As much as Hermione was tempted to compare the entire event to the Yule Ball - this is what became of having so few glittering evenings in one's life - it became harder and harder to do as the night wore on. In a loose comparative summary, Hermione danced more and cried less, which, Hermione was given to understand, was about as good as it got for special occasions.

Hermione moved around the room, smiling and chatting with greater ease than she had felt before. The Kir Royale no doubt helped. She'd never had a champagne cocktail before, she couldn't even think of a time when she would have potentially had the call for one, but she was sure it was expertly prepared, judging by how delicious it was. But it wasn't just the warm buzz from the alcohol that was making her feel better inside her skin.

Now that she'd made some decisions about her life, about her career, Hermione felt more confident. In some ways, she was even impatient, eager to finish school and to get on with her life. In comparison to her feelings only a few months before, the change was monumental, and so were its effects.

Her spine was straight, her chin was high, and even without a bone fide international star on her arm, she was comfortable enough to do the circuit. In some ways it was more enjoyable without a date. She had sent Ron off soon after arrival for him to chat with whomever he chose as they were only their as friends she didn't see the need for him to attend on her needs all evening. Hermione would always be happier representing herself than being seen as some wizard's trinket box - a decorative object with no real usage. Even if neither Viktor or Ron had ever thought about her in such a dismissive way, other people would have.

It was also hard to compare Regulus' ball to any school event when Hermione found herself dancing with not only Theodore Nott but also briefly with Blaise Zabini and now Marcus Flint. Blaise had tried to charm her into giving up information on Pansy, which had been met with little more than a raised eyebrow now matter how captivating his smile was. Conversely, Marcus seemed much more interested in an attempt to charm her horizontal. Hermione wasn't sure which horrified her more.

When Marcus had first approached she had been standing with Ron and Hermione was grateful if only because without his rather curt mutter of 'Flint' she would have had no idea who the man standing in front of them - as if he needed no introduction - was. It appeared Hermione wasn't the only one in the room who had made use of magical dentistry over the years if Marcus' straight, white, shark-like smile was anything to go by.

When he asked her to dance, Hermione had almost refused before she could even think twice about it, and then she realised how ridiculous it would have been to reject him out of hand. If she could 'break bread' with a maudlin, world fearing, alcohol dependant Draco Malfoy, then surely she could take a turn about the room with a boy she remembered so little of from Hogwarts. Even when she tried, the only things that came to mind about Marcus was his aggression on the Quidditch pitch and that he'd had to make up a year. Though Hermione just about suppressed a flinch when that little tidbit filtered to the front of her memory.

Eventually, Hermione agreed though mainly for Pansy's sake. She may not have discussed the issue of the appearing name much with her friend, but she knew Pansy well enough to understand that she wouldn't have mentioned the game at all unless she was giving it at least a little credence. Hermione also didn't buy into the idea that it could have been someone else. While Marcus was not an uncommon name, the circle in which Pansy was determined to marry into, if she did so at all, was small.

Child's game or not, strangers things had happened in the magical world. They were after all at a ball hosted by a man she had accidentally dragged through time.

Hermione had pushed her feelings to the side to accept Marcus' hand and was suddenly more eager for the opportunity to get to know him better. After all, Rolf was forever travelling, and yet since he had started seeing Luna, they saw a great deal of him. It stood to reason that living with Pansy, Hermione would see whoever she decided to date even more often.

All in all, Hermione was feeling rather pleased with her newfound tolerance for her fellow man, as she started dancing with Marcus Flint. This was a sign of growth, she told herself. It was all very well to stand up to a Dark Lord, but it was quite another to admit that you were more judgemental than you should be.

It was all going so well, his conversation was dull, but not offensively so, and then Marcus put his hand on her bum.

It wasn't a gentle swipe, one that could have been downplayed as an accident or maybe even a misguided attempt at flirtation. It was a full-hand grab that revealed to Hermione just how thin the material of her dress was when she felt the unwelcome heat of his large hand against the lace outline of her knickers.

Hermione's head snapped up, and she instinctively felt for her wand, which was holstered against her thigh. She had thought about shouting him into submission, but she wanted the lesson she was about to dole out to be more permanent.

Marcus looked down at her with a lopsided grin and Hermione's blood boiled, she gripped his wrist as tight as she could and frantically brushed at the material of her skirts to get them out of the way. She was going to…

"I don't suppose I could cut in?"

Hermione sagged in relief when she heard Draco's voice, the adrenaline of the last couple of seconds bled out of her in a rush, and it made her feel slightly lightheaded. She only just suppressed a howl of manic laughter as she fully registered that she was happy to see Draco Malfoy, of all people. What had become of her life?

Though it was clear Draco had spoken to her, he wasn't looking in her direction. When Hermione could tear her gaze away from Marcus' thick arm, she saw the steely quality of Draco's gaze, and that was all for Marcus' benefit.

Marcus released her as if her flesh were suddenly molten and then stammered out something intelligible. He continued incoherently mumbling until Ginny wandered past in her high necked dress with a thigh-high split. All thoughts of offences he may have caused were forgotten when his eyes bulged. Hermione snorted.

"So ladylike," Draco drawled as Marcus finally disappeared and Hermione rolled her eyes. They stood facing each other for a moment until he tugged on the end of one of his sleeves. Hermione noted it was his marked arm, and she felt guilty for discomforting him with her silence. "I appreciate that I've already served my primary purpose, but as we are both stood here?"

"Of course," Hermione replied, and she stepped towards him before they were left standing like lemons any longer. She knew she would get an earful from Ron and possibly even Harry when they saw her, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Over the previous weeks, Draco had become someone Hermione knew rather well, through their meetups she felt she understood him, as much as she ever understood anyone.

As Draco began to guide her around the floor, Hermione unexpectedly felt relieved to be in his company. After gadding about with virtual strangers, she was no longer expected to make a worthwhile attempt at exciting conversation. Herself and Draco had covered so many of the horrible topics that lingered between them when they spoke over 'tea' that small talk was rather soothing in comparison.

How have you been? Isn't it warm for this time of year? Have you seen so and so? All those questions had form answers that required little of herself to answer. Do you hate me? Where do I go from here? When will the nightmares stop? Those and ones like it were much more difficult.

"Thank you for cutting in, I was very close to hexing him," she admitted as Draco performed a quick transition with his feet that Hermione had no hope of replicating, so she just held on.

"I didn't do it for you," Draco dismissively replied, and he guided her more expertly around the floor than Marcus could ever have hoped to in a month of Sundays. "My mother has been planning this event for weeks. I will not be subjected to hearing about its demise for months. All because you have never been able to keep your temper."

"Me keep my temper?" Hermione snapped. "Have you forgotten who you are talking to? We went to school together, Malfoy, and unless I'm mistaking you for someone else, I don't remember you being zen."

"That was school, not a ballroom," Draco rebutted with one of his contemptible little sneers. "Were you raised by wild animals? Why else would you think that contemplating violence at such an event was acceptable?"

Says the Death Eater her mind supplied though thankfully she bit it back. Hermione was used to Draco's snark by now, underneath all of his posturing and blather, she could see that he was irate, and as much as he would protest, it wasn't at her.

"He grabbed my arse Draco," Hermione scolded. "I was well within my rights to remind him why that wasn't a good move."

"Typical Gryffindor," Draco scoffed. "Absolutely no subtly whatsoever."

"Fine," Hermione huffed. "What would you have done?"

Draco smirked. "If Marcus Flint touched my arse? Told him to stay in his lane, there's no way he's anywhere near my league."

Hermione wanted to bang her head against the nearest wall. How did the Slytherin's survive this for seven years without coming to significant blows? "Malfoy," she chastised utterly exasperated.

Draco manoeuvred her around an over large flower arrangement as the previously fading string sounds suddenly quickened, before unexpectedly tilting her. Hermione couldn't control her gasp, and Draco followed her movement until their noses were almost touching and then he righted her again, in a quick action just as jarring as the first had been.

"Warn a girl, would you Draco? I thought you were going to drop me on the floor."

"Where would the fun be in that? There would be no chance of me dropping you unless I had expressly planned it. If you haven't quite gathered it yet, I'm actually rather good at this. Far better than you in any case."

"Whatever," Hermione mumbled, though she didn't have anything in the way of a counter-argument to present. She was painfully aware that Draco's dancing was far superior to her own. She supposed she would have to console herself at being better than him at everything else.

"Poisoned letter," Draco said as they made another turn and Hermione eyed him quizzically. "That's what I would do," he clarified in a bored sort of way.

"I wouldn't even know how to begin such a thing, would you-"

"Consider it done," Draco interjected, and Hermione had the distinct impression he was pleased to have found she didn't protest the idea. She had reminded Draco often that he was the one wedded to the idea that she was a complete 'goody two shoes'. Hermione had made peace with her more vindictive side a long time ago. In some cases, retribution was as much personal revenge as it was a public service.

"That's kind of you."

"Hardly, I couldn't expect you to do it properly, you would be caught, and that might be… inconvenient for me. As I said, you lack the proper subtlety."

"A Slytherin sort of subtlety?" Hermione replied, derisively.


Hermione grinned devilishly. "Ask your cousin about spiteful letters, then come back to me about Slytherin refinement. There was one note in particular - to the Dark Lord no less - that was definitely lacking a certain nuance."

While Hermione danced, Regulus paced. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but when the third waiter in a row had ducked out of his way, he decided it was time to make a more concerted effort to school his features and present himself in a less murderous fashion.

Any attempt at burring his feelings wouldn't have been possible while she had been dancing with Marcus fucking Flint. Regulus had found it somewhat amusing at first that yet another son of Slytherin had asked Hermione to dance. This night was teaching him to laugh - almost - at his own assertions. He had been convinced of himself, and then she'd been attended on by practically every peer in the room.

Yes, Regulus had found it funny, until Marcus' large, distinctly calloused and grubby hands began to roam over Hermione's body. It was subtle at first, and Regulus was sure he had picked up the boy's intent even before Hermione had. When Marcus' unwelcome hands had reached her bum, Regulus had put his drink down and thought about taking off his jacket, but his feet had already been moving.

There was no bloody way that was happening. He had told himself Narcissa would understand and most likely she would have. If Walburga had taught him nothing else, it was that an English pureblood's home was his castle, and this one, Regulus set the rules. If he decided that Flint's corpse would make an excellent addition to the decorating scheme, so be it. But he never got that far. Regulus wouldn't say thankfully, because he wouldn't have meant it.

As soon as Marcus had given Hermione's bum one unhurried squeeze, Regulus saw that she immediately reached for her wand. It had been enough to stop him dead in his tracks. He might have been desperate to wipe the smug expression of Flint's face, but he was even more so to watch her do it.

His cousin's sudden appearance at Hermione's side had seen him retreat though he stayed close enough to keep watch, resume his drink and wonder at how fast his anger dissipated to be replaced by inconveniently public arousal. Her passion was undeniably captivating, but her rage was unexpectedly more so. Especially when it wasn't directed at him. The witch was going to be the death of him. Not his brother, not his parents, not the Dark Lord, not a whole cave worth of Inferi, but a teenage witch who had no idea of her power.

Regulus watched as Marcus skulked away and, after a short discussion, Draco took his place. Then he began his agitation of the newly polished floorboards.

Their dance, Draco and Hermione's, could not have been more different to Hermione's last. For one, Draco's hands barely moved, and they certainly didn't stray into anything even approaching inappropriate. Typically, Regulus would never have looked, but he felt the need to check, for Hermione's sake, but it was for nothing. Draco's hold was rigidly formal. They forwent bowing to each other at the beginning, but that seemed to be by some mutual agreement that caused them to share a challenging glance before they moved amongst the other couples with a sort of begrudging harmony.

To a casual observer, Regulus assumed that Hermione and Draco would both appear as if they were not enjoying each others company. He could imagine those watching whispering to each other and asking why they had been forced together, or what the young Malfoy heir was looking to gain from an association from the Granger girl?

They weren't laughing, or smiling, or showing much outward sign of anything at all, and yet his cousin was holding himself more upright than Regulus had ever seen, as if, for once, he could bear to be looked at. As he was guiding Hermione around the floor, he was turning at regular intervals, so it was always his back that brushed up against any encroaching couples.

He saw Hermione's eyes flash a couple of times with familiar disgruntled passion, especially when she apparently realised Draco's seemingly protective intent. Regulus supposed if he hadn't thought about her expressions so much over the previous months, he would have thought she looked angry, but he knew she wasn't.

Hermione was enjoying herself. He tried to tell himself that it was good to see her happy. He failed, but he was proud of himself for trying.

After what seemed like a lifetime the pair stopped dancing, and Draco guided Hermione off the floor as Regulus remembered being taught to do when he was a boy. Draco said something, and in response, Hermione momentarily placed her hand on his wrist. When she wandered off, she left his cousin with a slight flush in his cheeks.

After dancing more dances than Hermione would have thought her feet, or her patience, capable of, she drifted away from the crush of the dancefloor to sit in one of the sheltered seats over on the far side of the room. It was the only place in the whole ballroom that wasn't cascaded in light and Ginny had told her earlier that traditionally these areas had been set up for women who weren't dancing, and they were kept in a shady area so the ladies in question could remain as unobtrusive as possible as they remained unchosen.

Whether the traditional usage had died out or not, Hermione had determined right then and there that she would sit in what she had begun to call the 'pity section' for at least part of her evening. She had never been able to stop herself from giving the finger to the patriarchy, whenever and wherever the situation called for it, and that wasn't going to change because she had put a lovely dress on.

Though in this case, her choice to sit was as attributable to the aching in her feet as her more revolutionary tenancies.

Hermione resisted the urge to take her shoes off, knowing not by experience but from Pansy, that it would make it worse later. Instead, she took a piece of cake from a passing waiter and, after pausing the requisite few seconds to make sure Kreacher wasn't going to appear to change it for something more luxurious, she dove in while observing the play-by-play on the floor.

From her vantage point, Hermione could see Rolf allowing Luna to lead him around in an unhurried dance and Harry and Ginny shuffling in a much more self-aware and awkward fashion behind them. Rather, Harry was uncomfortable, Ginny herself was an excellent dancer, and apparently one that was too in love with Harry to notice his shortcomings.

Her friends looked beautiful. So in love, and so happy; looking out at them was like staring out at a vignette of all the dreams Hermione had had for them while she had been stuck in a musty unloved tent during the war. Except this was real, and so much more lovely than what she had been able to conjure her mind's eye. Hermione considered that she somewhat lacked both the imagination and the experience required to daydream effectively.

Some of them had already found their perfect matches, and while you couldn't say that the individuals within each couple were similar, they complimented each other in a way that made them seem more magnificent than the sum of their parts. There was a natural symmetry to them, it was unspoken, it was there in every moment, and yet at an event like this, it was playing out in a much more blatant fashion.

The soft pink of Luna's dress was reflected in the bright florals of Rolf's robes. Harry had matched his cravat to Ginny's clothing in a more conservative effort at coordination, though Hermione believed he could have pulled off a daring look if he had wanted.

Hermione swallowed down the last bite of her sumptuous cake and cursed the Blacks and the Malfoys for being practically perfect at everything. Would have been too much to ask for that the cake to be ever so slightly not the best thing she had ever eaten? As Hermione brushed away the crumbs that she had dropped all over her skirt, because she was not perfect, she stared at the dark green chiffon of her dress. Now that she was sitting she could see her gold sandals poking out from under her many-layered skirts. They were probably a little glitzy for her, but when Ginny had pulled them out in the shop, she'd had to agree that they suited the dress perfectly.

Hermione chewed her lip. She looked across the room to where Regulus was standing, holding court, and for the first time, she properly considered his dark green robes with prominent guilt buttons.

Though, whatever conclusion she was on the verge of was fated to wait, as was any potential respite for her poor feet.

Rolf appeared and smiled down at her before placing one of his hands in front of her face. "I would ask politely, but there is absolutely no chance that I'm leaving here tonight without us embarrassing ourselves together at least once out there."

He pointed towards the dancefloor where Luna was making a valiant attempt at twirling Ron, despite their respective heights and his obvious reluctance.

Hermione grinned. "Far be it from me to deny a gentleman his due." She stood with a wobbly curtsy which Rolf returned with a bow so deep it reminded her of Kreacher.

"Once more into the fray," Rolf muttered, and Hermione agreed with a laugh.

Considering he was at a party hosted by his relentless mother and an interfering cousin, Draco Malfoy was having an acceptable time. He had so far managed to avoid most of the people that he had no interest in speaking to, and he'd caught a glimpse of the Weasel's horrified face as he'd strutted around the floor with Granger. Nothing made him feel more like his old self than winding up one of his childhood nemesis. Though, where Granger was concerned, maybe Pansy had the right idea.

Draco had watched her out on the floor, smiling with her friends and chatting to some lesser-known acquaintances. She was certainly doing a better job of pretending to be fine than he was. Sadly, Draco didn't believe that particular competition was one worth winning. He might still spend an excessive amount of time contemplating crawling inside a bottle, but at least his depression was honest.

He imagined Hermione would say - if he was ever bold enough to ask why she put on such a front - that she owed it to her friends to try to be happy. Draco believed Hermione did it because she felt she owed it to Potter; she probably thought it was one less albatross around his sacred neck if she didn't show she was sinking. Draco shook himself from his thoughts. It didn't do him any good to dwell too long on the golden trio; it took him to dark places.

He had been surprised not to have Potter, or worse, the Weasel, coming over to make some snide remark about his meeting with their brainy friend, but there had been nothing of the sort. Neither of them was calculating enough to be saving the information for another time when it would potentially have a more significant effect. So Draco had to believe now that Hermione really hadn't said anything.

It was an easier admission to make than he had anticipated. Somehow he had found his way to trusting Hermione Granger, at least where she expressly made a claim. It may not sound like much, but Draco no longer trusted his parents half as much as that, it put Hermione in a very lonely company. Much like himself.

Draco eyed his glass of wine with disdain. It was an excellent vintage, but he found he couldn't enjoy it, all he could think about was how he would have vastly preferred to be on the hard stuff, but it wasn't worth risking his mother's upset, expressed in disappointed glances that had been so infrequent throughout his youth Draco felt they didn't suit her.

He sighed as he swallowed a large swig, uncouth but necessary, and comforted himself that the night was still relatively young, and it was always good to have somewhere to escalate to if things started to go badly.

As he leant his head back against the nearest wall, he spotted a figure, one that was inexplicably moving towards him. No one had done that so far that evening, sought him out so directly, at least no one outside of his immediate circle. The blonde was of short stature, wearing a blush coloured dress that highlighted the paleness of her skin in a material that replicated the flowing waves of her so-soft-you-wanted-to-press-your-face-into-it hair.

"Hello, Draco," she said in a voice that was smoother and more vibrant than the wine he had just inelegantly thrown down his throat.

Astoria Greengrass. It had been so long since Draco had seen Daphne's little sister that he hadn't instantly recognised her. He racked his brain as she settled next to him, and he vaguely remembered the last time they had spoken. It had been during the enduring hell of his sixth year when he had felt like the Mark had been eating away at his skin at every waking moment. He had been in the library, drumming his hand against his leg as he panicked over the latest pile of spent books in front of him. None of them had been the answer. It had been one of the days when Draco had started to believe that there was no answer, that he was going to die.

Astoria had asked him something innocuous, Draco couldn't remember what it had been, he couldn't even remember if he had answered her, but in the here and now, seeing her look up at him without disgust marring her features he remembered her having been kind.

Thank you he wanted to say. You look beautiful would have also been another good option, either would have been true. Yet, the truth was so tricky, so exposing, so unreliable.

"Where is your sister?" he replied after a beat. "She hasn't come over to berate me for not sending her letters while she was away. Am I to take it that she hasn't arrived yet?"

Astoria snorted, or rather she made a sound as close to it as a creature like her ever did. "I believe Daphne is rather occupied this evening," she said with a pointed look and Draco smirked.

"Is she now?" he asked, peering around the room to see if he could identify the wizard Daphne was intending on sinking her claws into. The poor fool didn't know what was about to hit him.

Draco located Daphne quickly, knowing her preferences for pastels helped. His school mate was dancing with a Slytherin Graduate a few years ahead of their time, and though her dance partner seemed utterly enraptured, Daphne was making doe-eyed glances across the room… to where Regulus was standing.

Draco nearly laughed, though he wasn't sure who's predicament was funnier. "Your sister likes a challenge," he observed dryly.

Astoria pressed her perfectly neat white teeth into her plump bottom lip. "She does. I'm discovering that it's something of a family trait."

Draco suddenly felt somewhat warm trapped in her soft gaze. "Is it indeed?"

It was as if he had been lifted off the ground and out of his semi-comfortable surroundings to be slung onto a dirt floor at a murky crossroads. Once again, he had choices in front of him but now… now he didn't trust himself to make the right ones.

Draco glanced across the room, though whether he was in search of a drink, a lifeline, or a way out he wasn't sure. He saw Granger dancing with Potter, and he remembered their talks. He believed her when she spoke, believed in her passion and her conviction, even if she was far too ranty to be born most days. Somehow she thought he was worth a second chance, a shot a redemption, and if Hermione believed it, after everything that she had seen of him, maybe she was right. She was right about most things, the insufferable cow.

Draco looked down at Astoria and at the faint blush that had highlighted the tops of her cheeks. She wasn't one to be so bold. The thought that someone might risk embarrassment on his account was the final push he needed.

"Well," he said finally, his voice cracking just a little as he tried to remember how this patter went. "Shall we get you another drink? I think I might like to hear more."

Due to his ever-changing shift pattern, Harry had arrived late and had then been dragged here, there and everywhere by the self-appointed, upper echelons of society who were all keen to have their bit of face time with the 'chosen one'. It was the usual thing; some wanted to shake his hand, others wanted to get his backing - in words or galleons, sometimes both - for some project they were starting.

After the war, all of them had been subjected to that sort of thing to some extent; however, predictably, Harry had gotten the worst of it. He handled it better than Hermione ever had, and she would have hated to leave him to it if it weren't for Ginny. The redhead had an uncanny ability to extract Harry from any conversation, no matter how fervent the person she was up against, and still make it seem as if Harry was loathed to be parted from them.

Hermione had managed to claim Harry for a dance an hour or so after he'd first arrived. Although neither of them particularly enjoyed the activity, especially in front of so many people, it was the only way they could ensure their conversation would not be immediately interrupted.

"I feel like a penguin," Harry grumbled, fiddling with his tie in similar discomfort to the way Ron had yanked at his collar on their way in. There was something wonderfully predictable about her best friends.

Hermione giggled as she remembered blurting the same thing earlier, and Regulus' affronted expression when she had compared him to a flightless bird without context. There was no such need for explanations with Harry. Though she often wished, with all her heart, that Harry's upbringing had been different, Hermione couldn't deny that his Muggle roots were a comfort sometimes. It was so much easier to be around people that had the same set of references and insider knowledge that you did.

"What?" Harry questioned at her unexplained laughter, and Hermione shook her head.

"Nothing, you just reminded me of a conversation I had earlier."

"Don't nothing me," Harry rebuked. He was clearly having one of his more astute moments, which always seemed to crop up whenever they would be the most inconvenient for Hermione. "Since when did you giggle?"

Hermione shrugged. "I think it's the fizz."

"Sure it is," Harry replied sarcastically. "So, how's Darcy?"

Hermione stiffened. She had hoped Harry had forgotten all about their conversation over Christmas. Regulus' sudden appearance at Grimmauld Place, searching for her had reminded Harry of someone, and Hermione had instantly known that he had been alluding to Jane Austen's most perfect hero, but she had refused to clarify, it wasn't worth the teasing. It also wasn't worth admitting that she had spotted the parallels herself, only the real-life version of the famous literary heartthrob hadn't gone full circle yet - with no guarantee that he ever would - Regulus was still marching around like god's gift. And, unlike Lizzy Bennet, Hermione couldn't bring herself to despise his pride or anything else about him.

"You remembered who you were thinking of?" Hermione replied lightly. She caught the flash in Harry's eyes, and she knew she had been caught.

Harry grinned. "I knew at the time."

"Harry James Potter that expression is far too smug for my liking," Hermione huffed.

Harry was unmoved; her bluster hadn't affected him in years. "You have to let me get my wins where I can, Mione. It's not often I get one over on you."

Hermione sniffed, but felt that now that the matter was raised some clarification was in order. "I see where you were going, but in my opinion, it doesn't quite fit. Mr Darcy was haughty-"

"Which Regulus is," Harry insisted.

"-Yes," Hermione agreed impatiently. "But, if you had let me finish, I would have said that Darcy's behaviour is born out of social awkwardness whereas Regulus-"

"Is an overconfident twat?" Harry supplied and Hermione hit his arm.

"Stop interrupting me," she fumed and then deflated in an instant. "But, yes… I suppose… something like that."

Harry steered them a few couples over to avoid a wizard that had been trying to buy his way out of questioning by pushing a hefty donation towards the Auror's combat unit. Once they were 'safe', they once again fell into a comfortable silence.

"Does it matter?" Harry suddenly asked just as Hermione was beginning to contemplate the hour getting late.

"Does what matter?"

"That he's a bit of a twat?"

Hermione was brought up short. "It should," she replied eventually, wishing she had a better response.

"Probably," Harry agreed, "but it doesn't mean it will."

"So what do I do?" Hermione implored, and her friends' eyes widened to a comical degree.

"You're asking me? Bloody hell Mione you really must be lost."

"Harry," she chastised softly, and he apologised with a ruffle of his unruly hair. His features softened and just like that he was the boy that had come skidding into the girl's bathroom to save her from a troll, brandishing his wand with no idea how to use it.

"You've been dealing with overconfident twats your whole life Hermione, and if all else goes wrong you could always punch him in the face, it's worked before."

Hermione giggled again; she couldn't help it. Typical Harry, why overthink a problematic issue when you could already be knee-deep in the ramifications of an unconsidered action? "I'll keep that option in my back pocket, just in case."

It felt like forever before Regulus saw Hermione again, they had been separated by a crowd of well-wishers and the growing crush of the party. As time marched on, Regulus' temper worsened. He'd never been one for such events when he was younger, but he'd known that any requested command appearance was far from optional. He'd done his duty and completed a lap of the room and buggered off before the adults could disgrace themselves. He was learning that the expectations were a lot more demanding when you were supposed to have some level of control over the evening.

Finally, Hermione appeared out of the crowd, mercifully on her own, and she was headed towards a refreshment table. Her elegant hair arrangement had wilted, no doubt contributed to by the weight of her braids and the growing heat of the room, and loose curls were escaping down the back of her neck. It was pleasant to have her wandering around in such an undone manner inside the safety of his home, but the myriad people also present put a dampener on his enjoyment of it.

Regulus had found himself serving cups of punch to the society matrons while they all spoke of his favourable features and their delightfully unattached daughters. Regulus valiantly tried to look interested while he wished them all mute. He had long understood that there was nothing he could say to derail these conversations, even as a well known Death Eater he'd had no hope of intimidating these women. As a recently returned heir of a noble house, he had no hope, his bachelor blood was very much in the water, and the sharks were circling.

Hastily pouring another cup, Regulus extracted himself from a particularly persistent character and stepped next to Hermione who politely declined his offering.

"Thank you, I'm fine," she said, raising her glass. Regulus noted the distinct pattern on the flute and realised that it was part of his private collection that lived in the drinks cabinet at the back of his study. They had belonged to his father and were undoubtedly a cut above what they were using for routine guests. Kreacher was clearly up to his usual tricks.

"I see you are," he replied wryly without further elaboration. "How is Potter?"

Regulus asked, feigning politeness, even though he honestly couldn't have cared less. He'd hated James Potter, but he couldn't summon the same vehement dislike for his 'famous' offspring. Harry seemed to lack all of his father's arrogance and yet none of his looks, it was… puzzling to converse with him for an extended period. He wondered how Sirius ever coped with it.

Regulus had seen them dancing together and had decided that Hermione had been more comfortable with Potter than she had been with anyone else. They didn't melt into each other's frames like lovers, but there was an ease about them, even when taking into account their inexpert moves. Regulus had been envious of their tranquillity. It hadn't been the white-hot rage he'd felt when he saw Marcus hold her, it was more profound than that.

"Complaining about being dressed up like the Victorians," Hermione replied with a little laugh. "Formal clothes aren't his thing."

"I had gathered," Regulus replied, trying not to sound too insulting but not managing it. "And you? Are formal clothes more to your taste?"

Hermione looked as if she was giving some serious consideration to the question, and it made Regulus take a step closer into her soothing orbit. "More so than the boys," she offered eventually, "but I haven't had that many opportunities to get dressed up, so I'm not sure. I imagine I would find it dull if I had to do it all the time."

"Whether you like it or not it suits you," Regulus ventured daring to drift his fingers near an escaped curl without touching it. "You look beautiful, Miss Granger, I should have said that earlier."

Hermione blushed, and her hands moved unconsciously to smooth over her upper arms. Regulus felt rather proud of the goosebumps that had risen there.

"Not just tolerable?" she said as she bit her lip and Regulus was startled out of the moment by his confusion.

"I'm sorry?"

"Nothing," she grinned to herself. "Muggle joke."

Regulus nodded, bemused as to what she could have been alluding to and then choose to forget it. He was standing with her, and the world around them was doing that delicious thing where it began to distort and blur until he could almost imagine it was no longer there.

He watched Hermione's fingers as they repositioned on his expensive glass, as her warm flesh absently, unknowingly, collected droplets of condensation that had formed on the outside. Regulus wondered if she would mind placing that hand against his neck and cooling the warmth that was rising there, but he didn't think there would be a delicate way to ask. He imagined something of his thoughts must have played out on his face, an intensity that he couldn't hide, Hermione's pupils blew wide, but she didn't back away. It was intoxicating that she wasn't afraid, not that she had any reason to be; he would do nothing to hurt her.

"Regulus," an insistent voice broke the spell that Hermione was weaving over his mind and body and Regulus stepped back suddenly aware that the music in the background had changed and the people around them had moved. He watched Hermione's chest heave slightly as she also took a step back and were he not in the middle of a ballroom he would have done everything within his power to eliminate their sudden distance.

Daphne Greengrass glided over to them, and in one smooth motion, she pressed a kiss to his cheek while positioning herself in the best possible place to shut Hermione out of their grouping entirely. Her hair hadn't wilted, it looked exactly the same as it had when Regulus had first seen her enter through the large doors. Daphne's eyes sparkled as she openly regarded him, ready to please, ready to be pleasing. Maybe it would have had more of an effect if his heart were not still beating out of his chest, recovering from Hermione's mere proximity.

Regulus saw Hermione's face shutter, and he shifted to the side, ready to place an arm around her and draw her back in, but Daphne placed a hand on his arm, it was an utterly unexpected and familiar gesture from someone he had only met once, and Regulus managed not to shoo her lest she crumpled his sleeve.

"Regulus, I've been trying to get you alone all evening, you haven't given me a date yet for our dinner. I believe we mentioned a… more private occasion this time."

He heard more than saw Hermione take a deep breath, and when he turned, she was squaring her shoulders and finishing her drink. "I best be going," she said with forced politeness.

She turned on her heel and walked with a clear purpose, away from him. Regulus barely shouted an excuse over his shoulder before he all but chased after her. He caught her quickly; he tried to reason that was because he wanted to catch her more than she wanted to get away, but he discounted it. Whatever their relative intents, his legs were a good deal longer.

"Miss Granger, I don't believe we had finished speaking," he implored as loudly as he dared. He wanted to hold onto her, her arm, her skirt anything to encourage her to stay still for a moment, but he held himself back. Regulus had seen how quickly she'd moved to her holster earlier that night and he had never been called an idiot.

"I wouldn't want to intrude," Hermione replied in a voice so utterly devoid of her usual emotion Regulus had to stare into her eyes to convince himself it was still her. "You to looked perfect, standing together like that, just like a picture."

Regulus' mind stuttered to a halt, and then he remembered that picture in the Prophet. But surely she couldn't think? But even if she did, she had never indicated…

Hermione made to disappear again, but this time Regulus had been anticipating it. He moved quickly, too quick for her to credit and scurried around Hermione until he was blocking her path.

"Miss Granger?" he implored softly, daring her to look up at him as he closed the distance between them.

"Yes," she answered. Her voice held the most minute of trembles, but Regulus still heard it.

After an eternity of waiting her out, she met his gaze, and he felt as caught as ever. "Are you running away from me?"

She sagged. "No, I'm not but I-"

"Hermione," a booming voice interrupted, and a Regulus almost bit through his tongue in his attempt to stop himself from uttering a nasty bit of wandless magic.

"Hermione, it's been forever. I heard your news! So excited you are going to be part of the team after graduation. Are you free?"

Who the hell was this? And what was he talking about? Wasn't she joining the Ministry? Why in the name of Merlin had Narcissa invited so many single men to this event?

The boy who had appeared looked to be about the same age as Hermione and Regulus stood grave and close as he greeted her overtly warmly. They shared a quick embrace, and Hermione then took a step back, so Regulus was no longer unincluded.

"Of course, Terry," Hermione replied patiently before waving her hand between them. "Terry Boot this is Regulus Black, Regulus Black, Terry Boot."

The newly identified Terry Boot offered his hand, and Regulus took it reluctantly.

"Good to meet you mate, great party," Boot commended before he looked at Hermione expectedly.

Hermione glanced at Regulus as though she had something to say, but no words were forthcoming. Regulus took advantage of the silence; he had a few of his own. "I would rather you didn't dance with every man here."

Hermione's eyes flashed, and Regulus almost took a step back from her overt hostility. "Would you?" She all but hissed. "I'll keep that in mind." Then she leant forward to grip his arm. The gesture was obviously meant to hint at Daphne's earlier hold on his person, even if Hermione had been trying for subtly, which was unlikely, her face gave her intent away. "Do remember to tell Daphne she looks beautiful, won't you. She has been trying to speak to you privately after all."

Later, after Terry Boot nearly had them both on the floor following an attempt at what he later told her was a foxtrot, Hermione was saved from the beginnings of a very dull conversation with a witch that Augusta Longbottom would have described as stern-looking. The only problem was, Hermione was 'saved' by Narcissa Malfoy, and while she was far from boring, she wasn't precisely Hermione's ideal rescuer. Out of the frying pan.

"Miss Granger, it is so wonderful to see you here. Tell me, how do you like the house?"

Hermione managed a few platitudes, making sure not to name anything too specific as she was sure she wouldn't know the 'proper' name for all of the furniture and she had no interest in finding out what it cost, otherwise she was mostly silent.

In her defence, it was hard to concentrate on what Mrs Malfoy was saying when her mind was playing back images she only vaguely recalled from when she was being tortured at Malfoy Manor. Hermione could remember Narcissa's disinterested, cold eyes as she had laid broken on her receiving room floor. Maybe Narcissa's unexpected politeness had come from the deduction that today at least Hermione was unlikely to make much of a mess. Hermione imagined it was time-consuming to get blood out of real wood.

Just as she felt herself losing her grip entirely, Hermione registered a comforting hand on her back, and she felt both disgustingly grateful and incredibly ashamed at how much she relaxed because of Harry's sudden appearance.

"Are you okay, Mione?" he asked her seriously.

She wanted to say no, but she still had her pride, pride and her sense of duty to her friends. Harry didn't need another burden, and he would never believe the fine image of herself she presented so diligently if she went to pieces now.

"I'm fine. Thank you, Harry," she managed with a wan smile.

"Okay," Harry replied. He believed her, but he was still wary, and Hermione loved him for both. "If you need me I'll only be a couple of steps away, no more," he said with a hard look in Mrs Malfoy's direction before he retreated to Ginny who was stood a short distance away, not attempting to hide the fact she was watching their conversation intently.

"And to think," Narcissa drawled, regaining Hermione's attention, "we are all led to believe that chivalry is dead."

Hermione felt very tired. "Look, Mrs Malfoy-

"-Narcissa, please."

"Okay," Hermione replied, drawing out the word slowly to cover her surprise. "That might take a while to get used to."

Draco's mother eyed her speculatively, and Hermione immediately knew she was outmatched, even on a good day she wasn't up to conversational fencing with the Malfoy matriarch, and after her most recent conversation come argument with Regulus she didn't have it in her to pretend to try.

Hermione sighed. "I know this is not the way you lot behave, but it's been a long night, and I am tired of pretending I know what everyone is really saying. What can I do for you, Mrs Malfoy?"

Narcissa smiled. "Miss Granger, I'll think you'll find that your… forthrightness is surprisingly welcome. As to your question," she shrugged, and it was the most elegant movement Hermione had ever seen. "I would like to invite you to come and view this home properly. I am conscious that you will not have seen very much of it this evening and I have done too much here not to show it off."

Hermione considered asking why Narcissa wanted her to come, but she thought better of it. Mrs Malfoy had already been relatively frank, at least compared to her usual standards and even if she did give her some answers, Hermione would have no way of deducing the truth of them.

"Wouldn't Regulus mind?" she asked. She remembered her storming off earlier and couldn't imagine he would have been in a rush to welcome her into his home. Hermione cringed when she realised she had mentioned the picture in the Prophet. She wished she hadn't done that. She hated people knowing when they had affected her. Even if that picture had shown Regulus ardently mauling Daphne up against a wall outside of the restaurant, she would have had no real cause to be upset with him. Unfortunately, logic was not a particularly effective healer, no matter how liberally applied, when it came to matters of the heart.

"My dear," Narcissa said, startling Hermione with her choice of term. "Regulus would probably never know, and in any case, it's all my work."

"I'm sure but-" Hermione tried, desperate to deflect the invite as best she could.

"I think Kreacher would appreciate it," Narcissa said with an arched brow, "if you could find the time."

Manipulative cow. Hermione crossed her arms over her chest in defiance even as she admitted defeat. "In which case, Narcissa," that was going to be harder to remember to say than Draco, "I would love to."

After a tense few hours, Hermione took refuge next to Pansy and let her acerbic observations about those around them wash over her rattled nerves. Pansy it seemed could be drawn into commentary with the smallest of provocations, and it meant Hermione could speak very little without drawing attention to herself.

Half an hour or so past in such fashion until a nearby free-standing candle was knocked over and the muted clatter drew the attention of both girls towards a small alcove where luxe curtains had been placed over leaded light patio doors. But the decor, although stunning, was not what held their interest. Bathed in the glowing moonlight, Marcus Flint had apparently found his match - at least for the evening - in a rather demonstrative sixth-year Hufflepuff Hermione recognised from the great hall.

Neither Pansy or Hermione said anything as the girl transitioned from kissing Marcus' mouth to nibbling at his stubble lined jaw, and they remained silent as Marcus fumbled with the curtain and mercifully drew it closed.

"Well," Pansy began, and Hermione forced her tongue to unstick from the roof of her mouth.

"I think Marcus might... He might not be the one for you," she finally managed to stumble out. "He's just a bit…?"

"Smooth?" Pansy offered, and Hermione considered that 'smooth' was a far more favourable description than she had been considering.

"As good a word as any, I suppose." Who said she couldn't be diplomatic?

"It was a nice idea, while it lasted," Pansy sighed.

Hermione spluttered while taking a sip of her drink. "It was?" she asked horrified. Diplomacy was overrated. She knew she had been considering Marcus as a match for Pansy only hours before, but that was before she knew anything about him. Hermione was confident she could throw a stone at random, in the middle of Diagon Alley, and hit a better option without even trying. Pansy didn't look so confident, she shrugged.

"Relatively good looking, from a reasonable family, acceptable career prospects and doesn't intimidate me intellectually," she replied dryly, counting off 'attributes' on her fingers. "What more could a girl ask for?"

Hermione wondered if basic manners and the potential for monogamy were too much to ask, but she didn't voice her criticism. While she may not have understood the world Pansy came from, she had learnt not to attack it as vehemently as she once would have, for Pansy's sake.

As close as they were to the shenanigans behind the tapestry, Hermione began to see movements she didn't want to analyse too closely and turned her back.

"But what about the spell?" she asked, as Pansy snapped at a passing waiter to refresh their drinks.

Pansy snorted. "He didn't exactly land in my lap, did he, Granger? In most cases, it is just a bit of nonsense."

Hermione couldn't fault that logic; in fact, she had no wish to. She couldn't wholly trust the kind of random magic that would have put her friend with someone like Marcus Flint, even if he did have very nice teeth now.

When a harried-looking waiter appeared, Pansy went back to her previous past time, and Hermione realised that she couldn't have been that affected. For all that Pansy criticised Hermione's inability to lie convincingly, Hermione had noticed that Pansy was no better, especially in situations where she was genuinely hurt about something.

Because the general populace thought nothing of being social it wasn't long before Hermione's attempt at quiet conversation was interrupted again, only this time she wasn't the intended target.

Ernie Macmillian flounced over, carrying a large tumbler of whiskey and his usual air of impervious self-importance. Hermione internally sighed when she saw the various food stains marking his puce coloured cravat, and she smirked to herself. If she had noticed, that meant Pansy had, and she couldn't imagine anything that would impress her friend less.

"Go away," Pansy demanded in an offhand fashion without even looking up.

Ernie looked affronted, Hermione tried not to roll her eyes. Ernie was always offended by something, accept his opinions. "I only wanted to say that you look nice."

"And now your ambition is now achieved," Pansy replied, waving him off as you would a mild irritant.

Ernie turned away from Pansy and focused on Hermione, his expression unsatisfied. "Can't you do something about her?"

Hermione smiled and thought about all the shit he'd caused for Harry over the years. She wasn't as blunt as Pansy, not by a long shot, but she wasn't nice either, and she'd spent a significant amount of time wishing she could develop a spell that would allow her to punch men straight in some actually manifested version of their fragile egos.

"I thought about getting her a 'fuck the patriarchy' pin, which I argued would act as a warning to the general public but she says she doesn't believe in pins, as they ruin outfits."

"Keep saying pin, Hermione, but we all know you mean badge and as I've told you a hundred times you cannot be trusted with a badge maker," Pansy said authoritatively.

"So not fair," Hermione muttered.

Ernie snarled something under his breath, but as he also left so, neither witch could be bothered to care too much. They certainly wouldn't be wasting any time tracking him down to smooth out his ruffled feathers.

They were alone no more than a minute when once again their peaceful conversation was cast in shadow by a sauntering wizard, only this time it was Cormac McLaggen. Hermione supposed she should have been surprised but she wouldn't, Cormac was probably one of the few wizards she had ever known that would have made a play so quickly after another had been so speedily rejected.

The years had been kind to Cormac, and hard enough on Hermione for her to fully appreciate just how unkind she had been to him during their brief foray into dating. Knowing Cormac the little that she did, Hermione hoped he wouldn't hold it against her.

Like Rolf, he had gone for a bolder option on the robe front; though in comparison Cormac had dipped his toe into the sartorial waters while Rolf had apparently bathed in them. Cormac was dressed in a stylish outfit in a claret hue that brought out the wispy lightness of his blonde hair and the iridescent blue of his eyes.

After a brief nod to her, which Hermione returned, he moved closer to her friend with a familiar purpose. "Pansy?" He asked slash greeted, managing to sound both hesitant and strangely confident. "I wondered if I might trouble you for a dance?"

Pansy gave Cormac the once over in a casual way, and she agreed, rather readily if Hermione was any judge. She just about hid her smile as Pansy made a show of putting down her glass and raising her eyebrows in question as Cormac waited for her a couple of steps away.

"Watch out for wandering hands and an overeager tongue," Hermione muttered casually, but she had to look away to ensure she wouldn't laugh when she saw the disbelief painted all over Pansy's face.

"You have got so much explaining to do when we get home."

Hermione nodded. "Gladly, ask him about vomiting on Professor Snape's shoes would you? I never got to hear the full story on that."

Pansy smile widened before she turned to look at Cormac. "You know Granger, I just might enjoy this one."

Hermione flexed her toes as much as she was able in her uncomfortable heels and fought the urge to scowl. Despite what the girls had told her, this night had not been pain-free. She was sure that if wizards were the ones who wore heels, they would have already allocated endless government funding into inventing a more sound cushioning charm. As it was, taking her shoes off and putting her feet into an old washing up bowl to soak would be the best cure she could look forward to.

Hermione stepped out of the gloriously gilded ballroom and into the corridor where Ginny, Harry and Rolf were already collecting their various coats and extra bags from the house elves that were standing in wait.

Hermione regretted not picking up a jacket earlier, but she'd had no idea how late they would stay, however, her thoughts were interrupted by the warmth of a large robe being gently lifted onto her shoulders. She turned in surprise only for it to be doubled when she discovered Ron behind her, looking somewhat satisfied with himself.

"Thank you," she said softly, "are you sure you'll be alright?"

Ron brushed off her concerned glance towards his shirt sleeves. "You forget I'm an Auror now, made of stern stuff me."

Ginny made a snorting sound that drew the attention of everyone, even those that weren't in their group. "Heavens, where's my hanky?" She called out as she mock sobbed into her hand, in a startlingly accurate impression of her mother.

"What's the matter with you, Red?" Pansy asked as she sauntered amongst them, not having to bother describing her belongings before two house-elves practically fell over each other to fetch them.

"I'm sorry, we were having such a wonderful evening," Ginny wailed cartoonishly. "It's just, Ron, he's all grown up and acting not like my brother at all. It's like… he's a fully functioning adult at long last." She theatrically dabbed at her eyes a final time before giving a little bow when her 'performance' was greeted by uproarious laughter.

"I don't know why I call any of you my friends," Ron huffed, and Hermione stifled her mirth. She rested her chin on his shoulder, though even with heels she had to lean up on her tippy toes.

"I appreciate you, Ronald," she said as earnestly as she could muster only for Ron to stiffen uncomfortably.

"Merlin, right, everyone go back to taking the piss, being sincere just doesn't suit us."

The laughter broke out again; only this time, it felt more good-natured as they were all in on the joke. However, the humour abruptly died when the man of the evening, as Ron would have called him, suddenly appeared in the corridor, waving off his little entourage of eager helpers to address them.

"You are not leaving?"

Hermione registered nothing but surprise in Regulus' voice, but still, she pulled Ron's robe over herself a little more tightly. "We are," she confirmed, sounding every bit as weary as she felt. "It's nearly two in the morning, and if I don't get back to my carriage, I'll turn back into a pumpkin."

For the first time that evening, Regulus didn't seem amused by her attempts at humour.

"I had thought… had hoped that we would have more time to speak," Regulus admitted quietly as the rest of her friends did a perfect job of pretending the conversation wasn't happening in their hearing.

"At a ball, you were hosting?" Hermione queried gently.

Regulus sighed. "You are right; I should have considered that. But you could always stay for a little while longer? I will have more time once more of the guests leave."

"Thanks for the invite, Regulus," Ginny replied, calling over her shoulder, even though it was apparent to all he hadn't been talking about the rest of them. "But I'm afraid we have to decline, we've got an after-party to get to."

"I see."

Regulus was unimpressed, but if he was going to say anything more, he was cut off by Luna's appearance in the hall. They had been using a pre-agreed hand signal to indicate when they were ready to get going, but Luna had been trapped talking to some of the more long-winded Ministry types, which was saying something.

Luna moved towards them, pulled her headband off and rubbed at her temples. She'd already taken her shoes off and had looped the ankle straps around the built-in belt of her dress so she could keep her hands free. Hermione instantly wished she'd thought of that before. People could say what they liked about Luna, but not being tied down to convention certainly made for some moments of pure genius.

"Would you like me to carry you, my darling?" Rolf asked as he held his arms out for his girlfriend. In spite of herself, Hermione felt a massive sigh rise in her throat.

"That's very white-knighty of you," Luna giggled as Rolf dutifully shrunk her unneeded belongings and placed them into his pocket.

"Well, while you were saying goodbye, Ron's been raising the bar out here. I think I'm going to need to buck my ideas up if I want to be talked of favourably in your dorm over the next few weeks."

The group laughed with one notable exception, and after a moment's hesitation, Hermione leant forward to take Regulus' hand. She mainly blamed the fizz for her boldness, although at least the smallest fraction of it was down to the way the light from the ballroom cut across his face as they stood together.

"Goodbye, Regulus. Thank you for a wonderful party. You have a lovely home."

Regulus seemed to grit his teeth, but then he shook it off and regarded her with a much more neutral expression. "I had sincerely hoped you would enjoy it."

"I sincerely did," Hermione said with a small smile which Regulus returned with a quirk of his lips.

Hermione squeezed his hand before letting go with more reluctance than she was prepared to show. As she walked away, she could feel his eyes on her back, willing her to turn around and look at him, but for once, it didn't intimidate her, if anything, she felt powerful.

Hermione let herself sink into the warmth of Ron's jacket as Pansy's clipped heels sped to catch up with her. "Does it taste good, Hermione?" she asked with interest.

"What?" she replied, her voice muffled by the robes she was too comfortable to dislodge from around her face.

Pansy smirked. "Winning?"

Hermione thought back to Regulus' intense gaze and the feeling of her hand in his. She'd been expecting him to be cooler, but he was so unbelievably warm. "I suppose that depends on what the objective of our battle was."

"Come again?"

Hermione shrugged, and the movement was barely visible due to her borrowed layers. "I'll explain later."

Regulus watched them go, furious with himself. He had been convinced at the beginning of the evening that things were going well, he had managed several conversations with Hermione, and she had seemed agreeable to his attentions and yet…. And yet, he was beginning to realise that Pansy Parkinson might have had other motivations than a desire to be a complete bitch when she had taken him to task.

He studied Hermione as she fell into step beside Pansy and Ginny, with Luna twirling her way behind them.

In the silence, he wasn't expecting an attack, and so he lurched forward as an elbow roughly collided with his torso. Weasley sauntered past, holding his arms up in conciliation. "Sorry, Regulus mate, didn't see you there," he said, sounding anything but.

Weasley stepped back and made a show of following Regulus' line of sight before he rounded back on him. "Just to be clear - after all, we all know how much you love an unwelcome midnight appearance - we're all going back to Rolf's, and you're not invited."

There were a few beats of silence in which Weasley looked defiant and Potter, who had been trailing after him, looked awkward. "Thanks for the party. Have a good one," he finally offered before he steered his red-headed friend away.

During the distraction, Hermione had disappeared, and Regulus cursed Weasley anew. He'd suspected from the first moment he'd met him that he was a complete wanker and his opinion hadn't improved on further acquaintance. He was still better than Matty though.

When the last of the merry little group turned out of sight, Regulus felt a cool glass pressed into his fingers. His cousin had followed him out there, and he had brought refreshments. Regulus looked down at the amber liquid and then back up at Draco. He didn't imagine Narcissa would be happy that he was hitting the whisky.

"Save it for tonight, would you?" Draco said, cutting off any lecture Regulus might have had planned. "You looked like you needed it."

Regulus took a swig; he couldn't argue with that logic.

They stood together in silence as Regulus tried to reassemble his stoicism before he rejoined the party that no longer held any interest for him while Draco appeared to be very focused on the end of the corridor.

"So that's how it is?" he asked eventually, and Regulus pulled his eyes away from a scurrying elf to regard his cousin quizzically.

"That's how what is?"

"Granger," Draco replied knowingly and without emotion.

Regulus froze. His first impulse was to weave a quickly constructed fabrication, but he didn't have the heart to. Also, he had the distinct feeling that after he'd considered his position over the next few days, things were going to start getting a lot clearer for all involved.

"Yes, it's Miss Granger," he admitted eventually.

"How's it going?" Draco asked with interest and Regulus gave in to the urge to rub his hand over his face.

"It depends entirely on when you ask."

"And as I asked just now?"

"Not especially well," Regulus replied reluctantly.

Regulus took a sip of his drink and ignored his cousin's shaking shoulders.

"You know," Draco began, barely holding on to his obvious mirth, "you could always invite her for tea?"

"Draco," Regulus said, feeling as old as his exact age and the years he'd missed added together.

"Yes, cousin?" Draco asked, clearly delighted with himself.

Regulus pushed the empty glass back at him as he straightened the jacket of his robe. "Fuck off."

Draco's laughter followed him back into the ballroom.

A/N: So there we have it, the second part of the ball. I hope you enjoyed it. In the next chapter, the girls are back at Hogwarts, and there's another guest lecturer, Phineas is back! And Hermione takes a tour about Regulus' manor (not a euphemism! Bye x