinking her cider, until Ginny showed up, grabbed her arm and dragged her over to a quiet seating area.

"That's enough muttering to yourself and glaring for one night," Ginny said, offering Hermione a meat pie. "Eat some of this."

Hermione took it absently. "I'm not hungry."

"Eat it anyway."

"Fine." Hermione took a huge bite and chewed ostentatiously.

Ginny made a face at her. "This bash has officially gone off," she said after a moment, looking around the room.

Hermione, her rage somewhat tempered by what the pie was doing to her blood sugar, had to agree. The dance floor was packed and the noise level high. Even the disgusting punch was halfway gone.

Her eyes followed Draco as he moved across the room.

"He about had kittens when he saw you." Ginny was watching him too.

"Probably because of Michael," Hermione said quickly. "Theo gave me a weird look too. Who knew he was so dodgy? "

"Uh, I could have told you. Dated him, remember?" Ginny pointed to herself.

"Oh my GOD I had totally forgotten that!" Hermione looked at her, arrested.

"Yeah, he's not the best. Jealous and with a wandering eye. And Daphne seems cool. Hope she figures it out soon."

"Maybe I should tell her." Hermione said, thinking of Theo and how unfair it all was.

"Eh." Ginny sipped her drink. "Could backfire. You don't know her that well. I'd just keep an eye on it."

"Yeah," Hermione said. "You're probably right."

They sat in silence for a moment, Hermione trying very hard not to watch Draco's every move.

"Oh, and I meant before," Ginny said.

"Before? Before what?"

"Draco. I was watching him before you saw him. When he first saw you. Before he walked through the door. She was in front of him" —Ginny gestured to Astoria, who was laughing prettily at someone— "and he was just standing there behind her, staring at you."

"Oh?" Hermione's mind was racing.

Ginny looked at her sideways. "Must have been some night. When you wore that dress."

"Yes, it was." Hermione breathed in and out and her gaze drifted across the room again. "But now he's in matching costumes with her. So I don't know how the fuck that even matters anymore."

Ginny gave her a sad smile. "Know that feeling," she said. But then she straightened. "Although last I checked, we're at a party and not a support circle. We're young, we're fit and there's a certain Hufflepuff Keeper I've got my eye on." She stood up and held out her hand. "Enough moping. Let's dance."

Hermione groaned, but stood and let herself be pulled toward the pulsing lights and whirling bodies. The spring and summer fairies soon joined them and they danced together, eventually attracting a crowd that included Theo and Ginny's boy.

Hermione was surprised to find that she was enjoying herself, letting the music and the whiskey take her away from her thoughts and memories to a place of pure physical sensation. Theo grabbed her hand and twirled her and she actually laughed out loud when he spun her back in a tight snap.

At one point, she looked around to see Draco, alone and leaning against a wall, watching her as he brooded into a cup of something. It reminded her forcibly of San Cipriano and the disco; the only thing missing was a wreath of cigarette smoke around his face. She gave him one burning look then turned her back on him in the dance, lifting her arms and raising her face to the music with eyes closed.

"In case I haven't told you, you look really beautiful tonight!"

Hermione opened her eyes to see Theo, giving her a warm smile. "Thank you, friend!" she called over the bumping beat. "I won't be smoking with you, though!"

Theo laughed and shook his head. "You want a drink instead?" he yelled.

"Yeah, that would be lovely! Something cold this time!"

He nodded and ducked away and Hermione stepped out of the dance to lean against the wall herself, chest heaving. Draco seemed to have disappeared and she wondered if he'd called it a night. The idea deflated her a bit, much to her annoyance.

Astoria was still there, though. Hermione saw her tucked in a dark corner with Pansy, who threw her head back and laughed at something Astoria said, then rapped her on the arm with a teasing look.

"Guess they made up," Hermione said out loud, wondering again what their argument could have been about.

As she watched, Pansy leaned forward, her hand braced on Astoria's knee, and whispered something in her ear. Astoria's lips went up in a slow smile and Hermione's mind flashed to a different scene from the night she'd last worn this dress: Harry and Matteo in the kitchen of her flat, sharing a very similar exchange. She blinked at the image, wondering what had brought it up, just as Theo appeared with a frosted glass.

"Mixed the bourbon with ginger beer this time," he said with a grin.

"Brilliant. I probably shouldn't have another but—" Hermione smiled, then tilted the glass against her lips and drank deeply.

Theo joined her and they watched the dancers for a while until the song wound down and Ginny burst out of the crowd.

"Oi! Time to take this party to the next level!" she called, looking around, eyes bright.

"What's she on about?" Theo muttered to Hermione, who shrugged.

People were shouting similar things at Ginny until she held up a finger and yelled, "Seven Minutes in Heaven, baby!"

"Oh god," Hermione said, groaning.

"What is it?" Theo asked as Ginny started explaining the game to the group.

"I learned it from the muggles in Ireland last year," she said as she led a group over to the large sitting area in front of the fireplace. "It's a fucking blast." She aimed this last comment at the Hufflepuff Keeper, who was following her closely.

Hermione also saw Michael heading over into the group, tugging a reluctant-looking Daphne at his side. As she watched, frowning, he looked over and caught her eye. Ernie, who was settling himself in the circle, also gave her a red-faced smile.

"Oh, fuck no," she whispered under her breath. "Are you doing this?" she asked Theo, who was still squinting at the group. Several of the mermaids from earlier had joined and were beckoning him over.

"I guess?" he said, shrugging at Hermione. "How bad can it be?"

"Just have a game plan in case you end up with someone… complicated," Hermione said, her eyes going to Daphne.

"Oh shit, right." Theo rubbed a hand over his face.

"I'm going to get some air," Hermione decided, draining the last of her drink and putting her glass down. "I don't want any part of this." Ernie had started actively waving her over.

Theo snorted. "Don't blame you. Might join you if it gets weird."

"Yeah, but if you end up in the closet with Ernie, use your time to instruct him on the finer points of punch-making," Hermione said over her shoulder as she slipped away down the hall, Theo's laugh following her as she went.

Hermione came to the end of the dark corridor, cleverly lit into a dungeon-y feel by floating candles with red flames, and pushed out of the door at the end. There was a small interior courtyard here, dark except for a couple of jack-o-lanterns in the corners, flames guttering in the crisp breeze that was blowing wisps of clouds over the half-full moon.

Taking deep breaths of the cold air, Hermione lifted her hair off her neck and looked up into the starry sky. That last drink had begun to circulate and she felt a little unbalanced, so she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, relieved that the courtyard seemed deserted.

Images crowded through her mind, most of them involving Draco, and she cursed herself under her breath.

Would she ever be free of this?

A small, internal voice told her it was unlikely, at least while she had to see him every day.

Heaving a huge sigh and sagging against the wall, she felt tears prick and was immediately angry at herself for it. She jammed an impatient finger at her eye, doubly glad she was alone, when a skitter of pebbles from across the courtyard brought her up short. She straightened and dropped her hand, eyes going wide in the dark.

She heard an exhale and then Draco shifted against the wall to her left, the movement taking him out of the deep shadow that had concealed him. Hermione's heart sped as his eyes went very obviously down her body and over the dress.

He looked up and raised his brows.

"What are you doing?" The words came out before she could stop them.

He shrugged and looked to the side, and Hermione felt anger bloom hot in her chest.

"Fine, Draco. If you're not going to talk to me." She turned to go back through the door.

"Just." His voice, sounding strained and raspy, stopped her. "Getting some air."

Hermione froze, the realisation that this was the first time he'd voluntarily talked to her since Italy breaking over her like a wave. She thought desperately about what to say back, wondering if she should keep it light and casual, but what came out was, "Why are you staying away from me?"

She turned back to him but he was shaking his head. "I can't," he said, grimacing, and Hermione noticed elongated incisors resting against his lower lip—the rest of his costume, of course. And although the reminder of him matching with Astoria filled her with pain, the effect was also indescribably sexy. He looked dangerous in the shadow and moonlight. She took a ragged breath and felt her traitorous body respond to him.

His nostrils flared and she knew that he knew. He could tell how he was affecting her. He pushed up off the wall, his expression intent, but then he stopped and closed his eyes. "I can't," he breathed again, almost to himself.

Hermione's anger burned hot. "I've fucking heard that before," she spat. "This is eerily reminiscent of the back room of a certain bookshop." She took a step toward him. "Did you enjoy my ladder analogy, Draco?" She moved closer. "Do you remember the last time I wore this?" She swept a furious hand over her dress.

He stayed quiet, but Hermione could see his chest rise and fall. He opened his eyes and she felt the pull between them.

She wanted him so badly.

A recklessness filled her and she moved even closer. He didn't move to meet her but he also didn't move away, and his eyes remained dark and fixed on her face.

Hermione didn't stop until she was standing right in front of him, a fraction of an inch from touching him. He was so bloody beautiful in the moonlight, his bright hair silvered and his fine bone structure thrown into sharp relief. Her lips parted and his eyes roved over her face. He breathed out an almost sigh and in an instant Hermione gave in to herself—and reached up to kiss him.

Just before her eyes closed, she saw his head bend to meet her and when her lips touched his, a jolt of desire ignited her whole body. She felt him mold to her and reach for her, but the moment his hands grazed her waist and jaw, he froze then pitched backward, flinging himself against the wall behind him. He looked almost frightened and Hermione just stared at him in utter confusion and dawning humiliation.

"What?" was all she could seem to say.

"I can't, I can't," was all that he said in return.

"Can't or won't!" Hermione shouted, suddenly so furious that she couldn't see straight. "Fuck you, Draco!" She wheeled away from him, away from his shocked and stricken face, away from all of it—storming back down the hall and into the party, where she went directly to Theo's bottle of whiskey and drank straight from it.

Her first impulse after that was to leave, but then what would she do? Sit in her room and cry? Fuck that.

"He can leave," she muttered, slamming the bottle down and going back to the dance floor, where she found a handsome seventh-year boy from her Ancient Runes class. She tapped him on the shoulder and he seemed quite happy to dance with her. Then the fairies showed up again and Hermione lost herself to the music, feeling the night getting wilder around her. Some people were yelling about having a swim in the lake and she could see the wages of a lively game of truth or dare playing out around the room. Giggling couples disappeared into corners and down hallways.

Hermione fought down a wave of hurt and anger. Fought down images of Draco fucking leaping away rather than kiss her. She felt like a bloody leftover. Ginny was nowhere to be seen and even the seventh-year boy melted away after a while, claiming he was tired of dancing.

She turned in a slow circle as the driving music was replaced by something slower with moody, mournful guitar. Great.

Suddenly a hand grasped hers. "Hey, how are you doing?" A slightly slurring Theo appeared and looked down into her face, a crease between his brows.

"Let's dance." Hermione pulled him toward her as the song swelled. They swayed for a while and Hermione rested her forehead against his chest, breathing in his familiar scent, remembering dancing with him like this in happier times.

He pulled back slightly. "Are you OK?"

"Not really. Are you?" Hermione looked over at where Daphne and Michael were also dancing. Although "dancing" wasn't quite accurate; they were more swaying and making out.

Theo shrugged and Hermione shook her head.

"What?" he asked.

"It's just. When do we give up?" Hermione said. "It's stupid to live this way. Waiting for people who don't want us."

Theo looked at her for several moments. "I don't know, Hermione," he finally said.

He was beautiful in the candlelight and Hermione wondered again why she couldn't have just chosen him. Back in the beginning. How much heartbreak would she have avoided?

As she watched him, varied emotions washing over her, Theo's eyes went to hers and then down to her lips. She felt that old frisson—and saw him register it too. They danced for a while just looking at each other. Hermione thought about kissing him, but worried it would be because of the drink or her anger at Draco. She didn't want to do that. Didn't want to use him that way.

But if he wanted it too...

Theo took a breath and opened his mouth as Michael and Daphne left the dance floor and walked out the door together. "I do think it's a choice, though," he said, watching them go. "We have a choice." His eyes went back to Hermione's and she nodded, thoughtful.

"Oi! You two are needed!" It was Ginny, reappearing just as the song ended and motioning expansively.

"What for?" Hermione said, not sure if she was relieved or disappointed at the break in the tension.

"Muggle poker! Can't remember all the rules. Come on!" Ginny started tugging on Hermione's free arm.

"But I don't know the rules of muggle poker!" Hermione exclaimed, keeping a firm hold on Theo with her other hand. She looked over her shoulder at him and he was half-smiling. They got to the sofas where Ginny had gathered a small group, and Theo dropped into a seat, pulling Hermione down with him. A split-second decision and small movement had her landing on his lap instead of next to him.

A few whoops and whistles followed and Theo looked at her in some surprise, but his hands went to her waist and tightened there.

Hermione leaned against him. "Is this OK?"

"What do you think?" he asked, a smile with a hint of mischief playing around his mouth. Hermione laughed, feeling lighter than she had all night.

"All right, chaps!" Theo turned away from Hermione and to the group. "I actually do know the rules of muggle poker and I've got my good luck charm here" —he smacked Hermione's thigh lightly— "so let's get on with it."

Hermione laughed again, noticing Ginny watching them with a very speculative gleam in her eye. She stuck her tongue out and Ginny giggled, but then focused on something behind Hermione.

Hermione glanced over her shoulder to see Draco in the doorway with Astoria, obviously on their way out. His eyes were fixed on Theo and her, his jaw rigid. Hermione shifted and Theo looked up to follow her gaze. He directed a very flat stare at Draco before tightening his arm around her waist and looking pointedly away.

"Did he do anything off?" he asked in a quiet voice.

Hermione watched Astoria lean up to whisper into Draco's ear, intimacy obvious in the gesture.

"No," she said, turning her face to Theo's neck to reply, lips almost brushing his skin, glad on some elemental level that someone was in her corner. Theo shifted and she could tell he'd turned to look at Draco again, could feel the tension thrumming through him.

"Why don't I believe you?" he breathed.

Hermione just shook her head against him. "Let's play," she said, realising the group had largely settled and seemed to be waiting for them. Pansy dropped onto the other end of the couch with a frown and Hermione looked up to see Draco and Astoria had gone.

"All right," Theo said, giving Hermione one last look as his hand brushed over her back. She summoned up the best smile she could and he turned back to the group.

"Everyone have five cards?"

Hermione woke the next morning with a dry mouth and pounding headache.

Rolling over in bed, she smashed her face into the soft cotton of her pillow, willing herself to go back to sleep. But it was no use. Her head continued to throb and memories from the night before started to roll through her mind.

Michael. Draco. Theo.

God, what had she been thinking?

She groaned aloud and flopped over to the weak sun of early morning. Shite, she'd hoped to get more sleep than this. Theo had walked her to her room at what, three? And, she looked at her clock, it was just gone seven now. Four hours of sleep, lovely.

Theo.

Fuck, had they done anything when they'd come back here? Hermione rummaged through the night, feeling her cheeks heat at the memories of sitting on his lap, lips on his neck, whispering into his skin. Fuck, fuck, fuck. But no, nothing had happened here at the end of the night. Only some very drunken warbling of a song they'd danced-to earlier. She huffed a small laugh at that in spite of herself, which made her head protest even more.

And Draco.

Her eyes fluttered shut; she wasn't strong enough to face that memory yet.

Sitting up inch by inch, Hermione looked around her room blearily, eye falling on a small brown phial on her bedside table.

Ginny's hangover potion. The one she hadn't thought she'd need. Ha.

"Oh my god, yes," she muttered, snatching and uncapping it, then drinking it down in one long swallow.

The effect wasn't perfect or immediate, but after about ten minutes and a couple of glasses of water, she felt just able to venture down to the café for tea and something to eat.

Picking down the corridor, Hermione saw the ravages of the party everywhere: dirty cups and plates along the walls, knocked over pumpkins stuck to the floor with melted wax, tawdry bits of costumes draped over sconces and thrown in corners...

She sighed; she sincerely hoped Minerva McGonagall would never lay eyes on this, and vowed to come back later to help with cleanup. She even pointed her wand at a few of the more egregious messes and tidied them as she walked.

Coming to the doorway, it was clear no one awake was in the common room, although some seventh-years were snoring on the sofas and Hermione thought she saw Dean's legs poking out from behind one of the bookshelves. She snorted softly then rapped on one of the tables and whispered for tea. It appeared almost immediately along with a plate of perfectly buttered toast.

"Thank you so much," she said to the ether, floating pot and plate in front of her as she turned back toward her room. She really wanted to get out of here before anyone saw her, and stopped only to grab a copy of the Daily Prophet before hurrying back down the corridor and slipping through her door.

Hermione plunked the teapot down on her desk and poured herself a cup, drinking deeply and feeling the warm liquid soothe her churning body and mind. A piece of toast hastily consumed also helped. Staring out the window at the frosted grounds, she watched the last few straggler owls come in from their nightly hunt, feeling almost human now.

Of course as soon as her mind relaxed, it went directly to Draco.

What had happened last night? She'd been sure he'd felt what she had in that courtyard. He'd bent his head to kiss her. His arms had gone round her… But then it was like he'd recoiled. Although when he'd seen her with Theo… his face.

Oh god, Theo. She'd have to do some damage control there.

Hermione put her head in her hands. She really wished she could just blame the booze, but she knew there'd been more going on. With both of them.

Ugh, ugh, ugh. She picked up the paper, poured another cup of tea, then climbed back in bed, determined to put it all out of her mind until she felt better.

Flipping through the news was a good distraction; there was a write-up on the new creature legislation and updates on some of the post-war trials. Arthur Weasley was quoted in an article about muggle electronics. Reading and sipping and munching, Hermione had got herself to an almost content place by the time she reached the social section at the end of the paper. She turned to it idly—she didn't usually read it, but Harry had been pictured last week, coming out of a bar with a group of people and smiling at someone who'd been blurred in the background, although she thought she'd recognised Oliver Wood for some reason...

Hermione looked up as she smoothed the page, wondering if that was behind Ginny's even wilder than usual behavior last night. Making a mental note to check in with her, she picked up her tea and looked down—only to have all the air leave her lungs in a silent whoosh.

Because blaring up at her from the weddings and engagements section was a formal portrait of Draco and Astoria.

Under a headline announcing their engagement.

Hermione's teacup slipped from her fingers and shattered on the flagstone floor.

Chapter Text

"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god." Hermione's fingers shook as she grabbed a pinch of floo powder then tossed it at her fireplace grate and stuttered Lavender's name.

The flames roared to life then flickered, empty.

"Please, please, please be there," Hermione breathed, her throat constricted with tears.

She was just about to douse the fire and make a run for Gryffindor Tower and Ginny, when a faint voice called, "Coming!" from within the fireplace. Hermione dropped to the rug in front of her hearth, pitching forward and peering into the flames, not bothering to wipe the tears on her cheeks.

Finally Lavender swirled into view, tightening the belt on her dressing gown and frowning. "Only my mum would floo call me this early on a Sunday," she sang. She bent down. "Hermione? Oh shit, what's happened. Are you all right?"

Hermione mutely shoved the Daily Prophet at the flames.

Lavender read silently for a moment, then she let loose a stream of curses that shocked Hermione, even in her state.

"Are you all right? Of course you're not," Lav said.

Hermione let out a huge, hiccuping sob and then another.

Lavender blinked rapidly. "Right. So you're coming down here."

"What?" Hermione finally spoke.

"You're getting the fuck out of there and coming down to stay with me. Today. Right now."

"I can't." Hermione felt like her brain had seized up.

"Of course you bloody can. Tell McGonagall I had a relapse and I need you. Or Harry needs you. How far ahead are you in your work, anyway?" Lavender's eyes narrowed.

"Fairly far," Hermione whispered.

"Then this is what you're going to do," Lav said, then cocked her head. "Actually, get a quill and write this down. You're in shock and I don't want you to forget anything."

Hermione nodded tearfully and went to her desk, taking down each word Lavender said for the next five minutes.

"OK. Final thing. Find out if it's easier to apparate from Hogsmeade or take the train. Then owl me, so I know when to expect you. Can you do all of it?"

Hermione looked up. "Yes, yes I think so." It would be so good to be with Lavender and away from here, from him, from them.

"That's my girl. You'll be here in no time and I'll be waiting. Now hold it together long enough to get to me." Lavender kissed her hands to Hermione as she doused the flames.

Hermione stared unseeing at her list for a moment, then jumped up and started throwing clothing into a rucksack. Lavender had said not to worry about bringing much. She could borrow—or take things to the laundry. But pajamas for the first night, teeth cleaning supplies, underthings, school books. Hermione shoved them all in then threw on some warm trousers and a jumper. Shouldering the bag, she rushed out of her room and almost directly into Minerva McGonagall, who was in the hallway, angrily magicking trash into a large bin.

"Oh!" Hermione said, reeling backward.

McGonagall turned, her face stormy, but upon seeing Hermione, her features relaxed almost instantly into something much softer. "Ms. Granger," she said, her hand reaching out.

Hermione, mind still not working quite properly blurted. "Headmistress. I need to go to London. For Lavender. For the week. Right now, in fact."

McGonagall looked at her for a few moments. "What a good idea," she murmured almost to herself. Then she shook her head once and said in a louder voice, "Of course you must. I trust you're well ahead of course syllabi?"

"Ah—yes." Hermione was shocked by how easily McGonagall seemed to be giving her consent to this very poorly explained plan, but was still too muddled to question it much.

"Excellent. Take your books and I'll have your professors owl your assignments. Will you be wanting the Express?" McGonagall pulled an elegant pocket watch from the folds of her robes. "It leaves in twenty minutes, but if you hurry, you should make it. Sunday timetable otherwise you'd have missed it already and have to apparate. Or would you rather apparate?" She peered at Hermione.

"Ah." Hermione tried to evaluate her options logically, but came up short. All she could really think was that a nice, quiet train journey might be more relaxing than a sick-inducing apparition session. "Train," she finally said. "I'll take the train."

"Excellent. I see you have your bag?" McGonagall nodded. "Off you go, then. Before most of these lot wake up." She glanced down the hallway then gave Hermione a kindly smile. "Don't worry, Ms. Granger. It will all be here when you return."

Hermione nodded dumbly, muttering, "Thanks," before speeding off down the hall, mind reeling even more than it had been before. It had almost seemed like the headmistress knew... She shook her head—but that was ridiculous.

Further thought on the matter was immediately checked when she came down the last, steeply curving step from the eighth-year quarters and almost ran into another warm body. Strong arms came out and steadied her.

"Whoa, whoa. Where are you off to in such a hurry?" Theo bent a little to look into Hermione's face, a half-smile on his lips, which dropped as soon as he saw her expression. "What happened?" he asked, the urgency in his voice echoed by the pulse of his hands on her arms.

"Haven't you seen?" Hermione realised she was still holding the crumpled newspaper in one hand. She pushed it into his chest and swallowed a sob.

He caught it up and shook it out, mouth tightening to a thin line as he read.

"Bloody fucking hell. I wondered, but I never thought—" He looked up at Hermione. "Are you OK? No, you're not. You're going somewhere." He nodded at her rucksack.

"London. Lav's invited me. I'm leaving now. I can't, Theo." Hermione made a motion toward the door to the outside. She didn't want to miss the train.

"Of course. Lavender, London, good." He turned and started walking with her, taking her arm and setting a quick pace. "Are you apparating from the village? I'll go with you. I have a house in town."

"I'm taking the train—in fifteen minutes. And thank you," Hermione glanced at him. "But I think I need the time. Alone. Away. From it all." She held his gaze and hoped he understood.

He looked back and his brow clouded briefly, but then he nodded. "Of course. But let me come down at the weekend. See how you are. You can owl if you don't want me."

"OK," Hermione said. "Yes, that sounds fine."

They cleared the Divination Tower courtyard and started walking briskly toward the main entrance, Theo keeping a firm grip on Hermione's arm.

"You don't have to—" she started.

"I'm walking you to the train," he said in a tone that brooked no arguments. "Do you have everything you need? Clothes, wand, gold?"

Hermione nodded at the first two, but shook her head at the last. She hadn't even thought... But Theo was reaching into his pocket even as she started to protest.

"Please," he said, silencing her with a look, then pressing a weighty stack of coins into her palm. "You might want a chocolate frog on the train or something." He smiled a little.

"Theo—"

"Don't be silly. You'll pay me back. Now come on, I think we're going to have to jog the last bit," he said, letting go of her arm and grabbing her hand as they crossed the bridge toward Hogsmeade.

Hermione grasped his warm palm and went.

"Hermione?" A soft knock on the door and a low voice pulled Hermione up out of a dream. She'd been camping with Harry again, trying to open a tin of baked beans with a fork...

"I'm awake," she called, rubbing her eyes and staring confusedly at her surroundings. The room around her was large and dim, owing mostly to the deep purple curtains drawn across the tall windows. Mismatched furniture, scarf-draped picture frames and a surfeit of knick-knacks contributed to a cluttered, chaotic feel—very unlike Hermione's neat and orderly space at Hogwarts.

Hermione took a deep breath of incense-tinged air. Lavender's roommate, Olivia. She was in Olivia's room in Lav's flat. In London.

"Sorry to wake you. Just wanted a small chat before I run off to work," Lav was saying through the door.

Hermione threw back the covers and sat up. "Of course. Come in."

Lav peeked in, her bright face etched with a concern that brought yesterday, in all of its shit glory, crashing down on Hermione's head. "Did you sleep alright?" she asked softly.

"I did. Thanks to that Dreamless Sleep. It was strong!" Hermione blinked at the clock, which showed it to be nearly 11 a.m. Surprisingly late, but she'd been so exhausted yesterday—the late night at the party, the emotional shock and long train ride just piling on each other. She must have looked awful too, because the moment she'd arrived, Lav had declared a moratorium on talking about The Situation and instead taken her directly to the flat, fed her a toastie and put her to bed. Hermione barely remembered her head hitting the pillow.

"Yeah, I get it from a little independent shop on Knockturn. They're known for it." Lav smiled and slipped into the room. "Will you be OK on your own today? I hate to leave you, but Cerise is in Ireland looking at woolens and I'm the only one to watch the shop."

"I'll be fine," Hermione said. "I have a lot of reading to do and an essay to start. And I should probably owl Harry and Ron. Tell them I'm in town."

"OK. But I want you to meet me after. I've left the shop's address on the kitchen table. Come around 5:30 and we'll have a walk along the river. There's a little wine bar I'd like to show you. It's quiet and we can talk." Lav sat on the bed and put her hand over Hermione's.

"That sounds nice." Hermione tried to smile at her.

"Oh and don't worry about Olivia, " Lavender said, twirling her hand to encompass the room. "Best sort of roommate," she laughed. "Between her job and her boyfriend, she's never here. She's in Germany for work this week."

"She won't mind that I'm sleeping in her bed and all?" Hermione grimaced a little.

"Merlin, no! She's very generous. Think of this as your space. Even though it's about as far from a 'you' space as one could get," Lavender fingered the coin-fringed square of fabric that covered the night table and Hermione gave a weak chuckle. "And I'm not sure how much you took in when we came home from the station last night," Lav continued.

"Very little." Hermione grimaced—she'd been in a sort of fugue state.

"Right. Well, we're very close to the western border with muggle London here, so you can walk just about anywhere you'd like: Diagon, parks and muggle shops, tube stations, restaurants. Although I've left you some breakfast and lunch things in the kitchen in case you're not feeling up to going anywhere."

"I probably will just… hide out today," Hermione said, feeling cowardly.

"That's absolutely fine. What you need is rest and quiet for a couple of days, time with friends and bad telly… and then maybe a really wild night out at the end of the week?" Lavender's eyes met Hermione's eyes with a glint.

"Maybe," Hermione said, unable to suppress the slight lift at the corner of her mouth. Suddenly she flung herself forward and threw her arms around Lavender's neck. "I'm so glad I'm here and not there," she mumbled. "Thank you."

Lavender's arms went around her. "Of course," she said, squeezing tightly. "And we'll talk tonight, OK?"

"Tonight. OK," Hermione said with a sigh as she waved Lav out the door.

Hermione glanced down at the slip of white paper in her hand. Covered in Lavender's distinctive scrawl, it confirmed that she should be almost there. Passing sleek painted doorways with gleaming brass fixtures and tasteful window displays of luxurious wares, Hermione realised Lav's shop was in a quite exclusive section of Diagon Alley—on a tiny lane off the main street. Hermione had never even heard of it.

"Number 12 Moon Crescent," she said to herself as she slowed her steps to look at a gorgeous display of silver jewelry. A nicely coiffed witch waved to her from the window and she waved back, but kept walking. Two doorways later she was there, in front of number twelve.

Hermione took it in for a moment, recalibrating a bit from her internal picture of Lavender's 'dress shop in Diagon'. Angular mannequins posed in two frosted windows, abstractly draped in gorgeous autumn-coloured fabrics against what looked like muggle modern art canvases. The shop's name, "Cerise"—the same as the owner's—was printed in discreet, gold block letters on the black-framed door in a style that told one that the items inside would be expensive—very expensive.

Hermione shook her head and pushed through the well-oiled door to a hushed, sophisticated space that was also somehow warm and welcoming. Richly patterned wallpaper adorned one of the walls and a spiced scent hung in the air. Music played softly and Hermione heard Lavender's distinctive tones as well.

"I'm so glad you went with the rust, Laeticia. It was so beautiful with your eyes. Much more fun than the black."

Hermione looked over and saw Lav handing a sleek bag to a customer, who thanked her. "I wouldn't even have tried it if you hadn't suggested it, Lavender. You've a real talent." The customer smiled as she turned away, then nodded at Hermione before exiting the shop.

"My talented friend," Hermione said, advancing through racks of gorgeous clothing to the counter.

"You found it!" Lav came out from behind the tall, marble surface to embrace Hermione. "How was your day?" She pulled back and frowned a little into Hermione's face.

"Fine." Hermione swallowed. "As well as it could be, anyway." She'd spent the whole day in her pyjamas reading and wandering about the flat, only getting dressed just before she'd gone out— first to owl Harry and then to find the shop. "I rested a lot," she offered weakly.

"Exactly as you should have done." Lavender patted her arm and then bustled behind the counter again. "I just have to tally and tidy a few things before I can shut and we can go. Why don't you look around and see if you like anything. I have an employee discount!" She winked.

Hermione picked up a tag on a random blouse and snorted. "Even with a discount…" she said, eyebrows high.

"I know." Lav wrinkled her nose. "But Cerise has been known to be flexible if something looks really fabulous on you. Especially if you're…say, a gorgeous war hero."

Hermione almost-laughed and applied herself to the racks, letting Lavender concentrate on her closing tasks. A creamy white jumper so soft it felt like a cloud and a velvet dress in deep plum caught her attention, but she shook her head when Lavender suggested she try them on.

"Not tonight. Let's just go for our walk," she said, a little apologetic. She didn't want to be a boring guest, but her emotions had her feeling restless, antsy. Walking would do her good.

Lavender seemed to understand in an instant. "Of course," she said, pointing her wand at a small sign and flipping it from "Ouvert" to "Fermé". "I can almost taste that glass of wine too. Let's go."

They stepped out into the falling dark, the air a little cool, but still soft. Walking quickly south they passed from magical London to muggle. Soon they were striding along the great, rolling river, part of the general mass of humanity making its way home from work on a Monday evening.

Hermione looked around. "It feels so good to be here," she said. "Other than feeling awful, you know."

"I do know," Lavender said with a short laugh. "Sometimes getting away is the only thing."

"And just getting out. Into the wider world." Hermione gestured to the scene around them, vast and varied with lit buildings, arching bridges, people of all kinds. "Magical society can just seem so small, you know?"

"Absolutely." Lav said. "I'm so grateful to our summer in San Cipriano—for many things—but definitely for giving me a level of comfort in the muggle world."

"Are you here often?" Hermione asked.

"A good bit." Lav nodded. "Olivia likes to come out and explore, and sometimes Cerise takes me to the shops here to do reconnaissance—and then to the restaurants and bars to do refreshments." She smiled and Hermione nodded.

"It seems like you've landed in the perfect place with the shop," Hermione said. "I'm really happy for you."

"It's a dream." Lav shook her head. "I'm learning so much and having fun doing it. I never knew learning could be like that!"

Hermione gave a mock-gasp and Lavender laughed. "We're not all naturals like you," she said, nudging Hermione. "Wine bar's just up ahead. Hopefully we'll get a table outside since it's a Monday. They have these heat warmer things that make it lovely to sit and watch the Thames."

They came up to an unassuming little restaurant front and were soon seated, with bottle of wine and glasses, exactly as Lavender had described. Hermione looked across the river, mist starting to wisp against the water, and sighed.

"How are you holding up?" Lavender asked.

"If I don't think about it, which I seem to be able to do for up to thirty seconds at a time, just brilliantly," Hermione said with fake brightness, before dropping her head to her crossed arms on the table.

"Oh, love." Lavender stroked her hair. "You've had a shock. We all bloody have. But especially you."

"Wonder what Blaise thinks about it all," Hermione mumbled. "I don't suppose you've talked to him already." Lavender coughed a little and Hermione looked up. "What?" she asked warily.

"Blaise and I broke up," Lav said with a grimace.

"What!? Oh my god! Are you OK?" Hermione reached out a hand and Lav took it.

"I'm fine. It was actually a good thing. Mutual. Our lives are just very separate these days. And we're nineteen! Neither of us are particularly interested in being tied down when we're not even living in the same country."

"That makes sense," Hermione said, wishing she could convince her heart to feel the same way.

"And we weren't like Draco and you," Lav said gently, seemingly reading Hermione's mind. "We were a fun fling in San Cipriano—and maybe a little more at school last year when things were bad—but never that kind of deep, lasting connection that you two had."

Hermione snorted. "Not that Draco and I actually turned out to be that." She touched Lavender's hand again. "But I'm glad you're not hurt."

"I'm fine. I was on a date last week. Older man." Lavender winked. "But enough about me. Back to you and Draco. Or Draco and whatever the fuck is going on with him."

"I just don't know what to think, Lavender." Hermione took a deep drink of her wine. "When I look at the whole picture, it's completely baffling. But in some ways it makes a strange sort of sense? I mean of course Draco Malfoy was going to marry a pureblood witch and carry on his family legacy, right?" She shook her head. "Maybe we were all just living in a dream in Italy and now we're back to how things truly are."

"I find that hard to believe." Lavender rapped the table. "He really loved you. It was plain as day. And from what you've told me about your interactions with him since he came back, that hasn't changed."

"It feels like it's changed! He's pushed me away at every turn. And now he's fucking engaged."

"Pushed you away on the surface, yes. But you catch him looking at you, responding to you, all the time! Gods, I wish I were there in person to judge for myself." Lavender looked away and shook her head.

"We almost kissed," Hermione said in a small voice. "At the party."

"WHAT!?" Lavender's yell attracted the attention of several passers by and she moderated her tone. "What?"

Hermione explained the scene in the courtyard and Lavender tipped her head back and breathed deeply in and out. "What the fucking hell is he playing at?" she raged. "He must have known that announcement was coming."

"I think he did. I think that was behind all the "I can't"s. He probably felt bloody guilty." Hermione looked blackly out at the night.

"And yet he couldn't help himself," Lav said. "Yeah, that just proves to me that this engagement is not something he absolutely wants. He's obviously torn."

Hermione nodded glumly.

"But is that good enough?" Lavender said with some heat. "You deserve someone who wants you wholeheartedly. Fucking Malfoy."

"I feel so stupid for not having seen it coming, too," Hermione said, voicing something that had been nagging at her since she'd seen the Prophet yesterday.

"Well, but how could you have? It's positively medieval! To get engaged at, what, seventeen, on her side?" Lavender spread her palms wide.

"I agree, but Draco told me one time in San Cipriano that it's not uncommon. In certain circles."

"No, but it's rare. I mean, I guess after the last war a lot of people got married young, but that was different—things are different now. You don't see Harry and Ginny running to the altar. And I can't think of the last time there was a big pureblood engagement out of Hogwarts."

"Yeah," Hermione sighed.

"And why didn't he just bloody say no!" Lavender cried. "What could possibly have induced him…?" She directed a sharp look at Hermione. "You've said they're not affectionate?"

"No!" Hermione shook her head. "I've never even seen them touch—other than one time when he seemed almost angry at her. She's very cool and distant in general. There's no heat between them."

"That makes it even more strange." Lavender topped up Hermione's wine. "And what does Theo say about it all?"

"He's concerned for me. Angry at Draco. I think a little hurt by Draco too, although he doesn't talk about it. But Draco has essentially cut him out."

Lavender hummed in disapproval.

"I also may have been a little irresponsible, with Theo, after Draco and the courtyard," Hermione said, looking down and tracing some condensation on the table.

"Oh shit, what happened?"

"Some dancing and handsy-ness. I sat on his lap and sort of maybe put my lips on his neck." Hermione twisted up her face.

"Oh, well that's nothing," Lav said airily. "I thought you were going to say you made out or slept with him or something!"

"Lavender!"

"What? I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

Hermione sputtered incoherently for a couple of seconds.

"Look," Lavender said. "Theo's a big boy and can take care of himself. If he felt uncomfortable, he'd have stopped it. Probably in a totally charming and disarming way."

"But after Italy and how I was there, and we're such good friends now."

"Eh, he rebounded rather quickly in Italy. And it sounds like he was a good friend to you yesterday morning, not a spurned lover." Lavender sipped her wine.

"No, you're right. I suppose it was just a bit of comfort."

"And a smidge of fun?"

"Yeah that too." Hermione looked to the side.

"Well, then I absolve you of feeling guilty about it. You don't need that on top of everything else."

"Thank you."

"And I'm going to have a bit more of a think on what's going on with Draco," Lav said, motioning to the waiter and asking for supper menus.

"Oh?" Hermione accepted hers and gave Lav a puzzled look.

"I just think." Lavender gestured impatiently. "Like it feels less than final? Even though it's an engagement and it should be game-over, it seems like there's more to it. We don't have the whole story or an unequivocal response from him."

"Recoiling from kissing me is not an unequivocal response?"

"Well no, because he wanted to kiss you. Quite desperately, it sounds like." Lavender tapped her menu to the table. "Let's give it the week. You try to gather yourself while you're here. Get back to yourself. And we'll see where we are when you go back up. See what you want to do, if anything."

Hermione nodded slowly then breathed deeply. "Have I told you how thankful I am for you?" she said after a moment.

Lavender smiled into her eyes. "You don't have to darling, it's mutual."

Hermione gazed around Lavender's homey kitchen and sipped her rapidly cooling tea. She couldn't believe it was Thursday already. The week had just slipped by and she hadn't missed Hogwarts at all.

Well, not much.

She'd missed Theo and Ginny, and the library. Trying to work at Lav's rickety kitchen table (Olivia's desk being entirely covered in what seemed to be an Art Deco perfume bottle collection) was almost untenable. But she was so fucking glad to have avoided the first round of reactions to the Malfoy-Greengrass engagement announcement. Just the thought of the Unity class alone made her shudder. And she felt absolutely zero guilt about leaving that whole thing to Draco this week, thank you very much.

Fuck. Him.

Hermione drained the dregs of her tea and looked at her watch. Currently sitting at Lav's rickety kitchen table and putting the finishing touches on her Charms essay, she saw that it was almost time to leave to meet Harry and Ron for lunch. They'd been out of the city on a training all week and this was the earliest they could arrange to meet.

Most of her was very excited to see them; it had been too long and she'd missed her best friends. But part of her was not looking forward to the inevitable rehash of the situation with Draco. She'd gotten to a very fragile place of equilibrium the last couple of days and feared this would upset it. Ron had never been very accepting, let alone approving, of her relationship—although he'd learnt to keep his mouth shut—and she knew this development would give him free license to say whatever arsehole thing came to his mind.

She sighed and got up, bustling around the flat to collect her rucksack and a long, woolen coat (gorgeous, deep blue) that she'd borrowed from Lav for the week. Once out on the pavement, she turned her steps toward Diagon and the Leaky Cauldron, pulling the coat tight around her to ward off the chill air. She'd gotten quite familiar with Lavender's street already—after her first day indoors she'd forced herself out into the city, visiting the Tate on Tuesday (although she couldn't recall much of what she'd seen) and to Flourish and Blotts on Wednesday (although she couldn't recall anything she'd read). That and the muggle television Lavender had rigged up had helped somewhat with her head state, but Hermione still felt an ache deep inside almost every moment of the day.

She pushed faster down the sidewalk, frowning. In some ways, she was so tired of thinking about this, brooding, letting it affect her. But she just couldn't leave it alone. Thoughts of how it had happened, and why it had happened, just kept going round and round her head. She couldn't fathom ever getting to a place of resolution around it—the idea of getting over Draco and moving on felt just as out of reach as getting to the bottom of the mess and bringing him back to her.

The great doors to the Leaky Cauldron appeared and Hermione pulled one open, letting out a waft of warm, savoury pie-scented air. Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she'd skipped breakfast. She scanned the dim space, crowded with Ministry workers for weekday lunch, until she spotted a mop of unruly black hair atop slouched shoulders at a table in the very back. She hurried forward through the maze of seats.

"Harry!"

He leapt up at the sound of her voice. "Hermione!"

She gave him a quick, fierce hug then pulled back to look at him. "Are you bigger? You feel bigger!"

"Dunno." Harry pushed at his glasses a little bashfully. "Maybe all the training stuff? There's a physical component."

"Aha. Yes." Hermione squeezed his bicep before dropping into a seat. "That must be it. How are you? How is it going? Training and all." She felt a little frantic to not talk about Draco and her reason for being here yet.

"It's great, yeah." Harry took a sip of what looked like pumpkin juice. "Kicking my arse, but I'm loving every minute of it." His brow wrinkled a little. "How are you, though?"

Hermione opened her mouth. Then closed it. Then closed her eyes. "Not great, to be honest."

"Shit, Hermione. I'm really sorry I haven't been in better contact."

"No, it's fine." Hermione shook her head. "What more could you have done?"

"I could have come up, I don't know."

Just then a waiter appeared and took Hermione's drink order. After he left, she turned back to Harry. "Ginny told me how you feel about that." She touched Harry's hand. "I wouldn't expect that of you."

Harry's face reddened slightly at Ginny's name and he looked away. "Still," he said, looking back. "Maybe I can lure Malfoy down here. Hex him the moment he steps off the train?"

Hermione snorted. "You and Theo. Both with the violence."

Harry looked at her sharply. "Oh, has he been there for you?"

"Yeah." Hermione nodded. "He's been lovely."

"And no, er, expectations or strings or whatever?" Harry was now bright red and waving his hand in the air.

"No!" Hermione pushed on his arm. "No. He's been a perfect gentleman. We're friends now. It's not like that."

Harry just put his brows up. Hermione raised hers higher until he looked away.

"Where's Ron?" Hermione said, glancing around and then down at her watch.

"He was finishing some paperwork he'd left to the last minute. He should be here soon." Harry craned his neck toward the door and Hermione caught several curious gazes shooting in their direction. She'd forgotten what it was like to be out in public with him. Uncomfortable to say the least.

"How is Ginny doing?" Harry's quiet voice interrupted Hermione's train of thought.

Hermione flashed to an image of Ginny, wild on the dance floor at the party. "Mmm," she said, tilting her head.

"Shit," Harry said.

"I mean, she's OK. She's living her life. But honestly, I think she's less than completely happy."

Harry nodded, but he had that look—that 'weight of the world on his shoulders' look.

"It's not your job," Hermione said gently. "To make her happy."

"I know, I just—I still care for her. A lot. And maybe someday. If she's still talking to me," Harry shook his head. "I'm just all muddled up right now. I need time." His green eyes flashed to hers. "And distraction, to be honest."

Hermione nodded. "I know. I understand." She accepted a mug of tea from the waiter, who had suddenly appeared. After he left, she said, "I think Ginny understands that too. Doesn't stop the hurt, though." She blew the steam from her tea. "Especially when you're photographed with other people and it shows up in the paper."

"Fuck, she saw that? Of course she did." Harry rubbed his eyes. "Fucking reporters."

"It's not your fault. But it's part of it." Hermione shrugged. "Was that... Oliver Wood?" she asked, a little tentative. "I thought I recognized him."

"Yeah," Harry said after fiddling with a fork for several moments. He looked uncomfortable. "But it's really new. Ron doesn't know. Nobody knows, except you, now."

"OK, I won't say anything."

"It's just—he's a star after that last season with United. I'm… me—and there's Ginny and the fact that I'm not ready for the world to know I'm—"

"I completely understand." Hermione put her hand over his. "I will not breathe a word."

"OK."

They sat in silence for a moment, then Harry muttered, "Where the fuck is Ron?" He looked apologetically at Hermione. "We're only supposed to have an hour for lunch, but we did some wheedling to get extra time and now he's just pissing it away."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Typical."

Just then the door blasted open and Ron's even taller—was it possible?—frame pushed through it. He looked around the room and spotted them, responding to Harry's quick wave by pointing in their direction and then at the bar, which he stepped toward after Harry shook his head.

Hermione could see the bartender welcome him jovially and Ron's huge grin in return. She also noted that the bartender refused to take Ron's knuts after pushing a foaming pint in his direction. Ron shook his head with a smile as he wound through the crowd, giving a nod or a chin flip at various people as he made his way to the table.

"Hiya, chaps!" he said, plunking his drink on the table before leaning down to wrap a long arm around Hermione's shoulders.

She kissed his cheek. "Hello, Ronald!"

"Long time no see," he said as he settled himself. "Trio back together at last. You're looking— not great." He frowned at Hermione.

"Fuck's sake, Ron." Harry shook his head.

"Well, I'm just saying. You've got those dark bits under your eyes and you're pale, is all." Ron turned a sorry face to Hermione.

"It's fine. I haven't been at my best." Hermione shrugged.

"Fucking Malfoy. I knew it would come to this." Ron took an aggressive drink of his pint.

"Mate!" Harry sat up and glared across the table.

"What? She's better off without the git." He pointed to Hermione. "Knew he'd break your heart. Saw it coming. Surprised you didn't see it yourself. You're usually the best of the three of us at that."

Hermione felt her face crumple and tears start to her eyes.

"Shite, Hermione, I'm sorry. Don't cry." Ron was scrabbling around on the table for a napkin and Hermione could hear Harry swearing. "I just could never get used to the idea that he'd be good enough for you."

"No," she said, wiping at her eyes with the slightly soggy cloth Ron handed her. "You're absolutely right. I feel I should have seen this coming. I'm such a fool."

"You're not." Harry's voice was quiet, but intense. "I saw you two together in Italy. And there's no doubt in my mind how he felt about you."

Hermione sniffed.

"This engagement," Harry continued. "It's so strange and sudden. Did they even know each other before this year?"

"Not that I know of," Hermione said in a small voice. "They barely seem close now."

"Daft, old-money, Sacred 28 stuff, mark my words," Ron said decisively. "I couldn't even break into that world and my blood's pure for generations."

"I asked around a little about it," Harry said after a quick head-shake at Ron. "In Order circles, you know. People who'd been around the Malfoys those few months when they were in Ministry custody."

"You did?" Hermione leaned forward.

"Yeah, just very casually. No mention of you, of course." Harry broke off as the waiter approached again and they ordered their meals.

"What did you learn?" Hermione asked, toying with her tea bag.

"Not much. Just that some people weren't surprised? Apparently there'd been some contact between the families during the war and the occupation of the Manor. Contact that was investigated very thoroughly. The Greengrasses were obviously cleared since we haven't heard anything further."

"That tracks with what I know," Hermione said glumly.

"What would the Greengrasses be doing at the Manor during the occupation?" Ron said in a loud whisper.

"Not sure and no one seemed willing to share," Harry said, glancing at him.

"Probably arranging a marriage," Hermione stared into the depths of her tea mug. "Speaking of Order sources." She looked sharply at Harry. "Is there any way Minerva McGongall would know about Draco and me?"

Harry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Uh, yeah?" he finally said, scrubbing at his hair.

"What!? How?" Hermione felt a deep red flush infuse her face, even though part of her had known it was true.

"Lupin," Harry said with a wince. Hermione grimaced and saw Ron do the same. "He was so perceptive, you know?" Harry continued. "He sensed it in Italy when he was there. And then he asked me when I got back. Said it was important to know these things. Get ahead of any vulnerabilities and things like that." He sighed. "So I told him and then I think it was known to a very select few. McGonagall definitely would have been one."

"Well, it explains a few things," Hermione said, thinking of the Unity class assignment and McGonagall's reaction to her sudden departure Sunday morning. She thanked the waiter as he deposited a bowl of hot soup in front of her and heaping plates in front of Harry and Ron.

"Bit awkward, though I imagine," Ron said, tucking into a steak pie and chips. "Having the headmistress know your romantic business. How are things up there, anyway. How's Ginny?"

Hermione gave him a look, which was wasted since he'd turned his attention almost entirely to his lunch, then launched into a recap of the last couple of months. It was a toss-up as to which was more amazing to Harry and Ron: the liberal policy regarding eighth-years and alcohol or Hermione's commitment to learning to fly.

"Have to say I'm glad I'm not there, though," Ron said, leaning back and swallowing the last of his ale. "I'd take training over school any day. Even though those ropes courses nearly did us in, didn't they, mate?" He smiled at Harry, who nodded fervently.

"Magical ropes courses in the Auror training grounds near Puddlemere," Harry explained. "That's where we were this week."

"Sounds immersive," Hermione said, laying down her spoon next to her half full bowl. Her appetite had not yet returned in earnest.

"So what are you doing for the weekend?" Ron asked as Harry signaled for the cheque. "Lav got big plans?" His face went a little twitchy as he said his ex's name.

"She said something about going out. I don't really know." Hermione couldn't work up a tonne of enthusiasm for the plan, but didn't want to let Lavender down.

"Well, let's all go, then," Ron said. "Saturday night."

Harry's sent a quick look of surprise to Hermione. "All of us?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ron said, the tips of ears going pink. "Haven't seen Lav in a while and we're all adults now. Annika certainly won't mind. She's ace about all that."

"I didn't even ask after her! So rude!" Hermione fretted. "How is she?"

"Nah, no worries. And she's fine. Settled into London quite handily, in fact," Ron said. "Got a job at a bistro off Knockturn. Mum even likes her. Says she's a decent cook."

Hermione, who had sampled some of Annika's truly excellent cooking when she'd been staying at Grimmauld during the summer, laughed. "That's great," she said. "And yes, all of us out together would be... fun." At least as fun as it could be. "Theo's coming down tomorrow too and I'm sure he'd like to join."

"Interesting group," Harry murmured. "I'll see if some others want to meet us too. Luna's in town and a few people from, er, other years."

His eyes slid to Hermione's and she nodded. "I'd like that, thanks."

"Right!" Ron said, sitting up. "We'd better get back if we don't want to be in Robards's black books."

Harry pushed out his chair and nodded, reaching a hand out to Hermione to help her up. "What have you got planned for the rest of the afternoon?" he asked, a crease between his eyes.

"Prime moping time until Lavender gets off work," Hermione said as they followed Ron, who shouted a bluff goodbye at the bartender, out of the now almost-empty pub.

"Shite, I should have asked for the afternoon off." Harry's frown deepened.

"No, no. It's fine. I'm going into muggle London to see a film," Hermione said, making a split-second decision. "I'll be fine. And I'll see you Saturday night."

Harry nodded as they swept out into the brisk autumn afternoon.

The apparition spot on the western end of Diagon Alley was bustling on a Friday night.

Hermione watched as witches and wizards popped into view, scanning anxiously for a familiar figure. Finally he materialized, windblown and handsome in a leather jacket and scarf, looking around as he stepped off the small platform and onto the pavement.

"Theo!" Hermione cried, waving.

He turned and a smile grew on his face as he saw her, then started toward her. "You didn't have to meet me," he said, reaching her and kissing her quickly on each cheek.

"I wanted to," Hermione smiled back at him as she turned them in the direction of Lav's flat. "I missed you!" She took his arm and squeezed it as they began walking.

He put a hand over his heart and bowed his head. "The feeling is mutual."

"I'm so excited you're here," Hermione said. "Lav is too. She's planned a San Cipriano night."

His brows went up. "And what does that mean?"

Hermione laughed. "She's cooking pasta and we managed to find that white you love at a wine shop in muggle London."

"Amazing." Theo said. "Also amazing to see you laugh. The time here has been good for you?"

Hermione felt her smile fade. "Yes. Absolutely. I'm still a mess, of course, but a less wobbly one, I suppose?"

Theo nodded, his eyes serious.

"How have things been up there?" Hermione asked tentatively. "Did the announcement make a big splash?"

"Oh you know the Hogwarts rumour mill." Theo shrugged. "It was a three-days' wonder and then some sixth year got caught cheating on a Charms exam and everyone was on to that."

"Ah." Hermione nodded. "And what about them? Have they seemed... different... since?"

"Barely seen them, but when I have, no. Exact same. Whatever this bloody well is, it's not a love match."

Theo smiled sadly down at her and Hermione took a deep breath. "Anyway," she said. "You're here." She squeezed his arm again. "Was your journey down OK?"

"Oh yes." He leaned in closer and Hermione was glad for his warmth. The weather had turned from crisp and autumnal to cold and wintery over the last couple of days. "I apparated to my place a few hours ago. Saw to some things there before popping over here."

"Where is your place?" Hermione realised she had no idea.

"Big pile on one of the crescents off the other end of Diagon," Theo said with a grimace. "I hate it. It's old and gigantic and suffused with dark magic."

"Sounds like Grimmauld," Hermione murmured.

"The old Black place? Yeah, it's exactly like that." Theo laughed mirthlessly. "I went there once as a child for a dinner. Fucking terrifying. Doesn't Potter live there now, though?"

"He does. And Ron and his girlfriend. But there was a lot of cleaning and stripping of dark things during the war," Hermione said. "It's fairly inhabitable now."

Theo nodded thoughtfully and they walked in silence for a bit. They were only a few doorways from Lav's building so Hermione screwed up her courage. She wanted to get this out before they went upstairs.

"Theo?" She stopped them and turned toward him.

"Hmm?"

"There was another reason I wanted to meet you at the apparition point tonight. I wanted to talk to you." Hermione worried her lip.

"About what?" He tilted his head and his eyes were puzzled.

"The night of the party. I— I just. Wanted to apologise. If I crossed a line or made you uncomfortable or—"

Theo was shaking his head as a slow grin spread over his face.

"What!?" Hermione's confusion was complete.

"Are you truly asking me if it bothered me to have a beautiful woman sit on my lap and tickle my ear?" Theo put a hand to his chin and tapped it. "I feel like you don't know me at all." He squinted and his grin grew, activating his dimple.

Hermione's mouth dropped open. "I just—you." Finally she shoved him, hard.

"Hey!" He rubbed his shoulder and laughed. "I mean if you want to apologise, apologise to Mick Jagger for how badly you were mangling his lyrics when we were singing at the end of the night."

"Theo!" Hermione cried, "I was worried!" She shoved him again.

His laugh softened to a chuckle and he captured her hand against his chest. "You have nothing to worry about when it comes to me, Hermione. OK?" His face was serious now.

"OK," she said quietly, relief and gratitude coming over her in equal measure.

Theo looked at her for a beat and then his smile returned, but more mischievous. "Since it's San Cipriano night, am I allowed to smoke?"

Hermione shook her head and pulled him up the steps to Lav's door. "Come on. We'll let Lavender decide what to do with you."

"Sounds fun."

"You're sure you want me to take this?" Hermione brushed a hand over Lav's deep blue coat.

"Absolutely. The colour is much better on you." Lav slurped at a hot cup of coffee from her couch. "Take the plum velvet dress too. That's yours."

"No! I saw how much it cost." Hermione magicked her stacked textbooks into her rucksack and shook her head vigorously.

"Cerise gave it to you. I told you she does that sometimes. How could she not after seeing you in it when I made you try it on?" Lav stretched. "Besides, I think we may have been photographed last night and she'll make sure people know you were in her dress. That's wonderful publicity for her."

"Fine," Hermione said, taking the garment in question and carefully folding it. "Although I don't think I'll ever get used to people caring what I wear."

Lavender just smiled. "Here, stop rabbiting around and come sit. I want to have a last hour with you before you have to meet Theo and apparate away from me."

"All right. That's me packed, anyway." Hermione sat on the other end of the couch. "I have to admit that was fun last night. How can I thank you for it? For all of this?"

Lavender waved a hand. "Please. It was all part of my bid to get you to quit Hogwarts and come live with me in London. Did it work?"

Hermione laughed. "If it weren't for a small thing called my N.E.W.T. examinations it absolutely would have." She looked down. "Part of me really doesn't want to go back. I can see why school ends when it does."

"Well, and after our independent summer and all of the shit after that. You're a fucking champion for putting your nose to the grindstone the way you do."

"You know I enjoy it."

"I do."

Hermione reached for a biscuit from a platter on the low table in front of them. "I also enjoyed this week and last night, though. Maybe a little too much?" She rubbed a temple.

"Oh, do you need a potion?" Lavender straightened.

"No, no, I'm fine." Hermione picked up her coffee cup. "This is more than enough. I'm nothing as bad as the morning before I arrived here. Just a little tired." She yawned and settled back against the sofa cushions.

"Last night was rather epic, wasn't it?" Lav said, smiling. "I particularly enjoyed getting to know Ron's new girlfriend."

Hermione started laughing. "Oh my god, that was hilarious. The way he tried to act like it was nothing, but couldn't stop watching you two?"

"I was deliberately being my funniest because every time she laughed his head would whip toward us and his ears would get redder." Lavender's shoulders shook. "She's actually really nice. Perfect for him. She won't put up with his shite."

"Exactly." Hermione nodded into her coffee cup.

"And Harry seems well as can be." Lavender gave Hermione a sideways look. "I didn't realise he and Ginny had broken up again."

"Yeah." Oliver Wood had been at the club where they'd ended up later in the night and Lavender had obviously figured out that he was there for Harry. "It's been tough for her," Hermione continued. "I feel a little caught between them. I just want them both to be happy."

"Ginny will be fine," Lavender declared. "Anyone with her personal magnetism will never lack for attention. And they're both so young. We're all bloody young!"

"I know." Hermione gave a gusty sigh, thinking about being back at Hogwarts with Draco and his … fiancée.

"Aw, petal. I wish I could take it all away." Lavender did her mind-reading thing again and Hermione smiled sadly at her.

Lavender picked up a throw pillow and picked at its tassel. "Have you" —she looked up and her expression was uncharacteristically tentative— "have you considered Theo at all?" She wrinkled her nose.

Hermione opened her mouth and blinked.

"It's just last night and the night before," Lav waved a hand. "There's such a connection between you two. New since San Cipriano, even. I mean, he's always been hot for you, and between us girls, I know you were into him before Draco took center stage—but now it seems deeper? Do you think you could ever... with him?"

"Well first of all, he's still in love with Daphne," Hermione said.

"And you're still in love with Draco," Lavender replied. "But does that have to be the final word on it?" She held Hermione's gaze for a long time, while a confused cascade of emotions and images filtered through Hermione's mind. She remembered Theo's words about choice, too.

"Anyway," Lav said with a shake of her head. "No need to answer now. Just food for thought."

Hermione nodded and sipped her coffee.

"So what's your plan for when you get up there?" Lavender asked after a bit of silence.

Hermione blew out a big breath. "I don't know. I guess just keep ignoring them? Focus on my studies." She shrugged a little hopelessly.

Lavender stared at her for a moment. "OK, this might contradict what I just said, but hear me out," she said. "I want you to keep all your options open."

"What?" Hermione tilted her head.

"I just can't shake this feeling that you should try one more time to talk to Draco."

"Really?"

"Yeah, from what you've told me there hasn't been a lot of discussion. And there's obviously something weird happening. According to Theo their interactions are arctic and Draco walks around with a pained look on his face at all times except when he thinks no one's looking and he stares at you like you're something to eat."

Hermione blinked.

"An engagement is not a death sentence," Lavender continued, holding up a finger. "And it's not irreversible."

"But Lavender—"

"I just think it deserves a conversation!" Lav said. "No high emotion, no drinking or physical stuff to muddy things. You go somewhere private and neutral and be really direct. Ask him what's going on. Calmly. So far there hasn't been much of that, although it's completely understandable."

"You're right," Hermione said softly, mind suddenly a thousand miles away. She'd been so staggered by what had happened with Draco. After the emotional exhaustion of the war and being on the run, the final battle, the deaths, her parents… She'd seen what she had with him as her survival rope, counted on it to be her safe haven when everything was finally over. So when it had all gone to shit she hadn't been calm or direct. She'd been distraught.

"Hermione?" She felt Lav's hand go over hers.

Hermione realised tears were trickling down her cheeks. She wiped at them with the tissue Lavender handed her. "I'm OK," she whispered.

"You've been through so much," Lavender said, twisting fully on the couch and grasping both of Hermione's hands. "I don't want what I said to make you think you have an obligation. You don't have to keep battering at him or this. You can also just let it go. Forget boys for a while and focus on yourself. " She stroked Hermione's hand with her thumb.

Hermione considered Lavender's words, but she also knew herself, and she was completist to the bone. She couldn't rest, or have anything with anyone else until she was sure of Draco.

"No, you're right. I need to find out first," she said. "I need to talk to him."

Hermione glided her broom to a wobbly stop in the middle of the small glen Ginny had shown her, alighting next to the stream that snaked through its center. Her hands were slick on the wooden handle as she pulled the broom upright and stood it against a large boulder.

She scanned the horizon for a familiar dark-robed figure and looked at her watch.

Draco was late.

Only by two minutes, but they didn't have much light in the afternoons this time of year.

Hermione paced from the boulder to the stream and watched the sun as it sank toward the horizon.

Was it possible he'd figured out her ruse and not come? She'd slid a note under his door that morning, telling him she'd rescheduled their Unity class for this afternoon, Monday, and was leading the children on a walk here so they could study symbiosis in nature as a metaphor and example for themselves.

Or some such rot—she'd had to think of something. Even one shocked glimpse of him with Astoria on Sunday afternoon after she'd apparated from London (walking together in Hogsmeade like a real bloody couple) had thrown her into such a state that she'd known she couldn't wait for this conversation.

She paced again, kicking at a pebble and cursing under her breath when her toe connected with a larger rock under the moss. She looked down to examine it just as she heard a familiar whoosh in the distance.

Straightening so quickly she almost stumbled, she saw Draco sweep over the far ridge at a breathtaking pace, hugging close to the ground, the hem of his robe nearly catching on some of the larger bushes as he flew by. His head was down and his body was almost flat against the broom, a picture of arrowing speed.

Hermione just watched him, heart in her throat, as he passed behind some of the larger boulders and drew near. As he got closer, he slowed and she saw him look up and around, presumably for the children. He slowed even more, straightening and leaning back on the broom in an attitude of wary surprise, before landing a good bit away from her across the clearing.

He stopped, but didn't dismount.

Hermione saw his eyes dart around to the edges and corners of the space.

"They're not here," she called, not wanting to extend the deceit.

She saw his hand tighten on his broom handle as if he were going to take off.

"You owe me this!" The words came out thickened by tears and Hermione cursed herself. She wanted to stay calm; she agreed with Lavender that that was what was needed here. She swallowed and willed her shoulders to relax, her breath to come.

"Please, Draco," she said in a steadier voice.

His hand came off the broom handle and his eyes went to hers. She saw pain there, and resignation.

"All right," he finally said, barely above a whisper. Hermione looked at him until he dismounted and laid his broom gently against a rise in the uneven ground. He straightened and stood, arms crossed over his long robes, as the last rays of the sun slanted out from behind grey clouds and tinted the light orange.

"I just, I don't understand," Hermione finally said, continuing the mighty effort to keep her voice, her self, under control. "We had so many plans."

She took a step toward him. She'd had so many careful things she'd wanted to say, but they'd all flown out of her mind.

"Do you remember, Draco?" she asked brokenly. "Do you remember lying in my bed and making those plans? Or the day with the rain? Next to the stream? Do you remember my touch on your skin or my fingers in your hair? The way my lips felt on yours? Do you remember more?" She broke and took a breath, closing her eyes and exhaling. "Because those memories are the only thing that got me through the last year and I find it hard—" She struggled here, but brought herself through it. "Hard, to accept that that's all they are now, memories."

She looked at his face and saw tears standing in his eyes. "I remember," he finally said, his voice a rasp in the still twilight.

Hermione walked still closer and Draco didn't move, but she saw him tense. She stopped. "You can't love her," she whispered. "I know you don't. So why? Why are you doing this? Some obligation? Duty? Why would you throw us away for that?"

He was shaking his head before she stopped talking and then flung his hands out. "Why? Why would you want me, anyway!?" The words sounded like they were ripped from his throat, painful to speak.

"Because I love you," Hermione cried. "Because I forgive you for anything you did or had to do. I don't care about any of it. The war, the Manor, her, this bloody engagement. How can I make you see that?" She started toward him again, hands out. "Whatever it is you've dreamed up as a reason we can't be together, Draco, or whatever anyone is forcing you to do, we can overcome it!"

She was almost to him now and she could see his face soften, see his hand twitch at his side. His lips parted and Hermione willed him to say the words she wanted him to say. To tell her that it was all over. But suddenly his spine straightened and his jaw went rigid. He closed his eyes and swallowed.

Hermione stopped walking.

"It's done," he said, voice sounding with the finality of stones dropping into deep water. He opened his eyes and glared into hers. "There's no going back."

Hermione started to protest but Draco put a hand up and continued, his voice gathering strength and clarity.

"You need to move on and forget about me. It's what's best. For everyone."

"I won't!" Hermione's commitment to calm rushed away on a torrent of pain and outrage. "This engagement is ridiculous, obscene. An… aberration." She felt her cheeks flame. "But it's not a death sentence, Draco!"

His face heated too and he took an angry breath, then several more until his expression hardened. He opened his mouth as if it were difficult to get the words out, closing his eyes again.

"This is the way my life was always going to be," he said, his words almost toneless. He opened his eyes and looked directly into hers. "Italy was the aberration." He stared at her as if willing every word to count, and Hermione felt each one like a knife driving home.

She gasped and drew back, angry replies dying. Tears started to her eyes as she searched his face for something, anything—but found nothing.

That was when she knew that this was different. Knew it in her marrow. She swayed in place as her tears dried. She was beyond that now.

Draco didn't go to her. Instead he picked up his broom.

Hermione's lips worked and a desperate sound whispered out. "Did you ever love me? The way I love you?"

He turned in a swirl of black, eyes flashing, "How can you—?" But his voice cut out and he stopped speaking, shook his head. "Don't do this again," he said. "I won't come. Don't try to talk to me. It's done. I'm done." Then he turned away, face cold as the wind that had picked up since the sun went down. Resignation was clear in every line of his body as he climbed on his broom, kicked off the ground and launched into the sky.

Hermione watched him until he disappeared over the ridge and then sank to the ground, hands digging blindly into the moss as her heart finally and truly broke.

Chapter Text

Hermione pulled a jumper at random from the folded stack in her wardrobe. Grey and wool—fine. She put it on and then Lavender's long blue coat. Although—she looked out the window to the dreich, drizzly day—perhaps something waterproof would be better. Listlessly, she threw the coat down and exchanged it for her anorak and a thick scarf.

And boots. Boots would be good.

Theo had said something about the beach and she was sure the sand would be wet. She bent down and laced her sturdy brown ones, then drew up to examine herself in the mirror.

Dark circles, pinched face, limp curls. Looked about right.

She caught her hair into a clip low on her neck and turned away, glancing at the clock. Theo would be here in five minutes. She sat on her bed and stared blankly out at the grey and green landscape.

She'd lost a week, then two, after the scene with Draco, her will to fight dead in the face of his resignation. The look on his face when he'd told her, "Don't do this again, I won't come."

Hermione realised now that her earlier torment had been underpinned by disbelief… and hope.

That was no longer the case.

She stood up, gathered her handbag and pulled it across her chest. Went to the window and put fingertips to the wavy glass. It looked cold outside, uninviting. As if winter were turning its shoulder to close the year. Perfect for her mood. Maybe the icy air would wake her up. Or maybe she'd stay numb.

Maybe this was what it had all done to her. The war, its aftermath, her heartbreak. It had certainly had its way with Draco. Made him fall back on tradition, safe things. He didn't seem to want out or to fight. "This was the way my life was always going to be."

Hermione did not respect that. No matter what had happened, or how she felt about him, it was a cowardly response.

So maybe she didn't want him.

Shouldn't want him, at least.

She dropped her forehead against the glass and breathed in and out, watching the patch of fog appear and recede. Then she straightened and scrubbed at the spot with her jumper sleeve, turning to gather gloves and wand. Theo should be here any moment.

Her friends had been fairly frantic the last two weeks; the floo calls from Lavender and Harry, visits from Ginny and tempting distractions from Theo had been thick on the ground. Hermione had refused them all, but for quick check-ins to let them know she was at baseline, all right. Instead she'd lost herself in her oldest friends and supports, books, spending hours in the library and bringing hours of reading back to her room. A clever strategy since along with distraction, it allowed her to avoid seeing Draco and Astoria around every corner.

She'd found a rabbit hole and gone deep down it, reading about the centuries of European muggle witch-burning and its effect on the magical world. There were some intriguing holes in the literature and she thought she might write something to fill them. She'd been taking copious notes at least. Maybe a muggle history degree when this school year was over… She riffled through the thick pile of parchment on her desk just as a quick two-beat knock sounded on her door.

"Hi, Theo." She opened the panel to his tall figure and concerned face.

"You're ready. Good." Relief in his voice. He'd probably been worried she was going to back out at the last minute.

"As I'll ever be." She gave him what passed for a smile these days.

He gave her one back and reached for her hand. "Then let's go."

"Do you mind if I roll this down?" Hermione indicated the window as they sped along a twisting road. It was as cold as it had looked from her room, but she needed the air.

"Not at all." Theo cracked his own window. "Feels good," he said. "I don't know about you, but the castle has felt stuffy lately. Maybe it's being shut up against the cold. Or maybe it's me."

Hermione looked out to the landscape speeding by. "I think it's us," she said. "I used to love this time of year at Hogwarts, when things got cosy. Now it feels… confining. I said something to Lav when I was in London about understanding now why school stops at seventh year."

"Absolutely." Theo nodded. "Of course, we may also be special cases. Living on our own for a while."

"True." Hermione glanced over at him. A polo neck jumper highlighted the beautiful line of his jaw and dark stubble dusted his cheeks. She found herself reaching over to brush it.

"You never used to have this," she said, a real smile tugging at her lips for what felt like the first time in a while.

His teeth glinted. "'You're a man now, son,'" he said in an exaggerated accent.

Hermione laughed and it felt rusty, but nice. "Well, you look very dashing," she said, wondering how it was possible for him to be any more handsome. He inclined his head.

"I suppose I should have asked earlier," Hermione continued. "But where are we going? Same beach?"

"Different beach. This one's a little further north, rougher, more along the open sea if I read the map correctly. It's a proper walk too—about seven miles along a coastal trail."

"Perfect." Hermione rested her head against the seat back, letting the soothing sounds of Radio 2 and the road whizzing under their tyres relax her. She could think of nothing better than getting outside and breathing and seeing sand and water and sky.

"I feel like I'm always thanking you for rescuing me," she said, breaking the easy silence. "But thank you. Again."

Theo glanced over. "You've rescued me too, you know. Many times. More than you know."

Hermione made a small sound of disbelief.

"Much more sad to do this alone," he said, making a small encompassing gesture to the car and their surroundings. "Like I did last year."

Hermione reached out and touched his arm, noting that hint of pain she always did when he talked about the previous school year. "How are you doing, by the way?" she asked. "I feel like my situation has taken up a lot of room lately."

"Well, it's been rather fucked for you."

"True." She looked out the window. "But I think I'm done, Theo. Done with thinking and talking about it. These last two weeks were my final mourning period." She hoped speaking the words aloud would help make them true.

"Yeah?" he said. "Good. I'm glad. Although I'm also always here if you want to talk, or drink, or kick something."

"You're offering to let me kick you? That's going a bit far."

"Well only metaphorically, of course." The corner of his mouth went up and Hermione felt her smile creep back out too.

"But really, how are you?" She asked again. One thing she'd learnt about Theo was that he was good at deflection.

"About in the same place as you, I think," he said after a bit of a pause.

"Oh?"

"I'm just over feeling bad about it. And dwelling on it. I've felt bad for a long time. And she's clearly over it. She's really stuck-in with that prat, although how she fails to see what a prat he is is beyond me."

"He's a creep." Hermione shuddered a little.

"Oh, did he try anything with you?" Theo asked, a thread of anger running through his words. "I wondered when I saw him following you around the party."

"Not really. Nothing I didn't handle."

"But there was something to handle." Theo turned fully to her as they glided through a roundabout at a small crossroads, his face tight.

"Just flirting with me." Hermione waved him off. "Trying it on. With Daphne not twenty feet away." Hermione felt her ire rise at the memory. "I should have been more direct, but I was distracted by… you know. The thing I'm not talking about anymore."

Theo snorted, but his face immediately fell back into serious lines. "It bothers me that she doesn't see it," he said. "I mean, didn't she learn? From being with me?"

"Theo!" Hermione shifted toward him. "Don't say that! You made one mistake, but you're nothing like that. Nothing like him."

He shrugged and Hermione frowned. "What am I going to do with you?" she said after a bit.

"I can think of a few things," he said, lips lifting again.

Hermione opened her mouth as a surprising flush heated her face. "You—!" she said, a bit lamely.

He kept smiling and Hermione muttered, "Deflector," under her breath. His smile widened.

They rode in silence for a while as the landscape changed, emerald swells flattening out to fields of sheep and then scrubbier, brush-covered crags. Theo craned his neck to peer out at the clouds. "Looks like we might be in for some real rain."

"Oh, I hope not before we get there. I want a walk!" Hermione exclaimed, also looking out. The clouds were grey, threatening, hanging low over the steel blue of the sea, which was now visible in the distance.

"We could always cast a shielding charm."

"Theo, no! What if someone saw!?"

"No one will notice, but there is a brolly in the back just in case."

"Perfect. Thank you. Again."

"My god, I should have let you cast that charm!" Hermione shrieked, clutching Theo's arm as they hurried across the street toward a squat, white building dotted with glowing orange windows. The rain was sheeting sideways and the wind had made short work of his formerly sturdy black umbrella.

"I don't think it would have helped!" Theo whooped, yanking at the pub's door. They whirled inside and stood dripping in the vestibule while he attempted to pull down his mangled umbrella. Finally he muttered, "Fuck it," and stuffed it, broken, into the stand. Hermione laughed as she shrugged out of her soaking anorak and hung it gingerly on a heavily laden rack.

The rain had held off for most of their walk, which had been glorious: all cold, briney air, swooping sea birds and pounding surf. But the clouds had opened with a vengeance just as they looped their way back to the village and caught them out completely during the last few minutes.

Theo divested himself of his coat and opened the pub's inner door. "Here's hoping they have a seat for us," he said, ushering Hermione through, his hand on the small of her back.

They walked into a wall of warmth and sound. The pub, identified by an ornately-tooled sign over the bar as "The Ship," was heaving with damp and red-cheeked people. At first glance, it looked like there were no seats, but then Theo looked over the crowd and pointed at the bar.

"There," he said. "There's one behind that tall gent. Go grab it."

Hermione darted forward and put a hand on the stool, turning with a question in her eyes. Theo just looked at her. "Sit," he said and Hermione hopped up, making a face at him.

"We'll switch off," she said.

"No we won't. What would you like?" Theo peered at the taps. "What would I like?" He rubbed his hands together.

"Something dark for me." Hermione twisted and pointed to one of the ales and Theo signaled the bartender. Soon two cold pints slid in front of them. Hermione picked hers up and took a deep drink. The rich and slightly bitter liquid went down smoothly as she looked through laughing faces and waving arms to observe the space.

Low-ceilinged and charmingly cluttered with fishing gear and a motley assortment of framed pictures, it felt like a warm, snug haven from the storm. Certainly many people had taken refuge and Hermione could barely hear the twings and saws of traditional music over the loud hum of the crowd.

"This is brilliant," Theo said, leaning an elbow on the bar and smiling down at her. He looked around. "I get the feeling everyone here knows each other, but us."

Hermione saw groups mingling and shouting to each other, as well as a few curious looks sent in their direction. "I think you're right," she said. "Maybe it's a festival day or something."

"Curling league and the bird watchers." The bartender, an older woman with a local accent, spoke over Theo's shoulder. Hermione looked up at her in delight. "They all come in on a Saturday after the matches and the day's stalk. Usually trickle in a few at a time, but the rain drove 'em in all at once." She scrubbed at a spot next to Theo's elbow and he lifted it obligingly. She nodded and moved off down the bar.

"Curling?" Theo said, a brow very high. "Do I want to know what that is? And why do muggles want to watch birds?"

Hermione let out a long laugh. "Let's further your education, then," she said.

"No, he's in love with her. Across the bar. See, he just looked at her!" Hermione leaned in close to Theo, then pulled back in a fit of giggles. They had been making up backstories for the curlers and the birders for the last twenty minutes and were almost helpless with laughter. It didn't hurt that Hermione had downed her first pint quickly and it had gone straight to her head. The second one was heading there at a fast clip too.

"Absolutely not. She's not his type. He's having an affair with him." Theo jutted his chin between an extremely burly man in a kilt and a reedy birdwatcher still wearing his binoculars. He leaned forward and braced himself on the bar so he could whisper directly into Hermione's ear. "Their wives are fine with it." He widened his eyes toward where two women were laughing merrily in the corner and Hermione cracked up completely, wiping tears from her eyes.

"Steady on now," she sputtered, putting her hand out as he was jostled toward her by the energetic motions of a pissed man behind him. "See," she wagged a finger in his face. "If you'd just let us switch I could sit in your lap again."

"Oho!" Theo drained his pint and nodded at the bartender as she asked if he'd like another. "I thought we were feeling bad about that."

Hermione wrinkled her nose at him and he wrinkled his back.

"You two are sweet." The bartender was back, leaning on an elbow during a lull in the steady stream of service she'd been delivering since they arrived.

"Oh, ah," Hermione darted at glance at Theo and he gave the tiniest shrug. "Thanks," she said, feeling a slight heat in her cheeks.

"You go to Huntly?" the bartender asked.

"No, what's that?" Theo tilted his head at her and an indulgent smile crossed her face. Hermione snorted internally.

"Boarding school up the way." She shrugged a shoulder toward the door.

"Ahh no, we're just passing through. We're at uni. In Glasgow," Hermione improvised.

"Not from Glasgow, though." The woman laughed.

"No, English and guilty as charged." Theo flashed her a grin. "We met in Italy," he said, turning his smile to Hermione. "On a study abroad program."

Hermione pressed her lips together to keep from giggling again.

"That's lovely. Lovely place, Italy." The bartender winked at them as she moved off to serve a customer down the bar.

Hermione kicked Theo gently and he gave her a wounded look, "What!? We did meet in Italy. I barely knew you before."

"That is true." Hermione smiled. "Do you know I couldn't place you at first? When Lav told me you were in town." She laughed as a mightily affronted expression grew on his face.

"Couldn't place me! Well, how do you like that!?" he said, waving his pint.

"But then I remembered exactly who you were," Hermione gave him a sly look. "I remembered you flirting with a girl in the library while I was trying to study." She poked him in the chest.

"Oh. No. Disturb the sanctity of study time, how dare I!" Theo slipped around Hermione and claimed a seat that had just opened behind her. She spun on her stool to face him and collided with his legs. The pub was possibly even more crowded than when they'd entered. She slotted her knees between his and leaned closer.

"And what did you know about me?" she asked sweetly.

Theo looked away and rolled his eyes. "That's in the past."

"So you didn't like me."

"As I said, I didn't know you." Theo sniffed and took a drink of his pint. Hermione jostled his leg and looked at him expectantly. "All right! I knew that you were muggle-born, Harry Potter's friend and I may have thought you were a bit of swot." Hermione smacked him and he cringed back comically. "Truth hurts! And besides, it's better than, 'I couldn't place you,'" He gave her a severe look.

Hermione threw her head back and laughed. "I'm so sorry," she said when she straightened back up. "Another pint?" She held up her nearly empty glass

Theo eyed her. "How about dinner?" He called the bartender back over. After they ordered he looked around the pub with a contented sigh. "I really enjoy the muggle world, you know?" he said, gazing at a snooker game in progress.

"You do? That's lovely, Theo."

"Well I told you that I think San Cipriano sort of broke me, but the more I get out into it, the more I think it's just the muggle world in general that's broken me wide open."

"I love that, but what do you mean?"

"Just there's so much more of it. The variety and things to see and learn. The wizarding world is so small. And boring." He shrugged a shoulder.

"I said something similar to Lav when we were in London, walking along the Thames," Hermione said, a brief thought of Draco and how he was cutting himself off from all of this flitting across her mind. She pushed it away—he'd made his bed.

"Yeah?" Theo was smiling at her and she refocused on him.

"Yeah. Just totally agree. Of course, I grew up in it."

"I'd like to be in it somehow, to live or work," he said, his smile replaced by a more serious look.

"Maybe you'll meet a nice muggle girl and settle down," Hermione quipped.

Theo's face stilled, and Hermione felt her smile fade from her lips.

"Maybe I will," he said softly.

Hermione's heart gave a surprising leap and, after a fraught moment, her mouth opened and surprising words came out. "Do you think you could do that? You used to think Daphne was it for you."

Theo looked down and Hermine drew toward him, finding herself quite interested in his answer.

He looked up from under his lashes and she took a small breath in; sometimes he was stupidly handsome.

"I think," he said slowly, "that maybe I'm moving on from that. As I said earlier, I can't keep battering myself against something that isn't there."

"I hear that," Hermione nodded.

He smiled briefly. "Daph and I are friends now and I think that's likely all that I can expect. Payment for my crimes and all." His smile turned brittle.

"Mmmm," Hermione frowned at him. "No, and I still don't like what you said earlier in the car. About being like Michael. You're nothing like that."

Theo scrubbed at his face. "But you don't know the whole me, Hermione. The girls. You don't know what I was up to sixth year or when we first got to San Cipriano. Or maybe you did. You mentioned it in the olive grove."

Hermione felt herself flush at that particular memory, but she powered through it.

"But did anyone get hurt?" she asked and Theo looked away, rolling his neck with a sigh. "I mean, no one thought you were being faithful," she said. "And yes, that was part of why I didn't want to go there with you then. But at least it was honest. You were honest." Theo groaned and she leaned forward. "No, listen to me, Theo. Yes, women like you. You're charming and you're beautiful and you like us back. We can sense that, you know," she said, slurping at the fresh pint the bartender had just set down next to her. "When a man really likes women and understands us. It's bloody attractive." A light pink colour was staining Theo's cheeks by this point, but Hermione kept on. "But none of that is calculated. You don't do it to reel us in. It's just you. And you're nothing like the Michaels of the world. Nothing. Ew." She shook her head.

"Well, thank you for that." Theo took her hand loosely between his. "And I haven't been with anyone, you know, since Italy." He said the words so softly that Hermione almost didn't catch them. "Last year being awful and all." His face went dark and Hermione's stomach dropped.

She put her other hand up and cradled his jaw, running her thumb over the roughness there. "Someday you'll tell me about all that?"

"Someday." He nodded once.

Hermione dropped her hand as the bartender appeared with plates. "Two fish and chips," she announced, placing absolutely enormous portions in front of them.

"Oh good, I'm starved." Hermione glanced to Theo to see his jovial look back in place.

"If you eat that whole thing I will be shocked," he said, pointing at her with his knife.

"Is that a challenge?"

He laughed. "Maybe?"

"You're on."

"So I told Ernie I would not be doing that!" Hermione laughed and then yawned.

Theo laughed too, but he looked down at his watch. "Shit, it's ten!"

"How did that happen!? How long did it take us to get here?" Hermione looked with dismay at her own watch.

"Over an hour. Ah well. No one's waiting up for us. Good thing we ordered coffee." Theo held up his cup and finished it, then he and Hermione studied the bill and—at her strong insistence—lay down equal shares of muggle money for it.

"Can you drive? How many pints did we have?" Hermione said as they called goodbye to the bartender and retrieved their coats.

"Just three."

"Just three! That's a lot!" Hermione stepped carefully out onto the wet cobblestones of the small street and Theo took her arm.

"Maybe for you," he said. "But after all that food… And I keep Sober Up in the glove box." He winked down at her and Hermione shook her head.

"I should have known."

They walked through the silent village as a biting wind blew up off the sea and across their faces. Hermione shivered and Theo tucked her closer. She leaned her head against his shoulder.

"'Such a perfect day,'" she murmured. "'I'm glad I spent it with you.'"

He looked down at her, a pleased look crossing his face. "Likewise."

"That's a song, you know."

"Ah, you'll have to play it for me."

"I have it. I will." Hermione gazed up at the bright moon, just peeking out behind a huge bank of clouds. "But really, Theo. This is the best I've felt in weeks. And I was a zombie this morning before we left. So thank you. Again, again."

He squeezed her close against him. "Any. Time."

Hermione's steps dragged toward the fourth-floor Astronomy Tower classroom and the Unity class waiting within it. Her thoughts felt like they were dragging too. Toward Draco and their forced proximity.

She'd gotten really very good at not seeing him around school: her eyes didn't seek him out and she turned her mind to other things when he was called on to speak in class. And in the rare times when he was near, she shielded herself with a tunneling indifference, refusing to give his presence attention.

But Unity class was the one time she absolutely could not avoid him. And it was torture, a bloodless, stilted kind, built of short sentences and avoided eye contact. A stiff detente wherein they very politely and coldly let each other take turns instructing the children, but barely interacted themselves. It was almost as if she'd been paired up with the pre-war Draco Malfoy, as if Italy had never happened, and they were nothing better than barely-cordial enemies.

Some Unity teachers they were.

Hermione reached the classroom door and opened it, glad tonight was Draco's night to lead the class. She patted her book bag and the reading material she intended to peruse during it. There was a particularly intriguing folio on a witch from the 13th century that just might keep her from noticing his scent or the beautiful curve of his neck.

She kept her face carefully neutral as she walked in and put her things on a desk in the back. Draco was at the front of the classroom, his back to her as he sketched what looked like a Quidditch pitch on the blackboard. Hermione waved hello to the students and settled in, looking slightly to the right of Draco's ear as she gave a curt nod in response to his glance back at her.

Hermione looked down and opened her folio. Draco was speaking about team sports and using Quidditch as an example. Perfect topic for her to tune completely out of. She turned her attention to her text and became engrossed, only looking up from a long footnote when the noise level in the room began to intrude on her consciousness. The students seemed to be peppering Draco with questions and exclaiming at each other. She squinted at them.

"Ms. Granger, what do you think?" Eloise turned in her chair, an aggrieved look on her face.

"Ah—" Hermione had no idea what the question was.

"She wants to make the Quidditch teams not associated with the Houses!" Reggie said, shaking his head. "Mental," he muttered.

Eloise whipped toward him. "I just think it might be good for unity—and more equitable—if everyone tried out and the coaches fielded four equally-weighted teams!"

"Do you know anything about sport? How would people know who to support? Would the teams just change every year?" Reggie leaned back and spread his arms wide.

"He does have a point there," Matt the Hufflepuff said.

"Oh I don't know." Cora turned to look at him. "None of you boys are thinking very creatively here."

"I want to know what Ms. Granger thinks!" Eloise's volume knocked up a couple of notches and Hermione put up a hand.

"I think it's an intriguing idea," she said, nodding at Eloise, who beamed. "The amount of room Quidditch takes up at this school can feel oppressive, not to mention exclusionary of those who aren't athletically inclined or even interested." She didn't look at Draco, but could almost feel his cross-armed exasperation. "Divorcing the Quidditch teams from the Houses might make it feel less obligatory to support them or attend matches. Might cut down on some of the mania and hero worship too. Or at least spread it around a bit. I'm in support," she finished as the class erupted into discussion again, Reggie's complaining voice the loudest.

Hermione very deliberately turned her attention back to the page she'd been reading and tuned them all out. Draco could deal with the fallout. And he did, raising his voice above the din and putting a neat, if autocratic, end to the discussion. Hermione harrumphed internally; if she'd been participating, she'd have let it go on a bit longer. But, she told herself sternly, she was not participating. Draco had said exactly nothing during her presentation on the muggle civil rights movement last week and she'd meant to do the same to him this week. If Eloise hadn't asked her a direct question, she would have done it.

She marked a note on her parchment and began reading a long, detailed passage describing the 'burning' of Jane Sutton in Sussex in 1276, her mind wandering away from the class (now on to the need for unity to complete certain Quidditch plays—boring, Draco) and her reading material too.

Instead she found herself thinking about Theo and the day they'd spent together that weekend. She smiled a little. They'd had such a nice time. And how refreshing that he wasn't a Quidditch fanatic. She directed a very quick look toward the front of the room and narrowed her eyes at Draco as he made a throwing motion.

Her mind went back to Theo at the bar, laughing with her about the birders and curlers and then what he'd shared about the muggle world. That triggered a memory of Lavender in San Cipriano, saying something about converting these pureblood boys in one way or another. Hermione snorted to herself. Draco and Blaise may have slipped through their fingers, but Theo was certainly a success story.

She looked down at her parchment and realised she'd drawn a little beach scene with diving birds and two figures walking. She added a blown out umbrella and smiled at it. Then she frowned, thinking about what Theo had said about himself with regard to Daphne. She hated that he felt that way. And she wondered if that was truly how Daphne saw him.

Regrettably, Hermione hadn't made much headway in getting to know Daphne yet. Probably because Daphne was usually with Michael or Pansy and Hermione had zero desire to mix with them. She tapped her quill to her lip; how sad that Daphne had replaced Theo with those two. What a loss.

She made another scribble on her parchment. She was actually meeting Daphne later for a trial run of one of their Potions project components. Did she feel comfortable enough to broach some of these topics with her? Maybe a hint about Michael, at least? Or some questions about Astoria and the engagement? A sly voice slipped in and Hermione frowned at herself as her eyes flicked again to Draco. She could still be concerned about him without it involving herself and her feelings, couldn't she? She sighed and her mind went back to Theo, when he'd been so serious after she'd joked about him meeting a muggle girl. Surprisingly, she felt a little surge of anger toward Daphne, and Theo's broken heart, even though it had been largely his fault.

She breathed in. What was happening here? Where was her mind?

"Any further questions? Discussion? Good." Draco's clipped tones pulled Hermione away from her muddled thoughts. "Next week, same time, same place," he was saying as the students gathered their things. He was up and out the door before Hermione had even closed her book, although Reggie was hot on his heels, shouting at him about some Quidditch move he'd mentioned.

Hermione rolled her eyes and packed her bag. Standing slowly and hitching it over her shoulder, she ambled toward the door, her thoughts back on Daphne and their meeting.

"Ms. Granger." It was Cora, tugging a little on Hermione's robes. Eloise was with her, although distracted and digging through her book bag. "What did you think of that class?" Cora asked. "You barely spoke this week. And he barely spoke last week."

"Oh, we're just dividing it up." Hermione smiled kindly down at the round-faced girl. "Easier that way, you know."

Cora frowned. "What happened to you two?" she asked in her blunt way.

"Yeah, did you get into a fight?" Eloise chimed in.

Hermione felt her face heat. "Umm—"

"Was it his engagement that did it? Do you not like his fiancee? We don't like her much, either. She's no you." Cora looked up guilelessly.

Hermione felt like she'd swallowed a bug. "I don't know what you mean," she said coolly.

"We just thought you liked each other at the beginning of the year. You were trying to hide it, but it couldn't be missed." Cora looked to Eloise for confirmation and Eloise started nodding. "Just like Reggie and Ellie here," Cora said.

Eloise's nodding stopped abruptly. "Oh bugger off, Cora. I've told you a million times, I do not like him! He's an elitist bully." Her face had gone redder than Hermione's.

Cora shrugged at Hermione in a meaningful way as Eloise continued to sputter.

"You'd better get along to your common rooms, girls. Not long until supper." Hermione used her most brisk tone and made shooing motions until the girls walked off, calling their goodnights.

She watched them until they disappeared around a corner, then leaned against the wall and closed her eyes with a deep sigh.

"Where are you off to? If you're going to study, why don't you study with me?" Theo's warm voice sounded behind Hermione as she alighted from the stairs to the eighth-year common room after supper.

"Hello," she said, turning as a smile spread over her face. "It's simply unacceptable that I haven't seen you all day!" She looked him up and down; he was wearing the hat from his Halloween costume to very nice effect. "But I can't," she continued with real disappointment. "I'm, uh, meeting Daphne in the Potions lab. To practice for our project."

"Ah." His brows went up. "Then I'll walk you as far as the library." He fell into step with her, shifting the sizable stack of books in his arms. Hermione saw a small square of pink-edged paper flutter from the stack to the ground and bent to pick it up for him.

"What's this?" She turned it over. His name was scrawled in flowing script on one side of the folded square. She looked up at him to see a faint colour in his cheeks. "May I?" she asked. "Or is it private?" A edge of irritation tinged her consciousness, surprising her as she regarded the note.

No, it's just silly." He shrugged a little. "Go ahead."

She unfolded it and read. "A poem! And an invitation. Who is it from?"

"Do you remember the blue mermaid from the party?"

"The persistent one?"

"Mmm hmm."

There was a tense silence in which Hermione tried not to examine a very strange feeling rising in her chest. Honestly, she was all over the place tonight.

"Are you going to accept?" she asked a little abruptly. They were almost to the library now.

"Not sure." Theo's voice lacked its usual ease and he was looking away. They stopped in a shadowy part of the hallway just before the library doors and he cleared his throat. "I don't want to, ah, fall into old habits. Rather not break my streak unless it's real." Finally he looked down at her and there was something in his expression that Hermione got caught in. He kept looking at her too—like he wanted something from her, or wanted her to say something.

Or maybe like he was going to kiss her. The thought crossed her mind with a bolt of surprise and a wisp of memory of a picnic table and a starry night.

She didn't look away.

Then the library doors opened and a group of fourth-years spilled out, quizzing each other loudly on the Goblin Wars. Hermione started and glanced down at the note, still open in her hand. "Here," she said after a moment, handing it back to Theo. "I'll be late."

He took it, then nodded swiftly as he ducked into the library.

Hermione's head was veritably swimming with thoughts and emotions as she clattered down the stairs to Slughorn's lab. Had she been jealous of Theo's note? And what had almost happened outside the library? Hadn't she been coming down here to feel Daphne out for him or ask her about Astoria? Where, indeed, was her mind?

"It should be focused on Herbicide Potions," she muttered to herself as she slipped into the classroom.

"Hmm?" Daphne looked up at her quizzically from behind safety glasses.

"Sorry I'm late," Hermione called, hurrying over to don a heavy apron and her own glasses.

"No, I'm early." Daphne waved a beaker at her. "I couldn't stand another minute of Transfiguration exercises so I came down here to noodle."

"Excellent," Hermione said, approaching the bench and table, where Daphne already had several things cooking away. "Is this all for us?"

"No, some of them are my side things. But I did start on the lionfish spines." She pointed to a mortar and pestle with coarse black powder in it.

Hermione picked up the pestle. "I'll give it another grind."

"Definitely. The instructions say it has to be very fine. I'll just go nick the rest of the ingredients." Daphne went to the store cupboard and started rummaging. "Did your Unity class run over?" she called over her shoulder. "Mine often does. Mostly because Ernie never stops talking."

"Er no, I uh, ran into Theo." The emotions of that run-in washed over Hermione and she frowned, but then cleared her expression as Daphne appeared and deposited an armful of cans and jars on the worktable.

"Oh!" Daphne said, a little overbright. Hermione ground energetically at the lionfish spines as a slight silence grew in the classroom.

"You seem really close," Daphne said after a while. She smiled swiftly at Hermione. "I'm glad he has a friend like you."

"I'm lucky to have him too." The words came out a little more intense than she'd meant them to and Daphne gave her a quick look.

"I'm sure you miss Harry, and Ron Weasley," she said, measuring out a mix of herbs and tipping it carefully into a small cauldron.

"I do," Hermione said. "But they're so happy in London, doing their Auror training. Part of me is glad they're not here to moan about schoolwork and make me listen to Quidditch talk."

Daphne laughed. "Indeed." She flicked her wand at the cauldron and a small flame leapt to life under it. "At least Theo doesn't go for Quidditch."

"I was just thinking that earlier!" Hermione smiled. "So refreshing."

Another silence stretched and Hermione fished around in her mind for something to say. She was a bit surprised by the path this conversation had taken. She'd meant to grill Daphne about Theo, but it seemed to have gotten turned around.

"Did you get close in Italy?" Daphne suddenly said, reinforcing Hermione's impression. "How was that? It sounds so idyllic the way Theo described it."

"Uh, yes. It was, in many ways, a perfect summer," Hermione said a little sadly. "And yes, we got to be friends there. I barely knew him before." Hermione gave the spines a final grind and pulled a pile of Horklump roots toward her. "In fact, I think I offended him the other night because I told him I couldn't place him at first. When I heard he was in town."

Daphne broke into a peal of real laughter. "Oh, that's ace. He was such a little peacock at school then. With all the girls after him. I mean, before last year, of course." Her face darkened.

"Of course." And when he was broken-hearted over you. Hermione wondered at Daphne's ability to laugh about any of that time. But so much had happened since then.

"And what about Draco? He was there too," Daphne murmured as she measured a white powder. "But you don't seem as close." She looked up.

Hermione attacked a Horklump root with a silvery knife. 'Not as close'—that was the understatement of the year. She got the feeling Daphne was trying to be diplomatic too. "He's harder to get to know," she said tightly.

"He didn't come out with any anti-muggle shite, did he?" Daphne seemed worried and Hermione was reminded that Draco was going to be related to her soon. Her stomach roiled.

"No, nothing like that. He's changed those opinions completely." An image of Draco's face, open and sincere, during their talk on the bench flashed through Hermione's mind. She pushed it far away.

"And he'll be your brother-in-law soon," she said, almost choking over the words, then turning it into a cough.

Daphne gave her a look. "Yeah."

"That must be strange. Your little sister." The words slipped out, then Hermione was immediately worried she'd gone too far.

But Daphne stopped in the process of juicing the Horklumps Hermione had been cutting. "You know it is bloody strange," she said, sounding almost relieved to be talking about it. "Everyone keeps dancing around it or acting like it's a royal alliance, but it's fucking weird. She's seventeen!"

"Is she happy about it?" Hermione couldn't help prying even though she was half-afraid to hear the answer.

Daphne's shoulders slumped. "The truth is," —she started rolling the roots again— "I don't know my sister all that well." She shrugged. "We've very different and she was away a lot when we were kids. For her health. So she tells me it's fine and that's about all I get out of her."

Hermione nodded and reached for a jar of flobberworms.

"Theo raises his eyebrows, Michael laughs and Draco barely says a word. The only one who seems truly upset about it is Pansy," Daphne mused, almost to herself.

Hermione shot her a look. "Do you think—? She and Draco were together before—" But images of Pansy and Astoria were what filled her head.

"Oh no, that's ancient history. She's mostly on about Astor being too young."

"They seem close." Hermione watched Daphne stir the larger cauldron.

"I know." Daphne looked up and tilted her head. "They never were for ages. I told Astor she's stealing my best friend!" Her smile flashed then faded. "But I suppose I'm with Michael a lot and Astoria doesn't know many people here."

Hermione tensed. Michael. Was this the time to say something? She and Daphne seemed to have gotten into an easy little groove.

"How are things with him?" she asked.

Daphne stopped stirring and looked at her sharply. "I know Theo doesn't like him," she said.

Theo wouldn't like anyone you were dating. The thought slipped through Hermione's mind and she almost wondered if Daphne could read it on her face because she flushed and looked down.

"He's not perfect," Daphne said. "But we share a lot of interests. Muggle music and books. And he's clever. Funny."

Hermione opened her mouth, really torn over whether she should mention Michael's behaviour at the Halloween party, but Daphne forestalled her.

"I know he can be a little naff at times. He's always pushing the line and sometimes crossing it. I know it puts people off him. He and Pansy go at each other like cats and dogs. But when we're alone he's really sweet."

Hermione tipped the small cauldron into the large one and stirred four times. "No one can ever really know what someone else's relationship is like," she hedged. Draco and Astoria for instance. She frowned.

"Exactly!" Daphne said brightly, waving her wand over the large cauldron. The mixture inside turned a bright, acid green and flattened to a mirror-like sheen. "Perfect," she muttered, staring into its depths.

Hermione looked at her and decided to wait to make any mention of Michael's sliminess. Daphne clearly wasn't ready to hear it. And if a close friend like Pansy hadn't made any headway… "It does look good," she said, prodding at the potion with her wand. "You're very talented at all this." She waved a hand to encompass the other brews Daphne had been working on at the same time.

"I love it," Daphne said. "Definitely want to do it for a career."

Hermione began siphoning the Herbicide Potion into a flask. "Commercial draughts or—?"

"Oh no, Healing." Daphne cast cleaning spells on the cauldrons and swept the remains of their ingredients into a bin. "I've got my eye on an apprenticeship in Cologne for after all this."

"That's wonderful." Hermione capped the flask and beamed at her. "Not St. Mungo's, then?"

"No, they're not as good for the Potions side of healing. And besides, I'd like to get out of Britain for a while. My family were at the facility in Germany last year and it was brilliant."

Hermione's head snapped up. Not many people had been traveling last year. But the Greengrasses had been to Wiltshire and now Germany. All for Astoria's treatment, she wondered?

"Well, this looks amazing!" Daphne held up the flask to the light. "Once it ages, it will be perfect. I think we're heading toward top marks with this project." She smiled at Hermione.

"Absolutely." Hermione cleared her mind and focused back on the present. "And I'm really glad we're working together on it."

Daphne's smile widened. "Me too."

"Give me another of those chocolates, will you?" Theo didn't look up from his reading, but extended a languid hand.

Hermione reached absently to the plate next to her, took up a square of dark chocolate and pressed it to his fingers. She put one in her mouth too. "Did you know that of the 80,000 witches burned in the 15th century, nearly 20% of them were actual witches?" she said as she chewed. "That's a much higher number than Professor Binns quoted third year."

"Mmm."

"Isn't that startling?"

"It's startling that you stayed awake long enough in Binns' class to hear a fact or figure."

"Theo!" She swatted him and looked up from where she was resting against a pillow that was resting against his side. His mouth curled up at the corner.

"How are the Transfigurations theorems?" she asked, stretching her toes down the long sofa in the eighth year common room where they were currently ensconced. A fire licked in the giant hearth and ice frosted the corners of the heavy plate windows. Many of the eighth-years were strewn about this room and the cafe trying to put a dent in their homework before the weekend.

Theo slammed the book shut. "Boring. Last thing I want to be reading about."

"Shall I quiz you?" Hermione looked up at him again.

"No." He took one of her curls in his fingers and pulled it gently. Hermione noticed Padma across the room, watching them. Susan's eyes flicked in their direction too and Hermione shrugged internally.

After her conversation with Daphne, she'd realised that people must think she and Theo were more than friends—or at least working up to it. And she found she didn't particularly care. She enjoyed his company immensely and didn't intend change her behaviour in any way.

For anyone.

Since their weekend jaunt to the sea, she'd felt like a new person. The numbness that had settled over her had burned off like fog, leaving behind something raw, but awake and alive. She still felt pain, but pain wasn't all she felt. There was anger there too and disdain for the choices Draco had made, which felt like a sort of progress. And though she was still avoiding Draco and thoughts of him, she felt able to participate in the world again. The last Unity class was evidence of that.

And she was very grateful to Theo and his friendship for these things. She felt herself turning to him, unfolding for him, in a way she'd never quite let herself before. And at times her mind and body seemed to wonder what it would like if they were more than friends...

In fact, she'd found herself thinking of the early days in San Cipriano a lot lately. The choices she'd made. And although neither of them had mentioned the charged moment in front of the library since it happened, Hermione sensed it in the background of their interactions. At least on her side. Theo had largely been back to his usual playful familiarity.

So she wasn't entirely sure how he felt about her or how his feelings for Daphne (or hers for Draco) fit in. But for once she'd decided not to overanalyse. She'd done enough of that lately and was exhausted. She just wanted to relax and enjoy him and their friendship. Let things go and trust herself a little.

She shifted round on the sofa. "Fine then. I'll get back to my reading," she said, running a finger down the stack of books on the floor. "Where is the Loudermilk?" she murmured to herself.

"The what?" Theo leaned over and peered at her.

"Carolanus Loudermilk. 1646-1723. Author of a very intriguing little monograph on muggle black magic. I thought I'd checked it out," Hermione tutted, turning to look more closely through her books. "I was going to reference it in my Defensive Magic essay. I must have forgotten it. Bother."

"Want me to go fetch it?" Theo asked, sitting up.

"No! God. I'll do it. I know exactly where it is on the shelf." Hermione stood and brushed at the creases in her wool trousers. "But thank you. That's very kind." She smiled down at him.

He smiled back at her and reached his arms up in a long stretch, the movement of his shoulders arresting under a soft grey henley. Hermione remembered what those shoulders felt like under her fingertips.

"I'll be here," he said lazily, settling back on the cushions and patting the one next to him. A sudden flash of how she might respond (nonverbally) sparked behind Hermione's eyes and she blinked, feeling heat creep up her chest.

He noticed it too.

His deep blue eyes narrowed and traveled over her face. A kind of focus replaced his lazy expression and he seemed to almost tense.

"Right," Hermione said, turning sideways with a shake of her head. "Off I go." The blush was now blazing and she didn't want him to see it for some reason. She was reminded very viscerally of the night in San Cipriano when they'd kissed. The feeling she'd had of careening out of control if she didn't watch it with him.

But why did she need to anymore?

Wrestling with all of this, she hurried out of the common room and down the drafty hall toward the library. It really was freezing today and despite her flustered reaction, she wanted to get back to the fire and the sofa … and Theo?

She shook her head again as she walked, whispering, "Let it go, trust yourself," as if she had a tiny Lavender Brown residing in her head. Giggling that that image, she strode into the library and down the central aisle to the section she needed.

Around the corner of one of the large bookshelves, Hermione could just see the slim black volume resting on a center shelf, protruding from when she'd half pulled it out earlier. She remembered now—she'd gotten distracted when Ginny, who had been absent lately due to her Hufflepuff Keeper, had hailed her for a chat.

"There you are," Hermione whispered to the book, looking over her shoulder as a loud screech of scraping chair legs startled her. She turned back around and reached out to grasp the slightly worn spine just as another set of fingers was doing the same.

"Oh," Hermione looked up from the book to a pair of wide, startled eyes. Tilted slightly up at the corners, they blinked rapidly at her.

"Oh, excuse me," a softly cultured voice murmured. Small, darkly manicured fingers had closed on the book and slid it off the shelf, but Astoria now held it out to Hermione. "Did you want it?"

Hermione blinked rapidly herself, a wildly varied range of impressions flooding her mind. She'd never been this close to Astoria before. Nor heard her voice. The deep burgundy of her matching skirt and jumper was perfect with her wintery colouring. And was that light scent Lily of the Valley? Were her eyes actually black, or deep brown like her glossy hair? She was so tiny… and fine.

An inch or two over five-and-a-half feet, Hermione had never felt so large in her life.

And how ridiculous that of all the books in the library, they wanted the same one. Hermione almost laughed.

Almost.

"I don't really need it," she said after a beat, and she could hear how affected, and cold, her voice sounded.

Astoria's expression didn't change but Hermione received that impression she often did, that Astoria was sharing an inside joke with herself.

"Are you sure? It's quite superfluous to my purposes and you seem keen."

Hermione felt her eyes narrow to slits. Was she taking the piss? What did she know? She took an angry breath, and words slipped out before she could stop them. "I've already gotten what I needed from it."

A quicksilver lift of Astoria's mouth was gone almost before Hermione could register it.

They stared at each other for a few moments and then in an instant, Astoria's face changed. The smugness vanished and she looked down, hair swinging in a shiny curtain over her delicate profile. The sharply pointed toe of her flat pressed against a small ridge in the wooden floor.

"All right," she said. "Guess it's mine, then."

"Yes, I believe so." Hermione's voice was barely above a whisper.

Astoria just shrugged, then turned with the book and walked away.

The next day was Saturday and Hermione woke early with her mind very full. Of Theo and her studies and most of all the disturbing encounter with Astoria in the library.

What did Astoria know? Had Draco told her? Or had they just been that obvious? Did everyone know? And what had it meant? Astoria had seemed almost forlorn at the end of their exchange.

Hermione had gone back to the common room afterward, distracted and thoughtful. Theo had been strangely distracted too and they'd parted to go to their own rooms fairly quickly. Hermione hadn't mentioned the meeting with Astoria to him, but she had floo-called Lavender, who was now ablaze with desire to meet and observe the girl.

"What a complex little cat she sounds!" Lav had said with a gleam in her eye.

"I know. I can't make her out at all," Hermione had replied. Every time she'd seen Astoria and Draco together, she'd assumed that Astoria was happy, or more accurately, pleased, with the engagement—but now she wasn't so sure.

"She's very beautiful though," she'd hmphed to Lavender. "Everything just so. I'm sure you'd die for her clothes."

Lav had just waved a dismissive hand and told Hermione not to be ridiculous.

"Not that any of it matters," Hermione muttered to herself as she got up out of bed and went to the window. The morning outside looked cold and misty, and a walk to clear her head seemed just the thing. And really, she thought, pulling on jeans and hat, grabbing her coat and starting off down the hall, whether or not Astoria was happy with her arrangement didn't change a thing. In fact, it made the situation seem even more entrenched. Both of them miserable, but going ahead with it anyway? Hermione shook her head. What had Lav called it? Oh yes, "medieval." Or at the very least, Victorian.

Hermione sniffed as she shrugged into her coat and tripped down the last few steps to the outside door, her breath blowing in a frigid cloud as she pushed it open then lengthened her stride across the courtyard and out to the grounds.

The sun was filtering weakly through the mist by the time Hermione made her way back to the castle. Her walk had been long and she felt properly refreshed. She took off her hat and lifted her hair—the brisk exercise had made her a bit warm despite all signs pointing to another arctic day.

Glancing at her watch as she stepped back through the doors of the Divination tower, she was surprised and pleased to see it was only 9am, which meant she hadn't missed breakfast. She made a quick detour through the cafe, then sat down with a bowl with yoghurt and fruit, her mind on her Defensive Magic essay and the work she needed to do on it today. Well, 'needed' was a strong word; it wasn't actually due for another week and a half—but she did want to work on it.

Thoughts of the essay brought up thoughts of the book and Astoria, but Hermione brushed them away. She'd gone over that and didn't want to dwell on it any longer. She did want to peek in on Theo, though. They'd left each other a little abruptly yesterday and she knew he was an early riser. She'd stop by on her way back to her room. Tipping the last of a strong cup of tea into her mouth, she stood, energized by the prospect of the day, feeling better and more herself than she had in a long while.

Her steps up to the boys' floor were quick and she was deep in thought as she made her way toward Theo's room. So deep in thought, in fact, that she almost didn't notice that Draco's door was cracked open as she passed.

Almost.

And maybe she would have kept walking if a movement inside hadn't attracted her eye. But as it was, she froze, every muscle tight as she spied a telltale lithe hand gesture through the narrow space.

Astoria came into view and then Draco, his long fingers reaching for her slim shoulders and spinning her gently to face him. Hermione's breath would have sucked in, but she was holding it, her chest completely constricted. Before her horrified eyes, Draco pulled Astoria closer, against him, and dropped his face to breathe into the top of her head. She tucked in against his chest then looked up into his face, her hair a fall of dark chestnut down her back. Hermione watched with dawning horror as Draco looked down, paused, and then kissed her, softly and almost chastely at first, but then more deeply, his hands sliding around her waist.

Through sheer force of will, Hermione contained her shocked gasp and wheeled away from the door. Her inner voice screamed inside her head about timing and whether she was seeing a morning-after scene, but she pushed on to Theo's room blindly, throwing a glance over her shoulder as if Draco and Astoria would peer out at any moment.

She raised her hand to knock just as the door opened and revealed Theo, worry chasing surprise over his face.

"I was just coming to find you," he said, the worry increasing as he got a good look at her. "What happened?" He widened the door to let her in.

Hermione ducked under his arm and dropped onto his bed. "I saw them in his bloody room just now," she said. "On my way over." She put a hand to her eyes. "Why did I think it wasn't physical, Theo? They're engaged, for fuck's sake. There are supposed to be heirs someday. Did I think it was a sexless union?"

"Fuck." Theo muttered, sitting down next to her.

"I'm such an idiot." She smacked the bed. "And I was feeling so good today." She looked at him. "I'm never going to be able to let this go, am I? Unless I get some fucking distance."

Theo just shook his head. Finally he blew out a sigh and dropped his elbows to his knees and his head to his hands. "I don't have any advice, but I know what you mean," he said.

"What?" Hermione looked at him sharply. She put a hand on his back. "What happened to you?"

"I talked to Daph last night. About Michael," he said through his hands. "It didn't go well."

That must have been what he'd been distracted about. She wondered... "Shit, Theo. I'm sorry." Hermione rubbed briskly on his back, and her foot began tapping. She didn't know what to say. They'd both gotten their answers, hadn't they?

Suddenly Theo straightened. "Let's get the fuck out of here," he said, shaking his head. "I can't stand another minute. All I want to do right now is go somewhere with you." His eyes flashed to hers and held.

Hermione looked back at him. "Let's go further this time."

A swift smile transformed Theo's face and Hermione felt a sliver of lightness pierce the darkness swirling around her.

"I'll pack a bag," she said.

Chapter Text

Hermione kept her head down as she followed Theo along the track from Hogwarts to Hogsmeade. They were moving fast and it was misting heavily, the weak sunlight of earlier now caught behind heavy clouds. She pulled the hood of her jacket tighter around her face and dodged a frost-edged mud puddle.

They'd made it out of the castle in record time, Hermione taking less than ten minutes to run to her room and grab a bag (eyes severely averted as she passed Draco's door). Theo had been waiting, face grim, when she'd met him at the main entrance and they'd managed to get across the bridge over the rise toward the village before anyone had seen them.

Hermione could feel herself breathing easier now, the effort of keeping up with Theo's long strides taking some of the jangling energy out of her nerves. She couldn't stop the image of Draco pulling Astoria close, deepening their kiss, from replaying in her mind.

Although, the more she let it play, the less shocking it became.

The thoughts beat in her head as she moved along: she shouldn't be surprised, she'd come so far, she shouldn't let it set her back. She balled her fists; she wouldn't.

Theo slowed and looked behind him as the low roofs and spires of Hogsmeade came into view. "You OK?" he called.

"Yeah!" Hermione waved. "Be better when we're out of here."

She saw a nod and a quick flash of Theo's teeth before he turned back around and started nearly jogging down the last slope into the village.

Hermione sped to keep up, concentrating on navigating the path, which emptied out onto the nearly deserted High Street. Theo stopped at the foot and waited for her, holding out his hand to help her down the last, slippery bit.

"All right?" he said as she alighted next to him.

"All right." She squeezed his palm and looked up, a swirl of apparition catching her eye over his shoulder. She felt her mouth go round as she spied a tall, black-robed figure come into view, long platinum hair brilliant even in the dull light. After a beat, Narcissa Malfoy materialised as well.

Theo, seeing Hermione's face, whirled around and swore softly as two more figures appeared, the man slender and neatly grey-haired and the woman a middle-aged carbon copy of Astoria Greengrass.

Hermione sucked in a breath and Theo's muted swearing cut off. He spun back and pulled Hermione into a nearby doorway. "Fuck," he muttered. "I do not want him to see me. We'll never get away if he does."

"Lucius?"

"No, Cygnus Greengrass." Theo leaned against the door and closed his eyes.

Hermione peeked tentatively out. The Malfoys and Greengrasses seemed to greet each other in a stilted, formal way. "I thought he didn't like you?"

Theo, who opened his eyes and snorted. "He likes me since I inherited."

"Oh. Ew." Hermione felt her lip curl. She looked back out. "They're going into the pub," she said, watching Cygnus hold the door for his wife and Narcissa. "Must be some sort of future in-laws meeting." She couldn't keep the harshness from her voice. Maybe Draco and Astoria were joining them and that's what this morning's little display had been about.

Theo snorted again. "Could have been us, you know," he said, taking Hermione's hand and leading them furtively out of the doorway and around the corner to the vacant lot and the car.

"Us?"

"With them as in-laws." He looked down at her and his smile emerged fully. "I say we dodged a bullet there."

To her great surprise. Hermione felt a laugh bubble up her throat. She chortled aloud. "How do you do that?"

"What?" Theo asked, pulling out his wand to magic the cover off the Land Rover.

"Make me laugh even when I'm feeling utterly shit." Hermione stopped and shook her head at him.

"Special talent? Super power? Survival mechanism from an abusive childhood?" But his expression took any bitterness out of the words.

He got in the car and leaned over to unlock her door and Hermione climbed in the passenger seat.

"Whatever it is," she said, looking over at him, "It is very much appreciated."

"This bloody thing!" Hermione wrestled with a large map as Theo bumped them over the rocky path leading out of Hogsmeade. He was going faster than usual and Hermione could sense that his nervous energy matched hers. He glanced over his shoulder a few times as if he was worried they were being followed.

"I think we're clear," Hermione said, managing to unfold the map properly once they hit the smoother part of the road.

"Yeah, shit, I should slow down." Theo tapped the steering wheel and eased up on the accelerator. "In fact I'll pull over." He guided the car into a small layby. "So we can figure out where we're going before I hare off in one direction."

"Good plan. So, we went northeast last weekend." Hermione peered at the map and the land's jagged contours.

Theo leaned over to peruse it with her. "We could go south to one of the cities. I've never really seen Edinburgh—just passed through. And I've never been to Glasgow." He glanced up at her and Hermione frowned.

"I think I'd prefer somewhere wild," she said. "Some scenery. We were just in London." She craved something like the bluster and blow of last weekend's location, the sweet pub, the slower pace.

Theo nodded. "Agreed." He looked back down and his finger traced the west coast of the map. "Why don't we go to an island?" he said, eyes bright on hers. His finger stopped on Skye and tapped. "This is supposed to be beautiful…and I believe we can drive there. No ferry."

"Right, they built that bridge. Perfect." Hermione smiled at him then looked back down at the map. "How the bloody hell do we get there, though?" She looked at the ribbons of roads. "It's nearly the width of the country from here to there."

"Lucky it's the skinny bit." Theo started the car back up. "I have to stop for petrol. I'm sure someone at the station will know."

Hermione ran back out of the tiny petrol station shop, clutching the map under her jacket against the rain that had started hurtling itself from the sky. "We can go along Loch Ness!" she called excitedly as she approached the car.

Theo looked up from where he was replacing the petrol hose. "Ace!" he said, jumping into the car just as she did. They slammed their doors with a whoosh. "Maybe we'll see the monster." He wiggled his brows.

"Newt Scamander says it's a kelpie." Hermione struggled out of her wet jacket and threw it in the back. She frowned and scrunched a hand at her hair, which felt like it had doubled in size.

Theo looked over and his eyes ran over her face. "It's brilliant, you know."

"What?"

"Your hair." He reached over and wrapped a curl around his finger. "It curls even more when it's wet." His eyes stayed on hers and she could tell he was thinking of something. She wondered what it was.

"And yours gets so dark," she said after a pause. "Makes your eyes even bluer. If that's at all possible." She huffed and his mouth turned up.

"Let me see that map," he said.

"OK, yes. So the man drew the route for me. We go to Inverness first, then down along the Loch and west to Skye. Three to four hours, he said." Hermione thought of her overnight bag in the back, which she'd half-thought she wouldn't need.

But this was not going to be a day trip.

"Be practically dark by the time we get there," Theo murmured and she could hear her thoughts reflected in his voice. He looked up with a wrinkled brow, but twinkling eyes. "Are you up for this, Ms. Granger?"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Well, I brought a mix tape."

His smile widened.

"It's got Perfect Day on it. And a lot of other stuff." She lunged back for her bag and pulled the cassette out of a side pocket. "I started making it after the last drive." She held it up. "And I bought some snacks in the shop." She held up a bag in her other hand.

He just looked at her for a minute, smile fading into something warmer.

"What?" Hermione finally broke the silence.

"Sometimes I could just… Never mind," he said, plucking the cassette from her hand and feeding it into the player in the dash. The strains of Just Like Heaven filled the car.

Hermione tilted her head at him. "What?" she said again, a strange sort of energy thrumming under her skin now.

He looked at her for a long time and then shook his head and smiled again. "Let's just go." He put the car in gear and they sped away.

"So. Dare I ask?" Hermione popped a Smartie in her mouth and offered the bag to Theo. He took a handful and glanced at her.

"About what?"

"Daphne. Your conversation." They'd been driving for a while now and the lush, familiar farmland around Hogsmeade had given way to much more dramatic scenery. Hermione looked away from the purple moors out her window to Theo, who was frowning.

"You don't have to talk about it," she said. "I just thought you might want to."

He took a big breath. "It was because of yesterday. When we were in the common room."

Hermione felt warmth flash over her at the memory, but stayed quiet.

"That fucking prat was there. I don't know if you noticed him sitting across from us on the window seat."

"Michael? No, I didn't even see him." She'd been too taken up with Theo.

"Well, he saw you. He was watching you when you left." Theo's voice had gotten quiet and his profile was set. "He had a bloody look on his face. And then he looked over at me and just, grinned." He shook his head once. "He's lucky I didn't go over there and—"

"Daphne wouldn't have liked that. wouldn't have liked that."

"I know." He sighed. "He's not worth it. He's not worth her." He glanced over quickly. "And I want him to bloody leave you alone too."

"He can't bother me." Hermione shrugged. Theo made an indistinct noise, somewhat akin to a growl. "So you were angry on Daph's behalf?" she prompted.

"Yeah and just—she knows I don't like him, but I've never really made my case about him. And I felt like it was time to do that. Time to get it out there." His voice trailed off and Hermione felt again like there was something else under his words that she couldn't quite put her finger on.

"What did you say? Did you tell her about his behaviour to me?" Hermione winced.

"Nooo, I didn't want to go that far. Or involve you." He turned to her then back to the road. "I just told her in more general terms that he could be… disrespectful at times. And I made sure she knew I meant with other girls." His face darkened again. "She didn't take that very well. Coming from me."

Hermione sucked in her breath. "Shit."

"Yeah, she said I had no right, et cetera, et cetera. Which is true, I don't. I agreed with her that I lost the right to tell her anything about that long ago."

"Theo—" Hermione laid her hand on his arm.

He gave her a sad smile. "It's true. But, I told her as her friend I couldn't stand by either."

"Exactly! As her friend. You still have that right." Hermione gestured. "Ron and I fell out over this kind of thing, you know—not nearly as painfully as you and Daphne did, not nearly as much skin in the game. But I wouldn't hesitate to say something to him now, as a friend, if I thought he was being treated badly."

"Yes, but you didn't betray him, nor he you."

"Well, there were a few things…" Hermione's mind went to Ron's desertion during the Horcrux hunt—not a romantic betrayal, but still.

"I thought you were never involved." Theo's reply was quick and he frowned out at the road again.

"We weren't." Hermione peered over at him and he glanced over at her, his brow still clouded. "I mean, he tried to kiss me once. But the ship had already sailed."

"Sounds familiar."

"Theo!" Hermione felt her face go instantly bright red. "It was, er, not the same. At all." She shifted in her seat. "I kissed you back, for one thing."

His lips came up in a smile and he started chuckling low. Hermione reached over and smacked him.

"What!?" He cringed away. "You were the one who said it!" Hermione made a face at him. "You're very violent, you know," he tsked. She stuck her tongue out at him and he grinned at her. "No, I like it. Never change."

She tilted her head back against the seat and groaned. "You are incorrigible!"

"I've been told that before, yes." He reached out and flipped the tape. "This is really good," he said, nodding toward it.

"Thanks, glad you like it." Hermione smiled, knowing what song was coming next.

The violins from Never Tear Us Apart started and he whipped his head to look at her. "Sweetheart, it's our song!"

She laughed. "Well it was either this or Pony."

He truly cracked up at that and Hermione did too. Then they settled into a comfortable quiet, Theo singing along softly to the song and Hermione watching that the moors give way to wooded hills until she could just spy a lapping waterfront through the trees.

"I think that's the Loch!" she pointed.

Theo craned his neck as they came around a curve in the road to a huge expanse of dark, rippling water, stretching far down the glen to steep black-green hillsides.

"Bloody hell. No wonder a giant kelpie calls it home."

"Yeah, bit foreboding, isn't it?" A quieter song came on and enhanced the somber view.

"How are you doing?" Theo asked after a while. "This morning was a shock, yeah?"

It was Hermione's turn to take a big breath. "I don't know why it was, but yes. I guess part of my brain was coping by telling me that they weren't romantically involved? Somehow?" She rolled her eyes. "It feels so stupid when I say it out loud."

"It's not stupid at all. And there are all kinds of levels of 'romantic' involvement." He gave her a look. "If you want my opinion, I think he's settling and trying to make the best of it."

Hermione nodded. "But you know, Theo, I don't even want to think about it that way anymore!" She blew out an angry sigh. "I don't want to make any more justifications or rationalizations. I just want to accept it and move on. He certainly has. And besides, if he can settle like that, I don't want him." She flashed him a look and he nodded thoughtfully back at her.

"Should that be the last thing we say about them this trip?" he asked after a while. "Should we agree not to talk about them anymore?"

Hermione looked over at him. "Yes," she said after a moment, putting her hand out to shake.

Theo placed his warm palm in hers. "It's agreed, then. Now," he said, squinting up out of the windshield, "the position of the sun in the sky tells me it's lunchtime. Should we stop soon?"

"Absolutely. The map says there's a castle on the shore of the Loch. Maybe they have a café."

Theo leaned back and groaned. "I probably should not have eaten the rest of your sandwich," he said, stretching dramatically.

"Do you want me to drive so you can sleep it off?" Hermione sipped her coffee.

He pulled the off-white wool jumper he was wearing over his head and tucked it behind him. "Nah, I'll be fine. Just need to not be quite so warm and cosy. And I'll have another coffee." He looked up for the waitress and she was instantly there, happy to take his order.

Hermione smiled into her cup. His appeal was certainly universal. She watched him roll the sleeves of his plaid shirt with an internal sigh then looked out the window of the café to the small harbor edged by a huge expanse of loch.

"Do you think we could live somewhere like this, Theo?" she murmured, mind traveling far away. "Just somewhere quiet. In a little house in a little village. Be fishermen. Go down the pub of an evening. Start a book club..."

He tilted his head. "You paint a nice picture. Let's do it. I'll owl McGonagall for our things."

"I don't mean to imply that fishing is easy," Hermione said, snapping out of her reverie. "I'm sure it's very hard work!"

"Sheep farmers, then," Theo said, gesturing out at the small flock in the pasture next to the water. "I fancy a shepherd's crook and a collie dog."

"That would suit you. Lot of shit, though. To clean up." Hermione squinted at the sheep, huddled together against the rain.

Theo laughed and accepted his coffee from the waitress with thanks. "A strategic scourgify here or there wouldn't go amiss," he said after she'd walked away.

Hermione giggled and picked at the last of her jam tart.

"I always saw you in a city though," he continued, face serious. "Doing something big. Changing hearts and minds. Isn't that what you'd want?"

"Yes, eventually." She sighed. "I'm just tired, I think. And I miss our life in San Cipriano so much sometimes it makes me want to cry."

"I know."

"I know you do."

Theo leaned back and crossed his arms. "But could we ever really go back there or, more accurately, then? Considering who we are now and what's changed?"

Hermione made a thoughtful sound.

"That's not rhetorical. I'm really asking," he said. "I want to know what you think."

"It wouldn't be the same," she said slowly. "But I like to think we could. In some fashion."

"I like to think so too." Theo looked at her and something swam in the air between them. Might have beens, she supposed. Or possibly do-overs. She noted the shape of his mouth as he ran a hand over it, his eyes going to the window again. And the thought wisped through her mind that if they'd been somewhere dark and alone instead of in this bright café at midday…

"Right," she said, balling her napkin and straightening. "We'd better get on the road if we want to make Skye before we lose the sun."

He looked back at her, holding her gaze a moment more before he stood and held out a hand to her. "Sets at what? 3:30?" he asked.

She took it and stood. "Bloody Scottish winters."

As they crossed the bridge to Skye it started really raining. The Rover's wipers were flapping wildly and water sheeted out from the tyres in great arcing cascades.

"Fucking hell!" Theo yelled, hunched up over the steering wheel, eyes straining out the windshield. "Looks like it's turning to sleet too!"

"Shit." Hermione looked up at the deep grey sky. "It's still quite a ways to Portree." They'd settled on heading toward the island's biggest town, assuming their hotel options would be best there.

"Hope we make it," Theo laughed. "Keep your eye out for likely places to stop, though." They slid on the road as he took a curve and he swore long and fluently, then muttered what sounded like a charm.

"Stabiliser," he said to Hermione. "I can do it wandless, but if you want to add anything…"

"Right. Of course." Hermione pulled out her wand, pointed it out the window and added a shielding charm around the car. Instantly, the rain slackened against the glass and the rushing sound of the wind quieted.

"Brilliant, thanks," Theo said, shooting a quick smile sideways. "I can see, at least. Now if my charm can hold up against the ice on the road…"

Hermione grimaced at him then resumed looking out the window for anywhere that resembled a place to stop. The road to Portree looked winding and a bit frightening on the map, and the dark was descending fast.

"We never talked about your future," she said after a few tense moments, trying to distract them and thinking back to their conversation at the café.

"My future?"

"Yeah. I'm going to be in the big city, changing the world and/or a fisherperson in remotest Scotland. What are you going to be doing?"

"I thought I was your neighbor with the sheep farm?"

Hermione laughed. "You'd have to get one of those flat tweed hats. You'd look well in it." He really would. "But truly, Theo. What are your plans? Your resources must be… rather unlimited."

He shrugged. "I'm lucky to have a lot of choices. Although to tell you the truth, I hadn't thought much past finishing this year at school and wrapping up the clean-up and sale of the estate. But that should be done by the time school finishes, so I'll be free and clear."

"That's going OK, then?"

"Much quicker now that gears are grinding again after the war. I have a good manager too. Hired him late last summer. He's doing all the legwork."

"Oh that's good. I imagine it could feel rather overwhelming otherwise."

"Yes." Theo shook his head and Hermione felt sad for him, having to go it all alone. She felt sad for herself too.

"Not easy being an only child," she said.

"And an orphan." He darted a quick look at her. "Based on what you've told me about your parents, I practically class you as one."

"Yeah." Hermione looked down and fiddled with the cuff of her jumper; they'd gotten into a long conversation about her parents on the way home last weekend. "I mean, I suppose I could move to Sydney and live like a muggle, but I don't quite want to do that. Deny who I am, you know."

"I do." His hand left the gearshift and rested briefly on her knee. "And to answer your question, I think what I'll do next is travel. I want to see some more of this planet. And then ultimately I want to find a way to bring muggle things to the wizarding world. Integration, education, import/export… I don't know. Something like that, though."

"Theo, that's wonderful! You'd be so good at that." Hermione put on an extremely posh accent; "'The pureblood lord converting the wizarding masses to muggle ways.'"

"Oh, do not bring up that "lord" shite." He laughed and shook his head. "Unless you want to start talking about how the Sorting Hat takes your temperature."

Hermione made a rude gesture at him and he laughed again. "What a night that was," he said after a moment. "The music, the food, the company, your naff theories."

Hermione shoved him on the shoulder. "Oh do shut up." She crossed her arms, but a smile stole across her face. "And that was a great night."

"Just before everything got complicated," he murmured.

Hermione felt herself blush.

"I want to apologise to you for all that," she said, realising that she'd wanted to say something for quite some time. "For leading you on, or—"

"Absolutely not." Theo held up a hand, his tone crisp.

"But, Theo—"

"You were completely above board. Honest. And frankly, utterly correct to be wary of me then."

Hermione pressed her lips together. "I don't know about that."

"I do." His face was as serious as she'd seen it and a silence stretched in the car until he spoke again. "I have changed, though. Since then. You were a part of that. So please don't apologise."

"All right." Hermione subsided into messing with the tape deck. Her mix tape had ended long ago and they were on to Theo's somewhat meagre collection. She popped something in just as she spotted a lit sign out her window.

"Oh Theo, an inn!" She pointed at the sign right as the Rover began a series of wild fishtails.

"Shit," Theo said, muttering the stabilising charm again and applying himself to steering them out of the spin. Eventually they came to a stop on the roadside a few yards beyond the inn's driveway. Theo peered across Hermione and out her window toward what looked like an old stone country house, situated on a sea bluff and surrounded by rolling, hedgerow-lined grounds. Its windows were lit up warm and smoke chugged from a huge chimney on the roof.

"Looks bloody inviting," he said, glancing up at Hermione.

"Certainly does." Hermione suddenly had a blinding urge to stay there, tucked up in some firelit turret while the sea mist drifted by. "Should we go see if they have rooms?"

Theo eyed the small car park, which looked full. "Yes, but let's not get our hopes up," he said, putting the car in reverse and executing a neat turn.

Hermione peered at the wide, gracious building as they crunched up the gravel drive. "I'd almost use a spell," she muttered. "Make some muggle think they left their stove on."

Theo whistled low. "Ruthless," he said in an appreciative tone. "But hopefully it won't come to that."

"You're in luck," the innkeeper, a powerfully-built man with a pure white beard glowered down at them. "We had one cancellation today."

"Oh!" Hermione couldn't help the exclamation of delight that left her lips.

"One cancellation," he repeated, brows lowering even further. "One room and one bed. How old are you two?"

"Oh, ah, we're nineteen, but," Hermione took a deep breath and tapped her foot lightly to Theo's ankle. She really wanted to stay at this hotel. "We're married!"

Theo broke into a coughing fit and Hermione used the distraction to discreetly pull her wand and transfer the small silver ring she wore on her right hand to her left. She also turned it gold. She grabbed Theo's left hand and touched her wand to his ring finger too.

"See?" she said, holding up their joined, be-ringed hands with a bright smile. "We're childhood friends and orphans, so we thought, 'Why wait?'" She looked lovingly at Theo, who was clearly trying not to laugh. She widened her eyes and tilted her head slightly toward the innkeeper.

"Indeed," Theo said, turning to the man. "Why wait? Especially when she's this beautiful!" He squeezed Hermione to his side with a huge grin.

The innkeeper continued to glare until a tall woman with iron grey hair bustled up behind the desk. "Well, what are you waiting for, Graeme, give them the room," she said irritably. "Sorry he's being such a numpty, Mr. and Mrs.…?"

"Nott," Theo said quickly.

Hermione beamed at him.

The woman reached across the man to hand Theo a large metal key. "It's the smallest room since it's our last, but it's charming and you won't mind the stairs since you're young. £125 a night. Will you want breakfast?"

"Er, yes," Theo said, looking at Hermione, who nodded rapidly.

The woman nodded in return and marked something down in a ledger. "Dining room's shut tonight," she said, "but you can get a pub meal at the bar, which is down the hall there." She pointed and Hermione could just spot polished brass and low lighting through a door which was swinging shut.

"Only other thing to know is that there's a wedding on tonight." The woman looked over small, rimless glasses at them. "Everyone else staying is with that party. So it could be loud, but you shouldn't hear much on the third floor. That's why we didn't open the dining room. It's in use for the reception."

Hermione nodded and Theo scrawled a signature on a page the woman held out to him. "But the bar is open for drinks now?" he asked.

The woman looked at a large clock on the wall. "Just gone four so, yes, Ian will be serving now. Best go down and get a seat before the wedding punters fill it up. Ceremony's not until seven, so they'll be looking to get a cheeky drink in first, mark my words."

"Excellent." Theo handed the key to Hermione. "Darling, why don't you go up to the room and I'll get the bags from the car." His eyes glowed and Hermione almost stuck her tongue out at him, but remembered herself at the last minute.

"Perfect," she managed to say as he turned to go.

"All the way up the stairs and to the left at the top." The woman said to Hermione. "Only two rooms up there on either end of the hall. You'll have a view away to the sea. The other folk wanted the view of the Ben."

Hermione thanked her profusely. Then she turned and took the stairs two at a time.

"Perfect," she said again as she opened the door to the tiny room. Three flights of stairs, the last one extremely narrow and steep, had taken her to the very top of the house, where the ceilings were low and the carpet thick.

The room itself was almost exactly as she'd pictured it in her earlier fantasy—she could actually see the sea mist floating by the large double window. Small but beautifully appointed, with dark-patterned wallpaper, a velvet club chair and a wrought-iron fireplace, it radiated snug warmth. Old fashioned portraits and still lifes hung on the walls and a sweet scent wisped in the air. Hermione spied the source in a bunch of dried lavender laid on the mantelpiece.

And there was a large bed. One bed, as the innkeeper had said, with a snowy white duvet and a mountain of plump pillows. Hermione looked at it and frowned, even as a dart of something went through her. There was no other sleeping option in the room. She would not be letting Theo contort himself in that chair, either. They'd just have to, er, manage.

Just then a light two-knock tap came on the door. Hermione spun to open it and Theo ducked in, bringing the feel of rain and the outdoors with him.

"Gotten bloody worse out there!" he gasped, throwing their bags down and carefully taking off his coat. It was running with water and he hung it in a small closet behind the door before turning to take a long look at the room. "Glad we found this place."

His eyes went to Hermione's and she smiled. "Gorgeous, isn't it?" He looked very obviously at the bed and back to her with a raised brow. "You're not sleeping in the chair," she scolded, readying herself for a discussion. She knew now how stubborn he could be.

Amusement flashed over his face just before he threw himself down on the bed, arms crossed behind his head. "Bloody well right I'm not."

Hermione's combative posture eased and she cocked her head at him. "I'm not sleeping in the chair."

"No, you'll just have to sleep right next to me and try to control yourself." He patted the bed next to him with a grin. "We are husband and wife after all." The grin morphed into an angelic look.

Hermione tried to keep herself from laughing and succeeded for about two seconds. "Fine!" she said, "I shouldn't have worried about it. I should know you by now."

"You really should." Theo propped up on an elbow and looked up, a lock of his rain-darkened hair falling over his brow. She watched him for several beats until she realised he was giving her the smoldering look, the one from San Cipriano.

"That's the smolder!" she shouted, pointing at him. "I see what you're doing!"

His face changed immediately and he flopped back again. "Can't get anything by you," he sighed dramatically.

"No, you tipped your hand a little too thoroughly with me." Hermione was smiling as she went to the window and looked out at the grey, roiling sea just visible in the last vestiges of daylight. She could hear Theo's faint groan in response and her smile widened.

"Here, what's this?" Theo had leapt up off the bed and gone to a couple of crystal decanters standing on a small table next to the club chair. "Whisky annnnd cognac," he said appreciatively, reading the small, silver plaques looped around each bottle's neck. "Just enough for a dram each. Nice touch. Would you like one?"

"Oh, yes. Ideal for the atmosphere."

"Which?"

"Got to be whisky, I think."

"Agreed. One here and then let's go down to the pub and claim seats, as our landlady recommended. I could use a drink or three after that last bit of the drive." Theo dropped into the club chair, poured out two gmall glasses and handed Hermione one.

She sat on the bed across from him. "Cheers," she said, holding out her glass across the narrow space. The room really was quite small.

"Cheers," he said. "To a successful escape." His blue eyes met hers with the warmth of a co-conspirator.

Hermione chuckled, then clinked her glass to his.

"Are these seats taken?" A plummy Scottish accent sounded from behind Hermione and she twisted, a bit surprised. The hotel bar, a small, jewel-like snug with a truly impressive collection of whisky bottles, was deserted but for Theo and her.

"Well no," she said, looking up into a darkly handsome face. The young man smiled at her and muttered a word of thanks.

"Sorry to crowd you," a woman peeked around his shoulder, extremely fair and pretty. "But we're getting married tonight and our whole families are staying here. We want to sneak in a drink together without having to talk to any of them. We haven't seen each other in three days!"

"Ahh of course," Theo spoke up, his quick smile appearing. "You take those two next to the wall and we'll shield you. I can be quite large if I try." He puffed out his chest and stuck a hand on his hip.

The bride laughed and slipped onto the seat next to Hermione. "I'm Lyndsey and this is Grant," she said. "And you two must be the ones who came out of the storm and took David and Lorna's room."

Hermione nodded as Theo bowed his head. "Our thanks to them for ditching your wedding."

The bride laughed again. "Poor David—he's my cousin—he's always had a weak stomach. Apparently it's acting up."

"Ohh, that's too bad," Hermione said. "But we are very happy to be here and off the road. And what a gorgeous spot to get married." She waved a hand at their surroundings.

"Yes, we've been coming here for a couple of years. Knew early on it would have to be the place." The groom tipped Hermione a smile as the bartender came over to take drink orders.

Hermione raised her brows at Theo as they all settled in. Her instinct was to give the couple their privacy, but within seconds the bride had spoken again.

"Graeme, the innkeeper that is, said that you and—I'm sorry, I don't think I caught your names!"

"Oh, he's Theo," Hermione said, pointing.

Theo's mouth tugged up. "And she's Hermione," he said.

"Lovely!" Lyndsey took a deep drink of her cocktail. "Graeme said you're married. Even though you look very young." She laughed. "But then people say we're young to be married too. We're only twenty-three. Any advice for us!?"

Hermione opened her mouth, fully intending on letting this nice couple in on their deception, but Theo forestalled her.

"Never let the sun go down on your anger," he said gravely, taking up Hermione's hand and holding it to his lips. "It's truly our secret." He kissed the back of her hand lingeringly and Hermione felt a swift heat climb up her neck. She cleared her throat.

"We haven't been married long, though," Theo said, dropping their clasped hands between them and smiling again.

"You can't have been," Grant said with a chuckle.

Theo squinted at Hermione. "Six months, two weeks annnd five days?" he said. "Is that right? Although we're childhood sweethearts." He turned swiftly back to the other couple. "We honeymooned in Italy."

Lyndsey clapped her hands. "That's where we're going! Christmas in Venice!"

Hermione squeezed Theo's hand—tight—under the bar. He gave her two light pulses back, and kept on talking. "Ahh, we were nearer the central part. San Cipriano? Tiny, gorgeous little town. Have you heard of it?"

"Noooo," Lyndsey leaned in with an avid look. "But I just love Italy—all parts. If you recommend it, I'll put it on my list."

Hermione sat there as Theo enumerated San Cipriano's highlights, unsure if she was mightily annoyed with him or extremely amused. Finally he stopped talking and turned to her. "Anything I missed, darling?"

She looked at him and tapped her chin. His face tensed the tiniest bit as she opened her mouth. "The disco," she finally said, with a shake of her head. "You forgot to mention that there's a brilliant, open-air disco."

Theo's grin spread all the way over his face. "Of course!" he chortled.

"Theo's quite the dancer." Hermione leaned over to Lyndsey and raised her brows.

"I'm sure he is," Lyndsey murmured, the briefest flash of frank admiration flitting over her face as she looked at Theo. "That's it!" she said striking the bar with her hand and twisting to Grant. "I want to invite them."

Hermione caught Theo's eye in quick surprise.

"Splendid," Grant said, signaling to the bartender for another round, clear from his air that he was accustomed to supporting whatever whim Lyndsey decided to pursue of a moment.

"You'll come, won't you?" he drawled, dark eyes lazily entreating. "Two extra places after all. Good food. Be a lot of dancing." He directed a quick smile at Theo.

Hermione, who realised she was still holding Theo's hand, squeezed it again—this time as a sort of worried question. He squeezed it back confidently. "We'd bloody love to," he said. "And I'll get this round as thanks for the invitation." He nodded at the bartender as Lyndsey gave a cheer.

After a brief skirmish with Grant, Theo laid money on the bar and they all picked up their drinks for a toast. Hermione drank deeply and tried not to be nervous about a night of socialising with people she didn't know all while pretending she was married to Theo... at a wedding.

She took another long drink. Feeling Theo's foot gently nudge hers, she looked up to a quizzical look from him, clearly asking her if she was OK with this course of action. After a moment she bumped back with a slight smile and he grinned in return.

"Hope you don't mind rather casual dress," he said to Lyndsey with a charming grimace. "We've packed more for a hill-walking trip than a formal occasion."

Hermione directed a quick look at him, mind racing. She did have a black blousey thing she'd shoved in as an afterthought, in case they ended up somewhere nice for dinner. She was sure she could transfigure it into a passable dress. "I do have a dress," she said. "But I don't know what we'll do about you…"

Theo shrugged.

"Got David's rental kilt in my room." Grant raised a brow at Lyndsey then looked at Hermione and Theo. "Don't know how she has an English cousin with no kilt, but there you go."

"Oh fiddle!" Lyndsey rolled her eyes at him. "There's one in every family. These two are English, but they're lovely! And that's a marvelous idea!" She narrowed her eyes at Theo. "You are roughly the same size as David. Built very differently, of course."

"Bit slope shouldered, David," Grant said.

"Not every man is comfortable in a kilt, though," Lyndsey continued with a concerned look at Hermione. "Especially if they weren't born to it." She looked at Theo. "Do you want to try?"

Theo grinned. "Absolutely," he said, his face bright.

Hermione smiled at him then bit her lip. He was going to look so bloody— She took a deep breath and shook her head once.

"I can see where your mind is," Lyndsey said sagely, wagging a finger at Hermione. "And all I can say is yes, he's going to completely outshine you. Even though you're gorgeous. That hair is incredible. But, yeah, prepare yourself. Hope your dress is black and tasteful."

Hermione laughed. "It is."

"No woman gets an iota of attention when she's got a man in a kilt on her arm. Lament of the Scotswoman. That's why my wedding dress is bloody huge." Lyndsey swallowed the last of her drink.

"Shit, speaking of a wedding." She looked up at the clock, which showed it to be just after five. "I have to go up for hair and makeup. I'm sure mum's frantic." She stood and dropped a quick kiss on Grant's cheek. "Not too many more drinks, pet."

"No, I'm heading up too. See my dad and stepmum wandering around out there." Grant craned his head to look down the hallway to the lobby and shuddered slightly. He turned to Theo. "Come by in the next hour or so and I'll give you the rig. Show you how to do it up too. I'm in room two. This floor."

Theo nodded his thanks and Lyndsey clapped her hands again. "Oh I'm so excited! Feels like a good omen to have new friends at our wedding. Don't worry, I'll tell everyone who you are so you won't feel like crashers." She grasped Hermione's arm in a friendly grip.

"Thanks," Hermione laughed. "And thanks again for the invitation. I'm—" she twisted to look at Theo, winking at him before pulling his arm around her. "We're really honored to be included."

She felt Theo's chin tap the top of her head. "That we are. And I'll see you soon." Theo pointed his glass at Grant, who gave a quick wave over his shoulder before ushering Lyndsey away.

Hermione watched them get waylaid by a few people who had started to fill small tables and other barstools as they'd sat. "I didn't even know you were here!" one particularly loud woman shrieked as they tried to sidle by.

"Reminds me of our big day," Theo sighed into Hermione's hair. "All the awkwardness mixed with joy."

She leaned back and elbowed him in the side.

"Ow!"

"I should do more than that, Theodore Nott!" She turned on her stool and glared at him. His eyes were practically sparking with glee.

"I will remind you that you started this," he said, pointing.

"I would not have taken it this far, though." Hermione tried to make her voice ferocious, but she was mostly laughing.

"You love it, wife." He wrinkled his nose at her.

"Oh god. I think I do."

"I'm not sure I can buckle the fur thing on myself," Theo called from the bathroom. Hermione turned from the silvery mirror over the fireplace, which she was currently using to fix her hair.

"Bloody rain," she muttered, wishing she'd thought to toss some Sleekeazy's in her bag. But how could she have known this morning what the day would bring? Draco and Astoria and the hallway seemed about a thousand years ago now—thank god. She could barely drum up a fourth of the hurt and outrage she'd felt then. This day and this trip had been such a tonic already.

"Come out and I'll help!" She put one last pin in her hair and directed a sticking spell at it.

"I think it clasps here."

Hermione turned fully around at the sound of Theo's voice close by and gasped.

"What?" Theo looked up, what looked like a round, fur handbag in his hands.

"You just. Oh my god, you look so bloody handsome in that." Hermione put her hand over her mouth.

He was in the full kit—cutaway dinner jacket with bright silver buttons, vest underneath, crisp white shirt and black bowtie. And, of course, the colourful tartan falling just to his knees.

"Turn," Hermione said, twirling a finger.

He gave her a look.

"Turn. I want the full effect."

He turned slowly, shaking his head. "Now I know how women feel," he grumbled.

"Good, serves you right," Hermione said. She sucked in a breath. He was spectacular—shoulders broad and hips slim. He even had nice legs in the long woolen socks.

She looked down at the ruffled black dress she'd managed to transfigure from her blouse. It had looked so cute two minutes ago. "Now I know what Lyndsey meant," she sighed.

Theo crossed his arms. Distracting. "What are you on about?" he asked. "You look gorgeous." He stepped forward. "I particularly like your hair like this." He brushed a quick hand under the coil that hung over the front of her shoulder.

"Do you?" Hermione twisted, trying to see it in the mirror. "I wasn't sure if it was straight." She'd put it up on the sides and attempted a braided thing to hold it in place.

Theo whistled as she turned. "I like the back of that dress even more than the front."

"Oh. Yes." Hermione felt herself flush. "I made it quite low since the front is high."

He came to stand beside her in the mirror. "I think we'll do."

Hermione squinted at them. "We do look well together," she conceded, tucking her arm in his.

"Like Scottish wedding cake toppers."

"Theo!" She laughed and nudged him.

"What, we are married." He made a face at her in the mirror. "Now, I need your help with this furry thing." He held it out to her. "Then let's have that cognac before we go down."

"Yes, brilliant. And what is this?" Hermione turned the satchel in her hands. The pelt was real fur, she was sure of it.

"Grant called it a 'sporran'—says he keeps a flask in his. I think it's true purpose might be to protect...er, well." Theo's face went pink as he held the furry thing over a very strategic area of his anatomy. Hermione started giggling.

"I'm not asking you what you're wearing—or not wearing—under there." She said as she wrapped her arms around his waist to fit the sporran's silver chain. He lifted his arms obligingly.

"Good, because Grant told me it's a state secret. Known only to men who wear the kilt and the women—or men—who love them. Or lust after them, I suppose."

"Well, we are married." Hermione looked up with a grin as she finished clasping the chain.

"Cheeky," he said tapping her nose with his finger.

Hermione dug a spoon into her trifle. The ceremony was over and dinner almost through, and so far the wedding had been brilliant. It had been surprisingly touching to watch her brand-new friends exchange vows, and the welcome from the other wedding guests had been very warm. Everyone seemed to think it was a great joke that 'David and Lorna' had been replaced by what they seemed to regard as a glamorous new model of couple.

She glanced at Theo, who was nodding along with the person sitting on his other side, a young woman a few years older than them who, in Hermione's opinion, had been a touch over-familiar with him since they'd sat down. She sniffed and looked around the rest of the group.

There had clearly been some last minute shifting in the seating arrangements and they'd been put at the young people's table. Other than the woman flirting with Theo—Kelly or Ellie or something like that—there was also Lyndsey's younger brother Alistair—in school and rather precocious, another younger girl whose name Hermione hadn't caught, and a few co-workers of Grant's who were chatty and kept the champagne flowing into Hermione's glass. Other than the small irritation of Kelly/Ellie, she was having a great time.

Theo caught her eye just as she looked away and leaned in. "Muggle weddings are so fun," he said. "That best man's speech." He laughed and shook his head.

"Yes, that was something," Hermione snorted. Grant's blustery older brother had had the whole room rolling with a series of ribald jokes and embarrassing stories. "And we haven't even gotten to the reception yet. And the dancing." She raised her brows and sipped her wine as waiters came around to remove the last of the dinner dishes.

"Ellie tells me the traditional dancing is a blast. Very fast and energetic."

"I'll bet she does," Hermione mumbled into her glass.

"What?"

"Nothing. And yes, I've never done it, but I've seen it on telly and in films. A lot of whirling and twirling. We'll need people to teach us the steps."

"I'm sure Alistair will oblige." Theo raised an obvious eyebrow toward the younger boy, who Hermione admitted had been trying it on with her all night.

"Excellent. I get the fourteen-year old and you get the handsy blonde." Hermione flipped her hair over her shoulder as Theo's face transformed with laughter.

He slid an arm around her shoulders and tucked her close. "Are we jealous?" he whispered into her temple.

"Well, we are supposed to be married," she said.

"Ellie's just helping me with my Scots. Didn't know how many words they have for things. Apparently I'm a bit of a 'chancer'."

"Sounds about right." But Hermione couldn't help the giggle that escaped. Theo bumped her on the shoulder until she laughed outright.

"Are you having a good time, though?" he asked, suddenly serious.

"I am." Hermione looked around. "It's brilliant." The dining room, stone-walled with wooden beams, massive chandeliers and animal trophies, had been transformed with strings of lights, candles and flowers into something warm and glimmering. Noise and laughter lifted the space, along with the mens' kilts, which provided bright spots of festive colour.

"I've never seen anything quite like it," she murmured again, thinking of the comparatively sedate weddings she'd attended with her parents. Even Bill and Fleur—but she brushed that memory away.

"Let's go see the musicians," Theo was saying, holding out a hand to her. She took it, noticing a group on a raised dias at the other end of the room tuning fiddles, pipes and what looked like an accordion.

"Hermione! Theo!" They turned as one to see Lyndsey, in the aforementioned giant wedding dress, rushing toward them, Grant in her wake. "How are you getting on? Having a nice time?" she asked, reaching out to clasp Hermione's hand.

"Yes, it's absolutely wonderful," Hermione said, smiling into Lyndsey's bright face. "Everything is gorgeous and your guests have been so kind."

"We were just saying you'll need someone to teach you the dances." Lyndsey said, gesturing to the musicians, who were now striking up a tune that caused a general cheer to go up from the crowd. People started coupling up and making a formation around them. Someone was calling for Lyndsey and Graham to come to the front of the line and Hermione waved them off, turning to Theo with a shrug. Maybe they'd sit this first one out.

But just then a tap came on her shoulder and she turned to see Alistair, delivering a courtly bow. "May I?" he asked, his public school drawl very pronounced. Hermione rolled her eyes gently, but took his hand, looking around for Theo.

Of course, Ellie was closing in on him. Hermione's internal sigh turned into a chortle of glee as she watched Grant's very dashing grandmother cut neatly in front of the younger woman and claim Theo's hand. "He'll be needing an expert," she called to general approbation.

Theo inclined his head, his smile brilliant.

After that, Hermione didn't notice much else for a while. There was so much whirling and stepping and changing places and making intricate formations, it was all she could do to keep her breath and her feet. Luckily, Alistair was a surprisingly confident teacher and led her through the steps with strong hands and steady instructions.

Hermione was gasping and winded by the time the band called a break. She retreated to the wall as a DJ took over, leaning there and fanning herself, watching Theo be surrounded by Grant and his groomsmen. They all trundled down toward the whisky bar and Hermione smiled indulgently. Theo had such a way with people. She remembered back to what he'd said in Italy about feeling like a fish out of water in Slytherin house and wondered how he would have done in Gryffindor, where the hat had first wanted to put him. How different things could have been… She sighed aloud.

"I'd sigh over him too." An amused voice sounded and Hermione looked around to see Lyndsey's maid of honor standing near. "Come on," she said. "Come sit with us. Can't let them steal your man and leave you all alone." She cocked her head to a table filled with women. Lyndsey was holding court, slapping the surface and roaring with laughter. Hermione nodded and followed. Another glass of champagne was pressed into her hand and she was soon laughing with the group too, time slipping by in a blur of excited chatter.

After a while she put her head up to see if Theo had returned. The DJ had taken a break from a steady stream of dance songs and slowed down the tempo. It was reminding Hermione of dancing with him at the disco and the Halloween party. She wouldn't mind doing so again.

She scanned the room, not seeing him and figuring he must still be in the bar. Hopefully he had hangover potion along with that Sober Up in the glovebox. She chuckled to herself, still watching the dance floor as a few of the couples parted.

Then she did see him.

Ellie had finally gotten hold of him, and for a very romantic song.

Hermione felt her back teeth grind together. Theo was keeping a respectful distance between them, but as she watched, Ellie slid a hand up his lapel and tapped him with her palm. He seemed to have lost his jacket and bowtie somewhere in the whisky bar and was in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, sleeves rolled. He looked delectable and Hermione almost didn't blame the woman, who now directed what looked like a tinkling laugh into his face. Theo smiled politely back at her and Hermione took a large drink of her wine.

How would she feel if he took this girl up on her obvious invitation? A quick word in her ear would let her know that he and Hermione were only friends—that the husband/wife thing was all a sham. Maybe he had already told her. Maybe it wouldn't have to be 'real' for him if it was totally temporary, no strings attached. He'd never see her again and she was clearly willing.

Hermione laughed humourlessly into her glass—at least she'd get the bed to herself.

Then she stood, her thoughts disjointed, angry, as well as surprised and perplexed.

"Would you like to dance?" One of Grant's co-workers from earlier was there, holding out his hand.

"Ah yes, OK." Hermione accepted absently, her mind still muddled and her attention very much still on Theo. Ellie was whispering something in his ear now. Hermione tried very hard not to turn her grip on her partner's shoulder into a vise. He was saying something to her too. She forced her eyes up to his and forced herself to listen. Something about where was she from and what did she do.

She answered with the practiced lies she usually told in these situations—her partially invented, partially real, muggle past. Her partner, Marcus, was it?, was nodding along, and Hermione was trying to gather her wits to ask him something too, when another hand touched her shoulder. She looked over to see Theo himself. He winked at her and then executed a very neat exchange, handing Ellie off to Marcus with a word of apology for cutting in, then pulling Hermione to him. Before she could say anything, he'd drawn them far away across the floor. Hermione caught just a glimpse of Ellie's surprised face before she forgot her altogether.

"How did you do that?" she asked.

Theo shrugged. "I wanted to dance with my wife."

Hermione shook her head at him, the funniest feeling of relief washing over her.

"Did you notice the song?" he asked.

Hermione perked her ears up. The music had indeed changed, but she had been too distracted to notice. Her mouth dropped open as she realised it was the song they had danced to in San Cipriano...the night they had kissed. Theo kept looking at her and she saw his eyes darken. It had been a long time since he'd looked at her like that. He'd kept so perfectly to the friend role, supporting her, helping her, getting her to laugh her way out of heartbreak...

But were they just friends? Hermione realised she no longer knew. What had her reaction to Ellie just now been about? And to be honest, her reactions to Theo generally the last few weeks. The Halloween party, outside the library, in the common room... Even with Draco... and Daphne.

Was it possible to care for more than one person? Especially when the one you loved had let you go?

They turned in the dance, and Hermione put all others out of her mind, focusing instead on Theo, how much he had changed and how much better she knew him now than when they'd last danced to this song.

How important he'd become to her.

How beautiful he was in the low light.

Before she knew it, she'd slid her hand up his lapel, much like Ellie earlier. But she didn't stop there. She let her hand run up, over the small bit of skin under his unbuttoned shirt and around to the back of his neck, which she brushed with her fingers, just like she had in San Cipriano a lifetime ago.

His eyes widened and his brows pulsed up. After a moment, she felt his warm hand sweep up over her bare lower back. He pulled her closer, keeping the intense connection of their locked gaze.

She opened her mouth to say something just as he leaned down to listen and Hermione felt her pulse gallop wildly.

"Can tell you two are still newlyweds!" A shout and Grant's blustery brother danced by them with a huge grin, his voice startling Hermione out of her trance. Theo's head whipped up and his lips tugged up too. He directed a friendly lewd gesture at the brother, who laughed. Hermione noted with a jolt of sadness that the song was ending, had ended. Theo looked down at her and the smile faded from his face. He opened his mouth and reached for her hand.

Anything he was about to say was drowned out, though. The band had taken the stage again and the leader shouted something into the microphone about the next dance. Whatever it was, it re-energized the room, eliciting a roar from the crowd, which jumped up and began forming two lines. Alistair was instantly there at Hermione's elbow.

"It's a Strip the Willow!" he said. "About time! You'll want to hold on to your hat and follow me closely!" Hermione nodded absently, watching Theo get pulled away down the line by another older woman who was shouting instructions in his ear.

The band struck up and everything became barely controlled chaos. One moment Hermione was skipping down the line and the next she was whirling against Alistair's hands, his kilt swinging, knowing that if she let go she'd be sent careening into the crowd. The lights were dazzling and the sound of music, cheers and whoops was raucous. Hermione tried to enjoy it, but started to feel dizzy and hot. Maybe she'd drunk too much champagne for this. Or maybe her earlier thoughts just weren't fitting the mood. At any rate, she needed to stop. She put a quelling hand up to Alistair and ducked out of the dance, fingers at her forehead.

"I'm fine!" she shouted, waving Alistair off when he would have followed her.

Weaving through the crowd, she made her way toward a door to the outside she'd spotted earlier. People had been going in and out all night to smoke and it was now propped open to siphon off some of the heat from the room. Hermione got to it just as she caught Theo's eye from far away across the space. He looked worried, so she gave him a reassuring wave as slipped out into the night.

She walked along the side of the building away from the open door until she reached a small alcove with a bricked-in window. She stepped into it, putting her back to the stone and looking up. The rain and sleet had stopped and the air was like crystal—clean and very cold. Hermione took several deep breaths of it, rubbing her bare arms and watching the bright white moon where it hovered above a scattering of high, dotted clouds. It was calm and quiet out here, the noise from within a muffled cacophony.

In the relative stillness, thoughts from earlier crowded back into her mind. What had passed between Theo and her on the dance floor just now? How did she feel and what did she want? What did he want, if anything? Or to him were they firmly just friends? Draco's image also flared, but melted away again. She was through hanging on to someone who didn't want her anymore.

"Hermione? Are you OK?"

She turned toward Theo's voice as he stepped out of the door and walked toward her. He looked like something out of a romance novel in the dramatic night—with the kilt and the shirtsleeves, his hair dark and curly from the exertions of dancing. He pushed it back from his forehead and Hermione gave a short laugh, her breath a cloud in the freezing air.

"What?" His face was still creased with concern.

"You just look stunning. I can't get over it." Hermione closed her eyes and tipped her head back against the building. The amusement fell from her face and she breathed out heavily.

"Is everything OK?" Theo asked again. She opened her eyes and he was closer now. Right in front of her.

She tried to think about what to say, but her mind faltered and she just said what was in her heart.

"Is it real enough, Theo?"

"What?" He looked confused.

Hermione cleared her throat. "Is this real enough? For you." She may not have thought through what she was asking, but she knew she wanted an answer.

She held his gaze and saw realisation dawn in the sharpening focus of his features, the expression in his eyes. He stepped forward, so close to her, into her. She felt the rough wool of his kilt brush her knees. His hands—always warm—slid around her jaw and he looked down into her face.

Hermione started to say his name, but it was gone because he was kissing her, running his hands around from her jaw and into her hair, tilting her head back and kissing her with all the breathless abandon she remembered with sudden clarity from Italy.

She pushed up into him and he moved them against the wall, his lips parting hers and her tongue chasing his, all of the pent-up feeling she'd been carrying for him rushing forward in her searching hands, their mingled breath.

She'd forgotten how good it was to kiss him. How it had felt like skimming or flying. She almost laughed with the pleasure of it, reaching under his waistcoat to run a hand up his taut back, pulling him against her like she never had in San Cipriano when she'd been too afraid.

She felt totally unafraid now.

He groaned against her lips as their contact intensified, his hand going from her back to her arse, and then he was lifting her against the wall, pulling her up and against him, a knee between her legs. Hermione gasped, giddy. It felt so good. She plunged her tongue into his mouth again and they were open-mouthed and greedy for a while.

Then a loud burst of laughter came from the open door and the smell of cigarette smoke drifted into her consciousness. Theo, breathing heavily, let her down and moved back, although his lips didn't leave her skin. Hermione was certain the alcove was mostly concealing them but she didn't really care, arching her neck as his lips ghosted down a sensitive trail there.

"Mmm," she moaned softly.

"You know I like your hair like this because I can see your neck," he whispered, so quietly she almost couldn't hear. "You have the most beautiful neck." He followed his words with a light nip and Hermione took a sharp breath in. She tangled her hands in his hair and felt him nuzzle into her skin.

"And you can say my name now if you want," he breathed.

"What?" It was more of a gasp than a word.

"I interrupted you before." His voice was amused. "You were about to sigh my name. I want to hear it."

Hermione almost laughed. "Theo," she said and it turned into a real sigh as he ran his tongue against her earlobe. "Theo."

"That's it." He came back to her lips and kissed her again. She could feel his smile.

She cradled his jaw in her hand, a mirror of his earlier movement, and he pulled back to look at her, his face soft and warm.

"What?" she asked, tracing a finger over his cheek to his lips. He took it gently between his teeth before answering.

"'Is it real enough,' she asks me?" He laughed a little and looked to the side.

"What!?" Hermione pulled her hand down, flattened it against his chest.

"Even though it's been one of the true delights of my life to become your friend—and" —he pulled further back and regarded her seriously— "I would have been happy remaining just your friend—I've been thinking about this since the first day of our language class." His eyes glowed in the moonlight. "And many days since, to be honest. Especially lately." He shook his head.

"It's the same. The same for me." Hermione whispered it up to him and was treated to his full smile, breathtaking in the dramatic light of the moon.

She made a sound and reached up to kiss him again and soon all thought was swept away on sensation, his hands running over her body and his lips hot on hers. She lost herself to the moment and to him.

It was a while later when an announcement sounded— vaguely—in the background of their corner of sensation and ragged breath. The last dance of the night. Someone yelled out that the bride and groom had been missing for the last half hour. Everyone laughed and there was a call for the whisky bar.

"Shall we go upstairs?" Theo was at her neck again and Hermione's eyelids fluttered as her hands grasped at his shoulders.

"Yes," she breathed and he took her hand with a long, dark look, before leading her swiftly back through the door.

They didn't make it to their room without incident, getting waylaid on their way past the bar (Theo waving off the shouted invitations with a quick hand) and against their door while he fumbled in his sporran for their key.

"Fucking fur handbag," he muttered, Hermione behind him and doing her best to distract him. She ran a hand inside his shirt and stroked a nail across the satin skin of his stomach just as he got the key in the lock and the door opened. He sucked in a shocked breath and half turned.

"Right," he laughed and gasped, slamming the door shut over her head. "That tickled."

"In a good way?" she asked as he wheeled her against the smooth wood.

"Yes."

She laughed softly in his ear, pushing at his waistcoat as he shrugged out of it and threw it at the velvet chair. She ran her hands over his shoulders and down to his bare forearms, circling them lightly with her fingertips. He pulled back, flipping his palms to grasp her hands, which he pushed up over her head and against the door. His mouth went to hers again and he pressed his whole body against hers as he kissed her softly and achingly slowly. Hermione arched into him and a moan slipped out against his lips; she was completely overwhelmed. She'd known in some deep, sure part of herself—ever since Italy—that Theo would be good at all this. But this good?

Fuck.

Another unformed sound dragged from her as he let go of her hands and ran his fingers down her arm and side to her waist, which he grasped as he spun them off the door and toward the bed. But something in the movement was fast, and a wave of the same dizziness that had come over her earlier during the dance assailed Hermione again. She put one hand out to the bed frame and one to her forehead.

"Oh." She sat down heavily.

Theo was instantly there, kneeling in front of her. "Are you all right?" His eyes were wide and dark indigo in the low light, his hair beautifully tousled. She reached out to pass a hand over it.

"Just dizzy. Maybe a spot too much champagne?" She smiled weakly, hating to cut off their activities.

"Fuck. Of course. I'm so sorry." He started to stand, looking around the room a little wildly. "Let's get you into bed."

"Theo." She stopped him. "It just came over me. I wasn't… All of this was lovely." She took his hands.

He nodded and pulled her up slowly. "Still," he said, his face a bit shuttered. "You take the loo first." He nodded to the bathroom and Hermione nodded back, taking her bag and going inside. She came out a few moments later in pyjamas with clean teeth and face, a few splashes of cool water having chased the dizziness away.

Theo was already out of the kilt, standing facing the window in a t-shirt and soft joggers—somehow just as compelling as in the elaborate dress of earlier. Hermione studied the muscles in his back as he twisted to her. "All yours," she said softly, disappointed with how the night was ending, but also suddenly dead tired.

He gave her a swift, close-mouthed smile before ducking into the small chamber. Hermione climbed under the duvet and sank into the mattress, her eyes closing as her head fell on a deep feather pillow. The door opened a moment later and she felt him slip in next to her.

They lay there for a bare moment not touching before Hermione flopped over into his space and grabbed his arm, pulling it over her and him against her back.

"Much better," she mumbled and felt his amused breath blow against her hair. He relaxed into her then and she arched her neck back into him.

"You smell delicious," he murmured and she felt his lips just ghosting her temple as his hand wrapped around her belly to pull her tighter against him. "Meant to tell you that all night."

"Thank you," she sighed, running her fingers up and down his forearm and feeling a wave of exhaustion coming to claim her. This day had been so incredibly long… albeit lovely. "Theo?"

"Mmm-hmm." He sounded just on the edge too.

She wanted to say something about being glad this happened, about having no regrets, but instead her words were swallowed by mist and dream as she drifted off into a deep sleep.

Hermione woke suddenly in earliest dawn.

Theo.

She reached over to pat the bed beside her, but found it empty. Her eyes flew open and she tilted up, peering at the dim contours of the hotel room, just visible in the flat, grey light coming through the window.

He was there, thank god, sitting in the club chair, which he'd pulled around to look out at the sea. Hermione let out her held breath, then nearly smiled. If he had a cigarette, he could almost be at the flat in San Cipriano, gazing out the windows there. He turned slightly and she took a moment to appreciate the line of his neck and jaw, the dark vee of his nape.

But then she noticed something in his posture. A tension.

Hermione's stomach dropped. She ran over the day and night before in her mind, still feeling no regret.

But she worried at what he felt. What it might do to them.

She got up with a quick movement, padding over to stand behind him. He looked up at her in the glass and his face was very grave.

He attempted a smile. "Is this the Scottish version of an olive grove?" His voice was light as he gestured to the room and craggy shoreline outside with a careless hand. But she knew him too well now. Could sense the hurt just below the easy surface.

Or maybe it was fear of hurting her.

"Not for me," she said, throwing caution into the wind.

He was quiet, so she stepped around in front of him, standing between him and the window now. He looked up at her and took a deep breath. Then long fingers reached for her and pulled her down with him into the chair. She tucked in easily, breathing a deeply relieved sigh as his arms went around her and his chin rested on the top of her head.

"I'm glad," he finally said.

"Me too."

They sat for a moment just breathing. The room was warm, and Hermione noticed a small fire crackling in the grate, a dusting of snow on the beach outside. She burrowed closer to Theo, steeling herself for something she felt needed to be said before they continued on this path.

"Last night, well, all of yesterday was wonderful," she murmured. "But, Theo. I want you to know." She gathered her courage. "That if it's better for you to be friends. If that's what you need. I can do that too." She shook her head slowly. "I don't want to lose you and what we have."

She twisted around to look at him and found him gazing at her, a crease between his brows.

"Same," he said after a while. "Even though last night was the stuff of many dear and close-held fantasies." The corner of his mouth tugged up and Hermione puffed out a small laugh.

She reached up to trace his mouth with a soft finger and he let her, but then captured her hand and placed a soft kiss against her knuckles.

"It never went away, Hermione, despite everything else." His face was serious again, his eyes searching hers.

She tilted her head. "And everyone else?"

Theo shook his head. "Not for me," he said softly. "But I met you after…"

There was a question in his eyes and Hermione slipped her fingers into his, thinking about the nature of love. Did loving one person mean you couldn't love another? Was one type of love more powerful or authentic than another? What she'd had with Draco had been real, yes. But this was real too. She could feel that in each touch and kiss.

She didn't know the answers. All she knew was that she cared for Theo deeply and not just as a friend. Had for some time and maybe, in a part of her, always.

They'd all made choices, hadn't they? Well, she could choose him.

"I want this," she said. "With you. I wouldn't mind doing what we did last night again...if you wouldn't."

"No, I wouldn't mind." His smile was back in his voice.

"Theo?"

"Mmm?" He'd started skimming his free hand over her back and it was heavenly.

"Has it been hard? Being my friend?"

His hand stopped. "It's been the easiest thing in the world."

Hermione turned to him, a pricking of tears in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered, just before reaching down and touching her lips to his. He reached up and they kissed softly, slowly until his hand slid up to the back of her neck and pulled her closer. Then she opened her mouth and the kiss was anything but slow and sweet. She moved to straddle him and he tipped his head back against the chair with a sigh. She feathered her lips down the long, gorgeous column of his throat.

"I do like kissing you," she said against his skin.

"Same. Might be a bit of an understatement, actually."

Hermione gave a short laugh. "Yes."

"Can we do some more of it, but in our massive, lovely bed?" She looked up and his eyes were alight. "Should take advantage of the opportunity. The beds at Hogwarts are so disappointingly narrow."

She snickered again. "Oh, you make me laugh," she said, running her hands into his hair and holding his beautiful face between her palms.

"I love it," he said. "Your laugh. I love the sound of it. I hope I always can."

She rubbed her thumbs over his temples. "I don't doubt that at all."

Chapter Text

"What a nice surprise!" Hermione pulled her desk chair over and sat in front of her fireplace where Lavender's face was currently bobbing in the green flames.

"Do you have time to talk? You're not rushing off somewhere?" Lav sat down too and the picture steadied. Hermione could just make out the familiar lines of her London flat.

"Nope. Just came from dinner and was about to do some reading." Hermione held up a textbook. Theo had just left—reluctantly—due to a Potions essay he'd put off to go away with her. "But it can wait. To what do I owe this honour?"

Lavender looked to the side. "You're not going to like it," she said.

"What?"

"My tea leaves this morning told me that I should call you." Lav tried unsuccessfully to suppress a smile.

"Oh that is such rubb—" But Hermione looked to the side, a grin tugging at one corner of her mouth.

"They hinted that something big had happened." Lavender talked over her. "And I can tell by your face that it's true!" She pointed at Hermione. "What is it and why haven't you told me!?"

Hermione took a deep breath and blew it out. "It's new," she finally said, turning over what had happened with Theo gently, like something delicate, wondering exactly what she wanted to tell anyone yet—even Lavender.

Her mind went back to yesterday. Sunday.

It had been another wonderful day with him.

Hunger had finally dragged them from their lovely hotel bed and they'd gotten up fairly early to eat a huge breakfast. Afterward, they'd asked the Graeme the innkeeper for a nice bottle of whisky to leave as a thank-you gift for Lyndsey and Grant, then stolen away before anyone could disturb them to see the island's sights—which had been glorious.

Hermione had bought a muggle disposable camera at a shop in Portree and they'd taken a whole roll of pictures. In front of landscapes, the sea, the quaint village. There had been a lot of kissing. "It occurs to me that I can kiss you whenever I want now," he'd said. More playacting about being married. A gorgeous watercolour in a shop that Hermione had wanted to buy until she saw the price, but strongly suspected Theo had gone back to get for her (although she'd pretended not to realise). A long, gorgeous lunch in a pub. A surprise stop in a layby, just so he could kiss her again...

A lot of fun. More fun than she could remember in a long time.

Then on the drive back, they'd talked and that had been lovely too.

"Earth to Hermione, come in Hermione!" Lavender was trumpeting through cupped hands.

"Oh!" Hermione started. "Sorry."

"It's Theo, isn't it?" Lavender went for the direct attack and it worked because Hermione felt her face go bright red. "It is! It is!" Lavender sang. "What happened?" She leaned forward.

"We just. Ahh. We—" Hermione frowned. "I guess I should tell you the whole story."

"Oh yes. Please do. Don't leave anything out. I have my cuppa and everything." Lavender held up a mug.

Hermione laughed and then outlined all of it—from the kiss between Draco and Astoria to the kiss(es) inside her room tonight before Theo had gone back to his.

Lavender shrieked in several places—especially at their husband/wife antics and the description of the moment in the moonlight outside the hotel. "Yes! I wanted this for you so badly," she said, leaning back and punching a hand in the air.

"Really? Do you think it's a good thing?"

"Don't you?" Lavender instantly sobered.

"I do. But I worry." Hermione found it hard to get these words out, as they were very close to her heart.

"What are you worried about?"

"Our friendship, I guess. We're such good friends."

"But you've always been more than that too. Be honest." Lavender's brows went up. "I mean, could you see something like this happening with Harry?"

"No!"

"See, it's different with Theo. Always has been. Remember, I was there in the beginning." Lavender wagged a finger. "That first part of the summer in San Cipriano when you couldn't choose. And your connection lately has been—" Lavender fanned herself.

"But what does it mean that I liked Draco more? That I essentially chose him over Theo?" The words burst from Hermione's throat. "Is that fair? To Theo? I'm still wrestling with that. I guess that's what I'm most worried about."

Lavender narrowed her eyes. "Yes. But Theo knows all that. And a lot has changed since then. Theo has changed. Your situation has changed. Draco is unavailable—and has been a huge dick."

"Yeah. Exactly." Hermione nodded.

"Do be a little careful with him, though. With Theo." Lavender's brow wrinkled.

"I am! Oh my god. I am. This is not some kind of coping mechanism. I'm really attracted to him and excited by what's happened. Things are—" Hermione cleared her throat. "Very hot. And sweet. But he's such a dear friend too. I count him with you and Harry as my best."

"Over Ron, eh?" Lavender smirked.

"Yes." Hermione nodded decisively. "So I don't want to lose that and I'm trying to be careful. Although, as you said, I think he's very aware of it too. I think we're both in the same place."

Lavender nodded thoughtfully. "Here's a question," she said. "Are you keeping it quiet at school?"

"No! We talked about that. On the ride home yesterday. We have nothing to hide."

"Good." Lav nodded again. "And what about Draco? Did you talk about that?"

"Not specifically. But it's understood. We've talked about Draco a lot. Before this happened."

"Mmm-hmm, and how are you feeling about him these days?"

"Pretty pissed off, actually. As you said, he's been terrible to me. And no matter what reason there may be for that, he's also bloody engaged. And seeming to try to move on with his new life. Which was brought home very clearly to me Saturday morning. Although the fact that part of me was still somehow shocked by that really annoys me." Hermione shook her head.

"Yeah. I can see how that accelerated things with Theo."

Hermione paused, struck. She hadn't seen it that way at all. "I don't want this with Theo to be in reaction to anything with Draco," she said slowly. "I don't think it is."

"That's not what I'm saying," Lav cut in quickly. "It doesn't feel like a rebound or a 'punish Draco' thing at all to me. Not with your history and friendship with Theo. I just mean it was the final piece to let you be open to this. To be honest, I think you've been considering it for a while—at least since you were in London."

"Yes," Hermione said, knowing it was true.

"Has Draco seen you together yet?"

"Together-together? No." Hermione winced a little. She had absolutely no idea how it was going to go over, but she wasn't really looking forward to it.

"Hmm. That will be interesting." Lav raised her brows. "And what about Theo and Daphne? I personally think he never lost the feelings he developed for you in San Cipriano. But I know he was trying to repair things with her last year, and she's there now, of course."

"He said as much. About his feelings for me." Hermione looked down, thinking of Theo's face when he'd told her that. "And we talked about Daphne too. She's very much with Michael Corner now, despite him being a creep."

"And she obviously doesn't want to hear anything about that."

"Nope. Theo found that out the hard way, and she gave me some pretty clear signals when I got near the topic too." Lavender nodded and Hermione continued. "I think Theo's just ready to move on. We're trying to live in the present, you know? He's been carrying that for a long time." The protectiveness she felt toward Theo rose up in Hermione's chest again.

"But what if she were free?" Lavender said quietly.

Hermione sighed. "I genuinely don't know, Lav. It's strange, but I don't feel any jealousy toward her. And I was jealous this weekend too!" She laughed and then narrowed her eyes. "Some tart was all over him at the wedding."

"Strong language from you!" Lavender chuckled.

"Well, we were supposed to be married!"

Lavender let out a peal of laughter. "Gods, I wish I could have seen that. And you'll have to get used to that with him," she finally said. "It's not his fault. He can't help it."

"Oh, I know." Hermione smiled and shook her head. "You should have seen him that kilt, Lav."

"I can imagine." Lavender rolled her eyes appreciatively. "Jealousy from you too. That's so interesting." Hermione snorted and Lavender held up a hand. "But I don't think you don't have anything to worry about with him. He's not going to pull any of his old shite with you—or at all anymore, I think." She put her chin in her hand. "And you two have such rampant chemistry."

Hermione mumbled something, feeling felt herself go bright red again.

"So, of course I'm going to have to ask you." Lavender heaved a huge sigh. "But what was the sex like? Amazing, right?" She leaned forward, her face bright.

"We didn't!" Hermione reared back in surprise.

"WHAT?" Lavender slapped the floor. "You shared a bed in a romantic hotel room with that man and you didn't fuck his brains out? Have I taught you nothing? Please tell me he went down on you, at least! I know he's got to be fucking incredible at that."

"NO!" Hermione put her hands up over her face and laughed in exasperation. "We both want to go slow, I think." Unbidden, her brain darted to Draco and she pressed her lips together. "Considering all the...complications. And," —she shifted in her chair— "there's something about last year and Theo too."

Lavender's expression changed. "Alecto Carrow."

"I haven't wanted to pry." Hermione grimaced.

"I don't know much either," Lav said. "We had to pretend to be very distant last year after Blaise and I came in for so much shit." She looked away.

"Yeah?" Hermione felt herself tense.

"Yeah. There were just a lot of rumours and she wasn't shy about showing her preference for him. It got kind of lost in the general horribleness of things, but in retrospect, it was disturbing. It really isolated him, I think. Even in his own House." Lavender shook her head. "I don't know how far it went. If he encouraged it so he could get closer to her and gather information, or what. I feel terrible now that I didn't check in with him. Bloody war."

Hermione sighed heavily, her heart contracting for Theo and her wand-hand itching for Alecto Carrow. That bitch was lucky she was in Azkaban and would be for the rest of her life. Hopefully, Theo had helped put her there. "That all tracks with my suspicions," she said. "But it's his story and he hasn't wanted to talk about it yet. I won't share if he does. Even with you."

"Absolutely." Lavender shook her head and was silent for a moment. Then she smiled again. "Well, I have to say I'm all for it. You and Theo. Sounds like you're on the same page, hot for each other, enjoying each other. What's not to like?"

Hermione snorted. "I mean, I guess that either of our problematic ex's could complicate things in a way that endangers our friendship?"

"You won't let that happen," Lavender said, confident.

"No, I won't." And Hermione knew it was true. She just wouldn't, whether she had to mange Theo's feelings or her own or both. "Also, who knows where we'll all be at the end of this year? Everything is so up in the air."

"Exactly, although I'm hoping you'll consider my offer to flatshare in London…" Lavender wiggled her eyebrows. Hermione laughed and Lav looked over her shoulder. "I think my pasta is boiled," she said.

"OK. It was so good to talk, as always. I miss you!" Hermione held out a hand.

"I miss you too. Terribly." Lavender held out her hand too. "Just make sure you're minding your friendship with Theo as well as the romance, so you can keep that piece intact."

"I don't think that will be a problem for us. Ever," Hermione said, a little dreamy, thinking of the weekend and some of her favorite moments. She felt a smile curve her lips.

"Wow, yeah."

Hermione focused back on Lavender to see her brows sky high. "What?"

"I just—I'm happy for you both."

Hermione could tell Lav wasn't saying something. "Fine," she said.

They wrapped up the call with promises to be in touch and Lavender extolling the utility of tea leaf divination over Hermione's protests, and then the flames died.

Hermione sat there just thinking for a while. Mulling over what Lavender had said. What she had said. She brushed her lips with her fingers, feeling better and clearer after talking it over. Some of the nerves she'd felt all day seemed to have fizzled away.

She'd honestly been on edge this morning getting ready for class. Even though she and Theo had agreed to not hide anything, the reality was still a little intimidating. The idea of how people would react. She shook her head. "People". It was actually Draco; she was wary of how Draco was going to take it. How it was going to look to him. Even though he had no right to feel any kind of way about it at all. And she could do whatever she wanted. And fuck him.

But it was still a bit daunting.

She moved back to her desk, then took up her textbook and opened it with a crack, an irritated sound escaping her lips. She and Theo would go public soon, and Draco, Daphne and the whole of Hogwarts would just have to deal with it.

She supposed this was moving on. And Draco was going to have to learn how to do it too.

"Knock, knock." Hermione grazed her knuckles over Theo's unlatched bedroom door.

"It's open. Come in!"

She could hear the thrum of a guitar string as she slipped into the room. Theo was putting the instrument down as he got up off his bed to greet her, a smile on his lips.

"Hello," he said, reaching for her and sliding his arms around her waist.

Hermione felt a shyness come over her, so she tipped her forehead against his chest and mumbled her greeting there. He was warm and his scent brought back memories of the weekend. She breathed deeply against him and felt his hand skim over her back and his lips touch the crown of her head.

"Bloody essay. I missed you," he said.

"Same," she said, finally looking up. She'd barely seen him for the second day in a row, but Potions was their last class and he'd caught her eye with a significant look as he'd turned in his essay scroll. Hermione couldn't prevent the color that had flooded her cheeks at the thought of finally being alone with him again.

His eyes roved her face.

"What?" She blinked up at him.

"You're just very" —he leaned down and kissed her— "very" —he kissed her again— "beautiful." He kissed her a final time and it went long, Hermione sliding her hand up his back under the soft shirt he was wearing and pulling him closer against her. His skin was like satin. She let her fingers play over muscle and bone until he sighed into her mouth.

"So are you," she said when they finally broke away.

"What?"

"Beautiful." She reached up to trace a light finger down the bridge of his nose and to his lips.

He bit it playfully. "Charmer. How was your day?" He stepped back, keeping her hands in his as he sat down on the bed. Hermione went to stand between his legs.

"Fine, I guess. Bit ordinary, really." She raised her brows and he raised his back and she could tell he understood what she was saying: that no one had sussed them out today. No fallout yet.

He looked at her and she knew he was thinking about it; Draco and Daphne and all their complications. So she leaned down and tilted his chin up, then placed a soft, lingering kiss on his lips. When she released him he tilted his forehead against her belly.

"Oh, is this the famous essay?" Hermione spotted a scroll of parchment on the bed over his shoulder. She reached for it and held it up.

"Rough draft, yeah." He leaned back and propped himself up on his elbows. "I always make a mess as I put it together and make a new copy to hand in."

"How conscientious of you!" Hermione gave him an approving smile and was gifted with his dimple in return. She blinked for a moment at the vision he presented, then ducked swiftly to kiss his cheek. But he turned his head at the last moment and captured her lips instead. She bent to him and one of his arms snaked around her to pull her close. Hermione dropped the scroll and the playful exchange turned heated. When she next became aware, she had climbed over him and her hands were in his hair. His were beneath her jumper circling the bare skin of her waist and they were both breathless.

His head tipped back against the wall and he broke their kiss. "See, narrow beds," he quipped, looking behind him.

Hermione giggled and he shifted up to sit against the wall, patting the space next to him. She picked up the discarded scroll and sat, enjoying the fact that they seemed still able to interact like friends between all the making out. "May I?" she asked, nodding at the essay.

"If you really want to." He smiled and picked up the guitar.

Hermione started reading, and for a moment it was silent but for his plucking of the strings.

"Theo, this is really good!" She looked up after a bit.

He kept his eyes on his chord progression, but she saw him smile again. "I hope you're not too surprised."

"I'm not, really. You did pick up Italian very quickly." She looked down and read some more, then skimmed to the finish. She was impressed. The essay was well organised and reasoned. He was a good writer too. "I guess I'm just used to Harry and Ron," she murmured.

Theo chuckled then put a hand over the guitar strings. "Wonder what they'll think," he mused, his gaze going far away.

"About us? Don't think Harry will be all that surprised."

"Really?" He turned to her.

"Yeah, he said something when I was in London."

"Mmm, didn't know I was being that obvious." He tapped his chin and Hermione laughed.

"I don't think you were. What did Lavender say last night? Oh, that we have 'rampant chemistry.'"

He smiled and nodded "She's right. And you already talked to Lav." He looked pleased.

"Yes, she floo-called me. Some rubbish about her tea leaves telling her to." Hermione scowled and Theo laughed.

"What did you tell her? What did she have to say?" He'd started strumming again and Hermione watched him, a bit mesmerised by his bare forearms and his fingers on the strings.

"Everything. She's firmly in support," she murmured, hitching a leg up onto the bed and turning to really watch him as he played. "She said something when I was in London too."

"Really!?" He widened his eyes at her and Hermoine giggled.

"Perhaps we were both more obvious that we thought," she said, which earned her a smoldering little look.

That's pretty." She cleared her throat against the distracting heat that had flared again. His strumming had turned into a melody. "Do I recognise it?"

"You shouldn't." His mouth tilted up.

"Theo! Did you write it?"

"Mmm-hmm." He nodded and played some more of the same signature.

"It's lovely. Does it have words?"

"It does." His blue gaze flicked to hers and Hermione wondered what the song was about. She wondered if it was about her.

"Do you want to hear it?" He asked after a moment.

"I would love to." Hermione reached out and stroked his arm. "Absolutely love to. But only if you want to, of course." She felt her brows crease, and he stopped his strumming again. Then he leaned over and kissed her very quickly.

"I want to," he said with a smile.

Hermione nodded and he pulled back, his playing coalescing into the pretty melody again. It was dreamy and soft at first—then driving in a compelling way once he got going. When he started singing Hermione's eyes flew from his hands to his face. His voice was lovely, softer than she'd have thought, raspier than his speaking voice. Sexy. She shook her head a little—of course it was—then focused on the lyrics, which seemed like they were about an emotional entanglement with someone. Herself? Or maybe Daphne? Or possibly something entirely fictional. The words were a bit abstract, so it was unclear. Hermione had a sudden wish for a copy of them, to follow along, study… She concentrated again, gaze moving between Theo's fingers and his eyes, shut now as he sang the soaring chorus. It occurred to her for the thousandth time how gorgeous he was.

She went a little unfocused again, then before she knew it, the song was over and he was looking up.

"Beautiful." She clapped her hands in delight. "Absolutely lovely, Theo."

He rarely blushed, but she saw a little pinkness in his cheeks now. "Thank you," he said.

"I'm blown away," she said, shaking her head. "You're so talented." She leaned over and rested her temple on his shoulder. "And kind, and funny. Nice to look at. Good at kissing. How did I get so lucky?"

She felt his shoulder start to shake with silent laughter. He put the guitar down. "Flattery will get you everywhere," he said, reaching over to cup her jaw and pull her to him again.

"Do you have any others?" Hermione asked after a few minutes.

"Other what?" He sounded dazed as he lowered his lips from her mouth to her neck.

"Mmm. Other songs."

"Oh." It was a while before he spoke again. "A couple that I'm working on. None so complete as that."

"Will you play them for me? When they're ready?"

"Of course. One of them's about you."

"Oh?"

"That one was a little about you too."

"Oh." Touched, Hermione, reached for him and kissed him deeply. He moved over her and they stretched out on the bed, lengthwise this time. Hermione let her legs fall open to cradle his slim hips and her fingers run up his spine. He made a sound of deep pleasure as his mouth went from her lips to her neck and clavicle.

"It's funny, I brought you some music too," she murmured, hands in his hair again.

"Did you?"

"Well, you were asking in the—oh—car. About some of the songs on the tape. The other songs by the artists."

"Was I?" He pulled the neck of her jumper down and placed a soft kiss on her shoulder. "I can't seem to remember anything right now."

Hermione felt him smile and his teeth graze her skin. She arched up under him and he gasped softly.

"You said you wanted...an education," Hermione managed to get out, even though she was having trouble concentrating too.

"Oh, definitely. I'd like you to teach me." His smile was very evident in his voice now. Hermione wasn't quite sure who was the teacher here, though. She shifted a knee up and ran her hands over his shoulders. His mouth came back to hers and his tongue flicked lightly between her lips.

"Ohhh." She couldn't prevent the sound as it slipped from her throat, or the way she moved against him again. He was driving her insane, even though neither of them had removed a stitch of clothing. Lavender's words from yesterday ran through her mind and she shuddered with anticipatory delight. She couldn't wait to—

"Do you want to play me one?" He was still kissing her.

"What?" She chased his tongue with hers, no idea what he was talking about.

"A song. One of the ones you brought."

Hermione came up from under her warm pool of sensual bliss, opening her eyes to see a deep blue gaze roving her face and a slightly quirked mouth smiling at her. He'd done this a few times at the hotel too, brought them back from some point of no return. It was what she meant when she'd told Lavender he seemed to want to take it slow. On one hand it was slightly frustrating, but on the other she knew he had his reasons. And she wanted to be sensitive to that.

"OK," she said, scooting up gently. "They're in my bag."

He took her hand, drawing her into a sitting position. "Can you stay for a little while?" he asked. His eyes darted to the clock and Hermione saw that it was almost dinner time. "I'll go and get us something." He seemed to read her thoughts. "Bring it back here?"

Hermione had some Alchemy reading and an Ancient Runes translation due tomorrow afternoon, but she murmured her agreement anyway, albeit telling herself sternly that having a … boyfriend?... couldn't be allowed to interfere with her schoolwork too much. And she also needed to make sure he wasn't slacking. If she'd known he hadn't even started on that Potions essay this weekend…

"I can see that brilliant brain whirring. What's wrong?" He smiled at her and drew her hand to his lips as he pulled her up and off the bed.

"We just need to be diligent about our schoolwork, Theo!" Hermione gestured with her free hand. "Not get too caught up in, in—"

"In what?" A grin was stealing across his face.

"You know!"

"What? This?" He leaned down and brushed his lips over hers. "Or this?" He ran the pads of his fingers down her neck. "Or do you mean listening to music?" He looked at her angelically.

Hermione had lost her train of thought.

"Oh, you," she finally said, nudging him. Hard.

He laughed and his head dipped. "I don't think being a sheep farmer requires all that many N.E.W.T.s, anyway," he murmured, nuzzling into her hair.

"Go get me some dinner," she growled, "and I'll give you one hour before I go."

He pulled back, brows up and eyes blue as the clearest autumn sky. "Is that a challenge?"

"You!" She held a severe finger up in his face, but he just captured it with a laugh.

"Get the song queued up," he called as he pushed out the door.

"Now draw your legs up and will the descent!" Ginny shouted over her shoulder, her broom falling sharply as she demonstrated the tactic she was describing.

Hermione tucked her legs and made her center of gravity drop. Amazingly, her broom dropped too, although she began to panic when it didn't stop.

"OK, extend and push up now!" Ginny called, looping back around and nearly standing on her own broom. Hermione lifted up through her torso and, amazingly, felt the steep plunge reverse itself.

"Excellent!" Ginny raised a fist. "Now try it in succession. Get a feel for controlling where you want to be in the air."

Hermione dropped and lifted several times until she was bobbing along like a cork. "I'm doing it!" she yelled.

"You're really doing it! Go on!" Ginny spun, grinning hugely as the low slanting sun caught her hair, lighting it like a flame. They were out taking advantage of the beautiful weather during their after-lunch free period, Ginny having declared that they couldn't pass up such perfect flying conditions when the days were so short.

Hermione laughed in delight as she swooped up and then dipped down, like a gentle roller coaster. "This is fun!" she shouted.

"So glad you finally realise what 90% of the wizarding world already knows!" Ginny's cackle rang out as the approached the rise leading to the small glen. "Now drop, pull your handle up and turn it into a landing," she called, demonstrating again and gliding to a neat stop on a patch of moss next to the stream.

Hermione frowned. She hadn't hadn't really been paying attention to where Ginny was leading them. The last time she'd been here was the day with Draco when he'd been so awful. "Italy was the aberration." But hadn't she come so far since then? She nodded to herself and squared her shoulders, gathering for the drop and correcting a little when she approached the ground too steeply. When her toes were just inches from the earth, she pulled up on her broom handle and touched down, coming to a gentle and complete stop. She dismounted and took a deep breath, peering out over the bright landscape.

"That was a perfect fucking landing, oh my GODS!" Ginny was clapping and whistling.

Hermione whirled around. "It was, wasn't it?" She grinned hugely, and Ginny ran over to sling an arm around her shoulders.

"It bloody well was. Now you know how to do it, you can do it every time." Ginny flopped down on the ground, took a flask from the belt at her hip and drank deeply. "Flying is thirsty work," she said, holding it out to Hermione, who also took a long drink of the cool water within.

"So," Ginny said, shading her eyes and looking up. "Now that I've got you alone and in a remote location…"

Hermione dropped down next to her, puzzled. "What?"

"Don't play innocent with me." Ginny pointed at her. "I saw you and Nott leaving the library last night. I was about to call out to you until it became clear that I shouldn't interrupt an, er, intimate moment."

"Oh." Hermione plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between her fingers. Had anyone else seen them?

"Yeah, 'oh'. And you were gone with him all weekend. Went out with him last weekend too, if I recall. In London together. Very friendly at Halloween. Spill."

"We did go away together. Rather spur of the moment." Hermione explained about the road trip and the inn and the wedding.

"And something happened?"

"Yeah, something happened." Hermione glanced over at Ginny, who started to grin.

"Good for you!" she said, laying back on the moss and waving a hand at the sky. "You bloody well deserve some fun. Casual things are great. Very freeing. I'm enjoying mine with Elias very much."

Hermione frowned. "I'm not sure I'd describe it as casual."

"Really?" Ginny looked at her sharply. "But what about the ferret? Aren't you still getting over him? And Nott is a bit of playboy, isn't he?"

"Theo has changed a lot. He's not like that anymore. And it's never been simple between us. As you know."

"Yeah, yeah I remember you kissed him in Italy. But it was nothing like what you had with Malfoy, right?" Ginny shook her head. "Still can't believe that sometimes. If I hadn't seen the way he looked at you at Halloween…"

"It wasn't then. But it's different now. "

"Wow, OK." Ginny propped up on an elbow. "Does the ferret know about this yet?"

"I don't know." Hermione could hear the defensiveness in her tone. "And I don't care."

"That's the way. You shouldn't care. He's fucking engaged. Even if it is some naff arranged thing..." Ginny lay back down and Hermione frowned at a rock she was rolling over the moss.

After a moment she felt Ginny tense next to her. "Speak of the devil." She shielded her hand at the sky again. "What's he bloody doing here? This is my flying glen."

Hermione's head whipped up to see what was unmistakably Draco, low over his broom and flying incredibly fast. He came over the far rise and did some sort of rolling maneuver around a rock that had Hermione's hand lurching to her throat.

"Fucking amazing flyer," Ginny murmured, watching him. "Annoying, really. I've been trying to perfect that reverse barrel roll for ages."

They both watched as Draco soared straight up, impossibly high, his robes snapping like a black pennant in the sky.

"And that will be the Wronksi. Let's see it, Malfoy," Ginny said softly.

Hermoine felt like squeezing her eyes shut as Draco arced then started the descent, bulleting toward the earth as if he were racing to his death. But instead she watched, watched him fall and fall until at the very last second, when she swore the handle of his broom was about to strike the ground, and he pulled up and turned the dive into a soaring ascent.

"Bloody. Hell." Ginny was shaking her head. "Fucking stunning. But reckless. He's going to kill himself that way."

Hermione felt her jaw and her fists clench. She blinked rapidly as Draco turned his upward trajectory into a lazy circle around the glen. She could see the light glinting off his hair as he banked toward them. She could also see the moment he noticed they were there and recognised who they were.

It was almost comical how fast he pulled up, coming to a complete stop in the air not 50 yards away from them.

"Nice Wronski, ferret. Try it a few inches closer to the ground next time." Ginny's voice was cold.

Draco snorted almost involuntarily, then his eyes slid to Hermione and he looked at her for what felt like a long time. He glanced at the broom next to her and his brows went up. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but shut it again.

Hermione turned to Ginny. "We should probably be starting back," she said, neatly cutting Draco out of her vision.

"Yeah, class in twenty." Ginny looked at her watch and Hermione heard the swoop of Draco turning to fly away.

She busied herself with her broom, picking it up and brushing some moss from its twigs.

"He's gone. Over the ridge." Ginny said. "You OK?"

"I'm fine. Moving on, remember?" Hermione looked up and gave Ginny a half-smile. It felt more and more true as the days went on, but she wondered if she'd ever be totally free of the way her heart lurched when he looked at her a certain way.

"Quite right," Ginny said. "No sense hanging around for someone who's getting bloody married. Or anyone who's not one hundred percent for you, really." She frowned and Hermione knew she was thinking about Harry. "Unless!" She held up a finger. "It's casual. Casual is my new watchword."

Hermione laughed. "As long as your bloke's on the same page."

"Oh he's quite happy." Ginny grinned. "And the thing with Nott, Theo, I guess I should start calling him. Is not casual?" Ginny picked up her own broom and slung a leg over it.

"No." Hermione shook her head, thinking of the early morning scene at the hotel in Skye. "It's serious. Just in a different way?"

"OK." Ginny nodded. "I'm not quite sure what you mean, but I'll take your word for it. Anything to help you get over that bullshite." She flipped her chin in the direction Draco had flown. "And I like, er, Theo, now that I know he was on our side last year. He's funny."

"Yes, I could see the two of you being quite a handful together," Hermione mused, suddenly a bit alarmed. Ginny grinned at her.

"Come on let's go," she said, kicking off the earth and rising slowly. Hermione followed suit, wobbling only a little bit as she took off.

"Look at you!" Ginny said. "Something clicked this time round. You've really got it now."

Hermione flew in a little circle around her. "I believe I do!"

"So," Ginny said, setting a leisurely pace back toward the castle. "Christmas is rushing up alarmingly fast. You coming to ours on the day?"

"If I'm invited, yeah." Hermione's parents' latest letter had confirmed that they'd be staying in Australia for the holidays.

"Course you're invited. Silly cow." Ginny laughed. "But you'll stay at Grimmauld?"

"Yeah, Harry asked me before school started. Might spend a few nights with Lavender too." And Theo—she wondered what he'd be up to, but was sure they'd manage to find some time together. Maybe another escape...? She smiled to herself.

Ginny sighed heavily and Hermione looked over. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Is it Harry?" She'd wondered at bit at Ginny's bravado.

"Yes." Ginny sagged on her broom. "I've done a good job of putting him out of my mind up here, but it's going to be hard to be back down there. I'd planned to spend some time at Grimmauld too and now it just feels—" She shuddered. "And maybe this makes me sound awful, but I don't really fancy being at home the whole time. First Christmas after, and all."

"Oh, God. Of course." Hermione reached out and caught Ginny's hand. "And you don't sound awful. You'll want to be there for your family, yes, but I'll make sure you get some time off too," she promised. "And if things are awkward with Harry, then you can come to Lav's. Her flat is big and her roommate is never there."

"You don't think she'd mind?" Ginny asked in a small voice.

"NO! She'd love it. More the merrier. And now that I think about it, you two would be another dangerous pair…" Hermione smiled and squeezed Ginny's hand. "We both just have to keep moving forward, don't we? One foot in front of the next?"

"Yeah." Ginny rubbed her eye with a quick finger and sniffed. "Thanks, Hermione. That makes me feel loads better."

"Of course."

"Shit, speaking of moving. We'd better if we don't want to be late." Ginny squinted into the distance. "You ready for a little speed?"

"I am!" Hermione nodded. Ginny gave her a thumbs up then wheeled around and took off at a fast clip.

Hermione followed her, her mind sneaking to the encounter with Draco as she flew. It was the first time they'd really interacted in weeks, even if it was just a couple of looks. She was pleased that she'd felt quite calm despite the initial shock. Was it due to time? Resignation? Theo?

She blew out a huge breath and rolled her neck

One thing of which she was fairly certain was that Draco didn't know about Theo and her yet. His manner today had been relatively easy. He'd almost smiled at Ginny's crack. And, although Hermione had no idea what was going on in his head, she had a feeling that once he did know he wouldn't be smiling.

Not her problem, though. Not her problem at all.

Hermione shrugged and and leaned down to put on a bit more speed, following the bright red flash of Ginny's robes as they approached the castle.

Settling further into the soft depths of one of the common room chairs, Hermione chewed her lip over her Charms reading. She finished a paragraph and made a sound of frustration; it was unbelievable how archaic and pedagogically unevolved methods of magical instruction could be. For example, it would be far better to demonstrate how charms were constructed and what elements could be combined to create them, rather than focusing on rote memorisation. And yet, memorisation was the only way they'd learned since first year.

Honestly, many of these textbooks could use a solid revision or possibly a complete rewrite.

Or at least the lesson plans could be constructed in a more compelling way that would have them actually learning rather than just filing things away. Hermione slammed her book shut, wondering how a talk with McGonagall about changing things would go...

She hummed and took a few notes of possible discussion points before breaking for a sip of tea and a stretch. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the eighth-year wing. Surprising, since the weather was awful and forecast to get worse. It hadn't snowed yet at Hogwarts, but it looked like it was going to today. Hermione looked out the huge windows to the deep grey sky as the wind whipped and moaned around the castle eaves.

Everyone must be holed up in their own rooms, cramming—or out in the warmth of the greenhouses. Theo had a big Muggle Studies test in the morning and she'd heard there was a major Herbology assignment due too. Not her classes, thank goodness. Hermione glanced over at the fire in the grate and her pot of tea and plate of biscuits and sighed contentedly. She did hope Theo was feeling good about his test, though. Muggle Studies was the one N.E.W.T. he really seemed to care about…

Theo. She looked at her watch. He had another hour or so of studying before (according to her own edict) she was allowed to go see him. She shifted and her mouth tilted up as she stared into the fire. It was two weeks already. Two weeks since their madcap adventure—since things had changed. She puffed out a short laugh that had Padma, the room's only other occupant, glancing over from the table she had commandeered near the bookshelves. Hermione reddened and opened her Charms textbook again, although she wasn't actually reading it.

Instead her mind went back to Theo and the time they'd been spending together. "Delightful" was the word that drifted through it.

The mix of friendship, romance and intoxicating physical connection had Hermione feeling better than she had in a long while. As if she'd found a port in the storm her life had become since she'd disapparated off the dance floor at Bill and Fleur's wedding.

She felt stimulated, cherished, safe.

She sighed—of course, some of that probably had to do with the fact that no one other than Ginny seemed to have figured them out yet.

She wasn't sure if it was down to luck, their natural discretion or a testament to how close their friendship had been—but the truth was, despite not being overly cautious, no one seemed to know she and Theo were dating. No raised eyebrows or whispered conversations, no awkward silences or even more-awkward explanations. They'd just been allowed to be. Although Hermione was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. And kind of wanting it to? Something in her really bucked against the idea that they would be trying, even unconsciously, to keep it quiet.

Hermione looked up again with a little shake of her head; she supposed if she wanted to force the issue, she could. She smiled, thinking of some of the ways she could do just that, but her smile faded as Michael wandered in to the common area and claimed a seat just across from her, smirking as if her look had been for him. She pointedly ignored him and glanced around. Padma was back at her studies and she noticed Pansy had come in and settled herself at one of the cafe tables.

Hermione tried to refocus on her Charms reading, but her concentration was broken. She could feel Michael watching her. Bloody creep. She looked at the clock again. Still too soon to go see Theo and she didn't really want to leave her nice little spot here anyway. She decided she wouldn't let Michael drive her away, instead redoubling her efforts to pretend he was part of the furniture and taking an ostentatious bite of biscuit.

"Oh! It's snowing!" Padma's surprised tones broke through Hermione's net of irritation. She looked up to see fluffy white flakes drifting down in front of the windows. Padma had gotten up and was moving to the window to look out.

Michael twisted in his seat and Pansy also approached the glass. "Glad we're in here and not out at the greenhouses like the rest of them," she snorted. "Won't be a fun walk back." She looked over her shoulder and caught Hermione's eye.

Hermione nodded and got up, going to the windows too. "Yeah, wow," she said, seeing the flakes lay themselves on the stone paths and icy grass below without melting.

"Looks like it's going to stick." Michael's voice came from right behind her and Hermione started, stepping instinctively forward. He was, of course, standing just a little too close. She saw Pansy glance at them, her lip curling ever so slightly, and really hoped she didn't think Hermione had invited his attention. Hermione scowled, then felt a brush against her hair. Michael was right there again, this time by her side.

Anger flashed over her and she looked up to say something, but just then arms slid around her waist from behind and she was pulled against a tall, warm body. "Nice to be in here when it looks like that out there, isn't it? Theo's soft tones sounded against her temple as he brushed his lips there too. He sounded nonchalant, but Hermione could hear the pulse of anger just underneath his words.

He must have seen Michael's little stunt.

She felt more than heard the collective sharp intake of breath around them, just catching Padma's wide eyes and Pansy's abortive hand movement.

Hermione tensed for the shortest moment then relaxed and turned around—in for a penny, in for a pound—reaching up to touch her lips gently to Theo's. "Very nice," she murmured. He responded, but she could also see the tightness in his jaw and feel the way his attention was elsewhere. She pulled back and looked at him until he looked at her. Finally the tension faded and his brow went up as if to say, 'Well, we finally did it'.

Hermione chuckled in response, realising Michael, Padma and Pansy had melted away back to their chairs and tables. Probably had to sit down from the shock. But then she was struck by the Pansy to Daphne connection, and gave Theo a worried look. He seemed to understand because he whispered, "It's fine. It's time," before leaning down to give her a more lingering kiss.

Hermione relaxed and returned the kiss enthusiastically before breaking it to look over her shoulder at the snow again. "Looks like it finally made it over from the west," she smiled, starting to turn as Theo pulled her flush against him.

But the crash of a a large book slamming to the floor halted her movement with a jolt.

Hermione's gaze flew to the glass to see Draco reflected there. Frozen. His hand upraised and slightly outstretched.

Funnily enough her first thought was something along the lines of 'what's he doing in the bloody common room?' He was never here, and how unfortunate he would be here right now.

As angry as she was at him, she hadn't wanted him to find out quite this way.

Then her mind clicked back into the moment she whirled around, Theo's hand splaying over the front of her waist as if to brace her. Her eyes went directly to Draco's, which were wide and for a split-second, anguished. He was so pale Hermione thought he might faint, and he seemed to sway in place for a moment that hung in time.

Another stray thought darted through her mind—were the others noticing this?

But she couldn't even spare them a glance.

Because Draco was jerking forward, his face flushed with sudden, hectic color and his eyes narrowed to flinty slits. His gaze lasered past her to Theo and his hand went to his wand. Hermione thought it was only a matter of seconds until nobody could miss his reaction. He looked like he was about to hex Theo into oblivion.

Hermione heard Theo's teeth grind and felt his body go from tense to rigid. He made a move as if to step around her, his hand going to his own wand, but Hermione put out an arm to prevent him. She stepped forward instead, looking Draco directly in the face and willing him to look back.

She put all of the hurt, anger and betrayal she felt into that look, and it stopped him in his tracks.

Don't you fucking dare. The words arced through her mind like raw electricity, all her earlier sympathy gone. She felt Theo's hands pulse on her upper arms as her magic seemed to crackle off her skin in almost-visible sparks.

Draco froze and she saw him take a breath. Saw the anger seep out of him in an instant, saw his face crumple and his shoulders sag. A part of her heart cracked for him, even as she screamed at herself for it.

He stood and watched them for a beat, then seemed to almost nod, his features tighter but still bleak, before he turned on his heel and walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

The clock ticked fifteen minutes past the hour as Hermione circulated around that afternoon's Unity class. The students were hard at work designing models of common rooms using classifications other than their Hogwarts houses (a lesson plan Hermione had come up with on the fly, but of which she was rather proud). There was a lot of spirited discussion, a good amount of argument over what should or should not be included—but there was no sign of Draco.

Hermione pressed her lips together as she watched the minute hand tick forward again. She supposed she had skipped the Unity meeting when she was in London after his engagement was announced. But her case had been a bit more extreme, hadn't it?

She sighed, flashing back to his explosive anger yesterday. Maybe he was just as upset as she had been. Or maybe he was annoyed that he'd showed any emotion about the situation at all. Maybe it had gotten back to Astoria and he was staying away to prove something to her.

Or maybe he simply couldn't stand to be around Hermione now.

Who knew? Hermione walked between the desks to check on the first group's progress. Eloise hailed her to show her some pennants Peregrine had drawn.

"Lovely," she murmured, "You're so talented, Perry." The Ravenclaw boy blushed and Hermione swept her gaze around the whole group, "The flora theme was a brilliant idea." She ran her finger over Peregrine's sketch of an acorn. "I love what you've done."

Her head flipped up as she heard Reggie's strident tones emanating from the other cluster of students. She made her way toward them, spent a few minutes settling a dispute about house colours and then drifted back to the front of the classroom.

Thirty minutes past the hour now.

Draco was definitely not coming.

She huffed a sigh, but had to acknowledge that her irritation was mixed with a smidge of relief.

Attention on Theo and her had been rather intense today. They'd known it was coming and even talked about it after yesterday's scene. They didn't want to hide anything, so they'd been a little more obviously affectionate, which seemed to have inflamed the rumour mill. There had been lots of looks and whispers—even some titters and smirks.

Hermione wondered if Draco had noticed. He'd barely been around, even more of a ghost than usual, and when she'd chanced a look at him in Transfiguration this afternoon, his face had been so coldly neutral that she almost felt like she'd imagined his hot anger the day before.

She still wondered if anyone else had noticed it either. So far the gossip didn't seem to involve him. And looking back with a dispassionate eye, she could see how their interaction had been rather subtle. It had happened quickly with no words or spells exchanged, and most of the attention had been focused on Theo and her. She supposed Draco's reaction could have been read as mere surprise. Although, someone who knew him well might have picked up on his deeper emotions.

Pansy.

But would she spread gossip? Especially if it might affect Daphne in some way? Or Astoria?

Hermione didn't think so.

But she'd still been nervous about seeing Draco in close quarters today.

She looked around and took a deep breath. Then again, she probably should have known he wouldn't show.

"All right, class!" She clapped her hands to get the students' attention. "Five more minutes to finalise your designs. And next week we'll build them, so practice your conjuring!"

A chorus of mixed exclamations and groans greeted this announcement and Hermione summoned a smile. "Now, now," she said. "It's the last class of the year, so I'll plan a treat and something fun for us too. Although," she held up a finger. "Conjuring charms are a lot of fun on their own!"

All of the students groaned at this and Hermione actually laughed.

"Hurrah, it's almost break!" Max called, and everyone sent up a cheer.

It was almost break. Hermione could hardly believe it. She'd be in London in just over a week. She shook her head as she walked up and down the rows of desks one more time, contemplating the last Unity class of the year… At least she had a lesson plan for it if Draco decided not to show again. She had no idea how they were going to continue on in the new year, though.

"What are you doing for break, Ms. Granger?" Cora's voice piped up over the general hum of activity and seven sets of eyes swiveled in Hermione's direction.

"Ah, my parents are in Australia right now, so I'm going to stay with a friend," she said after a pause.

"Which friend?" Cora narrowed her eyes.

"Theodore Nott?" Beatrice asked. "I see you with him a lot. He's really nice."

"No, he's her boyfriend." Cora gave Beatrice a look as Hermione's mouth dropped open. News did travel fast. "Although maybe you are staying with him." Cora turned back to Hermione. "He's so handsome. I can't wait to be older." She narrowed her eyes. "Is that why Mr. Malfoy's not here?"

Hermione shut her mouth with a snap. "I, ah, I'm staying with another friend for break," she managed to say.

"Harry Potter?" Jamie asked, nodding rapidly.

"Er, yes actually." A chorus of wows and approving nods greeted Hermione's words.

"But he's not your boyfriend?" Max chimed in, a confused look on his face.

"No! He's going out with Ginny Weasley." Jamie rolled his eyes. "I told you that before."

"Oh no, they've broken up." Cora said to Jamie. "She's dating Elias Penrose now. He's in my House."

"Ace Keeper," Reggie said. "Wish ours was half as good." He scowled.

Eloise shook her head "Must you bring everything back to Quidditch?"

Reggie started to sputter. Hermione felt like she was at a seven way tennis match and was suddenly desperately glad Draco had not come to class tonight.

"All right, all right!" she called over the general din. "That's enough!" The clock ticked to the hour and the students started gathering their things. "I'll see you all next week and let's try to leave the gossip outside the classroom."

Hermione chuckled to herself as she made her way up to the eighth-year wing and took the stairs to the boys' floor. If nothing else, Unity classes provided some comic relief in the stew of high emotion her life had been lately.

But her lightness evaporated as she passed Draco's door. It was shut tight, the frame dark, and she wondered where he was. Where he went on nights like this. Or maybe he was in there, in bed, in the dark... A vision of him sitting against her headboard in San Cipriano splashed across her mind and her steps slowed, but only for a moment. She moved on and was soon in front of Theo's door, which was haloed in light, quiet music spilling from the crack underneath.

She knocked and heard his soft Italian, "Entra!"

"Buona sera," she said, peeking around the doorframe. "What's all this?" It was extremely warm in the room and Theo wasn't wearing a shirt.

She took a sharp breath in.

He sat in a soft chair in front of the fire, which was banked high. He had a book in one hand and Hermione could see a curl of smoke rising from a cigarette in his other. Her brow wrinkled and he smirked.

"Does it feel like Italy?" he asked. "That's what I'm going for."

He took a drag and Hermione very much appreciated the play of muscle over his shoulders and arms. Her gaze also went over his lean torso and chest, skin light gold and dusted by a smattering of darker gold hair that shone in the firelight. It occurred to her that she'd never really seen him like this. She'd touched him yes, but never fully seen...

She swallowed.

"Uh, you shouldn't be doing that," she said, putting her hands behind her and leaning against the door. Her heart was beating rather quickly.

He put the book down and got up, throwing the cigarette into the fire. "I know." He stretched and muttered a charm. Hermione didn't know which one, but she did note that he was wearing jeans, light denim, riding low on his hips. She swallowed again and he came toward her, stopping only when he was almost touching her.

"Am I in trouble?" he asked, leaning an arm against the door over her head.

You are trouble. The thought slipped through her mind unbidden. What was going on? What was this mood? She'd seen many different Theos: light, silly, sweet, confessional, angry—but this darkly sensual version was new. She licked her lips and opened her mouth, but before she could say anything he leaned down and pressed into her, teasing her lips apart with his tongue. The charm must have been something to take the cigarette taste away because he tasted like mint and some delicious type of alcohol.

Hermione sighed, her whole body buzzing with sudden, sharp awareness. He tongued more deeply into her mouth and slid his other arm around her waist, pulling her core tight against his. She let her head fall back against the door.

"How was your class?" he asked, his voice a soft, dark current and his lips on her jaw. "Was he awful or did he manage to maintain himself?"

"Who? What?"

He pulled back and raised a brow at her.

"Oh! Uh, Unity class." Hermione shook her head. "He didn't show."

"What? That fucker." Theo took her hand and led her over to the bed. She sat a little dazedly near his pillows. "Do you want some wine?" He picked up a small bottle of what looked like dessert wine from his desk. "The elves managed to scare up some Vin Santo for my Italian theme." He smiled crookedly at her and Hermione blinked.

"Yes," she said. "Some wine." She resisted the urge to fan herself. Theo poured her a small glass, then topped up his own. He sat on the end of the bed, showing no sign of putting his shirt back on. Hermione stole a glance at him as he faffed with the fire, his back to her.

"That's such bullshit," he said, stoking the flames.

"Draco not showing?" Hermione took a small sip of wine, its sweet, almost nutty flavour warming her mouth. It was definitely what she'd tasted on Theo's lips. "Well, I did skip once too."

"Yeah, after his bloody surprise engagement was announced." Theo twisted around, witnessing Hermione holding her glass up to the light. "Wine's good isn't it?"

"Delicious. And he did have a shock yesterday, I suppose." She smiled at him, but saw his jaw muscle ripple.

"Yeah," he said, turning to look at the flames again.

Hermione scooted over closer to him. "Are you upset about it?" she asked, placing a light hand between his shoulder blades.

"It pisses me off that he thought he had the right to be angry." Theo's voice was clipped in a way she'd rarely heard it and she felt him tense under her hand. "But I should be asking if you're OK." He looked back at her.

"I'm OK," she said. "I'm glad it's out in the open." She brushed her hand down his shoulder to his upper arm. "Did you hear anything from Daphne?"

"No, and she won't say anything." He stared back at the flames again, putting an elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. "That's all ancient history."

But Hermione had met with Daphne briefly that afternoon about their Potions assignment and she'd definitely been quieter than usual. Hermione thought it was very likely Daphne had heard and wasn't quite sure how to feel about it.

The fire crackled and Hermione noticed the music had stopped. Theo's foot tapped lightly on the wooden floor.

"Hey." She contemplated the curve of his back and then moved even closer. 'I want you to know that I'm really happy it's out in the open," she said, reaching out to rest her hands against his waist and sliding her legs down on either side of his hips. "I was contemplating doing it myself yesterday before you showed up in the common room." She rested her chin at the join of his neck and shoulder. "Some creative ways," she whispered, sliding her hands around to his stomach.

He breathed in sharply then tilted back into her. She felt him relax. "Creative ways? Like what?" She could hear a faint smile in his voice now.

"Maybe like this." She brushed his neck with her lips and slid her hand up his chest. "Or like this." She rubbed her breasts, sensitive under thin layers of a silk bra and filmy blouse, against his back.

"Mmm, not sure how that would have gone over in the common room," he said, his hand snaking around behind him to run over her hip. He grasped her there and pulled her closer, until she fit against him. Hermione ran her tongue over the shell of his ear and he shuddered. She kissed his neck again, her fingers playing over the smooth ridges of muscle on his stomach,"On second thought," he gasped. "I think there's a good chance people would have liked it."

Hermione started a low giggle, but before she could get it out, he had twisted—lightning fast—to face her. He knelt between her legs and reached up to kiss her voraciously, then push her back onto the bed. "Move all the way back," he said, a hint of command in his voice. She did, until her head was resting on his pillows. He settled over her and she ran her fingers up and down his back with a sigh.

"I feel a bit overdressed," she whispered after a moment, replacing her fingers with the sweep of her whole palm.

"That won't do, will it?" And she felt him deal with the small buttons of her blouse, running his hands deftly down it.

He'd never undressed her before. The thought blazed through her mind, ratcheting up her arousal.

"This is very pretty," he said. "With the little tie." He finished by undoing the knotted fabric at her throat, his lips going to the skin there. Hermione felt her breath come heavier as his head moved down, toward the blue silk of her bra. "And what have we here?" he said, running a light finger over the lace that edged the cups.

"Please, Theo," she said.

"I think I've told you how much I like hearing you say my name?" He bent to her breast, his breath ghosting the sensitive flesh. She felt her nipples harden and he hummed just before he touched his lips to one through the fabric. She almost bucked off the bed, it felt so good.

"Theo," she breathed again, plunging her hands into his hair. Her mind was simultaneously racing and careening away from all rational thought. He'd never taken it this far before and it was startling how good it felt. Every touch like lightning. She found herself willing to follow wherever he was leading, shifting against him as he pulled the silk of her bra down. He looked up at her for the briefest moment, a question in his eyes, and she nodded. His lips went to her nipple and a moan slipped from her throat as she arched her head back against the pillows. She circled his waist with her hands and ran a leg up the back of his, hitching him against her.

He exhaled on her breast and she could feel his hardness lower down. ExcitingIntoxicating. Her eyelids fluttered and mouth opened as his tongue swirled on her nipple. He sucked and she began moving against him, almost without meaning to, fitting him to her center and rubbing rhythmically. She sighed his name again and skimmed her fingers under the waist of his jeans.

"That feels very good," he whispered, and his hand pushed up under the hem of her skirt. She could feel his fingers slipping over her tights, circling her thigh and sliding up and up, until he stopped at the top of her leg, prevented from going any further by the taut fabric.

Stupid tights.

"Stupid tights," she whispered and felt the puff of his laugh against her neck. He began kissing the skin there, his hand still roving under her skirt. Hermione made a sound of frustration then grabbed for her wand, pointing it at her lower half and disappearing her tights with a muttered spell.

The look on Theo's face when he pulled back was priceless. He laughed again, putting a hand over the smile tugging at the corner of his beautiful mouth.

"I'm a witch, aren't I?" she asked before pulling him down to kiss him.

"Leave the knickers, though," he breathed, a slip of laughter still in his voice. His fingers were just at the hem... so close, so close...slipping almost underneath, lightly—teasingly. And his lips were on hers again and she was arching up, moaning into his mouth, stroking his tongue with hers. He was also thrusting slowly against her and she felt the long press of his beautiful body.

She ran her hands to his arse and around to his flies. She wanted him, so badly. She was almost out of her mind. But he slid down. Out of her reach. His lips stayed on her breasts for a minute, nipping and laving until she cried out. He muttered a silencing charm into the quiet room.

"Let me?" he breathed, looking up. His eyes were dark navy and intense in the low light, his hair gorgeously mussed. The pop and crackle of the fire was the only sound in the room.

Hermione felt herself nodding without much rational thought. She'd let him do anything. She just wanted more. More of him and this feeling and this moment. More of whatever he wanted. He bent to her again and kissed her deeply as he pushed her knickers aside and his fingers went to her core. He moved slowly and languidly at first, but he was skillful and so deft. Hermione let out a moan and writhed against the coverlet.

"Mmm," he hummed in her ear. "Does that feel good?"

"Yes. Oh, Theo." She could barely speak.

"Tell me what you like."

"Just like that. More, just more."

She arched and he smiled into her neck. His fingers sped up and she raked her nails down his back. He groaned. "Gods, Hermione."

"I want—"

"What? Anything. I'll give you anything." He was muttering, sucking on the skin below her ear, the sharpness of it heightening what he was doing below. His fingers were working in such a way that she couldn't form thoughts, let alone words. And she was climbing fast, so fast there was no way she could check it.

"I want— FUCK!" He had moved back to her nipple and pulled it into his mouth, sucking hard. Hermione's peak erupted, taking her unawares. She came on a clear crystal spike of pleasure that arced so sharply she cried out. Then wave after wave kept coming, her surprised gasps echoing around the room with each one. Theo murmured encouragement into her skin and kissed her lightly, seeing her through until she finally came down.

"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," she whispered, realising her hands were clamped in his hair. She loosened them and smoothed it back, breathing like she'd just run a race.

What had just happened? What had he done? She'd never—that many times in a row.

He moved up gently, folding his hands on her stomach and propping his chin on them. The corner of his mouth lifted.

"What?" she managed to gasp.

"That was just very enjoyable." His eyes were dancing.

"For you?" She almost laughed.

"And for you too, I hope."

"Oh my god, Theo." She closed her eyes and did start laughing now.

She could feel him tilt his head and rest his cheek against her. "What were you saying you wanted?"

"Mmm, what did I want?" She shook her head slowly from side to side. "Oh, I remember!" She sat up and toppled him onto his back, moving over him and pinning his wrists lightly above his head.

His eyes went very obviously to her breasts, still spilling out of her bra cups, which were inches from his face. "Anything, you can have anything," he said, smiling.

"It was this," she said, dipping her head and kissing his neck, then skimming up his arm to his wrist and palm. He let out a long, ragged breath and she felt his fingers curl around to brush her cheek. She kissed a trail down his other arm, stretching over him as her lips reached his shoulder again, her hair brushed over his skin.

He groaned a little as she went and she could feel him rigid against her. She bit her lip and looked into his eyes, then rubbed herself very deliberately against him.

"I want... to make you feel good," she said.

He reached up and captured her lips. "You are. You have."

"I can do better." She left his lips and gave him a wicked grin, then began nipping and kissing down his chest, down his belly, making a very deliberate path toward his—

His hands came to her shoulders. "It's OK," he said, holding her in place. Hermione's eyes flew to his and she stopped instantly.

"Are you sure?" she asked, and he nodded slowly, his eyes closing. Hermione moved up and stroked a soft hand across his cheek. "Is everything OK, Theo? Are you OK?" she asked, all of the suspicions and half-ideas she had about him suddenly rushing to the fore. She was so worried for him.

His eyes opened and he placed his hand over hers. "I'm fine. I just… haven't done that in a long time."

"I know, you said since Italy—"

"No, way before then, actually. For that particular thing."

"You haven't, nobody's given you a—"

"Not since what happened at that party," —he sighed and tilted his head back— "the party that broke Daphne and me up. What I told you about in the flat in San Cipriano that night?"

"Ohhh." Hermione rolled onto her back and scooted up beside him, taking his hand and rubbing her thumb over the back of it. "I see." She lay and let the silence twine around them for a while. "Do you want to talk about it?" she finally asked.

He shrugged.

"You don't have to," she whispered, touching her head to his.

"I just." He took a deep breath. "I feel like I've been trying to change myself for a long time. Act differently. Be different."

Hermione squeezed his hand. "You are. You are different. I see it. Everyone sees it."

He closed his eyes. "God, I hope so." Then he turned to face her, seeming to gather himself. "After you rejected me—"

She groaned. "That's such a strong word."

"Let's call it what it was. I don't blame you at all. As I've said before, your instincts were right." His hand pulsed in hers. "But after that. Well, after my first anger about it." He shook his head. "I don't think I'll ever be able to think of that night at the music show in Aquino without utterly loathing myself."

"Oh,Theo, no!" She rubbed a hand down his arm. "You were hurt. I understand. I understood at the time. Hopefully Francesca did too."

"She did. She was very generous, even though she was pretty pissed off at me at first." He almost smiled. "But that was a turning point for me. I felt like, 'What the fuck am I doing?' What, was I trying to obliterate the big mistake by covering it with a tonne of small ones? Was I trying to make Daphne angry, even though she had no idea what I was doing anymore? Or make you angry—even though that would be totally counterproductive? Did I just hate myself?"

His voice trailed off and Hermione slipped her hand into his hair and stroked his temple. "You weren't the first person to deal with pain that way," she said.

He bent his head to her shoulder and kissed her softly. "Thanks." His hand curled tighter into hers. "And what happened with you. I know a lot of it was him." Theo flicked a glance toward his door and Hermione remembered with a start that Draco might be right across the hall. Or maybe he was with Astoria. "But I thought if I'd been more steady, more true, more worthy—of a person like you..."

"Oh, Theo." Hermione put her free hand over his heart.

"So that's what I've been trying to do," he said. "Ever since that night. First with Francesca and then with Daph last year. Even though that was just as friends. And now you."

"Has it been difficult?"

"To be faithful? Steady? Not particularly." He moved up and sat against the wall. "In a lot of ways it's been easier. Calmer. Even though last year was—" He stared past Hermione toward the embers of the fire and his face took on that cold, remote quality she almost never saw with him.

"Do you want to talk about that too?" she said softly.

"Do you mind if I have another cigarette?"

"No."

He got up, pulling a small white packet and a silver lighter from a drawer in his desk and snicking a cigarette to life. Then he turned and stoked the fire, adding wood until flames rose again. Hermione watched him, feeling around for her blouse and sliding her arms back into it. He sat in the desk chair and faced her, smoking, his eyes downcast.

"Alecto noticed me almost the first day of school," he said, taking a deep drag. "Of course I'd signed up for Muggle Studies. Was so excited for it after our summer. And then I realised when I got here—" He shook his head. "We'd been so sheltered from everything in San Cipriano." Hermione nodded. "I had no idea what had happened here. What was waiting for me." He tapped the cigarette into the fireplace grate. "I still don't know why the Order sent most of us to school. But I assume they had their reasons."

"I have to assume a lot of things or I'll go mad or get very angry, myself," she said.

He snorted. "Yeah."

Hermione pulled the coverlet up and wrapped it around her, then moved to the foot of the bed. "And what was it like here?" she asked, settling down and facing him so their knees were almost touching.

"Bleak." He threw his cigarette butt into the fire and reached for another one. "Like something dark had been splashed all over the walls and dampened the light and joy. And it wasn't a sneaking darkness like with Umbridge. It was active and open. We were encouraged to be cruel, to hurt others. Victimise. Especially in my house."

"I heard a little about that. But I know some tried to go easier, tried to reduce—"

"Yes, and were punished for it if we were discovered." Theo picked a bit of tobacco from his tongue. "So when I found a way to shield myself and others, I took it."

Hermione felt her breath catch and hold. She leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees, touched her fingers lightly to his. "How?" she whispered.

"She liked me. She liked me. She liked to have me around, in her office. She liked to touch me," he said, his voice detached and his eyes fastened on the fire.

Hermione fisted her hand and held it rigidly at her side. "I'm so sorry, Theo."

"Don't be." His gaze came up to hers, clear and cold. "It allowed me to gather information, protect people, feel like I was fucking doing something to help."

"But, Theo it was too much—too much to give!" Tears started in her eyes.

"War is ugly. You know that as well as anyone." He reached out and brushed his fingers over hers. "Crucioed," he said, "and by that bloody psychopath. While everyone stood by." His jaw pulsed and his eyes narrowed toward his bedroom door and the hallway again.

Hermione bowed her head. "It was worth it in the end."

"Exactly." She looked up to see an entirely mirthless smile on his face. "All the whispers and the innuendo, the crude drawings and little chants. The fact that I had to let her… All worth it."

"Theo."

"I mean, we never slept together or anything like that." He waved a hand, his voice over-casual. "I think there's magic in the castle to prevent such things between students and teachers. So she never crossed that particular line. She was very careful and very tricky. But the promise, or threat, of it was always just there. And she crossed a lot of others." He looked down and flexed his hand. "The implication that as soon as I was out of school..."

"And that must have felt like that was a foregone conclusion. At least for a while."

He pulled in a lungful of smoke and exhaled. "Very much so." He got up out of his chair, went to the window and threw it open. "Bloody suffocating in here."

Hermione looked at his profile and felt a rage so hot and melting even the blast of cold, night air couldn't tamp it down. "If she weren't in Azkaban, I'd kill her," she said, her voice low. Theo turned to her in surprise, his face raw. He blinked several times as Hermione fought down the wave of almost-nausea that was swamping her. Magic prickled under her skin.

"Thank you," he whispered after a moment. "No one's ever—since Daph." He closed his eyes. "Thanks for being on my side, Hermione."

"Of course. Of course, Theo." Hermione felt the anger seep out of her, replaced by a deep sadness. She bowed her head. Yes, they'd won, but it had taken so much from so many of them.

"The information you gave," she said after a few silent moments. "It helped. I've heard that from several sources."

"That's what I understand." He had turned back toward the glass.

Hermione pulled her blanket tighter around her and took a deep breath of frigid air. She looked at Theo framed in the window, his beautiful form, so dear to her now. She got up swiftly and stood behind him.

"Theo?"

"Mmm?"

"Is it all right if I touch you?"

He looked at her in the glass. "Yes."

She wrapped her arms, still holding the blanket, around him from behind and rested her cheek against his back. He shut the window again, then wrapped his arms around hers.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered.

His head bowed. "Thank you. For listening," he finally said. Then he turned in her embrace, cupping her jaw with his hand. "You're the only person I've talked to about it."

"Thank you for trusting me with it."

He looked at her tenderly, then reached down to kiss her. "So you see now why I—?"

"Yes. I see."

"I don't want it to define me, though."

He frowned and she reached up to touch his face again.

"Well, why don't you take the lead and I'll check in?"

He nodded and then the corner of his mouth slowly tilted up. "I wouldn't mind if we lay on the bed again," he said. "And if you touched me some more." He bent and touched his lips to hers, then pulled her with him down to the mattress.

"Anything you want," she murmured. "Anything at all."

Hermione unrolled the small piece of parchment that had appeared under her door that morning and rechecked the time. Six o'clock—she was going to be a few minutes early. She stopped and leaned against a pillar to kill time, eyes going over the whole message, although she'd memorised it by now.

Ms. Granger,

Please come to my office this evening at 6 p.m. for a discussion of Unity Course requirements. Password: Conifer

-MM

She heaved a sigh. One of the students must have talked to the headmistress about Draco and her, and the patchy nature of their instruction. Probably Cora. Or maybe Beatrice…

Hermione tapped her fingers and stared up at the ceiling. Not that she blamed them; she'd have done the same herself when she was a first-year. But she didn't relish the upcoming conversation. She glanced at her watch—five minutes until six—and pushed off of the pillar.

Or maybe, she thought hopefully, she had the wrong read on the situation and the Headmistress just wanted a chat about some of Hermione's Unity Course topic choices. Maybe she even wanted to repeat them. If so, this might be a good time to introduce the core course lesson plan revision concept as well… That would be very good, efficient. Hermione's outlook brightened as she muttered the password to the gargoyle and began climbing the curving stair to the Headmistress's wing.

She was nearly humming when she reached the top, her brain cycling through which core courses she'd most like to see changed—Charms first and then possibly Potions. She'd stay away from Transfiguration for the time being—when she was brought up short.

Draco was leaning against the wall in the hallway, arms and legs crossed, one finger tapping on his arm. He looked over slowly as she approached, but started when he saw it was her. Hermione had frozen herself, her hand clutching tightly to the polished wood banister and her throat constricted.

For some reason she flashed on Theo and last night, as if she should feel guilty.

Anger followed almost immediately and galvanized her into movement. She stepped off the stair and into the hall. She had nothing to feel bloody guilty about. She gave Draco a challenging glare as she took the wall on the other side of the hallway and busied herself with her book bag.

Why hadn't it occurred to her that he might be here too? McGonagall knew about them, had likely paired them for that very reason. Of course she was going to force them to talk together about why they were failing to properly teach the class.

She snuck a glance at Draco as she pretended to examine a broken quill. He was looking down so she let her eyes linger. It was the first time she'd really seen him since Sunday.

He was thin and pale. Like he hadn't been sleeping and had been drinking. And something in the purple circles under his eyes and hunted look on his face reminded her of sixth year.

Still bloody breathtaking though. His long legs and graceful posture. The sharp cut of his jaw. His hair falling over his forehead just so. Hermione's fingers tingled with a physical memory of running through that hair, brushing it back to see his eyes glint silver as they lit on hers.

She sighed involuntarily—and audibly. Then felt instant mortification. And guilt: but the other way around this time.

What was she  doing ? And after she and Theo had been so intimate last night...

Draco's eyes whipped up and he cleared his throat. "She put her head out just now. Running a few minutes behind. Got somebody in there." He made brief eye contact before nodding once and looking down.

Hermione was floored. His voice held the raspy quality with which she had become familiar—like it pained him to speak to her. But he had voluntarily spoken to her. When was the last time he'd done that? Their first Unity class? Her mouth opened and closed.

"Thanks," she finally managed to say.

He nodded again.

Hermione fiddled with the strap on her bag and tilted back against the wall, focusing on the stonework running along the upper edge of the hallway. What was he playing at? Was he being polite? Maybe now that the surprise had worn off, he was relieved about Theo and her. Maybe he could feel more free about Astoria...

Hermione glanced at her watch in agitation, willing the headmistress to appear. As she looked back up, her eyes caught on him again—and caught him watching her.

He looked anything but polite.

His gaze was almost hungry as it swept up from her toes to her face. He passed a hand over his mouth and, when he realised she was looking too, went rigid and turned his head away.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. What was going on?

A large part of Hermione wanted to just ask. Not that she'd get a straight answer. And she didn't even know if she wanted or needed an answer anymore. Her mind went to Theo and the things he'd told her last night—the things they'd done. She felt so close to him now and couldn't imagine betraying him.

She sniffed and looked to the Headmistress's door, which at that moment swung open in a gust of movement and speech. McGonagall was ushering someone out—a middle-aged wizard who was thanking her for meeting with him.

"Not to worry, Mr. Solomon," she said. "We'll get him back on track soon enough." She waved the man down the stairs and turned to Draco and Hermione, her face setting into more severe lines. So it wouldn't be a congratulatory discussion of creative class topics.

"Mr. Malfoy, Ms. Granger. Come in." McGonagall stepped aside and motioned to the door. Draco looked to Hermione and inclined his head. She swept through, not looking at him.

"Take a seat, please." McGonagall settled herself in the large armchair behind her desk and adjusted her glasses. Hermione perched on the edge of one the chairs opposite and Draco folded elegantly into the other.

The Headmistress fixed them both with a glare.

"I asked you here because I understand that coverage and execution of your Unity Classes has been sub-par." She folded her hands and blinked. "Needless to say, I'm disappointed."

An uncomfortable silence stretched in the room.

McGongall's lips pressed together in a thin, straight line and she looked at Hermione. "Ms. Granger, I know I gave you leave to go to London last month, but I assumed you'd arranged lesson plans with Mr. Malfoy prior to that. As it was, I believe there was no plan for that day and the students" —she looked down at a piece of parchment on her desk—"played Exploding Snap in inter-house teams?" She looked up, brows raised, and Draco shifted uncomfortably. Hermione had to restrain herself from glancing to the side at him.

"And just this week, it seems Ms. Granger that you 'winged it' yourself when Mr. Malfoy failed to attend class. And although the… 'common room design project'... was slightly better than card games, by all accounts it was very inadequately planned."

McGonagall sifted through the papers on her desk. "In fact, all of the lessons seem poorly thought out and executed, and none of them seem to have involved the two of you teaching together. Which, I don't think I have to emphasise, is a crucial component of this program."

McGonagall looked up again and Hermione fought the very real urge to squirm in her seat. She noted one of Draco's long fingers tapping against his thigh.

"And," the Headmistress continued, her look very severe now, "I do not intend on changing class assignments or ending the program prematurely. You have four more months of this when you return from the winter holidays and I expect you to execute it properly. If there is a reason you cannot do that, you should tell me now. But I warn you if the reason is personal, it will not be sufficient."

Her eyes were like flint as she finished speaking.

Heat had flooded up Hermione's neck and over her cheeks during this recitation, as it was born on her how much she'd failed the students, and herself. It was so unlike her not to plan, not to make her work the best it could be. She'd let pettiness cloud her judgement and that was unacceptable. She opened her mouth to say something to that effect, but Draco spoke first.

"I'd like to apologise," he said, his deep voice strong and smooth. He leaned forward. "To you and to Ms. Granger." He nodded gravely at Hermione and she swallowed. Hearing him speak like this—it was almost as if they were back in Italy when he would actually say more than three words to her at a time.

"Ms. Granger and I have been" —his eyes slid to the side and met hers for the briefest moment— "busy. And I believe we thought we could split the classes, and the workload, without poor effect. But that clearly has not been the case. And I admit." He looked down. "That I let some... personal... matters, ah, get in the way." He looked up again and this time Hermione couldn't prevent herself from staring at his striking profile. "But I've resolved not to do that anymore." He didn't so much as glance over, but Hermione could feel that he was talking directly to her. "I'm going to do better," he said after a beat, sitting back and nodding.

Hermione realised her mouth had dropped open. She shut it. The Headmistress looked expectantly at her.

"And I will, uh. Do the same. And I also apologise," she said, a model of erudition.

"Fine." McGonagall's eyes flicked between them. "Classes will start again after break in the third week of January. I suggest you meet before then and do some planning for the term." She glanced down at her notes again. "I'm informed you actually seem to have the last class of this year in hand, so you can continue on with that. And, of course, I expect you will both be present to teach?" She looked at them over her glasses and they nodded.

"Yes, the, uh, plan is to have the students conjure models of the common rooms they designed last week," Hermione said, looking quickly at Draco.

He nodded again. "I'll be there."

"Good." The Headmistress stood and Hermione scrambled up as well. Draco started to rise, but McGonagall put out a hand. "Mr. Malfoy, will you remain for a few moments?" Her manner changed again and Hermione noted her stern look give way to something softer.

Draco mumbled his assent and Hermione found herself shown out the door. She walked down the hall and down the stairs in a sort of daze, looking over her shoulder several times.

What had just happened? Had Draco really just apologised in a roundabout way? Told her that he was going to do better?

What did it mean?

And why should she care?

Hermione stopped and sagged against the wall, closing her eyes and taking deep breaths, trying to ease the racing feeling in her heart.

Her eyes flew open—and she was going to have to meet with him face-to-face at some point. They were going to have to talk to each other. And speaking of talking, what the bloody hell had gone on in there? She hadn't heard such a long speech from Draco all year. He'd sounded like his old self.

She'd missed it. So much.

Her hand flew to her forehead and she rubbed between her brows. Asked herself again, what was she doing?

"Being ridiculous," she said aloud to the empty corridor. One indirect apology did not make up for the last three months, nor did it change anything. And her reaction to Draco… Well, she couldn't help that she still found him... compelling. That a part of her still yearned for him. But it didn't have to mean anything, did it? She still had control over her actions and her behaviour.

And Theo. Her whole self seemed to sigh as she thought of him and last night. His dark mood, his beauty, the things he'd shared with her, the achingly good physical sensations... She inhaled, parts of her body pulsing with memory. And her heart was certainly with him too—she thought tenderly of the moment when she'd wrapped her arms around him and he'd thanked her for listening. The depth of their connection was very real.

"Right," she said as she straightened off the wall and stiffened her spine. All of this was uncharted, and she'd just have to soldier on and manage each feeling as it came up. Draco remained unavailable. Some part of Theo was probably still in love with Daphne. And Hermione still seemed to care for both of them. But there was nothing she could do to change any of it. All she could do was be aboveboard with others and honest with herself.

She started walking again, wondering how Theo felt about it all. They'd barely spoken about Daphne since they'd gotten together—the subject felt a little taboo now. But she wondered if it was the same for him as it was for her with Draco. Attraction and longing like an itch that wouldn't go away? With something reciprocal in it stoking the flame—she flashed to Draco's face tonight as his eyes had raked over her. Did Daphne feel the same? Did a part of her still ache for Theo? He certainly wouldn't be easy to get over. Hermione knew that intimately now.

She exited the tower and hurried across the frosted grass of the courtyard, clutching her coat close to her body to ward off the chill. Reaching the Divination Tower, she yanked its door open and slipped into the welcome warmth, her mind still in a whirl. She was meeting Daphne tomorrow for a session on their Potions project. And it would be very interesting to see how it went.

"I'm going to be late."

"Isn't that a shame."

"No really, Theo!" Hermione looked at her watch over his shoulder as his stubble tickled her jaw.

"And what could possibly be so important?" Theo drew back, his eyes smiling down into hers. He showed no sign of letting her up from the shadowy bit of corridor he currently had her pressed against.

"I'm, er, meeting Daphne. For our Potions project."

"Oh." Theo's smile and his arm dropped. He stepped back. "I'll walk you, then."

"Are you sure?" Hermione glanced up at him, a little incredulous.

"Yes," he said, reaching down to kiss her lightly on the nose.

Hermione's thoughts from the evening before crowded her mind.

She took his hand. "How is all this going for you?" she asked tentatively, waving a hand. "With Daph and...us?"

He lifted his brows at her and paused before he spoke. "Mostly it's fine, but maybe with a dash of 'it's complicated'?" He frowned. "Is that too honest?"

"No, not at all." Hermione rushed to reassure him, thinking of herself with Draco yesterday. "I think it's natural. And I love that you can be honest with me. I always want you to." She smiled up at him and he stopped, giving her the sweetest look in return.

"It's one of my favourite things about us," he said.

They kept looking at each other for a beat before turning and approaching the stairs to the lower level. Hermione opened her mouth to ask him about plans for the weekend—they needed to pick up their instant camera film from the shop in Inverness and she fancied another beach walk—when a raised voice cut across the space.

Daphne's voice.

Theo tensed and his hand clutched at hers. Hermione instinctively held him back when he started forward, shaking her head silently. His face, taut with concern, relaxed a touch and he nodded back at her. They waited on the stairs, just before the curve that would reveal the lower hallway to them.

"I know what's fucking going on!" Daphne's voice again, low and throbbing.

"Babe, you've got it all wrong." Michael. His tone soft and pleading.

Theo and Hermione's eyes met and their faces both twisted.

"I saw you, Michael. Do you think I'm an idiot?" Daphne sounded like she was starting to cry. Hermione could see the anguished indecision in Theo's face. It was obvious he wanted to go to her, protect her. But was that a good idea? Hermione shook her head at him again. She didn't think Daphne would welcome that—would welcome any interference right now. Theo closed his eyes and looked like he was taking deep breaths.

There was a silence then Michael spoke in the kindest, softest voice. "What you saw was taken out of context. Let me explain. Make it right." A sharp inhale, then a muted sob from Daphne. "Give me a chance? Please, my love." There was a desperate, but silken tone to his words. Hermione sucked in a silent breath. Damn, he was good. It was just as she'd suspected. He showed a different face to Daphne.

"OK, but I have this thing." Daphne sniffed. She sounded indecisive.

"Blow it off. Fuck all of them. Everyone else. Just come with me and let me make it right." The dark promise in Michael's voice would be bloody effective if one didn't know it was manufactured. Hermione shivered involuntarily.

Theo's hand was now clamped on hers so tightly that it hurt. She looked over and his jaw was rigid. She ran her free hand over his arm and he released slightly, but kept her fingers twined with his.

"All right. Let me just leave a note," Daphne said.

Hermione looked at Theo. The other two would be coming up the steps in a matter of minutes. She hitched her head toward the upper level and he nodded once. They climbed quickly and silently until they were at the ground floor and then slipped out the door and started walking briskly away from the building.

Finally when they were a good distance away, Theo stopped and blew out a huge breath.

"Are you OK?" Hermione asked.

"That arsehole," Theo exploded. "I know he's cheating on her. I suspected already. But now?" He shook his head and started pacing.

"Do you want to go talk to her again?"

Theo stopped pacing. "Would that bother you?"

Hermione took his hand. "No."

He drew her swiftly to him and kissed her. "Thank you. But I don't think so." He let her go and leaned against the wall. "I don't think she'd welcome that. I don't think it would do any good." He shrugged. "It's no longer my job to be her keeper. She made that clear enough the last time we talked."

But did he wish it still was? The thought floated through Hermione's mind with a trace of sadness.

"OK," she said. "But If you change your mind and want to talk to her, I don't want to be a barrier to that. I know how deeply you care for her. And he's a fucking snake."

Theo turned to her, a crease between his brows. As was so often the case with them, she got the feeling that he knew exactly what she was thinking. After a moment, he stepped forward and pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly. She felt his lips touch her hair and his deep inhale.

"I just." His fingers spasmed on her back. "I feel like it's my fault that she likes cunts like that. Like I created the pattern with my shitty behaviour. And now she's drawn to cheats and manipulators."

Hermione closed her eyes against the rough tweed of his jacket. "Oh Theo, no." She squeezed him tighter. "Don't say that. You are not a cheat or a manipulator. If anything, your friendship with Daphne is the anchor that's going to show her how wrong this is. Plus," she drew back and looked into his eyes. "Michael is sneaky. What we just heard is evidence that he acts very differently to Daphne than he does to the rest of us. But it's only a matter of time until he slips up. She's already seen something."

Theo nodded slowly.

Hermione reached up to touch his face, and he tilted his cheek into her hand. "I think all we can do is be there for her when that happens," she said. He nodded again and closed his eyes.

"I hope you're right." He reached down to gently brush her lips with his.

"So, Inverness tomorrow?" Hermione opened the door to show Theo out of her bedroom. He'd walked her back after class, but had stated his intention of staying only a little while.

"Yes, thank god it's finally Friday. Been a bit of a week." He smiled tiredly.

Hermione nodded. Had it really only been five days since their big reveal? It felt like much longer.

Theo yawned. "Sorry." He touched his forehead to hers. "Didn't sleep all that well last night. And of course that was after I was up late."

Hermione flushed. He'd been up late because of her.

"Well get a good rest tonight, so we can set out early," she said, tilting her chin up to give him a quick kiss.

"All right." But he turned it into a longer kiss, which she hardly minded

"On second thought, sleep is overrated," he murmured, pushing the door closed and Hermione against it.

She let herself get lost in him—so easy to do—until he pulled back to yawn again, for much longer this time.

"All right, you. Get out of here and go to bed." She shook a finger in his face.

He captured it and placed it to his lips. "Sure you don't want to come with me?"

"No! Ah, well—" His eyes went deep blue as he shamelessly deployed his smoldering look, then bent his head to her neck. "I know what you're doing!" she shouted. She felt him smile as he nipped her skin.

"OK, OK, I'll go. But you're going to pay tomorrow night." He smoldered again and Hermione felt a very distinct part of her anatomy throb. She pushed him out of the room before she forgot herself, but couldn't help watching as he walked down the hall. The view was very nice.

Finally she ducked back in and shut the door, contemplating her plans for the evening. She wasn't tired at all and had a lot of reading to do. A few Arithmancy proofs to tackle. And she also wanted to organise her witch-burning notes into a rough outline. She had so much material and was eager to give it structure.

Read or write first? Hermione squinted at her piles of books and tried to decide. Finally she nodded once—the reading and proofs were mandatory, so they'd have to take priority. She cracked the spine of her Alchemy book and settled on her bed.

She did wonder why Theo had had trouble sleeping, though.

She looked up from the text. If anything their, er, activities the night before should have tired him out, or at least relaxed him… Could it be because of Daphne and Michael? Was he brooding about it?

She marked her place in the book and closed it absentmindedly. Daphne had looked drawn and distracted when she'd found Hermione to apologise for skipping their meeting. Hermione had actually wondered how she was sleeping. She had to feel off-kilter about Michael. No matter how skillfully he'd apologised, Daphne had still seen something that upset her. Although, Michael did seem to be pulling out all the stops. Hermione had overheard Pansy saying he'd taken her to London tonight for the weekend. Surprise trip with a show and a stay in a hotel.

Hermione snorted. She wondered if he'd bought her flowers and jewelry too.

Hermione opened her book again. Anyway, the vast majority of her hoped that whatever Michael was up to wouldn't work and Daphne would cut him loose—preferably in a public and humiliating way. He richly deserved it. Daphne was a good person and Hermione hated to see her being played.

And she hated what it did to Theo.

There was the rub, wasn't it?

Daphne and Theo. What would Theo do if Daphne were single? The question of the hour, it seemed. Hermione had told Lavender she wasn't jealous, and jealousy wasn't precisely what she felt when she contemplated the possibility—of what? Losing Theo to Daphne?

But she wouldn't lose him, would she? She'd still have his friendship. She knew that deep down. He would never abandon her. Like Harry or Ron, he was a part of her life now and would be forever. That had been cemented between them these last few months.

Even though it would be different. Hermione couldn't conceive of a girlfriend who would be OK with weekend getaways and bedroom hangouts and snuggly study dates. She and Theo would definitely have to redefine what they were to each other. Be more like they were at the beginning of the year or in San Cipriano.

She sighed.

And to be very honest, she would miss the romantic side of it a lot. No one had made her feel like Theo did from a purely physical standpoint. She cleared her throat. He was... very skilled. And she loved the closeness, the connection they felt to each other.

She smoothed the page of the Alchemy text and looked down.

"No sense in worrying about it before it happens," she said to the picture of Nicholas Flamel that stared back at her. And besides, the end of the year was coming up fast. The next term would go even faster as they raced toward their N.E.W.T.s. If she and Theo were still together at the end of school, what would happen then? A break of a different kind? Or the next step toward something more serious?

Did she even want that at this point in her life?

She drew a question mark in the margin of her text book. She and Draco had talked of traveling after school, and in the rush of first love (and the shadow of the war) she hadn't really thought too much about what that meant. She couldn't help wondering about it now.

She stopped her quill; her doodle had turned into a whole field of question marks. Making a sound of frustration, she readjusted herself on the bed, sitting straighter and crossing her legs. One thing was clear; she wasn't going to solve anything tonight and this book wasn't going to read itself. Determinedly, she bent her head to the page and started again.

Around midnight Hermione put the last period on her outline, then looked up and stretched. She'd finally managed to be productive and was quite satisfied with her progress; the proofs sat neatly complete on her desk and she'd finished her Alchemy reading for the rest of the year. And, she held up her scroll and regarded it admiringly, this was the beginning of a very solid outline.

Funny, she still wasn't tired, either. And the regimented study time had lightened her earlier mood. She got up, almost cheerful, to draw the drape and look out the window. It was pitch dark, a heavy cloud bank blotting out the moon and stars. She could just make out the glassy surface of the lake in the distance and the silent shape of an occasional owl swooping past.

She put her fingers to the cold glass. Would she miss all this when it wasn't hers anymore?

She turned from the window and let the drape fall. Yes, she rather thought she would.

Back to being melancholy again. She shook her head. Must be the closing of the year rushing up, or maybe the long, dark days were getting to her.

Or maybe her blood sugar was low.

Hermione looked at the clock, realising she hadn't eaten in almost six hours, and wondered if she might nip down to the café and ask the castle for a late night snack. She knew others had done it. Susan had mentioned the most delicious-sounding chewy ginger biscuits today… Maybe there were some left.

Hermione was darting out into the hall before she could think twice. Or chastise herself about keeping elves up late.

She snicked her door latch into place quietly, although she needn't have bothered; light was spilling from doorways all along the corridor. And, as she took a step, a peal of laughter came from behind the door directly across from hers.

Strange, Daphne was out of town. And that hadn't sounded like Pansy. Although something in it was familiar...

Hermione took a step forward, slipping into a dark shadow. Pansy and Daphne's door was actually open a crack—more than a crack. Hermione crept closer until she could see a sliver of the room, the jewel tones of Pansy's decorating scheme lit warm in low lamp light and flickering candles.

"Shall I open another?" A sweet, musical voice sounded and Astoria Greengrass passed in front of the door, a bottle of wine in her hand. She looked different somehow, her hair loosely tied back and her cheeks brilliant. She was smiling wider than Hermione had ever seen.

"Of course you should. Is that the Chardonnay, though?" Pansy, her drawl a little slurred around the edges. "It's that crap Daph likes. There's a good Pinot Gris in the back. I put a cooling charm on it. Open that."

"Snob." Astoria passed out of sight with another musical laugh, then the muted pop of a cork sounded.

"I know what I like." Pansy's voice positively purred and Hermione felt the hairs on her arms lift. Astoria laughed again, but low this time. There was a short silence and Hermione very much wondered at what she couldn't see.

"Hand me my glass, would you? And look at this McQueen spread. He's really gone off-piste this season with this armor and chainmail shite." Pansy again.

"Mmm, I rather like it. He's such a visionary. You do have to be very thin, though. To carry it off."

"You'd look gorgeous in it."

"That's very kind of you, darling, but I think it's more your natural habitat." Astoria sounded like she was holding back laughter.

"Heyyyy!" Pansy was mock-outraged and Astoria was giggling. There was the sound of a light scuffle and then silence.

Hermione had the strong feeling that whatever was happening in that room wasn't the type of thing she and Lav got up to on a girls' night.

She craned her head as far as it would go to try and catch a glimpse, realising it was borderline creepy, but unable to turn away. What was going on here?

Finally a sigh and then, "Wonder how Daph's doing?" Astoria's voice again, softer this time.

"Who fucking knows. Fucking pig. I'm over it." Pansy took a gulp of something.

"I don't know why she stays with him."

"I don't know why you stay with him."

"Pansy. Can we just have a nice night? When do we ever have time to ourselves? Please?"

"Fine."

"Did you tell her what you saw?" Astoria came into view again, her slender back to Hermione. She paused and hitched her hip to the side, hand on her waist. "How Michael was with Hermione?"

Hermione's fingernails pressed into her palms. So strange to hear her name in Astoria's mouth…

"No. It was so subtle what he was doing. He would have wormed his way out of it and then I'd be the arsehole again." Pansy heaved a sigh. "Besides, I think she was distracted by Theo and Hermione."

"Yes, how did she take that? I always wondered if she and Theo wouldn't patch it up someday."

"She said she thought it was great, but she changed the subject very quickly."

"Hmm. Draco seemed rather shocked by them too."

Hermione froze, every nerve in her body reaching toward that room.

"He did. Maybe because of Italy?" Hermione could almost hear Pansy's shrug. "Not sure what they all got up to there. Oh, hello."

Astoria had moved away from the door and into the part of the room Hermione couldn't see.

"Hello. I don't want to talk about him tonight."

"Good."

There was another longer silence and then, "Shit, Pans, the door is open."

"Fuck it. I don't care."

'I do."

A sniff. "Well close it, then. And get back over here."

"Pansy!" An indrawn laugh, a step and then the panel slammed in Hermione's face.

Chapter Text

"I think I like this one best." Hermione held out a photo to Theo.

He took it and squinted at it. "Muggle photographs may be one thing I'll never get used to."

"What!? It's lovely!" Hermione took it back. The snap showed them on a cliff in Skye, Theo's arm casually around her waist while she kissed him on the cheek. He was smiling and they both looked windblown, happy.

"I just wouldn't mind some movement," he said, slipping an arm around her now and pulling her against him. "If I recall, right after this was taken, I turned my head and kissed you properly. That would be nice to see."

She knocked into him. "I suppose. But I also love it just as it is. When we get back to the castle, I'll put it up on my wall."

"Good idea. I'll take that one of you imitating the Old Man of Storr and put it on mine."

"Theo!" She nudged him again. In said picture she was making a very silly face.

He laughed and squeezed her before letting her go, although their fingers stayed twined. Hermione looked up at the lacy pine branches arching over the sandy trail they were walking and took a deep breath in. The air was cold and smelled of the sea and the woods all at once.

"What a beautiful place," she said. "I don't think I've ever been in a pine wood so near the beach."

"Nor I." Theo looked around and shook his head. "It's gorgeous. Nice and quiet too. Probably the cold keeping everyone away." He shivered and pulled his coat tighter around him. "We must be almost there."

Hermione murmured her assent. They were heading up a slight rise and she could just hear the sound of the surf from the other side. They hadn't seen anyone other than a lone man with his dog, walking the other way as they took to the trail.

"Come on," Theo said, his hand tightening in hers. "Let's run the last bit!" He tugged on her and Hermione shrieked but dug in and scrambled up the hill behind him, then ran down the steep drop to the beach. They burst onto the sand careening out of control and laughing breathlessly.

"At least I'm warmer now!" Hermione called.

"Keep going!" Theo tugged on her again, all the way down to the water, where they ran in and out of the sinuous line of foam, dodging small waves and hurling the smooth stones that littered the beach as far as they could.

After a while they slowed to a walk again, Theo pointing out various white-capped peaks visible on the other side of the firth and Hermione stooping to gather the prettiest of the stones.

"What are those blocks?" Theo asked, pointing to the large squares of concrete that lined the sand, facing out to the water like half-buried sentinels.

"I believe they were put in place to stop tanks—armored machines that could drive up the beach during an attack or battle. During the second great muggle war. Did you learn about it in Muggle Studies?"

"Mmm-hmm, spent ages on it. I didn't realise there was a threat this far north." Theo walked over to one of the blocks and ran a hand over the rough surface.

"Oh yes."

Hermione leaned on the solid concrete bulk and they both looked out across the water.

"I keep thinking about Pansy and Astoria," Hermione said after a moment. She'd filled Theo in earlier on the drive from Hogwarts to Inverness. It hadn't been far from her mind since she'd stumbled back to her room after that door had shut in her face last night. She hadn't even gotten her biscuits.

"Yeahhh." Theo's eyes went to hers. "How are you feeling about it?"

"Strange." Hermione blinked at him. "Part of me feels like I should forget it ever happened and part of me wonders, should I tell someone?"

"Oh?" Theo looked at her sharply.

"But no, I wouldn't—" Hermione shook her head. '"It's none of my business! And of course, it was private." She dug a toe into the sand. "I feel quite creepy for watching them, but I think I was paralysed by shock."

"I can see that." Theo looked at her with sympathy. "It must have been shocking. Astoria being... attached the way she is. And it's not every day you see—" He took a deep breath. "I just hope they're OK."

"Yeah?" Hermione glanced up at him.

"Just. Pureblood families or 'culture' or whatever." Theo shrugged. "There's tolerance for that sort of thing after you're married and you've produced the requisite heirs. But not before."

"Hmm." Hermione frowned into the distance.

"And who would you want to tell?" Theo said softly. "Draco?"

Hermione's eyes whipped to his. "I mean, I guess? It makes me sad to think he's being lied to. But who knows," —she threw her hands up— "they could have an arrangement."

Of course, if they had an arrangement why hadn't he said something to her?

Theo shrugged again. "I suppose. Wonder if Daph knows." It was his turn to kick at the sand.

"It didn't feel like it," Hermione said. "It seemed very much like they'd snuck some time together."

"Hmm." Theo looked at her again and his eyes were narrowed. "Well, I think Draco has made it fairly clear that he doesn't want interference of any kind."

"Yeah, you're right. And it's not my place." She looked down.

"How are you doing there?" Theo asked softly.

She laughed a little. "I actually had the weirdest interaction with him. I keep meaning to tell you."

"Really?"

"Yeah, it got lost in all the drama of the last couple of days." Hermione looked up and Theo was frowning slightly. "But he sort of apologised to me through McGonagall when we met with her."

"Sort of apologised." A muscle rippled in Theo's jaw and he jammed his hands in the pockets of his greatcoat.

"In the context of the Unity Classes, he said he was 'going to try to do better' and it felt like he was trying to make a bigger statement."

"Too little, too late." Theo bit the words out.

"No, I agree." Hermione tipped her head back against the concrete. "But that may be why I'm feeling conflicted over this Pansy-Astoria thing."

"Don't give him too much credit," Theo said. "You don't owe him anything." He reached out and tilted her chin gently down so she was looking at him. "Nothing at all. And I don't just say that out of self-interest."

"I know. I do know that." Hermione kept her eyes on his as his hand went from her chin, up her jaw and into her hair. He lowered his head to hers and kissed her softly, and then more deeply. Hermione followed him down the path of desire until she was little more than a melted puddle in the sand.

He drew back after a few moments. Hermione's eyes were still closed and she could feel the dreamy look on her face.

"God, you are so beautiful," he breathed.

Her eyes flew open to see him staring at her, slightly unfocused. "Really?"

His forehead wrinkled. "Uh, yeah." He puffed a short laugh.

"Oh, you just don't usually say… I'm always embarrassing myself over you." Hermione felt her face redden and she laughed a little too.

His mouth dropped open and the forehead wrinkles turned into a crease between his eyes. "I don't, do I?"

"What?" Hermione was slightly confused.

Theo passed a hand over his face. "No, I'm just realising. I've always had to hold back with you. Early in San Cipriano when I didn't want to scare you off and then later when I didn't want to be disrespectful. I got in the habit of not saying what I thought about how… utterly gorgeous you are." He slid his hands around her face again. "I can't get enough of looking at you."

Hermione felt her cheeks really flaming now and a fluttering had started in her chest as well.

"Sometimes I stare at you in class and I can't concentrate because of this," he continued, kissing her mouth, "or this..." He kissed her neck. He looked up and shook his head once. "One chew on your quill or bite of your lip and I'm just… poof!" He fluttered a hand, then his brows went up. "And the idea that I get to go to your room afterwards and do this…" He bent again and kissed her deeply, his tongue slipping between her lips and his hands running down her neck to her shoulders, then sliding inside the open front of her coat.

He pulled her tightly to him and she sighed against his lips. "That's very nice to hear."

"I should have told you more." He kissed a trail to her ear. "I'll tell you now. That white outfit at the disco the night we kissed? Oh my god. And do you remember you'd catch me looking sometimes in San Cipriano? Even, er, after...?"

"I do remember one time at the Villa," Hermione murmured. She'd felt uncomfortable then—sad for him. She felt differently now.

"That fucking bikini," he groaned. "Yes, well-spotted. The blue dress. It took a lot of self-control on Halloween to have you on my lap in that."

"But you said—!"

"I know what I said. And what I didn't say." His dimple appeared.

"Hmph." She attempted an annoyed look at him, but knew it didn't succeed.

He laughed low in his throat. "Can we go back to the castle now?" His hands started to travel over her body. "I want to talk some more about your—" He ran a thumb over the swell of her breast. "And your—" He grabbed her arse.

"Ooh, that could be an interesting conversation. Pity it's such a long drive."

"Pity it's so bloody cold right here." He pushed into her meaningfully.

"I promise to distract you."

"You already are. I may run us off the road."

"I'll think of something mundane."

He laughed and pulled her upright. "Well then, let's go."

"So are plans for the holidays boring enough?" Hermione smiled over at Theo as he threw the Land Rover into gear and started bumping them down the gravel track toward the road.

"Maybe." He side-eyed her. "What are your plans?" His playful demeanor faded into sincerity. "Have you spoken with your parents lately?"

Hermione looked out the window, her light mood suddenly heavier too. "I did get a letter from my mum last week. She's a very regular correspondent." She smiled humourlessly. "And they're staying in Australia for Christmas. Mum is too close to her due date to travel. I'm welcome, of course, but I don't think they quite realise the cost and trouble of an international portkey."

"Ah."

"Indeed."

"I'm sorry, Hermione."

He reached over and laid a warm hand on her knee. She laid her hand over his, surprised to feel tears pricking at the backs of her eyes. She blinked them away.

"It's fine. Really. Ginny, and I suppose Ron, have invited me to the Weasleys' for Christmas day," she said. "And Harry will be there too."

"Mmm." Theo glanced over. "That will be a bit heavy, won't it?"

"Yes. I hope having so many of us there will lighten things—or at least be distracting."

He nodded. "And you're staying with Harry the rest of the time? Or Lavender?"

"Both, I think. I'll go to Grimmauld a couple of days before Christmas and then Lav's asked me to hers for Boxing Day and I think I'll just stay there after that. Maybe be in and out to Harry's. I don't know. But, Theo, what are you doing?" she asked in a rush, the realisation that he'd be alone dawning on her. "Do you want to come to London too?" She reached for his hand and took it.

"Might do," he said. "But I have a lot to take care of at Nott House over the holiday. Meetings and decisions and paperwork and the like."

"But I don't want you alone on Christmas!"

"Oh no." He looked at her and shook his head. "Don't worry about that, please. Christmas is not a big day for me. Never was. It's not really celebrated by most old-guard pureblood families. I think the Weasleys are an exception, as they are for so many things." He smiled. "Arthur Weasley's penchant for the muggle world, you know."

"I guess I never realised…"

"Why would you? But yes, New Year is the main winter holiday for families like mine. That and the solstice rituals. Even though the celebrations are rather cold and formal too. Nothing like a muggle piss-up."

"I don't have plans for New Year's Eve yet. Although I'm sure Lav does."

"Well, maybe I'll come down for that. Possibly a few days before."

"That would be lovely." She squeezed his hand and let it go. "What kind of things need done at your estate?"

He sighed. "I'm still trying to decide whether to sell it or try and turn it into something."

"Do you need the money?"

"Not really." He half-shrugged.

Must be nice. Hermione darted a glance at his beautiful profile. For some reason she never thought of Theo with regard to his wealth—not like with Draco, whom it had seemed a part of since she'd first met him. But it must be substantial. He was the only surviving heir of a major pureblood family. Lord Nott—she almost chuckled, remembering what Blaise had said when they were in Italy. "Didn't you mention turning it into an old peoples' home? When we were in San Cipriano?"

He laughed. "I did! The night of the party at our flat. But that seems like a lot of work to me now. Besides, if I were going to convert it, I'd be much more interested in something like an art museum."

"Ooh, yes please! Do a sculpture garden too! I'm assuming you have extensive grounds?" Hermione wiggled her brows at him.

"Oh yes. Very extensive." He smirked back and she laughed.

"Well, can we at least have a small celebration of our own?" she asked after a moment. "Before we leave the castle?"

"That would be nice." He looked over. "I do have a present for you."

"You do?" Hermione's cheeks pinked. "Well, I have something for you too. Very excited to give it to you in fact."

He raised a brow and the corner of his mouth curled up.

"Not that kind of present!" She smacked him. "Well, maybe…" He started laughing and she cleared her throat. "ANYway. I think most people will leave on the Friday or Saturday before Christmas, but I'd planned to stick around for a few days. Maybe leave Monday."

The prospect of having the library all to herself for two whole days was much too tempting to pass up.

"Brilliant. I'll do the same. I don't have to be in England until Tuesday. That's when I'm meeting with my estate manager." He grimaced.

"We can have our thing on Sunday, then. I'm sure the elves can scare up something Christmassy to eat, and we can exchange our gifts." Hermione thought with excitement of what she was making for him; a small music library from a variety of genres and eras, from her dad's to her own. She didn't have enough cash to buy him the originals, but had been taping things and personalising the tapes with little drawings and quotes that reminded her of their outings and time together. And of course she'd gotten him a couple of muggle books too. She hoped he'd like all of it.

"My first muggle Christmas," he smiled. "I look forward to it."

She lunged across the car and kissed him on the cheek. "Me too."

Hermione hummed as she toweled her hair and glanced at her notes for the Unity class that night. All looked in order. She'd just have to arrange the hot chocolate and biscuits with the elves before the afternoon. Maybe they could do candy canes too...

She squinted at her hair in the mirror. Was there time to do a drying spell? Maybe just a half. It wouldn't do to be running around with a soaking wet head on such a day. She looked out the window as she aimed her wand at the corkscrewed strands dripping on the shoulders of her dressing gown. Snow was in the forecast again and the sky looked steel grey and threatening. Hermione shivered involuntarily, mentally reviewing which of her warmer jumpers was clean.

A light tapping sounded on her door and she started. It was unusual for someone to stop by in the morning before classes, and that definitely wasn't Theo's knock, nor the aggressive pounding Ginny favoured.

She went to the door and opened it quickly, peeking her head out.

"Oh, uh, hello." Padma Patil spun around from where she'd been looking over her shoulder. She smiled a little uncomfortably and held out a package in her hands. "This came for you in the café this morning. I thought I'd run it by since it looked like you weren't coming to breakfast."

"Thank you, Padma. That's very kind. I am running a bit late." Hermione took the package, which was wrapped in brown paper, but also covered in glittery, purple hearts.

"Fairly certain it's from Lav." Padma gestured down at it. "I recognised the, uh, style. And her handwriting." Hermione turned the package over to see her name inked in large, bubbled letters. "We've gotten a number of these at my house over the years." Padma smiled swiftly.

"God, of course. How is Parvati?" Hermione leaned in the doorway and frowned, a bit ashamed that this was the first time she'd asked after her old housemate. "I'm so sorry she's not here this year."

"Good, yeah. And I'm sorry too." Padma said. "I miss her." She nodded a little nervously. It occurred to Hermione not for the first time how different she was from her gregarious sister.

"And she's… doing OK?" Hermione asked, thinking how they'd all perfected the art of referring to the war without actually speaking about it.

"She's all right." Padma nodded in a way that let Hermione know Parvati was most likely not herself just yet. "Living with my parents, dating someone. Got a job at the ministry office in Slough. My mum and dad are just outside of there."

"That sounds good. Steady." Hermione shifted the package in her hands and Padma stepped away from the door.

"Yeah," she said. "Exactly. Well." Her tone turned brighter. "I'm sure you'll be wanting to open that and I've got to grab my Charms text before class starts. Cheerio!" She gave a little wave and started to walk away.

"Thanks again. Very much." Hermione leaned out the door. "And Padma—" Padma stopped and turned. "When you next speak to Parvati, tell her I said hello… and that she's missed."

A real smile broke over Padma's face and she nodded quickly. "Thanks, Hermione. I'll do that."

Hermione nodded too, then ducked back into her room and closed the door. Leaning against it, she sighed—for Parvati and Padma and all of them, really. Then she looked down at Lavender's package and broke into a smile. The hearts were actually spinning and some of them had little winking faces.

Chuckling, she sat on her bed and carefully worked free the tape that bound one side of the squishy, oblong parcel. It gave way and something impossibly soft, in a beautiful shade of heathery purple, emerged from the paper. A hot pink envelope sat on top of the luxurious pile. Hermione picked it up, extracted the card (white with a giant lipstick kiss on the front) and read.

Happy early Christmas, darling!

My tea leaves told me to send you this! Wear it with your knee high boots!

~Lav

PS: Tell Theo he can thank me later!

PPS: Can't wait to seeeee youuuuu! Xoxoxoxoxo

PPPS: DO NOT RUIN THIS FABRIC BY TRYING TO LENGTHEN IT. NO SPELLS.

"Oh my god, what is this?" Hermione laughed, a little concerned as she shook out the garment in her lap. But she needn't have worried, because it was the most beautiful polo-neck jumper dress—cable knit and so very soft. Hermione checked the label: 100% pure cashmere.

"Lavender Brown, this is too much," she whispered as she got up, shouldering out of her dressing gown and pulling the delicate material directly over her head. It fit like a glove made of clouds. Hermione grimaced a little as she turned in front of the mirror to see the dress from all angles.

"Very tight and on the short side. Lavender," she snorted, shaking her head. Although it was quite flattering… but probably a bit much for the school day.

But it was also so, so warm. Hermione hugged her arms around her middle. It felt like being wrapped in the finest of blankets.

She'd just see how it looked with the boots before she took it off.

Hermione summoned the tall, black pair Lavender had forced her to buy in Italy and untangled some black stockings from her wardrobe drawer.

The dress looked even better with the height from the boots, hitting her thigh in a perfect spot. Her breasts look very round and perky? Hermione squinted, pulling her hair off her neck and twisting this way and that. Would it look nicer up or down with the polo neck? Maybe she'd wear this for her little Christmas party with Theo...

Just then, a door slammed and Hermione's head snapped up. Her eyes darted to her clock, which showed that she had exactly one minute to get to Charms before she was late.

"Fuck!" She reached convulsively for her jeans, but there was no time. She'd have to lever off the boots and take off the stockings. She looked down at the dress, then up at her robes, hanging in a neat line in her wardrobe. But all the eighth-years had left off wearing them to classes after the first month or so. She'd just look odd if she showed up in one now.

She looked at herself one more time in the mirror and shrugged. Fuck it. It wasn't like the dress didn't cover everything. She tugged at the hem, wishing she could just try a tiny lengthening charm, but then the clock ticked over to the hour and she jumped, grabbing her bag and running for the door.

"Er, you're looking nice today, Hermione. That's a... nice... frock." Ernie's voice sounded a little strangled as it issued from his lips. Hermione looked down as she passed his seat on the way to her own.

His face was bright red.

"Thanks?" she hissed, sliding into her chair. Professor Flitwick was chatting with Dean about something and had yet to address the class.

Hermione twisted to rummage in her bag, catching sight of Michael, who sat behind her and to the side, as she did so. He flicked his eyes up and down her body, very obviously stopping at the hem of the dress—quite high on her thigh now that she was sitting—smirked, then mouthed, "Nice."

"Fuck. Off," Hermione mouthed back, her eyes darting to Daphne, who seemed absorbed in her textbook. Pansy had seen though. She gave Michael a look of death, then glanced at Hermione and flipped her chin ever so slightly. Her eyes also ran over the dress and her mouth turned up.

Hermione twisted back, face heating, noting that Theo's chair was still empty. And Draco's. Everyone seemed to be running late this morning.

And where the fuck was her quill? In all the, er, activity, she'd lost it. She looked in her bag and on the floor around her, annoyed that she was flustered. Finally she stood up with a huff to see if she was sitting on it or if it had stuck to her dress somehow. She brushed at her front, then finally spotted it a couple of seats away on the ground. She stooped to grab it and straightened just as Theo walked in, Draco close behind him.

They both stopped in their tracks as they saw her, comically identical looks on their faces.

Wide-eyed, but sort of unfocused?

Theo recovered first, giving her a small, private smile before he started down the row. "Thought you wanted me to do well in my studies," he murmured as he passed, the light drag of his finger ghosting across her hip.

Hermione felt herself heat, but in a totally different way than before.

Draco was still frozen, but as he saw their little exchange, he jerked into action, ducking his head and moving swiftly to his seat in the back corner of the room. His jaw looked very tight.

Hermione would have laughed if it all hadn't been so awkward. Damn dress, damn Lavender.

As it was, she slid back into her seat and came to very obvious attention as Flitwick went to the podium.

Everything settled down after that and Hermione managed to forget herself in the professor's animated lecture on the Ascendio charm. However, when she looked down to take a note, she noticed a motion in the back corner of her vision; Draco's foot, jiggling steadily.

"I don't get it, it's just a dress," Hermione muttered out of the side of her mouth to Ginny as they walked out of the Great Hall after lunch. A seventh-year Hufflepuff, egged on by his friends, had just asked her if she wanted to go to Hogsmeade with him that weekend, then fallen down with a hand over his heart when Ginny had told him not to be naff.

"D'you really think you have something Theo Nott doesn't, Dorsey?" she'd asked with a raised brow before tugging Hermione away to a chorus of howls from the boys' friends.

Ginny laughed. "I just don't think people are used to seeing you like this."

"Like what?"

"I dunno, sexy! It was the same at Halloween. But that was at night and more expected." Ginny glanced at her. "Your tits look fantastic in that. And your legs. Actually, can I borrow those boots?"

"You may. Ugh, I'm just glad Theo didn't see… all that." She waved a hand back toward the Great Hall.

"Theo didn't see what?" Theo said, coming up behind them and slinging a casual arm around Hermione's shoulders.

"Your woman getting propositioned by a cheeky Hufflepuff," Ginny said, grinning at him.

"Who, where, I'll kill him," Theo deadpanned.

"I thought you'd be annoyed!" Hermione spun to him.

"I mean, who can blame him." Theo shrugged and slid his arm down to her waist, hugging her against him. "But I'm the only one who gets to feel how soft you are." He rested his cheek on her shoulder and rubbed it back and forth.

"That's very refreshing, Theo!" Hermione kissed the top of his head.

Ginny was laughing. "OK, you two—I'm away!" She waved as she split off toward Gryffindor Tower. "Flying lesson tomorrow if the weather allows?" she asked Hermione, who nodded and waved back.

Hermione and Theo climbed the stairs toward their Transfiguration classroom. "Have people really been pestering you today?" he asked, running a hand down her arm and taking her hand.

"Oh, not really. Just a couple of comments here and there. Hermione decided to omit the little scene with Michael, she knew Theo wouldn't take that one so calmly. "No one's trying to pull me into a broom closet or anything."

Theo looked at her, arrested. "What a good idea! You know the notorious fourth floor one is just around the corner."

She nudged him and laughed. "I don't know. I've never done that."

He stared at her, his mouth open. "Really!?"

"No. I never had a crush or a boyfriend or anything like that during school. Other than Viktor Krum, and he was too much of a gentleman."

"Well, I'm not."

Theo had stopped, but he started walking again, rapidly, then tugged her through an unassuming door on the right side of the hall. He slammed it behind them and had her up against it almost before Hermione knew what had happened.

She started to protest, but immediately lost interest because it was much more enjoyable to kiss him. His tongue was wicked in her mouth and his hands were everywhere. The darkness of the closet meant touch and taste were her only senses, which heightened it all. She'd always wondered why people did this and now she knew.

"Making me lose my mind all bloody day," Theo muttered, gently drawing the polo neck aside to kiss her skin. "I could leave a mark here and no one would see." She could feel him smile against her.

"Theo! Don't you dare!" But she pulled his shirt from his waistband and swept her hands up his bare back.

"Oh, is that how we're playing it?" He chuckled and she felt his hand cup her breast. He brushed a thumb back and forth across her nipple until it was hard and sensitive.

"Ooh," she gasped in his ear. Somehow the idea that people were just walking by and going about their day while he… just behind the door was electrifying.

"You like this," he said, a slip of rough urgency in his voice, again seeming to read her thoughts.

"Yes, I— Oh!" He was under her dress now, his hand sliding up her inner thigh. "Stupid tights," he whispered just before nipping at her ear. Hermione breathed out a laugh, but clutched him closer to her and pressed against him.

"Damn it," he whispered, resting his forehead against hers. "I wish we were in my room instead of here."

Hermione wished this too. Very much. "Never has the rule against apparating in the castle seemed so inconvenient," she said.

He laughed low just as the doorknob rattled behind them. They froze until they heard a shouted comment and the sound of loud laughter fading down the hallway.

"Just somebody having a laugh," Theo whispered. "But we should probably, er, move on. As much as I would like to stay."

"Shit! What time is it?" Hermione frantically held her watch up to her face, just able to read it now by the small amount of light coming from under the door. "It's five minutes past. Oh, bugger, bugger, bugger!" She stepped out from under Theo's arms and started straightening her dress and patting her hair.

Theo twisted to tuck in his shirt. "It's fine. No one will know. They'll just think we've lingered at lunch," he said, but she could hear the grin in his voice and then see it when he opened the door a crack and glanced up and down the hallway. Everyone was going to bloody know.

"Come on, it's clear," he said, taking her hand and leading her out.

They hurried down the hallway to the Transfiguration classroom and slipped inside just as Professor Chen was drawing a diagram of a complex spell pattern on the chalkboard. Hermione hoped for a moment that they'd be able to dash to their seats undetected, but the professor turned at just the wrong time.

"Nice of you to join us, Ms. Granger, Mr. Nott," she said, looking over the frames of her thick, black glasses. Her brow went up and Hermione knew. Knew that her red cheeks, less than neat hair and swollen lips totally gave her away. She glanced over and Theo's collar was crooked too. Itmight as well have had lipstick on it. Her face flamed even hotter as she slid into her seat. It didn't help that Theo was smiling at her, his dimple on full display. Hermione could almost feel the intense attention of the classroom. She couldn't prevent herself glancing around just quickly.

The last thing she saw before she decided that tunnel vision on the blackboard was the only way forward, was Draco's white face and burning eyes.

"Wow, Ms. Granger, you look fit!" Cora's eyes were round as Hermione strode into the room, floating two large platters.

"Thank you, Cora," she said in a quelling voice, noting with relief that most of the students (and more importantly, Draco) had not yet arrived. "Will you help with these?" She pushed a couple of desks together at the side of the room and started setting out biscuits and cups of steaming hot chocolate with candy canes hooked on the rims. Cora and Peregrine both came over to help.

"There, that's perfect. Thank you. I'll just put a warming charm on these and we can have them after the models are complete." Hermione turned and saw most of the other students drifting in.

"Seat yourselves in the groups from last week and we'll get started as soon as everyone is here," she said, just feeling the first prickle of annoyance toward Draco and the idea that he might be late even after their meeting with McGonagall, when he strode through the door. He said quick hellos to some of the students but moved up to the front of the classroom next to Hermione.

"Just waiting on Reggie and Max?" he said, half to the class and half to her. His tones were clipped and he wasn't quite looking at her.

Hermione flashed to earlier in Transfiguration and felt her face heat. "Er, yes." She chanced a quick glance at him. His jaw was as rigid as before, although his colour was high now.

Reggie rushed in just then and Max a few seconds later.

Hermione looked at Draco again just as he looked at her. Their eyes held the tiniest bit too long and she swore he glanced down her body before he looked away. She saw him loosen his neck and shoulders and got the distinct impression he was shaking something off.

"Hello, everyone," he said in a clear, carrying tone. Most of the rummaging and chatting ceased and he put up a hand that silenced the rest of it. He opened his mouth to speak again, but then stopped and sat down on a desk, slinging a long leg over it and leaning toward the students, who went still, clearly disarmed by his informal posture.

"Before we start this evening's class, I'd just like to apologise for missing last week. Something came up and I was, er, indisposed. But it wasn't fair to everyone here and it won't happen again." He nodded at the children. "Thanks very much to Ms. Granger." He twisted, clear grey eyes flicking over her, and Hermione resisted a strong urge to tug at her poloneck. "Thanks to her for, ah, coming through with your lesson plan." He turned back to the students. "A very unique and interesting concept that we will execute today?" He glanced at Hermione and she nodded spasmodically. She realised she'd been staring at him as he spoke. He sounded so normal and easy. And he looked like he'd gotten a better night's sleep.

He looked fucking gorgeous.

She was still nodding. "Uh, yes," she finally said, commanding her brain to stop having rogue thoughts. "Last week we designed the models and for the first 45 minutes of this class I'd—we'd—like to have you build them. Then we'll have some holiday treats for the last 15 minutes or so." Hermione gestured to the items at the side of the class and a general buzz of excitement rose in the room. "After we finish!" she said, holding up a finger.

She moved to the chalkboard, very self-conscious with Draco's eyes on her.

"To start I'll just list some basic guidelines about the order in which you should conjure in case you haven't covered this in Charms yet." Hermione turned to the board and lifted her arm, going up on tip-toe to start writing. "Unless of course, Mr. Malfoy wants to add anything?" She glanced over her shoulder and confirmed that Draco was still watching her. His lips were slightly parted.

"Uh, no. Go ahead." He blinked after a pause and Hermione realised with a flash that her position must be pulling her dress up. She moved her arm down to a spot lower on the board, although she wasn't sure what exactly she was writing anymore.

It took a few moments to regain her focus, but eventually Hermione released the children to work on their models, each group breaking into smaller sub-groups and starting on different sections of the project. The noise level in the room increased to a din comprised of discussion, muttered spells, and the fizz-pop of magic being performed.

"Shall we divide and conquer?" Hermione, her attention on the students, was startled to hear Draco's deep voice nearby, right next to her in fact. She noted that he sounded stilted again, wondering for the hundredth time what it was about her that made it so hard for him to speak.

"Yes, OK," she said. "Why don't you take Reggie's group and I'll take Eloise's."

Draco looked over at the clusters of students, Eloise lecturing to a rapt group and Reggie clearly arguing with Beatrice. "That's probably wise." Something passed over his face as he spoke, something almost akin to a smile. Hermione hadn't seen anything like it from him in ages. She felt her own features lift in return and there was a moment when his eyes cut to hers and they just looked at each other. Something cold and tight started to loosen in Hermione's chest, but then he did his shuttering thing and spun away.

And she was left standing there like an idiot.

Hermione closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and made her way toward her group. She would not be letting Draco's changeability get to her at this late date. She would not. In that spirit, she focused on the students, helping them with the more intricate spells and coaching them through the easier ones until they had a very good model. She glanced up after a while, noting that the other group also had their model finished. It was also well past time for the treats.

"All right!" she called, standing up. "Put on your finishing touches, but also help yourself to a hot chocolate and some biscuits. We've only got about ten minutes."

The students surged over to the trays, picking up biscuits and blowing on cocoa and circling each others' miniature common rooms with bright exclamations. Hermione watched them fondly. They were such quirky individuals—just on that strange border between childhood and teenhood. She realised she'd enjoyed getting to know them and teaching them, and made a vow to do much better by them in the new year.

"Funny lot, aren't they?" Draco's voice, also fond, came from alarmingly nearby again.

"Er, yes. I was just thinking that." Hermione crossed her arms protectively across her chest. She wasn't going to fall for his chop-change act this time.

"We should... do more. For them. Next year."

"I was thinking that too. When would you like to meet and discuss it?" Hermione turned to him and narrowed her eyes. "Or would you rather do it by owl?"

He frowned. "We should meet. McGonagall wants us to. In January?"

"OK," Hermione said. "That first week back. Whatever works for you."

He nodded and Hermione heard Eloise's voice, "Ms. Granger, did you get a chocolate? Mr. Malfoy?" She was holding up the last two mugs.

"Thank you, Eloise. How thoughtful." Hermione started forward, but Draco was quicker, leaning to take the drinks with a word of murmured thanks. He turned and handed one to Hermione, his eyes meeting hers. She took it and swore she felt the electricity of his skin against hers, but he drew back so quickly she couldn't be sure.

"You look so soft, Ms Granger. May I touch you?" Beatrice's tones sounded from Hermione's other side. Draco coughed into his cup.

Hermione turned her back to him and held out her arm. "Of course you may. It's cashmere, that's why it's so soft."

"Did Theo Nott buy it for you?" Cora had also appeared. Hermione stared at her, twin desires to laugh uncontrollably and sink into the floor warring in her brain—a sensation she was coming to associate with Cora, actually. She could almost hear Draco's perfect, rigid stillness behind her. "It is new isn't it?" Cora tilted her head.

"It is, but—"

"I didn't buy it for her, no. And that's a very cheeky question, Cora."

Hermione's eyes flew up to see Theo leaning in the doorway, half-smile trained on the Hufflepuff girl.

His collar was still crooked.

Hermione breathed in through her nose as most of the sound in the room stopped. She kept herself from glancing at Draco only through sheer force of will, but did hear the distinct crack of a candy cane breaking in two from behind her.

"What are you doing here?" she asked Theo, trying for "happy surprise" but coming in a lot closer to "alarmed."

"Thought I'd walk you back. Don't mind me, though." Theo's eyes flicked behind her and his smile dropped from his face. "I'll just wait in the hall. Hi Beatrice!" He gave the Ravenclaw girl a friendly wave before turning back out the door. Beatrice's face flamed and she froze in the act of putting a biscuit in her mouth.

Hermione looked around at the students, a strong sense of unreality seizing her. It was past time to wrap this whole thing up.

"Your models are wonderful, really great," she choked out. "And I think I speak for both Mr. Malfoy and myself" —she gestured vaguely behind her, but still didn't dare look— "when I say that we have enjoyed teaching you this year. Very much. And we're going to try to do even better next year!" She made a cheers-ing motion with her mug. "We're going to have a lot of exciting things for you. Well-planned things…" Hermione knew she was babbling, but couldn't seem to stop. Why didn't bloody Draco jump in, though? She finally chanced a look at him to see him staring fixedly out the door, his finger tapping slowly against his mug.

Bugger. Thank god the clock was just turning over to the hour. The students rustled up out of their seats, many hands grabbing for a last biscuit and the excited chatter of the end of term accompanying them to the door.

"I'll arrange with Mr. Filch to have these brought to the Great Hall so that others may view them this week," Hermione called over the noise, mentally making a note to inform the headmistress of this plan. "You should be very proud of your work! And happy holidays!"

Draco still hadn't spoken and now Hermione was starting to get irritated. Honestly.

She swung around and was finally able to catch his eye. He started out of what looked like a trance when he saw her face, croaking an anemic goodbye to the students and pointing his wand at the grouped desks to move them back into lines. Hermione tidied the last of the treats then picked up the trays and her bag and scuttled for the door.

Theo was still leaning, hands in his pockets and head tipped back against the wall. The deep blue of his jumper highlighted the dark blue of his eyes as he brought his chin down to give her a slow smile.

Hermione noted Eloise and Cora still loitering in the hallway as she hurried to him. "What a surprise!" she said, totally sincere, resisting the urge to glance over her shoulder.

"Thought you might need some help," Theo murmured. "Let me take those." He took the empty trays from her hands and stuck them under his arm.

Hermione could tell the moment Draco appeared in the doorway because Cora and Eloise openly stared at him and Theo's relaxed posture evaporated. Cora looked for all the world as if she were at a tennis match, calmly sipping her drink and waiting for the action to unfold.

Hermione saw Theo's eyes narrow as he focused past Hermione.

"Cora, Eloise, off you go!" she trilled, looking at her watch and then at the girls. "Not long until dinner. And you'll want to drop off your things in your rooms first."

"All right, Ms. Granger. " Eloise nodded in a knowing way. "Hope you all have lovely holidays." She gave Cora, who showed no sign of moving off, a look then finally grabbed her arm and started walking.

"Bye, Ms. Granger! Mr. Malfoy!" Cora looked over her shoulder and grinned. "Mr. Nott!" She looked back. "Happy Christmas, you three!"

Hermione heard Eloise mutter something and Cora's voice, not very quiet, say something about how she didn't see why Ms. Granger couldn't just have both.

Fighting the heat that was racing up her neck, Hermione forced herself to turn to Draco, but he was already gone—his tall figure rounding the corner far down the hall.

"Did you really think I needed help?" Hermione gave Theo a wry look as she closed her bedroom door behind them. Once Draco had gone, they'd walked quickly back to the Divination Tower, depositing the trays in the kitchen and making their way to her room.

"Well you mentioned the treats and things—I thought you might have clean-up." He stepped forward and slid his arms around her waist.

"It had absolutely nothing to do with Draco, then?"

"Well," —he brushed a soft kiss against her temple— "Maybe a little. I saw how he was looking at you after our, ah, late arrival to Transfiguration. Thought things might be unpleasant in your class."

"Mmm, they were a bit—at first." She sighed as his lips moved to the skin just below her ear. "But it was fine after a while. We kept our distance."

"Good."

"And here I thought you weren't the jealous type." Hermione pulled his face up and touched her lips to his.

He pulled her tight against him and deepened the kiss. "I'm not. I just have a very special grudge against him." His hands began to wander. "But let's not talk about all that. I'd much rather talk about this dress and how nice it looks on you. Especially here." His palms came over her breasts and squeezed lightly. "And here." One hand slid to her arse and lifted her against him.

Hermione gasped a little and he started walking her backwards toward her bed. "Lavender said you could, um, thank her for sending it to me. The dress," she breathed.

He puffed a laugh. "I'll be sure to do that. Although, as nice as it looks on," he said. "I'd like to see it off." His hands started pushing at her hem.

"Wait!" Hermione retrieved her conscious mind from the corner she'd flung it to when he started kissing her. "It's an off night for us." She stepped back and pointed a finger at his chest. Things were very busy at the end of term and they'd talked about how to parse out their time together with all the competing demands of schoolwork. "And you haven't finished your Defensive Magic paper!"

"Won't take an hour. Maybe two," he muttered, pulling her finger down and her arm around her back while kissing her again. Deeply, his tongue seeking hers. His other hand crept back under her dress.

Hermione knew she should stop him. Knew that he had to finish that paper tonight. And exams to study for later in the week. She had to check her Arithmancy proofs; she was certain something was wrong with number eight. And there was all the Ancient Runes reading she had to finish by Thursday. A smidge of Potions work and a huge Alchemy exam on Friday.

But she really didn't want to stop him. She wanted to follow where he was leading. And push her hand into his hair, run her fingernails along the skin of his stomach. Shift a little so he could reach the front closure of her bra…

"Hey!" She snapped back into the present, talking to herself as much as to him. Looking down she saw that her bra was open, her dress was bunched all the way up and the backs of her knees were pressed against her bed. She'd been just about to fall onto it too. "Off night!" she repeated, slipping away from the bed and reaching down close her bra again. "You. Go!" She pointed to the door and tried very hard not to be affected by Theo in full-on smolder mode, his eyes hooded and his hair tousled. He wasn't even trying it on, either. He was just… very obviously hot and bothered, which made her—

Hermione took deep, calming breaths, watching a slow smile spread over his face.

"All right. I'll go do my essay like a good boy," he said, arching a brow in a very non-good way. Hermione felt herself throb in several strategic spots. Her knickers were soaked, but she persevered, biting down on the answering smile that wanted to spring out.

"I'll be around all night, though," he said as she opened the door and pushed him toward it. "In case you ah, need any more help with anything." His eyes raked over her body even as his face turned positively angelic. "Arithmancy proofs, alchemical formulas, defensive spells..." His eyes were dancing as Hermione shut the door.

"Anything at all!" she heard him call from down the hall.

She leaned against the door as a short laugh escaped her throat. Tempting, it was so tempting to fling herself down the hall and drag him back...

But she did have work to do. And he had work to do. She shouldered up and grabbed her Arithmancy text. Although the first thing she should probably do was change out of this dress…

Hermione read the same sentence about water transmutation for the fifth time before finally snapping her Alchemy book shut and pushing away from her desk.

In two hours she'd managed to correct her Arithmancy proofs (after several attempts) and read exactly—she checked her book—three pages! Lovely. Just very productive.

She paced to the window, then flopped down on her bed, a peculiar sort of energy sparking under her skin. She closed her eyes, but knew she wasn't tired. And instead of relaxing her, the sudden darkness brought visions and sensations. Theo's kisses from earlier. His hands and tongue in the broom closet, when she couldn't see but instead just felt and heard and smelled. Mmm, was that a whiff of his scent on her pillow? She turned her head and inhaled—she shouldn't be surprised, he'd lain right here for quite a while yesterday after they'd gotten back from the beach. She sighed and felt her hands clench next to her on the coverlet.

Even Draco's eyes today, when she'd caught him looking at her in Unity class.

"Ohhhh!" She moaned in frustration and flipped over, burying her head in her pillow, which actually didn't help because now she could bloody smell Theo again. A faint slip of his warm, spiced scent.

Anything at all, he'd said.

She wasn't going to get anything done tonight and he'd had his couple of hours for his essay.

"Right. Fuck it." Hermione launched off the bed, jammed her slippers on her feet and glanced in the mirror. Her pyjamas covered enough, even if the top was cropped. She slung her dressing gown over her shoulders, not bothering to tie it, and slipped down the hall to the stairs swiftly and quietly. It wasn't that late and light and sound were coming from many of the doors. Hermione moved particularly fast past Padma's, which was standing open, and then tripped lightly down the steps to the boys' floor. Within seconds she was in front of Theo's room, hand raised to knock, darting a look over her shoulder at Draco's door, which was dark as usual.

Just as she was about to apply knuckles to wood, Theo's door wrenched open and he was there, backlit by warm light. He looked delectable, still in his jeans, but with his shirt untucked and hair really mussed. He must have been pulling at it as he wrote—an adorable habit she'd noticed.

He frowned and blinked at her. "I was just coming to your—"

Hermione didn't let him finish. Instead she stepped into him, going up on her toes and kissing him, sliding her tongue directly between his lips. His hand, still on the doorknob, slammed the door shut behind her and his arm came around her waist, tight.

He hitched her to him, bending to meet her lips, and wheeled her to his desk, pushing the full length of his body against her as he lifted her onto its smooth surface. Her legs parted and he stepped between them, pushing her dressing gown down her arms. She bent backward, feeling her hair fall down and brush her skin as she ran her hands under his shirt, raking her nails over his skin. He groaned against her lips and she pulled him closer, tilting up and against him.

His hands went to her bra, which he quickly clicked open, and his fingers began working her nipples. She moaned his name, noting that he wasn't talking—and Theo usually had little things to say, sweet or funny or hot, during their makeouts, but now he was utterly silent, the rasp of their breath and the rustle of a few papers fluttering to the floor the only sound in the room.

"Oh!" She broke away to look down at what looked like some pages of his essay.

"Leave them," he muttered, pushing her dressing gown all the way off and going for her pyjama top. She helped him pull it over her head and leaned back on her hands, pushing her breasts out as he looked down at her darkly, chest heaving, no sign of his usual playfulness in evidence.

Hermione sucked in a breath and his eyes flicked to hers, then he bent his head, taking her nipple in his warm mouth. Hermione plunged her hands into his hair, fingers clenching against his scalp as one of his arms went tightly around her back and the other played at the waistband of her pyjama bottoms, then slid down under her knickers.

She gasped when he touched her wetness and she thought she heard him murmur, something like 'my god, Hermione', but couldn't be sure because soon he was touching her, skillful fingers sliding over and into her, and she couldn't hear or see or think much of anything.

"I want you," she breathed in his ear. He was still at her breasts, sucking and swirling and driving her mad. "I want you so badly. I was thinking about you… all night." She tipped her head back and moaned in the stillness of the room.

She heard him breathe in then, a sharp sound, and felt him push up and against her once, twice and then again and again, into an unmistakable rhythm. She clutched at him and met him thrust for thrust. It felt so good. She could feel how hard he was, how good he would be.

"Yes," she said, so ready—wondering if he was ready too. But then he removed his hand from her knickers and she heard the clink of a belt buckle coming undone.

Her desire ratcheted up a hundredfold and she reached for him, splaying her hand against the front of his jeans as he let his fingers fall away and groaned low in his throat.

"God, yes. Me too," he gasped, taking her lips in a searing kiss. Hermione kissed him back, her fingers fumbling to work his belt all the way apart.

"Do you want to move to the bed?" he breathed, his hands at her waistband again, this time pushing it down over her hips. She arched a little to help him.

"I'm quite enjoying the desk," she whispered and heard his surprised chuckle, which turned into a hiss as she finally got his flies apart.

"Theo," she breathed, enjoying his name in her mouth, knowing he liked her to say it, anticipating what was to come.

"Hermione," he said back and nipped at her earlobe. "You're driving me fucking mad." And then he ducked his head and licked up her neck in one long stroke until his lips were at her ear again. "I'm going to fuck you right on this desk. Is that what you want?"

She pulled a sharp breath in and felt her nipples go as hard as glass. "Yes."

"Yes, Theo," he breathed in her ear.

"Yes, Theo." God. Wetness flooded her.

She reached for his trunks just as a knock sounded on the door.

They froze. "Who the fuck could that be?" he hissed. She shifted, but he held her tightly in place, his lips at her ear. "Give it a minute," he whispered. "They'll go away."

But the knocking persisted.

Hermione ran her hands around to his back and rested her forehead against his. "Maybe you should answer it."

"Fuck," he said quietly, straightening and blowing a breath out of his nose. He looked so pissed off that it was kind of cute. Hermione bit her lip and smiled at him until the corners of his mouth tugged up. "Can't bloody go to the door in this state anyway," he whispered, gesturing to his lower half.

The knocking had ceased and Theo was looking at Hermione, lowering his head as if he were going to kiss her and start everything up again, when a small voice said, "Theo? Are you there?" from the other side of the door.

It was Daphne.

Theo's eyes went wide and Hermione felt her own do the same. They heard a sliding down the door. As if Daphne had slumped against it. Hermione thought of herself at Draco's door not so long ago.

"I— " Theo gave Hermione an anguished look and she nodded quickly at him. Yes, answer her.

"Hey Daph!" Theo half turned. "I was, uh, having a nap." He grimaced at Hermione and she nodded again. "Everything OK?"

"No." Daphne's voice sounded nothing like her usual cool, confident tone. "Can you talk?"

Theo took a deep breath and gazed down at Hermione, his brows knitting together. She put her hand on his chest. "Go," she mouthed. Something was obviously very off.

He gave her a very eloquent look then nodded once. "Of course, give me 15 minutes?" he called.

"OK. I'll be at the lake, skipping stones." Daphne's voice was low and flat. Hermione listened as she got up and then as her quiet steps receded down the hall.

"SHIT." Theo stepped away and did up his flies, then grabbed for his shoes. "I'm so sorry." He looked down at Hermione, his face a picture of remorse.

"It's OK." Hermione found her top and put it on, then wrapped her dressing gown tight around her. She stuffed her bra in her pocket and knelt next to Theo, who had sat on the bed and was jamming his boots on his feet. "It sounds like there's something really wrong."

"Yes." Theo stood and pulled his coat from his wardrobe, his face was as shuttered as Draco's best imitation of a marble statue.

"So odd that she's going to the lake…" Hermione's gaze darted out at the pitch black night.

"No." Theo shook his head. "That's code from our childhood. We'd say that when something was really bad, when we really needed the other. I'm sure it's that fucking prick." He shook his head and his jaw went rigid.

"Oh, Theo." Hermione brushed his arm.

The anger seemed to whoosh out of him in an instant and he turned to her and grasped her upper arms. "Look, I want you to know I'm—I'm very sorry we had to stop. But I—have to go." He looked to the door.

"Yes, you do." Hermione nodded. "And it's OK, Theo. If it were Harry or Ron, I'd go too."

"I know. But god, I—" He shook his head at the floor. "My god, Hermione." He looked back up and there was so much in his face, in his eyes, that Hermione's hand went to her mouth.

It dawned on her that this might be a moment that changed everything.

She shivered, although she wasn't cold. "I know," she whispered and touched her fingers from her lips to his.

He didn't speak, but took her hand, his eyes burning in the low light.

"I'm going to go now, so you won't be late," she said softly, then brushed her lips to his palm before slipping out the door.

Chapter Text

"Transcendence is permutation with three additional elements: one each from the wand, the words and the intent…" Hermione muttered, reading from her Alchemy flashcards. She took a distracted bite of soup and flipped to the next card. The exam was tomorrow, so she'd decided to eat dinner in her room as she studied. She felt fairly ready, but Professor Finch had implied that the test would be a good indicator of preparedness for the first half of the N.E.W.T. exam, and Hermione wanted her review of the basics to be fresh.

"What are the five alchemical properties of gold?" She took a sip of tea and turned the card over to make sure her internal recitation was correct. "Known that one since second year," she said aloud, smiling faintly into her teacup. But it was nice to see the neatly inked words matching the list in her mind.

She was reaching for the next card, thinking that it may be time for a short break, when the floo crackled to life in her fireplace.

"Perfect timing," she said as she twisted in her desk chair to see Lavender's face peering up at her.

"What!?" Lav called. "I missed that!"

"I just said it was perfect timing," Hermione said. "I needed a break from these." She held up her flashcards.

Lavender made a face. "I think I've mentioned a few times how glad I am I'm not in school?"

"Yes," Hermione laughed. "One or two hundred times. And hello! It's good to see you! How was Berlin?" She'd tried Lavender almost immediately after she'd gotten back from Theo's room the night before last, but had gotten Olivia, who'd informed Hermione that Lavender had gone on a last minute work trip with Cerise. Something about a young German designer and New Year's Eve ball gowns.

"Berlin was marvelous! What a city, Hermione! So much energy and art and fashion. We have to go together someday."

"I'd love that," Hermione said a little quietly, the thought of Theo and the other night pulling at her consciousness. They'd both been extremely busy the last two days with end-of-term work, but it felt strange that they hadn't really talked since Monday.

"So did you like the dress?" Lavender asked coaxingly.

"Oh my god, yes!" Hermione snapped out of her reverie. "That was partially why I called you. It's so gorgeous and wayyy too much."

Lavender waved a hand. "Please. I knew it'd be perfect on you and Cerise gave it to me at cost. Have you tried it on?"

"Uh, I wore it on Monday."

"To classes!?" Lavender's face lit up. "You absolute tart! I didn't think you'd do that."

"Well it wasn't really on purpose." Hermione explained the circumstances to gales of laughter from Lav. "Anyway," she said. "Did it have a spell on it or something? I got a lot of attention."

Lavender looked to the side. "Maybe just a small attraction charm in the weave."

"LAVENDER BROWN!" Hermione stood up out of her chair.

"I didn't put it there! It's the brand. They do it with all their things." Lav put up her hands. "But it doesn't do anything unless you already look good in it. It only sort of draws the eye. Like a little magnet."

"Oh my god." Hermione sat back down and covered her face with her hands. "No wonder. You could have warned me!"

"Well I didn't think you'd wear it to class!" Lavender was cackling again.

Hermione shook her head even though she had started to laugh too. "Even Ernie was ogling me."

"Ewwwww!" Lavender leaned back and yelled at the ceiling. She popped forward. "But what did Theo think? Did he like it?" She wiggled her eyebrows.

Hermione's laughter abruptly ceased. "He did," she said shortly, memories of how much he'd liked it washing over her.

"Oh shit, what's wrong?" All the levity had gone from Lavender's voice.

"Nothing!" Hermione searched for the right way to convey what had happened.

"Michael and Daphne broke up." Lavender's matter-of-fact words broke into Hermione's thoughts.

"How did you know that?" Hermione peered into the flames, wondering if Lavender had heard somehow? But no, it was not public news yet. Hermione had talked briefly to Theo yesterday and he'd told her about it in confidence just before he'd had to run off and finish his Transfiguration project.

"We'll talk soon, OK? Saturday night is our night," he'd said, pressing a quick kiss to her lips before dashing off. But his eyes had been troubled.

Hermione focused back on Lav, who was just looking at her. "Are you OK?" Lavender asked softly.

"I'm fine!" Hermione waved a hand. "It's insane around here with end of term. Papers and exams and final projects. No one's doing any socializing, except for this weird forced thing Ernie is making us all do tomorrow night."

"But what happened with Theo?" Lavender asked.

Hermione started to give a quick answer, but then stopped, took a deep breath. "I don't quite know yet," she said and began relaying the outline of Monday evening. Lavender was quiet during Hermione's recitation but she started to make noises once Hermione got toward the end of things.

"WAIT!" she yelled as Hermione started to describe Theo's reaction to Daphne's knock. "Wait, are you telling me you were about to have SEX!? FINALLY!?"

Hermione looked over her shoulder and muttered an almost involuntary a silencing charm. "Yes," she said. "I mean he did ask me if I wanted to."

"Hermione Granger that is not how he said it. Tell me exactly what happened."

Hermione mumbled her way red-faced through the answer and Lavender started fanning herself. "I knew it," she said. "I knew he'd be good at it. Oh god, but you stopped! Or did you start up again?"

"No, that's what I was about to tell you! It was like we hit a wall at that moment. I could tell he needed to go to her, so I told him to go and he was sorry but there was still no question…" Hermione put her head in her hands.

"I think I need to breathe into a paper bag or something," Lavender said.

"Anyway, that was why I called you." Hermione looked up.

"Right." Lav took a deep breath. "And what's happened since then?"

"Not much. I saw him with Daphne at the lake yesterday afternoon. He was just sitting next to her and she looked down. Slumped and sort of listless, you know?"

"And how did that make you feel?" Lavender's voice was gentle.

Hermione searched the room around her, shook her head slightly. "I don't know. A little sad, I guess?" She looked back at Lavender. "But I also don't want to feel sad about it?"

"Have you talked yet?"

"Not really. There's been no time. This week really has been a monster. And will be until Friday night."

"But you're worried. Or at least unsettled."

"Unsettled is a good way to put it." Hermione bit her lip. "I just don't know how this is going to affect everything. I can tell he's preoccupied by it."

"Do you think it's a foregone conclusion? Him... going to her?" Lavender asked. Hermione opened her mouth, but Lav cut in. "Because I don't," she said quickly.

"Really?"

"I think he cares for you a lot more than you realise. Than maybe either of you realise. There's something very deep between you." Lavender shifted. "And if you fight for him—"

"I just think it's something that he needs to do, Lav." The words burst from Hermione's throat where they'd been sitting since the moment she'd heard Daphne's voice through Theo's door. "He'll never be satisfied until he rights that wrong." Hermione shook her head, feeling tears prick the backs of her eyes. "And who am I to stand in the way of that?"

"I see what you're saying," she said. "But it's not all black and white. And from what I've seen and what you've told me—you and he have something special. And even your friendship will be different, you know. If he's with someone—especially someone serious."

"I know. I know it would." Hermione closed her eyes on the dart of pain this shot through her heart. "And that does make me really sad." She took a deep breath. "But there's also Draco. And all that."

"Still?"

"Yes. In the background." Hermione thought of the Unity class. "Sometimes closer to the foreground."

Lavender frowned. "But he's unavailable. You can't forget that."

"I know. And it's not like I'm hanging around waiting for him. I'm absolutely not. But it feels unfair to prevent Theo from having something like what he could have with Daphne if I'm… unsettled in any way."

"Yes. I see what you're saying." Lavender nodded but then looked away. "Although I just can't shake this idea that—"

"What?"

"I don't actually know." Lav laughed a little. "Something about timing and the nature of love? Maybe it's wrapped up in my feelings about Blaise. "

"No, I know what you mean," Hermione said softly. "And are you OK? What's going on with Blaise?"

"Oh, nothing new. He was just in the paper with someone." Lavender waved a hand. "But we're not talking about me. What's been going on with Draco?

"We've just had a couple of odd interactions. More interactions than we've had in a while. Mostly initiated by him, too. " Hermione told Lavender about the almost apologies, the way he'd approached her and talked to her. "And he was clearly affected by that dress!" She said with a shake of her head and a smile.

"Yeah, I wondered," Lav said with a sly look. "Of course I didn't think you'd bloody wear it to class." She laughed out loud. "But it sounds like he's still not over you either. Although I do wish he'd control himself around you a little better."

Hermione snorted then shrugged. "Doesn't change anything."

"Nope." Lavender heaved a huge sigh. "What a kerfuffle."

"I know. And I keep coming back to this idea that I don't even know what I want to do after school ends. I mean, we could all be living continents away come summer." Hermione gestured a little wildly.

"Did you ever think about going somewhere with Theo? The way you did with Draco?"

"No. I don't know. Maybe? But in a very amorphous way?" Hermione shook her head. "But I really need to start thinking about myself and what I want. I've been so muddled this year, Lav."

"I know, sweetie. Oh, I wish I could give you a hug." Lavender reached toward the flames.

"Me too." Hermione sniffed and made a face. "But soon. Very soon!"

"Yes. Tell me your schedule. I hope you'll be here before the 24th. I need someone to go Christmas shopping with."

"Well, Theo and I have plans for Saturday night—dinner together and a gift exchange. Just the two of us." and Hermione nodded.

Lavender raised her brows. "That will be interesting. Very romantic. Everyone will have left, right? Just the two of you in the castle?"

"That was the original plan." Hermione felt that faint tug on her heartstrings again.

"And then he's leaving Sunday and I thought I'd come down to Grimmauld on Monday."

"Excellent. We'll shop Tuesday."

"That sounds nice," Hermione said in a small voice.

Lavender gave her a sad smile. Then she straightened. "Look we're going to have a magical holiday," she said in a bracing tone. "I've so many things planned for us. There's a new restaurant I want to take you to and this funny little bar in Knockturn that you'll love. I'm going to have a Boxing Day do, and we'll get up to something for New Year's Eve. And I want to go to a muggle Christmas market, so you'll have to take me to one, and—"

Hermione was laughing by now. "It all sounds lovely, Lav." She held up a hand. "And really don't fret about me. I'm OK. It's not like before, with Draco. I'm prepared for this and I can handle it."

"OK." Lavender looked at her carefully. "I see that you are, and you can. And besides, there's no way in hell Theo abandons you the way Draco has."

Hermione nodded. "Exactly. I miss you, though." She blinked away sudden tears.

"Oh darling, me too."

Hermione picked her way carefully along the path past the back of the castle and out to the grounds beyond. Although almost everyone had left yesterday afternoon or earlier this morning, there were still a handful of students left on the grounds, and she really didn't want to see any of them. Her brain was completely fried after the last few days and even though she'd fallen into bed early last night, she still didn't feel refreshed.

Hence the walk she was taking.

She zipped up her jacket and pulled her hat down further on her head. It was a glorious, crystal clear Saturday morning, but very cold. Hermione put her gloved hands in her pockets and picked up her pace in an effort to warm her blood. The quidditch pitch loomed ahead and she broke into a trot when she saw its manicured lawn. She could cut across it on her way to the large glen, which Ginny had shown her when they'd flown on Thursday.

Flown, hmm. Hermione stopped her jog and looked at the quidditch supply shed. It occurred to her that she could fly to the glen herself if she wanted to. She was definitely confident enough on a broom now. And it had been so exhilarating on Thursday, even though they'd been a little short on time due to study obligations. Today she had all the time in the world and could fly to the far end of the glen and climb the ridge there. Or she could even fly to the top.

In a split second, her decision was made and Hermione ducked into the shed to grab a broom. Soon she was skimming at a quick but responsible pace, just far enough above the craggy land to clear the bushes and larger rocks. The wind in her face felt marvelous as she flew over the small glen, admiring the glint of the sun on the stream running through its middle. A feeling of well-being flooded her and her head cleared for what felt like the first time in days. She let out an almost involuntary whoop of joy and excitement that had a few birds fluttering up from the peaty ground below.

Being a witch and using magic was always amazing, but sometimes it was sublime.

Her shoulders eased and Hermione felt the tension of the last week seep out of her body. As she'd told Lavender, it had been a rough end of term, with all of the 8th-year teachers wanting to give their students a taste of what N.E.W.T.s would be like and none of the 7th-year teachers seeming to have sympathy for that situation. Hermione had finished two exams, three papers and her Transfiguration project in the last 72 hours and she was exhausted.

Plus there was the personal side of things. Theo.

He had been around, but also very busy. They'd managed a few quick meals together, but still hadn't had a chance to really talk. During one hurried lunch, she'd asked him how Daph was doing, and he'd said she wasn't great. It was just as they'd expected after what they'd overheard the other day. Michael had been cheating—but Daphne had actually caught him this time. Although Theo didn't know exactly what had happened.

"She doesn't really want to talk about it," he'd said. "And I don't blame her. She just wants company right now, I think."

And he and Pansy had been trading off supplying it. Hermione had even seen Astoria with her sister a few times.

"Poor thing," Hermione had said. "I'm glad she has you."

"Thanks for being so understanding." Theo had taken her hand and kissed her fingers lightly.

Hermione sighed as she banked her broom around the curve that led to the large glen. But she'd barely seen him since then. He'd pulled an all-nighter for his Muggle Studies exam yesterday and when he'd stopped by her room in the evening he'd looked like the living dead. Hermione had sent him straight to bed after he'd almost fallen asleep on his feet while giving her a hug.

But there had been nothing between them like the heated urgency of their encounter on Monday. No time for it, really.

Or was it something other than that? She supposed their private Christmas celebration tonight would be telling.

Hermione pushed the handle of her broom down as she zoomed over the foot trail that led up the large glen's southern slope.

She hadn't seen Theo when she'd slipped out this morning, but she had seen Daphne, standing with Astoria in the entrance hall and surrounded by trunks and other bits of luggage. Pansy had been there too, looking like she was going with them. Draco had even come in just as Hermione was passing. She'd moved on quickly when he'd approached Astoria, touched her arm and bent his head to say something in her ear.

Nothing like a good, strong reminder that they were intimately connected.

Taking another deep breath of the fine air, Hermione swung around the ancient curve of the valley and tried to clear her mind again. This glen was easily three times the size of its smaller neighbor, with an actual forest running up its sides and a small loch in its center. The far ridge was capped by a flat-topped lookout that beckoned under the muted blue sky. Hermione turned her broom toward it and picked up speed as she approached the rise, girding herself to make the steep ascent to the top.

Alighting there after a last heartstopping surge, she looked around with satisfaction. She wouldn't have been able to do this three months ago—wouldn't have even attempted it. Spinning in a slow circle, she took in the view; on one side a brooding moor rolled into misty green peaks, and on the other neat farmland marched along to the grey wall of the sea.

"Beautiful." She sat on a rock stared out, the buoyant spirit of earlier leaping in her again. She couldn't wait to show Harry and Ron her new flying skills—maybe she'd even take part in the annual Christmas day quidditch match at the Burrow. Or at least she'd be able to follow the players from the sidelines this time—see what bloody happened after they all flew over that rise at the bottom of the garden.

Hermione chuckled, pulling an apple from her pocket and taking a bite. It was as crisp and sweet as the air. Her eyes stayed on the horizon, which evoked thoughts of the future again. Her life since Italy had been so defined by her romantic partners—first Draco and then Theo. It felt unlike her when she considered it. And maybe it was time to stop letting that happen. Draco was very much unavailable and Theo—Hermione squinted at the sea—Theo had his own path to walk, didn't he? And while she wanted to be a part of it, she certainly didn't want to follow behind or block him.

Hermione launched her apple core as far as she could.

Maybe it was time to be more intentional about where she was going.

"Don' apologise, Hermione. I know how hard yer workin." Hagrid placed a huge roasted sausage and a scoop of potatoes on her plate and a kind hand on her shoulder. He served himself, then pushed a crock of grainy mustard toward her. Hermione spooned some out, looking at her food a little skeptically, although it did smell good.

"Thanks, Hagrid," she said, taking up her fork and knife, glad she'd decided to stop and visit him. She'd neglected him since the beginning of term, and when she'd seen the plume of smoke coming from his chimney as she'd flown back from the glen, it had felt like a sign. And when he'd insisted she join him for lunch, she knew she couldn't refuse.

Also, the flying had made her ravenous enough to push her concerns about his cooking aside and dig in. Surprisingly, the food was delicious—especially when judged against rock cake standards.

"Have you heard from Harry?" she asked through a hot mouthful. Harry was at best a sporadic correspondent, but she hoped he'd been doing right by Hagrid.

"Oh yeah." Hagrid tucked into his own meal. "He sends me something every few weeks and of course I read about him in the paper. You'll be seein' him at break, I hope."

'Every few weeks', hmph. So that was more likely every few months. She'd have a word with Harry once she was in London. "Yes, staying with him, in fact," she said aloud.

"Glad he's got you." Hagrid nodded. "You and the Weasleys, yer his family, you know. Each other's family."

Hermione nodded, thinking of her parents and suddenly fiercely glad she had Grimmauld and Lav's and the Burrow to visit over break. She'd take all the found family she could get. Of course, on the heels of that thought was sadness for the people in her life that didn't have that kind of connection: Theo, Draco, Daphne and even Hagrid himself. She wondered if he'd been lonely since Harry had left Hogwarts.

"What are you doing for the holiday, Hagrid?"

"Oh, all kind of things to do here. Can't leave my babies, can I?" He pointed his knife toward the window and the pens of various creatures surrounding the cottage. "Don' you worry about me. I'm sort of used to being by me'self."

"I hope you're not lonely, though." Hermione put a concerned hand on his huge paw.

"Oh no, not lonely at all. This batch of first years is keepin' me on my toes. There's less of 'em this year, but they're all characters."

"I agree." Hermione laughed and nodded, thinking of her Unity class. "There's this one Hufflepuff girl, Cora…"

"Cora Beamish!" Hagrid let out a crack of laughter. "I'm not supposed to have favourites," he said in a rumbling side-whisper, "but she's a favourite. Loves the work down here and comes to visit me pretty regular. Always has a lot of interesting things to say." He gave Hermione a significant look and she blushed.

"Hope you're doin' alright," Hagrid said, suddenly serious. "That Nott boy treating you well?"

"Er, uh, yes." Hermione was absolutely mortified at the idea of Hagrid knowing anything about her romantic life. "We became very good, er, friends when we were in Italy. I'm so glad he's here."

"Good." Hagrid leaned back in his chair. "Always thought he was OK. For a Slytherin." He fixed Hermione a look that on anyone else would be considered sly. "But I always thought you and Ron…?"

"Uh, no." Hermione decided this lane of conversation had gone far enough. "Ronald and I are much better as friends. Besides, he has a girlfriend now. Annika. She's from Norway. Very friendly. I'm sure you'd like her."

"Maybe they'll all get up to see me someday." Hagrid leaned over to stoke the fire in the huge pot-bellied stove. "Or I'll surprise 'em in London."

"That would be brilliant," Hermione said. "I'm sure they'd love that. In fact, come down over break and we'll fete you at Grimmauld. Have a big dinner or something."

Hagrid's face lifted in a bushy smile. "That'd be grand, Hermione."

"Good, I'll fix it with Harry." Hermione made a mental note to herself as Hagrid served the inevitable rock cakes along with mugs of startlingly strong coffee. She thought she made a good show of enjoying each (without actually consuming much) before they said their goodbyes.

Hermione shouldered her broomstick as she walked up the path from Hagrid's door. It hardly seemed worth it to fly from his cottage to the quidditch pitch, and the path along the edge of the Forbidden Forest was beautiful this time of year—all dramatic bare branches, spiky green holly leaves and bright red winter berries. She even spotted a tangle of mistletoe high in the branches of one of the trees. She wondered if this was where Ernie had gotten all the sprigs he'd littered the 8th year quarters with. It had been a real exercise in dodging them the last couple of weeks.

Pushing through a pine branch that dipped low over the path just before it emptied out on the side of the quidditch pitch, Hermione chuckled over some of the more surprising parts of the conversation with Hagrid. It would be a lark to have him to visit in London—especially since Harry still seemed reluctant to come to Hogwarts. Her laugh turned into a frown as she strode across the nearly dark pitch and deposited her broom in the storage shed. This holiday was certainly going to be a juggling act between difficult and enjoyable.

At least she'd be busy.

Looking at her watch as she strode up the path to the castle, Hermione realised it was later than she'd thought. She was meeting Theo soon and she still needed to put some last minute touches on his gift. There was also the question of what to wear. The jumper dress seemed a touch obvious at this point…

Hermione was so deep in thought that she almost ran into Minerva McGonagall as she entered the courtyard in front of the Divination Tower.

"Oh! I'm so sorry, headmistress!" Hermione put out a hand.

"Ms. Granger! How lucky! I was hoping you hadn't left yet." McGonagall stopped and gave Hermione a small smile. "I've been trying to catch up with each of you 8th-years before the holiday."

"Oh, how nice. And yes, I'll be here for a few days yet—I'm not planning on leaving until Monday. Trying to miss the crowd at the apparition spot and get the library to myself for a few days," Hermione babbled, a little discombobulated.

"Excellent. And are you working on something? I'd think all of your studies were done for at least a few weeks." There was a distinct twinkle in the headmistress's eye.

"Oh yes, they are. This is just a personal project. I started reading a few months ago about muggle witch burning in the 15th to 17th centuries and saw that there are some holes in the magical literature. I was considering writing something…" Hermione found herself a little bashful to tell McGonagall her plans, but the headmistress was nodding along.

"A very good idea," she said, turning and setting a leisurely pace in the direction Hermione was going. "I've no doubt you'll produce something useful and admirable. Wonderful opening salvo for your entrance into the 'real world', so to speak."

"Thank you," Hermione said again, touched by the vote of confidence. Impulsively, she turned to the headmistress. "And I'd like to apologise once more for the lack of excellence with the Unity classes this term. That was unlike me and I'm committed to doing better next year."

"You've spoken to Mr. Malfoy, then?" McGonagall raised a brow.

"Briefly." Hermione felt like fidgeting, but kept herself still. "We spoke briefly and are scheduled to meet in early January to lay out our plans." Her stomach lurched at the thought. She still didn't have any idea how that was going to go. Might be tough to make a syllabus if Draco still wasn't saying more than three words to her at a time.

"Well, I saw the models in the Great Hall of the common rooms your students designed and they were very impressive. Good spellwork, creative and very much in the spirit of Unity. So you've ended on a strong note." McGonagall gave her a bracing nod. "And where were you coming from just now?" she asked after a moment, gesturing behind them.

"I had lunch with Hagrid. I haven't seen much of him this term." Hermione grimaced a little as they passed into the building. "I wanted to wish him a happy Christmas."

"I'm sure he enjoyed that." McGonagall's eyes were warm.

"Headmistress, do you have holiday plans?" It suddenly struck Hermoine that she'd never thought about what any of her teachers did during school breaks.

McGonagall stopped and cocked her head the tiniest bit. "How kind of you to ask. And yes, I do. I have a good friend who lives in Switzerland and she and I trade off visiting each other for the winter holidays. It's my turn to go to her. I'll leave the 23rd. The castle will be in good hands with Hagrid, Mr. Filch and the elves at the helm."

"Switzerland sounds lovely." Hermione pictured massive drifts of snow and twinkling night markets.

"It's exceedingly cold. I shall have to pack my woolens." McGonagall gave a little shiver and Hermione suppressed a giggle. They had approached the turnoff to the Divination Tower, but the headmistress paused, looking like she had more to say.

"Ms. Granger." She spoke after a moment. "Other than your writing project, have you given much thought to your plans post-Hogwarts?"

"I've actually been thinking about it today. I had a little fly around the large glen and it cleared my head after all the studying this week."

"Excellent. Flying is very good for that. And do you have a direction in mind as far as the future?" McGonagall asked. Hermione sighed and the headmistress continued. "Because I'd be very happy to recommend you in the strongest terms for any number of apprenticeships or practicums. Several will have openings—in Britain, mainland Europe, even further afield. I also saw Minister Shacklebolt last week and he asked after you. Many departments in the Ministry of Magic would be happy to have such a trainee as yourself."

Hermione ducked her head a little. "Thank you. That's reassuring to hear."

"Not very surprising, I hope." McGonagal smiled in a kindly way. "And if neither of those avenues suit, there are professorships that will be opening up here in the next few years as well. Professor Chen is on loan from Ilvermorny and will be returning after next term, and Professor Vector has been making noises about retiring for several years now. If you prove yourself with the Unity class in the coming months, as I've no doubt you'll do, you'd be a competitive candidate for either."

Hermione's mouth had dropped open in a very gormless way during McGonagall's recitation. A Hogwarts professorship? "I hadn't even thought. A professorship!?" she stuttered.

"Absolutely. Many of our best teachers started very young."

"Well, that is certainly something to consider," Hermione said. "Something I hadn't thought of before. In fact, to be truthful, I haven't done a lot of really rigorous thinking about any of it yet. I've been distracted." Distracted over boys—Hermione shook her head quickly, frustrated with herself.

"A not uncommon phenomenon at your age." McGongagall's expression was almost gentle. "Just make certain your … distractions ... don't influence your choices too much. You're too bright and promising to hinge your plans on what anyone else wants to do."

"Thank you." Hermione said again, her throat suddenly a little tight. "I actually do keep going back to one idea." She cleared her throat. "But I wonder if you'd be able to help me with it at all?"

"It's likely." The headmistress's eyes were twinkling again.

Hermione smiled. "Well, it's muggle university," she said. "I've been thinking more and more that I'd like to continue my education there. Possibly with a mathematics or physics degree. Or chemistry? Something that could compliment the subjects I've learned here. Even psychology or medicine could be interesting…" Hermione thought very briefly of when she and Draco had discussed this in a warm field in Italy, but brushed the images away. At this point, Draco was about as far from attending muggle university with her as he was from the moon.

McGonagall was nodding along. "Very forward-thinking," she said. "This post-war world will require knowledge and familiarity with muggle ways. Integration, knowledge transfer, education. Those who can facilitate that will be in a very good position indeed."

"I hadn't even thought of it that way, but that's an excellent point," Hermione said, struck by the idea. "And has it ever been done out of Hogwarts? A transition to a muggle school? I've been wondering about transcripts and testing and the like."

McGonagall squinted upward. "I think Albus… about ten or 15 years ago... yes, there was a student." She nodded once. "I'm certain it's been done. Let me look in the Heads' records and see how. I seem to remember Professor Dumbledore generating a document that translated Hogwarts classes and testing scores to something that aligned with the muggle system. He was quite tickled over it, in fact." She smiled sadly. "Although you may need to do some bridging courses and entrance exams."

"I do expect that, yes." Hermione nodded. "Especially for higher maths if they're required."

"Exactly." McGonagall nodded. "Well, this is all very refreshing, Ms. Granger. I'll be happy to look into it and we can discuss it in the new year."

"Yes, and there's definitely time. I'd be looking to start a year after next Autumn. I'd like to take a gap year and travel or earn some money. Take a break." Hermione realised as the words crossed her lips how much she wanted this.

"You've certainly earned it." McGonagall took up her gold pocket watch and frowned. "Well, I'm nearly late for a parent meeting. Last one of the year, though." Her frown tilted up. "Do have a very happy Christmas, Ms. Granger."

"Thank you and you too, headmistress!" Hermione waved as McGonagall turned in a swirl of black robes and strode out of sight, her pointed hat bobbing along purposefully.

Hermione sighed and leaned against the wall.

There were so many possibilities to consider.

She started walking, slowly and distractedly, back toward her room. The gap year sounded better and better the more she thought about it. She could move in with Lav or the boys, work a little, earn some money. Do some volunteering and any courses or exams she'd need to transition to a muggle university system. And maybe she'd have a bit of time left over to travel. She should probably get to Australia and then maybe somewhere from there?

"Southeast Asia?" she said aloud to the hallway. Or maybe New Zealand—she could visit Neville.

Hermione reached her room and pushed open the door. No matter what happened, the world was big and waiting for her. She just wouldn't let herself forget that.

Hermione tucked a curl into her plait and stepped back from the mirror, checking that her slip dress was smooth. She fussed with the delicate cardigan she wore over it, unsure whether to leave it on or take it off, but finally deciding to leave it.

Theo should be here any minute.

Everything was ready—candles lit, fire burning, his gifts wrapped and her desk magicked into a table for two. He'd spoken to the elves about serving dinner in her room and told her they'd been more than enthusiastic to accommodate. Not much for them to do, Hermione supposed, with everyone else gone.

She went to the window and peered out at the silent grounds, trying to ease the little flutter of nerves that suddenly tingled in the tips of her fingers. Shaking her hands out, she told herself this was Theo. She had nothing to be nervous about. Everything would be fine.

But no matter how much she thought of her triumphant feeling at the top of the peak or her inspiring conversation with McGonagall, she couldn't quite summon the same happy energy they'd generated.

She was worried about tonight.

Unbidden, a memory washed over her: of riding in the car with Theo through some random bit of countryside, looking over to see his eyes sparking right before he said something outrageous—something that made her laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks.

She breathed deeply in then out. She couldn't lose that. She wouldn't.

She turned a little frantically away from the glass, willing her thoughts in a more positive direction. How had she gotten so maudlin? Maybe it was the music. She stepped over to her cassette player and changed the tape to something lighter just as Theo's distinctive knock sounded.

"Coming!" Hermione pushed play and pivoted to the door, opening it as another attack of nerves assailed her. "Hello!" she said, a little over-hearty.

"Hello." Theo smiled down at her. He looked extremely handsome and a little more formal than usual, his hair swept back and carefully brushed, a shirt and tie under his cable-knit jumper.

"You look beautiful," he said, handing her a bouquet of the holly branches she'd seen earlier on her walk.

"Oh, how lovely," she said, admiring the length of bright crimson ribbon that held the branches together. "And thoughtful." She beamed up at him and went on tip-toe to kiss his cheek. But he turned at the last minute and kissed her mouth instead. A slightly lingering kiss, his hand drifting to her back. Hermione let her hand travel up his chest to rest on his shoulder.

"I've missed you the last few days," he said softly, pulling back, his eyes searching her face. Hermione couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw a little of the same uncertainty she felt there. She reached up and touched his cheek briefly before stepping away.

"I know, it's been awful, hasn't it?" She turned and laid the bouquet on her fireplace mantle. "Would you like a glass of wine? And did you manage a good sleep last night?"

"Yes and yes." Theo dropped onto her bed and stretched his arms over his head. "I had the most glorious lie-in this morning. Didn't wake up until 11 and barely made it out of bed for lunch. I came to see you, but you weren't here. And you weren't in the library because I checked there too." He tilted his head.

Hermione handed him a glass of ruby red wine and took a sip herself. "I was off flying."

"Really?" His smile emerged.

"Yes." She smiled back. "I was going to take a walk and then I thought, why not take a fly instead? I know how to now."

"And how was it?"

"Glorious, Theo. The air and the views. There's nothing like it. I can't believe I waited so long to really learn." Hermione shook her head and sat in one of the chairs across from him, twisting to put her hand on its high back then propping her chin on it.

"It really can be lovely. We should go together sometime." His eyes rested on hers and something passed between them. Hermione felt her apprehension threaten again and she straightened.

"And then I had lunch with Hagrid, which was surprisingly nice," she said brightly. "Apparently he's quite friendly with Cora from my Unity class." She relayed a little of what Hagrid had said until they were both laughing.

Theo drained his wine glass and came to sit at the table with her. "Should we start the meal?" he asked. "The elves said we just need to rap twice on the table for each course."

"Dinner before gifts?" Hermione looked over to the little pile standing on her night table.

"Are those all for me?" Theo's dimple flashed.

Hermione nodded. "Not that it's anything huge. Just a few small things."

"Well, they'll be the first Christmas gifts I've ever gotten," he said. "And yours is in the hallway because the moment you see the shape, I think you'll know what it is." He grinned at her as he placed two sharp knocks on the table. "And yes, dinner first. I'm starved."

Plates appeared at each setting containing an artfully arranged salad of wintery greens.

"Oh, how lovely. And posh!" Hermione smiled at Theo. "Did you discuss the menu with the elves?"

"Perhaps." His brows flicked up twice. "Looked into what some of the nicer muggle establishments in London serve this time of year. They were rather excited to try something new."

Hermione took a bite of her salad, feeling herself relax a little. "It's just Theo," her mind whispered. There was no reason to fret. And indeed, they chatted lightly through the first course, Theo making her laugh with his description of winging an answer on his Muggle Studies exam and him laughing at how many pages of annotations she'd had on her Alchemy paper.

"Six pages?" he sputtered. "I think my whole paper with annotations was seven."

"I like to be thorough—and consult a variety of sources!" Hermione waved her fork as his shoulders shook.

"Absolutely," he gasped, wiping at his eyes. "And you should never change or apologise for that."

Hermione took a swallow of wine. "Good, because I won't." She knocked at the table to remove their salad plates, which were replaced by the main course, a very elegant arrangement of meat and vegetables.

"Rabbit terrine, pureed leek and I think roasted celery root?" Theo said, peering at his plate. "I can't quite remember the details of what I sent them now."

Hermione took a bite. "It's delicious," she said. "I'm so impressed that you sought out muggle dishes. Where did you find them?"

"Magazines." Theo dabbed at his mouth. "Found some food and wine focused ones in the newsagent when I had the car out earlier this week to prepare it for the drive." He stopped and looked at her. "Did I tell you I decided to drive home?"

"No!" Hermione couldn't help but wonder who he had told. She glanced down at her plate, pushing the thought away.

"Ah, yes. I decided I'd like to spend some of the holiday exploring the muggle area around Nott House the way I've done here. I never have, you know."

"Of course not. That sounds lovely. So you'll leave early tomorrow, then?"

"Yes, quite early. The drive is nearly seven hours, and I've never taken the Rover that far. I'd rather not do any of it in the dark either."

"And you know what to do, if you break down?" Hermione looked up, concerned. "A garage can fix it and you can always make a telephone call from a phone box. Oh Theo, it seems risky!" Her mind raced over all the things that could go wrong.

He put his hand over hers. "I do know. We've gone over muggle safety and services in Muggle Studies. And I've researched it very thoroughly. I have some spells in my arsenal too. I'll be fine."

"Mmm." Hermione narrowed her eyes. "Will you floo me when you arrive so I won't worry?"

"Of course." He took his hand back and applied himself to his food.

"I saw Daphne," Hermione said softly, the words coming from her mouth before she'd even known she was going to say them. "And Astoria—and Pansy?—in the entrance hall this morning. Looked like they were all off together."

"Yes." Theo nodded briefly. "They took a portkey this morning. Pansy's staying with them for a few days before Christmas."

Hermione's brows went sky high and he nodded. "I know." He shrugged and took a drink of wine.

"And how is Daph doing?" Hermione asked, an urge to get this subject out there and out of the way threading through her.

Theo blew out a breath. "Not well. That arsehole really did a number on her." He shook his head angrily. "And he's still trying to talk to her, 'to explain'."

"Ugh. And is she responding?"

"No, I think she finally sees. But it took some brutally plain evidence." He shook his head again and his eyes went far away.

"I hope you don't still think that's your fault," Hermione said, capturing his gaze.

"No. I don't know." His shoulders slumped slightly.

"Theo."

He rapped to take their main courses away. "Shall we do gifts with pudding?" he asked, clearly trying to change the subject.

Hermione blinked at him and sighed. "OK," she finally said. "You first." She got up to get his gifts as the table cleared and two small plates appeared. Each one contained a miniature Christmas pudding, topped with a holly sprig and flaming merrily.

"How lovely!" Hermione smiled in delight at the wispy blue flames.

Two balloon glasses appeared alongside the plates and Theo smiled too. "Good, they remembered the brandy."

Hermione took up his parcels and deposited them in front of him. "These two," —she tapped the larger parcels— "are just sort of basic gifts. Things you should have as you continue with your muggle education. This one," —she pulled the smaller parcel back— "is more special. So you have to open it last."

"All right." He smiled slowly up at her and took her hand, which he turned over and kissed. "Shall you sit with me while I do it?" he asked, pulling her down into his lap.

"OK," she said, letting herself be pulled. She placed a soft kiss on his lips as she landed and felt his hand slip over her waist.

"You're so silky," he murmured, his eyes a deep blue in the low light. He looked at her for several moments and Hermione let herself drink him in too: the perfect jump of his nose, his finely molded lips. She reached out and pressed her thumb to the dent above them and he bit it playfully.

"All right! This one first," he said, jostling her a little as Hermione whooped and clutched at him. She forked a bite of his pudding into her mouth as he began carefully undoing the paper. "Oh, who am I fooling?" he muttered after a moment and tore at it until he'd revealed a paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice.

"This," Hermione said, touching a finger to it. "Is my favourite book. Written by one of the greatest geniuses to grace the English language with her works. You must read it and absorb it." She tapped his nose. "Don't be like most men and dismiss it." She gave him a severe look and he nodded slowly, turning the book over in his hands and reading the back.

"Sounds a little like pureblood society." He looked up with a question in his eyes.

"I suppose it might. It was written nearly 200 years ago." Hermione snickered and he chuckled too. "But it's very nuanced. And funny. It's much more than what's on the surface. Give it your full attention and you'll be rewarded."

"I will."

"Good, because I'll expect to discuss it with you after you're done reading." Hermione raised her brows.

"Oh, will you? And will I be graded on my analysis?" His head tilted and the corner of his mouth lifted.

"Possibly." Hermione tried to hold back her smile, but couldn't. "Now this one," she said, shoving the second parcel at him. He unwrapped it quickly and held up Hermione's own battered copy of The Hobbit.

"As you can probably tell, this used to be mine," Hermione said. "And it's a childrens' book, so it's been mine for a long time. I thought about getting you your own copy, but for some reason I wanted you to have this one. You'll see a few of my notes and observations in there."

"A few?" he laughed, riffling through the book, which was rather, er, heavily annotated.

"Listen, you!" She pointed at him and he laughed harder. Then he quieted. "I love it," he said softly. "I love that it was yours."

Hermione felt her voice suddenly a bit thick. "What's really interesting about it," she said quickly. "To folk like you, that is—is that it's a muggle's perception of the magical world. His imagining of it. And the author was definitely a muggle—I've done the research and he had no known connection to our world. He just came up with it all in his head. But there are some interesting parallels and places where tropes and magical archetypes have clearly leaked through. I think you'll enjoy it. And he has a few more books set in the world if you like it enough to continue."

Hermione chanced a look at Theo and saw that he was gazing at her, his face unguarded.

"Thank you," he said simply, hugging her against him.

She rested her head on his shoulder. "You're very welcome."

"I don't see how this last gift could be any better." She felt his warm breath in her hair.

"Open it and see."

"All right."

Hermione watched as his graceful fingers unwrapped the last parcel and three cassette tapes spilled out.

"What is this—" He picked up one of the cassettes and turned it over in his hands. She'd lettered the title neatly on the spine; "A Walk in the Wind."

"Those are songs that remind me of our walks," she said. "Open it up."

He did and pulled out the inner sleeve, where Hermione had inked a drawing of them walking on a windy beach, similar to the one she'd done in class so many weeks ago.

"This is—" But Theo shook his head and didn't finish. Instead he picked up the second tape. "Firelight," he read out.

"That one is, er, songs that remind me of other things." Hermione felt her face flush as Theo gave her a very warm look out of the corner of his eye.

"Oh?"

"Mmm-hmm."

He read down the list, his breath pulling in. "Maybe we should put this one on." His gaze flicked to the crackling fire.

Hermione nodded, feeling her flush travel outward from her face.

Theo picked up the third tape. "A Fisher and a Farmer." He shook his head once and then looked up at her. Hermione felt her eyes get shiny when she saw that his were the same. "It's us," he said.

"Yes," she managed to get out. "These are songs that remind me of you and me. Some from Italy, but especially from the last few months."

He took the tape out, chuckled a little at her drawings of him surrounded by a flock of sheep and herself in a fisherman's hat, then read down the list. "I recognize most of these," he said, his voice a little uneven.

"Yes, some of them are ones we've danced to or listened to together, and others just...remind me of us. I taped a few things from my mum and dad's stuff that I have here at school too."

"Hermione this is— These are amazing. Brilliant." Theo was still looking down. He finally looked up and chuckled, tears definitely in his eyes now. "I finally got my musical gift from you."

"Oh my god, that's right!" Hermione's mouth dropped open. "That night in San Cipriano!"

"I was so jealous of him." Theo shook his head and laughed. But then they both sobered.

"I hope you'll listen to these and think of us. No matter—" Hermione looked down, unable to finish and Theo's arm, which had been resting lightly around her, tightened. His other arm went around her too, holding her close against him.

"I will," he said and she twisted, flinging her arms around his neck and burying her face there.

"This is the nicest thing anyone has ever given me," she heard him whisper. "I will cherish these for all time."

"Good," she managed to say. "And that's not the whole set. I have two more tapes I want to make you—a jazz one and a classical one to round it all out—but I need my dad's full music collection for them. It's in London and I'll do it over break."

His arms tightened around her again. "Amazing," he said and she felt him shake his head.

They stayed that way for a few moments until Theo shifted slightly. "And may I give you your gift?" he asked, pulling back and looking at her.

Hermione swiped at her eyes, "Oh. Yes. That would be lovely." She disentangled her arms and got up from his lap.

He stood too, but kept one of her hands in his. "Thank you," he said again. "I can't quite put into words what this means to me." He squeezed her hand and then ducked out the door.

Hermione turned away, fiddling with her cassette player. She sifted the three tapes in her hands before finally putting Firelight into the slot with a small shrug. He'd said he wanted to hear it.

She looked up as Theo backed into the room with a large flat parcel in his hands, wrapped in the gaudiest muggle christmas paper she'd ever seen.

She laughed. "What is this?"

Theo leaned it carefully against the table. "Open it and find out."

Hermione knelt down and worked the tape free on both ends of the parcel, chuckling again at the paper. "Where did you find this?" she asked, holding up a flap of the gaudy red and green.

"Poundland." Theo grinned.

"Your muggle education is really going in some worrying directions," Hermione muttered as she pulled the paper down.

"Oh—" She gasped as she saw what was beneath. "Oh, Theo I'd forgotten!" She pulled the paper free and gazed at the watercolour she'd admired during their day on Skye. It was a beach scene done in moody greys and blues. Looking at it, she could almost taste the salt spray and feel the nip of cold wind. "I thought you'd gone back to get it when you said you'd left your keys…" She put her hand to her mouth. "I love it."

"I hope it will be the same for you as the tapes will be for me. Remind you of...everything. The time we've spent."

Hermione looked up and there was a crease between Theo's brows. "It will," she said, standing. "It absolutely will. Every walk. Every time you rescued me from myself." She gave a watery chuckle.

"Please don't be sad," he said.

"I'm not. Not really. I'm just so touched. So… grateful—" Hermione shook her head.

"Me too," he murmured, pulling her against him. They stood like that for a long time, Hermione listening to the strong beat of his heart. "I like this song," Theo finally said, swaying her slightly. "I don't think I've heard it before."

"Oh." Hermione stepped back and swiped at her eyes again. "This one of my mum's. She loves her. It's Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man". Reminds me of you somehow."

Theo raised his brows, then leaned over, picked up their brandy glasses and sat on the bed. He cut his eyes to the space next to him. "Come sit and let's listen to the rest."

"All right. I want my pudding, though." Hermione grabbed it, then climbed up and took her glass. "Mmm, good combination," she said chasing a bite with a sip.

They sat quietly for a few moments and then Theo spoke up. "Do you really think I rescued you?" he asked, eyes fixed on the fire. "I've never seen myself that way."

"Oh my god, yes. It's one of your primary characteristics, I think. Your selflessness."

He looked over at her. "I'm like that for exactly two people in my life, Hermione."

"Oh." Hermione looked down and fiddled with her glass.

Theo gave a short laugh. "Slytherin house may not have been the hat's first choice, but I do fit there in some ways. My loyalty runs deep, but is fairly limited."

"What's going on with Daphne, Theo?" The question was out before she'd even formulated it.

A silence stretched in the room and Hermione looked over to see Theo tilting his head back against the wall, eyes closed. "You can be honest with me," she said softly.

"Is 'I don't know?' a proper answer?" he finally said, pulling his chin down to look at her. He rubbed his forehead. "It's so strange," he said. "To be close to her again. To feel let in. Is it weird to say this you?"

"No, I want you to say what you need to. You can always be open with me."

He nodded. "I distanced myself so carefully—it feels almost unnatural to be able to talk and interact like we used to. It makes me kind of sad in a way. But also happy to be rebuilding it. And I've changed so much. I've got so much more in my life now." He put his hand next to Hermoine's on the coverlet.

"And what do you want?" she asked, her voice quiet.

"I don't want to lose anything," he said softly. "And I don't want to hurt anyone." His fingers bumped hers. "What do you want?" he asked.

Hermione felt like she had been asking herself this question endlessly the last few days, weeks, months. "I want us all to make the best choices for ourselves," she said after a long moment, finally able to put into words the conclusions she'd come to. "I want you to do what your heart is telling you to do."

"What if my heart is telling me a lot of things?"

She smiled sadly at him. "I'm not unfamiliar with that feeling."

"Do you think it's possible?" he asked. "To…care—very deeply—for more than one person at once?"

"Yes," she whispered and felt his hand wrap around hers tightly.

"I have something to tell you or ask you, I don't know." Theo looked down and shook his head.

"What?"

"Remember what I told you about purebloods and the new year holiday?" Hermione nodded and he continued. "Well, Daphne's family has a party every year—a ball, in fact. And I've always gone, except for two years ago of course." He smiled humourlessly down, but then looked back up at Hermione. Their hands were still clasped. "She's asked if I'll go this year. Not as a date or anything. Just for support. But I feel like…like I should do that for her. But it means I wouldn't spend the holiday with you like we'd talked about."

Hermione breathed in and out. "I mean, of course I don't mind," she said. "It's just a day like any other. But," —she glanced at him— "this feels like it could be more than about New Year."

"I don't want it to be. Not necessarily." Theo rubbed at his forehead again. "I haven't even thought this through. Even though it's been on my mind almost constantly."

"Oh my god, same." Hermione almost laughed, but didn't quite have it in her.

"And what have you been thinking?" He looked at her a little desperately.

"Just that we're young to be making these kinds of decisions. And that no matter what I don't want to lose you. Your friendship."

"You won't. Ever."

Hermione pulsed her hand in his, feeling both relieved and sad. Not hurt, but just sad for things changing. Because she knew now that they were.

"Do you think you'll make it down to London at all?" she asked in a lull between songs.

"I want to. I really do. Between Christmas and New Year?" He looked hopeful.

"OK. Let's try for that." Hermione took a drink of her brandy, and stared at the fire, which had burnt low. It was getting late.

A new song started with a tinkle of piano and Theo perked up his ears. "Another one I haven't heard. It's pretty," he said, getting up off the bed. He held out a hand to Hermione. "Dance?" he asked.

Hermione knew which song this was. Another of her mum's favourites, it always made her cry. She swallowed a lump now as she took Theo's hand and let him pull her close. They swayed slowly to the bittersweet words that floated through the room.

"This is beautiful," he said after a bit. "I like this singer."

"It's Billie Holiday," she said. "She's one of the best. You can definitely find a lot more of her music if you like her. I was hoping you'd do that—use these cassettes as a jumping off point. Just like the books." She looked at him and he was looking down at her tenderly.

"I will."

The song ended and Theo twirled her gently out and then in. Hermione felt her lips lift almost in spite of herself. "That's the end of side one," she said.

Theo took a breath and she saw him look at the clock on her bedside table.

"How early do you have to be up?" she asked.

"I'm planning on leaving by seven." He looked reluctant, and more than a little sad.

"You should go then. So you're fresh for the drive." She stepped to the table and took the cassette from the player, slotting it back into its case and stacking it with the books and other tapes. She kept her eyes down as she fussed with the pile.

"Hermione."

"Hmm?" She mustered a smile and looked up. He was so handsome in the low light, the planes of his face in deep shadow. She reached up to brush his cheek, then cupped it and leaned up to kiss him, sweetly. But then his arms went around her and he pulled her in for something deeper. She let her hand wander up his neck and into his hair, asking herself what she wanted.

She pulled back just as he did.

They just looked at each other for a moment until he made a move toward the table. "All right," he said, taking the stack of books and casettes and walking toward the door.

"You'll floo me?" Hermione said. "When you arrive? I'll be fretting otherwise."

"Yes." He nodded and smiled faintly as he ducked through the door. Then stopped and turned.

"Thank you. So much," he said, and she knew he meant more than the gifts.

Hermione shifted in bed, laying her book facedown on her chest. She reached over to the plate of biscuits sitting on her nightstand and took one, biting into it and staring into the last embers in her fireplace grate. Theo had left over an hour ago, but she hadn't felt tired, let alone been able to sleep.

Even starting her annual holiday reading of A Christmas Carol hadn't been the distraction she'd hoped. She kept looking up from Marley's ghost to think about what had happened earlier. She glanced over at the watercolour, still propped against her transfigured desk, and sighed.

It wasn't like they had broken up, but they seemed… less together than when the week had started. There had been nothing like what had almost happened Monday tonight—their kisses had felt more bittersweet than urgent. And although Hermione felt more secure than ever in Theo's affection and care, the flavour of that care seemed to have changed subtly.

She tapped her fingers against the cover of her book and looked up, trying to figure out how she felt about it. She wasn't devastated or blindsided the way she'd been over Draco, no, but she was sad.

Off-kilter somehow.

Hermione held this emotion up and twisted it around, making herself interrogate it the way Lavender would if she were here. And sitting there in the middle of it all was the fear that Theo just wouldn't be there in the same way. To explore with her, talk with her, rally her into a lighter mood. That they wouldn't share jokes or intimate moments, banter and play with each other.

If he focused all of that on somebody else, would there be any room left for her? Would Daphne even allow it? She could see Theo, in his bid to atone, doing anything for her, anything she asked.

Hermione's mouth crumpled a little. This was the crux of it, then. And while she didn't think Daphne was jealous or possessive, she knew in her heart of hearts that things wouldn't quite be the same no matter what.

And she couldn't think her way around it.

She gave a little sob in the quiet of her room. Why did it all have to be so hard? If this was growing up, some part of her didn't want it; some part of her wished she could just go back to the pre-Italy days, when her heart was untouched.

Summoning a tissue from the box on her desk Hermione wiped at her eyes impatiently. Crying about it was just silly and somewhat premature. Nothing she feared had happened yet. Maybe Daphne wouldn't want anything more than friendship from Theo.

But even then…

Hermione straightened against her headboard, something Lav had said during their last conversation running through her mind. What if she fought for him? Drew a line and stood her ground. Would he stay with her instead? She thought there was a distinct possibility that he would.

But would she have all of him, or would part of him always wonder?

Or—Draco's image floated across her inner eye—would she be the uncertain one?

And what about her plans? Her determination not to take romantic entanglements into the equation of her life?

Hermione turned and punched her pillow. All this thinking had gotten her precisely nowhere, but she did feel a little more tired now. Maybe she'd at least attempt sleep. She dogeared the Dickens, caught up her wand and was just pointing it at her lamp when she heard an urgent tapping on her door.

She slipped out of bed swiftly.

"What's wrong?" she asked as she opened the heavy panel and looked up into Theo's worried face. She'd known it would be him—they were practically the only two left in the castle.

"You're still awake," he said. "I'd hoped when I saw the light." Hermione noticed that he was in his joggers and his formerly neat hair was extremely tousled, as if he'd been pulling on it again.

"I couldn't sleep," Hermione admitted.

Theo stepped into the room and pulled the door shut behind him. He moved forward and took Hermione's hands. "I couldn't either. I just had to—I had to come and say." He looked down and back up. "I want you to know. That what we have has meant everything to me. Every minute of it." He stopped and took a breath. "You said I rescued you, but you rescued me too. I don't have that many people, but you are one of them."

"Oh, Theo. It's been everything to me too." Hermione felt something break open inside of her and knew with sudden clarity that no matter what happened they would get through it. She grasped his hands tightly and made him look in her eyes. "Nothing you could do could mar or change that. And whatever you need to do, I'm here." She took a breath. "What I said that morning on Skye stands. Being your friend, having the gift of your friendship, means more to me than anything."

"OK, OK," he said, sounding as if he were trying to calm himself. "I just can't lose you. And I don't want to hurt you. I'm so scared of making the biggest mistake of my bloody life."

"You never will lose me. And you couldn't hurt me if you tried. I understand you too well." Hermione smiled a little.

His eyes searched hers. "Sometimes I wonder if this isn't—" He shook his head and looked away, his face twisting.

"I know. I know," Hermione said. "But it will be OK."

"All right," he said, touching his forehead to hers. "All right."

Hermione reached up slid her arms slowly around his neck, then felt him pull her tight against him one more time.

Chapter Text

"No, it's still crooked." Hermione eyed the mostly conical evergreen that was listing in the corner of the great room at Grimmauld Place.

"Bloody. Hell." Harry's extremely exasperated tones emanated from somewhere under the tree's abundant lower half.

"Just a little to the left and then kind of back a bit?" Hermione went over and grasped the tree's spindly top. "You've almost got it."

"Your status as my oldest and best friend is in serious jeopardy right now." Harry grunted as he struggled with the base of the tree and then finally clipped something metal into place.

"Ooh, do I beat out Ron?" Hermione beamed down as Harry scooted out and peered up at her.

"No," he said. "You're co-best friends now. He abandoned me on the Horcrux hunt, but you made me faff with this tree."

Hermione laughed and put out a hand to help him up. The tree was still squint, but she knew when to pick her battles. "Thank you very much," she said, stepping back and floating a string of magical twinkle lights around the tree's rather odd shape. It had been practically the last one on the muggle lot she'd drug Harry to earlier this afternoon. At least they'd got it at a deep discount.

"You have to admit it looks a little more festive in here now," she said, opening a box of Christmas ornaments she'd found in her parents' things. "I can't believe you didn't have any decorations up!"

"We've just been too knackered." Harry ran a hand through his messy hair. "They give you the most shite busywork after training. All the late night stake-outs and endless paperwork jobs." He rubbed his forehead. "Feels neverending. All Ron and I want to do when we get home is eat and sleep. Annika too. She made noises about a tree a few times, but she's always shattered when she comes home from the restaurant. And we figured Molly'd do it up tomorrow."

As he was speaking Harry had flopped onto the couch to watch Hermione spell ornaments onto the tree's branches.

"Do you think Molly will do all the usual stuff?" Hermione asked, twisting to look at him.

Harry's eyes closed. "Good point," he said. "I don't know." His shoulders slumped.

"Do you think we should have gone tonight?" he asked, bringing up a question they'd been debating since he'd met Hermione at Platform 9 ¾ on Monday. They didn't usually attend the Weasleys' Christmas Eve celebrations, but Ron had invited them both this year.

"I still think it's better that we left it for family-only." Hermione said. "We'll all be there tomorrow anyway."

"Yeah." Harry nodded distractedly. "Yeah."

Hermione fought down the wave of sadness this conversation brought, noting that digging through her old family Christmas ornaments probably wasn't helping. She'd spoken to her mum the day before last and planned to call again tomorrow, but a couple of phone calls felt very meager when measured against years of family holidays. She sighed.

"You want a beer or something?" Harry asked. "I feel like we need some help with our holiday cheer."

"Agreed and yes." Hermione nodded as Harry stood up. "And I'm taking that as permission to put on some muggle Christmas carols!" she called to his back.

A faint "Bah humbug," floated down the hall and Hermione smiled, closing the box of ornaments and going to her music player. She sorted through her CDs, selected a really campy one and put it on.

Of course, doing so made her think of Theo. She sighed again.

True to his word, he had left Hogwarts very early Sunday morning, so she hadn't seen him since Saturday night. He had floo'd as he'd promised, although the faulty connection on his end had made the conversation short. She'd tried to call him a few times since she'd arrived here Monday, but kept missing him. And with all the activity—shopping with Lavender, a leaving dinner for Annika before she went home for Christmas, aiding Harry in buying some very last minute gifts and today's bid for introducing some holiday cheer at Grimmauld—she hadn't had a lot of time to feel sad about it. But it did sneak up on her in random moments.

She wondered how he was doing, what he was doing.

"Here we are." Harry walked back in carrying two frosted pint glasses.

Hermione hurriedly pasted a smile on her face. "A glass? How posh." She took hers, then clinked it to his. They both drank and stared at the lights for few moments.

"Bit better than last year," Harry finally said.

"God. Yes, it is. Thank you for that perspective." Hermione moved over and tapped her head to his shoulder, visions of the bleak night in Godric's Hollow filling her mind. She shivered.

He put his arm around her. "Are you all right?" She could hear the concern in his voice. "You still don't seem quite yourself."

Hermione frowned. She hadn't had the time or inclination to tell him the latest with Theo.

She felt him look down at her. "Do I need to add Nott to the list of Slytherins I owe a grudge to, or is it Malfoy again?"

"Again with the unexpected perceptiveness—does Auror training include a component I'm unaware of?" She looked up at him and he rolled his eyes.

"And no." Hermione shook her head quickly. "Theo's done nothing wrong. And Draco is—" She shrugged. "Essentially the same."

"But something is wrong." Harry moved to the sofa and sat. "Come on," he said. "Tell me. Last I heard from Lavender you were very happy with Theo." He squinted at the tree. "Or she was very happy that you were with him." He took a long drink of ale. "Took a minute to process that one, even though I saw it coming."

"You did? And when did you talk to Lavender!?" Hermione sat down next to him, tucking a leg under her and sipping her pint.

"We see each other fairly regularly out and about. Diagon is not large, you know. We had a drink one night a few weeks ago while we were waiting for other people."

"Lucky you weren't photographed. I can just imagine that headline."

"We sat in the back," Harry said flatly. "And don't try to change the subject."

"I guess I'm just feeling… a little lost." Hermione lay back against the sofa cushions. She felt Harry's hand slip into hers and squeeze. "And It's not just Theo. Although that's part of it. It's my parents and the end of school and yes, a little bit of Draco still. Tomorrow and how sad it's going to be without Fred. What this year has been. I just—I don't know."

"I do. I know exactly what you mean."

"Right?" Hermione turned to him. "It's like I wish I had a clear path, like you. With training and your work. Something I could sink my teeth into that would anchor me. School just feels so temporary at this point."

"It does help," Harry said, taking another deep drink of his beer. "But it doesn't solve everything."

"I'm sure." Hermione squeezed his hand back. "I don't really know what I'm trying to say, to be honest."

"Well, what about Theo? What's going on?"

"What do you know from Lav?"

"Just that you started... dating, I guess? And that you were happy. She was very happy. Thought I'd be surprised about it, but I wasn't."

"Yeah, I guess that surprises me."

Harry lifted a shoulder. "I saw it in Italy. At least on his side. Thought he was pretty far gone for you. Although with Malfoy…" He shook his head once. "He was a little more subtle on this last visit to London, but it was still there. I thought you were starting to return it too—and that that was a good thing."

"But you said you had to process!"

"Well." Harry grinned. "It's just two Slytherins in a row..."

"Oh whatever." Hermione made a sound of exasperation. "You know, we've been doing these unity classes at Hogwarts this year and it's really showing me how silly house divisions can—"

Harry held up a hand. "I know! I know. I'm just winding you up."

Hermione nudged him. Hard.

"So things haven't been going well…?" he said after a moment.

"No, they've been lovely. We get along so brilliantly, Harry. I just really enjoy his company." She described some of their drives and walks and outings.

"So you were more friends, then? Lavender made me think—"

"Well, er, no." Hermione cut in. "We were, are, definitely more than friends." Her mind went to a particular encounter from the week before last and she felt her face heat.

"Ah. Well, as I believe I've said in the past, he is bloody fit." Harry smirked at her. "But why did you say 'were'?"

Hermione took a deep breath in and then blew it out. "Well, do you know about Theo and Daphne Greengrass? Their history?"

"I know that they were close and I think they dated at some point." Harry finished the rest of his beer. "Why?"

"Well, it's sort of more than that. Their relationship is like—" Hermione searched the ether for an example. "Like if I'd lived next door to you in Little Whinging and been raised by an equally abusive, or at least neglectful, family. And we'd become friends very early in life to the extent that we relied on each other totally for our emotional needs. And then eventually we became more than friends in a very passionate way. Annnd, then one of us totally betrayed the other."

"Okayyy," Harry said. "And I'm the one who betrayed you…?"

"Yes."

"Ouch." Harry grimaced.

"Yeah. So Theo has never gotten over that. And for a long time, Daphne really shut him out. Understandably, of course. But devastating for him—he was in the aftermath of that when I met him in Italy. Bit wild."

"Mmm-hmm. I definitely remember hearing that about him."

"Yeah. It was why I didn't want to take up with him then. Well, that and—"

"Malfoy."

"Yeah." Hermione swallowed the last of her beer.

"Another?" Harry lifted his brows at her empty glass.

"I think I need one for this next part, yes." Hermione laughed a little as she got up and followed him to the kitchen.

Harry took two bottles from the fridge and began pouring one carefully. "So what does Daphne and Theo in the past have to do with you and Theo in the present?" He handed her the foaming glass.

Hermione leaned on the counter. "Well, up until last week she was in a relationship with Michael Corner."

"Arsehole. I remember when he was with Ginny." Harry shook his head disgustedly.

"Right! I know. He's awful. But Daphne didn't see that forever. Until she couldn't not see it. And finally broke up with him." Hermione heaved a huge sigh. "So now she's in a very bad place and has asked Theo for support. As a friend."

"You're sure about that?" Harry finished pouring his own beer and leaned against the opposite counter. His eyes narrowed behind his glasses.

"I am. He's told me that for one thing. And I've gotten to know her a little over this term. I don't think she's the type to move in on someone else's—"

"Boyfriend?"

"I guess." Hermoine looked to the side.

"So what's the problem, then?"

"Well. Going back to my analogy. How would you feel if it were you in his shoes?"

Harry blinked. "Ah. Yes," he finally said, nodding slowly. "I see. Crippling guilt, overwhelming need to put it right and fear of hurting someone who has also become very important to me. Blimey." Harry shuddered.

"I think he's really torn. He told me he's torn. Lavender thinks he's in love with me." Hermione laughed a little incredulously. "She was on me when I saw her Tuesday to try to..."

"Hold on to him?"

"Yes."

"That won't work." Harry shook his head. "Not if he feels badly enough about what happened with Daphne."

"Exactly." Hermione put up her hands. "So I'm trying to be understanding and give him the room to do what he needs, but I'm sad about it. And I'm afraid of what it means for our friendship."

"What about your relationship?"

"I think that part is ending."

As Hermione finally spoke the words that she'd been holding in for days, the tears that she'd also been holding broke forth. She put her hands over her face and heard Harry move swiftly across the room. His arms went around her and she let herself be held.

"God damn it," she heard him whisper. "I'm so sorry, Hermione."

"And it's not like—it's nobody's fault!" Hermione said, sniffing and wiping her eyes with her jumper sleeve. "No one is the bad guy here. It's just timing and circumstances. I probably never should have— We probably should have stayed just friends, but the spark. It was so hard to resist."

"I do know about that." Harry stepped back and looked at her, his face sympathetic. "And what's Malfoy's reaction been to all this?"

"Theo and me? He hasn't liked it. At all." Harry made a noise and crossed his arms. "I mean, part of all of this—the reason why I won't work on Theo—is him. My feelings for him."

"Still there?"

"Yeah." Hermione nodded and closed her eyes. "Whether I like it or not, it seems."

"I understand that too."

"How are things with you?" Hermione asked.

Harry leaned on the counter and cast his eyes to the ceiling. "Well, I'm feeling bloody awkward about seeing Ginny at her family home tomorrow."

Hermione made a sympathetic noise. "God, wouldn't it have been easier in some ways if we'd both just settled down with our Weasleys and never strayed from that path?" she asked.

"I do think about that, yeah." Harry moved across the room and picked up his beer again. "Would certainly have been convenient."

"Do you feel like it's all over between you and Ginny? For good?"

"I feel like it's almost unfair to answer that when I'm seeing someone else. Well, a couple of someones." Harry's face reddened.

"Oliver?"

"Yeah, but that's casual. As is the other thing."

"Anyone I know?" Hermione raised a brow.

"Nope. Just someone from work. We've been, er, out a few times. But I have to keep everything quiet unless I want it splashed all over the papers." He winced. "She seems OK with it, though."

"Hmm. Might want to keep checking on that."

"Yeah, I know."

"Well, Ginny hasn't been exactly waiting in the wings for you, you know. She has her pick from a lot of willing volunteers." Hermione gave Harry a challenging look.

"I'm aware of that, yes," he said shortly. "And I do still care for her, love her, am attracted to her—whatever. It's just where my head is right now. I'm no use for anything serious."

"I think she understands that. Even if she doesn't quite like it." Hermione tipped her beer into her mouth again. "And she'll be OK tomorrow. At least until you get on your brooms. I'd watch out after that." She gave Harry a half-smile and he laughed.

"I've no doubt. I've barely had even a five-a-side match in weeks. Work has been too insane. I'm really glad the holidays are here. Glad you're here," Harry said.

"Me too. Thank you so much for having me. I think part of all my…" Hermione waved a hand at herself. "Is about my parents too. I miss them. And yet I feel so far away from them. And not just physically far away."

"I'm sorry," Harry said. "I guess you're newer to being an orphan than I am."

"That's something Theo said too, about me being an orphan."

"He'd know." Harry pushed off the counter and rinsed his glass in the sink. "And what's Lav up to tonight?" he asked, his voice lightening.

"With her family. I'll move over to hers on Boxing Day. She's having a party. She wanted me to invite you. Just an all-day drop-in."

"Ace. I'll be there. Wonder if Ron will want to go." Harry gave her a swift smile.

"With Annika out of town? Risky." Hermione tapped her chin.

"She's not the jealous type."

"No, I really like her. She's so good for him."

"I know. His head would be about three sizes bigger if she weren't around."

Hermione laughed. "It's already big enough."

"Exactly. Hey, what do you want for dinner? We should probably get cracking before all the restaurants close."

"Ooh, how about a curry? I've been craving one for ages."

Harry's eyes lit up. "Brilliant. Thank god I have at least one muggle-born friend. There's a place I've been meaning to try just outside the border near the ministry apparition spot."

"Let's go," Hermione said. "We can bring it back here and watch a film on that TV-video thing you rigged up. I still can't believe you did that."

"Arthur helped. It was great fun and a distraction for him, I think. And Ron watches it almost more than I do. He's gotten really into muggle football."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Of course he has." She pulled her long blue coat out of the closet and shrugged into it. Harry helped her with the second sleeve, then threw on his own.

They clattered down the steps into the frigid early evening. The stars were already winking brightly in the clear sky and Hermoine could hear a faint sound of carolers coming from nearby. Harry tucked her arm into his, looked around and nodded. "Despite all the shit," he said, looking down at her, "it really is better than last year. Only one thing I'm happy is the same: that I'm spending tonight with you."

Hermione felt tears prick her eyes again. "Me too, Harry," she said, squeezing in close to him. "Me too."

"I caught you! Hooray! And the connecton is so much better!" Hermione hunkered down next to the fireplace in the living room of Lav's flat and looked into the green flames. Theo peered back at her from a cavernous room.

"Yes!" he said. "You're seeing the results of several days of cleaning and spellwork. Floo's almost workable now. And I'm so glad you caught me. Can't believe how many times we've missed each other. I was about to bloody owl you." He laughed a little as he pulled a chair up and sat down. "How have you been? How was your holiday?"

"Busy on both counts!" Hermione settled herself on the sofa. "But the holiday was good. Harry and I spent Christmas Eve together with a curry and a film and then we went to the Weasleys' on Christmas Day. That was lovely. Really special day with the whole family and some unexpected guests."

"Unexpected?" Theo's brows went up. "And it sounds like it was lighter than you'd hoped?"

"It was. With Harry and me away on Christmas Eve, I think the family had a chance to do their own grieving. So by the time we came round on Christmas Day everyone was determined to celebrate. And then Andromeda Tonks brought baby Teddy over, which was just amazing. He's adorable—just learning to crawl—and he's so smiley." Hermione smiled herself.

"I'm glad. Sounds like it was a good day for all of you."

"It truly was. Wonderful food and company. I even flew in the quidditch match! And then I came to Lav's yesterday and she had a day-long party which was just a blast. People dropping in from early afternoon until almost midnight."

"Brilliant. And who came by?"

"Oh, Harry, Oliver Wood, various Weasleys, a lot of Lav's friends from here—several of whom she seems to be dating—and her family." Hermione paused and laughed. "Meeting her mum was very illuminating."

"Oh really?" Theo laughed too.

"Yes, I can see where she gets... well, everything." Hermione shook her head. Lavender's mother had been the life and soul of the party from the moment she'd arrived. "And today I've just been pottering around," she continued. "Making your last two tapes and going to the Central Library. What about you? Several days of cleaning and spellwork sounds like a lot."

"Well yes, it has been. I'll tell you about that in a minute." Theo grimaced. "But it's been good. It feels satisfying to clean this place up and get it habitable. Even though I've barely made a dent. This room," he looked behind him and waved a hand, "is the only one that's really in good shape."

Hermione leaned in, dark walls, low lamps and a lot of tall, book-filled shelves coming into focus. "Oh Theo, is that a library?"

An expression crossed his face that could only be called a smirk. "Why, yes it is." He wiggled his eyebrows.

"It's HUGE." Hermione was even closer to the flames now, trying to see around him, and Theo burst into full laughter this time.

Hermoine snapped out of her trance. "Listen, you…"

"I'd love you to see it sometime," he said, wiping his eyes.

"Are you thinking of keeping it, then? The house?" Hermione grabbed the mug of tea that was cooling next to her and took a small sip.

"Leaning that way, yes. I took some drives out and about and it's just lovely around here. The muggle area. I never fully appreciated it. I persuaded Daph and Pansy to go with me a few days ago and we came across a nice little village with a great pub. I wouldn't mind staying connected with all of it."

Hermione was nodding along, trying not to feel the pangs she was feeling. "That's lovely, Theo. But what about the buyers? Or did they not come through?"

"I've met with a few, but I haven't been comfortable with any of them. They've all been a little too interested in the manor's past, the Nott name. If you know what I mean?" His face held a hint of disdain.

"Ah. Yes."

"Rather keep it and turn it into something than let it fall into those kinds of hands."

"The museum and sculpture garden still gets my vote. With lending library!" Hermione held up a finger.

"Ooh yes!" His face lit up. "And I've been reading my books and listening to my tapes. I bought a personal player thingy…?"

"A Walkman?"

"Yes! Daph and I went into York on Saturday and braved the crowds to go to an electronics shop. A Walk in the Wind is very good for when I'm going over the estate. And I bought The Fellowship of the Ring."

"Good, good. Sounds like you've been getting Daphne out, that's good." Hermione kept her voice bright, but she saw Theo's expression change.

He shifted in his chair. "Yeah, a couple of drives. A lot of walks. I miss you, though." Hermione saw that expression cross his face that had been there when he'd come back to her room that last night.

"Same," she said after a long moment. She cleared her throat. "And when are you coming down? I've cleared my schedule for the next few days."

Theo looked away and then back with a grimace. "About that." Hermione felt the tension in his voice tighten her own body. He let out a big breath. "There was a storm two nights ago. A bad one. Rotten portions of the roof on the east wing blew completely off. That's been the majority of the spellwork I've been doing… But I have to meet with a professional crew that's coming tomorrow and my manager's off for the holiday, so I need to be here to supervise the work." He rubbed his mouth. "I'm so sorry, but I don't think I can come."

Hermoine swallowed and mustered a smile. "Of course! God, what a faff. I'm so sorry you're dealing with that."

"Hermione."

"Mmm?" Hermione was still concentrating on keeping her smile in place.

"I really want to come." Theo leaned down, closer to the flames. "I'm so sorry I can't."

"No, I know." Hermione brushed her forehead. "I do, Theo. Of course. And it's actually fine because Lav asked if I wanted to work in her shop for a few days and I was thinking I should because I need the cash. So I'll be able to do that. And then Hagrid's coming down to Grimmauld and Lav has a big night out planned on the 30th, and there were several things I wanted to take a closer look at in the Central Library and—"

"Hermione."

Hermione stopped and took a breath.

"I'm really sorry," Theo said slowly. "I wanted to see you."

Hermione let her breath out, willing her shoulders to relax. "I know. I know you are. And it really is fine. But I did want to see you too." She couldn't help her mind going to what she'd said to Harry on Christmas Eve, though. This felt like just another nail in the coffin.

"Do you have New Year's Eve plans yet?" Theo asked after a beat of silence.

"Oh yes. Lav has declared a girls' night in."

Theo tilted his head.

"Well, apparently nobody who knows anything in London actually goes out on New Year's Eve," Hermione explained. "Too crowded, too difficult, too expensive. So all the clubs have 'night before' nights—'New Year's Eve Eve' or some such—and that's when everyone does their partying. And then you stay in with friends on the actual night." Hermione shook her head. "I don't know, but I trust Lav. And we are going out dancing on the 30th. I thought you'd enjoy that." She wrinkled her nose, but then spoke again quickly. "But what about you? How are your plans shaping up?"

"Not nearly as fun as clubbing in London. I would have enjoyed that." A faint version of his mischievous smile crossed Theo's face. "Just the same old stuffy ball. Although—" He looked away and his hand went to his collar.

"What?"

"It's just—I don't know why this didn't occur to me before—but Daph mentioned the Malfoys are going to be there. At the ball."

"Oh." Hermione's mind ran in several directions, but the thing that surfaced was a sense, perhaps unfair, that all the purebloods would be together where they belonged, while the muggle-born was kept out. "Of course," she said. "Of course."

She could tell from his face that Theo had picked up on her thoughts. "For what it's worth, it feels off to me, to be going." He actually tugged at his collar now. "Daph and I talked about it and both decided this is our last year. We're not children anymore and there's nothing compelling us to be a part of all that… rubbish. It's just this year—she doesn't think she can cope with the inevitable row that would happen if she told her parents she wasn't going."

"Right."

A silence stretched, then Theo shifted impatiently in his seat. "You know, fuck the repairs," he said suddenly. "I can be down there in ten minutes. I can be there on New Year's Eve." He ran a rough hand through his hair.

"No! God. They're expecting you. Can't back out now." Hermione attempted a laugh. "Besides, Lav has said very strictly that our plans are girls-only. Harry and Ron have some big DMLE ball to go to that night anyway. Stuffy nonsense. I don't envy any of you. I'll be in pyjamas and slippers and you'll be in dress robes and uncomfortable shoes."

Theo cracked a wry smile and seemed to settle a bit.

"Or," Hermione smiled back, trying to rally herself, "will you find a kilt for the occasion?"

Theo bit his lip and looked away. "I did enjoy wearing that."

"I quite enjoyed you wearing it too."

He snorted and then they were both quiet for a moment, Hermione's mind filled with images from that night. She was sure he was thinking about it too.

Finally he sighed. "I really fucking miss you, you know."

"Same. But we'll talk again soon? I'll call you since I'm not quite sure where I'll be staying after Lav's roommate gets back."

"OK. I'll be looking forward to it. Very much."

Hermione nodded and waved as she doused the flames. Then she stayed sitting and staring at the empty grate for a long while. Strangely enough, her mind went straight to Draco and his presence at this ball, which was shaping up to be rather epically awkward. She wondered if Pansy would come back for it and add to the general sense of unease.

Stifling something like a laugh, she sighed instead, her thoughts circling back to Theo. Wetness tinged her eyes and she sniffed just as the front door lock twisted and Lavender came pushing through.

"Darling, I'm hoooome!" she called. "And I've brought chocolate!" She waved a giant box of Christmas Milk Tray. "Half off in the muggle shop!" she said with a gleam.

Hermione looked up and swiped at her eye. "Give some of that here," she said, trying to laugh again.

"Oh no, what's happened?" Lavender rushed toward the sofa, face filled with concern.

"Well, the good news is I can work in the shop after all." Hermione waved at the fireplace.

"I just finally got ahold of Theo."

"He's not coming."

"Nope." Hermione rubbed at her eyes then pulled the lid off the chocolate.

"WHY!?" Lavender's wail filled the room.

"A storm damaged the manor. He's got to stay there and supervise repairs, hold the roof on, I dunno. He was very sorry." Hermione shoved the first chocolate her fingers touched into her mouth.

"Fuck. Do you think he's telling the truth?"

"About why he's not coming? Yes. And no. I think if he wanted to make it happen he could. He actually offered that at the end of our conversation."

"Why didn't you let him!?"

Hermione blew out a long breath. Why hadn't she? "I guess a sort of, 'the more attached I get now, the harder it will be later' type feeling?" She ventured, looking at Lav. "I mean, it's been really good since I've been here in London. I've felt good. Mostly. And I'm looking forward to our plans. But if Theo comes down, especially after the conversation we just had, would that knock it all out of whack?" Hermione ate another chocolate.

Lavender sat back on the couch. "Possibly."

Hermione flopped back next to her. "Better to just let the distance do the work," she said, trying to rally herself again.

Lav rolled her neck and looked over at Hermione.

"What?" Hermione raised her brows.

"Are you really all right with that?" Lav asked.

"Let's say I'm hovering at around 60%." Hermione attempted a smile.

"That's more than half!" Lav brightened. "And I've brought wine to go with the chocolate." She nudged a carrier bag at her feet. "And it's fizzy."

"OK, see now I'm at a strong 65!" Hermione's smile widened.

Lav jumped up. "I'll get glasses." She strode to the kitchen, depositing her coat and scarf on a chair as she went. "And I'm really quite excited that you'll be with me at the shop. It will be such a lark."

"I do need the money too. Although I'm sure I'll be fairly hopeless at selling clothes. Does Cerise know what she's getting into with me?"

"Oh, nonsense. You'll be grand at it. And Cerise knows exactly what she's doing." Lav waved a hand then magicked the cork out of the wine bottle with a loud pop. She poured two fizzing glasses. "Once people hear you're working in the shop, I'm sure we'll see a few curious faces, who might then stay to buy lots of clothes!" Lavender's eyes widened as she walked over and handed Hermione a flute.

"To retail therapy!" she said, holding out her glass. Hermione laughed as she clinked hers against it.

Chapter Text

"All right. I'm heading out. You're sure you're OK with everything?" Lavender came out of the back room at Cerise, coat on and handbag on her shoulder.

"I think so!" Hermione turned from where she was straightening a stack of fluffy jumpers. "Extra galleons in the safe, code is 631. Returns with receipt can have cash back. Without receipt it's store credit. And if someone wants alterations by New Year's Eve, they'll have to pay for a rush order."

"Excellent! And I should be back in an hour, although you never know with the queues being what they are." Lavender shuddered delicately. She paused and looked Hermione up and down. "That really does look well on you."

Hermione smoothed her palms over the infamous cashmere jumper dress. "I can't believe you convinced me to wear it."

"Can't you? You've sold three today!" Lavender laughed. "Wait until Cerise hears." She wheeled toward the door. "I'm off," she called, waving a gloved hand.

"See you soon!" Hermione waved back as a gust of freezing cold air blew into the shop, guttering the fragrant candles that lit the small space.

Hermione looked around, checking to see if anything else needed neatening up. It was her second day in the shop and, while she didn't like it quite as well as the cafe in San Cipriano, she had to admit it was fun—and especially entertaining to watch Lavender work. She smiled as she stepped over to adjust a row of dresses. Lav's intuitive empathy meant she knew just how to make people feel good and, as a result, buy a lot of clothes.

Hermione drifted back toward the till, fluffing a throw pillow on the velvet settee in the small sitting area as she passed. She was so glad for Lavender that she'd found this work. Cerise obviously knew what a talent she had too—Hermione's eye went to the rack of gorgeous ball gowns that took pride of place in the center of the room. Lavender had told her they'd come directly from the buying trip to Berlin she'd been on earlier in the month and that Cerise had let her select most of the styles. They'd been flying off the racks since Hermione had arrived despite their shockingly steep price tags.

Hermione leaned on the counter and looked out the windows at the lowering sky and twinkly lights of the crescent. Shoppers rushed by, heavily laden, warm hats low on their foreheads and breath blowing clouds. The year seemed to be going out with a cold, dark blast and Hermoine was suddenly very glad to be in this snug nook, making some much needed gold before returning to school.

She smiled down at the counter, noting a small spot on the polished surface. Ducking down to retrieve the soft cloth kept under the till to fix just such blemishes, she heard the tinkling bell on the door ring softly. She straightened with a warm smile, which froze and then slowly slid off her face as she saw who was standing in the doorway.

Narissa Malfoy.

The door had bumped softly closed before Hermione found her voice.

"Welcome," she croaked, then cleared her throat. "Welcome to Cerise," she said, stronger this time.

Narcissa Malfoy betrayed very little, but stood for a few seconds near the door before gliding forward.

Hermione opened her mouth again, realizing how very little she had in the way of experience or tools that would be useful in interacting with someone when she had: A) Been tortured on their drawing room floor; and B) Slept with their son.

Of course, her brain chose that moment to serve up a very graphic memory of Draco fucking her against the wall in the San Cipriano flat, his mouth on her neck and his fingers on her—

She swallowed. "May I help you find something?"

Narcissa sniffed and Hermione felt a flare of anger. Customer service be damned, she wasn't going to allow herself to be treated poorly.

But it seemed Narcissa's disdain was directed in another direction.

"Malkins has spoilt my order for New Year's Eve robes and I was told that this shop," —she looked around with a faintly incredulous air— "may have a suitable alternative."

Hermione forcibly suppressed all x-rated images and jangly feelings and walked out from behind the counter. "Yes," she said. "We have a variety of options." She moved to a rack at the side of the room. "Traditional robes are here." She grasped the hanger of an intricately embroidered midnight blue set and held it up as Narcissa's eyes swept over it.

"And of course," Hermione continued, a small devil on her shoulder capering the tiniest bit. "There are more modern formal dresses here." She replaced the robes and stepped to the rack in the middle of the room, holding out the corner of a shimmering gold gown she suspected Narcissa would die before wearing.

Narcissa's eyes dipped to the dress, then flicked back up to Hermione. "Bring me the black and the midnight blue robes," she said. "I presume this is the fitting room?" She gestured to the softly draped chamber at the back of the shop.

"Uh, yes. Please proceed." Hermione held out a gracious hand. "And would you like a glass of elf wine or chilled water?"

Narcissa looked at her as if she smelled something off. "No," she said. "Thank you."

Hermione rolled her eyes internally as she pulled the blue robes and a similar black set off the rack and stowed them on sleek brass hooks in the fitting chamber. "Please," she gestured again. Narcissa stepped close and her eyes traveled over Hermione as she passed. Hermione noted that they were palest blue, rather than the true grey-silver of Draco's. She also noted the fineness of Narcissa's bone structure and the perfection of her skin. She would be spectacularly beautiful if she didn't look so pained all the time.

Hermione moved to pull the fitting room curtain shut then went to a shelf and started re-folding things until a swishing sound heralded Narcissa's emergence from the dressing room.

"The dais there is good for viewing the garment from all angles." Hermione motioned to a small raised platform surrounded by flattering mirrors.

Narcissa stepped up, lithe in the heavy drape of the black robes. Although they almost obscured her in a way—they certainly made her look stiff and formal.

Of course, that was probably what she wanted.

Approaching carefully, Hermione raised questioning eyes to Narcissa's in the mirror, but Narcissa was looking at the rack in the middle of the room. She looked back and Hermione raised her brows.

"Bring me the black one," Narcissa said shortly, making a sharp motion at the muggle ball gowns. She stepped down off the dais as Hermione drew the most conservative of the dresses down and brought it over. Narcissa stood to the side, eyes averted while Hermione hung it alongside the deep blue robes.

"The lines on this one are very beautiful," Hermione ventured, running a hand down the dress's long column and extravagantly ruffled skirt.

Narcissa made an indistinct noise of dismissal and Hermione ducked out, irritation sparking. She went behind the till and straightened return receipts, rather than give in to it, and after a moment the dressing room curtain rustled and Narcissa stepped out again.

Hermione couldn't prevent the faint gasp that came from her throat.

If Narcissa had looked beautiful in the robes, she was completely stunning in the gown. Her figure was highlighted to sleek perfection by the dress's skillful cut, the plunging back showing off her elegant shoulder blades and small waist—while the velvety black of the bodice created a gorgeous contrast against her platinum hair.

Hermione moved closer. In the short amount of time she'd worked in the shop, she had definitely observed one thing. When a person liked the way something looked, they lingered—posing, turning, looking at it from every angle—and when they didn't, they couldn't get out of it fast enough.

Narcissa was lingering.

Hermione watched her turn this way and that, brush the fabric at her hip, twist her hair slightly up off her shoulders. Until she saw Hermione watching her and her eyes narrowed in the mirror.

"Well?" she asked.

Hermione stepped over. "Stunning," she said, shrugging slightly.

Narcissa's gaze slid to the rack of dresses again.

"I do think," Hermione said, and Narcissa's gaze snapped back to hers. "That the ice blue would also be lovely. It's more delicate, ethereal," she said, using words she'd heard Lavender use to describe the garment in question. She took it off the rack and held it up.

Narcissa paused. "All right," she said after a moment. "Bring it in. And the other blue." She flicked her brows toward another style, off the shoulder and quite fitted. She went behind the curtain. "And the cream."

Hermione smiled a bit smugly as she gathered the dresses then passed them through a small aperture in the curtain. She walked back out to the shop, approaching the wall of handbags and accessories and checking that they were orderly, so pleased with herself that she was caught by surprise when the bell on the door tinkled again.

Hermione looked over her shoulder, her breath stopping as something in the flash of dark, arrested movement in the corner of her eye alerted her to just who had entered the shop. She breathed out slowly before she turned around to see Draco, hand still on the doorknob behind him, eyes fixed on her, lips parted in surprise.

Hermione felt her arm, still reaching for the base of a handbag high above her head, drop to her side.

Draco closed his mouth and opened it, but didn't move or speak.

Hermione couldn't stop her eyes going over him, taking him in. She hadn't seen him so formal, so magical-looking, in a long time. He was striking in black robes, a glimmer of silver threadwork at his wrists and on his high, standing collar. His cuffs were crisp white, his shoes polished black and his hair was shorter and swept back from his face. Hermione saw the glint of a heavy ring on his finger as he finally moved his hand from the doorknob.

He cleared his throat. "Is my mother here?" he asked, his voice deep and hushed.

"Yes." Hermione stood dumbly as Draco walked slowly forward, his robes parting to reveal slim black trousers, beautifully fitted to his long legs. Bloody gorgeous, bloody gorgeous. Her mind chanted in a loop of idiot attraction until it broke off to helpfully remind her of the time in the hallway in San Cipriano again. She felt her face flood with heat and saw him notice. Saw the slight tilt of his head.

"Erm, would you like to sit down and wait for her?" She forced her mouth into speech and indicated the velvet settee. No way she was offering him bloody elf wine, though.

"Draco, is that you?" Narcissa's modulated tones floated from behind the dressing curtain.

"Yes, mother." He dropped gracefully into the center of the sofa, sat back and crossed his legs at the ankle. Hermione tried very hard not to look at him, instead busying back to the fitting area, where Narcissa was just emerging again.

This time she had a slight smile on her face.

"Oh, ma'am!" Hermione couldn't help the words that slipped out of her mouth. Narcissa was truly a vision. If the black dress had been stark and elegant, this one was like a fairytale come to life, the icy blue setting off Narcissa's pale colouring and the tightly fitted mermaid cut enhancing her lovely figure.

"Yes, I quite like this one," Narcissa murmured, ascending the dais and twisting to observe herself from all angles. "Draco?"

Hermione turned to see Draco merely raise his brows. She frowned at him out of reflex and watched the corner of his mouth tilt up. "You're both looking at me the exact same way," he said. "And it's very nice, mother."

"'Very nice'," Hermione muttered, reaching down to fluff the hem of the skirt like she'd seen Lav do before. "It's splendid."

She thought she heard the faintest snort from above her, then Narcissa said quietly, "There was a dress in the window…"

"The silver?" Hermione straightened and glanced over her shoulder at the fantastic concoction that was currently starring in the 'winterscape' display to the right of the door. One shouldered, with a very high slit in the leg, it was heavily beaded and Lav had told Hermione each bead had been hand-placed. It was fantastically expensive.

"I'll fetch it," Hermione said, "while you try the other two." It would take some tricky wandwork to get the gown off the mannequin, but she had just remembered the small commission she'd been told she'd make on all sales over a certain sum. If she sold the dress in the window, she'd hit it in one.

She stepped toward the display, smiling slightly at the thought of more galleons, but came to a halt when she saw that long, black-clad legs were blocking her path. She looked down at Draco expectantly to see him looking at her, or more accurately at her body in the cashmere dress. The almost-smile of earlier was gone and his face was tight, his eyes dark slate under creased brows. She saw them slide over her person and realised he was probably noticing for the first time exactly what she was wearing.

A flash of something came over her, but she flicked it away with a toss of her head. He was bloody engaged and she had a right to do whatever she wanted in broom closets.

She cleared her throat slightly in an 'excuse me' tone and Draco's eyes met hers.

But he didn't move his legs.

Oh bloody hell. She stepped one booted foot very deliberately over him, but stopped halfway, caught in his gaze and a sense of being in a familiar position.

God, god, god, he was gorgeous, the shop's low lighting throwing the angles of his face into dramatic relief. His posture was slightly insouciant, a touch petulant—he looked like a brooding prince with his fine, black robes thrown open. Hermione could just picture a crooked crown sitting on his platinum hair.

She could also picture herself stepping closer, straddling him, kissing that infuriatingly beautiful mouth.

Shit, it was just like the bookshop in San Cipriano—the back room—when she'd pushed him down on another velvet sofa and he'd looked up at her and said, "Come here."

Her eyes met his, glittering under his lashes, and she knew he was remembering too, saw the heat wash up his neck and over his jaw. And then she was picturing herself kissing him there too, right on the sharp line of demarcation, kissing him everywhere. She took a breath in and he made a movement (Up? Toward her?) just as another throat-clearing sound intruded on her consciousness.

Oh god, Narcissa.

Hermione ducked her head and finished stepping over Draco's legs, going to the window and becoming engrossed in carefully extricating the silver dress from the display. When she'd got it down, she floated it back to the dressing area, taking a different path through the shop this time.

She didn't even allow herself to look in Draco's direction as Narcissa went back behind the curtain to exchange the cream gown (also breathtaking) for the silver. Instead, she hovered in the changing area, spelling nonexistent bits of lint from the carpet into a discreet rubbish bin.

Finally the curtain flung open and again and Narcissa emerged, this time her expression reminiscent of certain smirks Hermione had seen on Draco's face. And the look was justified, because this dress was the most stunning of all. Sinuously sexy, it clung to her form like a shimmering second skin, highlighting her breasts almost erotically. Her leg peeking from the long, high slit was perfectly shaped, as was her one, dramatically-revealed shoulder.

Hermione just stared with her mouth hanging open until she heard a voice from behind her.

"Father's not going to like it." Draco was leaning, arms crossed, against the counter.

Narcissa met his eyes in the mirror. "Oh, I think he'll quite like it," she said.

Hermione dearly wanted to laugh, but smothered it, her gaze flying to Draco's reflection and catching his massive eye roll. When he saw her looking, he raised his brows slightly as if to say, 'What?" She shook her head the slightest and redoubled her efforts not to snort.

When Hermione focused on Narcissa again, it was obvious she'd taken in their silent exchange, her elegantly arched brows a little high. But then she smoothed a hand over the dress and turned a last time to view the back.

"Have you made a decision?" Hermione asked, forcing her brain back to her job, thinking there really was no contest. The silver dress was made for Narcissa.

Narcissa blinked at her. "Yes. I'll take them."

"All of them?" Hermione tried not to sputter, but didn't quite manage it.

Narcissa nodded once and stepped down. "Please arrange payment with Ms. Granger, Draco. Just a draft on my personal Gringotts account."

Hermione, after standing gormlessly for a moment, started forward and retrieved the first four dresses from the changing room, mind whirring with calculations of what the total would be for all of them.

Lav was going to fucking lose it.

She approached the counter and looked up as Draco stepped over. He rested his hands on the pitted marble and for a moment it was so like the cafe in San Cipriano that her heart throbbed.

"I'm assuming you'd like these delivered this afternoon?" she asked.

"If that can be arranged." Hermione felt his deep voice to her traitorous toes. She didn't think they'd stood this close in a long while and looking up at him, his eyes lighter now, was also… stimulating.

Damn it.

"Yes, absolutely," she said, writing, "Malfoy Manor, Wiltshire," on the heavy parchment of an order form. "And if you'll just put the account instructions here." She indicated the proper line on the form and then tried very hard not to watch his long fingers or the way his hair fell over his forehead as he inked a series of numbers and letters in a bold, familiar script.

Narcissa appeared and Hermione ducked into the changing room to retrieve the silver dress, then calculated the total, trying not to let her giddiness show as she read out the final figure. Narcissa, sedate again in her traditional robes, merely nodded and placed a hand on Draco's arm.

"I saw a necklace in the shop next door. You'll finish here?"

Draco's "yes" held surprise and Hermione felt herself tense.

"Ms. Granger." Narcissa inclined her head regally before turning to sweep out the door.

The shop bell tinkled as Hermione raised her eyes to Draco's face. He was looking at her again, his palms splayed flat on the counter and his eyes searching. He took a breath and Hermione felt herself gather.

But then he just let the breath out and looked down and to the side.

Hermione couldn't keep the bitterness out of her voice as she folded the order form and placed it in a neat stack under the counter. "Will there be anything else?"

Draco shook his head and pivoted away, but then paused and turned back. "Thank you," he said, his voice now familiarly raspy. "I think she's very happy."

Hermione's reply was lost as the door tinkled open again and Lavender's bright tones rang out. "What happened to the window? Did someone try on the silver dress—" Lav whirled around, arms full of packages, then went quiet as she took in Draco's presence at the counter.

Her eyes became flinty. "Draco," she said.

"Lavender." He inclined his head. Lavender's expression didn't change.

"Thank you, again," Draco said after a beat, nodding to Hermione before striding past Lav and out the door.

Lavender stared at Hermione and Hermoine stared back for a good thirty seconds.

"OK, what the fuck just happened?" Lavender started forward.

"Well." Hermione blinked several times. "I sold the silver dress."

"The single biggest one-time sale in the shop's history! AND we had so many posh purebloods coming in and buying things over the next two days, that we've completely blasted through all Q4 sales projections." Lavender tipped back and chortled, somehow managing to hold her flute of champagne aloft and steady.

Hermione laughed. "I still can't believe it either."

"Tell me about Draco, Lav." Ginny thrust her empty wineglass toward Lavender, who took up the champagne bottle and began pouring. "Hermione's been annoyingly mum."

"Oh, Draco. I didn't see much of him. But what I did..." Lavender shook her head. "As much as one of the most regal boys I've ever seen could have puppy dog eyes?" She cocked her head.

Hermione rolled her eyes at Lav.

"It's true!" Lavender held out her hands.

"Tell me again what he looks like." Olivia grabbed the bottle of champagne and upended it over her glass. "I feel so out of the loop when you Hogwarts girls get together. Enlighten a poor American."

"He's in the paper a fair amount, O." Lavender eyed her roommate. "I'll point him out next time. But he's what?" She looked around at Ginny and Hermione. "Tall, slim, elegant. Gorgeous bones in the face. SILVER eyes. Kind of brooding? Fantastic arse and shoulders. Hermione can tell us more about his co—"

"LAVENDER BROWN!" Hermione thundered.

"You forgot his hair, Lav," Ginny said through gasping laughter. "He has this platinum blond— like almost white—hair." She looked at Olivia and waved her hand over her head then wrinkled her nose. "It's striking, although the way he used to wear it made him look like a real rodent when we were younger. But even I admit he's fairly beautiful now."

"But surely not as beautiful as, say, Theo. I mean—" Olivia widened her eyes.

"That's right, you met Theo last time we were down!" Hermione recalled.

'He's not as beautiful as Theo," Ginny said over Hermione, just as Lavender was loudly expressing the exact opposite opinion.

They looked at each other and said, "REALLY?" at the same time, both of their mouths dropping open.

It said something about Hermione's mood that she just laughed. Uproariously.

If she didn't laugh, she'd cry. And who wanted to cry on what was shaping up to be a glorious New Year's Eve? She leaned over, flipped the cassette of 80s dance music in the player and grabbed a pizza bite.

She, Lavender, Ginny and Olivia were ensconced on various sofas, chairs and cushions in Lav's living room. The fire was going and the wine was chilling. Hermione was already pleasantly buzzed and it was roughly seven o'clock in the evening.

It was going to be a long night.

Hermione made a mental note to drink a glass of water before she let Lavender refill her wine glass again.

Olivia shook her head wonderingly. "God, Hermione, you really have them coming out of your ears."

Hermione's mind snapped back to the topic at hand. "Well actually, I don't have either of them." She shrugged. "BUT that's fine because we DO have three boxes of pizza bites, two salmon pinwheel trays, a packet of mini mowbray pork pies, one family size box of sausage rolls AND a homemade pavlova. And countless biscuits and crisps. And four more bottles of wine! And nowhere to bloody be." Hermione ticked items on her fingers then waved her foot, encased in a fluffy slipper that Lav had given her for Christmas, in the air to general cheers and hoots of appreciation.

"To girls' night in!" Ginny said, holding up her glass. "So much better than being out there." She looked balefully at the window, which revealed freezing rain being driven sideways by gusting wind.

"Here, here!" Hermione raised her glass. It did look miserable and she did not envy anyone trying to brave it. Harry and Ron had been positively envious when she'd left them contemplating their dress robes earlier.

"I really wish I didn't have to go to this party." Olivia, the only one of the girls dressed up, shook a sequined sleeve mournfully and crunched a crisp.

"But you do," Ginny said. "Simply can't let your man go alone to an ex's house on New Year's Eve. Too risky."

"I know, I know." Olivia looked at her watch and put a hand to her sleek black hair. "It's so weird that we're going to her party. I'm too nice, I swear." She held up a hand. "But if it's shitty, I'm dragging him back here."

"That's a plan," Lav said, sticking a spoon directly into the pavlova.

"Harry and Ron made noises about coming over later too. I think they're feeling less than excited about this Ministry thing. I told them I wasn't sure, though." Hermione shot a quick look at Ginny, who shrugged.

"I don't mind," she said. "I ripped the seal off seeing Harry over Christmas, so I'm not particularly bothered. As long as they don't eat my pork pies. And as long as you don't mind?" Ginny looked at Lavender. "I mean, speaking of exes coming to parties. And Annika will be with Ron."

Lav waved an airy hand. "Oh, that's fine. She and I get along famously. I love how uncomfortable it makes your brother too. He'll really be squirming with both of us here."

"See," Ginny said, pointing at Lav. "I knew I liked you."

"I knew you two would be dangerous together," Hermione chimed in. "And last night was proof." They'd been out very late at the dance club due to Ginny and Lavender, who now leaned toward each other for a high five.

"That was. So fun," Lavender declared. "But I am so glad we're not out there tonight. Sorry, O." She frowned at Olivia, who pouted back. "So when can we expect Harry and Ron?" she asked Hermione.

"Harry said something about having to stay there for the bells. So it will be after midnight."

"Harry Potter." Olivia shook her head. "Heard about him all my life. I have to admit, it's very surreal to be hanging out with his friends. Or his ex, I guess?" She grimaced at Ginny. "How long did you go out?" She put out a hand. "If you don't mind me asking of course."

"I don't mind." Ginny smiled swiftly. "And it was on and off for nearly two years. But he was gone for more than half of it." She stared into the fire. "We had two good bits: one right before and one right after everything everyone knows about happened. Then he told me he wasn't ready for anything serious and cut me loose." She took a deep drink of her wine.

"Oh shit. I'm sorry." Olivia lunged over and patted Ginny's hand.

"It's actually fine." Ginny rolled her neck. "And he's right. We're too bloody young. I've actually been quite enjoying myself in his absence," she said after a moment, a wicked look overtaking her face.

"You slag!" Lavender cried. "You've been holding out! Who is it?"

"Elias Page. He's my year. Keeper for Hufflepuff."

"He's very handsome." Hermione leaned across Ginny and wiggled her eyebrows at Lav. "One of these tall, golden types. Sweet. Fit. Uncomplicated. Likes our Gin quite a lot." Ginny pushed her and she fell over, giggling.

"It's not serious!" Ginny protested. "It's casual!"

"That sounds like just what you need! No more of these broody boyfriends. Give us the fit, uncomplicated ones!" Lavender shouted.

"Amazing," Olivia said. "So you're set, Ginny. And Lavender has at least three fish on the line last time I checked." She turned to Hermione. "But what's going on with you? A beautiful, regal boy made puppy eyes at you in the shop? Or is something going on with Theo? God," she placed a hand over her heart, "is he gorgeous."

Hermione leaned back on the couch arm. "It's complicated," she sighed.

Lavender stuck her tongue all the way out of her mouth. "It's stupidly complicated, O," she said. "And frankly a little depressing on this fine night when we have so many drinks and snacks. Suffice to say that Hermione used to be with Draco—the shop boy—but he's now ENGAGED to someone else, and she was recently dating Theo, but it looks like they're probably going back to being just friends."

"Ugh. That sucks about Theo. And engaged!? At what, nineteen?" Olivia was aghast.

"Pureblood nonsense," Lav said.

"But he's obviously not over you? With the eyes in the shop?" Olivia blinked at Hermione.

"Who bloody knows?" Hermione said, completely forgetting her water strategy and reaching over to open another bottle of wine.

"What actually happened with him?" Ginny asked. "I still haven't got the whole story."

"Nothing happened except that he looked very good and I was completely obvious about noticing." Hermione wrestled with the cork until it eased free. "This is why I need to let Theo go." She pointed her glass at Lavender, who flopped backwards in her chair.

"See, I just don't know if I agree with that!" Lav moaned to the ceiling.

"What you all need," Ginny said, picking up a salmon pinwheel and sticking it whole in her mouth, "is something casual!"

Everyone burst into laughter, Hermione nodding her agreement and Lavender shouting that she had something casual with three blokes and could highly recommend it. Olivia then said something about highly recommending Lav learn how to cast a better silencing charm, which devolved things still further.

They were all wiping their eyes and gasping when the doorbell rang.

"That will be Colin," Olivia said, getting up and letting her boyfriend into the flat. A quick round of introductions and a drink later and they were off down the stairs with shouted goodbyes.

"Shall we watch the film?" Lavender said, holding up a DVD case and moving toward the TV that Hermione had floo'd over from Grimmauld. "Still can't believe Harry and your dad rigged this up." She smiled at Ginny.

"Yeah, mum said working on it was the only thing that made him happy there for a while." Ginny looked down and Hermione leaned over and put an arm around her.

"Well it's bloody amazing," she said. "I've watched several films on it this holiday and it worked a treat."

Ginny smiled and tapped her head to Hermione's. "This will be my first one."

"You've never seen a muggle film?" Lavender looked over her shoulder in surprise. "What about when you were in Ireland?"

"It just didn't occur to me." Ginny shrugged.

"Well, I hope this is a good one," Lav said, taking the disc out of the case. "Clueless," she read, shooting a questioning look at Hermione.

"Oh, it's good." Hermione said, getting up and taking the disc out of Lavender's hands. "This is my own copy. You two are going to love it. It's loosely based on Emma."

They both looked at her blankly.

"Emma by Jane Austen?"

The blank looks deepened.

"Oh my god, you two," Hermione sputtered. "Right, I know what I'm getting you for your birthdays!" She slotted the disc in the player with a shake of her head.

"Here, have we got any more wine?" Ginny waved her empty glass. The film was long over and it was getting quite close to midnight. A burst of energy that had led to an impromptu dance party had fizzled and Hermione was now draped over a cushion on the floor, while Lav and Ginny lounged on the sofa.

"Of course we do," Lavender said, getting up. "I had a feeling we might be thirsty tonight so I bought extra."

"We have more than five bottles?" Hermione peered up and counted empties littering the tables and floor.

"I like to be prepared!" Lavender's voice drifted down the short hallway from the kitchen. "Besides," she said, walking back into the living room, cold bottle in hand. "The boys might drop by soon. And Olivia."

Ginny groaned.

"I thought you said it was OK!" Hermione sat up. "I sent Harry a message while you were in the loo!"

"No, no it's fine." Ginny flapped her hand. "I was just feeling a lot stronger earlier in the night." She heaved a huge sigh.

"I know what you mean," Hermione said, suddenly feeling herself deflate. "Wonder what Theo's doing right now. And Draco. At the same bloody party..." She rolled her eyes.

"Oh gods. They are, aren't they? That might not go well. Theo really has it in for Draco, doesn't he?" Ginny stared at Hermione, her eyes wide.

"No, I talked to him earlier today." Hermione waved a hand. "He's going to be on his best behaviour. I told him not to antagonise anyone on my behalf."

"You talked to him!? Why didn't you tell me!?" Lavender flopped back into her chair after topping up Ginny's glass.

"What was there to say? Other than, 'Check out Draco's mum's dress. I sold it to her.'" Hermione looked morosely at the fire.

"Did he offer to come down again?" Lavender asked softly.

"He did not." Hermione didn't look up.

Lavender made a sound of frustration and Ginny groaned again.

"No, no!" Hermione talked over them. "I'm not letting us all slide into a depression over this. I'm not." She stood up and refilled her glass, feeling a theory coming on. "See it's like. I talked to McGonagall before I left for break and she put it so well. She said," Hermione screwed up her face, trying to remember the Headmistress's exact words. "She said I was 'too bright and promising to be hinging anything I do on someone else's plans.' And that I shouldn't let 'distractions'" —Hermione put the word in air quotes— "by which she clearly meant boys—get in the way of that."

"Here, here!" Lavender yelled and she and Ginny clinked glasses.

"And she's right!" Hermione continued, absently touching her glass to Lavender's proffered one. "Like, none of us should be doing that right now. We should be thinking about ourselves and our futures! I'm going to muggle university. That's what I've decided." Speaking the words aloud, she felt the plan settle with certainty in her mind.

"You have? That's amazing!" Lavender jumped up out of her seat, splashing the rug with wine.

"I have. I've been thinking about it and that's what I want to do. After a gap year. McGonagall said it's been done out of Hogwarts before and that she'll help me."

"And you can come live here for your gap year!" Lav said, excited.

"I will." Hermione said, deciding. "At least for part of it. If I can find a job and a flat."

"Oh, Cerise will give you a job if you want one. She said as much when I floo'd her about your sale. And you can live here for a bit. Or I'm sure Harry would have you."

Hermione nodded. "That's what I was thinking."

"God, that's fucking awesome!" Lav sat back down, a huge grin on her face. Hermione felt her own spirits rise. It really would be fun to live in the city with her friends.

"I have some news too," Ginny said, clearing her throat. "I haven't told anyone yet. Not even mum and dad."

"WHAT!?" Hermione and Lavender both turned to her.

"The Hollyhead Harpies sent a recruiter to watch my last match and she's invited me to tryouts in spring. If I'm good enough, I could join the team as soon as school ends and play in the autumn season." Ginny said the words slowly, as if she still couldn't quite believe they were true.

There was perfect silence in the flat for a moment before Hermione shrieked and heard Lavender do the same. "That's amazing!" Hermione shouted when she was finally able to form words. "But why aren't you telling your mum and dad?"

The huge grin that had bloomed over Ginny's face faltered. "Mum really wants me to follow in Bill's footsteps and work at Gringotts. I'm so good with numbers and she's just got it in her head. It's all she can talk about any time Bill and I are in the same room."

"Well, but I don't think a professional quidditch gig is anything to sneeze at, is it?" Lavender asked gently.

"No, and I know dad would be so proud. But mum thinks it's not stable. I remember her saying that when Charlie made noises about going pro. And I just hate to upset her now." Ginny twisted her hands in her lap.

Hermione got up and sat next to Ginny on the sofa. "Do you want to do it?" she asked, her voice soft.

"More than anything."

"Then," Hermione said. "You're going to do it. And your mum is going to understand. Or maybe she won't. But you can't live your life for someone else—even your parents. And if you need allies, I'll be there and Harry will be there and all your brothers I strongly suspect will be there. Although Ron will be insanely jealous." She nudged Ginny and caught Lavender's quick smile.

Ginny laughed a little but also swiped at her eye. "Thank you," she said. "And I know you're right. I am going to do it. I can't not." She shrugged. "But thank you." She leaned over and hugged Hermione, who squeezed her back.

"Well." Lavender was up again, sifting through the cassettes next to the player. "I have some news too. I was going to wait until it was official, but fuck it." She slotted a cassette in the player and looked up with a smile. "Cerise is making me Assistant Buyer and giving me a raise starting Monday."

"What. The. Fuck!?" Ginny launched off the couch and did a little dance.

"You should have told me!" Hermione yelled. "That's amazing!'

"I knowwww!" Lav started dancing to the track that was playing.

"Wait, I can't believe we haven't put this on yet." Hermione looked at the player.

"What? Why? I don't know what it is. I like the beat, though." Lavender was still dancing to the opening notes and Ginny joined her.

"Oh my god. You purebloods." Hermione shook her head as she got up. "It's Prince. 1999? Song of the night? Probably of the whole new year?" Lavender and Ginny shook their heads. "Which is," —Hermione looked at her watch—" about 10 minutes away."

"Fuck yeah, 1999!" Lavender raised her hands in the air. "The year we are bright! And promising!"

"Thank you, Minerva McGonagall!" Ginny shouted.

"To Minerva!" Hermione said, raising her glass. "And to good advice."

"To university and gap years!"

"To promotions!"

"To fucking professional quidditch tryouts."

"To 1999!"

Chapter Text

Sunday, January 3, 1999

Hermione shouldered her bag and walked up the path as it rose to meet the viaduct to Hogwarts Castle. It was bitterly cold and she muttered a renewed warming charm as her feet moved from rough ground to smooth stone. Early morning mist swirled over the span ahead and drifted around the castle's turrets. She looked up and breathed deeply, trying to decide how it felt to be back.

After a brief moment she settled on 'glad, but a touch anxious,' and then continued across the bridge.

She'd set out early this morning and had apparated to Hogsmeade rather than waiting for the train. A few quiet hours by herself before most of the student body arrived had felt necessary after the last two weeks. Not that she hadn't enjoyed herself; the holiday had been (mostly) lovely, but it had been hectic too.

New Year's Eve had finished a bit mad, with Harry and Ron bringing a contingency from the Ministry gala back to Lav's, and Olivia showing up with a group of friends too. They'd all stayed up very late and had a cracking good time, ending up on the roof shooting sparks from their wands just before dawn.

The only worrisome part had been when Hermione looked around and realised both Ginny and Harry had disappeared. They'd shown up again later and Hermione had thought Harry looked sheepish, but hadn't had a chance to ask him about it. She pursed her lips as she mounted the steps to the castle. She'd find Ginny later today and check in—it wouldn't do to let her droop into a depression over him again.

Come to think of it, she could be doing with the same advice.

Frowning as she passed through the main doors to the entry hall, Hermione felt the thoughts she had very much been putting off crowd in on her.

Theo.

Draco.

Theo again.

She supposed it was back to reality with those two now that they were all back in close vicinity. The activity and social whirl of the holiday had been so good for pushing all of that away, but here she knew she couldn't escape.

Although—she looked at her watch to see it had barely gone 9 am—maybe she'd get a few hours alone to settle in before she had to deal with things. The castle certainly felt echoing and deserted, and the train wouldn't arrive until just before dinner.

Pulling at the door to the Divination Tower, Hermione stepped quickly through the eighth-year common room, looking around a bit furtively. But everything was quiet and she was fairly certain she was the first one back. She took the steps to the girls' floor two at a time and then hurried to her own door, uttering a sigh of pleasure as she clicked open the lock and slipped inside her sweet little room.

The first thing she saw was Theo's painting.

Still leaning against her desk where she'd left it, beautiful in its stark grays, blacks and blues. A mute testament to everything that had happened. A rush of feeling came over her and she dropped her bag and knelt, reaching out to touch a ridge of paint with a gentle finger, her mind's eye wandering over that last night with Theo.

What was she going to do?

What was it going to be like with him?

She sighed and rocked back on her heels, then sat unceremoniously on the ground and hugged her knees to her chest.

She and Lavender had spent a good amount of time talking about this yesterday, walking into muggle London for lunch and a visit to the V&A after spending the first day of the year indoors nursing their hangovers.

But Hermione still felt worried. Absently, she flicked her wand at her fireplace and wicked the small pile of wood within into flame, then sat and brooded as the cold room warmed up.

Despite Lavender's arguments to the contrary, (she'd still thought Hermione should 'fight' for Theo, whatever that meant) Hermione had almost certainly come to the conclusion that she and Theo ought to break off the romantic part of their relationship. She saw it not only as insurance against future heartbreak, but crucial for preserving their friendship. Not to mention a good step toward disentangling herself from preoccupation with a part of her life (boys) that frankly should be the lowest thing on her priority list right now.

She had things to do, plans to accomplish, bloody exams to take, and she didn't want to spend the next six months agonising over her love life. She'd had enough of that, thank you. It would be much better to make a clean break now, so she could focus on what was truly important.

Besides, she was almost certain Theo was going to do it anyway.

She rested her chin on her knees.

That last conversation on New Year's Eve she'd sensed a change in him. A resolve. She knew he cared for her deeply, but he cared more about not hurting her. She also knew his nature and his profound loyalty to those he loved. And she knew that if feelings grew between Daphne and him, he'd have to explore them. He'd have to try righting what he saw as a great wrong. He'd been honest about that all along.

Her mind went back to her conversation with Harry on this subject and she imagined what it would be like if the same thing had happened between them. If she and Harry had fallen in love and then he'd betrayed her. Harry would go to the ends of the earth to fix it. Sacrifice himself again and again. And funnily enough, Theo and Harry were quite similar in some ways. Two of her best friends…

So she couldn't blame Theo for things they'd thought might happen, actually happening.

Hermione shifted and released her legs, stretching them out toward the warmth of the fire. Even Lav had conceded that much in the end.

"I just love you two for each other and I'm sorry it didn't last longer. But I do understand," she'd said as they'd walked back into Diagon Alley from Kensington. "It's basically what happened with Blaise and me."

"What did happen with Blaise and you?" Hermione had asked. "You've never told me about it."

"There's not much to tell. We were in different cities, living different lives. Barely seeing each other. Neither of us wanted to do long distance or try to make something work when it wasn't easy. Timing and circumstances." Lavender had shrugged.

"Did one of you initiate the breakup, though?"

"I did. But it was definitely preemptive." Lavender had smiled a little sadly. "I didn't want to put myself in a position to be hurt."

"That's sort of where I'm landing," Hermione had said as Lavender had reached out to rub her arm.

But would it hurt Theo if she initiated the conversation? The break? Hermione shifted impatiently. She really, really hoped not, but she wasn't sure. Her mind went back to their early morning conversation in the hotel room on Skye.

"Has it been hard? Being my friend?"

"It's been the easiest thing in the world."

Would it still?

Hermione got up and paced to the window, tears pricking at the backs of her eyes. She just hoped she hadn't utterly cocked things up by getting involved with him.

Below her, a trio in dark robes swept around the path and into the castle. It looked like Ernie speaking with a couple of professors. People were starting to trickle in.

Hermione made a quick movement from the window and toward her door. Maybe Theo was back too. Suddenly she couldn't wait another second to talk to him. Say what needed to be said and get it over with.

She yanked on her door handle and stopped abruptly, almost running into a solid object, which turned out to be Theo himself.

He looked at her in surprise, like he'd been standing there trying to decide whether to knock.

"Theo!"

"You are here!"

They spoke at the same time then stopped, staring a little dazedly at each other until Theo pulled her into a tight hug.

"It's so good to see you in person and not through stupid green flames," he said.

Hermione's arms wrapped around him. "I know."

A nervous laugh bubbled from her lips. "Did you just arrive?"

"I need to talk to you," he said.

They spoke at the same time again and Hermione winced at his words, which seemed to prove her suspicions. Funny they'd had the same impulse to get it over with as soon as possible.

"OK," she said, moving back. "Do you want to come in?"

"Yes," Theo said, stepping through the door a little gingerly. "And yes, I just arrived. Drove up and left obscenely early."

"Oh, of course!" Hermione exclaimed as she moved the painting so she could pull her desk chair out for him. "I still need to hang this," she said with a swift smile.

"Over the fireplace would be nice." Theo sat and ran a hand through his hair.

Hermione nodded and murmured then sat on her bed, hating their awkwardness. Impulsively reached over to take his hand. "Look," she said, just as he started to speak again too.

"God, we keep doing that." He laughed a little and squeezed her fingers. She opened her mouth, but he held up his other hand. "I do have something I really need to tell you, though."

Hermione blinked and closed her mouth. "OK." She let go of him and sat back.

Theo took a huge breath and dropped his head. "I really debated whether to—I'm still debating. But no." He straightened and Hermione realised she was holding her breath. She made herself breathe.

"Whatever you need to say, Theo."

His eyes widened. "No, it's not that!" But then his shoulders dropped. "Or maybe—God, OK. I'm just going to tell you."

Hermione frowned. What was this?

"I didn't want to floo about it because I wanted to tell you in person," he started, his eyes still intent on hers. "But you know the Malfoys came to the Greengrass New Year's Eve thing."

"Of course." Hermione nodded. "And how was that?"

Theo looked to the side. "Ahhh, well. Draco and I—but that's—" He held up a hand again when Hermione started to speak. "Just hear me out." Hermione went silent and he continued. "So the Malfoys stayed over after the party and through New Year's Day."

Hermione put aside the feelings this information introduced and kept quiet.

"I was also there on New Year's Day," he said. "Went over to return a book Daph had given me from the library." Theo rubbed an agitated hand over his face. "And we were chatting in the hallway when we heard something. Voices. Raised voices." He looked at Hermione, who had gone very still.

"It was Astoria and her mother," Theo continued. "Daph and I froze when we realised. Violet Greengrass never raises her voice..." He shook his head. "But she was saying something about a book. Something about how she'd found this book and that she wanted Astoria to stop. Just stop." Theo's eyes went unfocused as his voice shifted to a slightly different cadence and he looked as if he were speaking from memory, "'You are not renouncing, so just put that out of your mindThis engagement and the binding are the only things keeping you alive!'" His eyes sharpened and flicked back to Hermione, who felt suddenly as if she was falling through an endless, blank distance.

A binding? Keeping her alive? What the hell was this?

"...really debated over whether to tell you." Hermione focused back in on Theo's concerned face. "I don't know what it means. I'm sick with how it could affect you and whether that—fucking arsehole even deserves your—" He tugged at his hair. "If you'd be upset. Us." His face twisted. "But I could never keep it from you. You deserve to have all the information."

Hermione opened her mouth. Closed it. "Thank you, Theo," she finally said, hearing her own voice as if from far away.

"And my reaction in the moment," Theo continued, seemingly not realising that Hermione had fallen over a cliff. "I had to tell Daphne about you and Draco in Italy. She could tell there was more going on than just me being surprised."

"Oh?"

"She took it in stride. Said she'd wondered a couple of times." Theo frowned. "So, she knows and I hope that's OK."

Hermione put a hand to her forehead absently. "No, it's fine. I trust her. I don't even know why I kept it quiet, really. Habit, I suppose." She was still reeling, utterly reeling, as her mind cycled furiously through the little she knew about binding spells. A simple contract? A bargain? Or something more specific: an archaic marriage binding or even an engagement spell? How did it work? What did it do? What did it mean? How could she find out more?

Draco and Astoria were bound.

So many things made more sense.

"So I—" Theo started speaking again, but stopped as a soft, urgent knocking started on the door. "Shall I get that?" he asked, when Hermione made no move to get up.

"Oh. Yes." Hermione straightened as Theo opened the door to reveal Daphne, a worried frown on her face.

"You're here!" she said, her eyes swinging from Theo to Hermione and taking in Hermione's appearance. "And you told her." She nodded at Theo, her face softening and a tension going out of her body. "I'm glad."

Theo nodded back and Hermione saw the connection pass between them. Unspoken words. Her approval, his acknowledgement of it and a little flicker of what that might mean for them.

She felt a pang, but it was very muted.

"Come in. Sit," she said to Daphne, who was still in the doorway. Daphne walked in and perched on the corner of the bed as Theo filled her in on what he'd said.

"Right." Daphne turned to Hermione. "I figure it must have been done when they visited Malfoy Manor in the spring. I wasn't invited or let in on anything, though. I told you as much this autumn." She glanced at Theo, who nodded. "And I tried to ask Astor about it yesterday." Daphne shook her head. "She wouldn't tell me anything, though. She seemed almost embarrassed. Or maybe she's been instructed not to talk?" She held up her palms.

"Why, though? Why in the world was it done?" Hermione voiced one of the questions from amongst the hundreds that were rioting through her mind.

"Well, if Daph's assumption about timing is right, the Death Eaters must have been involved. Voldemort," Theo said. "Maybe they were building alliances? Or was it a punishment of some sort? I know from, em, Alecto, that he was angry with the Malfoys. Even though he needed them." Hermione's gaze whipped to Theo as he said that name, but he was looking at Daphne. "Or maybe it was your family that was the target?" he asked.

"Doubtful," she said. "My mother and father would have been overjoyed at a connection with the Malfoys. No matter how it happened."

"But there must have been some sort of quid pro quo." Theo said. "Your mother said it was keeping Astoria alive. She wanted her to stop researching renouncing. And Draco clearly wasn't a willing participant." His eyes went to Hermione, who just stared at him.

"Yes. And I found something else," Daphne said quickly. "I went and looked in my father's study yesterday too. Before I talked to Astoria. You don't even know this part," she said to Theo. "But my family is broke. I saw a document with our Gringotts' balances and an overdue mortgage bill for the house. Explains a few rows I overheard between my mother and father these last two weeks too."

"Shit, Daph." Theo's brows drew together.

"Whatever, it's fine." Daphne waved a hand. "I don't care about the money. But it's a lot of money to have gone through in a short period of time. So I wonder if they gave it to someone in exchange for something. Someone less than savory since it's all been so secretive. Quid pro quo as you said—for Astoria's treatment? She's been so much better since the spring. Strong enough to come to school… And that might explain why the Ministry investigation didn't result in charges." Daphne looked down and picked at a thread on Hermione's bedspread.

"None of that was to do with you, Daphne." Hermione said, coming back to the present moment and looking at Theo, who nodded. "But I do wonder, how does a binding come into all of it?"

"Well what do we know about binding spells?" Theo asked. "I confess, it's next to nothing for me. I even had a quick look in the library at the house, but didn't find anything useful."

Hermoine cleared her throat, pulling out the snippets that had been racing disjointedly through her mind since Theo's first words about the spell. "Bindings are used to magically hold participants to a contract, pact or agreement," she said, voicing the part they probably all knew already. "Marriage bindings are archaic though," she said almost to herself. "Mostly used in the 18th and 19th centuries, but almost entirely gone by the 20th."

"But not unheard of in pureblood circles," Daphne said. "Although only the most traditional families would use them, and only as a ceremonial formality." She gestured. "A family like the Blacks, for example. So maybe Narcissa Malfoy didn't think it was strange. Or she and Lucius might even have had one themselves. But they're usually cast during the wedding ceremony as part of the vows, not at the engagement. Not months before."

"Oh, I didn't know that," Theo said.

"You wouldn't have." Daphne gave him a sad smile.

"But what do they do?" Hermione said, reaching into her store of knowledge, the urge to race to the library becoming almost physical at this point.

"Well, I think it's clear it's made it difficult for Draco to be around you," Theo said quietly. "To talk to you."

"Yes," Hermione's gaze lasered on his. "'The intent is to ensure and then preserve the purity of the union,'" she recited, suddenly remembering language from a passage randomly read long ago. "I think I stumbled across them when I was researching magical feminism in sixth year," she said, trying desperately to recall the book the passage had been in.

"So any threat to the union might be affected by the spell," Daphne said.

"Which may explain why he wouldn't talk to me either." Theo raised his brows.

"At least at first," Daphne said, raising her brows back. Theo coloured slightly and Daphne did too. Then she looked around and cleared her throat. "Well. I should leave you two," she said, getting up. "To, er, catch up. I just bumbled right in, didn't I? So sorry. I was worried—but I needn't have been." Her eyes rested on Theo again.

"No, no. It's fine. Thank you so much for coming. And telling me what you know." Hermione also got up, and Daphne's gaze swung back to her. Hermione could barely register her own words, though. Her mind was already on the exact section—"Magical Marriage and Families"—she would visit first when she got to the library.

"Well, I'll try to find out more," Daphne said. "Maybe try again with Astoria now that we're away from home. Or Pansy might know something." She tapped her chin and stared into space. "She and Astor seem so close these days."

Hermione looked at Theo, who also looked at her. He shook his head slightly and Hermione nodded. "Thanks, Daphne," she said. "I really do appreciate it."

Daphne nodded and said a quick, slightly awkward goodbye before slipping out the door.

Hermione turned around and leaned against the solid wood. There was a book she'd seen in her recent research, something to do with spells that had fallen out of favour due to societal changes and advances—she wondered if it would have a section on marriage bindings, or at least the bibliography might point her toward another source...

"How are you doing?" Theo's voice almost startled her. Hermione looked up to see him watching her, a somewhat wry look on his face.

Hermione blinked. "Shit, I'm sorry, Theo." She moved away from the door and toward him.

"It's fine." A smile flitted over his features, then was gone. "I had an inkling of how you'd react."

Hermione forced her thoughts to rearrange, pushing the swarming ideas away and focusing on the here and now. She sat across from Theo again and placed her hands in her lap, not sure of what to say.

"Should we talk?" he asked after a bit of a silence. "In light of all of… all of this?"

Hermione nodded. "I think so. Although," she laced her fingers together and looked down at them. "I was coming to talk to you just now. Before you told me." She glanced up and saw Theo frown.

"Hermione, I—"

Hermione bit down on what she'd been about to say and looked at him questioningly. He took a deep breath and continued.

"I just want you to know that nothing happened or anything like that. With Daphne. We're really just barely getting to be friends again. And I was really sorry that I couldn't come down like we'd planned. I mean, I probably could have." He rubbed his neck. "But it would have been for a few hours and not what we'd talked about. And then it just seemed easier... or maybe better… not to?"

Hermione put out a hand to stop him. "I know. I know what you mean. And that's why I didn't press you. The time apart was good, I think. I remembered what it was like to be just me, doing me things. It was… restorative. I settled on some plans for the future that feel really right."

Theo nodded, but his face looked a little sad, so Hermione pressed on.

"Not that I didn't miss you too. I missed you a lot. But sometimes I think when we're close my judgment gets muddled or confused because I'm quite…drawn to you."

He let out a short laugh. "Exactly."

Their eyes met for a long moment until they both shifted.

"See!" Hermione said with a smile. "But then we both have these other things." She waved a hand, her mind desperately wanting to veer off Draco-ward again. But she snapped that door shut and concentrated on Theo. "And our friendship, which is so important to me."

"It's so fucking important to me too. You have no idea." Theo shook his head.

"I think I do." Hermione reached out and touched his hand.

"I'm still really worried that I'm making a mistake," he said. "That we're making a mistake."

Hermione blew out a breath. "I think the bigger mistake would be to force something," she said. "If either of us is in the least bit doubtful. How hurt will you be when I'm living in the library for the next several days or weeks? And how will it feel to me when you tell me you took Daphne out on a jaunt in the Rover? How will we reconcile those things with us as a couple?"

Theo looked down. "Yeah," he said. "Those are good points."

Hermione inclined her head toward where Daphne had gone. "You two seem good. Better."

"We are. We had some good talks this break. I finally got to really apologise. Say everything I've always wanted to say to her about what happened. And she accepted my apology."

"That's wonderful, Theo."

"And I want to be there for her. Be that person for her again." His eyes flashed soft blue. "And that doesn't necessarily mean romantically. I just want to be in her life the way I was before."

Hermione looked at him sitting there, his beautiful face so sincere, and thought it would be a minor miracle if Daphne didn't let it turn into something romantic as soon as she was ready.

"It seems like she's open to that."

Theo nodded slowly. "Are you OK, though? Really?" He reached across the space between them and took Hermione's hands.

She squeezed his back. "I am. I loved what we had. Have." She looked into his eyes. "Every part of it. I have no regrets. And I fully intend to keep you in my life." She smiled a little. "Any partner either of us has is going to need to be OK with that."

"Absolutely." But then he looked to the side.

"What?" Hermione caught his eye.

"It's just…Draco and me. After New Year's. If you ever—it ah, might be a bit of a tall order for us to be OK with each other again."

"What happened!? I told you not to— "

"It wasn't me!" Theo pulled his hands away and put both palms up. "It was him." He shook his head. "I think when he saw me there and it looked like I was with Daph—" He grimaced. "He was not happy about it. In fact, that's an extreme understatement. He was more angry than I've ever seen him. He even pushed Lucius aside… We had words. Almost had blows. He understood in the end, but... " Theo closed his eyes then opened them. "Anyway, there's no doubt in my mind that his feelings for you are still very immediate. And now that we know about this spell… I think we can assume the engagement was in some way involuntary." He looked back at Hermione, whose mind had begun to race again.

"I'm not sure if any of that matters if he's bound," she murmured. "Ohh, I need to get to the library!"

Theo laughed. "I'll bet you do. Is that what's next then?"

"I am going to research this. I want to get to the bottom of it. Even if it's just to help him get free of it and nothing more."

Theo gave her a look and Hermione felt herself flush.

"Friends need to be honest with each other," he said after a moment.

Hermione nodded slowly. "I am serious about focusing on myself and my future. I meant that. I have seven fucking N.E.W.T. exams in less than six months! But I do… still have feelings for him." She winced, feeling the keen awkwardness of saying this to Theo, but knowing it was the way forward if they were going to continue as friends. "And now I know that there may be reasons why he's acted the way he has—not that I'm excusing him!—but I guess I need to understand and I'm just trying to be realistic?"

Theo nodded.

"It's just. Why didn't he bloody talk to me about it?" Hermione threw out her arms.

"Maybe he couldn't." Theo shrugged.

"Right, right. Another thing I need to look into."

A silence stretched in the room. "Are you going to try to talk to him?" Theo asked softly.

Hermione looked at him, her mind sifting through scenarios, memories of her various confrontations with Draco over the last few months. "I don't think so, yet," she said slowly, even though part of her wanted to lie in wait for Draco and batter at him until he gave her answers she wanted. "At least, not until I know more," she continued. "Maybe I find out that nothing can be done. He's been fatalistic about it since he got here. And there were months between when we think this binding was done and when he arrived. Months when he could have been trying to get free."

Or months when he was formulating how to cut her loose and make her stay away.

"True." Theo was nodding. "I know if I were in his shoes and there were anything that could have been done…" He spread his hands.

"Right." Hermione's mind went inward again. Had Draco been fighting for them? Or letting them go? She might never know, but a weight settled in her stomach as she contemplated what he may have been going through these last several months.

"Back to us, though." Theo's voice pulled Hermoine into the present and she felt his warm hand take hers. "I just want you to know that I feel the same as you do. No regrets about a second of it." He shook his head and his eyes bored into hers, clear and frank. "I love you. And I don't think it really matters what category that love falls into."

Hermione felt tears spring to her eyes. "Same, Theo." she managed to say. "Same."

"And I am available for all getaways and road trips!" Theo's eyes went shiny too.

"Maybe just not overnight ones?"

He laughed. "Right. And we should probably avoid broom closets."

Hermione laughed too. "Wait, I have something for you!" she said, getting up and going to rummage in her bag. "Your last two tapes." She held them out. "This is a jazz one, Miles Davis and a few others—I consulted with my dad on it—and this is classical. It's got two composers; Chopin on one side and Mozart on the other. My mum helped with that."

He took them. "Thank you. I've loved the others so much. Freely admit to crying several times when listening to A Fisher and a Farmer."

Hermione chuckled, but felt a little twist in her gut as he looked at her. Even if this felt right, it wasn't exactly easy.

"There's a song I really wish I would have added to that one. I listened to it over break." Hermione dabbed at her eyes. "Although it actually makes more sense now..."

"Oh? What's it called?"

"'Simple Twist of Fate.' It's by Bob Dylan. Another of my dad's favourites. I actually taped the whole CD it's on." She looked through her bag again and pulled out a cassette. "Here, you can borrow it."

"Thank you." Theo's words were quiet and she could hear the same mix of sad certainty in his voice. See it in his face.

"Well." He stood up slowly. "I guess I'll let you get to the library." He attempted a smile, but it faltered.

Hermione stood too, the tears spilling from her eyes. "Oh, Theo." She was perfectly still for a moment, then rushed to him and threw her arms around him. "Promise me. Promise me we won't drift apart."

His arms went tightly around her and she felt his lips on the top of her head. "I promise. I won't let that happen. I have too few people in this world to let that happen."

"OK," she said, her breath coming fast. "OK."

His hand rubbed her back briefly before he gently disengaged and stepped away. "Lunch tomorrow?" he asked. "You and me in the Great Hall?"

She half laughed, half sobbed. "I'll be there."

A few hours later, Hermione scuttled back into her room behind a massive pile of books she was floating rather precariously. Luckily the castle was still quiet before the arrival of the Hogwarts Express, and she'd been able to research in peace. And although hunger had eventually driven her from the library, she wasn't nearly done interrogating the literature.

Carefully easing the teetering stack down next to her bed and plunking a plate of sandwiches on her desk, Hermione mentally reviewed her results so far. She'd cast a wide net, and the preliminary research had mostly reinforced what she already knew, but she had high hopes for some of the things she'd brought back for a closer look.

She grabbed a sandwich and the first book off the top of the pile and settled on her bed. A slim volume bound in dusty blue and tooled in trailing gold, she turned the book over and read the title; The Conduct Companion: A Manual for Well-Mannered Witches. Published in the 1830s, Hermione hoped it might include a section on common marriage and engagement spells of the time. She began flipping through, but after a few minutes realised the book was more of a moralising treatise on social niceties than an examination of methods for their enforcement. For example:

"You cannot be too circumspect in matters of love and marriage; and remember that whereas the character of a young witch is considered immaculate, any blemish in it, would withdraw the respect wizards have for you."

Hermione stuck her tongue out at this nonsense, but in the interest of completeness kept turning pages until she came to the book's punctilious end, then threw it aside in favour of the next volume in the stack. She went through and discarded this one and two others before looking up again, realising she had read the same paragraph on the elements of magical contracts four times without retaining it.

She took a bite from her sandwich and let the book fall closed.

What was she actually doing?

She looked around her room, at Theo's painting and the picture of them on the wall over her desk. She looked at the glossy catalog for Oxford University whose corner was peeking out of her duffel bag. She looked out the window at the cold, gray sky.

If Draco didn't want to be bound, wouldn't he have looked into these things himself? He'd had access and time.

And if he'd found anything, wouldn't he have done something about it? As Theo had said, wouldn't he have done everything he could to get free? To get back to her?

Or would he?

Hermione had no idea what Astoria's motivations or wishes might be—especially if her health or survival were involved—but Draco's were also unclear to her. She had to entertain the possibility that he didn't want to break the spell. Maybe the binding was something he'd exactly welcomed, but also wasn't fighting against? There had seemed a sort of resignation in his actions ever since he'd arrived at school.

Hermione chewed silently and stared at nothing, reviewing what Theo had said about the ball and her more recent encounters with Draco: those fraught moments in the shop, in the hallway outside McGonagall's office. Yes, he'd shown a pull toward her, but each time he'd turned away—shades of San Cipriano. And yes, he'd been angry at New Year—while attending a public event at his fiancee's house.

Hermione snorted aloud in frustration.

So maybe there was part of him that wanted her, but a larger part of him that didn't—or at least realised it wouldn't work between them? "Italy was the aberration," he'd famously said. Maybe the time back at his home and with his own people had reminded him of his place, and her place.

Heaving herself up, Hermione snatched another sandwich from the plate and took a morose bite.

In either case, was it wise for her to throw herself at this problem? Especially when she finally seemed to be getting out from under the heartache that had dogged her since she'd left Italy? Especially when she had seven bloody N.E.W.T.'s to prepare for?

Hermione's foot tapped as she contemplated the glowing embers in her hearth.

Of course, there was the possibility that the spell itself had prevented him.

Her eyes darted to her books again.

And it was fairly clear that she couldn't ask him if that was the case. His raspy voice and two syllable sentences seemed to confirm that. And she wasn't quite ready for that anyway.

This was why it made sense to research as many sources as possible.

Research.

Sources.

All of the sources.

Hermione was moving toward the door before she had time to think about what she was doing.

Her soft steps took her down the girls corridor—sound and movement now coming from Susan's room as well as Daphne and Pansy's—and swiftly to the boys' floor. She crept along the hallway, her eyes darting to Dean's door, which was slightly ajar, and to Theo's, which was shut.

Draco's was shut too. And dark. An almost palpable air of abandonment drifted around it—in marked contrast to the times when she'd stood here and known he was within.

Hermione set her jaw and took out her wand.

A discreet unlocking charm had the door swinging open just wide enough for her to dart through. She pulled it shut behind her with a quick look over her shoulder, then turned to face the room.

It was dim, the heavy curtains drawn, and Hermione kept a hand on the doorknob while she let her eyes adjust. Blank walls, a neatly made bed, a clear desk—all was cold and dormant and silent. Hermione shivered slightly, muttering a warming charm as she moved into the center of the space.

What in the bloody hell was she doing? A voice of reason finally broke in on her mad impulses, reminding her that Draco could come back at any moment. There was no guarantee he was on the train. In fact, it was less than likely.

So she didn't have much time.

Hermione shook off the voice and went to his desk. She opened a drawer and picked carefully through. Couple of quills, a spell reference book, some sickles, a few loose toffees...

She slid the drawer shut and opened the next one, scoffing internally. What exactly was she looking for? A diary that revealed he still loved her? A guide to dismantling binding spells that he'd thrown in the trash? A pensieve and memories conveniently showing how the spell had been done and why he'd agreed to it? Hermione scoffed aloud this time, but went on opening and closing drawers and cupboards, still finding nothing. She moved on to his night table (a lot of empty Dreamless Sleep phials) and finally stooped (literally and figuratively) to look under his bed.

Still nothing.

And now she felt decidedly silly. And nervous. He really could be back at any moment.

Hermione made a frustrated sound even as she moved to Draco's wardrobe and flung it open. A waft of his scent twined around her as she flicked through his robes, bringing with it visceral memories of burying her face in his neck, twisting in his bedclothes, twining her arms around his waist and resting her cheek against his lithe back.

She pushed a heavy coat aside rather aggressively and peered into the corners of the dark space. Funny, but she could see little drawers set into one side of the wall. Her wardrobe didn't have them and she wondered if he'd spelled them into being.

Maybe something to hold ties or his signet ring collection— who knew? Hermione pulled one open and snorted when she saw several rows of gleaming cufflinks nestled in deep red velvet within. The next drawer yielded a shoe care kit and Hermione almost didn't reach for the very bottom one, she was beginning to feel so foolish. But, completionist that she was, the compulsion to yank the last pull was too strong to resist.

Probably be a set of silver hair brushes or something.

But it wasn't silver.

It was bright blue.

A bright blue puff of fabric that seemed to burst from the drawer as if it had been hurriedly shoved there the last time it was put away.

Her scarf.

The lovely silk one from San Cipriano. The one she'd realised she'd forgotten—left hanging on the back of her bedroom door at the flat—not long after she'd floo'd away for good. She'd been bitterly disappointed because it had carried so many memories: the lovely day by the stream, Draco's gift of the perfume, what they'd done against that tree…

Hermione slid it out of the drawer and held it to her face.

The scent was still there, like a lens that sharpened memory and impression into immediacy. The soft nap of peaches in a sack, the crisp bite of fizzing white wine, the exact angle of light as it filtered through tall green grass. Hermione felt the warmth on her shoulders, tasted the fruit in her mouth, experienced the joy of Draco moving inside her.

A sob bubbled up in her throat.

He had this. Here. Hidden away.

Did he take it out and bury his face in it too?

Or was it shoved in a hidden place because he wanted to forget?

Hermione let the silk slip down through her fingers.

She truly didn't know, but she knew she wouldn't rest until she did.

Chapter Text

PART II

Sunday, January 3, 1999

Draco's tea was cold.

He stared at his cup, the china almost translucent in the weak sunlight filtering through the large window to his left. A thin skin of congealed milk floated on the liquid's surface. He poked at it with a spoon, almost surprised.

How long had he been sitting here?

Wasn't there somewhere he should be?

His eyes went to the grandfather clock in the corner. Only just gone eleven. Hours before he needed to leave for school. He spread his hands on the breakfast table's dark surface and stared down at them.

Not like he was in a rush to go.

Home was not exactly pleasant, but at least it lacked unpleasant surprises. At least here he only saw her in his mind. Instead of around every bloody corner, in the library, in the common room, at meals, in class.

Coming out of Theo's room, a private smile on her lips.

Draco pushed back from the table and got up, stalking to the window and looking out, willing his thoughts to other channels. Something else. Anything else. Flying. It was relatively clear out. He could go flying before he left.

He focused on the grounds below him, manicured paths and sweeping lawns whitened by a crust of frost. The cold would be good. A distraction. And he'd kill some hours.

Kill.

Funny, that was exactly what he'd wanted to do to Theo. Especially on New Year's Eve.

If Lucius hadn't taken their wands...

Draco closed his eyes and made his breath slow down. Unbidden, an image of her rose up, like it did almost every time he closed his eyes. In that jewel box of a shop, standing over him in that dress—that fucking, fucking dress—one booted foot on either side of his legs, face red and fists clenched like she was holding them back. Her hair. Her skin. Her scent. Just like in San Cipriano when they'd first—God, he'd wanted to reach up and pull her down, get his fingers into that mass of curls and his tongue into her mouth. He'd even made a motion toward her before the spell had yanked him back.

Like a dog on a fucking leash.

He snorted. Wondered if Theo knew that her cheeks still heated when she saw him.

But then he sagged. Tapped his forehead to the glass.

What did it bloody matter anyway?

He was trapped. With no way out.

And better Theo than some other cunt. At least he knew Theo cared for her. Although on New Year… The way he'd looked at Daphne when he thought no one else was.

Draco tapped his head against the glass again. Gently, and then not so gently.

It was all his fault.

"Fuck my bloody life," he muttered.

"Does Master Draco desire something?" An elfin voice from behind him.

He almost laughed. Yes, Master Draco desires something very much.

Not that he could have it. Not that he ever would again.

"No. Thank you." He spoke to the glass before turning and plunging blindly for the door.

"You'll apparate to the village and then walk? Really, Draco?" Narcissa reached up to straighten his tie and Draco let her, fighting down the childish urge to squirm away.

"Yes, mother."

"It would be nothing to run you down to the train."

He grunted a negative. He wasn't about to spend six bloody hours trapped with a bunch of children.

"But your bags?"

"I didn't bring much home." He gestured to a black leather valise, sitting ready next to his bedroom door.

"Of course, these muggle clothes pack down to nothing, don't they?" Narcissa's fingers rested so briefly on his cheek, he may have imagined them. He didn't imagine the edge of disapproval in her voice, though.

"I like them." He shrugged and her lips thinned.

"I don't like these dark circles." Her fingers floated toward his face again.

He just raised his brows at her.

Her face twisted. "This damned spell," she hissed. "If only there were a way. If she would just—"

"I can't ask that of her," Draco said. "I won't. Even if we're both miserable." An image of Astoria flashed through his mind, delicate and drawn at the New Year's Eve ball, her eyes following Pansy almost hungrily.

Narcissa made a noise and looked away. Draco watched her, surprised at her show of emotion, seeing the wheels turning behind her slight frown.

"Even for a muggleborn, mother?" The words slipped from between his lips so quietly they were almost a whisper. He still couldn't believe that she knew, let alone might support—

"For a person of your choice, yes." Narcissa blinked. "The world is changing, Draco. Has changed." She stepped back and her eyes swept over him. "And we've been through too much for you to live a joyless life. I won't have that for you. As I said, I'd see you happy."

"But he'll never. The money." Draco felt a familiar bleakness settle over him, blotting out any traces of hope his mother's words may have briefly introduced.

She looked away again, coldness knife-sharp in her stiff spine. "If only I could do it myself—but we'll see." Ice-blue eyes narrowed. "I'm not promising anything, but we'll see."

Draco nodded, afraid that if he spoke, he'd weep. She reached up one more time to smooth his collar. "My son," she whispered and astoundingly, he thought she might weep too.

But then she turned toward the door, perfectly composed. "You'll see him before you go?"

"He's asked me to. I'm just about to go down." Draco reached for his pocket watch, hanging heavily beneath his robes. Three o'clock. "I'd like to be at school no later than four."

Narcissa nodded once. "Be careful what you say, Draco."

"I always am."

Draco put his hand up to knock on the heavily worked door of his father's study, then dropped it again. He took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling, summoning a trickle of occlumency to steal across his mind. Nothing too obvious. Just enough to bury the sharper edges of his emotions. If Lucius sensed any urgency of feeling or the barrier, things would not go well. And while Draco didn't, couldn't, allow himself to hope, Narcissa's words had introduced… something. A curiosity maybe?

Luckily, living with Voldemort had made Draco quite good at hiding things like hope or curiosity.

He breathed out, slowly. And when he felt he was balanced, empty, he knocked on the door.

"Enter."

Draco pushed through to see Lucius at his desk, applying quill to paper. He watched his father's fair head and steady hand for a good 90 seconds before Lucius made an impatient gesture.

"Sit down, Draco."

Draco walked forward and sat, letting the calm of his blocking spell settle over him.

Lucius wrote for another 90 seconds before looking up. When he did his eyes were cold and probing. "You're leaving soon?" he finally said, sheathing his quill in the fine silver stand on his blotter.

"Yes. I'm apparating to Hogsmeade as soon as we're finished here." Draco was pleased at how steady his voice was. Lucius just looked at him for several beats until Draco spoke again. "You did want to see me?"

"Yes." Lucius leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. "I'd like to ask you to try and not embarrass yourself any further at school this term." His words were soft, but laced with anger.

Draco suppressed any reaction. "Embarrass myself, father?"

"Oh come off it with that pale imitation of your mother, Draco. I saw you on New Year's Eve with the Nott boy. I heard you."

"I didn't realise you'd hung around." Draco couldn't prevent the curl of his lip.

"You didn't realise anything, you were so… lost to decency and decorum. The both of you. Disgusting display," Lucius spat. "If his father were alive..."

Draco felt the very strange urge to defend Theo rise up in his chest. He ground his teeth instead.

"Is there a point to any of this?" he asked.

Lucius straightened, his eyes narrowing to silver slits. "The point, Draco. Is that you are to put any thoughts of that little mudblood piece out of your mind. For good."

Draco shot up in his chair, hand convulsing toward his wand. Then he stopped. Remembered. Show nothing, reveal nothing. "Be careful what you say, Draco." Or do. Fuck.

Lucius eyebrows went slowly up. "Well, that's all the confirmation I needed," he drawled. He held up his hand and examined his manicured fingernails. "I had been hoping it was purely physical. Theodore's reputation, you know. And even I admit muggles can be… compelling to the baser instincts on occasion. She must be quite something for the both of you to—" Lucius gave a little shake of his head. "But that's neither here nor there."

Draco felt the blood work up his neck and over his jaw, but could do nothing to prevent it.

Lucius watched him, the faux-lightness disappearing from his manner. "So as you can see, if you came here with your pathetic calming spells to make a request about your engagement, I shall not be granting it. I may have done what I had to do to make sure this family survived the war, but I'll be damned if I see you introduce a muggle into my line. Your mother's line. No matter what she may think about the matter." He frowned. "The Greengrasses are grasping social climbers, and the younger girl is defective without the treatment—surely Riddle's final little joke on me—but her blood is pure. And I'd see you wed to a hundred dying pureblood girls before I see you live your life as a bloody muggle. Or sire half-breed children that would bear the Malfoy name." Lucius's face set with fury and he shuddered.

Draco's calm and his occlumency spell had gone up in smoke during this recitation. Amazing that his father could get to him more effectively than Lord bloody Voldemort.

"So you'd refuse to keep paying for treatment if Astoria released me?" He sat forward, his shoulders painfully tight, a lump in his throat. "You'd sentence her to death or both of us to a life of misery?"

"Oh, stop being so dramatic, Draco. The girl is attractive enough. Pleasant. Clever. You could do much worse."

"But I'm in love with someone else!"

"You're in love with an idea." Lucius pitched forward, slapping his hands on his desk. "Put into your head during that ridiculous summer. I should never have agreed to it." He sniffed and picked up his quill again. "This betrothal may have been forced on us, and she would not be my first choice, but she's far superior to your choice."

Draco felt his curiosity, his hope, drain out of him a final time. There was nothing more to say. Or do. He stood shakily, and turned toward the door.

"I've told Cygnus Greengrass this as well." Lucius's quill had started scratching again. "If his daughter releases you, my financial support stops."

Draco paused, his back to his father, and nodded.

"And I'll be reiterating this to your mother," Lucius continued. His voice held more than a little bitterness and Draco allowed himself a small prickle of satisfaction at this. "So the two of you can stop any little plots you have afoot. She certainly can't afford it on her own," he muttered.

Draco started walking again, made it to the door.

"The wedding will proceed this summer as planned," Lucius said as Draco grasped the handle. "Shut it behind you when you go."

Draco's thoughts were more grim than they'd been since the start of the term as he plodded up the path from Hogsmeade to the castle. He knew now that he had been allowing himself to hope. Just a tendril born from some mix of his mother's knowing, the encounter with Hermione at the shop, the confrontation with Theo...

He should have known Lucius would trample it to dust.

Draco looked down, navigating a root that snaked across the dirt below his boots. His breath blew in white clouds around him and the sky was darkening quickly. A red seam of sun just tinged the horizon, but otherwise the sky was steel gray.

Red, black, gray.

Colours of violence, emptiness, despair. Perfect for his mood. Perfect description of his life, really.

He snorted as he rounded a corner and beheld Hogwarts Castle, looming like a great hulking beast in the mist. Revulsion lurched in his stomach at the thought of returning, of being here for another six months. He looked up and his eyes ran over the sharp towers and soaring arches that used to represent comfort and home.

One thing was clear, this was a home no longer. Instead it was something to be endured; a damp, cold pit of loneliness and pain.

Bad choices and worse memories.

He kicked at a stone as he crossed the bridge toward the castle entrance.

Lucius, bastard that he was, had been right. Draco was in love with Hermione—yes gods, yes—but he was also in love with what they'd had, their life during that perfect summer. An idea of warmth and light and happiness. Of a fast ride over a long road, a glass of wine at a shady table, her eyes—dancing—as they met his.

Everything they'd had. So impossibly far away now.

Replaced by this damp fucking pile and the sun setting at four o'clock.

Draco yanked open the castle door and strode through the entrance hall, head down and robes billowing behind him. He couldn't bloody wait to take them off and put his jeans back on.

At least he could have that if he couldn't have anything else. Years of annoying Lucius by showing up to the Manor in muggle clothes? So be it if that was all he could do.

He felt a familiar tension tighten his shoulders as he walked toward the Divination Tower. Would he see her? Would she see him? Would she be with Theo, demonstrating their…pleasure…at being reunited?

Draco worked his jaw as dark things darted behind his eyes.

He just needed to get to his room and dump this bag, change out of his robes, maybe escape to the eighth floor. Where he wouldn't have to see anyone. Except for Astoria, of course. She'd find him there.

His body practically sang at the thought of her, warmth prickling along his skin and the tug of something akin to desire darting through his veins.

Fucking spell.

He made a disgusted noise as he ducked into the eighth-year common room, avoiding the eye of everyone who happened to be there. MacMillan, Bones and that fucking cunt, Corner. No Hermione. No Theo.

Draco ignored them all. Let them hate him. He didn't care.

He took the stairs to the boys' corridor two at a time, keeping his head down as he passed open doors and the sound of chatter and laughter, keeping his eyes off Theo's room as he reached for his wand and muttered an unlocking charm.

He was just about to pull the handle when a sound came from behind him.

Not that sound, thank gods.

But music? Movement? The scrape of a chair on a wooden floor?

Someone was in Theo's room.

Draco's eyes closed as being here and all it entailed became painfully, immediately real to him—like a swift punch to the gut.

Were they fucking in there?

That little sigh she made, the hitch in her throat just before she came. Had Theo seen that? Covered it with his lips and tasted it? Had he tasted all of her? Did she smile at him afterward—in that crooked way, so that her eyes glowed and her mouth quirked? Did she breathe little words and poems into his skin? Did she love him?

Something like panic rose in Draco and he snatched at the doorknob, wrenching his door open, then slamming it shut behind him. He collapsed against the wood and mumbled a muffling charm over and over into the dark stillness of his room. Until he could hear nothing but his own harsh breaths.

How was he going to do this again?

Be here?

He needed to find that cold well of resolve he'd tapped into earlier in the year. Build his walls back up. He'd gotten so good at being around her. He'd almost been able to see how he'd get through the rest of his life. Marry Astoria. Endure his stilted existence and never see her again.

But then bloody Theo had happened.

Draco stepped away from the door and dropped onto his bed. He put his head in his hands and tried to breathe normally. He saw Theo's livid face at New Year. Heard his words.

"It's none of your fucking business, Draco. You have no right to speak for her. No right to even think about her!"

Theo had been furious. Fists balled and eyes snapping. More angry than Draco had ever seen him. He loves her. The thought had crashed through Draco's mind then as it did again now.

He shook his head slowly from side to side. Of course he did. Who wouldn't?

Eventually he'd understood. Through whispered shouts and almost shoves, had seen that Theo didn't mean to hurt her, or betray her. He wasn't at the ball with Daphne. Hermione knew where he was. Knew all about it.

Draco had still wanted to hit him, though. Smash a fist into that handsome face. Still wanted to, in fact.

He flexed a hand.

And Theo had known it because he'd wanted to hit Draco too. Draco could see it in the set of his jaw and his rigid posture.

But Theo had been the one to step back, eyes going to the scene inside—to Daphne peering nervously across the room to the terrace Lucius had pushed them onto just before he'd taken their wands.

"What are you doing, Theo?" Draco had hissed, watching him and still not trusting him, thinking of San Cipriano. The way Theo had been there. And before.

"Nothing!" But Theo had looked anguished. "It's none of your fucking business anyway. You have no idea what's between us. You don't know anything about her now. Or me. You have no right." The fight had seemed to go out of him and he'd turned away. "You know, fuck this," he'd said before starting to go inside. "And fuck you."

Draco tipped his head back and took a deep breath. Stared at his dark gray ceiling. He had no right, it was true. His chest heaved again, even as he tried to will himself calm, taking a deep slow breath. But the breath stopped short. Because it had brought a wisp of something with it. Of her. A visceral feeling of her. Being with her. Being with her. Moving inside of her on waves of pleasure more intense than he'd ever known.

What was it? What had triggered it. He sniffed the air and realised…it was her scent. That fucking perfume.

He moved quickly to the wardrobe and flung it open, the wisp of fragrance only intensifying as he pushed to the back and yanked at the drawer.

Her scarf was still there, yes, but neatly folded.

Draco tried to calm his whirring mind as he strode quickly down toward the common room. Had he folded the scarf last time he took it out? He didn't remember doing it. He usually just stuffed it back in the drawer, disgusted with himself for prolonging his torment. He really should burn it. One quick Incendio and the acuteness of the memories would be gone.

But he knew he never would.

He shook his head—he must have folded it. There was no other explanation. Probably in a moment of abstraction, lost in the past.

He took the last step onto the main floor, dreading the next few minutes. He hated having to come into the common room and cafe because it was so exposed. She might be lying with bloody Theo on a sofa, or laughing with her head next to his at one of the tables or fucking kissing him in front of the window. Draco shuddered, and his stomach turned over, but he could tell from the slight headache behind his eyes that he needed to eat. He'd just go quickly and grab something, take it to his room and armor himself in muffling charms in case she and Theo decided to have a reunion across the hall tonight.

He shuddered again as he reached the cafe and saw laden platters, smelled food. Not that he cared what it was. He barely tasted anything these days. Throwing a few things on a plate (did everything here have to be heavy and brown?) he wheeled around quickly and made for the stairs.

He also made a tactical error.

He looked up.

And there she was.

Chatting with the Patil twin. Hands moving, eyes bright.

Just standing there not ten feet away.

So fucking beautiful.

Draco felt his shoulders hunch forward as his whole soul seemed to reach toward her. Strain toward her. His breath as it left his lips seemed like it drifted toward her too, into an orbit that she pulled him into again and again.

He watched dumbly for a moment.

Her hair was up and he could see the dark nape of her neck. That shadowy spot beneath her ear that he'd loved to kiss. She was wearing something nondescript (jeans, a top—no bloody jumper dress today) but the lines of her body were lithe, lovely, and so dear to him. His eyes tracked the delicacy of her wrist as she gestured, the curve of her waist as she put a hand to hip. And then her smile, like a quick flash of something sweet bursting on his tongue.

Although—it didn't quite reach her eyes, did it?

He reined in the cloud of emotion that had enveloped him and focused, noticing that Hermione looked strained. Not as strained as she'd been at the beginning of the year and certainly not as gaunt and pale as she'd looked after he'd… cut her loose. But also not as glowing and happy she'd looked of late. Since she'd gotten together with Theo. Draco's fist clenched so hard it was painful, but he forced his fingers apart, then forced the red haze that was threatening to recede.

There was a tightness in her posture and a nervousness to her gestures. He could see that she was clicking her back teeth together. A nervous tic he'd noticed before—especially in the days right before they'd left San Cipriano. He also saw a finger tapping against her thigh, even as she nodded at something the Patil girl was saying.

Immediately, Draco's mind went back to Theo on New Year—with Daphne, but not with her—and he wondered again. Wondered what Theo was up to and what it meant for Hermione. If Theo had been telling the truth. His hand tightened on the white ceramic of his dinner plate as he recalled Theo's anguished face. The magnitude of his emotion.

Draco recognised self-loathing when he saw it.

Something was going on.

The wave of the anger Draco had felt that night threatened to crash over him again. Even if Theo wasn't fucking around—and he reluctantly believed him—Theo could still be lying to himself.

He could still hurt her.

Was she in pain?

Draco should know what that looked like. He'd seen it often enough. Caused it often enough. His throat constricted and he thought he might crack the plate in his hand. He started and began walking. Maybe he'd make it past without her noticing him.

But that wasn't to be.

Because at that moment, Patil gave a little wave and walked away and Hermione turned toward the kitchen, and right toward Draco.

Their eyes met—he couldn't bloody help it—and he saw hers widen. She froze for the barest moment as her mouth dropped open and she looked like she would speak. She blinked, stepped toward him, and an expression flashed over her face. An ache, he thought, had thought, on the many occasions he'd seen it before.

Draco felt a familiar compulsion to go to her, touch her, fix everything that was wrong…followed by a physical repulsion that had him ducking his head and starting to move out of the room almost outside of his own control.

Mind fuckery of the highest order. Cunting spell.

He thought he heard Hermione's angry exhale as he brushed past her, but couldn't be sure. He was too busy leaving. Going anywhere but here.

And he didn't look back as he went.

Draco's steps took him up past the boys' floor and then the girls'. He'd meant to go to back to his bedroom, but he clearly needed deeper shelter. He kept climbing, head down, until he'd walked up eight floors to the very top of the Divination Tower. Floating his dinner plate, he waved his wand at a circular shape in the ceiling, which dropped open and emitted a silver ladder. Draco ascended it and then pulled it up behind him with another flick of his wand. The door shut tightly and he muttered soft Lumoses as he moved about a large room, lighting several lamps scattered about in shadowy corners.

The old Divination classroom had been deserted since Trelawney had left Hogwarts and the new Divination professor had declared her space, "steeped in energy of murky and questionable intent." A tale that Astoria, who was taking the new professor's class, had relayed to Draco not long after his arrival. That and his feelings in the days after he'd told Hermione he didn't want her, didn't love her, had brought him here for the first time. Looking for shelter, or more accurately, a place to be wounded and hide.

"Told" Hermione.

He snorted—not like he could actually bloody say anything to her. More like feign indifference in the face of her words, her feelings. He shuddered and flung himself down in an overstuffed chair, reaching almost automatically for the door of the cupboard that stood next to it. Opening it, he withdrew a glass and a bottle of Ogden's, then poured a healthy measure. He took a large gulp, grimacing at the taste.

Bloody wizarding whiskey. Tasted like the petrol he'd used to put in his bike.

Yet another thing to envy Theo.

Draco pictured him walking down the boys' corridor, looking windblown, two bottles of fine muggle single malt tucked under his arm. Clearly back from one of the little jaunts he and Hermione would take in that car he had hidden somewhere.

Fuck.

Draco took another large swallow, a sharp and familiar twist of jealousy roiling his guts as he felt the alcohol burn down his throat. He also pitched forward and gathered his dinner plate, forcing a few bites into his mouth, although he tasted nothing. But it wouldn't do to drink on such an empty stomach—he'd had enough nights like that in this room and they never led to anything good. At best at splitting headache and at worst… He shook his head as if to chase away memories, then got up and went to the fireplace, floating wood into the grate and flicking it to life.

He turned and surveyed the room, it's lofty proportions and sweeping views. It had been his one refuge since he'd embarked on the trip through hell that was his eighth year of school, and effecting its transformation from the overstuffed horror he remembered from sixth year had been a good distraction. He had started slowly, but ramped up efforts the last couple of months as he'd spent more and more time here, unable to endure the idea of what might be going on in the bedroom just across the hall from his.

He took another drink of his whiskey as his eyes ran over the space. Gone was the clutter of Trelawney's era. Instead the room was airy, comfortable. Going roughly for the style of the San Cipriano flat, Draco hadn't fought the room's gothic touches, although he had vanished the chintz curtains and transfigured the surfeit of poufs into a long, low sofa. The overlarge chairs he'd left, but had changed the florid floral patterns into solid hues. He used Trelawney's massive old desk for his own schoolwork and her bookshelves for actual books, rather than mildewy furbelows, all of which he'd cleared out and disposed of. His music player from San Cipriano also stood there, along with a small wine rack.

Draco went and sat in the desk now, staring morosely at the fire that had caught and was burning merrily in the stone hearth. A black leather book still sat on the blotter where he'd left it before the holiday. His fingers went absently to the tooled cover and he riffled through pages marked with his own handwriting— some densely covered and some with just a few scribbled lines. He shoved it away; he didn't want to read that now. He was trying to escape his pain, not wallow in it.

But then his eyes went back to the wine, pilfered from Lucius's cellar, and to the battered cassette player, the only thing in this room that was really Draco's.

Nothing else belonged to him. Not really. Not even his own life.

And that was the rub. The crux of it all.

Again Draco felt a sharp stab of jealousy toward Theo, although not for the usual reason. But because Theo was free. Independent. And not just to go driving off into the muggle countryside, but to live as he chose, with whom he chose.

Draco put his head in his hands. Of course he didn't quite wish for his father's death, even after scenes like today's. And he certainly didn't wish for Astoria's.

But what he wouldn't do to be his own man.

After a while he sighed and forced himself to look up, and then get up. He stalked to the area in front of the fireplace, which was largely clear but for a large patterned rug, then turned.

Astoria.

His eye caught on her little space, set out in one of the brighter corners of the room, next to the south-facing windows.

An elegant escritoire and chair. A standing lamp. Some of her own schoolbooks neatly stacked on a small table next to it. A thick cream-coloured cardigan draped over the back of the chair. He could almost see her there, back straight and quill poised, the cardigan hanging from her slim shoulders.

Before he realised he was doing it, he'd walked over and lifted the soft garment from the chair, holding it to his face. A familiar feeling of steady warmth flooded his senses upon inhaling a hint of feminine sweat and sweet perfume. "Lily of the Valley," she'd told him. "Common, I know, but I like it." He now had a bloody bottle of it on his bedside table at the manor. And although the warmth was very different from the heat he felt when he'd buried his face similarly in Hermione's scarf earlier, it was no less compelling.

Not that he wanted it. Or had any control over it.

But, as he had reminded himself countless times, this was his life now. He slung the cardigan roughly back on the chair and walked to the window, looking sightlessly out at the blackness. And his life would march forward. Exams in May, wedding in June and then… a bleak expanse that he couldn't quite contemplate just yet, although he hoped Astoria would agree to live abroad for a time. Perhaps Paris? At least then he'd be near Blaise.

He trod back over to the armchair and poured more whiskey. The near future brought equally painful contemplation as well. The special torture of Unity class would begin soon. And who could forget that he and Hermione had been commanded by McGonagall to bloody meet and form a lesson plan? Draco tipped his head back and laughed mirthlessly at the ceiling. He was going to find it difficult to sit across a table from her, let alone talk to her at length.

Although, he frowned, the spell did seem to ease up if they kept to mundane things. It was just when he tried to say what really mattered that his vocal cords seized and practically strangled him. And with her, he was nearly always trying to say things that really mattered.

His intent. That seemed to be the key.

He blew out a long noisy sigh and contemplated a branching crack threading across the stone above him.

"That bad, is it?" A low, musical voice came from near the trapdoor and Draco started up to see the dark curtain of Astoria's hair as she climbed through the floor. He hadn't even heard the ladder slide down.

He watched her as she stood and brushed non-existent creases from her perfectly fitted wool skirt, then magicked the door shut behind her with a deft flick of her wrist. Her dark glance flashed to Draco and away, but he kept looking at her, thinking of Lucius's words from earlier. He supposed she was objectively beautiful. Slight and graceful with those wide, expressive eyes and that long fall of silken hair. A mobile mouth that could quirk quickly between amusement and temper. Pale skin that flushed prettily when her feelings—or other things—were aroused.

She was intelligent too. Quick, witty, a little cutting at times.

Draco supposed in another life he'd be quite pleased with her. Or at least, not displeased. As Lucius had said, it could be worse. And they probably could have rubbed along quite amicably, liked each other enough to have an uneventful marriage, an heir or two, a life together—if he'd not been consumed with love for someone else, of course. If his eyes hadn't been opened to how things could be different.

"Chilly up here," she murmured, going to her chair and donning the cardigan Draco had been so recently pawing.

"Fire's only been on for a few minutes. Cast a warming if you'd like," he said carelessly, continuing to lounge in his chair, but still watching her as she opened a desk drawer, peered at a book in the stack. The pull to go to her, touch her, after the few days' absence was strong, but he resisted it.

"Your journey was fine?" she asked, still looking down, now flipping through the book. Draco sensed the same mix of attraction and reluctance emanating from her. It was why she'd come up here, he supposed. But she obstinately remained on her side of the room.

"Yes. And yours?" Draco straightened. He wouldn't be able to resist the urge for much longer.

"Fine." A soft sigh and he could sense her giving in too.

"Drink?" he asked. "Whiskey? Wine?"

She gave him a look.

"I've only had one," he said. "And a half." He held up his glass a bit ruefully.

"All right," she said after a long pause. "I could use it today. Wine, though." She drifted over and he rose to select a bottle from the rack, removing the cork with a muttered charm. She met his eyes as she took a glass from him and he saw that telltale flush in her face.

That night had been a mistake—one they both knew they could easily repeat. That night. The night he'd heard the moan from Theo's room.

Draco's mind dredged up the memory reluctantly, a cold clench of dread rising in his throat as the well-worn details ran through his mind. He'd been in his bedroom reading a muggle novel Hermione had given him in San Cipriano—but he'd stopped reading, had let himself drift into a daydream of sunshine and lightly freckled skin and laughing gold-brown eyes until his room had gone dark around him. He'd been almost on the edge of an actual dream when he'd heard it. That telltale sound of pleasure and desire. It was muffled by heavy walls and quickly suppressed by what could only be a silencing charm, but he'd known what it was (who it was) in an instant.

He hadn't even thought, he'd slammed so quickly out of his bedroom and up to the tower. And he'd had two glasses of Ogdens down his throat in the first ten minutes. And then another two more. And then Astoria had arrived, obviously upset (he hadn't asked why, but Pansy had looked pale and sullen that day, so he could guess) and asked for her own glass.

To that point it hadn't been physical between them, other than a kiss or two—experiments to see where letting the spell have its way would take them. But kissing hadn't made them feel any better than touching, so they'd largely kept it to that. It felt less involuntary somehow.

But that night he had put on some music. Something loud. And they'd danced. She'd kicked off her shoes and whirled. Whiskey had splashed from his glass and he'd actually laughed. For the first time in so long.

He'd glimpsed what their life could be like if they could just forget.

And then he put on something soft, and before he knew it, he'd pulled her close, closer, and had kissed her again. And she'd kissed him back. Differently than before. Deep, devouring kisses that had them down on the rug in front of the fire, her willowy limbs exposed, his lips everywhere, her hands in his hair. The spell flowing between them like heady wine, egging them on with whispers across skin and through veins.

Only the crack of a log in the fire and a welling sob from her throat had stopped them.

"What are we doing?" she'd whispered, cradling his head on her chest as tears had leaked from his eyes too.

"I don't know," he'd said. "I don't know."

So since then, no drinking together. At least not excessively. He didn't know quite what they were trying to prevent or control, but it felt important to have some modicum of it. Until it became a moot point, at least.

He took his whiskey to the couch and stretched out, looked inquiringly up at where she was hovering, slightly out of reach.

Finally she sighed and flopped down, a little abruptly, and settled against his chest, stretched her legs against his until they were entwined. He slid his arm around her waist as she tucked her head under his chin.

Almost immediately, a warm humming feeling unfurled pleasantly through his body. A sense of well-being descended upon his brain and he felt his shoulders relax for the first time in days. She relaxed too and with a sound of contentment, burrowed closer to him. She turned her head to the side and inhaled at his neck even as he took a deep breath of the scent drifting from her hair.

"Bloody spell," she muttered after a moment, stroking a finger lightly over the back of his hand.

He snorted softly and lifted his drink from the arm of the sofa. She sipped her wine and they both stared at the crackling fire.

"You're quiet," she finally said.

"You know why."

"I don't want to be back here either."

"I know."

"Have you seen her?" She twisted up to look at him and he caught a flash of sympathy in her eyes.

He closed his and nodded.

"You could have told me, you know." Her finger was making patterns now, tiny circles and swoops moving up over his wrist. "Not that I hadn't figured it out. Some of it."

"Was I that obvious?"

"No, but I can read you. And she was. On occasion."

Her voice held a sharpness and he tilted his head toward her. "Were you jealous?"

Her foot tapped against his. "Not precisely. But I was aware of an… irritation."

"How strange. I don't feel that—with Pansy." Draco remembered when he'd first found out about them, how it had given him hope that Astoria might… But he'd understood less then.

"Not quite the same threat, I suppose."

"Or maybe it's the timing thing." Draco recalled one of the many theories they'd developed about the spell. "Before versus after."

"Yes." Her reply was terse.

"So it might get worse for you and Pansy after we're…"

"Mmm." She cut him off then picked up his hand, slipping her fingers through his. "Do you love her?"

"Do you love her?"

She snorted. "I asked first."

"Yes." He drank again. "Sick with it, in fact."

"I'm sorry."

"Me too."

"But I'm particularly sorry about Theo and all that." Her fingers continued to twine through his. "I guess I didn't realise the extent. Until I saw you having a go at New Year." Draco grunted and Astoria twisted to look at him again. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to risk my life, Draco. Father says—"

"Yes, I know. And I'd never ask you to."

She settled back down. "I did some more research. Mother found out. She was furious."

"Anything of interest?"

"Nothing we don't already know. It has to be me."

She dropped his hand and he splayed it over her stomach. She twisted her face toward his neck again.

"So we'll both live unhappily ever after," he said. "Have you told Pansy yet?"

"No." Her voice was muffled.

"Does she still think you're going to break it off with me?"

"Maybe."

"Astoria."

"I know!" She whipped her face around and pushed at Draco's chest. "I just. Haven't, OK? And it's not like you've been particularly forthcoming! Hermione obviously knows nothing!"

Draco closed his eyes. "I couldn't. I can barely even speak to her. Besides, she wouldn't… that wouldn't have helped. I was trying to get her to give up on me."

"Well, I don't want to give up on Pansy. And maybe there's a chance we can still—after." She looked up at him. "You wouldn't care, would you?"

Draco propped up and looked sternly down at her. "She bloody would. And there's the timing, Astoria. Consider that you won't be able. If I try to speak to Hermione or reach toward her with anything other than the most innocuous intent, I'm physically repelled."

"But it's not like that for me! Maybe because Pansy isn't a factor when it comes to children…"

He sighed; they'd been over this. Repeatedly. "That's highly doubtful and you know it. Everything we've read has indicated it's much more likely that part of the spell will trigger for you after the marriage is performed. And you'll be even more strictly constrained than I am now. It's archaic magic, Astoria. Designed to ensure that I don't wriggle out of the engagement and that we have pureblood children together. So until you have an heir or several, it's going to have you in its clutches. And every threat to the union will be blocked—it's not like the magic has loopholes for same sex relationships, it's just sexist. I'm more likely to be able to… do what I want after we're married. Not that I'd ask it of… anyone." Draco leaned his head back on the arm of the couch.

"And irreversible once the marriage ceremony is complete." Astoria sounded numb, but then gave a sort of aching sob. "Oh gods, maybe I should just renounce. Tell my father and your father to fuck off. Take my chances and live what little life I have left on my terms." She sniffed. "Maybe Pans and I would get a couple of years of happiness." Her eyes flashed to Draco's again. "And you'd get Hermione."

He snorted. "Doubtful. After all I've done—and there's Theo now, you can't forget."

"I thought that was over." She frowned. "Wasn't that why you were angry when you saw him at New Year?"

"He said there's nothing between Daphne and him." Draco felt his jaw tighten almost painfully.

Astoria snorted.

"What?" Draco's attention sharpened. Had she seen something? Was Theo fucking around after all?

"Nothing, really." Astoria picked at a thread on her cardigan. "Theo and Daph have just belonged to each other since they could form feelings. And I know he did something awful, but she seems to have forgiven him. They were together a lot over break. And now that Michael is out of the way…" She shrugged. "I just wouldn't be surprised if the inevitable happens."

Draco's heart leapt even as it throbbed for Hermione. Could that have been the cause of her earlier tension? Could she see the writing on the wall?

Draco wanted to fucking hex himself.

He'd practically driven her to Theo, who was now going to cause her pain. Fuck. He passed a hand over his eyes. But maybe Astoria was wrong. Draco had seen Theo's face on New Year's eve.

Emotion written all over it. Love.

For Hermione.

He'd also bloody seen them together—happy, laughing, charmed by each other. Theo had told him way back in San Cipriano days how he felt about her. Feelings which had obviously never gone away, and had now grown.

Draco rolled his head from side to side.

"What?" Astoria had resumed stroking his forearm.

Draco wrenched his thoughts away from his own heartache. "You can't do it."

"Hmm?"

"Renounce. You can't sign your own death warrant." Draco rubbed his forehead. "I talked to Lucius today and he's not budging. Your father is out of money. And there's no other way."

"I don't want to die," she whispered.

"I know. I don't want you to either. And Pansy would never—if she knew."

She sighed heavily. "So nothing's changed."

"Nothing's changed."

And nothing ever fucking would.

Chapter Text

Hermione underlined a phrase in the note she had just inked and felt the telltale snap of a pen nib.

"Damn," she whispered, turning her quill around to view the blunted tip. It looked like it would take one more repairing spell before it was spent. She muttered the charm and wondered at herself for not just succumbing to the lure of ballpoints.

"So much more convenient." She shook her head then bent it to re-read what she'd written;

"Marriage bindings are nearly non-existent today. Whilst magical feminism did not track the muggle movement for womens' rights exactly (witches historically having more equality in magical society), the latter did influence the former, and marriage bindings were a casualty of that. They went out of vogue in all but the most traditional of families and settings by the mid-twentieth century."

That tracked with what Daphne had said.

"And does nothing to help me," Hermione said softly, turning the page to see if there was anything further worth capturing. In two days of researching, much of what she'd found had been a repeat of what she already knew: the same set of facts about the history and cultural background of marriage bindings and precious little about their mechanics or effects. It was maddening.

"I must be looking in the wrong place." Hermione tapped her quill to her lips. A couple of books she'd noted from other sources just weren't available in the Hogwarts library. She'd owled to London for those and awaited them eagerly. And all of the magical law texts she'd tried to consult had (oddly) been checked out already, but she hoped they'd return soon and provide some additional information. Of the several questions and avenues of pursuit she'd listed onto a (long) scroll of parchment the minute she'd gotten back from breaking into Draco's room, she'd only partially exhausted a few. There was so much more to be learnt. Particularly before she could even think of approaching Draco himself.

"Hi, Hermione." A quiet voice sounded from behind her and Hermione spun in her seat.

"Padma, hi!" she said brightly, hoping she hadn't seemed mad, talking to herself and staring at nothing.

"I was just returning this to the circulation desk." Padma held out a large, red-bound book. "And I saw that you had a hold on it. So I thought I'd bring it over."

"Thanks so much," Hermione said, accepting the heavy tome. She turned it over. "Philpott's Magical Contracts and Bindings. Excellent. I've been wanting to get my hands on this one."

"Are you applying for a magical law apprenticeship too?" Padma asked. "I worked on my application all break and now I'm trying to bash my essay into something I won't be ashamed to submit." She laughed self-consciously.

Aha. That's where all the law texts had gone. Hermione smiled up at her. "Oh, I've no doubt it will be exemplary. What's the topic?"

"The effect of intent on Unbreakable Vows," Padma said. "And more specifically whether such contracts can be broken if there's a lack of intent in one or both parties during the casting." She fidgeted. "Are you doing something similar? I saw you had a hold on a few more of my books."

"Ah, no." Hermione shook herself out of the reverie Padma's words had caused her mind to go into. Intent really did seem to have something to do with it… "Uh, I'm not applying for magical law. Just an, er, personal project." Annoyingly, she felt her face heat.

Padma's eyes narrowed slightly and Hermione gabbled on.

"I'm planning to write something to publish after we're finished with school. Historical thing about muggle witch burnings, but the section I'm doing involves uh, protective binding spells!" Hermione pulled something entirely out of her arse and hoped it sounded believable.

"Oh, OK." Padma nodded. "A different area from mine, but some of these more general law books could still be useful. I'll send them your way when I'm finished with them. Won't be long, the application is due on the 15th."

"So soon!"

"Yeah, they announce successful candidates, dependent on N.E.W.T. scores of course, by the end of March. I'm also applying for a learner position at the Daily Prophet. That's got a looser deadline, though." She smiled swiftly. "Have you decided what you're doing after all this?"

"The Daily Prophet!" Hermione was surprised. Padma didn't seem like the journalist type to her. "And yes, I'm applying to muggle uni, but I want to take a year off between school and that. I think I need a break, you know?"

"I could see that," Padma said. "But for me it's more like, keep moving forward so you don't stall out." Hermione nodded sympathetically. She could understand that tack too.

"Muggle uni, though!" Padma continued. "That will be fascinating." Her eyes glowed. "What subject will you focus on?"

"That's something I still have to decide," Hermione said. One of the many things she should probably be doing rather than researching Draco's situation. "But I'd like to do something that could have implications for or intersections with magic. Possibly a Physics or Chemistry course? Medicine? Or muggle history. I can do more than one, though, and I probably will."

"Absolutely." Padma was nodding rapidly. "Get all you can out of it and then bring that knowledge back to us in the magical world. We need it." Her lovely smile emerged again and Hermione thought not for the first time that she should have made more of an effort with Padma. If she hadn't been so preoccupied last term...

"Would you like to have lunch? Or study together at some point?" Hermione blurted. "I'd love to put our heads together on some of the Arithmancy revision for the N.E.W.T.—I think that one's going to be a bear."

"I'd like that," Padma said, ducking her head. "I could definitely use another perspective on my revision materials. I've already started preliminaries and it will absolutely be my toughest subject."

"Excellent." Hermione frowned at her notes. She clearly needed to kick her studying into a higher gear. "Maybe later this week or at the weekend? I'd also like to hear about this Daily Prophet position. I didn't picture you going for something like that."

"I know, it feels more like something Parvati would do." Padma smiled sadly. "But it does hinge on the idea of media reform. There are some inroads being made by a younger faction at the Prophet. My cousin works there and has been filling my ear about it. They want to make wizarding news coverage more in-depth and impartial. Maybe start a news magazine. Could be interesting to be a part of that, you know?"

"Absolutely." Hermione smiled, a spark of excitement for the future striking in her once again.

"Well." Padma's eyes flicked to Hermione's notes. "I'll let you get back to it. And I'll drop by any relevant books as soon as I finish them."

"That would be lovely, thanks. And I'll be in touch about Arithmancy."

"Great. Ta!" And Padma was gone.

Hermione stared down at the parchment in front of her, and asked herself again what she was doing. Shouldn't she be moving on from all of this? She hadn't even arranged a time to meet with McGonagall about preparing her magical records for the muggle university application.

She flashed to when she'd seen Draco on Sunday in the cafe. The first time after she'd found out. It had been almost a shock to view him so differently again, through a lens of cautious sympathy rather than bitter betrayal. She was sure her face had given everything away. And he had been unguarded for the barest moment too. There had been so much in his expression. So much that she understood now. Or thought she did.

His shuttered look and quick rush past her no longer felt like a rejection.

Maybe a survival mechanism instead?

Whatever it was, now that she knew what he was holding, she had to keep going, keep seeing what she could find. Even if every time she'd seen him since Sunday he'd remained aloof and refused to meet her eyes.

Even if he was resigned to his current situation.

Even if what she found out didn't allow her to forgive him.

Even if they were never together again.

She clenched a fist and looked down, then shook her head, relaxing her hand and running it over her notes. But she also needed to keep an equal or greater focus on her future. She couldn't lose sight of that. She'd let the first throes of a complicated problem carry her away. But she couldn't continue like this. Studies came first.

She nodded decisively as she put her notes away and reached for one of her textbooks.

Despite her intentions, Hermione's mind wandered back to Draco's problem as she walked back to her room. It was dinnertime, but she wanted to drop her things off before she went to the cafe. Maybe Theo would be there. She hadn't seen him outside of class in a couple of days.

A pang thrummed at this thought, but she rationalised it away. It was unrealistic to think she and Theo wouldn't need some time.

She considered her research vs studying problem again. Maybe what she needed was a thorough study and research schedule? Colour coded and broken down by day and then hour? She could allow herself research hours as a sort of reward for hitting milestones with her N.E.W.T revision… Yes, that just might work. And it would refresh her brain to move between subjects and projects. Besides there wasn't much she could learn about Draco's predicament until those books arrived from London…

A muted laugh echoed down the hallway and pulled Hermione out of her musings. She looked up to see two figures walking up ahead. Very close, arms linked, one dark head bent to the other. The laugh sounded again, low and throaty.

Pansy and Astoria.

Another piece of this confusing puzzle. Hermione watched them for a minute. Pansy, tall and willowy, arched almost protectively over Astoria, who turned to the side to smile up into her face. What were they to each other? And how did it fit with the binding? If they were lovers, why was Astoria able to talk to Pansy and touch her, while Draco seemed unable to tolerate Hermione's very presence?

Maybe this was evidence that Draco didn't want her. Maybe she was putting too much importance on the scarf or a pained look on his face. Maybe that was just memory and regret and nothing more.

Pansy and Astoria disappeared around a corner as Hermione left the main building, crossed the freezing courtyard to the Divination Tower and mounted the stairs to the girls floor. She let herself into her room, thoughts still roiling, wondering if her mind would ever be an organised and peaceful place again.

She set her book bag, heavy despite a leavening charm, down on the desk and contemplated her wall. She'd taken down the picture of Theo and her kissing. Replaced it with a shot of the snowy beach on Skye. But she was still reminded of that day and how carefree she'd felt. Happy. She brushed her fingers over the photo as her eyes went to her painting, hung as Theo had suggested, over the fireplace.

Misgivings laced through her mind and she closed her eyes in exasperation.

Just then a smart knock on the door rang mercifully out. Hermione frowned and went to open it, blinking as she beheld Ginny standing there.

"Oh god, of course! We were supposed to have dinner. I'm supposed to be in the Great Hall!" Hermione cried.

"No matter." Ginny stepped cheerfully through the doorway, floating two covered plates in front of her. "When you said you'd be studying before, I figured you'd got caught up. And when you weren't in the library, I figured you'd be here."

"I'm so sorry, Gin." Hermione put a hand to her forehead. "I've been out of sorts. In a fog." She rushed forward and hugged Ginny. "I haven't even seen you since New Year!"

Ginny's arms went around her and she pressed a quick kiss to Hermione's cheek. "Again, no matter. It's been a whirl being back here."

"Yes." Hermione nodded, thinking of how much she had to tell Ginny, then wondering how much she should tell her. "How was the last of your break?" she asked absently, arranging the plates on her desk and pulling off the covers to reveal a rich stew and crusty bread.

"Fine, fine." Ginny said airily, pulling a plate toward herself and settling in Hermione's window seat. "How about you?"

Hermione sat in her desk chair and attacked her dinner, suddenly realising she was famished.

"Wait a minute," she said, blowing on a spoonful of stew. "At least two fairly major things happened since I last saw you. In fact, I've been meaning to hunt you down. I've just been—" She waved her spoon.

Ginny's brows drew together and she gave Hermione a puzzled look before exclaiming, "Oh! The Harpies thing! Gods. No, it went fine. Brilliant actually. Mum started out opposed, but Bill brought her right round by pointing out that in his experience, a few years of professional quidditch never hurt on a C.V. at the Ministry. Dad backed him up and even Percy unpinched his lips to agree. So that changed mum's tune and now she's fine with it."

"Oh what a relief!" Hermione said, grinning at Ginny. "I'm so glad." She took a bite of stew and swallowed before saying slyly, "And how did Ron take it?"

Ginny snorted. "Very proper and congratulatory, but lips pinched up tighter than Percy's."

Hermione burst into laughter. "He'll feel a lot better about it once you get him family and friends seats to all the matches."

"Exactly."

"And did you get a chance to tell Harry?" Hermione gazed at Ginny. "On New Year's Eve perhaps?"

Ginny's face went bright red. "Wondered if you'd noticed that," she muttered.

"What happened?"

"Nothing! Well, nothing really. I did tell him and he was so supportive and happy for me and we were both rather drunk. It led to an er, kiss. Or two. A few." Hermione grimaced, and Ginny shook her head. "But I was the one to stop it!" she said. "I told him I didn't think it was a good idea."

"And how did he take that?"

"Fine. It's Harry, so he was very understanding and kind. But he didn't argue with me or make any love declarations if that's what you're asking."

"And how did you feel about that?"

"Mixed." Ginny shrugged. "Part of me was disappointed, but another part of me felt like the last thing I wanted to do was get tangled up in all that again."

"I know," Hermione said with a heartfelt sigh.

"What?" Ginny looked sharply at her. "Theo? How did it all go with him? Is going? Whatever…"

"It went OK." Hermione mopped the last of her stew up with a crust of bread. "We were on the same page. Both feeling like if we kept on how we'd been, it could get really complicated. So we decided to break it off. It was very amicable and kind and aboveboard."

"Oh no! But you're not totally OK with it, I can tell!" Ginny leaned forward, her face worried.

"Well, there was… something else." Hermione looked up at Ginny, deciding in an instant that she wanted to tell her. She needed all the perspectives she could get on this thing and she knew Ginny would keep it quiet.

"Something with Daphne?" Ginny winced.

"No! Well, maybe. I don't know. That didn't come into it." Hermione swallowed. "No, it was something with Draco."

"Draco!" Ginny practically shouted. "Oh no, you can't be back to him… What happened to moving on and all that girl power stuff!?"

Hermoine held up a hand and was opening her mouth to respond, when the flames in her fireplace flickered from yellow to green.

"Hellooooo! Anybody home!?" Lavender's voice rang out and Hermione uttered a silencing charm almost reflexively.

"Oh good," Ginny cried. "You're just in time for Hermione to explain why Draco is suddenly a factor in her life again."

"Draco!?" Lavender said, her tone and volume an exact match for Ginny's earlier. "And hiya, Gin." She wiggled her fingers at Ginny, who waved back. "What the fuck is going on? What happened with Theo?" her face swung back toward Hermione.

"Yes, do tell us what the fuck is going on?" Ginny said in a faux-sweet voice.

"I will! Hi Lav!" Hermione waved and tried to marshall her thoughts. Of course, she'd intended to tell Lavender everything, had been meaning to call her, actually. But, thought as she glanced between Ginny and Lavender, telling them both at the same time was going to be a challenge.

"Well!?" Lav said, her face nearly poking out of the flames.

"OK! But I need neither of you to talk for five minutes!" Hermione stared them both down until they nodded, and then started with Theo coming to her room on Sunday morning. By the time she'd finished with finding her scarf in Draco's room, both of their mouths were hanging wide open.

"A binding?" Lavender finally said. "I haven't heard of anyone doing that since my great-grandmother's time! And even she had a problem with it! And he has your scarf!?"

Ginny just shook her head silently.

Lav was quiet for a moment too. Then, "What does it all mean!?" she wailed.

"I don't know." Hermione said. "I've been in the library trying to figure it out, but I haven't found much."

"Are you going to ask Draco about it?" Ginny cut in.

"No. Or at least not yet." Hermione looked down and twiddled with the cuff of her jumper. "I still don't know if I even should." She looked up again, meeting Lavender's eyes through the flames.

Lav nodded. "I see what you're saying. And I think that's right. See what you can find out first. See if there's even a reason to start down that path again. You've come so far!"

"I know." Hermione put her head in her hand.

"What have you found out?" Ginny asked.

Hermione put her head up. "Not much more than what Daphne said the other day. A lot of social history behind the spells—why they started and why they stopped being used. A lot of pureblood shit. They wanted to ensure the purity of certain bloodlines by arranging marriages. But of course arranging marriages has its risks—one or both parties may not be happy about it and try to cry off, or there can be infidelity resulting in heirs of questionable origin. These spells were meant to prevent that." Hermione gestured. "And they're not necessarily standard spells. The caster would often customize for the couple. So you have spells that compel different behaviours from each participant or even have different effects before and after the marriage vows." Hermione shook her head. "Barbaric, really. And usually incredibly sexist."

Ginny made a disgusted noise. "Sounds it."

"But what do they do, these spells?" Lavender asked. "I mean, all this is fascinating, but I want to know how it's affected Draco and how he's been with you. It must explain some of his shitty behaviour."

"That's the information that's been rather thin in my sources," Hermione said. "Pureblood culture is notoriously close-lipped, inner-circle only about these types of traditions. I've ordered some books from the central library in London that I hope may be enlightening, though. I'm also looking at law texts to learn more about the mechanics of contracts and bindings generally."

Lavender nodded and Ginny made an explosive sound. "On top of schoolwork and N.E.W.T.S!" she exclaimed.

"Yeah." Hermione hung her head. "It's been somewhat all-consuming since I found out. I realised today that I need to be smarter about that." She looked back up. "But I have to find out. To know. It really could explain so much… even if it doesn't change anything. God, I don't know what to think." She blinked up at the ceiling, hearing Lavender's huge sigh in the background.

"Have you seen Draco or interacted with him since all of this?" Lav asked. "God, if he didn't want this he must have really been going through it. Having to reject you and then seeing you with Theo…"

"I know." Hermione's heart gave a throb. "And he's been avoiding me, ignoring me, absent. You know, the usual—although maybe that makes more sense now." Her eyes swung between Lav and Ginny. "But there was one moment—on Sunday in the cafe right after I found out and after the scarf. I caught him looking at me and I swear there was a crack in the facade. And that bloody scarf! I have to wonder why he still has it."

"I know why he fucking has it," Ginny said.

Hermione looked at her in mute inquiry.

"He's still in love with you!" Ginny sat up in her seat. "I've thought it since the beginning of the year and I'm even more convinced now. Even though he's been fighting it tooth and nail. Or maybe," her strident tones softened, "he hasn't been able to express it. I dunno. I don't think this 'binding' was anything he wanted. I guess I want to kill him a little less than I did before." She frowned. "But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to pursue this, Hermione. People can love each other, but still not be good together. Maybe the two of you just aren't meant to be."

Hermione snorted. "That could be the understatement of the century." She shook her head. "But seriously, I've been thinking a lot about that. Like even if I found a way to help him out of this, could we salvage what we had? Or is it too damaged? Lost?" She closed her eyes. "And that makes me wonder about other choices I've made."

"Theo?" Lavender's voice was gentle.

"Yeah," Hermione said. "I miss him. Even though I see him every day. But it's not the same." She smiled sadly. "Not that it was entirely up to me."

"Is something happening with Daphne already?" Lavender asked sharply.

"No, no!" Hermione waved her hand. "Nothing like that. They're just together more. Friendly. And he wants so badly to make it right with her. I think if she lets herself open to him, it will be inevitable."

Lavender sighed loudly again.

"But I've been in the library researching what's going on with Draco every spare moment since I found out!" Hermione said. "So it's not like it would exactly be comfortable if Theo and I were still trying to make it work." She shook her head. "It was the right decision. I know that. I'm just feeling sad about it all. And confused."

"I'm sure." Lavender said. "And in all this research, have you come across any way to reverse this spell? I mean, even I know that marriage bonds aren't unbreakable vows. And one has to wonder why Draco didn't just extricate himself."

"I know, and I haven't. Other than a passage in one book." She tapped her chin. "It posited that pureblood marriage bindings may be based on muggle engagement traditions present at the time the spells came into vogue. Things that were in fashion in British high society during the 18th and 19th centuries. Code of honour stuff." Ginny and Lavender looked blank, so Hermione explained. "Rules for muggle behaviour that applied in certain social classes. For example, at the time, the only way muggle engagements of that class could be honourably broken was if the woman cried off. So it's very possible that the spell is constructed similarly and Astoria has to be the one."

"And it sounds like she's stuck," Ginny said. "If it has to do with her health, or whatever it was her mum said. Although you said the spell could be customised too."

"Right. And we have no idea who cast it. Or why. Hence me feeling like I still don't understand anything." Hermione blew out a breath in frustration.

"Do you think you'll go to Draco at some point?" Lavender asked.

"I might get there. But what if he can't talk to me? It's entirely possible that the spell prevents him. Or at least prevents him from talking to me about certain things. That would explain a lot of our interactions."

"Yeah, you said before that he was able to speak in your Unity Classes and at that meeting with McGonagall," Ginny said.

"Right." Hermione nodded at her. "There seem to be elements of the spell relating to the intent around communication. And other things too, I'm sure."

"So maybe there's a loophole!" Lavender put up a finger. "Like maybe if you go to him and only you talk…" Her voice trailed off.

Or maybe she could touch him. The thought slipped through Hermione's mind on a pulse of excitement and desire, but she quickly brushed it away. Every time they'd almost touched he'd recoiled like he'd been burnt. You mean every time he tried to touch you… her sly inner voice piped up again, but Hermione resolutely ignored it.

"I bet that wouldn't work, because even if he just answered questions he'd have an intent contrary to what the spell wants," Ginny was saying to Lav.

Hermione snapped back to attention. "True," she murmured. "Anyway. I won't go to him yet. I need to know more before I put myself on the line again."

Lavender and Ginny both nodded gravely.

"A binding," Lavender said. "I still can't quite believe it. But it makes a strange sort of sense the more I think about it."

"Yeah," Ginny said. "What a fucking palaver."

"Indeed." Hermione almost laughed—except that none of it was very funny at all.

Hermione rushed toward the stairs to the Potions dungeon, stuffing a magical law text in her bag as she went and mentally rearranging her focus from her, er, 'side project' to the work she had to do with Daphne tonight. They'd arranged before the holiday to meet outside of class and brew all of the formulas that might show up on the N.E.W.T. practical—having no idea, of course, that such meetings would be somewhat awkward at this point. But no matter, Hermione was just going to concentrate on the work, and this evening's Draught of Peace would be particularly painstaking.

It was hard to shift her thoughts from other matters, though. Some of the books that had arrived from the Central Library over the weekend had been extremely illuminating, drawing Hermione more deeply into analysing Draco's problem. And even though she was being strict about her studies versus personal projects, she found her mind wandering to him again and again.

Her eyes too.

She shook her head as she alighted from the last step and hurried down the corridor. It had been bloody impossible not to let herself slide back into being very aware of him since all this had happened. It felt like the beginning of the year again, or even San Cipriano, watching and noticing Draco constantly. His distinctive stride through the halls, his bright hair falling over his forehead as he studied in the library, his deep, cultured voice when he spoke in class. And she was noticing how much he watched her too—flashes of silver or slate from eyes quickly averted.

A drum of his long fingers on his desk could have her thoughts wandering in lustful directions for many long minutes.

As Ginny had said, what a palaver.

Hermione sighed as she came upon the corner to the Potions wing, her fast pace slowing when she heard voices up ahead.

Theo. And Daphne.

Hermione came to a near halt almost unconsciously before she rounded the corner, her ears pricking up. She told herself she wasn't eavesdropping—she just wanted to give them some warning before she barreled in—but she knew that wasn't totally true.

"Thanks for walking me. You didn't have to." Hermione could hear the smile in Daphne's low voice.

"Then you can safely assume I wanted to." Theo's tone was light, but there was a hint of a flirtatious tease there too. Hermione recognised it from their interactions much earlier in the year, before they'd—she sighed and shouldered her bag.

She was OK with this, she really was. And it wouldn't do to lurk around creepily.

"Hiya, chaps!" she called out as she started forward, rounding into the hallway in front of the classroom. "Sorry I'm late, Daphne. The library is a bit of a black hole for me lately." She grimaced at Daphne then smiled at Theo, who started, a small frown between his eyes.

"Hello, are you assisting us this evening?" Hermione asked. "A new fascination with Potions?"

"Ah no." Theo recovered and his dimple flashed. "This is purely a social call. I leave Potions to the experts." He bowed at each of them in turn.

"Flatterer." Hermione smiled and Daphne laughed. Theo looked between them and the frown creased his brow again.

"Well," Hermione spoke after a slightly overlong pause. "We'd better get to it then, eh?" She turned to Daphne, who nodded and waved to Theo a little awkwardly before ducking into the classroom.

Hermione turned to go too, but Theo held out a hand. "Wait, I actually have something for you," he said, opening his rucksack and starting to rummage. After a moment, he extracted a large black book and held it out to her.

"What's this?" Hermione took it and turned it over, but there was no writing on the cover or spine.

"Nott family births, marriages and deaths, covering roughly 1790-1850," he said, moving next to her and opening the cover. Elaborate scrolled text covered the first pages and there looked to be grids of lists with notes in various antiquated handwritings filling the rest of the book. Hermione peered down at it, then up at Theo.

"I told you I looked in my library for books about bindings and things," he said in a quiet voice. "I didn't find anything, but I asked the elves to keep an eye out, and earlier today this arrived by owl." He flipped to a page in the middle of the book, marked by a green silk ribbon. "I looked through and see here? A registry entry of a marriage ceremony, including a binding and its components. There are dozens of them like this. I think they could be quite illuminating."

Hermione read quickly through the entry he'd marked, noting at least five things she wanted to go over more closely. She flipped the page and immediately saw another marriage entry with another binding spell noted. Her pulse sped and she looked up, putting a hand on Theo's arm.

"Theo, this is amazing! Thank you! I haven't seen anything like it. And this is private information about your family." She knew that sources such as these were jealously guarded in pureblood circles. Several of the books she'd been reading had mentioned the dearth of primary references.

He shrugged. "It's nothing, really. You know I don't care about that type of thing. And I want to help." But his eyes looked troubled as he gazed at her. "Anything new?" he asked softly. "Have you talked to him?"

"No." Hermione shook her head. "Nothing. Although we're meeting later this week to plan out our Unity Classes, so that should be interesting."

"Mmm." Theo still looked unsettled.

Hermione felt a strange mix of emotions swirl through her. "I miss you!" she said impulsively. She'd meant what she'd said to Lav and Ginny about feeling the loss of him even though he was right there. It had been over a week since they'd really talked.

His eyes softened and his lips parted, but he didn't speak.

"Can we do something extracurricular soon? Maybe a walk somewhere?" Hermione pressed, her eyes darting toward the classroom where she could see Daphne puttering. "Or would that be weird?"

"No! I'd love that," Theo said. "I think it's important that we, uh, keep doing that. Go as we mean to go on. Now that we're somewhat settled back in after the, um, holiday."

Hermione felt a tension ease away, even as she acknowledged that it was going to take some work to carve out this new/old style of relationship between them. "OK. Good. I agree. This weekend?"

"Absolutely," he smiled. "And take all the time you want with that." He pointed to the book. "Let me know if you'd like to see others. There are many. Although I think this one must be the most relevant."

"I can't thank you enough." Hermione reached up, impulsive again, and kissed him on the cheek.

She caught a whiff of his scent and a memory of kissing him differently flitted across her mind, quite unbidden.

He paused for a moment, looking down at her, then cleared his throat and stepped back. "You're very welcome." His eyes flicked toward the classroom and Hermione saw that Daphne was watching them, although she started and moved quickly toward the storeroom.

"Ah, I'd better get in there!" Hermione said, her voice bluff and over-cheerful to her own ears. This really was going to take some doing—she supposed she and Theo couldn't expect their feelings to turn off like a switch—but it was worth doing. She knew that.

Theo gave her a small nod and then called goodbye to Daphne, who appeared in the doorway and waved him off.

"Ready?" she asked Hermione, who was watching Theo as he went.

Hermione turned abruptly. "Absolutely," she said before ducking into the classroom.

"I've got the moonstone here," Daphne said, briskly, moving around the work station she'd begun setting up. "But we still need to powder the porcupine quills and boil the hellebore into a syrup."

"Ahh, I can do the quills if you'd rather not." Hermione said, feeling eager to accommodate.

Daphne didn't look at her as she bustled back to the storeroom again. "Either way," she said. "I don't mind."

Hermione pulled a jar of porcupine quills off a low shelf and measured out the required amount. Daphne came back with the hellebore and began dropping the dried flowers into a small cauldron of boiling water.

Silence reigned in the classroom, but for the grinding of Hermione's mortar and the bubbling of the water. A faint and sweetly medicinal odor began to fill the air.

Hermione shifted, chancing a look at Daphne who was staring down at their Potions textbook, but clearly not reading it.

Bugger.

Hermione thought of Theo's worried face and took a deep breath.

"Can we just…talk about everything?" she asked, putting down her pestle.

Daphne looked up, her brows high. Her mouth opened and then shut.

"I feel like the air in this room weighs five hundred pounds," Hermione said with a sharp laugh.

A look of slight shock crossed Daphne's face, but then she laughed too. "OK," she said. "It's silly to pretend there's nothing going on."

"Right?"

Daphne took a deep breath. "So how do things stand between you and Theo?" she asked.

"He hasn't told you?" Hermione tried to tone down her surprise.

Daphne shook her head. "We haven't talked about any of that. I don't think he felt right bringing it up. And I wouldn't… But I figured—I haven't seen you together as much since we got back. And there's all that other stuff… with Draco."

"He told you about that, right?" Hermione started grinding quills again.

"Yes, that you were together in Italy. That it was rocky at first, but very serious at the end and you left there intending to stay together." She glanced at Hermione. "And then whatever happened with my sister happened."

"Yeah."

"And then what happened with you and Theo happened." Daphne stirred the hellebore vigorously.

"Yes. But that part is done now," Hermione said. "We've decided we're better as friends."

"Ah." Daphne's hands stilled as Hermione felt a twinge, but stuffed it down.

Without speaking, Daphne started moving again, cooling the Hellebore syrup with a charm and then pouring it carefully into the powdered mixture. Hermione picked up the text and read the words of the accompanying spell, and for several minutes she and Daphne were busy with the potion—blending, stirring clockwise and counterclockwise, and muttering charms until the liquid gave one mighty bubble then smoothed into a sheet of shining pearlescence.

"Well, I think that's damn near perfect." Daphne said after several long moments, tilting the cauldron from side to side and admiring the glowing pale pink of the potion. "And first try too. I expected to have to do that several times." She looked up at Hermione and, cracking a brief smile, put out her hand.

Hermione shook it with a laugh. "We'll finish early tonight," she said, starting to clear dirty flasks and cauldrons to the sink in the corner. "And I don't know about you, but I could use the extra hour."

Daphne nodded and fell to washing and drying the glassware.

"I'm sorry if I was weird about you and Theo just now," she said after a bit, voice slow and face hidden behind her dark blonde hair as she looked down at her task. "I was actually really happy for him when you got together. I thought it was great." Her eyes flashed to Hermione's. "I'm sorry if anything I did messed that up."

"Oh no, it was nothing you did." Hermione shook her head quickly. "It was more— I know a little," she said, looking apprehensively at Daphne, "about your history with him."

"Oh?"

"I know it all, actually. He confided in me in Italy." Hermione watched Daphne, whose face was averted again. "He was trying to tell me why he was damaged, why he was the way he was. Then."

Daphne nodded slowly and Hermione continued on.

"So both of us always sort of had an elephant in the room, so to speak. Another person in our minds, you know? Draco for me and you for Theo," Hermione said gently while Daphne remained silent. "That's why it couldn't really work for us. Especially with, er, recent developments." She floated clean vessels to the racks near the sink as Daphne turned back to the worktable and tightened the lid on a large jar.

"Draco… and Michael?" she asked. Hermione nodded.

"I'm not saying it wasn't hard," Hermione said. "A hard decision. For both of us. But I think it was right."

"He's changed so much," Daphne said softly.

"He has. When I think of the boy I met in Italy versus now." Hermione looked down. "It makes me want to cry or laugh, I don't know. He's been through a lot," she finally said.

"He has," Daphne said with a heavy sigh, leaning over and picking up her book bag. "Did he give you that family registry thing?" She gestured to Hermione's bulging bag. "He was really excited about it."

"Yes, and I'm so touched that he's willing to help me this way. Especially since it has to do with Draco."

"I know." Daphne's eyes were wide. "He and Draco did not seem to be on the best of terms at New Year."

"Yeah, what exactly happened?" Hermione asked as they started walking out of the classroom. "Theo wouldn't tell me much."

Daphne flicked off the lights. "Oh, goodness. Well it was quite a scene." She grimaced at Hermione as they started to climb the stairs out of the dungeon. "Do you want to hear the whole thing or is it too—?"

"Oh no, I want to hear it." Hermione found herself very eager to hear anything that would shed light on Draco's mind and motivations.

"Let me see…" Daphne tucked her hair behind her ear and frowned into the distance. "So I was running late because of an argument with my mother over my dress. She wanted me to wear something completely ridiculous." She rolled her eyes. "But, eventually we managed to compromise, which meant it took me some extra time to get ready. By the time I came down everyone was in the ballroom. Except for Theo, who was also late, because of a leak at his house or something. He almost didn't come because of it. But anyway—" She waved a hand. "Theo and I happened to meet just outside the ballroom and I was having trouble with my shoe. So he helped me balance while I put it on and then sort of jokingly put his arm out and said he'd escort Cinderella to the ball. I don't know, it was just silly. We were laughing as we walked in, but it was totally innocent." She looked over at Hermione searchingly.

Hermione nodded and told her to go on, holding open the door to the courtyard. Daphne slipped through, lowering her voice as they walked across the open space then entered the Divination Tower through a gust of warm air.

"So, we went in together laughing and it was one of those things where everyone sort of stopped talking and looked at us. Completely strange. But it made us pause in the doorway and sort of smile at each other? I'm sure we seemed like a couple. Mother looked pleased and father said something that made someone laugh. It was so awkward." Daphne grimaced.

"I could see that." Hermione pulled a face.

"But then I dropped Theo's arm and we started into the room and it was like the spell was broken. Everyone turned away and started chatting again. I turned to Theo to ask if he wanted Champagne, but then suddenly Draco was there—I guess he'd come from across the room—I didn't even see where he'd been standing. But he got right in Theo's face and asked him something like, "What the fuck are you doing?" He looked livid. And he had his wand out. It was bonkers."

"I can imagine!" Hermione said, the visual extremely clear in her mind. Draco must have thought Theo was up to his old tricks—or maybe he was jealous? It pained Hermione either way. "What happened then? Theo said they almost came to blows?"

Daphne looked up and down the corridor. They had made it to the girls' floor and were almost to their rooms. "Yeah," she said, lowering her voice even more.

Hermione looked up too, seeing Susan come out of her room. She gave Daphne and Hermione a quick wave before heading in the opposite direction.

"Look, do you just want to come in?" Hermione asked, gesturing at her door. "Have a cup of tea?"

Daphne suddenly looked shy. "Yeah, OK," she said after a beat. "That would be nice."

They walked in and Hermione pointed Daphne to her desk chair while she bustled with the tea things.

"Your room is so cosy," Daphne said, glancing around. "I love the tartan and the window seat. Sometimes I regret agreeing to share." She wrinkled her nose. "Pansy's lovely, but I like to be on my own too."

"I'm the same. I hated sharing when I lived in Gryffindor Tower. I need absolute quiet at times. Especially when I'm studying. That was why I practically lived in the library during school." Hermione smiled, handing Daphne a hot mug and sitting on her bed with her own.

Daphne gave her a swift smile in return, then looked up as if she were gathering her thoughts.

"So," she said. "New Year's Eve. Where was I? Oh yes, Draco had his wand out and was practically shoving it into Theo's neck." She pantomimed the action. "And then Theo was in Draco's face and his wand was out too. He was just as angry. I've never seen him like that." She shook her head. "My mother appeared and pulled me away from them, so I only heard only part of what Theo said next. Something like, 'How fucking dare you?' And I think someone called someone a cunt." Her brows flicked up and Hermione snorted. "But then Lucius Malfoy was there and he got between them and grabbed both their wands. Draco tried to shove past him, but Lucius managed to sort of frog march them across the ballroom to an outdoor terrace. He pushed them out there and closed the doors, so you couldn't hear anything, but it was clear they were arguing. I thought for a second there was going to be a fistfight. Everyone was pretending not to notice, but they were all watching."

"God. How did it end?"

Daphne shrugged. "Theo was the one who walked away. He caught my eye and I was so worried. It seemed to break him out of the rage he was in. He said a few more things to Draco and then he just went inside. Walked up to Lucius and took his wand and then left the party. I thought about going after him but it seemed better to just…" Daphne waved a hand. "Draco was outside for a long time. I think Lucius eventually went to get him. He stayed for the rest of the night, but I didn't see him speak again. And then everyone just pretended like nothing had happened." She gave a brittle laugh and sipped her tea.

Hermione's mind roiled with images and emotions.

"Seems like it may have been about you," Daphne continued, her eyes going to Hermione's. "I didn't realise at the time that you and Draco—but it must have been about that, right? Although I don't know why Draco picked that moment to fight Theo over it." She frowned.

"There's a little more to it," Hermione said slowly. "Some things that happened when we were in Italy." She mulled over how much to tell Daphne, who was looking at her with naked curiosity. Fuck it, she finally thought, it was nothing Daphne wasn't aware of already.

Hermione put down her tea. "So. When we were there, in San Cipriano, Draco and I sort of… noticed each other right away. But being who we were, neither of us wanted to act on it. I think in the beginning Theo thought it was funny, so he set out to have a flirtation with me—to annoy Draco, you know?"

Daphne snorted. "Sounds like him."

"The old him."

"Right."

"What neither of us expected…" Hermione looked away out the window, lost in memory. "Was that we'd actually really like each other. Click. Enjoy each other." She smiled. "And Draco was pushing me away for various reasons. So Theo and I… got close." Hermione glanced up at Daphne to see that her face was pensive.

"How close?"

"We kissed a few times. But in all honesty, it could have gone further."

"But?"

"He was still the old Theo." Hermione shrugged.

"Ah," Daphne nodded. "So there were others."

"Yes. Although I suspect he would have stopped all that if I'd—but that's neither here nor there. It made me not want to pursue anything further with him. But." Hermione held up a finger. "Draco didn't know that. And since they were roommates, Draco saw more of what Theo was up to than anyone else. And I think there was a time when Draco thought Theo was trying to jerk me around."

"And Draco had feelings for you, so there was probably a fair amount of jealousy too. On both sides."

Hermione nodded slowly. "Deep feelings. At least I thought they were. No." She shook her head. "They were deep. We were in love."

Daphne nodded. "Blimey. So when Draco saw Theo with me…"

"He probably thought Theo was jerking me around again."

Daphne closed her eyes. "Right. But Theo wasn't. Not at all." She opened her eyes. "He cares for you very deeply."

"Yes," Hermione said. "And I care for him the same way. I love him too." She spread her hands. "As a friend. And it's obviously been more than that too—is obviously different than the way I love Harry or Ron." She took a deep breath. "But I think both of us realise that our feelings are stronger in other directions?" She looked at Daphne. "He loves you so much. His whole world crumbled when you broke up—NOT that it was your fault or responsibility." Hermione put out her hand. "But I think he'd do anything to be close to you again."

Daphne's face had gone a dull red and she was looking down, so Hermione continued.

"And I'll always love Theo too, he's been there for me like no one else has. And we really get each other. I enjoy his company maybe more than anyone's. But my feelings for Draco have never gone away, and even if I can't be with him, even if he no longer feels the same, I feel a compulsion to help him."

"I think he still feels the same."

"Really? I just don't know."

"If you'd seen him at the Ball, Hermione. And I'd wondered about him and you even before Theo said something."

"Not that it matters." Hermione blew out a sigh.

"Gods, I wish Astoria would talk to me!" Daphne flung up out of her seat and paced the room. "We're not close, but we are family. Maybe I could help! And she's unhappy. I can at least tell that."

"You think she wants out too?" Hermione asked quietly.

"Yes. And Pansy said—" Daphne shook her head. "But Pansy's so emotional about it. Although I don't know…" she said, almost to herself.

Hermione watched her for a second, wondering again about Astoria and Pansy and how much Daphne had figured out. "That's interesting, because I'm almost certain Astoria has to be the one to call it off," she said.

Daphne slumped back down in the desk chair. "Which, according to my mother, would harm or even kill her."

"Right." Hermione shook her head.

They sat silently for a while, Hermione's thoughts circling and circling on the problem that had been plaguing her since Theo had revealed his big news the week before.

Unfortunately no answers presented themselves.

"One thing I do know, though," she said after a long silence, leveling her gaze at Daphne, "is that you shouldn't write Theo off."

"What?" Daphne's tea cup plunked down on the desk next to her.

Hermione was afraid she'd overstepped, but hurried on anyway. "He's such a good person: kind, generous, loving, fun. And that fear and flightiness? He's worked on that so much. I'm not saying you have to do anything right now—or do anything at all. But maybe, keep an open mind if you can?"

Daphne looked down and turned her tea cup around in slow circles."I'm trying," she said. "And I do see that, how he's changed." She looked up. "Funnily enough, him being with you really brought that home to me. Is that weird?"

Her eyes flashed with a hint of humour and Hermione chuckled.

"Strangely, no."

"And you're really over each other?" The question came out slowly, as if Daphne were afraid of the answer.

Hermione spoke slowly too, her thoughts difficult to untangle. "To be perfectly honest, I'm still struggling with it. But I can't tell if it's because I'm lonely and miss my friend or if it's something more. And I think that says all I need to know about why we shouldn't be together that way."

"And if Draco were free?"

Hermoine closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.

"Ah."

"So you see?" Hermione held up her hands. "And I think it's the same for Theo. Now that you're free. If you were willing."

Daphne looked down and Hermione saw her dash a finger at her eye.

"But Theo told me that Draco's… hurt you … so much. Pushed you away. Been cruel at times. How does one—how do you get over that? Open yourself up again?" Daphne's voice was thick with tears and Hermione knew she was asking about more than just Draco.

"I don't know. Or know if I could. But I guess I would try to listen to him with an open mind? See if there was an explanation. Or let him show me that he's changed? I think that's all any of us can do." Hermione watched out the window. The owls were starting to swoop past the rising moon and the first stars were winking to life in the deep purple sky.

"Although sometimes that's not even enough," she said quietly, wiping a tear from her own eye.

Then she straightened, looking back at Daphne and trying to steady her voice. "So I really don't know how I'd feel if I were in that position. And I can barely let myself imagine it at this point."

She twisted her fingers together, almost painfully.

"But I'd give anything for a chance."

Chapter Text

Draco had had one of those dreams.

He hadn't even meant to doze off. But a drink in front of his fireplace to calm himself before the unity class meeting had somehow drifted into sleep. And sleep had delivered the dream. (In his bed in San Cipriano, her on top, until he'd thrown her off and flipped her over. Tasted her ripeness until she'd begged him to fuck her. And he'd obliged, driving into her from behind as she buried her screams in a pillow.)

Funny that while his waking body yearned for Astoria, his dreams were only ever of Hermione.

Something about having all of his outward desire for her constricted had made his inner life utterly filthy. Not that any of what he'd dreamt was make-believe. They'd had an afternoon almost exactly like the one in the dream.

He sighed heavily. And now he was late: hurrying up to the classroom still groggy and half-asleep. He hadn't even been able to have a wank before he'd left.

So this was going to go well.

Draco shook his head and put on a burst of speed to mount the stairs to the fourth floor. He seriously needed to put the dream out of his head if he was going to be able to tolerate this meeting.

Pushing the door open, he was surprised to find the classroom dark and empty. He'd been certain she'd be here already—look up at him and then the clock with that slightly exasperated dip to her mouth…

He flicked his wand at the lights as he strode to the front of the classroom and dropped into a seat. A couple of deep, centering breaths did absolutely nothing to abate his raging desire, so he rooted through his bag for his notes. Amazingly, he'd actually prepared for this—on one of the long, boring days at the manor over the holiday. He'd put some real thought into a possible structure for the class and had some ideas he was actually, in some pathetically optimistic part of himself, eager to share with Hermione. Although his more rational side doubted how much the spell would let him do or say.

Finally, he got all his notes out and arranged, then bent over them with a quick eye. He glanced up at the clock and crossed his arms. Stuck his legs out and crossed them too. Closed his eyes and tried again to will the dream from his mind.

Instead he focused on tonight's challenge: the first time he'd be doing what he'd been avoiding for months—being alone with Hermione and talking to her. He didn't count the dress shop or the hall outside McGonagall's office. He'd had buffers then.

And even so, both had nearly killed him.

He truly had no idea how this was going to go. Would he be able to speak? And how would she be? He flashed on her flushed face in the dress shop again, the way she'd shifted self-consciously in the half-dark of that hallway.

He shifted too.

A small, petty part of him was sure she still wanted him—and was thrilled by it. Even though he knew he'd gone beyond the pale with his various rejections of her. And despite bloody Theo.

His foot tapped a rapid tattoo on the floor.

Although—he stopped tapping—he could swear she and Theo hadn't been together much lately.

Despite trying not to, he watched her. Often. Marked her presence and absence. Listened for her voice and breathed for a soft whiff of her scent. Which was how he'd gotten suspicious about Theo's intentions long before he'd seen them fucking kissing in the common room.

He clenched a fist and beat it softly down on his thigh.

Inhaled and exhaled.

But Hermione had been absent a lot lately. Holed up in the library studying, he suspected. He knew she was taking an ungodly number of N.E.W.T.s.

And she hadn't been with Theo.

In fact, he'd seen Theo with Daphne more than Hermione. Unsurprising considering what Astoria had told him this week about Daphne finally breaking up with Corner. Was Theo on the make again? New Year's Eve seemed to make more sense now. Although Draco had to admit that Theo's behaviour had seemed aboveboard. Nothing like his juggling act in San Cipriano.

Draco still didn't trust him, though.

He rolled his neck and made an impatient sound. Who knew what it all meant? And ultimately it didn't matter anyway. He was still struck in this hell with no way out.

He let that dismal thought cool his heated blood for a moment before opening his eyes and tipping his head back to see the clock again. She was ten minutes late. Astounding. He should send out a search party.

But then he heard a noise from the doorway. Maybe an indrawn breath? Maybe just the shuffle of a light step. But he straightened immediately, almost got out of his bloody chair for some reason.

She was there. In the doorway. Her eyes on him, but somewhere south of his face. Her lips were parted and that flush was staining her jaw again. She swallowed visibly.

Draco fought an extremely irrational urge to smile.

Eyes up here, Granger.

But then she moved and he snapped out of it.

Idiot. She'd probably gotten caught up snogging her fucking boyfriend.

"Sorry! Sorry, I'm late," she was saying, rushing down the aisle and dropping into a desk a few away from his. "I was in the library reading a primary source and it was… very engaging. And I lost track of time because I was in that table in the far corner where you can't see the clock. And I somehow forgot to wear my watch today—" She was bent over now, rooting around in her bag. And she was wearing tight muggle jeans—of course, he'd noticed them earlier. They'd probably inspired the bloody dream. "But I do have some of what I think are very good ideas—several tracks that we can look at and then decide which to try. Although I do want to see what you've done too…" Draco tried to force his attention to her words, but then she bent all the way over to retrieve a quill and his mind went straight back to the filthiest gutter, where he was pushing the jeans down, pushing her over a desk. He snapped it back with some effort. "Because I really think we can do right by the kids this term. If we put our minds to it. Give them something lasting to walk away with and also satisfy McGonagall." She was straightening up now, turning to face him, although her eyes weren't quite on him. "Do you have something too? Do you want to start or shall I go first?"

Draco opened his mouth. Closed it.

Gods, was he going to be able to bloody speak?

But no, it was lust and not the spell drying his throat. He cleared it.

"I do have some ideas too," he said, surprised that his voice was relatively clear. He sat up and uncrossed his legs, tried to focus on the mundanity of unity class planning instead of the shadow of her eyelashes on her cheek or the way her pink tongue darted out to wet her lips.

"I worked on it over break. But let's hear yours." He tilted his head.

She looked at him for a moment and he could swear her blush deepened.

Then she jumped up and bustled to the blackboard, reaching for the chalk and starting to write at a point far above her head. She was saying something—talking quickly like before—about theoretical lectures and practical applications, but Draco was having trouble listening again.

Her top had pulled up. A filmy, floaty thing. Had she been wearing it all day? Or had she changed? He could have sworn she had the green jumper on earlier. It brought out the gold in her eyes. But now he could see an outline of her figure underneath the transparent fabric, then a slip of smooth skin and slim waist, curving away down to her perfect—

"So? What do you think?"

She was blinking at him expectantly. And there was text on the board. Shit, she wanted a response. Draco read it quickly and scrambled to produce a coherent answer.

"I like that approach," he hedged, still trying to take in words and assimilate them into thoughts. "Replicating your house common room lesson structure, yes. And it, ah, actually goes with what I had come up with too." He rose and went to the board almost unconsciously. Her dark eyes tracked him as he moved closer and he forgot what he'd been coming over to say.

He stopped and just looked at her, then shook his head the slightest bit.

"Ah, working toward a culminating project. That's what I'd come up with. Something the students could build over the whole term and present to the rest of the school at the end." Thank fuck he'd found his mental functions again.

Her eyes lit. "That's a wonderful idea! And it could dovetail with mine. We could use my structure to build into yours."

She moved closer and he could sense the excitement crackling off of her. The spark of her intelligence and enthusiasm. God, he loved it. Loved her. He couldn't help looking into her eyes as she smiled into his.

And then he felt it so strongly—that pull between them. The one that had started as a faint tug toward a girl in a red dress on a sunny afternoon in Italy, then grown into something he couldn't escape. Had never wanted to escape.

The smile faded from her face. "Draco—" she said, just as he started to speak too, needing to say something to diffuse the sudden flood of longing that had made him almost lightheaded.

He stopped and she stopped. "No, you go," she said quietly. The first thing Draco tried to say had his throat closing, so he changed tack.

"I was just going to ask." He cleared his throat as he tried to navigate to safer waters. "If you'd outlined subjects for the structure or if you wanted to brainstorm."

Did her face fall a little as she said, "Oh. Right," and turned back to the board?

"I have some ideas," she said as she picked up the chalk again.

Of course she did.

"But," she smiled over her shoulder. "Let's brainstorm anyway."

He felt an almost smile lift the corner of his mouth in return. God, he loved her.

They worked for a while, Draco riffling through his extensive (to her amused surprise) notes and Hermione making his ideas better with her additions. He began to catch her enthusiasm, feel excited about the class and what they could do with it almost in spite of himself. She covered the board with scrawl as they went back and forth, their ideas taking slow shape, then getting more focused and usable.

Draco realised he felt good. Better than he'd felt in a long time.

And he was able to speak, clearly and without restraint. He supposed because they were keeping the discussion so focused on the class. And his mind was really present too. Not that his earlier lust had exactly abated, but he'd been able to put it aside.

At least until she touched him.

It happened as they were talking about the final project, a model for an integrated muggle-magical school. How long the students would need to do it—organisation, curriculum, design. Draco had somehow taken over writing, listing out everything they wanted to include, and Hermione was stuck on something, couldn't find it in her notes and couldn't remember it. She was tapping her chin and frustrated. But then he saw it come to her.

"I have it!" she crowed, moving forward and casually taking the chalk from his hand. And the second her skin touched his, time seemed to slow down. Her hand stilled and her fingers stopped, then dragged across his slowly, almost like a caress. He looked down at them, amazed that he wasn't jerking backward or acting like his skin had been scalded. He looked up at her face, her mouth slightly open as she looked down too. Then she blinked and caught the chalk away and the moment was over.

But Draco was rattled.

And he could tell she was too.

Why had they been able to touch? And how delicious it had been to touch her. He almost wanted to laugh at how much one trace of her finger across his knuckles could ignite him when he'd been inside of her, tasted her. Dreamed about it in great detail not a bloody hour ago.

All of a sudden, his desire was back like a leaping flame.

And when he swayed toward her, caught in a gust of it, just trying to feel her breath or the warmth off her body, the spell did drag him back. He found himself shying away, moving almost mechanically to his desk, where he sat with a scrape of his chair.

She looked at him and put down the chalk.

What was in that look?

Something tentative but intense. Something significant.

What was going on?

He saw her waiver there—deciding something, he was sure of it—before she closed her eyes quickly and then opened them wide.

"Well, I think that's a lot to start with," she said brightly, too brightly, going back to her desk and starting to pick up her book bag. "We don't have to work out every detail tonight and I think our first four classes are well-organised." She looked back at the board and nodded.

Draco felt disappointment sink him, but when he tried to open his mouth and ask, 'What were you about to say, Hermione?' his vocal cords constricted. So he just nodded.

She nodded back, still struggling with her book bag, which seemed particularly stuffed. He started to ask her how her N.E.W.T. studying was going (surely the spell would allow that), when the bag displaced her notes, which fluttered toward the floor. She reached out with a cry and Draco reached down too. The bag, already balanced precariously on her desk, fell over, and a great quantity of texts tumbled to the ground.

 

A Practical Guide to Magical Bindings

Mysterious Magic; Closely Guarded Pureblood Customs & Spells

Philpott's Law of Contracts and Bindings

Marriage Customs of 19th Century Wizarding Britain

Engagement and Marriage Bindings; A Feminist Perspective

 

He gasped, he couldn't help it.

Time froze again.

Then, "Draco, I—" Her hand shot out and her eyes were stricken. But then she slowly pulled her hand back and placed it gently in her lap.

And that was all the confirmation he needed.

He opened his mouth to say something, anything. But the spell cut him off. Brutally. He'd never felt it so strong.

"I know," she said softly, holding up her hand again, but not trying to touch him. "And I know it's difficult for you to speak. To me. About this." She gestured to the books on the floor and then started to gather them up. It was a marker of how stunned Draco was that he didn't bend to help her.

He felt tears start to his eyes.

He'd never wanted this. Never wanted her to know when there was nothing that could be done. But the relief was so great.

He opened his mouth again. No sound.

"Don't try to talk," she said, looking up as she reached for the last of the books. "I'll just tell you what I know. What I've been doing."

And then she outlined the most outrageous story. Theo telling her what he'd heard. After their fight. Against self-interest. Draco could hardly believe it.

"And I've been researching since," she said. "So I know something about the intent and communication issue. I know that Astoria probably needs to be the one to end it. But she can't for some reason. I know you can't tell me why—or even discuss it at all with me. I doubt she could either. And I know," she went on, spreading her hands, "that you've probably been over all of this. Before you got to school. And not found a solution. At least I think so. Hope so." She looked guardedly at him. "I like to think you wouldn't have acted—the way you've acted—unless all of this were true."

Draco had never wanted to speak more. To reassure her. Of course. Of course I wouldn't have, because I love, love, love you. So much. But he couldn't even shake his head or nod. He was physically frozen. The most terrifying feeling. Fucking Voldemort. Fucking spell.

He hoped she could see what he wanted to say in his eyes.

"But I'm going to keep looking," she was saying. "Keep trying. I fancy I'm rather persistent and good at this kind of thing." She gave him a swift smile and Draco felt warmer than he'd been since Italy.

He took a breath, tried to calm his racing heart, contend with the warring feelings in his chest.

"Theo won't like it." Gods, those were the words he was able to get out? He flushed with embarrassment.

She stilled. Looked down. Fumbled with the strap of her bag. "Theo and I are, uh, no longer romantically involved."

He could see that her face was as red as his, but he could hardly register it through the fierce joy that was suddenly singing through his veins.

"It was a mutual decision." She looked up defiantly. "And we're still friends. Very much so."

But that didn't even bother Draco. He was soaring. Surely she could sense the euphoria vaulting from his very soul.

She glanced at the clock. "Shit, I have to go! The social committee meeting started ten minutes ago!" But Draco sensed she was overwhelmed, that she needed to get out of the room. And that was fine; he'd run out on her enough times.

He was able to nod and she swept up out of her seat. "You'll grab the notes from the board?" she asked as she turned away.

He nodded again and she darted for the door.

"Hermione?" he managed to say just before she left, his voice the merest rasp.

She turned halfway, but didn't look at him.

"Thank you," he whispered.

She bobbed her head once before hurrying away.

Draco couldn't move for several minutes. Just sat there breathing the faint odor of chalk dust and wood polish while the clock ticked on.

But then he moved with a jerk, surging out of his chair and pointing his wand at the blackboard to copy and erase the text there. He spelled it absently to a parchment and stuffed it in his bag, then rushed for the door.

He needed to be moving. Running.

Down the stairs he clattered, out into the darkness of the freezing winter night, away from the castle and across the lawn. Not toward the pitch and his broom, but the other direction—to the lake, his bag bumping against his hip and his lungs burning as he went.

He made it to the shore and kept going, following the slippery path around the dark curve of the water until he could barely see the turrets of the castle. Running and running until his breath gave out and he couldn't run anymore, until finally he stopped, wheezing and doubling over.

A hoarse laugh, of all things, ripped from his throat and echoed out over the rippling blackness.

She knew.

She was helping him.

Joy and despair warred within.

In so many ways, this was exactly what he didn't want—Hermione battering herself against the problem with no solution.

And yet the feeling of her being on his side?

Pure elation.

Possibly bolstered by the idea that she wasn't with Theo anymore.

He laughed again, the sound definitely tinged with hysteria, and put his head in his hands. Felt the warmth of tears rolling down his cheeks as his shoulders shook, and he slowly dropped to his knees.

Draco felt about a hundred years old as he let himself into his bedroom. He was also chilled to the bone, his jumper and warming charm having been no match for running so far around the lake that it had taken him nearly an hour to walk back to the castle.

And he was tired. So tired. But also buzzing with a sort of ragged energy.

He fidgeted around his room, draining the watery dregs of his Negroni (the last of the San Cipriano supplies used up), then peering at the glass before putting it down. It felt like a hundred years ago that he'd drunk this and dozed in front of the fire.

Even the memory of his dream couldn't rouse him out of his strange mood.

Sitting heavily on his bed, he pointed his wand at the gently smoldering grate, conjuring a flickering fire from embers then chafing his frozen hands together in its faint warmth.

Snippets of earlier with Hermione raced through his mind. Her face when she looked up from the spilled books, her words so quiet and determined, the moment when she'd touched him and he'd been able to let her.

What was he going to do now? To resist?

He'd built up such a wall earlier in the year, created distance between them so effectively. Swathed himself in the numbness of resignation.

And then she'd been with Theo and numbness hadn't been possible, but the pain and anger had made it easier to stay away.

But even that hadn't worked.

He thought of their last unity class, the dress shop, the first day back here after the holiday. He'd obviously failed again and again to fall out of love with her. It had been waiting, like the embers in his fireplace, to jump into flame.

And now. And  now.

He sighed heavily, then flung up and walked to his window.

But this was also exactly what he'd been trying to avoid: Hermione getting involved and being unable to leave it alone, leave him alone and move on with her life. Because he'd done the research and he knew the magic—and the circumstances.

And he knew that it was impossible.

There was no way out.

He wiped at a smudge on the glass. Maybe he should go up to the 8th floor and get the Ogdens…

Then a whooshing sound from his fireplace had him turning in surprise.

"How's my favourite depressed bastard?" A cool voice sounded from flames that had suddenly turned green.

Improbably, a smile tugged at Draco's lips. He turned to the now-roaring fire. "Fucking twat, where have you been?" he said, crouching down to get a look at Blaise Zabini's smirking face.

"Oh you know. Here and there. Mostly there," Blaise said. "Been fucking mental, actually. I'm so fagged I don't know what time zone I'm in."

"That gig in Dubai still giving you trouble?"

"Bloody hell, yes." Draco could see Blaise lean back and shake his head. "I'll be so glad when it's done." He leaned forward again. "But enough about me. I'm fine. I'm calling to check in on you. How are you doing?" His cool mask dropped and concern creased his brow. "You look like shit, actually."

"Thanks." Draco said, pulling his desk chair around to face the fire and sinking into it. "I've had a bit of a day."

"Spell fucking with you?"

"You could say that."

"What happened?" Blaise leaned forward again.

"What hasn't happened?" Draco sifted through the events of the few weeks since he'd last talked to Blaise, trying to pick out what to tell. One extremely small bright spot in all of this was that the spell did not seem to recognize Blaise as a threat, so Draco could talk to him about almost everything.

"Let's see," Draco tipped his chair back and folded his arms. "My mother knows about Hermione and me, and offered her help. Lucius also knows, but is being decidedly unhelpful. I almost killed Theo on New Year's Eve because I thought he was cheating on Hermione with Daphne. I had to return to this fucking hell on earth," —he gestured around him— "and I found out tonight that Hermione knows about the spell because bloody Theo told her. So she's now researching how to break it. Oh, and she and Theo have uh, parted ways." He smiled humourlessly into Blaise's shocked face.

"Mother. Fucker." Blaise blinked several times. "Hermione knows and they broke up. That's got to be a relief."

"I guess." Draco passed a hand over his face. "A very small part of me wishes she didn't and they hadn't."

"You've got to be bloody joking. I recall very distinctly the precise degree of your… displeasure when you found out about them."

"I don't want her to be unhappy."

"Is she? Did Theo fuck around on her?"

"I don't think he did. She said it was mutual and that they're still friends. And he claims he didn't. He seemed very, ah, offended at the mere suggestion he'd do that to her. That I made on New Year's Eve."

Blaise let out a low chuckle. "Did you make this suggestion with your wand or your fists?"

"Tried with both, but Lucius took our wands and Theo explained before we quite got to fists." Draco looked to the side. "There was a bit of shoving, though."

Blaise's shoulders shook.

"And you believe him," he finally said.

"I guess?" Draco ran a hand into his hair. "But Astoria told me Daphne broke up with that wanker she was dating, so it's hard not to see a connection."

"Hmm, yeah. Theo was always mad for Daph." Blaise nodded slowly. "But, sounded as if he and Hermione were also…"

"Right." Draco cut him off.

"You could have just told him about the spell. I told you to. He could have been there for you and stayed away from her."

Draco blew out a sigh. "I know. But I wanted him to be there for her."

"Just not maybe that much?" Blaise's voice still held a hint of laughter.

Draco seriously considered dousing the floo for a moment before breaking into a rather painful smile. "Have I told you lately what an arsehole you are?" he asked.

"Hey, someone has to lift you out of these melancholy moods," Blaise said.

Draco made a rude gesture at him.

"And both Lucius and Narcissa know now? That's insane." Blaise shook his head.

"Yes, and are at cross-purposes, it appears."

Blaise blew out a laugh. "My money's on Narcissa."

"Yeah? Well mine's on Lucius." Any urge to laugh or smile left Draco completely. "He holds all the cards right now."

"Right," Blaise said. "I suppose he does. Unless Narcissa has enough gold to—"

"She doesn't. He made that clear."

"But she has the means to pull strings."

Draco rubbed his chin and looked away. "I can't let myself rely on that."

"I wouldn't say it's a sure bet, no. But maybe a reason to not lose hope completely? Plus you've got Granger looking at the problem now."

"With all due respect to Hermione's intelligence and er, tenacity, I doubt she's going to find anything Astoria and I didn't," Draco said. "She doesn't even have the resources I had—the family records. She's looking at bloody law texts and books about social conventions. And I can't tell her anything about how it happened. Who cast the bloody spell." He gave Blaise a dark look.

"Yeah." Blaise took a big breath. "The odds aren't great."

"And time's fucking running out too. Lucius and Cygnus are planning a June wedding."

"Fuck. Better get my dress robes pressed."

"Yes, I'll expect you to stand up with me. Otherwise I won't get through it."

"I'll be there."

Draco put a hand over his face. "Bloody fucking hell," he groaned. "Can I just make it to the end of the school year?" He looked up at Blaise. "I have this idea like, once it's done—once I'm away from here and away from her, it will be better? Because there will be no hope and I'll just be forced to move on."

"I'm not sure it works that way, mate."

"Fuck. I know." Draco leaned back in his chair and sighed.

Blaise was quiet and Draco sat up, peered at him through the flames. He realised Blaise looked down as well as fatigued. "Are you really OK?" Draco asked, a twinge of guilt plucking at him. His problems were so huge they often seemed to take up all the room in his head. He was sure he'd been a shit friend lately.

Blaise stretched and rolled his shoulders. "Eh," he said after a moment.

"What?" Draco frowned at him.

Blaise looked to the side. "I'm too busy. Not enjoying life right now. And I, uh, miss Lav," he finally said, sounding like the words were difficult to get out. And Draco knew they were. Blaise was not big on sharing his feelings.

"Shit," Draco said. "I'm sorry. I should have asked sooner."

Blaise waved a hand. Draco could tell he already regretted speaking.

"Have you talked to her?" Draco asked, deciding to press on anyway. "Or seen her at all?"

"Nah. We decided to do a clean break thing. Well, she decided. I've been trying to respect that."

"Right." Draco nodded. "Well, I saw her. Over the holiday. At her shop."

"You did?" Blaise straightened in his chair and his look sharpened. "How was she?"

"I barely spoke to her." Draco cast back in his memory. He had been so totally befuddled at that moment in time: his head in turmoil, his body acutely aroused, his mother and Hermione in the same room… He brushed through all that to recall Lavender's face as she'd walked in and taken in his presence. He snorted, "She wasn't very happy to see me."

Blaise smirked. "Not surprised."

"Right. And Hermione was there too. Working in the shop over the holiday, I think."

"Hermione was there?" Baise whistled low. "That must have been a scene."

"And my mother." Blaise's mouth dropped open and Draco shook his head. "Long story. But yes, it was a moment." He coughed a dry laugh. "But Lavender looked well. Through the daggers she was staring at me. Maybe you should contact her."

"Eh, she's asked me not to."

"But if you miss her…" Draco realised the pang he was feeling was sadness—at another San Cipriano connection just dissolving—touched with jealousy that the only thing separating Blaise and Lavender was a request.

Blaise shrugged. "I miss those days," he finally said, seeming to read Draco's thoughts. "Lazing in the sun. Popping by to see Lav and then you. Getting to know Granger. Even Theo. We three had some nice nights sharing a bottle or two." His dark eyes flashed to Draco's.

"Yeah." The pang grew to an ache, dull and persistent. "We didn't know how good we had it."

"I'm surprised at him." Blaise's voice was soft. "That he told her about you. Especially if he had, has, feelings for her…"

Draco held his gaze for a long moment. He'd been wrestling with this too and suspected he would need some more time with it. He had no idea what to think about Theo. How to classify him. The anger toward him was still there, and the overpowering envy, but it was tempered by…something…now.

"He was never much of a Slytherin," he finally said.

Blaise broke into genuine laughter and Draco smiled fleetingly.

"Well," Blaise said, looking over his shoulder. "I should probably go and eat something. Didn't have dinner yet."

"Mate, it's after ten here!"

"Told you I've been busy."

"Well, maybe you should take a break. Meet up with me in London."

"Could do," Blaise said. "Or here in Paris. I could set up a Portkey out of London for you. I'll be grounded here most of next month."

"That would be ace. I actually wanted to talk to you about living there. After all this" —Draco waved a hand— "is over. Or started. Whatever."

Blaise nodded. "That's an idea. You think Astoria would go for it? And Lucius?"

Draco shrugged. "My life's not my own."

"Understatement," Blaise said with a grimace.

Draco blew out a breath. "Anyway. Go. Get some food," he said. "I'll be in touch soon."

"We'll definitely do something," Blaise nodded. "It's been too long."

"Cheers," Draco said as the flames went dark.

He tipped back in his seat again, supporting his neck as he gazed through the window at the bright stars pricking the black sky. Scenes from the day tumbled through his mind and he shifted, letting his head drop into his cupped hands.

The things he wanted seemed nearer than ever, and yet never more far away.

Chapter Text

"Thank you for having a glass of wine with me on this depressing Valentine's evening." Hermione raised a bubbling flute toward the floo flames, where Lavender was sitting next to an open box of chocolates and her own bottle of wine.

"Cheers, darling. Wish we were together in person!" Lav said, taking a sip.

"I know. I just couldn't with this study schedule, though," Hermione said. "I've been so distracted that I'm six days behind my project plan!" She buried the wave of panic this caused in a drink of her wine.

Lavender laughed. "Oh, my poor petal. Luckily, my mind is put at ease by the fact that I'm sure your study goals are not only overly-ambitious, but that you've built at least 10 days of padding into your timeline, so are not actually behind at all."

Hermione looked to the side and Lav's laugh sounded again.

"I'm right," Lavender crowed. "Just relax and have a drink with me. We haven't talked in ages and I need all the news. That owl you sent me last month was woefully inadequate."

"Well, how did I know that you'd be off on the continent skiing for two weeks?"

"I wasn't skiing the whole time! I skied for a long weekend, which I did have to extend by a few days due to weather conditions. But I was on a work trip the second week. In Paris to see the spring collections."

"Ooh lala." Hermione waved her glass. "That sounds glamorous."

"It was rather." Lav winked at her, then looked around. "Although you'd never know to look at me now. In my pyjamas on Valentine's Day, surrounded by Dairy Milk and sparkling wine that is definitely not Champagne."

"What happened to the guy you went skiing with?" Hermione asked. "Or the other two you had on the go at Christmas? I'm surprised you don't have someone in reserve for tonight."

"Well, Jens is still in Switzerland and those other two…" Lav wrinkled her nose. "I guess I've lost interest. Tends to happen with me, you know."

"Oh?" Hermione squinted through the flames. Did Lav look a little drawn? There was a distinct droop to her mouth and it really was strange for her to be in on Valentine's Day… "I rather liked the one who met us for lunch that last day."

"Georges? Yes, he's fine. Just. No spark, you know?" Lav said with a shrug. She picked up a chocolate and popped it in her mouth. Hermione watched her for a moment until Lav stopped chewing and said, "What?"

"Was Blaise in Paris?" Hermione asked.

Lav screwed up her face and sighed. "Yes."

"And?"

"I may have seen him at a party."

"And?"

"I may have been a little drunk."

"AND?"

"I may have very ostentatiously snogged someone in front of him."

Hermione grimaced. "Oof."

"Well, he showed up with this girl and she was so beautiful. I just. Panicked or something, I don't know." Lavender drained her glass and filled it again.

"Did you talk to him?"

"Not really. I mean, we said hello, but it was awkward. So awkward."

"Do you still have feelings for him? I thought you'd moved on…" Lav had at least said she'd moved on, although Hermione had had her doubts about that.

Lavender stilled, then sighed. "Unfortunately, yes. I think I do. Hence the panicking and snogging."

"And how was he? With you?"

Lav waved a hand. "Oh, you know Blaise. Cool, collected. Beautiful beyond anything earthly." She stared off into space. "I did wonder for a moment—"

"What?" Hermione leaned forward.

"Just. He seemed a little muddled when he first saw me. Asked me how I was twice in a row. Forgot to introduce his date/supermodel companion. Ariel." Lavender pronounced the name the French way, then rolled her eyes. "Anyway." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. It's all ancient history. And I want to hear about you!"

Hermione crossed her arms. "Lavender. We talk about me all the time."

"You have an exciting life! And I do want to know what's new." Lav craned her neck toward the flames. "Seriously, I don't want to talk about Blaise. It just depresses me."

Hermione blinked at her until Lavender made an impatient gesture. "OK!" Hermione relented. "Well, I have a baby brother as of 10 days ago. Henry. He's very small. And red. And loud."

"Oh my goodness! That's amazing! Were your parents able to floo or something?"

"No, Theo drove me into one of the muggle towns near here and I called them from a telephone. And they owled me some photos."

"How lovely. A baby. Wow." Lav shrugged and Hermione laughed.

"I know. What do you say about a baby? Perhaps I'll get to go see him after school ends." To be honest, Hermione didn't quite know how to feel about having a tiny sibling. It seemed surreal somehow.

"Right," Lav said, obviously picking up on Hermione's confused feelings about the whole thing. "And an outing with Theo? Alone?"

"Yesss."

"And how did that go?"

"OK, I guess. Also a touch awkward to start. It's made me realise how our little trips in the autumn were really just building up to what eventually happened between us. We're sort of learning how to be 'just friends' for real this time."

"Mmm." Lavender ate another chocolate. "I could see that. And how is it going? Did you tell him about the big reveal with Draco?" She shook her head. "Still can't believe all that."

"I know. And I did."

"How did he take it?" Lavender's voice was soft and Hermione flashed back to sitting next to Theo on a stone wall, near the top of the hill they'd hiked up. She'd been strangely reluctant to tell him that Draco knew. It seemed so final somehow. A confirmation that all that had passed between them was in the past.

"So I told Draco," she said, passing Theo a bit of apple she was slicing with her pocket knife.

"You did?" His eyes were wide and blue as he accepted the fruit. He put it in his mouth then nodded slowly as he chewed.

"It was sort of an accident." Hermione stared out at the glen stretching before them, "He saw some of my research texts and figured it out."

"He was able to talk about it?"

"No, not exactly. But I could tell. He was obviously… affected."

"I'm sure." There was a note in Theo's voice that caused Hermione to look at him quickly. He looked back at her and his eyes were troubled for the briefest moment. Then he smiled, a bit sadly. "Remember, I never thought he fell out of love with you."

Hermione smiled too, also a bit sadly. "He knows it was you," she said. "Who told me."

Theo nodded slowly out at the distance, but didn't say anything more.

Hermione brought her eyes back to Lavender's. "It was fine. He was fine. Supportive." But she thought again of Theo's troubled gaze.

"Wonder if he and Draco will ever work out their differences."

Hermione shook her head. "I don't know. Although now that Draco knows Theo was the one who told me…" She put her palms up and shrugged.

"But there's a fairly big hurdle there as well," Lavender said. "Of you, you know, being involved with Theo, possibly sleeping with Theo, and that driving Draco absolutely spare."

"Yeah, but maybe he doesn't care about that. Maybe he's moved on from us—distinct from the binding. It's hard to know when he can't speak." Hermione gave voice to the doubts that assailed her on a daily basis.

"Oh, please." Lavender scoffed audibly. "He cares. He cares so much he can bloody taste it, I guarantee you. We know now it was the spell holding him back!"

"That's a theory. But I don't have confirmation. Of any of that." Hermione felt categorically unable to hang her hat on some heated looks and one graze of the knuckles.

"Granted I haven't seen you and Draco together, but I'd still bet my favorite red boots that he's gagging for it. And just as in love with you as he's ever been." Lavender pointed a finger at Hermione, then glugged some more wine into her glass. "Need I remind you about the scarf?"

"I don't know." Hermione worried her lip. "He's been distant since I told him." If anything Draco had been even less visible than usual. Although a spate of clear weather after the weeks of sleet and rain had meant the school had gone Quidditch-mad. Hermione had barely seen Ginny either, though they had a date to go flying together soon.

But she had caught Draco looking at her again. A few times. Really looking, like he hadn't since some time around Halloween.

And Hermione had certainly been looking at him. In fact, their touch seemed to have unlocked something she'd kept tamped tightly down since that awful day in the small glen. Like a switch had been flipped—like the first time he'd come into the cafe in San Cipriano in his motorcycle gear and she'd given in to that gush of pure, unadulterated lust. The one that had flared into being at the Pools, before she'd even known who he was.

That feeling had escaped again. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't seem to stuff that back in its box.

Their first Unity class of the term had been excruciating. Hermione had been highly distracted (mentally and physically) the whole time. And even though they'd stayed strictly to the lesson plan and let nothing of a personal nature pass between them, she'd gone back to her room and thought about Draco all night. Remembered and relived things she'd been pushing away until she'd finally given in to the need for release, fingers slipping over her wetness as that frantic time against the tree in the meadow played like a brightly coloured film in her mind.

But ultimately, a few looks from him and her escalating lust was not much to go on.

"The scarf is not much to go on," she said to Lavender, who was squinting at her through the flames.

Lavender made a skeptical noise and selected another chocolate. "Tell me about when you touched him," she said. "I've been thinking about that ever since you mentioned it—with an unacceptable lack of detail, I might add—in your letter. So don't leave anything out."

"Well, it was strange," Hermione said, reaching back in her memory to that surprising moment. "I was so nervous when I got to the classroom that night. I was late and he was all stretched out at one of the desks. Arms crossed, head back, eyes closed."

"Mmm, nice," Lav said with a lift of her brows.

"Yeah." Hermione nodded. "So needless to say, I was flustered. And he seemed distracted too. The whole interaction was just… distracting. I hadn't been that close to him, alone, in such a long time. But, we were getting past that. Talking about the class rather freely." She smiled. "He had some great ideas. He'd really thought about it. It was lovely to hear his voice again."

"Awww."

"And then I was trying to remember something that had slipped my mind. And he was writing on the board when it finally came to me, so I just sort of reached out"—Hermione mimed the action—"to take the chalk from his hand. And when I touched him…" She pulled her hand back slowly and looked at it. "It was like electricity. But not the bad, zappy kind—not like before when he jerked back from me. It was like heat from my fingers met something similar in his skin. And I wasn't repelled and he didn't pull away. We stayed like that for a few seconds." Hermione's voice trailed off as she let herself fall into the memory.

"Wow," Lavender said after a few seconds. "Sounds like it was really something."

Hermione nodded.

"And he didn't pull away. When you touched him," Lav continued slowly, like she was thinking it through.

Hermione looked at her and then froze. "When I touched him. Wait!" She jerked forward. "Maybe that's what was different."

"You touched him instead of him touching you!"

"Of course." Hermione was up now, moving toward her tower of reference books. "The spell can't control me. It can only control him." She pulled a large tome from the middle of the stack and flipped through. Not that she needed to look it up. It was a basic rule of bindings, that they only acted on the principals unless expressly cast to bind others. And even in those cases, the additional participants had to be specified and usually present at the casting. It was why marriage bindings often involved restrictions on communication to people that threatened the union; they couldn't control those people directly.

Hermione read the relevant section aloud to Lavender, who gasped. "Blimey. So you can touch him all you want."

"But if he touches me back, he's repelled. God, it makes so much sense!" Hermione felt like smacking herself, it was so obvious.

"So you could like, go up to him and take his hand. Or kiss him! Kiss him anywhere." Lav said, her brows flicking up and down.

"I guess so, yes," Hermione said, suddenly inundated with images and ideas. Kissing Draco's neck or his chest, that place on his wrist that was so sensitive. She coughed and pulled herself back to the conversation. "Although he couldn't do anything in return. The moment he did that, we'd be—" Hermione made a gesture like two forces pushing apart.

"Right." Lavender stared into space. "I wonder if you could have sex?"

"LAVENDER BROWN!"

"What? It's a logical conclusion!"

"There is a question of consent!"

"All he'd have to do if he didn't consent is like, brush a pinky against you and you'd be zinged across the room. Besides, as I said, he's gagging for it." Lavender pointed her wine glass at Hermione.

"You are insane!" Hermione slammed her book shut. "There's no way I'd have sex with someone who couldn't move or respond."

"I don't know. Might be kind of hot. You on top and him just—"

"We are not having this conversation."

"Just saying. Some people seek this kind of thing out. Jens took me to this bondage club in muggle London—"

"That is totally different," Hermione said, half-laughing in horrified fascination at the workings of Lavender's mind.

"Look, I'm just saying that if we could talk to Draco and ask him if he would rather not have sex with you or lay perfectly still while you did it, I think we all know what his answer would be."

"But we can't." Hermione leveled a look into the flames. "And you're drunk."

"I am not!"

Hermione peered closer. "You are. That bottle is gone and you opened it when we sat down."

Lavender looked at the bottle then looked at her empty glass and blew a raspberry at Hermione. "Whatever. But you really should test this theory."

"Which theory!?"

"The 'you can touch him even if he can't touch you' theory."

"Oh, OK." Hermione gave a relieved bark of laughter.

Lavender rolled her eyes. "Yes, like just go up to him and tap him on the shoulder. Or better yet, do one of those lingering touches on his bicep. Draco has such nice biceps," she sighed. "That one faded black t-shirt he used to wear in San Cipriano…?"

"Ooh, I know," Hermione said eagerly. "I loved that one. It's too cold here for him to wear t-shirts."

"Ugh. Is everyone all bundled up in those horrid robes?"

"No, we all stopped wearing them after the first couple of weeks. Perks of being an eighth-year."

"Good, at least you can still see his arse, then."

"Lavender!"

"What!? I'm drunk, remember?"

Hermione wiped a tear of laughter from her eye. "I should really go do some reading," she said. "Or go to bed and do it early tomorrow."

"All right. I might go watch something silly on that muggle TV you left here. Nice of Harry to let me have it."

"Harry, ugh. I haven't talked to him since new year. Or Ron," Hermione said, guilt pulling her mouth into a grimace. Sometimes it astounded her how long she could go without thinking of her two oldest friends when they'd spent so much of their lives seeing each other every day, and for that last few months of the war, every minute of every day. Perhaps they'd needed the distance."Hope they're OK," she finished lamely.

"Eh. They're fine. I saw Harry a few days ago," Lavender said. "He was having lunch with Oliver Wood." Her brows went up. "He looked good, happy. More relaxed than I've seen him."

"Oh?" That was interesting. She really did need to floo Harry and see if things had developed with Oliver.

"I can tell what's going on between them, you know," Lav said. "I'm sure you're supposed to be keeping it quiet—but I know about Harry and I can tell. They looked really happy together. You should call him."

Hermione opened her mouth, then closed it. Lavender and her perceptiveness…

"And I saw Ron!" Lav said before the silence stretched too long. "Actually I talked to Ron. Yesterday."

"Really?"

"Yes!" Lavender chortled. "He was outside the shop, of all places. Lingering at the window of the jewelry place next door. Looking lost. It turned out he wanted to buy something for Annika for today. So, I helped him."

"That was kind of you!"

"I know. It was hilarious. I appreciated the humour in the situation." Lavender smiled.

"It didn't make you feel bad at all?"

"No! I'm totally over all of that. It was actually really nice to be friendly in that way. Made me feel like all of that heartache is truly behind me. We picked out a nice little locket for her."

"That's lovely, Lav. You're such a good friend." Hermione tilted her head; she wished everything good for Lavender—that whatever was upsetting her about Blaise would blow over. Or he'd come to his senses and seek her out. She resolved to keep an eye on that situation and check in next time they talked.

Lavender tilted her head too. "So. Happy Valentine's Day?" she asked, screwing her face up.

"Happy as it can be, I guess, what with one boy moving on, the other unavailable and my only companions these books and study outlines," Hermione said, patting the formidable pile of papers on her desk. "At least I didn't get a card from Ernie." She laughed then shuddered. Ever since it had become public knowledge that she and Theo had broken up, she'd been getting a vibe from Ernie that she very much wanted to discourage.

"Oh, fuck no. Shut that down immediately." Lavender put up a hand as Hermione laughed again. "Anyway, I love you and I miss you. Let me know what happens with Draco. And the one-sided sex."

"LAVENDER!"

"Byeeeee!" Lav sang as she winked out of sight.

Hermione sat, staring at the now yellowish-orange flames. Lavender was completely mad, of course. Hermione couldn't imagine how strange it would be to try to… For one thing, it would be dangerous. He definitely wouldn't be able to stop himself from— She waved a hand in front of her face.

No. Just, no.

But to touch Draco again? To test this new theory? The idea snuck into her brain on a tendril of intrigue, but soon bloomed into a full-blown fantasy, complete with a flood of desire. Her mouth actually watered. She remembered how soft and smooth his skin was, the ridges of muscle and bone. To run her fingers—or her lips—over them again…?

But then she sat up straight in her chair. "No," she said out loud. She was not thinking this way. She was not. Some halfway version of Draco was worse than nothing at all.

Wasn't it?

Hermione made a sound of frustration and stood up. It was clearly time to study. In fact, she was going to read some very dry Arithmancy texts until they put all other thoughts out of her head, preferably until they put her completely to sleep.

Draco walked quickly, head down, on his way to the Quidditch pitch. He had a free hour of clear weather before it got dark and he meant to use it. Flying was the only thing that had kept him sane through all of this, and Scotland in February did not afford a lot of chances to do it. Especially when one had several N.E.W.T.s to prepare for. That in mind, Draco sped to an almost-jog as he rounded the path where it split off between the greenhouses and the pitch. He was moving so quickly, he nearly ran into someone coming the other direction.

"Sorry," he said as he pulled up short, dodging off the path to avoid a collision. He looked up and any further words froze on his lips.

Theo.

Standing with his hands up and a half-belligerent, half-tentative expression on his face.

Draco blinked at him and Theo looked back. They'd done an excellent job of avoiding each other thus far this term, but it seemed it couldn't last forever. They stood there grappling silently in time, so much tangling between them that Draco was surprised when a group of younger students pushed effortlessly down the path between them with no more than a muttered, "Pardon."

For his own part, Draco was struggling with the usual envy and hot anger he felt whenever he thought of Theo, but also feeling the effect of a tinge of gratitude…and possibly remorse? A very unsettling mixture. And he had no idea what was going through Theo's mind, but from his expression could guess at similar things. Maybe with the addition of some pity, though.

Odd. Odd and disturbing. He'd gotten so familiar with his anger at Theo and had no idea what to do with these new emotions.

Draco opened his mouth, but also had no idea what to say. So after a moment, he just nodded briefly and continued on his way. In the last second before he left, he saw Theo's look change to one of surprise and wondered if Hermione had told him that Draco knew. And knew about Theo's role.

Draco yanked open the door to the changing rooms and strode in. Not that any of it mattered. He did have to keep reminding himself of that. He'd had a long think on it the day after the night in the classroom after his first mad rush of feeling had subsided. He'd gone up to the 8th floor and paced his hideaway for a couple of hours. And he'd come to the conclusion that he had to act like nothing had changed. Because nothing really had. And if he let himself be happy that Hermione was no longer with Theo or hope because she knew about the spell, it was just going to be more devastating later, when he was standing at a bloody altar saying 'I do' to Astoria.

So he'd tried to keep his usual distance the last few weeks.

With mixed success.

Because in actuality, he couldn't help wondering what Hermione had found and what she thought about it all. If she still cared for him. Sometimes he could convince himself that she did—when he thought of her blushing at his glance or spending her precious study time to work on his problem. But other times—when he thought about how quickly things had happened between Theo and her, the way they'd looked when they'd kissed, or of that bloody sound from across the hall that cursed night—he was sure there was no way she still could. She'd obviously moved on and was helping him out of an outsized sense of duty, that part of her personality that couldn't help trying to help everyone. Especially lost bloody causes.

Draco finished buttoning his white trousers then sat and hung his head between his knees, stretching his spine and counting the penny tiles that stretched out across the changing room floor.

It was no good, though.

Even though he'd kept away, even if she no longer cared, he hadn't been able to stop caring for her. Longing for her. Loving her.

He laughed soundlessly. He never bloody had.

In fact, it had gotten worse since that night. He'd gotten careless. She'd caught him looking a couple of times. Caught him looking while he was fantasising. Which seemed to have intensified following the knowledge that she'd broken it off with Theo. And that touch. That lingering touch in the classroom had done more for his wank bank than anything since the dress shop.

He couldn't get it out of his head. Nor the natural continuations to what had started there. They were invading his mind daily, sometimes hourly. Making it difficult to study, impossible to sit in class and not to stare at her legs or the way she ran the tip of her quill over her lips.

Draco groaned and sat up.

Not that he only thought about her body. He also spent a fair amount of time imagining other times they'd spent together.

Riding his bike, sun on their backs and wind in their hair. Her arms around him and her laugh in his ear.

God, he missed it. He got up and pulled his jumper over his head, shouldered his broom. He missed her mind, missed her touch, missed Italy, missed his bloody bike as much as he'd missed flying before.

He pulled a glove on as he walked back out the corridor toward the pitch, his steps echoing in the empty space.

He also couldn't seem to stop himself imagining the future if by some miracle he extricated himself from this mess. Would they travel like they'd talked about? See the world before settling down somewhere? Live a lazy life in another quiet, beautiful place? Cook dinner as the evening sun slanted in through open windows?

Draco stopped and sagged against the wall.

Of course they fucking wouldn't.

Because he'd be married to Astoria in a few scant months, the spell that had bound them on that surreal night at the manor last spring come to irreversible fruition.

He closed his eyes, remembering Astoria's frightened face as the wisps of silvery magic had begun to twine around them in the air. His own alarm as he realised that something was happening, something he hadn't expected. Something that felt like it would make his words to her just before the ceremony—"We'll go through with it tonight, but we can break it off afterward. Even if we have to get divorced. I promise we'll do it. It will be fine."— meaningless.

A wave of dizziness came over him now as it had then, and he stayed against the wall, putting his fingers to his forehead. He remembered the magic wisping down his throat and burrowing under his skin, his mother's frightened face and his father's look of fury, quickly suppressed. Voldemort's small, cold smile. And then Astoria's eyes, huge on his, as they both seemed to understand that nothing would be the same, or 'fine', ever again.

Draco's other hand tightened on his broom and he breathed deeply, trying to calm himself. A noise sounded from down the corridor and he tensed. Someone was coming in; he heard the door open and a light step. Straightening from the wall and schooling his features, Draco pulled down the cool mask he affected most of the time and prepared to avoid eye contact. He focused his attention on his glove, shaking it once and shrugging back his robes so he could fit his hand into it.

The light step got closer and then faster after a muffled word. Draco again found himself on one side of an imminent collision as he rounded the corner to the exit. He stepped to the side, but it was too late. She was there and practically in his arms, her scent a sweet wave that stopped him in his tracks.

"Oh!" she reached out. "Sorry I wasn't looking where I was g—"

She was holding his hands again. Her bare skin on his, her strong fingers wrapped around his wrists to brace herself.

They stood there for a long moment, both frozen.

She should have let him go by now.

But she was looking down at where their hands were joined.

"Oh," she said again.

Of course Draco couldn't speak at all.

He could only look at where her thumb had just barely skittered across the top of his bare wrist.

She was still looking down and Draco still couldn't form words, although he wasn't sure if it was due to the spell or the drowning wave of pure want that had assailed his senses.

He grappled with the feeling, giving brief reign to a detailed image of pushing her against the corridor wall, kissing her, getting his knee between her legs and his hand beneath her shirt—

Her dark eyes finally dragged up to his. She watched him, and he was helpless to look at anything but her. Something arced between them and he heard her breath go out in the stillness of the deserted corridor. Her eyes dipped away, down his body, over his robes and his whites and his tall leather boots. Her breath pulled in again, louder this time.

Draco's heart felt like it stopped in his chest.

Hermione looked back up, into his eyes. Then she very deliberately turned his bare hand over (he let her of course, he was putty in her hands) and rubbed her thumb in a circle once, twice, three times over his sensitive inner wrist.

Draco's cock throbbed.

If it hadn't been for the spell, he would have moaned. As it was, he could only suck in a quick breath as his eyelids fluttered shut.

She made a sound then. Just the tiniest gasp and Draco thought he was going to lose it. He was about a hair's breadth away from grabbing her, spell be damned, when the door flung open and lively, shouting voices filled the corridor behind them.

She dropped his hand so quickly she almost flung it.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, voice thick with tears.

"N—" Draco tried to tell her not to be. Never be sorry for touching me, wanting me. But of course he bloody couldn't.

His throat closed and all he could do was watch her as she pushed past and hurried away. Stand there and wonder while a group of younger boys eddied around him, shouting to each other and jostling him as they passed.

Hermione drove her hands between her thighs and actually squeezed down on them, gritting her teeth and telling herself to stop, just stop this. Stop thinking about it and go to sleep.

Do not picture him, tall and lithe in his uniform.

The leather of his boots, his gloves, the one bare wrist.

Do not conjure the sound he made, or the look on his face, when she'd rubbed that wrist.

Do not, do not.

Don't think of today in Potions, when Slughorn had been talking about the "mating" of certain ingredients and her eyes had flown to his to see him watching her, lips parted and colour high.

Don't think of what Lavender said.

Don't remember nights, mornings, days in San Cipriano, feeling him move against her, inside of her.

Don't think of ladders or rain or a bright blond head tilting over her booted foot.

Do not, do not.

Do not picture that scarf, laying silently in a back drawer.

She squeezed her eyes shut and her hands tight.

But it didn't help. She was on fire. And she knew now that he was too.

Nothing, it seemed, helped.

Because now she was up and moving, out of bed and out the door. Down a dark corridor, down a flight of stairs, down another dark corridor.

If his room was dark she'd go back. It was late. He was probably asleep like most of the castle.

But his room wasn't dark. A thin sliver of soft white leaked from under the door. The only one alight in the row.

Her knuckles grazed once, twice.

"It's open," he said softly. Was he expecting someone? Hermione very nearly turned and ran away, but the same force that had gotten her to this point drove her on. She turned the knob, slipped in and closed the door behind her.

He looked up and his eyes widened.

He'd been bent over at his desk, writing in a black leather book, haloed in the light from a small lamp. Hair falling over his forehead. In what she was certain (had been certain all day) was the cream linen shirt he'd worn to that first party in San Cipriano, when they'd been dancing around each other, but she'd already been so far gone.

His sleeves were pushed up and his stockinged feet were curled under the rungs of his chair. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. He turned in the chair and his quill dropped from his fingers.

"I want to try something," she said, her voice a mere wisp in the utterly silent room.

He blinked, rapidly, and she saw a pulse jump in his throat.

She stepped forward. "You'll have to stay still," she said.

She reached him, her knees nearly touching his. "And if you don't want me to. You just have to say. I expect you'd be able to. Or touch me and you'll be pushed back. Prevented. At least I think that's how it works."

She looked down and bumped a knee to his. Nothing happened and she looked up.

Draco was still frozen in the same attitude as when she'd first walked in, but his gaze was practically molten, and fixed on hers with a searing intensity. As she watched, he shifted very deliberately back, knees falling open and hands resting, palms up, on the arms of his chair. His eyes swept down her body and then back up to her face where they remained, dark and hooded.

He may as well have given her a written invitation.

Hermione moved between his legs and looked down at him. His beautiful face, sharply shadowed in the small light cast by the lamp. His chest rising and falling. She reached out and touched a soft finger to his brow, tracing over it and then down to his cheekbone and the fine ridge of his nose, then finally across his lips. His eyes closed and his breath puffed against her fingers. She noted his hands twitch out of the corner of her eye.

She reached down and braced herself on the arm of the chair, then leaned into his neck and shoulder, inhaling his scent and brushing her cheek against his skin. It was so bloody good, she almost moaned out loud.

When her lips met his skin, she did make a sound—the taste of him was so familiar and so dearly missed. "I remember," she said against his throat. "I remember all of this." Tears stung her eyes and she pulled in an almost painful breath. She felt them brush his skin and him move under her. "Stay still," she whispered. "You have to. That's the only way this can—" She pulled back and looked at him. Dashed a tear away. Felt like this might very well destroy her.

"Stay still," she whispered again, reaching down and running a hand over his bare forearm to his wrist. She picked it up and looked into his eyes, rubbing her thumb once, twice, three times again. Sparks seemed to trail from where she touched and when she leaned back into him, she heard his breath again, ragged in her ear.

"I'm not going to kiss your mouth," she said, so quietly it was barely a sound at all. "I don't think either of us could—" She stepped even closer and ran a hand into his hair, cupped his jaw, leaned down and rubbed her nose and cheek over his face and down his neck. Just feeling him, experiencing him.

Draco was breathing really heavily now, but otherwise not moving. Although she could feel tension coiling in him, hot and tight. She pressed her lips to his neck softly, then trailed her mouth down to his collar, pulling it away and kissing his collarbone.

"Tell me if you want me to stop," she said, working the skin there.

He went perfectly still.

"OK," she puffed, standing again and looking down at him. He was a picture of heated desire—hair mussed, face drawn, eyes glittering. He'd flipped his hands back over and she saw he was gripping the arms of his chair. She pulled a sharp breath in. She wished so badly that he could touch her.

She placed a soft finger on the skin just beneath the hollow of his throat. "I'm going to tell you what I think you'd be doing if you could move," she whispered, curling the finger around the placket of his shirt and undoing his top button. His hands flexed on the chair and she moved to the next button.

"I think you'd be running your hand up the back of my thigh," she said, the words ratcheting up her own desire. "Over my arse. Circling my waist and pulling me down so I could straddle you." She undid another button, appreciating the fine expanse of smooth flesh she was revealing.

"You'd be kissing me. And your hand would be in my hair. Your tongue would touch mine and it would turn me on. So much." She reached the last button and her eyes flicked to his. "We'd kiss for a long time. Because I wouldn't be able to get enough of it. Until you'd pull my head back and your teeth would be here and here." Hermione trailed a finger over her neck and just under her ear, almost unbearably aroused.

Draco's shirt fell open and she pushed it apart, eyes roving over the gorgeous picture he presented. She breathed out raggedly.

"If I step away, do you think you can move to the bed?" she asked.

Could he move to the bed? Draco was entirely uncertain what would happen if he freed his hands from the death grip they currently had on the chair.

He was going to bloody try, though.

He waited, utterly motionless, as she took a small step back, back from where she'd been standing between his knees. He let himself look at her for a moment while he breathed, testing whether he could move and if he could stay in control.

It didn't help that she was wearing something soft and tight. Drawstring trousers and a short top. Rather plain pyjamas, but they clung to her arse and he could see her smooth stomach and the curve of her waist. She wasn't wearing a bra and her nipples were clearly pebbled against the thin fabric.

Merlin, Morgana, Jesus Christ, Mary, Salazar.

Draco closed his eyes. Tried to center himself. Kept them closed as he eased up and released his hands. Trained his mind on the intent of moving to his bed for personal reasons totally unrelated to the staggering thing that was happening right now. To the breathtakingly beautiful woman who was in his room, touching him, kissing him.

What was she doing? Where was this going? Did he care?

Not really.

Draco managed to get to the bed. He lay back against the headboard and put his arms by his sides. Would she really come over? Would she touch him again? Or would she come to her senses and leave?

Or maybe he'd wake up from what was clearly a dream.

"Do you want this, Draco?" Her soft voice. Her exquisite face, so worried as she frowned down at him.

YES! He wanted to shout it. He wanted to fucking surge off the bed and throw her down on it. Ravish her. Show her just how much he wanted her.

All he could do was open his hands.

Please.

Please come here. Please touch me again.

Please love me.

She came, thank god. Stood over the bed and looked down at him. Her silky curls fell around her face.

"I'm not going to kiss your lips or touch there with my hands," her eyes darted to his lower half, "because I've thought about it and it would be, uh, difficult, for you not to respond. Which could be dangerous," she said, cheeks flaming even pinker.

She'd thought about it. Fucking. Hell.

Draco hadn't thought it was possible for him to be any more turned on.

But she was right. He'd fucking explode if she touched him there. He definitely wouldn't be able to control himself and who knew what the bloody spell would do to pull him back.

He tried to tell her with his face and eyes that he understood. But he was shouting internally. It was torture not to touch her.

Sweet torture.

He had no idea what was happening, but he never wanted it to stop.

Her hand went out and crept under his shirt—touching tentatively at first and then all over him in sweeping motions. Her nails dug into his skin and she gripped him possessively, like she'd been denied something she'd wanted. Her lips parted and she climbed slowly over him, fitting herself somewhere north of his straining cock and bending down to press her mouth into his neck again.

Draco had never hated the spell so much.

Hermione resumed telling him what she thought he'd be doing to her, all while rubbing her body slowly over his. He could feel her tits on his chest and her hair tickling his face. And she was mostly right about what he wanted to do, except that if he had use of his limbs, there'd be no way he wouldn't be fucking her already. He'd probably last about two minutes too.

But if he even thrust against her once…

Fuck.

Maybe it would be worth it? This might actually kill him anyway.

His fingers flexed against the coverlet and she saw them because she stopped and frowned at him again.

She looked at him, head tilted. Her fingers brushed his face and then she was up and off him.

He felt her absence keenly. Wondering why she'd left.

She looked at him before stepping over to his wardrobe, then once more over her shoulder as she pulled open the door.

Draco's brows pulled together. What was she doing?

She disappeared almost entirely inside, reaching for something. He heard the snick of a drawer and then she emerged, a tangle of bright blue in her hand.

Draco's mouth dropped open. How in the bloody hell?

"I came in here," she said quickly. "Snuck in. Just before you came back from the holiday. I'm really sorry."

She looked down, pulling the scarf between her fingers.

"I was just so shocked, when I found out about the spell. I wanted to know more. But I wasn't thinking."

She looked up again.

"I wish I could ask you why you still have it."

Draco, who'd opened his mouth to tell her that it was OK, that he didn't care—she could look through his room, rummage through his life, pry open his innermost secrets any time she bloody well wanted—shut it abruptly.

I have it because I still love you, of course. And it's the one small piece of us that I still have.

The words died in his throat, choked off mercilessly.

He swallowed and looked into her eyes, the gravity of their situation almost overcoming him.

She didn't know that he still loved her. She had no idea. And he had no way of telling her. He didn't even know if she loved him. This could just be … a release. A last gasp of something that had once lived, green and beautiful, between them.

Despondency threatened the edges of Draco's mind.

He wished she'd come closer and make it go away. He didn't care how.

"Please," he tried to say. No sound came out, but his lips moved. She saw them and licked hers.

He saw her hesitate there in the middle of his room and tried to will her closer.

She twisted the scarf one last time and then stepped toward the bed. The relief Draco felt was almost palpable.

"Lie down," she whispered. She gestured at his hands with the scarf and he looked at her, confused for a moment, until realisation dawned. Heat flooded up his neck and through his body as he slid down and lifted his arms slowly over his head.

The whisper of silk over his wrists was one of the most erotic things he'd ever felt.

She didn't lean back until she'd tied him firmly.

Then she climbed over him again and took off her top.

Draco's brain went to another place and his hands strained against the scarf. Pure involuntary want.

"You can't," she whispered, pitching forward and pressing her lips to his chest again. He could feel her nipples against his skin. Dragging silk trailing fire. She pushed his shirt aside and kissed him on the shoulder, down his side, over his stomach.

"I'm sorry I can't put my mouth on you," she said, tickling at his waistband with her soft lips.

Draco was very, very sorry too.

She worked her way back up and Draco arched his neck, closing his eyes as she nuzzled into him. He could feel her thighs tighten on his waist. Feel her hot against his stomach.

"Draco," she sighed and her fingers dug into his hair. She pressed full length against him, cheek to his, and he wanted to live in the moment forever. His hands again strained at the scarf, but she ran her fingers up his arm and captured them.

He watched the lithe line of her back in the low light as she stretched. She propped up and looked at his face. Her cheeks were deeply stained and her pupils were blown. Her parted lips were swollen from kissing him.

"Is it OK if I—" She gestured vaguely downward.

Oh god, he'd love nothing more in the world. Except being able to participate.

He went totally still again and she smiled, so briefly he might have imagined it.

"OK," she whispered, hand snaking down from his wrists to dig back into his hair. She lowered herself again and tucked her face near his ear.

"Draco," she sighed again and he could tell she was touching herself. Could hear that hitch in her voice that meant she was close. Already.

Draco felt a surge pulse through him. He pulled in a gasping breath. God, was he going to come without being bloody touched? It felt entirely possible as he heard her moans and breaths where they were exploding against his ear. He wished he could see her, but she was still buried in his neck.

"Oh god," she said, and it was almost a sob. "Oh god, Draco."

Draco felt his stomach tense. He concentrated everything he had on not moving his hips or his legs or his hands as she crested and softly came down.

She kept her face in his neck and eventually he felt the warmth of tears on his skin there.

The hand in his hair, which had stilled, began gently stroking.

"Are you OK?" she whispered. Then, "Your hands!" She reached up quickly and he felt the silk pull free.

She probably should have left it, though. He wanted so badly to wrap his arms around her. It was a struggle to bring them down to his sides instead. But he managed it, putting his palms up again, a supplicant to her. She lifted her head and he saw the tears shimmering in her eyes.

He was still breathing heavily, still so completely aflame from what had just happened that he could barely process it. Her gaze went over his chest, which was moving up and down with fast, shallow breaths, to his face, which he was sure was just as suffused with lust as hers had been a few moments ago.

"I'm so sorry I can't help you with this," she said. "I'm sorry I just—"

No! His hand jerked up from his side, although it stopped before it went anywhere near her. Don't be sorry, please don't.

"I should probably go," she said brokenly, feeling for her shirt and slipping it over her head. "I'm sure you can't... While I'm here."

Draco was sure he could, but maybe it was best not to push it. He could feel the spell's magic buzzing under his skin, angry and tense, as if it could tell its rules had been side-stepped and was spoiling for a fight.

He propped up on his elbows, watching Hermione straighten herself and run a quick hand over her hair. She was turned away and Draco worried it was regret making her movements jerky and her shoulders tense.

Finally she turned back to him.

Her eyes slipped over his body like she couldn't help it. She raked her bottom lip with her teeth and her brows pulled slightly together. Finally her dark eyes slipped up to his. Her hand went out as if to splay over his stomach, but she pulled it back.

"I'm sorry," she whispered again. "If this was…too much."

Draco wanted to scream that it wasn't. Or even just shake his bloody head. Tell her somehow that he'd do it again and again. He'd do anything…

He looked at her and hoped she knew. What he was thinking and feeling. Hoped his eyes could tell her.

"God. OK," she said, taking a huge breath as she rose.

Draco sat up too, swung his legs over the bed as she walked to the door. He couldn't get up and follow her, although he wanted desperately to. She paused with her hand on the handle, turned her head to the side, but didn't quite look at him.

"Good night," she finally whispered before slipping out into the dark hallway beyond.

Draco watched the door after she closed it, frozen in time like something out of a fairytale. He waited in the quiet of his room, still not sure if what had just happened was real.

Then he looked down at his open shirt, passed a hand over his neck where she'd run her teeth.

The feel of her against him. That sobbing way she'd moaned his name.

His hand slid lower and a sigh escaped his lips.

God, he could make sound again, move and touch himself.

He muttered a silencing charm and lay back on the bed, hurriedly unbuttoning his flies and reaching in to palm his rigid cock.

He was so fucking hard. This was not going to take long.

Draco shut his eyes and let images and sensations unspool in his mind.

"I want to try something."

The brush of fingers over his face.

A sliver of taut stomach.

He gasped, running a thumb over his head and the wetness there.

His top button flicking apart.

Soft curls tickling his chest.

The slither of silk over his wrists.

His body tensed and he threw his head back. He sped his strokes.

Lips on his stomach. "I wish I could put my mouth on you."

A time in San Cipriano, when she had. Soft pink pulling over his head, supple tongue licking up his shaft.

He groaned and felt himself gather.

Cotton catching on peaked tits. The way her nipples jutted in the lamplight and flick of her fingers over them.

"Fuck!" He practically shouted it in the stillness, hand moving frantically now.

When she'd gasped his name as she came. "Draco."

And that was it, he was fully over the edge, coming so hard he thought he might spiral up to the ceiling.

Lose consciousness.

Become matter and light.

When he came back down he was breathing heavily. He raked a hand over his face and into his hair. Fumbled around with the other for his wand, which he pointed at his liberally coated belly as he muttered a spell.

"Fuck," he said again, but in a whisper this time.

What was going to happen now?

What was he going to do?

He had no bloody idea.

Chapter Text

Hermione kicked her heel restlessly against the stone of the fourth-floor corridor and glanced at her watch.

Less than ten minutes until Unity Class would start.

She angled her head away from the wall and peeked around the corner. The students had been filtering into the classroom, but no Draco yet. But she knew he came from this direction and hoped to catch him before class started. The students couldn't see them here and she needed to talk to him.

Or, she needed to talk at him.

She passed a hand over her face, uncomfortable warmth radiating up her neck as memories of the night before crashed against her consciousness.

What had she been thinking? What had she done? Well, clearly she hadn't been thinking, which was how it had happened at all.

She wrapped her arms around her middle and squeezed her eyes shut, visions of Draco's beautiful face and form flitting through her mind. Also his taste, his scent, the way his skin had felt under her fingers.

It had been utterly amazing in the moment.

And totally mortifying afterward.

The embarrassment had crept in almost immediately after she'd—after she'd cleared the haze of lust that had driven her to his door. The guilt had come quick on its heels, when she'd stepped back and seen him lying there, so obviously (gorgeously) aroused and completely immobile. She hadn't wanted to risk touching him or letting him touch himself with her there.

So she'd run.

And then she'd shut his door and turned around to see Theo's. Just across the hall.

"God!" she muttered aloud, rubbing stiff fingers to her brow to somehow scrub at the memory. A fresh wave of ashamed heat flowed up her neck. What if Theo had been getting home just then? What if he'd heard? She hadn't cast a silencing charm, she'd been too…consumed…with desire.

What had she become? Someone who just didn't care about anyone's feelings but her own?

She hadn't even been able to look at Draco today. Even though she could feel his attention understandably on her. But she'd kept her eyes straight ahead, run in almost late to class, left the moment the clock struck the hour. She'd even eaten lunch in her room and fobbed Theo off when he'd tried to stop her in the hall to chat. He'd probably wondered why she'd gone bloody bright red too. He'd certainly looked confused.

Not that she thought Theo would begrudge her any of it. Not that she was telling him about any of it. Ever. Even if they were just friends now.

She groaned under her breath. What a fucking mess.

Although it had been beautiful.

Hermione tipped her head back and let herself remember for a moment. The tender pleasure of touching him again. His eyes and his harsh breath. How much he'd obviously wanted to be with her. Lavender had been right about that—Hermione knew that now. And knowing it had started to heal something deep inside of her that had been open and bleeding since the first day he'd returned to school and she'd begun to doubt.

But where did that leave them?

Absolutely nowhere. Because Hermione had been researching the spell like a madwoman and was fairly certain she'd reviewed everything—all the relevant sources. And it truly seemed like there was nothing to be done.

The magic was powerful and air-tight. Meant to ensure the creation of the union and legitimate heirs, it was designed to anticipate and close loopholes. So there were none until the principals had fulfilled the magical contract of getting married and being faithful until they had children together. And because these types of bindings had been designed in a less enlightened time, they worked differently on the male and female parties: the man being more strictly conscribed before the marriage and the woman being (rather naively, Hermione thought) more strictly bound after the marriage—at least until she produced a child with her husband.

And once the children came along, things did loosen up, although it wasn't clear how much. A lot of that was at the discretion of the caster, whom Hermione assumed was Lucius Malfoy or Cygnus Greengrass, either of whom may have allowed Draco and/or Astoria certain freedoms once they got what they wanted. But Hermione thought it might be very difficult for Astoria after the vows were said and before the children came—the way it was difficult for Draco now. And even if things presumably became freer for Draco, he'd still be bound to the marriage and unable to pursue a real relationship with anyone else.

Which left Hermione exactly nowhere. A lot more of a sexually frustrated nowhere than she'd been two days ago too.

She tapped the back of her head against the wall.

Which was why last night had to be a one-time thing. There couldn't be any longevity in it; what kind of life would that be?

Hence why she was here and waiting for Draco. She had to quit hiding and talk to him. Apologise and explain. Today. And especially before they got up in front of their class and tried to teach.

Hermione worried the strap on her watch. Only five minutes until class now. Would it even be enough time to explain properly?

She looked up with a worried frown just as Draco's tall form rounded the corner.

He stopped when he saw her, then started and stopped again. She knew in a way that she hadn't before yesterday that he wanted to go to her, wanted to touch her and take her in his arms. But instead his eyes just raked slowly over her, while Hermione felt like her entire body was going up in flames.

It felt almost as intimate as what they'd done the night before, and she was lost in it for a moment—watching as his eyes grew hooded and dark.

"I—I wanted to talk to you," she said, attempting to snap herself out of it. "Before class."

Draco opened his mouth as if to say something, but of course they both knew he couldn't, so he just shut it, crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. He was still a good six feet away, but Hermione could feel the pull coming from him and it took everything she had not to step forward and touch him, unfold his arms and take his hands in hers.

But not touching him was kind of the point.

"I want to say," she said, closing her eyes in a feeble attempt to control herself. "That I'm sorry for last night." She heard him make an abrupt movement, but kept her eyes closed and kept talking. "Not that it wasn't lovely. Or what I wanted and I think, know, you wanted." She did open her eyes at this to see him perfectly still and remembered from last night that that was his way of agreeing, of telling her that he wanted her to continue. So she did, although it broke her heart a little.

"But I still don't think it was quite fair. To either of us." She could tell he wanted to speak then. His hand spasmed and he leaned forward, but he kept back, obviously unable to do anything.

So Hermione went on, getting out everything that had been roiling in her mind since she'd slipped into her bed last night and lay there for many hours before sleep came.

"I feel terrible knowing how trapped you are. And I'm still working to figure out the spell." She held out a hand. "But I'm seeing how difficult it is, Draco. How impossible the situation is. I really thought I could—but now, barring her releasing you, I'm not sure."

Something in the stiffness of Draco's posture went away and he suddenly looked like he needed the wall to hold him up. He leaned his temple to it and his mouth dipped at the corners.

He looked so hopeless that Hermione couldn't stop herself stepping forward and almost touching him again. But she managed to refrain.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered. "But I just want you to know why I won't be coming back and doing that again."

He looked down at her and his eyes were anguished.

"I think it will just make it harder for both of us," she said, trying to explain. "It's not sustainable. And I don't know if it's what I—" She looked away, not sure what it was she wanted to say. But it had something to do with the last six months and how painful they had been. How thoroughly her dreams had been crushed. And even though her wounds had started to heal, it would be a long time before she was whole again. No matter what the justification had been—or how exquisite it had felt to be with him again.

She let out a huge breath, and said nothing. It didn't seem fair somehow, to unload all that when Draco couldn't speak for himself.

Instead she took a deliberate step back. "We should get to class."

It was five after now and she'd heard the door to the classroom open and close a few times, the last accompanied by a rather raucous wave of noise.

Draco looked at her for a long moment, before he nodded sharply and pushed away from the wall. Hermione turned and felt him follow her, grabbing the door and opening it for her when they reached the room.

"All right, quiet down, everyone," he said from behind her as they walked in, and hearing his voice—so normal, so him—for the first time after everything that had happened was shocking.

Hermione flashed a look over her shoulder to find Draco looking at her, his face difficult to read, but reminding her somehow of that day in San Cipriano, after that first night in the back of the bookshop. When he'd been so miserable and resigned.

"Ms. Granger! Mr. Malfoy! We wondered what you two had gotten up to!"

Cora's voice rose above the others and for a moment Hermione froze, her eyes wide on Draco's. He froze for a second too, but then improbably the corner of his mouth tugged up and something gleamed in his gray eyes.

Oh my god, are we sharing a joke? About thisHermione fought a slightly hysterical giggle, instead turning back around and burying all humour in a brisk rejoinder.

"Thank you, Cora. And apologies for our tardiness, class. Please take out your diagrams from last week so that we can begin."

Draco understood. Of course he did. He bloody had to.

He flipped over the soft leather flap of his satchel and watched out of the corner of his eye as Hermione hurried out of the Unity classroom, Beatrice and Eloise trailing behind, peppering her with questions.

He let her go, resolving to wait until she got clear. That was the least he could do for her. Stay away when she asked.

Because how many times had he rejected her? And how brutally? Of course she had to protect herself from further hurt. If he could speak, he'd tell her he understood.

He was a sinking ship and she was right to jump.

Of course, that didn't mean it wasn't a crushing disappointment.

The last of the students trickled out as Draco sat, ostensibly rummaging in his bag, but actually brooding on what Hermione had said to him before class.

It hadn't been a surprise. He'd had an idea of what was coming since he'd walked into Charms this morning and seen her seat empty. She was always there before him, usually sitting neatly prepared.

Today she'd scurried in over two minutes late, head down, agitated.

Then she'd rushed out before the words of dismissal had even left Professor Flitwick's lips, and refused to meet Draco's eye for the rest of the day. And Draco had tried to engage her. In fact, he'd been desperate to get her to look at him, to see the after-effects of what they'd done—see if she'd smile at him in a secret way or even find some excuse to touch him again.

But no. Any hope of that had been swept away fairly quickly.

It was obvious she regretted what had happened. Even if she hadn't said those words exactly.

And again, he couldn't bloody blame her. He lurched out of his seat and muttered a quick charm to douse the lights in the Unity classroom, heading for the door with head bowed. How many times had she tried to get him to talk to her, explain to her? And he hadn't given her a thing until she'd cornered him and forced him to say awful things, the only things he could say, the spell loosening his tongue and dipping his tone in acid.

He knew deep down that what they'd done last night wasn't sustainable, or fair. They couldn't build a relationship on him lying there like a bloody stone. Even if after the marriage he had more freedom… But no, Draco shook his head to chase those thoughts away. He'd never ask that of Hermione.

Although, judging by last night, she might want to—maybe once or twice? When he could respond? Touch her? It had been so bloody good and he'd do anything to make it happen again, especially once he could take it further…

Gods. Draco made a sound of disgust and pounded his closed fist against the corridor wall. This was what happened when he let his cock do the thinking.

Remorse flowed over him, free and abundant. And not just toward Hermione. Astoria's face floated before his eyes too, and he felt an intense surge of protective longing, tinged by disgust at himself.

The spell at work.

Just like it had been this afternoon when he'd seen Astoria in the library and felt so guilty that he'd had to hold on to the back of a nearby chair. And when she had approached, he'd pulled her into his arms and held her tightly, mouthing, "I'm sorry," against her hair until she'd pulled back to look at him, extremely puzzled.

He'd almost bloody kissed her then. Until someone coughing nearby had reminded him they were in public. In the library: Hermione's haunt.

If she saw them kissing today after what Draco had let her do last night?

He blew out a breath. Shades of the Halloween party and the day after.

He was so bloody muddled. And it was extremely disturbing that the spell seemed to be able to fuck with his emotions now—it was either growing in strength or sensing the increased threat from Hermione.

Or bloody both.

Although it looked like Hermione wouldn't be a threat anymore.

Draco went swiftly down the stairs, trying to fight the dismay this thought brought with it. Trying to put the whole thing out of his mind. But images from last night continued to splash behind his eyes like bright snippets of film, each one bringing renewed longing. Her parted lips and her wild hair. When she'd taken off her top and leaned over him. The feel of her tits and then her tongue dragging over his chest and stomach.

He crossed the common room with his head down, suddenly hot and distracted. He'd need to have a wank almost immediately if he wanted to get any N.E.W.T studying done tonight. Not that he'd be able to concentrate anyway. Maybe he should just admit defeat and take a dose of Dreamless Sleep. Hope things would somehow be better—or least less epically shite—in the morning.

A quiet night, that's what he needed.

Draco was almost to his room when he realised that may not be in the cards.

Because bloody Theo was walking toward him from the opposite direction.

Fuck, they almost never met in the hall like this. It just had to be tonight, didn't it?

Looking down at a textbook in his hands Theo seemed to have come out of Dean's room further down the corridor. He didn't see Draco until they were almost upon each other. Draco made a move to walk away, but it was too late, so he just stood there for a moment, watching Theo while Theo noticed him.

It occurred to Draco in a sickening flash that everything he'd experienced last night, Theo had experienced too. The touches, the kisses, more.

Not that he hadn't already had this thought, oh, several thousand times. Not that he hadn't brooded on it almost to the point of obsession when Theo and Hermione were together.

But being with Hermione hadn't been so fresh in his mind then. It had almost belonged to another life and another world—as if it had happened to somebody else entirely. But now? Now it was very immediate that the sound Draco had heard Hermione make last night was the exact, quickly muffled moan that had come from Theo's room just a few months ago.

Draco's stomach turned over and his fingernails dug into his palms. He almost couldn't bear it—Theo seeing what he'd seen or touching what he'd been unable to brush even one finger against.

Being with her that way. Or maybe even more intimately.

Draco's teeth ground in his head and he willed his mind away from the darkly tangled, but extremely well worn, thought-path of whether or not Hermione and Theo had fucked.

That way lay madness. And an intense urge to murder Theo. Which he didn't think Hermione would like.

She and Theo were friends now. Closer than in San Cipriano. Still seemed to be able to laugh and talk together even after they'd broken up. Draco had seen them at it just yesterday. Although, maybe, his brain offered optimistically, their easiness with each other meant that whatever they'd had hadn't gone too far, that they hadn't slept together.

And on the heels of that happy thought, came a strange triumph that this time it had been Draco with her—that maybe Theo had heard something he didn't want to hear.

"What the fuck are you looking at, Malfoy? Do you have something to say? Finally?"

Theo's snarl cut through Draco's abstraction and he started.

"Fuck you." Draco was pleased that his voice came out clear and strong. His hand shot to his wand and he saw Theo's do the same. They glared at each other for several moments before Theo's hand slowly dropped.

"She wouldn't want us to do this," he said, letting out a breath. Then, "Why don't you come in?"

Draco was so surprised that his wand hand dropped too. He frowned at Theo, who said, "Come on," and turned toward his door. He opened it and looked expectantly at Draco, whose feet seemed to be propelling him across the hall.

Was he doing this?

It seemed so.

Maybe he was a glutton for punishment. Or maybe just fatally curious.

Draco stepped into Theo's room almost gingerly, as if he was going to see Hermione's knickers draped over a lamp.

It was me with her last night, not him. Draco chanted it in his mind, which was why he didn't turn around and walk out when he did see a muggle picture of Hermione, smiling and windblown, propped up on Theo's mantle.

Theo saw Draco staring at it. "That was taken recently," he said. "Couple of weeks ago."

Like that bloody mattered. Like Theo didn't have stacks of others hidden away somewhere, Draco was sure of it. From all those little jaunts they'd taken last term.

Probably put them away because of Daphne, although now Draco saw a similar snap of her near the one of Hermione.

Fucking lovely. How they were all so healthy and friendly and just fine with each other.

Draco again considered walking out, but Theo was grabbing something under his desk and now he turned, holding one of those bottles of muggle single malt whisky Draco was always coveting.

"Drink?" Theo asked.

And Draco supposed they really were doing this, because he heard himself say, "OK."

He really wanted to try the whisky.

"Sit down." Theo gestured to the bed.

But Draco didn't want to sit there—where Theo and Hermione had possibly—so he just said, "I'll stand."

Theo looked up and did that canny thing he sometimes did. "Oh," he said, eyes darting to the bed. "Take the chair." He slung the desk chair around and pushed it at Draco, who contemplated leaving again before he finally sat, his upper body tense, but his legs ostentatiously out, spread wide.

Theo handed him a glass and looked at Draco again. Squinted a little at him.

"What?" Draco tapped a quick tattoo on his leg.

"Do you want a cigarette?" Theo asked, and Draco knew that his squint had been about whether or not the gesture felt too homey, too reminiscent of San Cipriano and their flat and how they'd almost been friends once.

But Draco didn't care because he suddenly really fucking wanted a cigarette.

He hadn't had one in so long. Hadn't dared for ages, and then just… no access.

"Yeah, OK," he said, and Theo leapt up to rummage in a box on the mantle, then tossed Draco a box and a lighter, and suddenly Draco was taking his first drag in almost two years.

Enjoying every second of it, too.

He followed it with a quick nip of the whisky, which was smooth and woody with hints of vanilla and treacle. So many miles better than the harshness of Ogdens that Draco couldn't help holding up the glass and looking at its amber glow.

"Good, isn't it?" Theo asked through his own drag. "Bloody expensive, so it should be." He exhaled as Draco nodded and wondered what this all was about. He also wondered how much he'd really be able to say to Theo. Nothing that could be a message to Hermione, of course. Not that Theo would agree to be a go-between.

"I know about the spell," Theo said abruptly, dropping onto the bed and eyeing Draco across the small room. "I mean, I know she told you what I told her. But I also read up on it. Some sources in my library. Some books she leant me. And I'm sorry it happened. I know it must have been hard on you."

Draco laughed. A humourless bark. "You could say that."

"So you can talk to me." Theo frowned at Draco through the haze of smoke hanging between them.

"Guess so."

Theo got up and cracked the window. "So did you just not want to, then?"

Draco shrugged. "Maybe in the beginning I did."

"So why didn't you?"

Draco was extremely surprised to hear a note of hurt in Theo's voice. He flicked his eyes up to see Theo not looking at him and messing with a cassette he'd taken from a stack on the windowsill. Draco recognised Hermione's handwriting on the case and fought the urge to say something terrible.

"Look," Theo said before Draco could respond. "We both fell for her and that's… difficult. It's always been difficult. More for me in Italy and more for you here. But you've always come first with her. I knew that, which was why I told her about you and the spell." He glanced up and met Draco's eyes. "But you and I also had our own thing. We lived together. I guess I thought we were friends of a sort."

"What about Daphne?" Draco sidestepped the thorny issue of friendship to focus on Theo's admission about Hermione and the spell. He wasn't about to let Theo represent himself as the noble sacrificer of this tale. "She didn't come into your calculations?"

Theo glanced away and Draco knew he'd scored a hit. He took a deep drag and realised with some sadness that the cigarette was almost gone.

"Here." Theo leaned forward and pushed