Despite Draco's continued protests, the Ministry-backed celebration of his return to the land of the living took place. And the young man had put up quite the fuss about the matter, surprising Lucius somewhat. Draco's strength could be drained from Miss Granger's insistence on making him perform simple, mechanical tasks designed to reacquaint his muscles with frequent use, and yet he would manage to pull himself to sit up and argue with her at the top of his lungs whenever the subject reared its head.
And Miss Granger was certainly a busy thing as of late. Ordering books on magical remedies from foreign Wizarding communities, playing nursemaid and . . . what was the term she used? Physical Therapist? Yes, that was it—nursemaid and physical therapist to Draco. Amazing transformation, really.
The woman even doted on him, of all things! They sat on the library floor, day after day, pouring over this tome, or that. And she fussed, all the while. Made certain he had tea on time, reminded him when dinner was set. She'd even brushed his hair a few times! Tied it back as he read, insisting the long, pale locks a distraction.
And she chattered nearly the entire time. Endless chattering. Sometimes he hadn't the foggiest idea what she was saying. But then she'd stop, falling silent for patches whenever she found something promising, and suddenly the room seemed too quiet for him.
Without glancing up from his reading, he'd prompt her. "Miss Granger, you were saying?"
"Hmm?" She'd furrow her brow, but wouldn't look up, either. "Oh, sorry, Mr. Malfoy." And leap right back to whatever she'd been rambling on about.
He watched her bounce about the Manor like some wild-haired, hyperactive pixie, loopy on fairy draught.
She seemed in need of his . . . comforts less and less. But he could not fault her for this. Perhaps the act itself had never, truly, been what she needed, only something more immediate, and of a far different emotional vein, than her suffering.
Frowning thoughtfully, he looked up from the missives in his hands. He sat in his study, counting the acceptances to Draco's welcome home party—someone had to organize this fiasco, and Miss Granger had her hands quite full, at the moment—so far, he was certain there were more people attending than actually lived in Wizarding Britain. And he wasn't done tallying, yet!
He sighed and shook his head as he went back to his counting. He'd thought perhaps she no longer required their arrangement, and she'd leave the Manor, though he could not fault her for her choice. Each morning he awoke expecting that day would be the one when she packed her things and announced her departure, yet each night, she would simply retire to her room.
Of course, he was in no hurry to make her feel unwelcome, either. After all, if her goal at the moment was aiding Draco, then remaining where she was seemed the logical, convenient choice.
His own, sad state didn't quite matter to him these days. He watched Draco walk about, unaided—though his steps were still unsteady after too much activity. Watched him regain his color—what little color he had, given their family's general lack of—watched how the marred skin around his eyes had begun to heal. The tender flesh had faded to the sickly, yet somehow much better-looking, yellow of a mending bruise.
Perhaps he was simply able to ignore that terrible, aching hollowness when he was focused on his son. To forget it existed for a few, precious heartbeats.
He spoke with Draco more and more, little-by-little; longer, more in-depth conversations with each passing day. It first began with no more than a greeting, inquiring about how he felt, and branched, slowly but surely, until now. Now they would sit and discuss any number of topics, losing easily an hour or two.
Though he carried on these chats with no ulterior motive in mind, Lucius held the hope that he would feel some fragmentary spark of joy, or anger—Merlin knew when the last time was he'd hollered at one of the house elves—or even sadness that his family would never again be whole. Yet, still nothing would come.
In a strange way, and even with his malady, he thought perhaps he and Draco were closer now, in these few weeks, than they'd been the young man's entire life. The realization had been a startling, pensive moment for Lucius. Had he really failed so terribly at being a father?
He also considered that his malady was precisely why he made this realization. His understanding that he was a void, and that void might harm Draco, caused him to treat his son with greater care than he might have, otherwise.
Perhaps that was the saddest thing about his current state.
As she pulled open the doors, a glint on her wrist caught her eye. Frowning, she brought her arm close, inspecting it to find a strand of Lucius' hair. She must've gotten it on her when she tied his hair back from his face. Honestly, how that man could read anything with it constantly sliding over his shoulders and into his line of sight was beyond her.
Smiling without realizing, she plucked the strand from her arm and let it fall to the floor. Lucius Malfoy's hair was so soft, and sleek. Sadly perfect, really. Unlike her own, which required aid of a magical elixir to get even remotely close to the description silky.
Sometimes, when they were reading together, she found herself staring at him. Her head tipped down, toward the book open in her lap, but her gaze trained upward. She didn't realize until he reminded her that she had fallen quiet.
There was simply something that tore at her about how sad and lonely he seemed, even though he appeared just as emotionless as when she moved in. Well, nearly . . . every so often she glimpsed some small spark. The giddy fluttering in the pit of her stomach during those glimpses made her think perhaps there was part of her that hoped there was some way to fix him.
Blinking rapidly a few times, she shook her head, focusing on the task before her.
"I swear," Hermione fretted aloud as she stood, hands on her hips, staring into the depths of Draco's wardrobe. "Do you have not a single article of color?"
Draco snorted a chuckle as he stretched. He was far less easily staggered, far stronger now than when he'd found himself mysteriously back in Malfoy Manor a few weeks ago, but he still needed frequent catnaps throughout the day to manage.
Today was the day of the celebration he dreaded, and though she'd not mentioned it, he'd woken from his post-therapy-session nap to find her twittering about his room, like a mad, golden-brown humming bird. Shoes and undergarments— he couldn't believe she'd gone through is undergarments!—she'd already set aside by the time he'd realized what was happening.
"I'll give you a minute to think back on any time you saw me out of uniform while we attended Hogwarts, and then you can ask that question again."
Scowling, she turned on her heel to meet his gaze. Hermione was completely unsurprised to see him smirking at her. "You are a snarky wretch, Draco Malfoy, you know that?"
He bit his lip to hold in another chuckle before he managed a response. "Again, if you think back on when we attended Hogwarts—" He ducked, causing the darned socks she threw at him to glance off the headboard.
"Merlin's beard, woman! Recuperating war hero, over here! Honestly."
Hermione burst out in a surprised, but humorless laugh. "I see, so when you're feeling bad about yourself, you can have a pity-party, whining how you're not a hero, but you'll use it as a defense when you're being an arse?"
Grey eyes rolled upward. "I . . . hate to say this, but refer to my last answer."
She gasped, but sank her teeth into her lip as she shook her fists. He thought perhaps she was fighting the sore temptation to throw something else at him.
After a moment, she took drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Okay, you're clearly well enough to do this yourself—"
"As I've been telling you, about everything, for days now."
"And about most things, that's been complete rubbish, thanks very much. Anyway, get yourself ready, then. Oh, and I thought tomorrow we might go to Diagon Alley."
Draco furrowed his brow as he pushed aside his covers and set his feet on the carpet. "Why?" He wouldn't admit it—certainly not to Granger—but the gaping hole in his memory made him fearful of setting foot outside Malfoy Manor.
She shrugged, flicking her gaze over him briefly before turning and walking to the door. "All the books I ordered are a bust. Maybe there's something tucked away in a forgotten shelf at Flourish and Blotts. Or . . . ." She paused, her hand on the knob and her head turned, though she wasn't actually looking at him. "Maybe one of the . . . less reputable shops."
He shot up from the bed like the sheets had been set ablaze. "You want to go to Knockturn Alley? You really have gone mental, haven't you?"
Her shoulders slumped and she turned a bit more, meeting his gaze. "We may have to. It might be the one place that actually has something on this."
Draco dropped his head, his familiarity with that terrible street making it difficult to continue looking her in the eye. "That's an awful, dark place, Granger. And I doubt the last three months of being abandoned has made it any brighter."
"Draco, whether you accompany me or not, I'm going." His head snapped up—precisely the reaction she was hoping for—and then she went on. "Whoever did this to you obviously had very dark intentions. We might only be able to find an answer in a place equally dark."
She sounded so certain she could help him. So passionate about finding answers for him. It astounded him, really. And confused him, in a strange, unnamable way that made the center of his chest ache.
"Why do you want to help me so much?"
Her brow furrowed as though he'd spoken gibberish. "Because someone's wronged you."
"That's not what I meant." He swallowed hard, taking a step toward her, yet still half-a-room away. "Why would Hermione Granger ever want to help Draco Malfoy?"
"Oh." Hermione blinked at him, her dark eyes wide. She'd not thought the question from that angle. "I don't know. Maybe you've grown on me."
He couldn't help the half-smile curving one corner of his mouth upward. "What, like a fungus?"
"I was thinking more like a weed. All scraggly and murderous."
Draco laughed in spite of himself.
She turned fully toward him, taking a few steps closer, as well, but only a few, a good meter and a half between them, still. "Maybe it's because I'm curious who you are."
His face fell. "Granger, you've known me for years."
Her chestnut eyes narrowed, the delicate skin around them crinkling as she tilted her head in thought. "I don't think that's so. I think . . . ." She forced a gulp before running the tip of her tongue over her dry lips. "I think the boy I knew died when whatever happened to you happened. I think the Draco Malfoy I'd known for years is not who you are, now. I've no idea who the man standing before me is. But . . . I feel like . . . ." She shrugged. "Maybe I want to find out."
Draco had no response for that. He could only watch as she turned and walked away, finally exiting the room.
Out in the corridor, Hermione pressed her back against the closed door. Taking a deep breath, she darted her gaze about as she thought over what had just happened. What the bloody hell had she just been babbling on about?
The words that had fallen from her lips, it nearly sound like she was starting to care for him. And certainly in more than a patient-caregiver capacity.
Clearing her throat at the awkward direction of that notion, she shook her head and started toward her own room.
Hermione couldn't believe the stream of people coming up to greet Draco and shake his hand. She was certain she even spotted Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson amongst the witches and wizards gathered, though they each seemed reluctant to draw attention to themselves.
Though she knew it was useless, every now and again, she combed the crowd with her gaze. Searching for that familiar mop of unruly, dark hair; for that infamous scar gracing a forehead.
She kept hoping that Harry would turn up—why he'd attend an event at Malfoy Manor was beyond her, though no one expected her here, either. She thought for certain Draco's fellow Slytherin had given her a curious look, especially with the way she and Draco kept ducking their head to speak in each other's ears.
Honestly, with the noise echoing through the Manor, how else were they supposed to hear one another clearly without shouting? No reason for anyone to fuss.
The Minister had approached them, and Professor McGonagall. The new Headmistress of Hogwarts was, for the first time she could recall, relieved and pleased to see Draco Malfoy. And she wasn't shy about saying those words, exactly.
Lucius stood at the parlor entryway, leaning a shoulder against the wall as he watched the gathering. Possibly everyone expected him at Draco's side, but this was Draco's night and he feared that any slip-up on his part, any little tell which might lead anyone to realize there was something wrong with him, might shift the focus of the event.
He refused to let that happen, even for a moment, even for one guest present.
His gaze traveled back to where his son stood. Miss Granger was at his side, stunning in dress robes of shimmering navy satin. He wondered if the light in her face was on account of the young man beside whom she stood.
He sipped his drink, thoughtful as he observed them. Observed how they laughed at the same time, how they touched each other—his hand delicately cupping her shoulder, her fingers slipping around his elbow—to get one another's attention. How they whispered in each other's ears, even when the volume in the room dictated it unnecessary.
Biting his lip, he nodded. "Perhaps this is how things should be," he whispered before taking another sip.
Finding those drops splashing his tongue to be the last, he set down the glass on the nearest surface. His son appeared happy. Miss Granger appeared happy. He was still empty, though he could appreciate the situation he believed was unfolding.
That terrible hollow pit inside him ached just then. Frowning, he let out a sigh and turned, exiting the parlor. He would keep his misery to himself, he thought, as he wound his way to the staircase and started up.
Minerva McGonagall arched a brow, the nuances of the pair's interactions not lost on her. Her gaze swept from Hermione to Draco and back. "You two seem . . . close. I don't mean to pry, but may I ask, are you two . . . ?" She waved her finger between them.
They shared a surprised glance, bursting out in laughter.
"No, Professor. She's just butting in wherever she sees trouble."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "And he's being a completely unhelpful arse about it."
"Oh, so just like Hogwarts, hmm?"
Draco swayed on his feet, and Hermione caught him by his elbow. The elder witch was at his other side, aiding her former students.
"No, I'm—I'm fine," Draco insisted.
"Stuff it Malfoy, you've been on your feet all night. You need to sit."
Draco's protests fell upon deaf ears as Hermione and Professor McGonagall led him one of the armchairs. Frowning, Hermione looked around once he was settled.
Surely, Lucius must've seen his son staggering just now.
Yet . . . blinking, she searched the crowd. He was nowhere to be found.
She felt a spark of anger. Honestly, this was for Draco, couldn't Lucius hold on that false smile for a few more hours?
Sighing, she looked to Draco and McGonagall. "Excuse me, I'll be back in a moment.
None of the guests were allowed above the first floor, leaving her free to explore the Manor, looking for him. Perhaps it was no great surprise that she found him in the library. He was on his knees, once more pouring over tomes they'd already decided useless.
He didn't look up as she approached. "You should be downstairs."
"So should you," she said softly as she settled on her knees before him.
"No. I don't belong there. People are happy, rejoicing." His voice was flat and dull as he spoke, shrugging lifelessly as he went on reading.
Hermione bit her lip, trying to think of what to say. "C'mon, this isn't helping Draco, or you. We've looked, these books aren't any help."
"Maybe we missed something."
She reached out, placing her hands over his. "Mr. Malfoy, stop."
Biting hard into his bottom lip, he raised his gaze from the words before him to meet her eyes. "I don't know what else to do."
For a terrible second, she thought her heart might break. He looked so lost. So confused. She didn't know what to do.
Acting on impulse, she snatched the book from his hands and shot forward, hugging him.
His arms folded around her, automatically, despite his words. "Miss Granger, this is not necessary."
He didn't realize his lips brushed her skin as he spoke. That his warm breath was ghosting over the side of her throat.
Although she tried not to react, Hermione couldn't help the shiver that coursed through her.
Draco looked around, mindlessly bored, though he didn't want to insult this latest group of overly-cheerful well-wishers. Honestly, where was Granger?
Meeting each of their gazes, in turn, he said, "Would you all excuse me a moment?"
The guests gave him a wide berth as he headed out of the parlor, to the staircase.