I know, I'm the worst for waiting so long to update.

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I hope you enjoy the chapter. My amazing beta, KoraKunkel, has this to say about chapter 16;





The pair developed somewhat of a routine over the next week.

Draco would sneak out of Hermione's bed before she could wake after inevitably crawling in beside her to chase the nightmares away. At night, it was easy for Draco to hide murmured expressions of adoration and light touches could be passed off as unconscious. The darkness swallowed it all and kept every caress and stuttered breath a secret. Holding each other while they slept was one thing. Facing each other in the light of day was something else entirely.

Draco wasn't deluding himself, their sleeping arrangement was based purely on survival, at least for Hermione. He was all she had and he was positive that if she had anyone else to take his place, she'd happily replace him. He refused to get his hopes up, Hermione's kindness could easily be misconstrued as affection. He was painfully aware that she didn't care for him the way he cared for her, not with the way she avoided his gaze continuously, or with the hateful past they shared. He was simply a means to an end, and that knowledge made it easy for Draco to push his feelings aside and ignore the longing that clawed desperately in his chest.

At least during the day.

They never spoke about their shared nights. They never spoke about Ron Weasley. They never spoke of the fantastic enchanted paintings that showed up in his room on his birthday, about interrupted showers, or rough hands and shouted frustrations.

After he snuck away each morning, Draco would shower, emerging to the sight of Hermione making breakfast. The rest of the day was spent researching and theorizing about the strange magic that had taken hold of them. Sometimes Granger would slip out to fetch more books and check in with Potter about progress, or lack thereof, of his mother's disappearance.

A few times, Ginny visited, often whisking Hermione into her room and throwing up a strong silencing spell. On these days, she seemed to have a much harder time interacting with Draco and he couldn't help but wonder if the redhead had something to do with it. After all, she seemed to support his being here.

However, most of the time, their days were quiet but for the flip of crisp pages and small clinks of endless cups of tea.

In the evenings, Draco would retreat to his room when Hermione excused herself to shower. Every night he resolved that he would put her out of his mind and leave well enough alone but said resolve was laughably weak. He would wait several hours after the muted sounds stopped emitting from her room before he gave in and opened up the wall. The nights she lay awake, tossing and turning were the worst for his self control.

It was unnerving how much she stared at the wall he was behind. If he wasn't so sure that she couldn't see him, he would have been scared when her eyes lingered over the space his face was laying against his pillow.

She always looked so small curled up alone in her bed, blankets pulled up around her shoulders with her knees tucked into her chest. Every night he watched, and every night she eventually whimpered and called out in her sleep. After the first three nights, he completely stopped hesitating and all but leaped out of bed at the slightest sign of distress. He'd walk through her unwarded door, and crawl into her bed where they would cling to each other as if they were the other's personal salvation.

Draco was starting to believe that, at least for him, it was true.


"Did you try looking under magical mutations?" Granger called over her shoulder from where she stood at the stove.

Draco huffed and suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. That was the fourth time she'd asked him. "Yes Granger, I promise you that whatever this is, it's not a magical malady." He tossed the medical tome away from him, sending it careening across the bartop. "We should have found something by now, it feels like we'll never get anywhere."

"You do know you're talking to the witch who spent almost an entire year researching complex and dangerous magic in order to take down the darkest wizard in the world, right? I'll find the answer." She tossed a smug smile at him as she turned, holding their dinner. He grumbled in response and took his plate from her.

Since he'd arrived home, Granger's eating had slowly improved. It quickly became clear to her that he was aware of her eating habits, keeping her accountable. They never addressed it out loud, but Draco knew that she could see his unspoken support in his eyes. He patiently sat with her until she had her fill, even on the days where she stared at her food for long stretches of time before she could even pick up the fork.

The difference he saw in her was palpable. She was significantly more energetic and the shine in her eyes that had been missing was visible once again. She hadn't gained much weight yet but the vibrancy of her skin and the flush that appeared were signs that she was well on her way to better health. Even her hair gained back more of its natural lustre.

"I suppose if anyone could, it would be the brightest witch of the age." Draco teased, knowing how she disliked the title.

She scrunched her nose in reply and popped a slice of cucumber in her mouth. She seemed so sure that they would find the answer, and her confidence did nothing for Draco's frustrations. As the days went on, his impatience grew.

"I just don't get it!" Draco exclaimed, aggressively stabbing his salad. "Why me? Why now?"

"That's something I've been thinking about, actually. Does your family have any ancestral records? Anything that might prove that this could be genetic?" She said after swallowing.

He thought for a moment, trying to remember if there was any such thing in the Manor. There were only two people who would know for sure. Unfortunately, one was incarcerated and the other… Well Draco would just have to figure it out on his own.

"I'm not sure. That's something that will have to be looked into." He picked up his knife to cut into his chicken.

"As for the 'why now' of it, I don't think that's really important." She shrugged.

"But there was no warning. It just seems rather spontaneous, doesn't it?"

Hermione nodded absentmindedly while her eyes focused on her task of picking out the tomatoes to give to Draco.

"I mean, I've been making these blue flames longer than I've had a wand and nothing, and then out of nowhe—"

Hermione gasped and dropped her fork which made a loud clanking noise as it bounced off her plate. She stood up straight and her wide, shining eyes locked onto Draco. For a moment, he was concerned that she had somehow hurt herself but the glint in her eye was unmistakable to anyone who knew Hermione Granger well enough.

"You figured something out, didn't you?"

A couple of seconds passed where her eyes flitted about, calculating and assessing. He could almost hear her brain whirring. Suddenly, she bolted into the living room, not even noticing when she bumped the corner of the wall hard with her hip. Her fingers flew across the titles of the muggle books on her bookshelf, craning her neck to inspect the topmost shelf.

It seemed like she spotted something, so she started jumping in order to be able to reach the book, wiggling her fingers as if it would help. After a few seconds of amusement, Draco strolled over with a chuckle. Hermione stopped jumping and turned to face him, her arms quickly crossing against her chest. Her brows and lips scrunched up in that way that he found so adorable. She was clearly not appreciating his amusement.

"If you ask nicely, Granger, I'll get that book down for you." He smirked down at her, which only seemed to agitate her further.

Hermione turned her head to the side. She took a few breaths before she mumbled something unintelligible.

"What was that? I didn't quite catch it." Draco cupped his hand around his ear and leaned in, suppressing a snicker.

She sharply exhaled and spoke louder, her voice dripping with annoyance. "Will you please get that book for me." She pointed at a thin, blue, hardcover book that was very clearly out of her reach.

Draco chuckled again, admiring the little pink cheeks that came from her frustration. He reached up without even stretching and plucked the book off the shelf. When she was about to snatch it from his hands, he pulled back, eliciting a small growl of protest.

"What would you do without me, Granger?" He risked, and shook his head solemnly. "It's too bad you aren't a witch and could use, oh I don't know, magic to fetch things that are out of reach." He smiled to show that his teasing was not malicious as he handed her the book.

Hermione's features reluctantly softened and her lips twitched as she attempted to scowl at him. Eventually, she failed, shaking her head as they both laughed at her absentmindedness. She awkwardly turned the book over in her hands, inspecting it as their chuckles died out.

She looked up from the book and gave him a coy smile. "Thanks, Draco."

Their eyes locked, soft smiles painting their faces. Draco felt his heart pick up and he was becoming more aware of her signature scent, a smell that somehow calmed and aroused him simultaneously. He longed to bury his nose in her hair and drink her in, but to do so, he'd have to break their eye contact. He wasn't even sure he knew how to do it at the moment. It felt like he was in a trance, staring at the object of his affections while she stared right back. It took a car backfiring on the street below for them to look away, both jumping slightly.

"You called me Draco." He cocked his head and regarded her before she could look away. She looked slightly panicked at his statement. "Sometimes you do, but other times you stop yourself. It seems like you want to, but you force yourself to call me Malfoy… Why?"

Her hand immediately flew up to clutch her scar and anxiously rub it. Draco narrowed his eyes at that and wondered why calling him by his given name would make her so uncomfortable. She turned her head away.

"Sorry, I won't do it again." She said, completely ignoring the question. She retreated to the couch and began flipping through the book in her hands.

Draco floundered for a response, flabbergasted by her strange behaviour and dismissal. "Sorry? What— Why would I—" He composed himself and tried again. "Why would I not want you to call me Draco?"

She started flipping the pages more aggressively, far too quickly to be able to process any of their contents. "You call me Granger, how is that any different?"

Draco shrugged. "I guess it's just habit to call you Granger. The difference is though, that when you catch yourself calling me Draco, you backpedal. Why?"

Hermione gave up on the book and placed her palms down flat on the open pages. She closed her eyes while she spoke. "The only people that call you by your first name are your family and friends."

Draco leaned back against the bookshelf, still entirely befuddled. "So… You don't think you're my friend?" His stomach swooped uncomfortably when the next thought hit him. "You don't want to be my friend?"

She shook her head, causing her long curls to bounce from the motion. "No… It's not that I don't want to." She paused. "I just…" Another pause, then a sigh. "I didn't think you considered me a friend. I mean, with a history like ours… and it's not like you have any choice but to be here... I didn't want to assume."

He felt relieved to know her reasoning, but sad that she thought that about him. It was a ridiculous notion, not only was she his friend, she was his… well, she was much more important to him than she could realize. He sighed and sank down onto the couch next to her. "Of course you're my friend," he gently placed a finger under her chin and tipped her head up to look at him. "Hermione."

She still seemed unsure so he continued, not able to stop himself from dragging his thumb along the skin below her lip. "I want you to call me Draco."

The smile she gave him filled him with warmth and he was sure the grin he returned was embarrassingly goofy. His eyes drifted down to her lips and his smile slowly dissolved.

"I can call you Hermione, right?" He asked, not taking his eyes off the lips he longed to taste. Without his permission, his thumb brushed across her mouth, effectively wiping the smile away. On the second pass, they twitched at the contact.

"Yes." Her reply was choked and her breath was warm when it met his finger.

He glanced back up to see her eyebrows pull together in what he could only guess was fear, or at the very least, quickly retreated, dropping his hand to his lap and putting a few inches of much-needed space between them. He cleared his throat loudly. "Good. That's resolved then."

Draco scolded himself for his foolishness. He had, once again, allowed himself to get carried away. They had only just established their friendship and here he was, touching her mouth and very likely scaring her.

He had been constantly thinking back to his conversation with the Weasley girl, when she inferred that Hermione needed Draco. He drove himself mad assessing every word that Granger had ever spoken to him, every glance, every touch. He could fool himself into believing that there was some interest there if he tried, but he was stubbornly refusing to entertain the idea. Even if she did want him, she probably just wasn't ready.

"If we don't let her make her own decisions, if we take the choices away, then she's no better off then when she was with Ron."

Ginny's words had been eating away at him and threatening to sway his resolve. She was right and it forced Draco to conclude he just couldn't use that as an excuse. Draco pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind, too wound up to sort out his whirling mind.

Beside him, Hermione shifted and he looked over to find her clutching the book tightly in her hands, her face a deep pink. Her eyebrows were pulled together in hurt, and if Draco didn't know any better, disappointment.

But he knew better.

"So um," he started, desperate for a topic change. "What's the book about?"

She glanced up at him, seemingly unable to comprehend what he was saying. He carefully reached his hand over and tapped the hardcover with his index finger to clue her in. She looked down again at the title that he could now see; 'Mythology Physiology; A Guide to Radical Medical Practices and Diagnoses.

"Oh!" She blinked hard and let out a shaky laugh. "Yes, of course." She opened the book to the table of contents and dragged her finger down, stopping when she found what she wanted. It was only another few seconds before she found the page she was searching for. As soon as she focused on the book her entire demeanour changed, she was once again, Hermione Granger: Bookworm.

Draco leaned in and read over her shoulder. "Spontaneous Human Combustion?"

She nodded emphatically, making her long curls bounce. She had that gleam in her eye. The one that used to annoy him to no end, but now fascinated him.

He leaned over farther and read the description at the beginning of the chapter.

'Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the concept of the combustion of a living (or recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. The fire is believed to start within the body of the victim. This idea, and the term "spontaneous human combustion", were both first proposed in 1746 by Paul Rolli in an article published in the Philosophical Transactions concerning the mysterious death of Countess Cornelia Zangheri Bandi.' *

"My father really likes this kind of thing- paranormal studies, mythology, unexplained phenomenon, and conspiracy. He has several books on this particular subject. He gave me this when I showed an interest in researching the Salem witch trials."

It was as if she flipped a switch and became Granger again, her epiphany having been the catalyst. Draco so loved these moments when she would brighten and her voice turned rife with passion. She could be reciting the 101 uses of flobberworms and he would still be enraptured.

Draco had to work hard to focus on what she was saying. Not only did her glowing exuberance steal his attention, she looked fucking delectable today. She was wearing tight muggle jeans, a white V neck t-shirt that hugged her so perfectly that he could just barely see the outline of her bra underneath. Her hair hung loose and wild, the length of it almost cocooning her torso in itself. The twisted tips of her curls brushed the tops of her thighs and the waist of her jeans.

She looked fucking edible.

Her neck and face were still slightly flushed and her breaths came in a rapid, excited pace making Draco imagine her doing so in some other scenario. Like his body pressing her into this couch. Or that wall. The floor, the bartop, the shower.

He suppressed a moan and swallowed loudly, crossing his legs as inconspicuously as possible. He was relieved that she was so consumed by her findings as it allowed him a moment to close his eyes and collect himself. He tried his best to ignore the half-hard traitor in his trousers and refocused on what she was saying, lest his pants get any tighter.

"Of course, I have more comprehensive texts about the trials. This one was just an introductory volume, mainly focusing on medieval medical practices. But in this book, there is a small section on Spontaneous Human Combustion and what people used to think it was. The first recorded cases were in the early 17th century. Many people thought the victims were being punished by god, or were being possessed by spirits or demons, a very common assumption for the time. More recently, Muggles have conducted case studies and research on the phenomenon. Almost all have dismissed it as a myth, an impossibility but there are still theories out there that believe something in our human physiology can trigger it."

"So, you think that this is what is happening to me?" Draco implored, tilting his head in curiosity.

Hermione scrunched her brow in concentration, her lips pursing. "I can't know for sure until I have more information but I think it's worth looking into. I do know that there are some notable differences, however. For example, your body doesn't burn when you are ignited. Alleged victims of SHC always die, burnt up in fire that they emit."

Draco nodded, interested. He doubted some rare muggle myth had anything to do with him, but it couldn't help to look into it. Especially when Hermione was so enthusiastic about it. "So, another trip to the library then?"

Immediately, her hand flew up to grasp her scar. She still looked excited but there was a definite underlying anxiety that laced her voice. "Um, no. I can just go get the ones that… the copies my dad bought."

He studied her before he replied. Earlier, when she had been talking about her father, she spoke of him in present tense, terms that could only mean he was still alive. Were they estranged? Were they sick? Missing? Whatever the case, Hermione was clearly distressed and he wasn't about to let her go wherever it is she needed to by herself when she was like this.

"Okay. Can I help?" He asked softly.

She studied her toes. "Uh, yes. Yes, that would be helpful. It would really make things faster, efficient. Yes." She rambled nodding tightly. "We'll apparate, okay?"

He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way and nodded his assent. She took a steadying breath and stood ridgedly. She summoned her small beaded bag from her room and extended her arm for Draco to take. He stepped forward and reached for her wrist.

He stopped, hand hovering over her arm, when he noticed her shaking legs and her tightly clenched jaw. Instead of grabbing her wrist, he snaked his hand around and wrapped his hand around hers, cradling it to his chest. She glanced up at him and his heart panged when he saw the raw pain that showed through the flood of tears that hadn't yet fallen.

"Hermione?" He threw all caution to the wind and stepped closer. He brushed some hair behind her shoulder then cupped her jaw.

"I h-haven't been h-h-home since…" A small, strained whine forced its way out of her, causing her to look down in shame. She tried to pull away, but Draco brought her right back.

"Hey, it's okay." He let go of her hand and pulled her close, looking down into her eyes. "We'll go tomorrow."

She shook her head, letting her hand fall limply against his chest. "No. We shouldn't delay. We need to—"

"We'll go tomorrow." Draco said in a firm tone that left no room for argument.

Her shoulders slumped and she bowed her head, causing her hair to fall forward and hide her face. Draco held her closer when he felt the telltale vibrations of stifled sobs. He braced one hand on her lower back, the other moved from her cheek to the side of her head so he could press her face over his heart.

He spoke on instinct, somehow knowing what she needed to hear. "It's okay to let go. You're safe with me, love."

And just like that, she crumbled.

Out tumbled something in between a wail and a sob, something so full of misery that Draco couldn't help the tears that pooled in his own eyes. Her body slumped even more but her hands reached up, scrambling to grab the fabric of his t-shirt to ground herself. He held back a wince when she accidentally raked her fingers over his still healing wound. He could tell it had ripped open again, but that wasn't what was important right now.

Draco led her back to the couch and slowly pulled her down to curl into his lap. He draped her legs over his, gathered her close into his arms and let her cry. He ignored the growing wetness that trickled down his abdomen, as well as his own unbidden tears that disappeared into Hermione's hair. He just held her, stroked her hair and allowed himself to breathe her in, pretending that she was his. That she wanted him as much as he wanted her. That she needed him.

"What if you're exactly what she needs? Hmm?" Ginny's words continued to taunt him, continued hacking away at his shaky resolve to stay away.

Once her shudders had calmed and her sobs were reduced to stuttered breaths, Draco straightened. He gently weaved his fingers into her hair and used his tender grip to tilt her head back. Her eyes were red and puffy, her cheeks slick. By all accounts she should look dreadful, all tear-stained and blotchy. But when Draco looked down at her, his breath caught. She was so warm, so close, so soft.

She zoned in on his face and the expression of misery quickly morphed into concern when she locked on the beads of moisture that clung to his eyelashes and cheeks.

"Draco?" Her eyebrows pulled together in a mixture of confusion and worry.

Her lips started quivering. Fresh tears escaped and Draco couldn't bear to see her crying. Crying over him.

Without another thought of should or shouldn't, need or want, do or do not, he acted. Draco dipped his head, slowly, so he wouldn't scare her. He let his lips hover over her forehead to quiet his pounding heart.

"You're so strong, Hermione." He whispered, dragging his other hand to her throat and pushing her jaw to the side with his thumb. He lingered for just another moment before he pressed a soft, barely there kiss to her right eyebrow.

"You're the strongest woman I know." Draco let his breath flood over her. Let the tip of his nose mark the path to the corner of her eye. He dropped another kiss there.

"You don't need to be her all the time." Another kiss for her cheekbone and again under her eye.

Hermione's breath was shallow and sharp. Draco didn't dare look for a reaction, he was lost to her, clinging to the chance that he was doing the right thing. He couldn't bear the idea of seeing fear in her eyes, so he didn't look.

"You don't have to be her with me." He followed the trail of tears with his lips, kissing them away.

For a tantalizing moment, Draco leaned in towards her mouth but pulled away at the last second, positive that she would push him away. He repeated the journey down the other side of her face, kissing the tip of her nose when he crossed over.

He placed a lingering kiss under her eye when a fresh tear rolled out. "Let me be strong for you."

He was halfway down her left cheek when her small, breathy voice stopped him. "Draco?"

He paused, then slowly pulled back. Her brows were still pulled together, no longer in worry but something else. Maybe… want?

"Draco, I…"

She trailed off, letting her eyes dart around for the right words. They settled low, and her expression changed into pure horror. Draco felt his heart drop. It must have finally hit her. What he'd done, his touch had revolted her.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

He let out a slow breath, closing his eyes slowly. He collected himself, preparing to unravel his fingers from her curls once the icy cold dread released his body from its bitter paralysis.

"You're… you're bleeding!" She shrieked.

Draco opened his eyes and regarded her with tentative confusion. Her mouth was hung open and she was staring blankly at her hand. His brain was clouded. Between the high of being close to her and the ache from her expression of horror, Draco couldn't grasp what she was saying to him.

"What?" He said.

Her gaze flicked back up to him and the same look of concern washed over her. She abruptly stood, causing Draco's head to spin. He shook his head, trying to clear the building fog. She was gone now, and he was cold. So cold. He scared her away and now he was cold.

He let his head loll against the back of the couch. Why was he so dizzy? What did she say again?

She returned carrying his wound salve and a potion.

"Drink this, you've lost a lot of blood." Hermione uncorked the bottle and brought it to his lips. He drank it, not even asking what it was.

"Lift your arms." She had that determination back. That pure Hermione Granger focus.

Draco lifted his arms and she pulled his t-shirt right off, throwing the garment to the floor. The light grey cotton had a large red stain. Draco looked down at his chest. Hermione was spreading his salve over the open portion of his wound. It was still gushing and blood soaked into the thigh of his trousers and somewhat on the couch.

He almost laughed. They didn't seem to have much luck with furniture. She was cursing under her breath and apologizing profusely. Draco had totally forgotten about her fingers digging painful into his wound. He didn't think she had caused such a breach.

She grabbed up the t-shirt again and pressed it into the wound. "Hold this."

He did and she stood, patting her pockets for her wand. She turned around, frantically looking for any sign of it. She let out a huff and snatched up her bag, thrusting her arm fully inside.

"Hermione." He murmured.

"What?" She almost snapped. She kept digging.

"Hermione." He said again.

"What?" This time she did snap.

Draco raised his hand and made a subtle beckoning motion. Half a second later her wand was in his hand, zooming out from its hiding place under the couch. He assumed it rolled under when she had collapsed into his arms.

She didn't hide her surprise but she immediately sprang into action and cast a blood coagulation charm on his wound. The flow slowed enough for her to get the salve on properly. After a few moments, his head stopped spinning. The taste on his tongue was familiar. She had given him a blood replenishing potion.

Hermione summoned a soft face cloth and a bowl of warm water. She knelt in front of him on the floor, wet the cloth, wrung it out, and proceeded to tenderly clean away the blood on his body.

"I can do that you know. You don't—you don't have to."

She gulped and leaned forward to press a tiny, soft kiss to his pectoral, right beside the jagged wound. She lifted her eyes, locking them with his while she held her mouth against him.

"I can be strong for you too."


That night, there was no pretence of sleeping separately. Hermione took Draco by the hand and led him straight to her bed.

It felt as if something had shifted between them. Something that thrilled and terrified Draco in equal measure. Instead of dwelling, he gathered Hermione closer and pressed a kiss to the top of her head, drifting into a peaceful slumber in short order.


Tap tap tap

Draco opened his eyes. It was dark, the middle of the night he supposed.

Tap tap tap.

There was something at the window.

He carefully peeled himself from Hermione's grip and padded silently to the window. He opened it enough to let the interdepartmental memo into the room. This time, there was a tiny rectangular box, hanging below it by a string.

Draco grabbed the memo and it unfurled.

Nott Manor

Three days. Midnight.

Come alone or we send more tokens.

In the box was a severed woman's finger. It was pale, perfectly manicured, and wearing a large emerald ring that had the Malfoy family crest engraved into it.

*Most of the raw data (italic quotes) about Spontaneous Human Combustion has been pulled straight from Wiki, because reasons.

Song recommendation: Handyman, by AWOLNATION