It was a joy to participate in 2016 Do Me Veela fest again this year! Thank you to Unseen1969 for the wonderful prompt (which well and truly ran away from me...) and to Kanames Harisen for betaing for me again :)

Should probably warn for brief instances of self-harm and mentions of suicidal thoughts/previous unsuccessful attempts, but nothing terribly graphic.

A little way into the story, Blaise says this: "…I'm sure you're very well justified in your assault on my decanter." I borrowed this line from the BBC Sherlock special, 'The Abominable Bride'. Every line of dialogue Sherlock speaks in that one is just so delightfully snarky and fit so perfectly into my Blaise headcanon so I just had to use at least one line. I changed it around a bit, but it's similar enough that I think it's worth mentioning. Also, the book passage that Draco reads further in is from 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter characters are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.


He's run out of orange juice at home.

Oh, and crumpets. Mustn't forget those, either. He's gotten into a wonderful routine with his mornings as of late, with his juice and crumpets and far more butter than his heart should be able to handle. He'll be most cranky if he can't have his preferred breakfast the following morning.

But he has become strangely fond of porridge as of late. Strange, because he hated the stuff with a blinding passion when he was younger. He won't be that upset if he has to have that instead, if he can't swing by the shops on his way home. He's still got that jar of brown sugar he likes to sprinkle on top of it that makes it taste kind of like caramel, and he knows for sure he's still got that strawberry tea he likes to pair with it, not to mention –

"Oh, oh, Dragon!"

Oh, right.

He braces his arms on either side of the woman's head and grinds his hips into hers. She crows her delight, her long red hair fanned out like a river of flames. She scores the length of his back with her false nails, painted a bright shade of neon pink, and tosses her head back against the hotel pillow, mouth parted in a silent scream.

She comes hard around his cock with another lustful moan, dragging him over the edge with her. He falls along his side and grins in the sweaty aftermath, running a hand up and down the woman's sticky arm.

This one isn't his Mate, either.

Damn shame, that.

"That's five hundred Galleons, sweetheart. Will that be cash or Gringotts deposit?"

XXX

"It's the dream, Draco. We're living the fucking dream."

Draco isn't sure what sort person would grow up dreaming of becoming a high-class escort, but if he had to guess anyone, it would be Blaise Zabini a thousand times over.

But for a young man with Veela blood that has to find his one Mate in a population of billions before he reaches the ripe old age of thirty?

What other career choice is there?

Tick fucking tock. He turns twenty-eight this year, too.

Blaise sighs and tosses himself onto the ancient chaise lounge. It creaks beneath his lanky frame, showing its age and distinct lack of character. Draco's mother will have to find a new argument to fall back on when he tells her it needs to go. It's a delicate balance he walks with his mother; his relationship with that chaise had been a precarious one when she gifted it to him on moving into his own space – "It's an antique, Draco. Can't you appreciate good craftsmanship?" – but he can't just get rid of it, can't he? No, it needs to sound like her idea.

"Sure," he agrees, landing on the opposite armchair, a leather recliner that had been all his idea, because he can appreciate good craftsmanship just fine, Mother. He kicks his feet over the side and lets the high arm-rests cradle him. His mother would be outraged, but that's half the fun, isn't it? He can't score his jollies from his sodding life. "The fucking dream."

It comes out far more sarcastic than Draco intends, but if Blaise even notices his reaction is lost to the void. He pours them both a drink from the decanter that seems to just live on his coffee table and never seems to empty. Elves or magic, he doesn't know who to credit, but something deserves a fucking reward for keeping him in booze.

Which, by Merlin, they deserve. No impromptu staff meeting – the term used in its most generous sense – between them ever got off the ground without some generous libations to start.

"I wish you wouldn't take such liberties with my furniture, by the way," he says, sliding the glass across the low table between them.

"La vostra casa è la mia casa. So, how was last night, Dragon?"

Blaise wiggles his eyebrows and Draco draws on every bit of mental fortitude he has to keep from slapping them right off his face. It'd been Blaise's ridiculous idea to use pseudonyms in the first place – as if they weren't recognisable enough from their respective parts in the war already – and it'd not been his idea to go by Dragon, of all stupid things, regardless of the Latin roots of his name.

It could be worse, though. Not long after he decided codes names were not a novelty, but a necessity, Blaise had decided to go by Black Mamba.

"Like the snake!" Blaise had told him, eyes bright. "Because I'm Slytherin. Not to mention, also black and very serpent-like."

Draco had been too apprehensive to ask where the serpent-like similarities began and ended, but tended towards a theory that Blaise's mouthful of a codename was only a foreshadowing of other unholy mouthfuls to come.

At least the other men in their agency chose decent-sounding, normal pseudonyms – normal being entirely subjective, of course – like Fox and Tiger and Wolf, even if they were only there to round out the numbers. Merlin knew what sort of deviant establishment people would think they were running with just two blokes manning the helm.

"As expected," he replies, tapping his fingers against his knee, probing for the nerve that'll send his leg into a fit of twitching and kicking. "Uneventful."

"No luck, then?"

Draco sighs and stretches his limbs out until his muscles scream then sing. He's been cramping ever since he woke up that morning. He wonders how Clarissa – or was it Claire? Cassandra? It was a C name, he remembers that – fared on waking. Can she still walk, talk, sit, stand…

"No luck," he confirms.

"She was still a solid fuck though, right?"

Draco laughs. "She was all right."

"Just all right?" Blaise laments. "Merlin, we've been spoiled."

Utterly desensitised, more like. When even was the last time he found himself enjoying sex, or fucked someone just because he felt like it? Dare he think it, he's almost bored.

And he can't even say anything. The whole sordid venture had been his idea.

And, gosh. Blaise just seems so happy.

"Can I ask you something, though?"

Draco sighs and pours another drink. "No doubt you will anyway."

Blaise leans forward, elbows on knees, an expectant expression curving his lips. "How do you handle it?"

Draco sips at the smooth, aged Firewhisky. It burns his throat and soothes like cream in turn, just as it should. Well worth the thousand Galleons he spent on it. "Handle what?"

"Screwing your way through an unholy amount of women just to find one."

He swishes his glass around, playing a game as he keeps the liquor from overflowing. "I've been asking myself that question an awful lot as of late."

"Did you ever come up with an answer?"

"I suppose… I don't have much choice, do I? Doing this, I have maximum exposure to women–"

Blaise snorts. "You could get that working at a bloody grocers."

"No one would come back to my grocers if I insisted on taking snogs as payment," Draco snarks back. "Intimate contact is the only way I can verify it."

"I think you'd get plenty of customers of you took snogs as payment," Blaise refutes, stroking his stubbled chin. "In fact, I think it's a sound business venture."

"You would. In any case, I've been whoring myself out this long," Draco says, his voice bitter. "Might as well keep going."

"And the Veela won't give a shit?"

"About what?"

"About the scores of women you fuck who obviously aren't its mate?" he clarifies. "Your 'whoring yourself out', so to speak."

"You swear far too much," Draco comments. "What would your mother say?"

Blaise rolls his eyes. "My mother wouldn't have two Galleons to rub together if it weren't for me. I doubt she cares. But seriously; does it… you know, hurt? It can't be good."

Draco takes another long drag of liquor and begins to feel warm and fuzzy around the edges. "It doesn't right now, though I suspect it might once I meet… her." He stops for a moment to contemplate the moment he's held aloft on a pedestal since he was old enough to understand his heritage: the moment of first contact between himself and his Mate. It's all clichéd and sparkling, but after hearing the nauseating romantic tales of his parent's and grandparent's first meetings, he can't envision it any other way.

He reaches across the table and swats Blaise's face. "Stop romanticising it, you twat. The process isn't that sweet."

"Pardon me for having nothing but erotic fiction, womanly swoons and that Delacour bird to base any of my assumptions off," Blaise retorts. "You don't tell me jack shit, except for a cursory, oh, and by the way, I'm Veela, and if I don't find my Mate before I turn thirty, I might croak. What do you expect me to think?"

"I have no expectations," Draco says with a flippant wave of his hand. "It's not your problem. I didn't ask you to follow me into this. You latched on like a bad smell and now I'll never be rid of you."

Blaise snorts into his glass. "Like you could have done any of this without my help."

"Excuse me? I could have built this entirely on my own. Need I remind you I've lived and breathed the family business since I was old enough to appreciate it?"

"Yeah, corporations. Heartless, soulless, vacuous machines that probably test on animals, are run exclusively by old white men, and have no thought beyond their own bottom line."

Draco barks a laugh. "Right. Nothing like the friendly, neighbourhood escort service."

Blaise grins. "Wholesome little venture, isn't it?"

They share a short chuckle, a mutual acceptance of apologies, then Blaise asks, "Do you really want your mate to be the sort of woman who… pays for company?"

Draco shrugs, idle fingers toying with a loose thread in the thigh of his trousers. What shitty craftsmanship – he bought them just a week ago. "Far be it from me to judge how she's spending her time in the interim."

"In the interim." Blaise repeats, laughing. "Like she's splitting her life into Pre-Draco and Post-Draco."

"In a manner of speaking, she is. Or, at least, Pre-mate and Post-mate. It's sure to be a change for her as well."

"I can imagine. How would one adjust to suddenly having the focussed attention and affection of a male Veela on them all day, every day? I'd have to imagine it being pretty fucking intense."

Draco groans, leaning forward to touch his forehead to his knees. The motion awakens a nasty twinge in his back, but he can't bring himself to care. "Stop imagining it, please."

"Too late. Hey, how unreal would the sex be? Is it all emotions and connectedness and tantric deep-breathing what-knot, or is it a hard-and-fast fuck-fest where your stamina doesn't even flag? How many times do you reckon you could get her to come in one night?"

Draco shakes his head and plots his imminent escape.

XXX

There's an appointment jotted down in his diary that he doesn't recall making, nor is it in his writing.

HG, 1pm. Office.

Who the fuck is HG, and why are they pencilled in during his usual lunch time?

It is these exact situations which prove why he has no desire for a secretary, but someone seems to have taken up the mantle on their own anyway – Blaise. Draco is going to skin them when he finds out who they are – Blaise.

There's no contact information for this mysterious HG, either, so he can't even call them back and reschedule for another time – a time where he doesn't have a lunch reservation at Poseidon's, the foremost seafood restaurant in wizarding London.

It's half-twelve and Draco is already starving. With a heavy heart, he writes a note cancelling his reservation and sends it off with his most sombre-looking owl. Fuck knows when he can get in there for lunch again; he'd had today's reservation booked away for over a month, and no one else does a salmon wellington quite like they do.

Time flies as he daydreams about what he's going to eat when he's got the time. He's tossing up between a gourmet steak burger from the pub down the road and a good chicken korma with garlic naan when there's a knock on the heavy teak door –

"Malfoy?"

Oh, stars above, but he'd recognise that shrill, judgemental screech anywhere.

He doesn't stand to receive her. That would be polite, after all. Instead, his twists his chair to face the front of the room.

And blow him the fuck down if she hasn't grown into one of the most gorgeous creatures he's ever seen.

Hermione Granger stands in his doorway, looking as far away from a Hogwarts' school girl as it's possible to get: she's clad in black, slim-fit pants that disappear into heeled brown boots. Her silk blouse is ruby-red, unbuttoned just enough to show a slim triangle of golden skin. Her hair has been cut since last he saw, hanging in tight, wild curls just above her shoulders. Her petal-pink lips are twisted in a scowl, and he gets the impression there are a thousand other places she would rather be.

He can think of a thousand other places he'd rather have her, too.

He's gleeful when he realises he will, too. Nobody makes an appointment with an escort for tea and biscuits.

"Granger." He smirks and offers, "To what do I owe the horror?"

He can't help it. His charm goes right off by the wayside whenever Hermione Granger is in the same room. She's like a black hole for charisma, slowly sucking the room dry.

There's so much she wants to say just simmering below the surface. She doesn't give him the satisfaction, though. Instead, he has to admire her restraint when she grits her jaw and reaches into her shitty cloth handbag – an odd finish to such an impeccable outfit – decorated with a pattern of tessellated shapes that has his eyes crossing every which way just looking at it, and brings forth a small stack of card in varying shapes, colours and textures.

"I owe this horror to six others," she tells him, fanning the cards out on his desk. They're all invitations, to weddings, balls and other humdrum parties.

"I require a… companion to join me for a series of events this coming summer." She takes a seat opposite him and pushes the invitations towards him. "A ball, an engagement party and the subsequent wedding. There are some other smaller events, too – a christening and a bookstore opening – but if you're unable to attend those, it won't be a problem."

He reads the looping script on them all. There's not a name he recognises in the bunch.

"They're all Muggle," she clarifies, as though reading his mind.

"Muggle," he repeats.

"Yes, Muggle." She narrows her eyes, daring him. "I trust that won't be an issue?"

"Of course not," he answers, all tact and diplomacy. "I understand why Weasley wouldn't be your first choice for such venues, but surely Potter would be… preferable, since our history is so… volatile."

"I'm not issuing an edict which says you must accompany me," she says, her tone turning frosty. "I can leave and take my business elsewhere if you would prefer?"

"No, it's fine," he says, because the payment for his services could be given to his mother to aid with the care of the Malfoy peacocks, expensive little bastards they are. "But why me?"

She shifts in her seat, and he revels in her sudden discomfort, because it can't be anywhere near as terrible as his. "You came… recommended."

He quirks a brow and feels his lips pull into a grin. "Recommended?" His insides cackle. "Pray tell, who in Hermione Granger's circle of prude friends has payed me for a fuck?"

Her eyes seethe. Look at that; an Avada Kedavra can be condensed into a single look. "She's a work colleague," she tells him, without elaborating. He'd never be able to guess, either; trite discussions of their occupations, hobbies, hopes and dreams are never on the table – or bed, as it were – when he meets with a client. "She told me you were…" She screws up her face, like she's tasted something unpleasant. "Trustworthy."

He snorts. "Trustworthy? Granger, I'm more than certain that you've got about a thousand adjectives in that head of yours to describe me, and I'd wager not one of them is synonymous with trustworthy." He leans forward in his seat, smirking, because he has her cornered now. "Why are you hiring me, Granger? You could have some hapless Muggle eating out of the palm of your hand for a far lesser price than I."

"I'd rather not have to hide who I am," she replies, her head held high. "I know you, what you are, as you know what I am. It's easier that way."

"You know, most people use escort services for their anonymity, not because the escort is an acquaintance or old school chum."

"I can't do this with a stranger," she bites back, eyes flashing. "I won't."

He quirks a brow at her, but decides not to press further. "All right," he says, dropping his gaze back to the invitations. Formal dress, smart-casual dress, enclosed shoes – fuck, it's like Muggle events are run exclusively by fascist clothing dictators.

"Besides," she says moments later, quiet as a mouse, her cheeks flushing red, "you aren't terrible to look at."

Draco barks out a laugh. "Hermione Granger: as shallow as the rest of us."

She glares at him some more, but the effect of it is lost when taken in tandem with the high flush of her cheeks. "Can we proceed, please?"

He gestures to the air. "By all means."

She folds her hands in her lap, crossing her legs at her ankles. He has to blink twice to make certain he's not looking at a Greengrass sister or other such pure-blood bitch horror. "This will be a non-sexual arrangement."

He barks out a laugh before realising she's being serious. He can't say he's ever taken part in a platonic arrangement. "You do realise this company was built on the expectation of sexual arrangements, don't you, Granger?"

"I'll only be requiring your services on the days of the events," she goes on, like he never even spoke. If it were anyone else he'd be miffed at them speaking over him – with her, he expects nothing less. "Three hours or fewer per day or evening at the very most, but you will be compensated in the event that anything runs overlong. The ball, the engagement party and the wedding…" She trails off with a cough. "At those events, I'll allow a degree of physical contact. I'll be requiring you to pose as a… a…"

"Boyfriend?" he ventures. "Lover? Fiancé?"

"Any of those," she says, her voice squeaky, with a dismissive wave. "Someone with whom I could possibly be having a physical relationship with."

He clucks his tongue. "Overbearing family? Grandparents afraid of you dying single and alone?"

Her answering laugh is flustered and tense, like it could snap at any moment. "You could say that."

Draco ponders the information. It's tempting – that he could see a side of Granger with her hair down tickles him more than he can explain. He can't deny feeling a little intrigued by Hermione Granger.

Reaching across his desk for a quill, he jots a number down on a scrap of paper and pushes it towards her. It's a standard figure for what she's proposing, if a little less when he factors in the lack of sexual contact. He expects her brows to fly up into her hairline, for her skin to pale or maybe flush, for her to ball the paper up in her fist and throw it back at him.

Instead, she keeps her expression neutral, not even a sliver of emotion crossing her stoic features. What is it like to be wound so tight, he wonders. What does he need to do to unravel her completely?

"That will be fine," she says, nodding. She reaches into her handbag up to her elbow and pulls out a sheaf of Gringotts transfer slips. With a Muggle pen she jots the necessary information down, pulls it from the others, and hands it over.

He takes it from her, deliberately stroking his fingers along hers, and tucks it away in the inner pocket of his coat.

"Well, Granger, it'll be a pleasure doing business with you."

He seals their arrangement as he does with all his clients: Draco moves around his desk to stand in front of her. He offers his hand for her to shake, and when she does, he tugs her forth to press his lips to hers.

What is meant to be a chaste peck… is nothing like that at all.

It's like fire and ecstasy and every orgasm he's ever had all rolled into one, except it's just a bloody kiss and he can't understand why it feels so fucking good.

Granger lets out a soft moan against his lips and the sound of it vibrates through every part of him. He wraps his arms around her waist and pulls her closer, but her body flush against his still isn't close enough.

His hands inch down her waist and toy with the hem of her silken shirt. Fingers play at the soft skin there, raising a wake of goose-bumps that have her shivering in his arms. He goes slow even though it kills him – he can't scare her off. Not now, not ever.

Her mouth parts with a gasp for him to lick his way in, tasting every hidden part of her. She tastes like tea and berries and fire, a heady combination he feels drunk on already. Some dim, distant part of him wonders why she hasn't punched him yet, and can only hope she feels just as intoxicated at that moment as he does.

She has to.

She must.

She does.

Granger's hands reach up and grip his hair, tugging a burning sensation across his scalp, soothing it with gentle rakes of her fingers. Her hips rock against his and he chases the movement back. There's a wild, animalistic rhythm between them that he can't remember establishing but Merlin, who the fuck even cares?

Draco grips her shoulders and spins them around, so the back of her legs bump up against the edge of his desk. He coaxes her down to lie atop it, following her until the length of his body presses against hers. He feels fifteen again as they thrust against each other, his aching cock probing through too many layers for the heat of her, searching for that something, something… something.

It's when his lips abandon hers to lick across the curve of her neck and shoulder that two lines along his back start to tingle and burn. A sharp pain stabs through his gums and he knows the needle-like Veela fangs have sprouted, ready to dose out the Veela chemical concoction. Draco starts to panic, his heart beating like a bird's wing – she can't know, not now.

He wrenches his lips away, taking three long strides backwards until he hits a wall. For a long moment there's no other sound in the room but their frantic, panting breaths, no other scent but the pheromones his body releases and her unmistakeable arousal.

"What on earth," Granger whispers.

She lifts her fingers to her swollen, reddened lips, then pulls them away as though shocked.

What the fuck does she know about feeling shocked?

He's found her. He's found his Mate.

His Mate is Hermione sodding Granger.

Oh, Merlin; he is so fucked.

XXX

Draco stares down at his shaking hands, praying for the tremors stop. He hasn't been able to stop since Granger left his office, just as shaken up as he was. As he still is.

He's been searching for his Mate since he was eighteen. Near on a decade of searching, of travelling, of combing through the population, only to come back to a girl he went to school with. It's like a great, big sick joke – to search and search and search, then to learn she was dangled right under his very nose for seven years. It's unfair, cruel, and perhaps the greatest instance of cosmic justice he's ever seen dispensed.

It's the strangest set of conflicting emotions: horrified; terrified; frustrated; confused; pleased; elated; wonderful; overjoyed.

Whole.

But he can't think of that right now. Can't think straight. Can't think forward. Can't think at all.

He isn't convinced that he's in the right mind to be Apparating, but he can't be fucked scaling the staircase to the floo. That kiss stole everything from him, leaving him bereft. Instead, he untucks his wand from its holster and Apparates straight from his office to the Zabini Mansion.

He used to hate visiting Blaise's home when he was a child. Ms. Zabini possessed a terror that far exceeded his own mother, all propriety and cordiality and snarky ladies lunches where they spread nasty gossip about all and sundry. There were rules for everything that made no sense at all. Why have lounges in your bloody parlour if no one is allowed to sit on them? Why set out finger sandwiches if you're not allowed to grab them with your damn fingers?

Draco lands on the Mansion's doorstep, on top of the rattan door mat reading 'WELCOME' – Blaise's idea of a hilarious joke, he remembers, because when the Mansion was under his mother's thumb, arriving on the doorstep would trigger all manner of nasty wards and curses if one wasn't formally invited, and sometimes even if they were. She had been ropable when she heard of Blaise dismantling them, which only made him more gleeful, of course.

Draco still doesn't want to risk a Bombarda on the lock though, just in case.

He tests the handle and finds it unlocked, hinting at Blaise's indolence. He imagines there's no other job in all the world that could drive Blaise to such distraction that he'd neglect locking his home. Then again, he doesn't think there would be many jobs that would leave an employee in a perpetual sex haze, either. His mother would have his hide if she knew how Blaise treated his home.

Merlin, why the fuck can't he stop thinking about Blaise and his sodding bitch of a mother?

As soon as that thought springs, any pondering of Blaise vanishes, like it was only a breath of a thought to begin with, and Draco is at once reminded of why he was attempting to distract himself in the first place.

Granger. Granger. Grangergrangergrangergrangergranger.

His footfalls are vast and echoing in the sparse, grand space. Draco has to veer to the side to avoid bowling over a procession of house-elves carrying armfuls of linens in his quest to the day room, where he finds Blaise reclined on a chaise lounge. He looks like the worst kind of male escort cliché: white robe opened to the midriff, a bundle of green grapes in a dish to his side, a crystal glass of some wondrous alcoholic beverage in his hand, all the while smiling, his face tipped towards the sun. There are times where Draco wonders if perhaps Blaise enjoys his life just that little bit too much – he's pretty sure you aren't meant to have that much fun.

"Draco," Blaise greets in a lazy, lilting voice as he stumbles through the doorway, tipping his glass at him. "I trust you're faring well this afternoon?"

Blaise has that languid, idle air about him that hints at a long day spent between the sheets. While on a good day, Draco would toast to a job well done, he can't tear his mind off the sight of Hermione Granger's perky arse in her tight trousers when she walked away from him.

Walked away from him.

Walked away from him.

It's like his brain is screaming. The Veela is irate, miserable, furious and a million other things Draco can't discern through the haze of pain and hurt. It had been so close to bursting forth earlier, so close to pulling his Mate tight to him and marking the supple column of her neck with his teeth, so close to dragging her down to the floor with him to fuck her into the carpet…

Draco rushes across the room for the bottle, tipping it back down his throat to take long, gasping gulps of the stuff. He can't even taste it – it could be most rancid, cheapest shit on the market and he'd never know the difference. "Do you mind?" he asks, his throat on fire.

Blaise waves him on, his smile amused and curious. "No, please, go right ahead. I'm sure you're very well justified in your assault on my decanter."

Draco swallows another mouthful, then another before he feels his tongue loosen enough to speak of the horror of the afternoon. "Granger," he rasps, sinking to the floor, taking the bottle with him.

Blaise swishes his own drink in his glass then tips it into his waiting mouth, all in one short gulp. "Bushy-haired, brown-eyed, freakishly smart, perpetual pain-in-your-arse from years gone by that you apparently still haven't gotten over? That Granger?"

Draco takes another long gulp. He can already feel his brain start to numb, which is just fine by him – if he can't think coherently he'd rather not think at all. "The very same."

Blaise watches him out of the very corner of his eye, his lips tipped up in a smirk. "Draco, I think if Granger were ever driving you to drink, you would have pickled yourself to death years ago."

"I saw her today."

Blaise shrugs and tugs the decanter out of his hands to pour himself another drink. "Magical London isn't huge; it was bound to happen at some point. I'll have you know I bumped into Lovegood the other week. Odd bird was wearing carrot greens in her hair."

"Don't play ignorant, you ninny! I didn't just bump into Granger!"

Blaise laughs. "Ninny, am I? She has got your feathers ruffled, hasn't she?"

He almost wants to laugh; it's just too apt. "You have no idea."

Draco can almost see Blaise's ears perk to attention. In the space of seconds, Blaise swivels on his lounge so he's sitting up, sets his glass down on the table, and steeples his fingers, pressing the tips against his lips.

"You're fucking joking," he says, voice quivering with what Draco thinks must be excitement, the tool.

Draco falls across the other lounge and drapes an arm across his eyes, blocking out the harsh rays of afternoon sun. He stifles a sigh; now his arm is going to burn. "Unfortunately not."

"How can you be certain?"

"I just am." Draco sighs and rubs the soft skin of his forearm over his eyes. He'd been sure they'd turned amber earlier, like he'd expected they would in the presence of his Mate, but as far as he knew, nothing had happened – nothing that Granger had admitted to anyway. Would she have bothered, though? Or was she too caught up, like he had been? "I kissed her, and it was like –"

Blaise silences him with a loud clap. "You kissed Hermione Granger?"

Draco moves his arm and lets it hang out to one side. He's got a fantastic career ahead of him in the theatre, he thinks, such is his flair for drama. "I… I'm not sure 'kissed' would be the right word, actually."

Blaise waves a hand over his face. "Mate, you're sporting some damn near literal heart-eyes right now."

"It wasn't a kiss. It was…" He strains for the right words. "An out of body experience. I've never been so aware of… everything."

"And it was good?"

"It was…" He blows out a breath. "Fucking incomparable."

Blaise leans back in his seat, crossing his arms and letting out a loud exhale. "Well, shit," he says, ending with a chuckle.

"Don't worry, it gets even better," Draco laments, some deep, twisted part of him loving the high drama of the situation. "She hired me."

Blaise utters an odd sound at the back of his throat, like he's choking back a laugh. "Double shit."

Draco suffuses his stare with as much scorn as he can muster, which, he can admit, isn't a whole lot with Granger still on his mind. "Could you be reasonable? Just this once, please!"

Blaise uncrosses his arms and tents his fingers before gesturing grandly for him to continue. "Proceed."

Draco drags a hand down his face, his fingers scratching against the light peppering of stubble prickling his chin. "I'm to accompany her – platonically – to six Muggle events over the summer, posing as a boyfriend for reasons only fucking Merlin knows why."

"And?"

"And that's it."

"What's the problem with that?"

"I… I can't… it's not… it's…"

"Correct me if I'm wrong," Blaise starts, cutting into his complete lack of coherent speech, "but, aside from the distinct lack of sex – which you were never going to get unless she was completely on board anyway – I'm not seeing the downfall here." He grins, wide and genuine. "You've found her, mate. Congratulations."

Draco lets out a tired laugh. "She only had to be the most difficult woman in the world."

"Oh, please. As if that Veela intuition wouldn't pick the most perfect woman from the sea of millions, billions, even, as your Mate. She's yours, and you're hers – have been since the days you were born."

There's something comforting in the finality of that statement, that regardless of where he began, there's a definitive ending well within reach.

He wonders if Granger will see it the same way.

"So, when will you tell her? If she doesn't see right through you first, that is."

He's sure the question doesn't merit the intense thought and consideration it provokes. Now or later; both present the same risks.

"At the end," he decides, after Blaise pokes his arm to gain his attention. "When I'm no longer her employee. I'll tell her then."

"And if she doesn't say yes?"

Draco sighs; the very idea makes him shudder. "Then she doesn't say yes."

"And if she doesn't want a whore?"

His frankness, Draco thinks, is both Blaise's best and least redeeming quality, but his nerves are too frayed today to do anything more than release another weary sigh. "Then she doesn't say yes."

XXX

Draco thinks maybe he ought to take himself off the market.

There's a woman bouncing on his cock like it's an Olympic sport, her long black hair flying with each jerk of her body over his, moaning "yes, yes, oh fuck, yes, right there!" over and over again and so bloody loudly that it's a wonder she's still capable of speech at all.

And all he can think about is Hermione. What Hermione would feel like clenched around him; if she would scream or sigh when he thrust into her; if she's as demanding in bed as she was out of it; what Hermione's favourite things are; what she likes to do on the weekend; how she takes her tea; what her stance is on the proposed changes to Diagon Alley's trading hours that he read about in the Prophet the other week…

Guilt presses against the back of his head, burning and stinging his subconscious until he can't ignore it anymore.

He presses the pad of his thumb against the energetic woman's clit and rubs quick, frantic circles. Anything to force this hell to pass faster.

She screams when she comes, and falls forward to land on his chest, her hot, sticky breaths cool on his sweat-slicked chest. He thanks Merlin that she doesn't notice his own lack of orgasm. He doesn't think he could keep from vomiting if she were to try to suck him off.

Instead, her eyes spark as she circles her hips again, the Devil's grin on her lips.

Somehow, that's even worse.

He groans and hopes it sounds something like arousal as he flings his arm over his eyes. He doesn't usually hear the Veela inside him. On a normal day it sits complacent, quiet but ever present in the back of his mind.

Today it rattles its cage and screams.

XXX

He meets Granger at her Knightsbridge flat, a tall, red-brick building in what he knows to be one of London's ponciest suburbs. He pauses in front of her bright blue door and adjusts the lapels of his black Muggle tuxedo. He's worn standard three-piece suits before, but there's an inordinate amount of things going into a tuxedo, and fucked if he knows if he's wearing it all right.

He's a quivering ball of nerves, too, and that, he knows, isn't helping the matter. He's starting to think he should have just sent an owl explaining that he was ill or something. Fuck having his mate pay him to take her on a date. Fuck it.

The door flies open before he even has a chance to knock; it would have been timid and ridiculous, anyway. Granger stands on the threshold, her entire arm and most of her head swallowed by her tiny handbag as she rifles around for some nameless thing or other.

His mouth feels sucked dry and his heart thumps out a frantic tattoo beneath his ribs. Merlin be damned, he's never felt so fucking scared in all his life.

Voldemort has nothing on Hermione Granger.

She hasn't noticed him yet, so he takes a covert moment to drink his Mate in.

She's dressed in a column of floor-length, sapphire blue silk that makes her eyes sparkle and her skin glow. There aren't any embellishments or trinkets to draw the eye, but she is stunning in her simplicity. Demure golden heels add another few inches to her modest height, and she's bare of jewellery save for sparking earrings he suspects are made from true diamonds.

Sweet Merlin, he wants to rip her out of all of it.

Except for the diamonds. He wants to fuck her while she wears nothing but diamonds.

Fucking hell, but what would be the absolute worst thing that could happen if he told her everything and hauled her back to her bedroom?

He fights his body's first and foremost instinct to release the cloud of Veela pheromones that would pull her into his thrall: the first step in the bonding process.

"Oh!" Granger squeaks when she sees him, her cheeks flushing a fetching shade of pink. Her feet fall out from under her and he reaches out to break her fall, twining his arms around hers to grip just below her elbow. Her eyes trail over his face with care, as though memorising the planes, and he finds himself returning the gesture. "Draco," she breathes. "I didn't see you there."

"Apologies," he says, though he doesn't know why, since it's not his fault. He releases his light grip on her and takes a step back. "You look beautiful tonight."

She rolls her eyes at him. "You don't have to say that. Come in for a moment," she says, stepping back. "I won't be long, I just can't seem to find my bank card..."

She disappears down a short, narrow corridor to what he assumes is her bedroom, leaving Draco in the middle of her living room.

"Why not use an Accio?" he calls after her.

"I fear my brain would turn to mush if I didn't at least try to use it on occasion, unlike the vast majority of the wizarding population," she snarks back.

Draco lets out a short chuckle and turns in place to take stock of his surroundings: the flat is small – cramped is a better word – but nice, he supposes. Cosy, even. Warm timber floors and bright colours present a marked contrast to his own central London flat, where shades of whites, greys, silvers and blacks dominate.

A six-tiered bookcase spans the entire length of the main wall – five or six metres wide, he'd guess – and there isn't a spare nook to be seen. What few spaces that aren't cramped with books are covered in a mix of magical and Muggle photographs, and more awards and certificates than he can count.

And then there's the scent. Tea, honey, lavender and Hermione. He could curl up on her plush sofa and never sleep more soundly, he's sure, surrounded by her.

"Found it!" sounds her triumphant cry from the bedroom. Draco is seized by the most insistent urge to traipse down the hall to have a look, see how his Mate lives, see how he could fit into her life, if he could fit into it at all.

Light footsteps sound back down the corridor and Granger reappears flourishing a small piece of plastic.

"It fell down the side of my bed," she tells him as she stuffs it into her charmed bag. "I haven't had to use it for some time."

"What's it for?" he asks, surprising himself with the genuine curiosity that colours his tone.

Her bronze-lined eyes widen with disbelief. "Oh. It's a Muggle device for accessing our bank accounts remotely," she tells him. "Wizards have Gringotts slips. Muggles have these."

"Fascinating," he says, and means it, too. Everything she says is just so interesting. How fast does the Veela work, he wonders. How on earth could he be so far gone for a woman already? "What time are we expected?"

"Um." She glances up at a plain-faced clock on her wall. "Half an hour ago."

He quirks a brow at her. "A fan of the fashionably late entrance, are we?"

She gives an uneasy laugh, a light flush lighting her cheeks. "I don't suppose you'd think any less of me if I told you I was hoping to get out of it?"

"Not at all," he assures her. "With my mother's fondness for throwing the occasional ball, I've become a consummate expert of the 'dine and dash'. Get in, eat the food, and leave as soundlessly as possible."

"A sound strategy for tonight, I think," she agrees with a small smile.

"Then you're in good hands. In any case, am I wearing this right?" he asks, tugging at the starched collar pulling tight around his neck. Just his luck that he might die like this; choked to death in Hermione Granger's flat by a fucking shirt.

He doesn't miss the way Granger's gaze drags up and down his body, lingering here and there before coming back up to meet his face. She looks unimpressed, but he isn't convinced – he can hear the thrum of her pulse from where he's standing, can see her pupils dilate, catch the wet flash of her tongue on her lips.

"You look fine," she states. She takes a gauzy shawl in a matching shade of jewel-blue from a wall hook to her left and wraps it around her slender shoulders. "Shall we?"

Draco crosses the distance between where he stands and the door in three easy strides, then clears the three steps at the base of her door to the grass in one short jump. Granger shuts the door behind them and takes the small flight of steps one-by-one to meet him.

"Thank you for agreeing to this," she tells him as she adjusts her bag and shawl.

"It's nothing," he lies – because in reality, it's everything.

He neglects to remind her, too, that she is in all actuality paying him to be there, but he thinks she could have rejected his figure and renegotiated for a single Sickle per event and he still would have agreed.

"So, this ball," he begins as they amble towards the Apparation point at the end of the street. "What should I know?"

"Well, it's being held for my parents' charity," she tells him. "The Richard and Eleanor Granger Dental Outreach Program. It allows them and a handful of volunteers to travel to underprivileged areas and other third-world countries to perform much needed dental work."

"Sounds like honourable work," he comments, though he cannot fathom in the slightest what dental work entails.

She nods, looking down at the glittering surface of the road under the white streetlights. "It is. What they can do for people with little to no access to medical facilities… it's nothing short of their own magic."

Her voice swells with pride as she speaks. Not just for her parents, but for Muggles at large. For everything her people have been able to accomplish without the aid of magic. He feels another stab of shame for every disparaging remark or thought he's ever made towards Muggles, and for ever making her feel lesser for her heritage.

They reach a secluded corner at the end of her street – the Apparation point.

"May I?" she asks, gesturing for his arm.

Draco nods and steps closer, his heart kicking up a flurry in his chest.

Granger wraps a warm hand through the crook of his arm and side-along Apparates them to a quiet garden at the rear of an old, Elizabethan hall. She can Apparate with near silence, he notes with admiration, a feat even he can't manage after close to a decade.

She still doesn't let go of his arm.

"So," he says as they meander towards the entrance on the other side of the building. "Are we going to need a story?"

She shakes her head. "Not a story, so much. My parents won't be there; they're still doing working in Africa. But if anyone asks – on the off chance it gets back to my parents – I'll be introducing you as my…um, my…"

"As your boyfriend?" he supplies, feeling more chipper at the mere thought.

She blushes some more. "As my boyfriend," she confirms in a whisper.

She leads him down a royal blue carpet leading to a small flight of rounded stairs, lit to a low, gentle light by a stand curved into the shape of a winding vine, covered in tea-light candles.

The only sign of life Draco gleans is the strings of music filtering out into the open. No one is around to greet them but the doorman. Still, Granger opts to lean in close, whispering her words in his ear.

"Just light touches," she reminds him, warm breath raising the fine hairs on his lobe. "A hand on my back or in mine, or tipping your head close to mine should be plenty – nothing to indicate we are anything more than a fledgling couple."

His answering grin is wicked, but more hope than he intends tinges his tone when he asks, "So no more kissing, then?"

Each muscle along the smooth line of her back tenses as every visible patch of skin flushes a bright magenta. Granger turns to face him, her mouth a wide 'O', but the hooded look of her eyes tells him her mind went the same way as his. Her eyes dip down to his lips, going glassy as she takes a mental jaunt back to only a few weeks previous, when he'd held her against his office wall and devoured her whole.

"I… I don't… no," she settles on, shaking her head. "No kissing."

"You're no fun at all," he says as she hands their invitation off to the attendant at the door.

Granger tacks on a sweet smile as they move through the doorway into the opulent ballroom. "I didn't hire you for fun," she tells him. "I'm sure you're more accustomed to…" She coughs and lowers her voice to a hiss, like she's about to speak the unspeakable, "Sexual rendezvous', but that isn't necessary here."

On the contrary, nothing has or ever will be more necessary for his well-being than a sexual rendezvous with her.

The line of blue carpet leads them into a long, though narrow hall that reminds Draco almost of the cathedral near his former Wiltshire home, with its tall, carved-beam ceilings and stained-glass windows. It's more opulent than he expects and scented with history. One second glance, it begins to remind him more of Hogwarts' Great Hall during the fourth year Yule ball, with the tables pushed aside and filled with music and dancing figures in dress robes and gowns.

In the space of a blink, Granger is swarmed upon by people who want to wrap her in a hug and shake her hand. He catches through the din questions about her parents: what their plans for the future are, where they are now, why they aren't there. Some clutch at her arms and try to pull her away from him. Others lean in to try and kiss her cheek. Draco can't abide by any of that…

Draco's hands curl into tight fists, the sharp sting of his extending talons biting into the skin of his palm, a slow burn along cutting along his back where his wings want to burst forth and fan out high and wide around them. He tamps the urge down and scowls at them all. It must be a menacing sight, given the pain coming at him from all directions, because the crowd disperses quicker than he could have imagined. A low rumble comes from somewhere, and he realises then that he was growling.

Granger looks up at him, puzzled at first, then with a scowl of her own.

"No wonder they scampered off like that," she drawls. "I thought escorts were meant to be personable."

"I can't imagine where you got that idea. You must be thinking of gentleman companions," he corrects her, unapologetic. "Paid to do little more than to make polite conversation with lonely women."

"Perhaps I should have employed one of those, then."

"I didn't like the way they swarmed you," he mutters. "Touching you like that…"

"It was fine," she refutes, but she doesn't sound angry at him. "Those people have been working with my parents and pinching my cheeks since I was four."

He still doesn't feel any better.

She nudges him to the edge of the room, where a table lined with full silver platters takes pride of place. He's tossing up between a dainty little crab and avocado morsel and a puff that looks comprised of at least three different cheeses when an elegant-looking man and woman approach them. Granger squeezes his arm so tight he thinks she might leave a cuff of bruises on his skin.

"Oh, God," she whispers.

"What?" he says, matching her low tone and following her gaze with his. "Who are they?"

"My parents," she tells him through clenched teeth.

He furrows his brows together. "Didn't you say they wouldn't be here?"

"I didn't think they would be!" she hisses. "Mum told me just a week ago how disappointed she and Dad were to be missing this since they were still in Somalia and weren't expected back until sometime next week. It's the entire reason I'm here; apparently there needs to be at least one Granger tiding things over."

Draco doesn't miss the bitterness in her tone, so he does the only thing he can think of in that moment: he wraps an arm around her shoulder and pulls her close, angling them just so, so that it might look to someone standing behind them that they're kissing. He watches as the elder couple approach, her mother with a sly grin, her father with a deep-set scowl aimed right at him.

So that's where Granger learned to glare.

"Hermione!" her mother cries out, darting out of her husband's hold to take her daughter up in a hug. Draco lets her go just in time to be swept up and steps back to watch the minor family reunion.

"Mum." She gasps. "Hello."

"We got back early!" her mother says, like it's the grandest news to ever be delivered. Draco has no idea how a woman so exuberant spawned a daughter like Hermione Granger. "We had an opportunity to change to an earlier flight and we took it!"

"And here we are," her father concludes, draining a glass of what looks like scotch. "In the flesh."

"Don't mind him," Mrs. Granger says, shooting a glare at her husband. "He's had a headache since we boarded. So," she gestures towards him, a grin splitting her burgundy-stained lips. "Who's this?"

"Mum, Dad," Granger says, her slow, careful tone one of a teenager caught red-handed with something naughty. "I'd like you to meet Dra…mien. Damien. Damien Mal…tese."

She could have called him the Fairy Prince of Atlantis, and he's sure he still would have rolled with it.

"Damien," she says, begging him with her eyes. "These are my parents, Richard and Eleanor Granger."

"Charmed," Draco says, pasting on a winning grin. He offers a hand, but is left hanging a beat too long when Mr. Granger doesn't even twitch towards it. Draco lets his hand fall back to his side before the moment becomes too awkward.

"How do you know my daughter?" Richard demands.

"Dad, please," Granger mutters, nowhere near loud enough to be heard.

"It's fine, love," Draco says, setting a hand on her arm. "He's your father; I'd be more concerned if he wasn't worried." Turning back to her father, Draco spins a yarn. "We were introduced by mutual friends at a garden party two months ago, and I must say, sparks flew. Given how long we've both had this mutual friend, I find it's a wonder we weren't introduced before now." He takes Granger's hand in his and presses a kiss to the back of her palm. "I can't imagine now how I ever got along without her."

Mrs. Granger bestows on him a delighted smile while her husband continues to glare holes through him. She's a small, dainty woman, who almost reminds him of his own mother in every way but colouring – where his own mother is blonde with the bluest eyes he's ever seen, Mrs. Granger has eyes the colour of toasted almonds, with a riotous head of curls so dark they're almost black.

"Ignore my husband," she says, her voice warm and honeyed, like she's already adopted him as her son-in-law, as she plucks a tall glass of champagne from a circling server. "It is so lovely to meet you, Damien! Though I can't say Hermione has ever spoken of you." She shoots her daughter a pointed look.

"It's new for both of us," he says, tugging Granger against his side. She comes without a fight, though, tucking herself under his arm and settling a hand over his chest. He wills the thunderous beat of his heart to quiet; even under the too-many layers of his tux, he's sure she can feel the wild rhythm of it. "My joining your daughter tonight was a last-minute decision."

"Oh, but you two look lovely together! Don't they, Richard?"

Richard grunts, then averts his eyes to the food.

"Mum," Granger cuts in, her hand curling into a fist against his chest. "Damien and I haven't eaten yet, and I'm feeling a bit peckish, so I think we might –"

Her mother hums around a mouthful of champagne. "Of course, of course." She turns back to her husband and wraps her arm through his. "We'll be needing to chat to the backers, won't we, love?"

Richard grunts out something that sounds almost like an affirmative before glaring daggers at Draco as he leads his wife away. Eleanor turns back and offers a loud, "Ta-ta, darlings!" as she melts into the throng.

At his side, he feels Granger relax, letting out a deep breath.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs close to his neck. "I truly had no idea they'd be here."

"It's all right," he whispers back. "It was bound to happen at some point, wasn't it?"

By the look on her face, he can tell that it most certainly was not. Not ever if she could have ever helped it.

"So, Damien Maltese?" he questions once her parents are well out of earshot. He'd laugh if it wasn't such a horrific moniker. "That was the best you could come up with?"

"Sorry," she says on a sigh. "It's just, they know your real name, and that's… that wouldn't be any good."

"Why?" She shakes her head and begins to move away. Draco catches the crook of her arm, pulling her back until they're standing nose to nose. A fledgling couple can stand like this in a crowded room, right? "Why can't your parents know who I am?" His face scrunches in confusion. "How do they know my name at all?"

"Take a wild guess, Draco," she deadpans. "In my first year, who do you think I cried about the most, hmm?"

It creeps up on him; the hot wave of shame that courses his body and scalds his veins. Draco drops his eyes to the floor and fights the urge to punish himself, to release his wings and pluck out the glossy black feathers one by bleeding one. Hmm. That's new.

"Correct," she tells him, all prissy and prim and just so fucking sexy. "If they knew who you are, I don't think you could walk away from here tonight. Literally speaking."

There's a quiet moment where everything he feels – the guilt, the regret, the fear – sinks in and settles for the long haul. He's not sure what he could do, for however long they may get together, to ever make up for all the shit he put her through when they were kids. "Then why hire me at all?" he asks, puzzled. "You've made this whole situation needlessly complex."

It's one of the first times he's ever seen Granger speechless. Not for lack of trying, though; her jaw is wavering up and down for words that aren't there.

"I… I didn't want to be doing this with a stranger."

"You said that before, Granger, but I call bull shit. We haven't spoken since leaving Hogwarts," he reminds her. "We fucking are strangers."

"Leave, then!" she exclaims, a little too loud over the gentle music. Dozens of people turn to watch them, eyes wide and mouths salivating at the promise of oncoming drama. "You can leave now," she says, quieter this time. "It's fine. If my parents are here I'm not likely to stay much longer either."

And waste all that effort, and that pretty dress, by putting herself to bed before the sun even sets? Now that would be a damn shame.

He hums and taps a finger to his lips, acting out an elaborate production of pondering. "No, I don't think so. You see, women pay quite a bit for the pleasure of my company, and you're no exception even though you and your straight laces probably think you are. I'd rather see you get your money's worth and give you a night worth remembering."

At that, he sweeps her into his arms and leads her out onto the dance floor.

"Draco!" She laughs. He takes that as a good sign. "What on earth are you doing?"

"I've been attending balls for years, Granger. I have it on good authority that dancing is a must."

"You've also admitted to 'dining and dashing' at balls for years."

"Both are acceptable forms of event appreciation. If I simply stood there like a stunned fish it might be different."

"Of course," she says, her lips quirked up in a wry smile. She allows him to take her hand in his and settles the other on the curve of his upper arm. "Lead on, then, Dragon."

"Please, Granger, either my real name or the heinously false name you dubbed me with will suffice."

"Is that so?" she asks, one wry eyebrow quirked. "Then I must insist you call me by my real name also."

"I'm not certain I've ever uttered your fist name before. Such a mouthful."

"Well, maybe you ought to give it a go sometime. After all, no one is going to buy our whirlwind romance if you never say my name. It isn't that hard."

He's quiet for a minute, hamming up his expression of careful deliberation for all it's worth. "No, I suppose if Weasley could get his tongue around it, it couldn't be that difficult."

"It's been ten years and I doubt you've seen him once," she tells him, smiling despite herself. "Maybe you can let go of that little feud?"

He wants to laugh. She could ask him for just about anything and he'd always say yes so long as she was smiling at him like that. "I could try," he ventures, as though the whole thing is some terrible, monumental effort he'd rather avoid, which, yes; it probably is. "Be the bigger man and all."

Her smile widens into something breathtaking. There is nowhere else he'd rather have her than in his arms, to stay drunk on her scent and feel and that glorious sensation of wholeness for as long as is possible.

The dance is pleasant, but mechanical, but not through any fault of her own. A soundtrack of classical ballet scores is far less conducive to dancing than he would have expected. Everyone moves at the same time like a cluster of trained dolls, moving to the same highs and lows.

But it's still easy to lose himself in the fantasy of having her like this, always and forever. Too easy; it scares him how much he wants and needs her already. He wonders how other Veela managed, having to delay themselves while still feeling the intense, all-encompassing pull. It's not often that he thinks on it, but for a moment he wishes his father was still with him; complete arsehole or not, Draco's sure Lucius would have had a few words of wisdom to offer.

When the dance ends, he's still not ready to let her go. He doesn't even care if it's just for appearance's sake when Granger slides her hands down to meet his and twists their fingers together. She tugs him back to their table, where she left her bag and shawl, and collects them, draping them over her slim arm.

She still hasn't let go of his hand.

Draco stares at the way their fingers are wrapped around one another's.

It's fucking fascinating.

Granger looks out over the twirling crowd. Her parents have been cornered by an official-looking man with a great, white beard, and are deep in animated conversation.

"I'll call them tomorrow," she says, more to herself. "Are you ready to leave?"

He nods as she tugs him towards the exit. He'd let her lead him anywhere.

It's quiet save for the chirping of unseen crickets when they reach the rear of the building again. When she Apparates them back, he holds onto her hand just that little bit tighter. For a fraction of a moment, he swore he could feel her squeeze back.

Her street is bright with reflected light off the damp surface, loud with the rumble of cars moving up and down the nearby highway, pungent with spices from her neighbour's cooking.

All the while, she still holds his hand.

When they reach her bright blue front door once more, he severs the silence between them.

"I trust this evening went along with your expectations?" he asks.

"Aside from my parents being there," she wryly says, "I think so, not that they were spectacularly high to begin with."

"Oh, come now." He scoffs. "It wasn't all bad."

"No," Granger muses. "I don't suppose it was. The food was nice." She pauses and smiles. "And, I guess I appreciated the company, too."

She reaches for the polished, golden handle of her door and twists it open.

"Thank you, Draco," she says. "I'll contact you again soon."

She disappears inside her flat and closes the door behind her. Draco thinks that however soon she contacts him can't possibly be soon enough.

XXX

When Draco wakes up the following morning, it takes every ounce of fortitude he has in him not to roll over to the side of his bed to heave his guts out all over his plush-pile carpet.

It's like the beginnings of a flu, only a thousand times worse. He feels almost as though he's been trampled by a string of wild horses, all with molten shoes adhered to their hooves. Any time he so much as twitches it sends a white-hot bolt of pain lancing through him, robbing him of his vision and his balance until he's sure it would be easier to just roll onto the floor and just give up.

It's from the constant holding back the night before. It can't be anything else. Fighting the urge to hold her hand, to kiss her like he did that first day over and over again, or even just feel the skin of her arm slide against his… it's a literal war his Veela is waging against his body, and he fears his body is losing.

Still, it's many, many hours and incalculable doses of pain potion later before he starts to feel better. He still cancels his appointment for later that night on account of his doubts of being able to do anything more than lie there perfectly still out of fear of vomiting all down the woman's front. And even then there aren't any guarantees.

A week later, though, the pain comes back, magnified and concentrated a million-fold. It's not proximity to his Mate that's trying to rip him apart now: it's the lack thereof. Of knowing who his Mate is and where she lives, and of having touched her once and not touched her again since. Of having all that knowledge, and doing nothing with it.

There are some archaic laws, and some despicable, old-fashioned folks out there that seem to think that it's well within a Veela's rights to take his or her Mate by force – to hold them down and induce the Mating process against their will. Nothing sickens Draco, or makes him want to punish himself more than the idea of robbing Granger of her choice to be with him. Why would anyone be supportive of that, in any situation? Who gives a fuck if he dies because he can't have her? Wouldn't that still be better than forcing her?

It's only after Blaise breaks down his door – front door, hall door, bedroom door – and pours an unfamiliar concoction – obtained from fuck knows where – down his throat, that Draco can even stand on his own two feet again. He's still groggy and half-stuck in the back of his own mind, but it's nothing three large doses of Pepper-Up doesn't help.

Once a week over the course of a month, Blaise comes back and does this for him, while Draco counts down the minutes, hours, days, weeks, before he can see Hermione Granger again.

XXX

Draco definitely needs to take himself off the market.

It doesn't help that this woman bears an uncanny likeness to Granger. Curly hair that's similar, but not quite. Brown eyes, but still a few shades off. Freckles on the bridge of her nose, but nowhere near enough.

Draco gravitated towards this woman more than any other who sought his services in the lull between being Hermione Granger's fake boyfriend again. It doesn't placate the Veela within him quite like he'd hoped it would, though. As it turns out, fucking a woman who bears a resemblance to his Mate doesn't help at all. It's angrier than ever, fighting him at every turn but unable to do anything. The war is giving Draco the most agonizing headaches he's ever experienced.

Draco closes his eyes against the hurt and thrusts his hips, back and forth, back and forth. It's the most mechanical, unfeeling, robotic sex he's ever had, and he's hating every last Merlin-forsaken second of it.

"Mmm, Dragon," the woman moans.

Draco feels the hot sting of bile burn up his throat. The Veela wants nothing more than to wrap his clawed hands around this woman's neck and choke the life out of her, and it's a battle Draco thinks he might be losing.

He can't take it anymore.

He needs Granger.

He needs Hermione.

With a primal yell, he hauls himself off the woman and throws himself to the floor. A cold sweat sets in, sending him into fits of shuddering and shaking in turn. Somewhere in the background he can hear the woman hovering over him, her voice sounding like it's coming from underwater as she calls for him. Draco rolls onto his side so he won't have to face her and waits until he's heard her gather her things and closed the door behind her. He doesn't give a shit if she left money or not – her leaving without question or fanfare is payment enough.

Draco sits up and allows his fingernails to sharpen into the clawed, bird-like talons of the Veela. He draws them down the length of his bared thighs, opening a score of blood that trickles down and pools at his flaccid cock; one line for every woman he's fucked while knowing exactly what Granger is to him.

He doesn't even flinch.

XXX

The grounds of the small manor house look almost aglow in the brightness of the midday sun. The jewel-tone green of the grass is near freakish, and he's certain honeysuckle isn't meant to thrive in such heat. He files away a mental note to ask Granger if she's one-hundred percent certain her Muggle friends don't dabble in witchcraft.

Dressed in a pale grey linen suit, Draco meanders about the pretty grounds with two glasses of sparkling wine in his hands. Random strangers incline their heads at him, like they're long-standing acquaintances. Draco pastes on his coldest look – quite an effort when his Mate is in such close proximity – and strides on by.

He spots Granger off by a rose garden that would have his mother writhing with envy, deep in what he can only assume is frivolous conversation with a woman dressed in something so ostentatious and gaudy and magenta that she could only be the future bride.

As he expects, Draco nears and catches the faint edges of an Indian accent wrapped around a conversation regarding a manuscript about an awful, glamourised retelling of the Titanic.

"… but you just could not tell this girl that the Titanic was a real tragedy!" the woman in magenta is exclaiming. "She genuinely believed it to be some macabre fairy-tale on the high seas that could be chopped and changed and reinterpreted into the happiest of endings. It's a bloody wonder pirates weren't blamed for the sinking in the end! Children these days, Hermione! It's absolutely maddening!"

"We're hardly older than them ourselves, Ravni," Granger supplies, as diplomatic as ever. "Still, it's a rather worrying level of ignorance, isn't it?"

"Oh, my God, Hermione, you don't even know the half of it!" The magenta-woman launches into a near tirade, detailing her many and varied dealings with snotty, privileged types in their early twenties, all looking to be lauded over for having written a novel, regardless of how shitty the content. Draco watches Granger as she nods along at infrequent intervals, the skirt of her floaty, floral dress playing about her knees as she sways side-to-side on her feet.

"Darling," he says by way of greeting when he reaches them. "I thought I lost you in the fray." He holds out a glass for her to take. "For you."

"Thank you, Draco," she says, bestowing him with a warm smile. She lets him wrap an arm around her shoulder and steps into his space without being prodded. "Have you met the bride, Ravni? She and I were good friends in primary school."

"Yes, best friends until you left me for that fancy private boarding school," Ravni jokes. She turns and introduces herself to Draco, who takes her hand in a light grip.

"Pleasure," he says, only half meaning it.

"So," Ravni says, a coy grin on her face as she gestures between him and Granger. "How did you two meet?"

"Uh..." Draco rubs at the back of his neck, heat from the summer sun beating down on his skin. Why doesn't he ever think of sun-repelling charms until it's much too late? "I met her at that fancy private boarding school she left you for."

Ravni gasps. "High school sweethearts!" She swats Granger's arm. "Hermione, you minx! You never told me you had a boyfriend in high school!"

Granger laughs, though it comes off tight and incredulous and damn near disbelieving. "He and I weren't –"

Draco cuts in, "We didn't –"

"We weren't together then," they finish, together.

"Oh." Ravni's daze darts between them, like she's trying to catch them on a lie. "Well, you're making up for lost time, then!"

Granger laughs, another nervous, shaky sound. He can see a light band of beaded sweat dotting her hairline, too. "Not exactly that, either."

"We weren't friends then," Draco supplies. "Not even close."

"Very different crowds," Granger adds, nodding.

"I still think it's sweet," Ravni insists, sniffing. "Hermione, I ought to see if Mark has arrived yet. Have fun, won't you, and do come and find me again. We haven't seen you in years."

Granger nods, taking a sip of her wine. "I will."

"Good. I'll be most disappointed if I hear you've pulled another one of your disappearing acts." Ravni shoots a cheeky look at him. "You'll keep her here, won't you, Draco?"

"I have a feeling I'm only here as ornamentation," Draco says, smirking down at Granger, who widens her eyes at him. "I couldn't possibly force her do anything."

Ravni points a slender finger at Granger, like she's accusing her of something villainous. "Keep him," she says. "Keep him and marry him and never let him go." Without another word, she turns and disappears into the crowd.

"I daresay I just won your friend's approval," Draco says, taking another sip of wine. It's sweet and fruity, a marked difference to the heady, spiced wines that abound in the wizarding world.

"Yes. Lucky you." She surveys the party with a distant, thoughtful gaze. "Perhaps you should be ruder."

"Excuse me?"

"I can't have everyone I know missing you and quizzing me about you when we 'break up'," she explains, looking frustrated. "Better to have you not be so charming right from the start, I think."

"You want me to make a scene at your friend's engagement party?" Draco asks, deadpan. "And at her wedding, too?"

"Not make a scene, just…" Granger trails off with a huff, crossing her arms over her chest. "Don't be so… charming."

He grins, his heart lighter than ever. "You think I'm charming."

She purses her lips at him, but the twinkle of amusement in her eyes never dims. "Too much for your own good."

"Noted." He finishes his wine and looks out over the grounds. "Why aren't I reprising Damien Maltese today, by the way?"

"No one here knows who you are," Granger tells him, sipping at her own drink. "Or what we are, and it's most unlikely my parents will hear anything about today beyond my own retelling." She drinks the last of her wine and sets the empty glass down on a nearby table. "You may be yourself today."

"Thanks ever so," he says, smirking. "So, what does one do at a Muggle engagement party? We've been here all of twenty minutes; I've had a drink, sampled the food and chatted to the bride-to-be. I fear I've done all there is to do."

"We could wait to congratulate the groom?" Granger suggests, though he can tell her heart isn't in it. "He's supposed to arrive soon."

"Late for his own engagement party?" Draco clucks his tongue. "Poor form."

"He's been in Japan for business," Granger informs him, the tiniest smile twisting her lips. "I'm sure he would have been here had he had a choice."

"There's always a choice." Draco looks towards the house, where service staff are filing out of an entrance he assumes is by the kitchen. A line of maybe a dozen servers take their trays and mingle around the crowd, leaving the line to the entrance unhindered and unguarded. An idea springs forth, one better suited to a wayward teenager but no less tempting.

He leans in closer to Granger, taking in another deep breath of calming lavender, and whispers, "Shall we sneak inside?"

Her eyes widen at the suggestion, as though affronted at the audacity of the thought. "What? No!"

But he doesn't back down. He needles at her with, "If we're seen, I'm sure that will create the scene you so wish for me to pull off."

She snorts into her class before setting it down at one of the tiny circular tables dotted throughout the yard. "Don't be ludicrous, Draco."

He scoffs. "Come now, Granger. I'm sure you broke more rules than the rest of us combined during our formative years, despite all your appearances to the contrary."

She drags her teeth along her bottom lip, turning the pink skin there a deeper hue of rose. When that lip curls upwards in the beginnings of a smirk, he knows he's almost reeled her in.

"Come on," he goads her, just to tip her over the edge. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

In the most Gryffindor reaction he could have anticipated, Granger scowls at him and wraps a small hand around his wrist. She tugs him down the gentle slope towards the house, pausing by a wall near the door. She glances around one last time before pulling him through the narrow entryway and into the deserted kitchen, bright and clean in stark white marble, heady with the scents of chocolate, cinnamon and the sweetness of berries. The counter-tops are covered in berry-red platters, mounded high with different bite-sized sweets.

"Have you been in here before?" he asks.

"A few times," Granger replies, glancing down a hall. "Ravni lived here as a child. Sometimes I'd come over and visit. It hasn't changed all that much." She takes light, bouncing steps out from their hiding place and darts down a corridor. "Come along, Draco!"

Draco grabs a tray heaped with something chocolate, one of close to a dozen on the marble countertop, and follows her down.

He only feels slightly put-off by having to follow her scent when he loses her in the unfamiliar maze.

He finds her waiting in front of an ornate door, inset with a gilded, golden likeness of the Indian Goddess, Ganesha. She ushers him closer with frantic waves of her hand, her panic offset by the adrenaline-fuelled grin on her lips. "In here," she mouths at him.

He glances about the wide, circular room, with bookshelves reaching as high as the ceiling, sliding ladders built into railings that swing the circumference of the chamber. It's lit to a low glow by small arched windows, with a sitting area sunken into the middle. "The library? Granger, could you be any more predictable?"

But he's not all that irked; he can't be, not when she's smiling the way she is.

"I haven't been in here in years," she marvels, spinning in a slow circle in the centre of the room. "It's just as beautiful as I remembered." She comes to a pause facing him, her arms crossed over the modest neckline of her dress. "Why would I care about predictability if it leads to being somewhere like this?"

She takes notice for the first time of the silver platter held on his outstretched arms. Draco feels quite proud of the fact that he lost none of the sweets on their dash. Nothing had registered in his head once he'd grabbed them other than, chocolate. "What did you take?" she asks, amused, as he places the tray on the low table set between two long lounges.

"Miniature chocolate tarts of some kind, I believe. If there's fruit in the middle I'll have to revolt." He takes one from the pile and eats it in one mouthful. "Delicious," he says, satisfied.

"You stole them from the kitchen?"

"I'd like to think I commandeered them for a new purpose."

"I think this goes above and beyond the call of duty, you know," she tells him, eyes twinkling in the low light. "Stealing food, nudging me into naughty escapades; not very escort-like."

"On the contrary, Granger. I think nudging you into naughty escapades is very escort-like."

Granger's cheeks erupt in another fierce blush.

"In another world, perhaps," she mutters. She sighs again and lowers herself to one of the low suede sofas in the sunken sitting area. Her floral skirt fans out around her, lending an air of innocence and making her look far younger than her twenty-eight years.

"Perhaps," he begins, as he settles himself on the sofa opposite, "in light of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we could get to know one another a little better."

She regards him with a wry smile as she leans forward to pluck the topmost tart from the pile. "You want to get to know me better?"

He nods. "I do." I want to know all there is to know about you.

"Okay…?" Granger draws the word out and into a question. "I can't imagine why, and I would think this would go against all sorts of protocols an ethical escort service would have in place. What would you like to know?"

Draco hums, deliberating. He's not all that good at getting people to talk – nothing about him screams tell me your secrets. "Let's start with something easy: your favourite colour?"

She laughs, taking a bite out of her tart. "I can't say for certain that I have a favourite colour. Blue, perhaps? They're all nice, in their own way." She licks away the crumbs of the pastry from her lips. "Do you have a favourite colour?"

"I've always been quite fond of shades of purple, actually."

"Purple is meant to be the colour of royalty," she remarks.

"And also the colour of Cadbury's."

She lets out a short chuckle. "Muggle chocolate? Draco, dare I say it, you're growing up."

"I don't discriminate between chocolates."

She utters a sound like she's trying to hold back a fit of laughing. "How very benevolent of you."

"I give all chocolate equal consideration," he tells her, his tone low and serious, like he's talking stocks and market values and not all things sugar. He gestures a hand towards her. "You ask something."

Granger pastes on her 'thoughtful' look: brows furrowed, lips pursed, arms crossed over her chest. All she needs is a creased piece of parchment before her and a quill held tight in her fist and it would be like looking back in time to the girl she once was.

"Oh!" she exclaims, a burst in their quiet so sudden he drops his half-eaten tart. "I've got one. Tell me something you've never told anyone before."

He quirks a brow at her. "That sounds like you want to know a secret, Granger. I'm not sure I'm ready to cross that line with you."

She lets out a scoff. "I'm paying you for your company, Draco. To be my boyfriend. Clearly nothing is sacred anymore."

"What do you want to know?"

"Nothing so personal, if you don't wish to say," she says, munching away. "Maybe you don't like eggs, or perhaps you still have your first soft toy from when you were a child."

He ponders her request for a long moment, cataloguing moments and facts and weighing each up for consideration. The most obvious secret is too much for now, still, but the simplest seem too trivial, things she could deduce just by looking at him, Sherlockian wunderkind that she is.

"Six separate occasions during our sixth and hypothetical seventh years," he begins, his tone neutral, "I seriously considered, and once attempted, killing myself."

Whatever she was expecting, it certainly wasn't that.

Granger's eyes widen with horror, her jaw dropped in alarm. "Draco!" she splutters. "You… why would you…?"

"Why wouldn't I?" he retorts, the very picture of nonchalance. "You try being dealt psychopathic orders from a madman that he knows full well you'll fail trying to fulfil, then living with the bastard. See how well you cope."

He doesn't mean to get snappy – it isn't even her fault. He could have told her he enjoyed hand-rearing baby birds, or that he has grown quite partial to Muggle science-fiction novels. Something hard-hitting, a window to another deeper part in him, seemed a necessity – something she needs to know before he digs himself in any deeper.

"Draco," she says again, softer this time, with a soothing edge.

"I'm all right now," he says, trying for reassurance, because the pitying, coddling look on her face is starting to get to him. "Truly. I got… I got over it. He's gone. It's fine now. I've not had those thoughts since."

He thinks he may have shocked her into speechlessness.

"I'm sorry," he says. "That wasn't at all what you wanted to hear."

"No, it's fine… I just…" She trails off, like she has no idea what she just. Then she starts to twitch, to squirm, in the oddest sort of parody of how she'd act at Hogwarts when she would stumble upon a question that needed answering. He wonders if he ought to divulge the whole sordid tale, but he thinks that she could work it out for herself – he can't imagine entertaining ideas of death would be too difficult to fathom while living with Voldemort in the room next door, for him or for anyone.

There's a stretch of silence, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. It just is.

"Will they find us in here?" he ponders aloud.

"Ravni might think to look here for me, but I'd wager she's too busy to worry." Granger shakes her head, but he knows her mind is elsewhere. "I'm sure we'll be fine."

"And what about when we want to leave?"

"You brought your wand along," she reminds him. "We can Apparate straight from here instead of sneaking back out."

"Fair point," he concedes, sinking back into the chair with a sigh. He draws the length of hawthorn from his sleeve waves an arc in the air, drawing a trail of gold sparks through the air.

"So," he starts up again, slicing through the thick, oppressive tension that's shrouded them since his confession, "if you could only take five things onto a deserted island, what would they be? And no wands, either."

Granger still stares at him like she's concerned for his wellbeing for a long minute before smiling, shaking her head, and letting out a tiny little laugh.

Draco loses track of how many more hours pass after that. They trade more favourites, more stories, share odd dreams and unrealistic desires. It's nice, he thinks, more than nice, even. They laugh until their cheeks ache and stuff themselves on chocolate until they think they might be sick. But through it all, there's a new, strange, edged underscore to their conversation. Her eyes track him with even more care now, lingering on the exposed parts of him for hard, verifiable hints of his previous dark thoughts.

Before long, the sounds of celebration that had rung through the open windows start to dwindle. The music that had been playing to fill in the background fades out, and the sounds of voices mingled with laughter peter out until there's no more. Granger glances down at the slim watch adorning her wrist, her eyes widening with shock.

"Draco!" she exclaims, leaping from her seat. "Gracious, it's gone seven o'clock!"

He stays put in his seat, feeling far more unaffected than he should. He can't remember the last time he felt so calm or content. Though the late hour does go a long way to explaining the declining quality of the tarts' pastry shells.

"Gracious," he repeats, smirking. "You really are a product of a bygone era, aren't you?"

"I'd prefer not to curse when I can help it," she says, prim enough to address the Queen. "Now hurry and help me tidy up."

Aside from vanishing the platter and sending the crumbs to whatever void their magic sends things to, there's very little he can do in the way of aiding her. Two flicks of his wand – since she didn't bring hers – and whatever negligible mess they made is gone.

"Did you want to say goodbye to your friend?" he asks. Never had he thought of Granger as an entity who had friends other than Potter and Weasley.

Granger ponders the question, then shakes her head. "I'll call her later. She seemed to think we're far closer than we are; I'm sure she's come to her own conclusions as to our whereabouts by now." She reaches out to take his hand. "Would you do the honours?"

His skill isn't quite as honed as hers, so when he Apparates them back to the Apparation point near her home, it's with a loud crack that just about splinters his eardrums.

They stumble to a landing on the uneven surface of the road. Granger gasps at his side; Draco turns to face her, prepared to find her in a puddle of blood or with a limb bent out at an awkward angle, and finds her gaze focussed on the horizon.

He follows her line of sight. The view takes his breath away.

The sky bleeds an artwork of colours: vivid pinks, oranges, purples and reds streak the seamless blue sky. It's beautiful to witness; with his hand twined with Granger's, their eyes trained on the sinking sun, Draco can't even begin to fathom a moment more perfect.

There's a gentle jostle at his side. "Let's go," Granger whispers.

The journey takes no time at all, far less than he ever would have liked. In seconds they come to a pause at her bright-blue door.

"Another one down," he says, slipping his hands into his pockets. They're still intact; more than he could have hoped for from such flimsy fabric.

"One more to go," she agrees, staring out at the horizon over the buildings. "I should thank you again for all this, Draco. I know I'm paying you and all, but heavens knows I had no desire to go through all these things alone. I went to a cousin's wedding last year, and I was cornered by supposedly well-meaning relatives at every turn, all of them asking why I hadn't settled down with a nice young man yet."

Draco snorts. "You'd be bored to tears with a nice young man."

"Exactly!" she exclaims. "But no one else in my family knows I'm…" She gestures wildly between them.

"That you're a witch?" he deadpans.

She sighs. "Yes. That. It's so difficult to keep these two lives separate sometimes, Draco. Too often I feel as though I should just pick one or the other and be done with it, before I split right down the middle."

She leans against her door, but makes no move to go inside. Draco regards her with curiosity, leaning his back against the railing separating her flat from the courtyard. He knows a thing or two about keeping certain aspects of himself separate from the others, but he's not sure he's the authority for advice on the matter. All his problems can be solved by her – he's not sure it would work in the opposite.

Granger tips her head back and looks out over the darkening sky. "I know I ought to be grateful –"

His head snaps up. "Who said you had to be grateful?" he cuts in.

Granger looks up at him with an expression of pure shock

"Sure, magic is fun," he goes on, "and for you – having grown up with Muggles and with no conception of magic beyond parlour card tricks – a real novelty, I'm sure, but you have to admit, Granger, the rest of the time? It's a fucking nuisance that causes far more problems than it solves."

She's looking at him like he's grown another head. A little voice in his head that sounds a little too much like his father seems to be berating him for saying such a thing, too: it's not the Malfoy Way.

Well, Father? The Malfoy Way fucking sucks.

"When they tried me after the war," he goes on. "I almost wished they would snap my wand. It would have made everything so much easier."

"You can't mean that," she whispers.

"I do," he declares. "I've seen your house, Granger. You don't live like a witch. I've barely seen you use magic since meeting you again, other than that bottomless bag and why wouldn't you or anyone else use that if they could because it's really fucking handy. But you can't tell me you haven't thought about tossing your wand into the Thames and never thinking of it again."

"I feel like we've veered quite off track," she says, still staring at him like he's a stranger. He feels a little bit like a stranger in his own skin, too; never before has he admitted these thoughts out loud.

Draco sighs, a long and heavy sound. "I apologise, Granger. That was… that was out of line."

"No, no," she assures him, pushing off from the door to stride the three paces to his side. She tips her face up to meet his, bathing the contours in light and shadow. "I feel a little better, knowing you feel that way, even if I don't think you really, truly mean it. Magic is a bit of a nuisance, but I wouldn't change it." She smiles. "It's as much a part of me as my right arm now."

The sun is almost gone now, the sky turning a deep, dark blue. Granger sighs and looks back towards her door.

"I should probably head back in," she says, though she makes no move to do so.

"It is getting late." No, it isn't.

"I'll be in touch soon," she goes on. "I need to double check the dates, but Ravni's wedding isn't that far away."

"I'll await your owl, Granger," he mutters. Then, he does something that, even if prodded under threat of torture, he doesn't think he would ever be able to explain with any real rationality.

Not knowing how, or why, or even what the hell he's doing, aware of nothing else but the flyaway strands of her hair, the cluster of freckles decorating the bridge of her nose or the soft press of her hand burning its brand on his arm, he leans in to press a kiss to her cheek. Just on her cheek.

But at the very last moment, she turns her head. His lips land on hers, unmoving and shocked.

Draco can't bring himself to move. Neither does she. Everything in him sings at her proximity, and he's struck once again by that incredible, joyful feeling of wholeness. It takes all he has in him not to wrap his arms around her waist and draw her closer and closer still.

It slips out his grasp all too quick.

He closes his eyes and asks against her lips, "You did specify no kissing, didn't you, Granger?"

She lets out a warm, sweet, rattling breath. "I did," she says, managing to turn the statement into a question, like she's asking, did I really want that?

"Then I shouldn't."

She shakes her head, the soft rasp of her lips on his making his breath hitch. "No," she whispers in a shaky rush. "Probably not."

He takes in and releases four deep breaths before wrenching himself from her. The Veela screams, tugging at his insides and gifting him with his worst headache yet. His hands contract into tight fists, his talons growing forth to cut into his palms. In moments they feel slick with pooling blood, dripping onto her doorstep.

"Good night, Draco," she calls gently back to him. She's standing in the frame of her open door; he didn't even notice her pull away from him. "I had a lot of fun today. And…" She pauses to take a breath. "Thank you for… everything." Without waiting for a reply, she closes the door between them.

XXX

Since he started in the business of fucking random women for monetary recompense, Draco can't recall ever having a nice, quiet evening at home.

Since he ceased in the business of fucking random women for monetary recompense, he still hasn't enjoyed such a phenomenon.

To be fair, though, nothing had stopped until two short days ago.

It's… nice, though, his retirement. As nice as is can be with his symptoms, at least. Tolerable is a better word. He doesn't feel the urge to slice his legs up again, and the lack of women using his cock as a toy is a refreshing change.

He's managed to haul himself off his bed, which, too, is a refreshing change. He'd almost forgotten he had flowers on his living room table. (That they're crisp and in pieces is beside the point.) Now he lies on that chaise lounge he hates so much. It's not all that uncomfortable, really, but he's never going to admit it.

On repeat in the background is Tchaikovsky's 'Sleeping Beauty's Waltz'. Draco closes his eyes and retreats to a place where he's holding Granger close, dancing in an imaginary world so tangible he can almost reach out and grasp it.

XXX

The morning of her friend's wedding, a long two weeks after the almost-kiss, Draco pulls himself together at fucking half-past six, dresses in the appropriate attire he had the foresight to set out the night before, and Apparates to Granger's flat, with far more enthusiasm than he should possess at such an hour.

No one, no one, should ever think that holding a wedding at nine o'clock in the sodding morning is a good idea. Because it's not. It's the worst idea ever.

His will be an afternoon wedding. Three, maybe four in the afternoon. Late enough for him and Granger to recite their vows in low, golden sunlight. She looks more radiant than he can describe in the light of an early sunset.

She opens the door a full minute after he knocks, looking as though she's been dragged kicking and screaming through a hurricane, dressed in long, too-large striped pyjamas.

The sight of her knocks the wind from his lungs and rejuvenates every part of him. For a brief moment, the time that separates them in between events – and how shitty he feels in the interim – almost seems worth it to feel this good when he sees her again.

"Good morning," he greets her, grinning.

"Is it?" she mutters as she holds the door open for him to enter. "I hadn't noticed."

He follows her through her flat to her living room, where she gestures with a sleepy flail of her arm for him to sit.

"I'm going to shower and change," she tells him, blinking against the morning light shining in cheery slants through the blinds on her kitchen window. "I trust you have the means to entertain yourself for forty-five minutes?"

He plucks a random book from her shelf and settles himself on her sofa. "I do now."

She rolls her eyes at him and disappears back down the hall. If he had any idea how to work her kettle, he'd set her up with a cup of tea.

He wonders, if all goes as he hopes it will, how long it would take him to become accustomed to Muggle appliances. They can't be all that complicated, and if the results the kettle yields are anything to go by, he's more than excited to learn. He tasted for the first time during his last visit the difference between teas made with magically heated water as opposed to kettle heated water. He'd not expected such a vast difference in taste. Nor did he expect that the Muggle-prepared method would taste lightyears better than the other.

Resolving himself to his apparent uselessness in the kitchen, Draco turns the book to a random page and begins to read.

'All through it, I have known myself to be quite undeserving. And yet I have had the weakness, and have still the weakness, to wish you to know with what a sudden mastery you kindled me, heap of ashes that I am, into fire- a fire, however, inseparable in its nature from myself, quickening nothing, lighting nothing, doing no service, idly burning away.'

He slams the book shut and feels the words strike just that little bit too close to his chest. He stands and shoves the book back into its space on the shelf, before stalking back to resume his place on her sofa. He occupies himself with a loose thread on his sleeve – since fucking when has he lost his ability to tell a decent weave from a shitty one, Merlin damn it! – and waits in silence.

True to her word, after forty-five minutes and not a second more, Granger reappears in her living room, in a demure, three-quarter sleeve dress of deep burgundy, flaring out in a tulle skirt ending just above her knees. Her foot are shod in sweet, golden flats, and her hair is braided and coiled into a messy crown about her head, loose strands making an escape form the confines.

Draco feels his heart stop and start. "You look lovely," he tells her, awed, standing to meet her in the centre of the small room.

He waits for her to refute him, like she always does on him paying her a compliment. This time, though, her cheeks bloom a rosy pink as she averts her eyes, a shy smile lighting her lips. "Thank you," she says. She gathers her bag and shoves all manner of flotsam and jetsam into it before twisting the line of her neck backwards to glance at the clock. "Ready to go?" she asks.

"As I'll ever be," he returns with a sigh. He checks his pockets for his wand and emergency supply of Muggle currency – his days of trawling Muggle London for his Mate in his early twenties taught him that lesson well – and follows her out the door.

Once they've cleared the courtyard and have made their way onto the main street towards the Apparation point, Draco asks, "Where is this wedding being held?"

"Down in the Lakes District," she tells him, her eyes on the road. "In Near Sawrey. There's an Apparation point behind a pub down there. From there it's only a short journey to the church." She glances over at him. "Ravni and her fiancé paid for a charter bus for the other guests that went down yesterday evening, but I doubted you'd appreciate the close quarters for those few hours."

He shudders at the thought. "No, thank you."

She offers her arm once they reach the Apparation point, since she's familiar with The Tower Bank Arms and he pretends not to be. He's still not quite accustomed to the near silence with which Granger Apparates – it's freakish – so he closes his eyes and forgets himself in the sensation of her arm entwined with his. In the space of blinks, they leave the built-up, bricked area of Knightsbridge behind and land in a patch of damp, mossy grass.

He's visited the place close to every year since he was born – his mother, for reasons he can't even begin to fathom, had been all for family holidays when he was a child – and he's still blown away by how picturesque, how vivid, how preternaturally green the Lakes District is.

He dusts himself off, though there is no dust to speak of anywhere on his person. Perhaps the sensation of Apparation is too similar to that of floo travel: the same sinking in his stomach and the swirling breakdown of his body as he's broken apart and rebuilt somewhere else. He still expects the dust to be clinging to him regardless. "So," he starts. "Where to now?"

Granger points to a worn in trail in the grass leading over a small knoll. "We follow the path," she says. "According to my map, we should reach the church in about fifteen minutes."

She holds out her hand for him to take. He isn't sure why, since it's one path and it isn't her responsibility if he gets lost, but he takes it anyway. Together they tread the worn path in silence, the scenery doing all the talking for them.

Saint Peter's church is a quaint little stone structure laid out upon a verdant field of emerald. On entering, it's far bigger on the inside than the outside would imply, and cool enough to send a shiver down his spine. A hush falls over him as he and Granger amble up the nave and take a seat on an unoccupied pew.

They don't speak as other guests fill up the church, or as the groom takes his place at the top of the altar. A peculiar sort of reverence has taken hold of him, but it's not the church, nor the pressing nuptials. When the string quartet fills the nave with a familiar, lilting melody for the bride to make her way down the aisle, Draco only has eyes for the woman pressed up against his shoulder, so close that every breath in is filled with that ever comforting lavender and something else wholly her. When the priest starts, Draco tunes all else out.

The ceremony is only a few minutes in, but it feels like he's been sitting on the harsh, wooden pews for hours. Granger cannot protect him from all ills, it seems. He shifts in the unrelenting seat, his arse long numb, and his back unaccustomed to the punishment of a straight-backed wooden seat.

He glances around before leaning in to whisper in her ear, "You never warned me, Granger."

Tilting her head towards his, so the top of her head brushes near his temple, she asks, "What about?"

"Muggle wedding ceremonies," he clarifies with a grimace. "They're fucking dull."

She laughs just low enough to not draw attention and wraps her arm around his. She says nothing more, likely playing up their farce of a relationship for the surrounding masses, but he can't bring himself to care. He's never been more elated.

Should everything go the way he's hoping – praying – he'll have to have a chat with Granger about that. He knows she'll prefer a daggy Muggle ceremony to the ostentatious, week-long celebrations that are the norm in the wizarding world. There has to be a middle ground they can meet upon somewhere.

He thinks he'd be well on his way to asleep, listening to the minister quote Muggle scripture in his droning voice, if it weren't for Granger pressed so tight against him. The rounded neck of her dress affords him a wonderful glimpse of her collarbone, and her hair pulled into that pretty crown and off the nape of her neck gives him a perfect vantage point of the area where he might one day sink in his teeth and mark her as his forever.

Blaise asked him the previous week why he hasn't told Granger yet, and Draco has yet to come to a definitive answer. Out of some ridiculous idea of nobility, perhaps. But would it soften the blow to tell her sooner rather than later that she's bound to him for life? The idea that it could be a blow that needs softening upsets him like nothing else on earth.

The other, more realistic and far more plausible reason that comes to mind is that if he never asks, she can never say no.

If nothing else, he does feel the need to allow her to decide her own choice on the matter based on the chemistry he knows they have alone. Should she decide she'd rather not have anything to do with him, fine. He'll walk away and live out the remainder of his years knowing he did the right thing for her.

If she decides she might be willing to try something with him, however, he doesn't think he could ever stop fighting for her. He couldn't stop loving her if he tried.

He knows the Veela thrall goes both ways, to an extent, at least. For what he feels, Granger must feel something similar. If he thinks about making love – making love? – with her non-stop, then she must think about kissing him, even just a little?

As if on cue, the Muggle couple seal their vows with a kiss that goes on far longer than should be acceptable in polite company, but far be it from him to judge. Granger blushes next to him and claps along with the rest of the crowd.

He leans his head down to whisper in her ear again, closer this time, so his lips brush the outer edge of it. "Is there a reception we're expected to attend?"

Draco feels her shiver against him, because of the cool of the church or the heat of his proximity, he can't guess, but he knows which one he would prefer. "There is, but you don't need to come if you'd prefer not to," she tells him, brushing back an errant curl escaped from the pretty braided crown. "I was only going to put in a short appearance to pass on my gift. Have dinner. And maybe have a piece of cake."

His interest piqued by that fact alone, he asks, "What sort of cake is it?"

"Does it make a difference?" Granger asks him, grinning. "It's cake."

And if she's going to be there, too, the answer is just that simple.


The reception – like most receptions, he supposes – is a marked improvement over the ceremony.

Under a marquee set up on a field of pea-green grass, guests mingle on a makeshift dancefloor. Clusters of small, circular tables line the edges, warmed from the mild mid-afternoon sun. Draco wagers the happy couple have nicked off to have a quick shag, given how the entire event seems to have ground to a complete halt in their absence.

Granger sits by his side, sipping at a lemonade, looking just as bored as he feels. If only he'd been able to bring his wand along. A few minor hexes on other especially annoying guests (like the man seated behind him during the ceremony who wouldn't stop coughing) would without a doubt make the time pass faster.

They're seated with three other women. Thank Merlin for small mercies, Granger has no idea who they are, and they don't know her. Four less people to convince of the authenticity of their relationship. Less time to feel like a complete and utter Muppet for not having the courage to make her his sooner. Less time to ruminate over what he's going to do once this is all over.

Instead of talking, dancing, drinking, partaking in the literal anything of events taking place around them, Granger pokes at his shitty meal – delivered with a message of apologies from the happy couple, who were unfortunately 'delayed' in their journey to the reception – a tasteless, rubbery, overcooked piece of steak. He'd taken one bite before discreetly spitting it out into his napkin, and disposing of the tiny parcel in a pot plant.

"What on earth is this?" he hears her muttering.

Chuckling, he says, "Steak, I think."

"I apologise," she says. "I had to guess what you wanted when I responded to the invitation." She picks up her plate and gives it to him. "You can have my salmon if you like?"

He pokes it with his finger and watches it quiver in its pool of cheese sauce. "Doesn't look much better, I'm afraid."

She sets the plate back down with a clatter and rests back in her seat. Her knee jostles beneath the table as her gaze darts out over the revelry, her arms crossed over her chest – like she's contemplating something dire.

"Are you all right, Granger?" he asks.

Before she can answer, a slower song comes on, a Muggle tune he doesn't recognise. It's nice, though. Pleasant. Relaxing.

Granger calms almost at once and stands, holding out her hand to him. Her smile is blinding, narrowing down everything he ever thought he knew about the world to just her. "Would you like to dance?"

She could have asked for anything in the world and he's certain he would have said yes.

He doesn't say yes, rather he takes her hand and lets her lead him to the makeshift dancefloor. He watches with careful eyes and hands her all control, allowing her to decide what she's going to do with him next.

The last time they danced, at her parents' ball, it wasn't like this. That had been stilted and robotic, not a dance for a couple but one acquaintances might find themselves in. Now, he feels the delicious, all-encompassing warmth that comes with Granger leaning into him, tucking her head into the spot beneath his neck as she lets him lead her in a gentle sway.

One song bleeds into another, then another and another.

"You're good at his," she murmurs into his shoulder.

"I should hope so," he responds against her temple. "I'd hate for all those years of lessons to be for nothing."

He feels her smile. "How long did you have lessons for?"

"They were regular from when I was five up until I left for Hogwarts, then it was every summer until… you know."

She tenses in his arms for a beat, two, three, before relaxing again. "I know.

"Draco?" she says, once the song has turned into another. The tempo of the music has risen with this one, but he doesn't feel the need to lead them in anything faster. Other couples swirl and gyrate around them, overtaking them in a race to some finish be can't help but think he arrived at much, much earlier.

"Yes, Granger?"

"How did you become an escort?"

"How?" he repeats, laughing.

She chuckles into him. "Or why, then. Whatever."

"Didn't your mother ever tell you not to pry, Granger?"

She shrugs, dragging his upper body up along with hers. "Yes, but since we're supposedly lovers, I feel like I've earned the right to ask."

He holds her for a little longer without speaking. He could tell her the truth, but it's still holding him back, holding his happiness for ransom. It's not as though his admission is something small and inconsequential; it's huge – fucking massive – with life-long repercussions for them both.

"I'm looking for someone," he tells her in the end, settling on half a truth instead of a whole one. "Becoming an escort struck me as the easiest way."

"Who?" she asks, eyes wide with genuine curiosity.

"I… I'm still not sure. I'll know when I find her."

She coughs, like she's choking back a laugh. "Sounds almost romantic."

Millions upon millions of women would probably agree, idealistic idiots they may be, but he douses her with the truth. "It isn't."

"I did say almost," she says, smirking. "If you don't find whatever it is you're looking for, I'd imagine it would be a good way to drive yourself mad."

He shakes his head, his soul turning to lead within him. "I don't think finding her would be much better."

"Oh, I don't know," she murmurs. "Perhaps if she ever learned how hard you're looking, she might be willing to give you a chance. Persistence can be attractive, if the woman is willing, of course."

"On the contrary," he disputes, his voice sounding distant to his own ears. "I think it would scare her away."

She doesn't say a word to refute him, only squeezes him tighter.

"Draco?" she whispers, so quiet he might have missed her altogether if he weren't so attuned to her already.

His eyes are closed, Granger's head tucked under his chin, more content in that moment than he's been his whole life. "Yes, Granger?"

She draws in a deep breath. "That kiss, when I first came to you…"

Draco freezes in place and tries to swallow past the sticky, choking lump in his throat. "Yes?" he prompts.

She stops and starts her response before huffing out a frustrated breath. "I think… just… why?"

He shrugs, an unpractised move, since Malfoys aren't taught to be so idle or indecisive. "I seal most business deals with a kiss."

She tugs herself out of his grip and arches a brow at him. "Even after they inform you that any arrangement with you is to be strictly platonic?"

"What do you want me to say, Granger?" he snaps, running a hand through his hair, slicked back with gel, harking back to his old school days for the occasion. His fingers slide through knots he didn't know were there, tugging on his scalp. "I'm sorry? I promise I'll never touch you again? Because…" He lets out a ragged breath. "Because I can give you that. This is the last event I'm obligated to attend with you. After tonight, I very much doubt we'll ever see each other again."

He doesn't expect that even the rhetorical nature of his statement wouldn't protect him from the pain of speaking it. From the little headache he's been nursing all afternoon sprouts a migraine to rival his worst, sending dark spots in front of his vision.

"No!" she exclaims, her hand snapping out to grip his arm, as if to keep him from leaving. "Don't say you're sorry. I…" Her cheeks flush a shade of red to rival a flame, and are likely just as hot. "I liked it."

Only the tiniest part of him latches onto her words. The other, much larger and far less rational part of him is still stuck on his last words:

It's the last event he's obligated to attend with her.

The last event he's obligated to attend with her.

A sharp, keen sense of panic wends its way through him. After today, if he doesn't say anything, it could be the very last time he sees her. He could… without ever knowing… how could he live with himself if he never, not once, even tried?

He's never felt so alive, so urgent, so fucking impatient before in his life. "Granger, I –"

He's interrupted by a burst of applause. A majestic, six-tiered cake is wheeled out, decorated like a country garden in sugar flowers of all colours and varieties, followed by the happy couple wearing matching flushed cheeks and swollen lips.

Their dance slows to a halt, Granger dropping her arms from where they were around his shoulders. A startling cold settles around him, chilling him to the core.

"Still hungry?" she asks, cheeks still rose-pink, eyes sparkling from the stringed lights strewn about the place.

Draco lets out a defeated sigh. "Yes," he tells her, but he's not sure if it's for cake anymore. "Famished."


The reception rolls on until late into the night. He and Granger must have exhausted all remaining avenues of conversation aside from the obvious one, because by the time their feet are aching too much to continue dancing, by the time she's tired herself out enough to rest her head upon his shoulder, there's nothing left to say.

She hasn't moved from her spot in a long while. "Granger?" he tests to no avail, jostling her arm with the hand he's got wrapped around her shoulder. "Granger? Are you awake?"

Still, no response other than her soft, snuffling breaths warming his neck.

He sighs and ducks his head down, so his lips are level with her ear. If he doesn't get it out now, when it's safe and without any threat of rejection or retaliation, he'll go mad.

"You're my Mate, Hermione," he whispers, not to her or to anyone in particular, just out into the air, where it needs to be, not festering inside his soul. "I'm a Veela, and you're my Mate."

She twitches in his arms and lets out a yawn. His heart both soars and sinks – what if she heard him?

"I apologise, Draco," she says, wiping the sleep from her eyes. "I must have been – were you speaking to me?"

He wavers, his mouth half open to tell her again and again and again until she understands. But then he looks at her, at the earnest glint in her eyes that hints at nothing more than a tentative friendship, and perhaps not even that much. He was crazy to think her acting – which she had stipulated from the damn start – would have meant a damn thing. She is paying him to be here, he reminds himself, even though the mere thought is scalding hot. He is not with her because she desires it.

And why would she desire it?

He is little more than a whore.

He can't come close to deserving her.

But, fuck, he can't help but dream that this is a world where her favour is even a shadow of a possibility for just a little while longer.

"No," he says, his voice hoarse. "Just to myself. Are you ready to leave yet, Granger?"

If she's shocked by how abrupt and downright fucking rude he's being, she doesn't show it. Instead, she gathers her things and takes his hand again, leads him over to the tipsy bride and groom where she wishes them a happy honeymoon, then out under the cloudless sky and over the crest of a small hill.

"I don't especially want to walk back to the pub," she tells him, looking out over her shoulder for anyone who might have followed. "I think we should be safe to Apparate back to Knightsbridge from here."

He would refute her, because the walk back to the pub is another fifteen minutes he could have spent with her by his side, but he can't.

"All right," he says, though he doesn't think his input on the matter is required. She takes his hand again, so soft and small in his own, and Apparates them back to that alley down the street from her flat, again with that impressive near-silence.

He could swear that each journey from the Apparation point and her flat grows shorter and shorter with each successive trip, because he doubts even thirty seconds have passed before they're standing before her red-brick building and passing the pretty, moonlit courtyard to her door.

As in the conclusion to every other event he has taken her to, they stand on the threshold of her flat, in front of that bright blue door. She's still smiling, he's still lost for words.

"Thank you, Draco," she says, leaning forward just so to press a lingering kiss to his cheek. Draco turns his head so his nose nudges her temple. He takes a deep breath in of the lavender scent of her. "I appreciate all the assistance you've provided these past few months."

It strikes him then that everything she's saying sounds so… final.

The panic sharpens and spikes, but what else is there to do? She wouldn't… she could never… "The pleasure has been mine," he returns, swallowing the lump in his throat that threatens to choke him. "You've been a singularly wonderful… client."

"Client," she repeats dully, a cloud of something darker crossing her face. She recovers fast, and in the space of a second it's like everything is fine again. "Yes, of course. And you, a most competent… employee."

He would laugh if it didn't feel like he was dying. The burst of pain he feels at her words threatens to burst forth into something corporeal. Still, he plasters a grin to his lips and offers a wave. "Perhaps I'll see you… around."

She looks like she wants to say more, but something holds her back. She looks almost disappointed when she replies, "Perhaps. Goodbye, Draco."

And, just like that, he watches her walk out of his life again, too frozen in place and choked by words unsaid to even try to follow her.

He wonders with no drama whatsoever whether death would be easier to take.

XXX

Was there ever a time where there wasn't any pain, or sadness, or hopelessness, or where the need to punish himself didn't feel quite so great? Anything positive seems little more than a fading, distant memory. Whatever point there ever was in waking up in the mornings to be a productive, contributing member of society has fallen well by the wayside.

He's turned into a brooding, angst-ridden mess to rival his sixteen-year-old self.

He can't muster up the courage to leave his bland little flat. Everything is bland now. No colour, no cheer, nothing. The whole situation has become so bloody dire it's a wonder there's any life left in him at all. Granger disappeared and took all the good things with her. There's little else he likes to do now than curl up on his day bed and while away his remaining hours knocked out on some noxious sleeping potion.

A noxious sleeping potion that, among other things, renders his brain near useless. Without his usual effort holding it back, his fancy Veela auxiliaries have come out full-force. He hasn't undergone the full transformation, the one that would render him into a strange, bird-like creature he's only ever seen in textbooks and would terrify all the neighbourhood children, but it's close enough that he's surrendered to it without much of a fight.

He lies on his stomach on his bed, glossy black wings draped around him like a stage curtain, ready to pull back and reveal the spectacle he has become: claws already sharpened and elongated have destroyed his pillows; the tips of his needle-like fangs pierce his bottom lip; his heightened sense of taste and smell has him very much aware of everything in his flat and everything he has neglected to do with it and himself over the past month.

His mother tried to visit the week before. She's a strong woman, he reflects, stronger than he thinks he could be if their situations were reversed, which they sort of are. Regardless of the fact that she isn't a Veela herself, she still lost her Mate when his father died from a random, unavoidable aneurism, yet she still decided to continue on without him. If Granger were to die… he's not sure he'd be strong enough to continue. He'd follow her into the after-world without a second thought.

He'd forgotten – unashamedly ignored – their standing lunch date at that pretentious little restaurant she enjoys so much, probably because the owner is a squawking harpy just like her. He makes no apologies for warding his door with a mild stinging hex, or for the feeling of utter triumph that soars through him when she finally leaves.

But he has a funny feeling Blaise has told her the magnitude and the minutia of the past few months, because his mother is back again, and he's pretty sure that she's set up camp in his hallway. He can hear the patter of tiny elf feet scampering up his corridor, and since he's never been buggered to acquire one since striking out on his own, he has to assume it's Tizzy, his mother's personal elf.

The scent of bergamot filters through the bottom of the door, no doubt from his mother's favoured Earl Grey. The tinkling of silver against fine bone china rings through, too. Her sips are silent, though, as a lady's should be.

"Darling," she calls out, her soft, dulcet tones muffled by the door, "I received the most interesting piece of correspondence from Blaise Zabini this morning."

Draco groans and pulls his pillow tighter around his head.

"He tells me that – years ago, mind you – the two of you ventured into a most unsettling little scheme to become… escorts, Blaise called it, but I can read between the lines. Prostitutes, Draco. You became a prostitute. But we can discuss that later, once you're feeling better."

Draco can't think of anything he'd like to discuss with his mother less, and even hopes just a tiny bit that he won't 'feel better' just so he can avoid it. He closes his eyes pretends the voice of his mother is just a disembodied presence that will go away if ignored. Like one of Hogwarts' ghosts.

"He also tells me," she goes on, like she's maintaining a pleasant conversation about lipstick or whatever the hell else it is ladies talk about, "disregarding for a moment your complete and utter lack of respect for this family's secrets and traditions, that you managed to pluck from the mire of women who cleaved themselves to you, your Mate."

Draco limp body tenses, and he feels his heart go into palpitations just at the mere mention of the word.

Grangergrangergrangergrangergranger.

There's a stretch of silence, then –

"Draco," his mother says, all plaintive and sympathetic now that she knows she's struck a chord. She's a devious piece of work. Must be where he gets it from. "Darling, please talk to me. Please let me in."

It's too much effort to peel himself from his sheets. Instead, Draco lifts a limp arm and fumbles about his bedside table for his wand. His fingers close around the thin length of Hawthorne and flick a charm in the approximate direction of the door to open it, because it's not like she'll do him the decency of leaving if he doesn't.

Without even waiting for an invitation – most unladylike of you, Mother – Narcissa Malfoy strides through the room, the heels of her shoes rendered silent by the thick padding of as yet un-vacuumed carpet on his bedroom floor.

"Oh, Draco." She tuts. He can hear her turn in a full circle, a drag of her finger against the dusty edges of his walls, random clunks and thumps and rattles. "What are you doing to yourself?"

He makes a sound that comes close to a disinterested grunt and calls it a win.

His mattress gives somewhere near his feet. A soft hand settles on the back of his exposed calf, the thumb stroking back and forth. It's comforting and feels kind of nice. It's the only reason he hasn't flipped her off the bed yet.

"Draco, why are you doing this?" she asks in that soft, demure tone he's sure every society lady is expected to master as soon as possible. "Did she reject you?"

His shoulders are heavy with his wings and general apathy, but he manages to lift them in a shrug.

"Draco." She sighs. He can't decide what sounds worse: his mother sighing his name like he's let down the entire family, or his Mate as she tells him goodbye.

"Did she explicitly tell you no?"

He manages to shake his head, smooshing his nose further into the downy cotton of his shredded pillow. He could probably suffocate this way. Suffocated by fluff. What a way to go.

"Have you even told her what she is to you?"

He sinks even further into the fluff, shaking his head some more.

"Then, I ask again: what on earth are you doing?"

He manages another weighted shrug and mumbles out something like, "I don't know."

"Merlin save you, Draco," she snaps. "I did not raise my son to lie down at the first sign of trouble. Granted, your situation is a little different than most, and you don't have your father around anymore to guide you in these matters, but you have never, ever been the sort of young man to give up without some sort of fight."

She's wrong, though. He is exactly the sort to give up without a fight, because what has he ever had to fight for? He's always had it all, handed to him without a thought to the contrary crossing anyone's minds. Because he thought it would save his family, he gave in to Voldemort – would have licked his boots clean if asked. Isn't that what he was trialled for?

If it would keep Granger safe and happy, he'd give it all up all over again, too.

His mother sighs, but she doesn't sound defeated, more like she's irked by the immense length and breadth of his lassitude. He can't say he blames her, either. "Try to remember, love, you are as much her Mate as she is yours. She doesn't hate you; she cannot possibly."

She leans in to kiss his cheek and brush back the annoying clumps of his hair that were tickling his face.

"I love you, Draco," she whispers. "Please, at least try, won't you?"

He sighs and shrugs again, making no promises. He's got a pretty shitty track record with promises.

His mother slinks out, calling for Tizzy to join her, then Apparates away with a sharp crack. Granger can do it near silently, he remembers. She's just that damn impressive.

Now his room is quiet again, save for the faint, fluffy ruffle of his feathers. Draco lifts his face from the remains of his pillow and glances about the room through dry, stinging eyes.

His mother rearranged a few things while she had been in there. His room looks almost neat again.

He falls back to his pillow with a muffled thwump.

Excellent.

XXX

Another week of silence, of solitude, of a pain that's not-quickly-enough fading to a distant numbness.

Draco's used to it by now.

He never thought he'd entertain suicidal thoughts again, but hey. There they are.

Blaise still drops twice or so a day – at least he thinks it's twice a day; it could be once a month for all he's keeping track – holding a bottle of cold water sweetened with honey and laced with a plethora of different potions over the gap of his wide-open mouth. He loses more than he swallows, but it's enough to stave off dehydration and hypoglycaemia and the myriad of other symptoms he might have experienced had the potions not masked them.

He still doesn't eat, though. He doesn't even feel hungry. The smell of his neighbour's cooking brings on a bout of nausea so strong he has to lean over the side of his bed to vomit.

Only about half the time does he take his wand and get rid of it as soon as it happens.

He feels the waste of his muscles as he languishes on his bed, with the heavy curtains drawn against any light outside. He doesn't even know what time it is outside, if drawn curtains are even necessary. It's not even nice in that selfish, completely self-indulgent way it had been at the beginning. Half the fun of being depressed is wallowing in it, after all. And he'd felt damn near entitled to wallow in the beginning; now he just feels sad all over.

There's a knock at his door. Draco refuses to give it any more acknowledgement besides quirking his eye open in his door's direction. It's probably Blaise again, and he supposes he is feeling a bit thirsty. Draco takes his wand in limp fingers and fires off the unlocking charm.

He waits for Blaise to pad over to his side, more often than not smelling like sex and sweat and sometimes like tomatoes, but it never comes. The door opens, but nothing follows.

He takes a breath in, and finds something impossible.

Hermione Granger is standing in his doorway, illuminated from behind by candles he doesn't remember having lit in his living room – like an angel.

And it's like she's brought some incredible brand of healing with her – her scent, her presence, her everything, it all robs him of his pain and apathy with a speed that makes him gasp. He breathes in once, twice, three times, and feels fine. Wonderful. Perfect, even.

"Draco?" she whispers into the room.

His name on her lips is the last incentive he needs. He kicks up from his bed (though it looks far more like a nest right now) in a puff of cotton and feathers – his own and his pillow's – and stumbles his way towards her on weakened legs, his wings weighing him down on one side.

"Hello," she whispers, awestruck, when he comes to a pause in front of her. Her eyes trace the shape of his wings, the points of his teeth, the amber of his eyes, something like relief tinging their depths.

"Hi," he whispers back, his throat dry and pained from lack of use. "What… what are you doing here?"

Her gaze darts about the room, never fixing on one thing for more than a second. "I… I'm not entirely sure."

He cocks his head. "You aren't sure?"

"No, I mean…" She breaks off with a huff. He can hear the wild thunder of her pulse reverberating throughout the room, but it isn't fear she feels. No, it's a different breed of emotion altogether. "I received a note this morning."

His lips pull back in a snarl, revealing the sharp, needle-like fangs. "Blaise," he growls out.

"Don't be angry with him," she chides. "He cares for you. Besides, it wasn't only him: your mother had a hand in this as well."

She takes another slow, tentative step closer. She's in his room now – in his actual, real room where he sleeps and everything – pushing the door closed behind her.

"The note," she begins. "They told me… everything. Why you were an escort, why you quit, what I… am, to you. It… it explained so, so much."

He growls again, incensed at the mere thought of having his admission stolen from him. Of having his Mate find out second-hand who he is and what she means. It's a disservice to hundreds upon thousands of years of Veela history.

"Did you ever plan on telling me?" she asks, imploring him with wide, earnest eyes.

"You told me goodbye," he says, voice hoarse. "You told me good bye and walked away."

He takes a sick sort of pleasure in the way she cringes, which is quickly chased away by a feeling of chastisement. She would have done her research, with what meagre materials she could have obtained. She would know what saying 'goodbye' to him in the context that she did meant.

"I tried to tell you – I wanted to, desperately – but I never wanted you to feel trapped," he goes on, begging her every way he knows short of words to believe him. "I didn't want you to think you were being left without a choice."

"You were willing to leave me without a choice," she speaks up in a tone only just above a whisper. "You were willing to steal the choice away from me."

"And how would you have reacted had I told you earlier?" he snaps. It's more of a reaction than he's felt in weeks – he can't bring himself to be sorry for it. "If I had told you after we kissed, how would you have felt? Would you have stayed? Would you have been willing to kiss me again? Would you have listened to me explain what it meant? How would our cards have fallen, Granger? Tell me!"

There are tears in her eyes, turning her gaze glassy. "I don't know," she whispers.

"Exactly why I didn't tell you what we are to each other sooner." He rakes a hand through his hair. It's become long and greasy to touch, his fingers catching on huge, knotted clumps of it. "It would have scared you. You would have run away."

"You don't know that," she retorts. "I'm here now, aren't I?"

"Not of your own volition." He turns his back to her to look out the window of his top-level flat. "You're here because Blaise and my mother asked you to come."

"The note didn't stir up any feelings that weren't already there!" she bursts out. Letting out a breath, she goes on. "A mere note wouldn't sway my feelings, Draco, it just gave me the last reason I needed to come. I'm here because I want to be. If I wasn't interested…" She lets the sentence go and he lets her. If she wasn't interested, he'd die. Simple as that.

Still, it all sounds too good to be true. "You are… interested?" he asks, turning back just so to survey her from the corner of his eye.

She releases a breath. "It's so much more than that and you know it. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't."

But it still isn't that simple.

Draco turns to face her, taking his time on the approach before stopping just as their toes meet on the floor in front of them. Her warmth and energy and simple nearness wash over him in something spectacularly close to magic.

She tilts her face up to meet his. "Your eyes are amber," she whispers.

"They are?" he questions, just as quiet.

"They are. Is your vision any different when they're like that?"

"You mean you don't know already?" he weakly jokes. Clearing his throat, he says, "My vision is… sharper, I think. Colours are brighter, everything more defined." He reaches out and takes a loose curl between his fingers. "I can see every colour that makes up your hair," he mumbles. "Each individual strand."

There's a moment then that he thinks could have come from any number of romance novels: a couple standing face-to-face, only inches apart, his hand in her hair, her hand on his chest.

"Was there really a co-worker who recommended me?" he asks.

She averts her eyes to the floor and shakes her head. "No, there wasn't."

"Then, Granger," he murmurs, "why did you hire me? Really?"

"Because there is something… something indefinable about you that I cannot solve," she whispers, without hesitation. "I've felt it for years."

In an odd way, he does know what she's talking about. He remembers standing in the middle of the Great Hall after the battle had blown over, flanked by his parents, and seeing Granger standing with Potter, at the edge of the mourning Weasleys. He'd felt an odd tug at him then, watching her, but dismissed it as soon as it had appeared. It had been his sadness at seeing Hogwarts in shambles, nothing more.

He'd gone on with his life and never pondered it again.

But she had. She'd felt it and kept on feeling it.

He can't explain why that pisses him off so much.

"And you knew this before you came to me? Meditated on it?"

She holds his manic gaze with a calm he has to admire. "In a way, yes. I don't especially like you, Draco. And I don't enjoy feeling the way I do about a boy who bullied me relentlessly for years. Of course this was something that I considered from all angles."

It's like a punch to the gut. He wants to scream, to batter his head against a wall, to pull each feather from his wings, one after the other. Whatever it would take to earn her forgiveness.

"I'm sorry," he rasps out. "So, so sorry."

"I know you are," she tells him. "And I do forgive you. I don't think anything I could do or say right now could match up to any punishment you're devising for yourself."

She's wrong. She could turn and walk away forever, and he wouldn't blame her if she did.

"And while I don't like you all that much," she goes on, ignoring his inner torment, "it doesn't take away from the fact that I feel so much more for you, Draco."

His head quirks up at that. "What do you mean?"

Her cheeks flush a shade of cherry-blossom pink. "I mean, I fell in love with you this summer, Draco."

A feeling of euphoria swells in him, lifting him from the darkest mire of his thoughts into the light of something new and spectacular. Still, he can't help the skepticism that holds him in its sway.

"Why did you leave?" he asks. "After your friend's wedding, you said goodbye and left."

"I needed time to think," she implores him. "I didn't mean for you to think we'd never meet again. I'd just confirmed a long-held theory. I didn't know you were… you know, just that you were important somehow. I needed time to work through everything."

He hesitates. "And you have now?"

She's quiet, still, for a long moment. "I think so."

"Because if we… if this happens, there's no turning back, for either of us."

She nods, slow and solemn. "I understand."

"Are you prepared for that?"

She swallows. "I am."

"Do you… do you accept me?"

She sucks in a breath quick and lets it out slow. "I do."

He reaches up to cup her cheeks in his hands. "Good." Then, he crushes his lips to hers.

If he could take the first kiss they had shared in his office all those months ago and multiply it a thousandfold, it would still not come close to the intensity of the kiss they're sharing now.

It's bruising and intense, no trepidation and no thought; just wet and messy and painful from clashing teeth and bumped noses but without a doubt the most perfect and erotic thing he's ever experienced in his life. Her lips are parted and ready for him as soon as they touch, her tongue meeting his and mapping the contours of his mouth before he realises what's going on. Draco cups her head and tilts her back to reach even farther into her, licking into every crevice and tasting everything he can of her, cataloguing everything he missed the first time when he hadn't been paying attention.

"You know, you're not exactly an easy person to like, either," he says, breathless, as he pulls away to her whine, but it feels inordinately important to say this now, before it goes any further. "But I have loved you since the very beginning, Granger, whether I knew it or not. Always and forever."

She nods, like she's too breathless to utter another word. He might have felt more affronted by her lack of response if she didn't tug his face back down to hers, igniting them with another kiss that spreads the length of him like fire.

Draco's fingers toy with the tiny pearlescent buttons of her blouse, popping them one by one, starting from the bottom and working his way up. His fingers trace the soft skin of her stomach, her waist, the laced edges of her apricot-coloured bra, and over her collarbone with each one undone until he can drag it down her arms and toss it to the floor.

"Fuck, Granger," he says with reverence.

"My name," she mutters as she wrestles with the belt holding up his too-large trousers and tugs them down. If she has anything to say about the state of his clothes, his smell or the utter chaos of his flat, she's holding it back, and she's a dear for doing so. "I have a name, Draco. Use it, please."

"Hermione," he breathes in the negligible space between them. He dips his head to her neck, pressing kisses along the slope and over her throat while she scores her nails down his front, distracting her from his fingers trailing along the waist of her pants, dipping beneath and further down, down, down. At the first touch of his fingers to the wet, hot centre of her, her breath hitches in a sigh, hips rolling into his hand to direct his touch to where she wants it most.

The sensation of her using him, getting off from him and not with him, of her coming, how her face scrunches up in concentration then goes lax with bliss, of her quivering around his fingers, has him so painfully hard against her thigh that he doesn't know how he's still functioning.

"Draco," she whispers, her hands gripping the short hair at the nape of his neck. "That… that was…"

He hushes her with another kiss and fingers caressing the sensitive skin of her waist. She settles into him, the soft, slender length of her body pressing into his, letting him unbutton her trousers and drag them down her legs, taking the knickers with them. Now they match: naked and flushed, moving on instinct. He wraps one hand around her head and the other around her waist to lower her down to his bed. He fans her hair out over his pillow. He likes it this length, just long enough to lose his hand in.

He moves himself above her, bracing his arms on either side of her head, careful not to trap her under the weight of his body. His wings fan out around them – not in a curtain this time, but in a grotto, just for them.

He nestles his cock in the heat between her thighs and lowers his lips to hers. "Are you certain?" he asks again. "One-hundred percent, unequivocally certain?"

In the haze of lust and want, her eyes clear in a moment of clarity and solemnity. "I am," she says, bucking her hips into his. Draco drops his head to her neck with a groan as she says, "Please, Draco."

He looks up to kiss her again. "All right."

He takes his wand off his table and fires off the appropriate charms before lining himself up. He grips himself and drags the head of his cock through her wet folds, groaning as his body threatens to betray him and come then and there. He looks at her again, asking with his hands and eyes again for her certainty and willingness. At her lip-bite and nod, he steadies himself with another deep breath, then pushes through her folds and into her tight, wet heat.

He doesn't miss her pained wince, or her sharp gasp. It doesn't take him long to piece things together.

"Hermione," he starts, staring at her in wonder. "You're a… a virgin?"

She tries to look away, but he cups her chin and holds her still. "Why didn't you tell me?"

She squirms and gasps, arching her back. "I didn't – I didn't know we would end up like this. Not right away, anyhow." She closes her eyes and draws in deep, panting breaths. "Would you mind… just holding still for a moment?"

For her: anything. He kisses the line between her furrowed brows, the crinkles where she's holding her eyes tight shut, the pressed line of her mouth where she's trying not to cry out.

After close to a minute, she opens her eyes again. The pain there has been replaced by something else – a strange sort of wonderment. She drinks him in with a reverence he finds inexplicable. Her hands reach out to touch, down the planes of his face, the tendons of his neck and down over his back.

"You really are Veela, aren't you?" she whispers, running tentative fingers along the edge of his wings.

He lets out a breath like a purr. "And you really are my Mate."

She doesn't say anything to that, just melts further into him, pressing her lips and body against his like all she wants to do is feel even more of his body in and on hers.

He peppers her face, her lips, her neck with tens, hundreds, thousands of reverent kisses. Each one of them sends a rush of strength back through him, a bolt of warmth and joy and love that strengthens him until he can't remember what it felt like to be so despondent.

She sighs, a warm burst against his cheek. "You can move now," she murmurs.

He joins their hands and holds them above her head. Steeling himself, Draco draws his hips back so just his tip is nestled within her, then thrusts back in.

Her breath hitches and her eyes widen. He takes that as a good sign and does it again. And again and again and again.

He catalogues everything about her he can reach: how the only sounds that escape her are sighs and moans, how her skin turns the colour of rose petals as he moves within her, the way her pupil swallows her iris to black, how her skin tastes of salt and sweet, how she can't seem to get herself close enough to him.

They stop and start. He pulls out and drags his body down hers to lick and suck at her sodden folds. He pulls back just as she's about to explode to move her onto her hands and knees. They run hands all over their sweat-slick bodies, pausing for every hitch, sigh, moan or scream. He halts within her to kiss her some more. They fold themselves into new positions, bringing themselves to the brink and back again, drawing it out for as long as they possibly can.

"Draco," she breathes in his ear. "I… I'm… so close…"

"Hermione…" He scrapes his blunt teeth over his neck until his fangs burst through. "May I? Please?"

Her body stills beneath him, and she turns her head just enough to meet his gaze. Her eyes are glazed with passion and pleasure, with something apologetic just to the side.

"Not yet," she whispers. "I'm sorry."

It's not a rejection, he knows, but it doesn't make it any less painful, doesn't make it feel like any less of a rejection. The fangs recede as he buries his face in the crook of her neck, sighing against her skin.

"Hey." She cups his cheeks in her hands, forcing him to meet her gaze again. "Not now. Not, not ever. We still have a little way to go, Draco. Giving me the mark… it's a huge step for the both of us."

It is a huge step, but it's one he knows he's been ready for since he first learned what being a Veela means. His breath leaves him in a shaky rattle. She's right. He knows she's right. He's quiet then, perhaps for a moment too long, because he barely even notices Granger arcing her back to press her pillowy lips against his again and again.

"Draco?" she questions, careful and tentative. "Are you all right?"

His eyes narrow with determination. She might not want the mark just yet, no, but she's here, under him – naked and all around him – right now, and fuck it all, if he has any say in any of it, he's not ever going to let her go.

So he answers her question the best way he knows how: he braces his hands on either side of her head, holding his body above hers, and dips down to kiss her again, because he's missed it in the last few seconds. His eyes stay on her as he circles his hips, clipping that spot inside her that had her thrashing before. That has her thrashing again now. His fingers alight on her clit, rubbing slow, wide circles until her insides flutter, then pulse and grip at him.

She cries his name to the ceiling, her hands clawing over every bit of him that she can reach as she pants her breaths in his ear. He keeps up his pace through her pulsing for as long as he can, but he can't hold back anymore over the tidal wave of sensation threatening to pull him under.

The world dissolves in a funnel of darkness and sparks –

Then it explodes.

He's never come so hard, so long, so completely in all his life.

When he opens his eyes again, he's certain he's lost days, months, maybe even years to the void of ecstasy and pleasure he'd found himself swimming in. But Granger is still there, exhausted and replete beneath him. She's humming, running a hand up and down his sweaty back where she can reach, brushing over the swollen skin around the joint of his wing. He shudders with each pass, too full of sensation to do anything more.

"Are you all right?" he asks, pulling away from the crook her neck. His room smells like sex, sweat and lavender.

Her smile is stunning. "Better than."

"Would you stay? Please?"

Stunning, then completely arresting. "I would like nothing more."

He nuzzles into her neck, breathing her in. "Thank Merlin."

Her breathing evens out as she falls asleep, but Draco can't follow. He's too wired, too full of adrenaline and undiluted joy to even consider closing his eyes to it. Even when he realised who Granger would be to him, he never thought they might end up together, not with any real seriousness, anyway. It wasn't a thought he could entertain anywhere except the deepest recesses of his dreams, where no one could get hurt. Now, he sees no reason why this can't work out, why they can't be happy and content together, why Granger won't one day be proud to bear his mark, or why they mightn't be able to have children in the future.

Whatever happens next, though, it doesn't fucking matter right now.

Right now, Draco has his Mate curled up around him, sleeping soundly in his arms, like there's no place she'd rather be. Everything else… that can come later.

One day at a time and all that shit, but maybe, just maybe, Blaise was right.

Maybe Draco really is living the fucking dream.


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