Chapter 19 - Something to Focus On

Hermione closed the door behind Severus Snape and listened for his Disapparation. With more than a little trepidation, she went into the kitchen to see what he had brought. She wasn't surprised to find that it exactly matched the requirements of her assignment, which she hastily retrieved from the pile of work she'd been ignoring in her bedroom. She looked between the parchment and the samples. How could she use them knowing that Severus had done the most difficult part of the assignment for her?

It was as she was deliberating this moral dilemma that someone began knocking insistently at her door. Hermione went to the door a second time, wondering if perhaps Severus had been given a script to follow, and had just discovered that he'd missed something. She was very shocked, therefore, to swing the door open and discover Draco standing with his hand poised to knock again. He lowered it quickly.

"Malfoy?" Still reeling from the nearness of her memories, it was the only name that came to mind, and Draco, perceiving that he'd been demoted from first name basis due to something that was not his fault, scowled at her in a very familiar way.

After a moment of silence, Hermione stood aside. "Sorry. Come in, then," she allowed with rather less grace than he had come to expect from her.

Draco stepped inside, noting her bathrobe and wild hair. "Hello, Hermione. Perhaps I should have Flooed ahead?"

Hermione laughed hollowly and headed back to the kitchen, knowing he would follow. It wasn't lost on Draco that she trusted him enough to turn her back on him. "It wouldn't have done you much good, as I disabled the Floo weeks ago," she said as she seated herself and went back to reading over her homework assignment. Draco felt exceedingly out of place, but continued to stand by the sink, staring sightlessly at the various bottles placed on the table before her.

For Hermione's part, she could think of no reason Draco might have chosen to visit her. Certainly she'd made it clear to everyone that she wished to be left alone, well, everyone except Severus. She wondered what had possessed her to ask him back the following morning. She decided that it was only because she was sure he wouldn't come that she'd said such a thing. She risked a glance at Draco and noticed his vacant expression.

"How is your mother?" she asked quietly.

Draco's head snapped up at this, and he shook his head. "She's packing to return to France. Surely you've seen the Prophet?"

Again she laughed mirthlessly. Draco decided abruptly that he despised the sound. "I haven't read a paper in weeks. I stopped opening the window for their owl one day, and it hasn't returned since."

"They threw out the case for lack of evidence," Draco said quickly, while he still had her attention. He found himself chagrined over the changes in Hermione. She was neither the know-it-all with boundless energy with whom he'd competed for top Potions grades, nor the self-assured woman he'd danced with at New Year's. She seemed perpetually distracted. He couldn't blame her, now that he knew the full story, but he was disquieted by it all the same.

But upon this statement, Hermione rose from her chair again and stared at him. "You're kidding!" she exclaimed, clearly agitated, but at least paying attention. With a quick word, she summoned a sheaf of parchment, already drafting another letter to Amelia Bones in her mind.

Draco, too pleased at her animated state to look annoyed at her exclamation, seated himself at the table as the parchment arrived. "It isn't worth writing again, it won't work."

Hermione stilled her quill and looked up at him. There was a quiet moment during which Draco swallowed hard and Hermione set the quill carefully back on the desk. "Because I didn't testify. That's why they threw out the case." She wasn't asking. If she had been, Draco's expression would have been sufficient answer.

"We haven't ever been close, you and I, but you've stuck up for me to your friends ever since graduation, and we've gotten along pretty well since New Year's, right?" he asked, clearly working his way up to something. Hermione nodded warily. "Will you – do you think you could testify in favor of my father? I know it's a lot to ask. Severus told me what – "

"What did he tell you?" Hermione demanded suddenly, cutting him off. She'd been about to agree. However, she was very suddenly aware that she didn't appreciate Severus speaking about her ordeal, even if Draco did have a vested interest.

"He explained that you went through a lot that summer when you were taken captive by my father. But he also said that Lucius didn't actually hurt you."

"No, he had his lackeys do it for him!" Hermione jumped up from the table, breathing heavily. "How DARE you, come here and ask me to – to – " she choked, and sobbed, unable to finish her sentence, and ran back into the living room.

Draco knew at once that he was in over his head, but he followed her anyway. She had thrown herself face down onto the couch, and was clutching a pillow over her eyes. He was wary. Should he try to comfort her, or would she prefer not to be touched? He tried to think of how he would feel, if it'd been him, and couldn't come up with anything. It was all quite outside his realm of experience. In the end he sat down, near her waist, on the couch. "Budge over," he whispered, putting a hand gently to her back and rubbing in what he hoped were comforting circles. She hiccoughed hysterically for several minutes, but didn't scream at him to leave her be, so he thought he'd made the right choice.

It annoyed him that he was 'chief comforter.' He barely knew the woman. Aside from brief glimpses during Ministry functions, an evening spent trying to charm his way into her knickers, and a few odd moments at Potter's birthday party, he'd hardly seen her since Voldemort's demise. Yet he was the one stuck here listening to her sob her heart out. He wondered if Fate was laughing at him. It was his father's successful mission that had caused her this misery, but it was also his father who'd saved her life. He realized that he would probably need to remind her of that to get what he wanted out of this visit.

When her sobs had finally quieted, he continued to sit, letting his hand rest platonically up near her shoulder blades. He was startled out of his thoughts when she sat up abruptly. He pulled his hand away just as quickly.

"Stay here," she instructed briskly, standing awkwardly and dashing off into her room. Draco stared at the door that swung closed behind her and listened to the distinct sounds of a running shower. He shook his head and went to get himself something to drink from the icebox. He was looking over her Potions assignment when she reappeared.

Hermione knew her eyes were still red with crying. She knew that her cheeks were puffy, though she'd managed to scrub away the tear tracks. And she knew that, since no one had seen her outside her apartment for weeks, this trip to the Ministry wasn't going to pleasant AT ALL. Draco looked up as she entered the kitchen.

"Come on, then," she said impatiently. She ignored his puzzled expression and led him out into the hallway, locking the door behind them with a key rather than a wand.

They walked in silence back to the Apparation point. "To the Ministry," she said shortly.

It was a brief meeting with Amelia Bones, but Hermione convinced her that her own testimony, added to that of Snape, and the hard evidence of the wand, would make it worth the Wizengamot's time to reopen the case. Madam Bones assured her that Severus would be summoned, as well as Narcissa and Draco Malfoy. The older woman did not look at Draco at all. She had already decided that Hermione Granger's appearance in the Ministry meant that they'd gone wrong somewhere with that case, and she avoided his eyes guiltily.

As they reemerged from the lift into the Main Lobby, they noticed a commotion – reporters. Draco, as quick on the uptake as could be expected, took Hermione's hand in a show of solidarity. But if he was afraid she would panic, he was mistaken. She looked up at him resignedly. "You knew this would happen?" he asked in a whisper, as Rita Skeeter began shouting impertinent questions in their direction. She, along with several other reporters Hermione didn't recognize, was being held back by a row of Ministry security officials.

"How could it not? If Severus could discover that I wasn't handing in my assignments, it was only a matter of time before someone else checked up on it, too. And who more likely than Rita, the nosey insect with a grudge against me?"

The reporters were between them and the exit. Draco, his fingers painfully pinched in Hermione's grip, watched as she squared her shoulders and approached the row of guards.

"I will give a statement if everyone will be silent. I will not answer questions." She spoke so softly that it was a wonder anyone heard, but the reporters fell silent immediately. Somewhere in Draco's mind the thought registered that she'd learned that trick from Severus. "I came to the Ministry today to see that Lucius Malfoy's case was reopened, and I have agreed to testify tomorrow afternoon. That is all the information we have for you at this time."

As soon as she finished speaking the questioning began, loud and uncouth, and led by Skeeter.

"Miss Granger, are you and Draco Malfoy dating?" Rita asked, teetering unpleasantly at the thought. She had clearly noticed their linked hands. Other questions rang out, as the other reporters talked over her, but the guards had already created a path for them to the Apparation point, and they reached it quickly, ignoring everyone now that the statement was given.

As they were still holding hands, Hermione Apparated them directly into her flat, something that could only be achieved by direct contact with her person, and only when SHE directed the spell. She dropped Draco's hand immediately, and slumped into the chair across from the couch, lighting the fireplace with her wand as she did so.

"This retrial tomorrow is going to be a zoo, isn't it?" Draco asked quietly. Hermione only nodded. Draco stood behind her chair for a moment, before making up his mind, then came around beside it and knelt down.

She was staring at the fire, but when he put a hand on her arm and called her name quietly, she looked over at him. "Thank you," he whispered. "You can't know what it will mean to me, and to my family, that you are doing this for us."

Hermione stared at him for a moment with shock before the expression changed to something more introspective. Draco noted a flash of distaste across her features and wondered what it meant. Perhaps she preferred his erstwhile arrogance? There was a time when he would not have thanked anyone for anything.

Hermione, however, was not thinking of his unprecedented gratitude. She was thinking that it was odd that she wasn't bothered when he'd rubbed her back earlier, that holding his hand had not frightened her in the least, and that the feel of his hand on her arm now was not causing her any actual discomfort. Even Ron's continual presence had been grating, and he was like a brother to her.

These thoughts gave rise to additional ones. It had troubled her, as she lay in bed the past weeks, that she might never achieve closeness with anyone as a result of her ordeal. She considered it a distinct possibility that fear might prevent her from ever having a romantic relationship of any kind. These thoughts, which had haunted her almost as thoroughly as her memories had done, gave rise to a sudden idea. It was this idea that had caused her fleeting look of distaste.

"Quid pro quo," Hermione said quietly.

Draco, who'd been expecting something along the lines of 'You're welcome,' was more than startled. He was, ever so slightly, afraid of what that might mean, coming from a Gryffindor. He stood quickly, and she looked up at him.

"And what favor do you have in mind?" he asked guardedly.

Hermione hesitated. "You don't have to agree. I'm not helping you because I expect something in return," she began. Draco almost rolled his eyes. Wasn't that, after all, the MEANING of quid pro quo? He stopped himself in time.

"What you mean is that when you originally agreed to help me, you had no thought of payment, which makes you a very generous person. Now that you've thought of something I can do for you, however, you expect me to be equally generous."

Hermione laughed. A friendly sounding chuckle, compared to her previous attempts at dry mirth. Draco couldn't help but smile. "Yes, exactly," she said. Then her smile fell away as quickly as it had come. "I need you to do this for me with no strings attached - no expectations of any kind for anything further." She looked at him expectantly, waiting for his agreement. He raised an eyebrow in question.

It occurred to her that he wasn't going to agree to that until he knew what she wanted. "I want you to kiss me," she said quickly. At the bizarre look that crossed his face, she began to dissemble. "But you can't grab me or hold me at all. Nothing to make me feel trapped or - " she was staring into his eyes. He was silent, and didn't look particularly happy.

"I need to know if I'll ever be able to - that is, if I can ever get past being afraid well enough to - "

He took pity on her stuttering and held up both hands. "Shall I put them behind my back?"

Hermione chuckled again out of nervousness, but nodded, watching as he complied. He then took a step closer to her, and tilted his head down. They both kept their eyes open, as he lowered his lips to hers. "Alright?" he asked, his breath washing over her, and more pleasant than she'd expected. She nodded again, ever so slightly.

Draco let himself close his eyes first, and took her bottom lip between his. With his arms behind his back, he had no way of knowing how tense she became, or whether he was doing what she wished. He moved his mouth against hers, for a brief instant worried that she was going to remain perfectly still. But then she was kissing him back, carefully. He closed what was left of the gap between them, and at the same time, ran his tongue along her lip. He could feel her chest against his, and was more than a little impatient for her to allow him a proper kiss. Once again she had frozen. He carefully kept his eyes closed, and continued to pull gently at her lips with his own.

Hermione's eyes had flown open when he moved closer, but she closed them again quickly, and parted her lips as he seemed to desire. She had kissed no one since Dolohov, and she couldn't help but compare. He'd been gentle with her, but there was always the undercurrent of possessiveness. He had felt that he owned her, and it wasn't to be born. Draco, on the other hand, while not shy about it, was certainly not possessive. It seemed clear to her that he felt she might run at any moment, and was prepared to allow it.

They kissed tentatively for several long moments before Hermione pulled away slowly. Draco grinned at her cheekily. "What's the verdict?" he asked.

"I haven't run screaming for the hills."

They shared a smile before Draco turned serious. "You're going to be alright, you know," he said with conviction, unclasping his hands.

Hermione looked at him hard for a moment. "I know," she said finally. "Now, go tell your mother the time of the trial, and I'll see you tomorrow."

Draco and Hermione said goodbye at the door, and Hermione turned and looked around her empty flat. It seemed remarkably quiet after all the company she'd had. The clock said it was only 7:00 PM. Making up her mind in an instant, Hermione waved her wand in the direction of the fireplace. A moment later her head appeared in the fireplace at the Burrow.

"Ronald Weasley, WHERE is my cat?" she demanded.