"You want to do it, don't you?"

It was a simple question, but there was a veritable web of implication behind it.

Hermione worried her bottom lip with her teeth and her eyes flickered up to Draco's face. He was scrutinizing her as they stood in the hallway outside the entrance to McGonagall's office. The headmistress had returned to find all her portraits had been silenced and quickly set things to rights, prompting Hermione and Draco to quickly conclude their conference with the sisters.

She requested, "Can we talk in our suite?"

Gesturing with his hand for her to lead the way, he gave his assent. They did not speak as they made their way there. As morning classes were still in session for another quarter of an hour, they also did not meet anyone on their way.

As they went, Hermione thought about the second half of her talk with the sisters. In particular, there was something which Priya had mentioned in passing that was of the utmost interest to her: The kundalini will seek to meld you back together again, given your accurate observation that you are mirrored instead of halved.

This was transmutation - something McGonagall had mentioned in their very first Alchemy class. Hermione thought back to the first response she had received from the Chinese alchemist that entreated her to return to basic knowledge, and had to begrudgingly acknowledge that he had been correct after all.

Brooding separately, they reached their suite. Not in the mood to quip with the gargoyle, Draco merely gave the password and entered with Hermione close behind.

Her eyes followed him as he picked a path through her potions experiments and made himself comfortable in their couch. A fire sprang to life in the grate. He told her frankly, "I don't like it."

She wanted to spit out at him, And I did not care for your disdain toward the Upadhyaya sisters, but here we are.

But she knew that would only spark an argument. Instead, she politely queried, "What don't you like?"

He shot her a look as if she were feigning stupidity just to annoy him. "That plan of theirs. I know you want to try it - I could see it in your eyes that you want to."

"I do want to try it," she agreed.

He sucked in a breath, holding her gaze. She knew him well enough by now to be able to see though the barely visible cracks in his mask… and right now, Draco Malfoy was upset with his wife.

She reasoned, "Draco, you heard them. They agreed: mirrored, not halved. The same reason the Adder's Fork wasn't going to work to split us. But what happens when you invert a mirror? Everything disappears!"

Still merely looking at her, he seemed totally nonplussed by what had given Hermione thrills of excitement.

Undaunted, she went on, "If we pursue this plan and it works, it could clear us of all our scars - our marks - collectively. No other plan offers us that."

Though he seemed to be attempting to remain impassive, Hermione saw Draco glance down at his forearm, where the Dark Mark had been branded into his skin at the age of sixteen. She knew how he abhorred it, regretted it. Her own forearm itched merely thinking about it.

"You could be rid of it, Draco… that mark. Voldemort doesn't own you - and now, here is an opportunity to erase the last bit of him from your body. From mine. Don't you want that?"

He buried his face in his hands for a moment before sliding his hand upward, smoothing out his hair. Hermione thought he looked drawn, and not at all like he wanted to be having this conversation.

Sensing his argument weakening, she prodded, "I don't really fancy having this awful slur carved into my arm forever either. If given the opportunity… I would erase it, if I could."

Huffing out a laugh, he did not sound amused in the slightest. "Whatever happened to being able to forgive, but never forget?"

A shiver trailed over her skin, leaving gooseflesh in its wake. "I don't think I could ever forget that night, regardless of what may happen to me in this life."

His mouth had curled into a grimace, but she was unsure if it were at her words, at the memory, or at the situation. Possibly it was all three. "Because I know you were taking to Greengrass about it, I assume you know about the… occurrences between Parkinson and myself, from the past?"

It seemed an abrupt change of topic, so Hermione was momentarily taken aback. Then, carefully, she answered, "She told me Pansy was not faithful to you."

He closed his eyes. "It may be hard for you to hear, but that was one of the most difficult days of my life. Do you know why?"

She shifted uncomfortably. "It… well, it's not easy to accept that someone you… care about could do something like that to you…"

"It was not the act of sex that repulsed me."

Her eyebrows raised.

"No," he confirmed, seeing her incredulous expression, "it was how she treated the betrayal. It was as if it was unimportant to her. That was why it mattered."

"I don't really understand where you're going with this, Draco," she admitted honestly.

"She doesn't remember the night we brought her back to her commons, you know," he said quietly.

Suppressing a momentary spike of jealousy, she wondered how on earth a conversation about their unbinding had sparked a discussion about Pansy Parkinson. Remaining silent, she suspected it would all make sense in due time.

"She's a loyal person, Parkinson," he reflected. "I suspect that's why she was put in Hufflepuff when we were all re-sorted. It's also what brought her to drinking. She's very loyal to family, but friends? Romantic partners? No. Don't you see? I was not even worthy of the loyalty of a slag like Parkinson."

"She doesn't deserve you!" Hermione hissed, suddenly furious at the witch.

"I don't care about her," he protested, his voice a deadly calm. "What I want you to know, in no uncertain terms, is that I hate the idea of why you want to consummate our marriage."

Coloring, she swiftly countered, "I hate it, too. But don't you want to be free of your mark? Your scars? Your arthritis? I'm not interested in doing this for selfish reasons, Draco - I want to do this for you, too."

For a long moment, he only looked at her. "I can see in your eyes that you aren't prepared to back down. Fine. If that's how it's going to be, I suppose I should accept my fate. After all, perhaps I am not entitled to a traditional wedding night. Perhaps, as it's my fault you got into this alchemical mess in the first place, this is only fitting."

"Draco, that's not…"

"I will begin making another batch of essence of Salt," he interrupted. "We can plan to execute this in Ravenclaw's bower, since it's supposed to appear if it is needed. If necessary, we can come here instead, as we can't do it out on the grounds. It will be Scotland in March, we'd freeze to death even with the aid of magic."

He stood and made his way toward the exit, pushing past her. Sadly, she observed, "You're angry with me."

"Not at you." Glancing backward, he paused a moment, then amended, "not entirely at you."

Then he was gone.

What an incorrigible arsehole, Hermione thought, staring at the place he had stood opposite her only seconds ago.

.

.

It was a feeling… a feeling Hermione sometimes got before a panic attack took her. It was like missing a step on the staircase, and her stomach would lurch… only there was no settling when her foot made contact with the next stair, because there was no staircase to begin with. She would go on, experiencing a constant, stomach-lurching sense of purgatory until it backed up like a clogged drain.

Then it was drowning; not slipping-into-a-choppy-ocean kind of drowning, but like she was lying face-down in a puddle with barely an inch of water, but with no way to move her neck to the side. She should be able to conquer this - it was only a puddle, after all - would a puddle defeat her?

But then… she was the puddle… flattening, oozing, stagnant… she was irrational, inconsolable. How was one to condole with a puddle, even a puddle of human? She was drowning - in herself - and no one could even see the struggle until she was in a heap on the floor.

The thing was, by now Hermione could almost predict when they were going to occur. Following the conversation with the alchemists, and then her heated discussion with Draco, Hermione knew a panic attack was imminent… so she sat on the floor of the married suite, back against the wall, and waited.

Over a hundred small, glass dishes containing ingredients from the truth serum and powder she had rendered down littered the floor, as each experiment had yielded over fifty components. The small side table was covered in notes, and there were stacks of books in much of the available space of the living room. Their coffee table was covered in a cauldron, plus more notes, and samples in vials of veritaserum and the truth powder from Rowena's study. Alchemy journals and library books also claimed residence there.

All in all, the place did not look like a dwelling… and it certainly in no way resembled the private suite of two young newlyweds.

Despite that she could feel the beginnings of her panic attack burgeoning, Hermione slid back up the wall and steadied herself to make her way toward the bedroom. She could not be in this place… not when every surface was covered in proof of why her marriage to Draco was still a formality, despite whatever they might have agreed on in the heat of the moment.

Two long candlesticks flamed to life the moment she stumbled into the dark bedroom, and she sank to the floor there. It was cold inside, virtually untouched.

Her shaking hand reached out to touch the bedspread. It was still folded neatly, the way it had been when McGonagall had given them the place. She climbed into the bed and smoothed her fingers across the quilt. If they were any other married couple, they would have had sex in that bed… so many times. She might have lost her virginity to him in that bed, and would have taken his. Would it have been passionate, frenzied, like so many of their snogging sessions tended to be? Or would he have taken her slowly, pushing inside her body for the first time with restraint for her comfort? Hermione knew that sometimes the first time could be somewhat painful, but she suspected that with Draco as her first, that would be alright.

Instead, their first time together would take place in a mandala. It would still be special, she was sure… but there would be another purpose to it beyond consummating their marriage. In fact, making love would be on the back burner.

She began to feel herself dissolving...

Draco is right, she decided, it isn't how either of us ought to be taking one another's virginity.

Of course he was right.

.

.

That evening, Hermione marched down to the Slytherin common room to seek out Ginny. Her friend had been working on some homework in the common area with some other seventh years all preparing to take their NEWTs, but upon seeing Hermione's face, Ginny closed her textbook and dragged her into her dormitory. The room was mercifully empty.

Ginny cast a Muffliato on the door, explaining, "Slytherins."

Hermione only nodded.

"Tell me about it," she soothed, taking her hand.

She told her everything that had occurred in McGonagall's study, and afterward with Draco, including what they had agreed to do. An excellent audience, Ginny waited for Hermione to finish before speaking.

"I don't know what to do," Hermione groaned.

"Yes, you do."

She looked up, questioning.

Ginny clarified, "You know what you have to do. You can't go around forever with that… thing… on your arm."

Both girls' eyes were drawn to the place on Hermione's left forearm where Draco's Dark Mark was burned into her skin, a carbon copy of his.

"I know I can't," she agreed.

"What you don't know, is how to cope."

"Come again?"

Leaping off the bed, Ginny began to rummage through her trunk at the foot. It was not long before her red hair surfaced again like a sunrise, only this time, she was clutching two magazines in her hands. She bounded back into bed, but this time snuggled up against her friend and handed her one of the magazines. The front featured a busty, blonde witch wearing mere scraps of clothing.

To gloomy to be taken aback, Hermione deadpanned, "Is this porn, Ginny?"

"Of course not, it's a catalogue."

She looked back down at what was in her hands. The catalogue seemed generic enough, but there were several headlines on the front cover that screamed things like 'Your Figure Defined By Fashion' or 'Our Prettiest Collection of Lingerie Looks' or 'The Bride's Guide', among others. Hermione glanced back at Ginny, but the girl already had her own catalogue open and was flipping through it.

"Look at this one," she said, thrusting a page under Hermione's nose and pointing to a picture of a brunette modelling a silken piece of nightwear with a neckline that went down to her navel. Hermione suspected the model was holding it in place using sticking charms.

She sighed, "I can't do this, Ginny. This isn't going to help."

"It will," the other girl insisted, taking her catalogue back and rifling through a few pages. "Here, look at this one. When you wear it, everywhere he touches will become invisible…"

Hermione speared her with a look.

Oblivious, she plugged along, flipping pages and exclaiming, "Or this one! Wait, no… not that one. That one zaps you in the nethers whenever he touches you. I think that's for people who are into kink…"

"I appreciate what you're trying to do, Ginny, I really do… but we can't take anything that isn't made of natural fibers into the mandala anyway. In fact, the sisters suggest not wearing anything at all."

"Oh, Hermione, you sweet, innocent thing, you," the other girl sighed, throwing the catalogue aside. "Harry and I only had an alright first time, but you are going to benefit from my newfound knowledge. You will look pretty - not just for him, but for yourself. We will find something compatible…"

"But…"

"I wasn't done. There will also be foreplay, and lots of it - or you are going to be too nervous to enjoy it…"

"But, Ginny…"

She picked up the catalogue again and brandished it at her, "You want this to be special, don't you?"

"I… do, yes…"

"Well then," she retorted, licking her finger to flip to the next page of the catalogue, "this is one way you do it."

In the end, Ginny decided Hermione should order a silvery negligee. ("A nod to his former-Slytherin-y self, Hermione," Ginny had grinned, "and it's silk. That's natural, right?"). Nonplussed, Hermione had agreed, in large part just to keep Ginny quiet and so they could stop rifling through the catalogues. She'd had quite enough.

"I'll just tack it on to my order," Ginny offered. "I was planning to order something special for Harry anyway."

Hermione groaned, "Harry! How am I going to explain to him and Ron about this?"

"The boys do not need to know the particulars of this one," Ginny growled, "it's none of their business."

"But I promised not to keep secrets…"

"I will tell Harry just enough to make him not ask questions."

"Oh, but…"

"Consider their past with Malfoy, Hermione," she entreated. "I don't have that, really - despite that if it weren't for Lucius Malfoy, I would never have had to go through everything I did in first year with Riddle's diary. But that wasn't Draco's fault."

Frowning deeply, Hermione opened her mouth, then shut it again.

"You just leave it to me. I will make those boys understand. This is highly personal - and I am so glad you shared with me."

"Yes, well, I learned my lesson the hard way."

Smiling sympathetically, Ginny clearly appreciated the sentiment, though she did not say so. "Well, regardless of the reason you've decided to finally shag Malfoy, you're going to need a few things. I am going to snag some five-hour contraceptive potion from Madam Pomfrey. We don't need you getting impregnated with little ferret babies."

Hermione had not thought of that. Suddenly, she was glad she had gone to Ginny.

"You know, I feel like I missed an opportunity with Harry," the witch mused contemplatively. "I mean, he's a great wizard - imagine what sorts of powers we could have harnessed with this kundalini thing?"

"That's… just…" Hermione sighed. "Why do you say things like that? You know they fluster me."

"That's why I say them."

She rubbed her forearm. "Slytherin is really rubbing off on you…"

"Yeah," the other girl agreed, not at all ashamed.

But as the girls put together a plan of action for the vernal equinox (which was still over a month away), a surge of mixed emotions was spiraling through Hermione's mind. This was all for Draco, not her. Sure, she did not really want to be stuck with his Dark Mark for the rest of her life either, but more than that, she wanted him to be free. Free of his Mark, his scars, his arthritis… all the reminders of the war, and of times when he had no control over his own life.

Why couldn't he understand that?

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Author's Note: I've posted two chapters at once, so you should start with Chapter 60 and then come here. Hope everyone figured that out already...

Beta appreciation to I was BOTWP for this chapter. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Additionally, alpha cred to Witches-Britches for spending literal hours with me devising different types of wizarding lingerie, most of which did not even make it into this chapter. Good times.

I also appreciate everyone who takes the time to leave a review. How do you feel about the new developments? People have so many varied opinions on this story, I'm so curious!