The Essence of Life – a Gift for UnseenLibrarian

By cklls – June 1, 2011

Draco Malfoy sat in his father's study, staring blindly at the amber liquid in his glass. The elder wizard in the seat opposite him was droning on and on about "duty" and "responsibility" and "contracts," and – not for the first time – Draco was both grateful and horrified over the arranged marriage that he'd muddled through for nearly seven years.

"You realize, Draco, that if she doesn't conceive in the next four months, you'll have no choice but to divorce her," his father concluded.

"I'm well aware, Father," Draco acknowledged with a deep sigh. "And we all know that if it hasn't happened by now, the likelihood of a miraculous pregnancy occurring in the next several weeks is pretty damned slim. Shagging her more often is not the solution; it never has been." He set the nearly full glass on the mahogany side table. The alcohol never helped to dull the ache, anyway. It, like so many other things in his life, had become nothing more than a prop.

"What have the Healers said? Are there any new developments?" Lucius inquired.

Another deep sigh was followed by a slim hand running through short, layered blond hair. "There's nothing new. We're having the same problems that many other pureblood couples are having. It seems our gene pool has become in-bred to such an extent that conception is nearly impossible. The so-called lucky ones are having children with no magical signature at all, or with severe birth defects. Astoria is more frightened over that possibility than over the fact that we'll no longer be married in a few months. However hopeless it is, the Healers still tell us that they continue to search for solutions. It just seems that Astoria and I will run out of time before that effort succeeds."

Lucius took a long, deep drink from his own glass of Ogden's. "How do you feel about that?"

"Father, I'm fond of her. You can't have relations with someone for seven years without creating some kind of bond. But I can't say that I'm desperately in love with her. I didn't choose her; she was chosen for me. In some ways, that makes this a little easier. We've both always known that this was a possibility. It probably caused us each to remain somewhat protective of our hearts, recognizing just how likely it was."

"So you'll be…"

"I'll be as fine as I can, given the circumstances." He rose and paced the room, moving to stare out a tall, narrow window. His next words were barely audible, but the anguish behind them was clear. "I feel like such a failure. The most fundamental thing a man can do…" Draco did not turn; he didn't want his father to see the tears that had gathered in his eyes.

Lucius was not a demonstrative man, but neither was he as heartless as some would have thought. He stepped behind his only son and placed his hands on the younger wizard's shoulders, offering what comfort he could. "You know that your mother and I had similar problems before you came along, Draco. She miscarried five times before you were conceived, and her pregnancy with you was very difficult. We tried again after you were born, to see if we could cheat fate once more, but she was never able to conceive again. That's one of the reasons she's always been so protective of you; you were our miracle."

"I know that we're not the first couple to suffer this fate, not by a long stretch. It was one of the arguments that we heard in the lead-up to the war, but I always thought it was just propaganda. I was too young and ignorant to recognize the truth of it. Now, I know better. If I'd understood it back then, I'd have refused the marriage and tried to find a Half-blood."

"It was too late by then, Draco. If you remember, those contracts were entered when you were twelve years old."

"But I didn't know about them until I was seventeen," he protested. "There were loopholes that we could have exploited, if I had really understood. You and mother were so intent on us going through with everything."

"There were other advantages to the family with that alliance, Draco. The Greengrasses were neutral during the war; it was politically expedient as well as what we thought to be the boon of maintaining our blood purity. And, you seemed to like her well enough. We all thought it was the best we could do, at the time."

"Yes, and with you in Azkaban for five years, I was not as privy to your counsel as I might have been otherwise," Draco noted, with just a hint of bitterness.

"It could have been much worse, if not for your mother's late, though timely, aid to Potter," Lucius retorted.

"Water under the bridge, Father. We have a more immediate problem to solve. I assume that you've seen to all the provision clauses? Her needs will be met?"

"Of course, Son. The divorce will be amicable and mutual. Your mother has been in contact with her family. They've known as much as we have that this day was coming."

The younger Malfoy nodded. His marriage, his life as he'd expected it to be, was over. That, unfortunately, didn't mean there weren't hurdles yet to clear. He had three years before things would change again, and this deadline had much more dire consequences, at least to his financial health. At the cusp of such cruel fate, he recognized that it was more than just his own life that was to change; the collective future of the wizarding world had no choice but to shift at the same time.

Hermione Granger-Weasley watched impassively as her now-ex-husband packed the last of his clothing into a trunk nearly identical to the one he'd used throughout their years at Hogwarts. If she hadn't personally disposed of the old one, she'd have mistaken this for the same item. As much as things change, they do always stay the same, she mused. Their split was not exactly amicable; she'd caught him in flagrante delicto with the same witch who'd come between them as their relationship was in early bud, back before the war had even begun. Now, as far as she was concerned, Lavender Brown could have the lout; she was well rid of him.

As he closed the lid of the trunk, Ron turned to the woman he knew he'd wronged. "When can I see the kids?" he asked, hoping that the witch's fury would subside long and often enough that his two young children would be able to maintain some kind of relationship with their father.

"The decree says every other weekend, beginning on the first of next month. You can visit them here next weekend, if you want. Make sure you call or owl me first, though." She was being generous; there was nothing that required her to allow him access to the children other than on their Wizengamot-mandated schedule. In truth, it had nothing to do with him; Rose and Hugo missed their daddy. She would not hurt them in her anger at what Ron had done to her.

"Thanks. That's nice of you. I, uh, guess I'd better be going, then," he stammered. When he automatically leaned in to peck her cheek, she shrank back. "Sorry," he mumbled, an embarrassed flush staining his cheeks. "Force of habit."

She glared at him, crossing her arms defensively over her chest. "Goodbye, Ron."

When his graceless pop of Apparition stopped echoing in her ears, the lonely witch sunk to her favorite worn leather armchair and wept in sadness, frustration, and relief. Her marriage, and her life as she'd expected it to be, was over. There were pieces still to pick up, and children to care for, and a job which needed more of her attention than she'd been able to give it lately. Things were going to be different from this point forward; of that, she had no doubt.

Astoria had been as gracious as she knew how to be during their "friendly" divorce. She didn't love Draco any more than he had loved her; she was, unabashedly, enamored of the Malfoy lifestyle. If the "no-fault" clauses in their marriage contract hadn't been iron-clad, she'd have had to fight for pittances. Thankfully, her father's solicitors had been diligent in ensuring that she would want for nothing, should her marriage to Draco dissolve through no wrong-doing on her part.

Draco had been insistent that she take the home they'd bought shortly after their marriage, regardless of its exorbitant value. He had a perfectly adequate flat in London, and assuming he could navigate his way through the latest legal and familial challenge, Malfoy Manor would someday be his. Both of his parents had invited him to move back to the massive property; they reasoned that, with over thirty-four thousand square feet of space, it wasn't terribly likely that anyone would feel under-foot. He had declined, grateful for their offer, but insistent on his independence. He had a marriage to grieve, and he'd prefer to do that in solitude.

"I think it best that we not see each other for a while, Draco," Astoria told him as he packed the last of his personal belongings for his move to Wizarding London. "It's not that I don't want to, but…"

"I know, Astoria. I don't think I can, either. We've been good for each other in many ways, and I'm so very sorry that it's come to this," Draco finished her thought. While neither was exactly heartbroken, they had formed a bond. It would be more painful to re-open that wound continuously than to allow it to heal without interference.

"Be well, Draco. I wish you all the very best," Astoria offered through a sniffle.

Draco wrapped her in an embrace, and kissed her softly. "Goodbye, Astoria. I hope you find happiness."

He turned on his heel and, with one more nod, he was gone. An hour later, he was settling in to his flat, unpacking the last of his clothing with the aid of Tuppy, his personal house-elf, when he heard the chime of the Floo indicating that a visitor was requesting entry.

The familiar, if infrequently heard, voice of Blaise Zabini echoed in the cavernous sitting room. "Hey, mate, I heard the news. Need a pal?"

Draco snorted in amusement. Even if he hadn't heard from his school chum in months, he could always count on Blaise for two things: first, to be thoroughly aware of all the latest gossip (thanks to his ever-so-well-connected wife, Pansy), and second, to be there when he needed him most. "Come on through, you arsehole, but you'd better have Firewhisky with you," he warned, only half-joking.

Blaise laughed aloud as he stepped out of the green flames, holding a bottle of Ogden's Finest in each hand. "Will this do?" he asked, arching an eyebrow to underscore his sarcastic tone. He set the two bottles on the table between two overstuffed leather armchairs and approached his old friend. "Come here, you arsehole," he repeated, giving the taller, slimmer man a bear hug. "You all right?"

Pulling away, Draco shrugged. "I guess. It'll take some getting accustomed to."

"What now? How much time do you have?" Blaise inquired, knowing that Draco wouldn't be offended by his prying. So many of them were in the same boat.

"I turned twenty-seven three weeks ago, so… one hundred fifty-three weeks," he calculated, removing the cork from the bottle of alcohol nearest him. He drank, wiping his lips with the back of his hand as he pulled the bottle away.

"Then what?"

"Then, I'm poorer than a church mouse, as the saying goes."

"Nah, not that bad," the dark-skinned wizard scoffed. "You'll still have your own assets."

"True, but that's a paltry sum in comparison to the Malfoy legacy," he pointed out, truthfully.

"What are the terms?"

"Married, and an heir conceived, by my thirtieth birthday, or it all goes to Cousin Francois' branch of the family."

"Tough luck, mate," he commiserated. "Any idea what you're going to do now?"

Draco shrugged and swigged another drink. "I need to see the Healer again - see if there's something new on the horizon that might help. The bigger issue, though, is that I need a witch to reproduce with. I happen to be without one at the moment." He snorted derisively.

"They were absolutely certain that you and Astoria…?" Blaise's unspoken question was clearly understood.

The blond shook his head, slowly and sadly. "No way, no how. There's a strong possibility that she won't be able to conceive with anyone, but definitely not with another pureblood. It seems that my problem is slightly less… calamitous."

"And they wouldn't allow adoption to satisfy the terms of the charter?"

"No. It has to be a naturally conceived and blood child of a Malfoy."

"What do you mean by 'naturally conceived'? What other way is there?"

Draco arched an eyebrow. "Blaise, you're not that dense."

"No, seriously, mate. It depends on the definitions. Pansy and I were able to use in vitro to satisfy our contract. Would it not allow that?"

"No, in vitro is an option if both partners are fertile. The issue is with egg or sperm donation. That's a deal breaker, and that's what Astoria and I would have had to do."

"I'm so sorry, mate. I didn't realize your terms were that stiff," Blaise consoled, lifting his own bottle of Firewhisky in a salute.

Draco drank again. "Yeah. Sucks." He scratched at his neck, and rested his elbows on his knees. "Now, I need to go back for more testing, to see for sure what my own potential is. I do that first thing tomorrow."

"At St. Mungo's?"

"Mmmhmm, with the specialist Healer. This is the one who is trained in some Muggle fertility methods as well as in Wizarding techniques. He helped guide us through that maze up to this point. Since we've looked at all the traditional wizarding remedies, I figure it can't hurt to look at all perspectives."

"Well, here's to new methods and opportunities, my good man, wherever they may take you," Blaise drawled as he dragged on his bottle once more.

After an evening of getting as wasted as he'd been since his bachelor party, but with far fewer companions, Draco dragged himself to his empty room. It had been a very long time since he'd been without a witch to warm his bed. He slept fitfully, anticipating the poking, prodding and waving that he'd undergo in the morning. When sunlight crept over his face, he pulled a pillow over his head and groaned. This was hangover to beat all previous hangovers in the history of mankind, or at least that's how it felt at the moment. When the spinning stopped, he forced himself out of bed to make it to the loo before his bladder burst. Done with his business, he inspected his bloodshot eyes in the mirror and was momentarily surprised to see a flashing arrow on the glass, pointing downward to the grey granite countertop.

"Ah, Blaise, I owe you one, buddy," he croaked, reaching for the bottle of hangover potion that his best mate had left for him. He downed the appropriate dosage in one and re-corked the vial, placing it in the cabinet where his toiletries had already been stored.

After a quick trip back to his bedroom to retrieve his wand – how it had ended up on his nightstand, he could only guess – he returned to the en-suite to shower and shave. He had just over an hour before he needed to be at the Healer's office. He'd probably have time for a quick breakfast; scones and tea would have to suffice.

Dressed in summer-weight navy blue wool trousers, a light blue oxford shirt, and his navy blue robes, Draco entered the Healer's reception office five minutes before his scheduled appointment. He was called in to the examination room ten minutes later.

Healer Amedee Hubert, as Draco had told Blaise, was not only a specialist in wizard fertility issues, but had studied the newest Muggle methodology and sought to combine the best of both worlds' medical knowledge to improve the chances of conception for desperate couples. He had been testing and treating the young Malfoys for a few months, focusing first on strictly wizard methods. His testing had encompassed Muggle technologies, but the results had not provided any solace for the couple.

He had been very disappointed to be unable to help them achieve their wish. He had told them that their largest problem was that the two of them were so physically incompatible as to have significantly less than a one percent chance of conceiving together. Each would have a better chance with someone other than another pureblood, but Draco's chances of becoming a father, someday, where marginally better than Astoria's of becoming a mother. That likelihood, in almost any scenario, was less than five percent. They had decided to stop treatment, and the couple had divorced, as was required in their marriage contract. Now, Draco Malfoy had returned on his own to see if there was some hope for him, potentially with another partner.

"Healer Hubert," Draco acknowledged as the physician entered the room. He extended his hand, which the other man accepted.

"Hi, Draco. How are you?"

"I'm okay, considering the situation," Draco replied.

"I can't imagine that this would be easy on you or your former wife," he noted, sympathetically.

"We were… fond of each other, but as you know, our marriage was arranged. Our contract required this; we always knew it was a possibility. What I'm really interested in now is, where do I go from here?"

"Is there a particular reason that you're in such a hurry, Draco? Most people take a little time after the end of a marriage to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives." The Healer was concerned, apparently, for the young man's mental health along with his physical well-being.

"I have responsibilities beyond myself, Healer, and strict time limits in which they must be achieved. If it will be as difficult to conceive as it has been thus far, I haven't a moment to waste."

The Healer had heard this story before; Draco wasn't the only old-family heir he'd been treating. "I'll do what I can to help you, Draco. You know there are no guarantees, and there are some possibilities that you may find… challenging to accept. We'll run a few more tests, and go from there."

Draco nodded. "What's next, then?"

"It's been about three months since you've given me a sample, so we'll do that first. I want to check motility again, and do another round of DNA and genetic testing. I have my suspicions, but I'd like to get them confirmed before we talk about them in any detail."

"So, you, um, want a sample now?" Draco stammered. While it was a clinical necessity to "deliver the sample" on-site, and as many times as he'd had to do it, it never failed to unsettle Draco that people knew exactly what he was doing in that little room. They'd tried the stasis method – producing the sample at home and placing it under a stabilizing spell – but the sperm invariably broke down beyond the lab's ability to test each necessary factor, particularly motility, which was a highly critical measure.

"Yes. You know the drill. There should be sample cups in the room, and the usual inspiration, should you need it."

When Draco rolled his eyes, the Healer laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Okay, mate, have at it. I'll see you in a few minutes." With that, he opened the door and directed Draco to one of the available "Privacy Rooms" that were reserved exactly for the purpose of male patients delivering semen samples into sterile plastic vials.

Draco entered the small room, locking the door with his wand, and settled into the reclining chair that was covered with a new sterile sheet after each patient. A plastic vial, with his name and patient identification number already labeled, sat on the side table in arm's reach. As the Healer had reminded him, the "usual inspiration" was indeed available. A selection of wizard and Muggle magazines and video, each depicting some kind of titillation, were available to aid a wizard in getting where he needed to go. Draco rarely needed to use the visual aids; his own imagination was generally sufficient. Today, however, he thought the help might be necessary. Although he hadn't had sex in a couple of weeks – it had just felt wrong once he and Astoria had separated in anticipation of their divorce – the mood just wasn't there. Since his wife had often accompanied him to these appointments, it was not uncommon that she would "assist" him, as recommended by their Healer. She could no longer be his inspiration; that would just feel morbid and creepy. Chalk up one more little change that in the moment felt monumental.

He couldn't stay in the room forever, though, so he needed to create some inspiration from his own mind or take advantage of the material provided for him. With a sigh, he unbuttoned his fly and tugged down the zipper, lifting his hips to remove the trousers completely. There was absolutely no comfort in achieving erection and orgasm with his knees trapped in pant legs. His whispery black silk boxers were removed next; while they didn't impede movement, they could interfere with catching his ejaculate in the sterile vial; that was a lesson he'd learned on his very first appointment, a mistake never to be repeated. He reached for the stack of magazines, favoring the wizard version over the Muggle ones; the pictures moved a little, certainly an advantage over the stationary Muggle version, but not so much that they became totally pornographic. He'd seen the videos a couple of times, but they actually turned him off. It wasn't so much the visuals – the background music was just horrible. If he could figure out how to mute the sound on the Muggle deeveedee, they might do the trick. For whatever reason, the infernal device refused to respond to Silencio spells.

Therefore, Draco decided to stick with what he knew: wizarding skin magazines. He was grateful that there were a couple of newer ones that he hadn't seen before. He knew that men all over the world were very visual in their approach to sexuality; he was no different. He flipped through the pages, pausing now and again to gaze a little longer at a particularly good-looking witch or tantalizing pose. There was one in particular who was very interesting to him. Rather than being blatant in her nudity, she was teasing, drawing bits of silk over swaths of skin, hiding and revealing her assets. She wore a mask and a scarf over her hair, adding to her mystery. Her body was petite, but not overly skinny. Draco liked a woman with a few curves; Astoria had been… acceptable, but her waif-like shape was not exactly his ideal.

The vixen on the page blew him a kiss, and Draco chuckled. She turned onto her stomach, revealing a most delectable derriere, and then removed her scarf, displaying long, curly chestnut hair. Draco thought that it reminded him of someone, but he couldn't place who that might be. Next page, please, he decided, turning the glossy paper to another view. The next image was far less appealing: the woman could have been a twin for his ex-wife, right down to the color and cut of her hair. Draco was certain he didn't want to go there. The girl on the previous page was infinitely more attractive to him at the moment. He flipped the page back.

He decided to let his imagination run wild. Why not? It surely wasn't hurting anyone. He (finally!) felt a stirring in his groin. Setting the magazine aside, Draco closed his eyes, picturing that dark-haired temptress teasing him with coy glances and glimpses of ivory skin through brightly colored silk scarves. In Slytherin green and silver. His hand found its way toward his quickly burgeoning organ. The beauty in his mind's eye crawled to him on a large bed, made up with cream silk sheets, and took his dream-penis in her mouth, thoroughly enveloping him. Her tongue teased and lips nibbled, while Draco's hand stroked firmly, up and down, picking up speed as he imagined her head bobbing, taking him deep in her throat and moving back to his glans, tongue swirling and sucking hard. He could feel his sac begin to tighten and knew that orgasm wasn't far off. As he reached the point of no return, he suddenly remembered that he needed to capture his ejaculate, and reached for the plastic vial just in time.

"Hunh," he grunted, partly in a natural reaction to his release, and partly in surprise. He'd rarely been so involved in his fantasy that he forgot the purpose for his manual stimulation. As he cleaned up and got dressed, it came to him that the woman in the magazine and then in his fantasy had reminded him of an old schoolmate whom he hadn't seen in many years. Hermione Granger, he mused. Even if she was a pain in my arse, if pressed I would be forced to admit that she wasn't unattractive after fourth year. He shook his head in amusement. This was one secret fantasy that he'd take to his grave.

When Draco opened the Privacy Room's door, Healer Hubert was waiting in the hallway, hand out to receive the sample vial.

"The fresher, the better," he told his patient. "Make yourself comfortable. I want to run these tests right now, before you leave."

Draco, his skin still slightly flush from his so-recent orgasm, was grateful for the opportunity to catch his breath for a moment. He returned to the Privacy Room as the Healer had indicated. He sat in the recliner to await the test results, flipping through the magazines somewhat distractedly. It would likely be a little while before there was another witch in his bed with any regularity; he might want a little fuel for his nocturnal fantasies.

A sharp rap on the door twenty minutes later alerted him to Healer Hubert's return. As the man opened the door to deliver his findings, Draco couldn't help but notice that his expression was decidedly grim. Draco swallowed his fear and prompted the Healer to speak. "Give it to me straight, please."

"Well, there is a little good news, but most of it is, at the very least, limiting for you."

"What does that mean?"

"The good news is that your sperm production and motility both seem to have improved. Have you been abstaining from sex recently?" he asked.

"Well, Astoria and I have only been apart for a couple of weeks, so I haven't been out tomcatting, if that's what you mean."

"Yes and no. I take it you've also not been masturbating very often."

"No, not until just now. I just haven't really felt…" Draco's voice trailed off.

Healer Hubert raised his hand. "Not to worry. That's normal; you're grieving the end of your relationship. But the upshot is that your sperm seems to have recovered some if its vitality. I think in your desperation to conceive, you and Astoria were actually having intercourse too often. I know we talked about that at some point, but it's one of the strategies that most people seem to find counter-intuitive and often ignore, sometimes without even realizing that they're doing it. In any case, that can degrade the quality of your sperm. There is a balance, though. You can't completely abstain from ejaculating; it's just as unhealthy."

"The truth is that we were accustomed to having sex nearly every night, except when Astoria was menstruating, and that's a difficult habit to change. So, I'm newly divorced, Healer. What do you recommend?" Draco asked with a little frustration.

"I wouldn't go off with every filly on the farm, but the best case scenario would be to ejaculate about twice a week."

"I'm not really interested in screwing around, to be perfectly frank with you. I need to protect my reputation if I'm to find another wife relatively soon. Will self-stimulation provide the appropriate results?" Draco wondered.

"Absolutely, but again, not more than twice a week. Can you handle that?"

"Sure. Not a problem."

"Good. Okay. Another strategy is to ensure that you either wear boxers or nothing for undergarments. It helps to keep your body temperature lower, and that also aids in sperm production and motility."

"That's my preference, anyway. Most pureblood wizards don't wear undergarments with their robes. I only do when I'm wearing wool trousers."

The Healer nodded his acknowledgement and then paused before continuing. "That's the easy part, Draco. I'm afraid you won't be so happy with the rest."

"Just tell me. I'd rather know than worry about how bad it is." Draco's face had gone pale, which was not an easy feat, considering his typical nearly-translucent complexion.

"Your genetic testing is quite definitive. You will not be able to conceive with a pureblood witch. The chances are so remote as to add up to zero. Further, your chances of conceiving with even a Half-blood witch are nearly as slim, less than one percent. Do you understand what this means?"

Draco looked as horrified as any man had ever been, his eyes wide and jaw slack. "I have to come in a Muggle?" he exclaimed, utterly repulsed by the very idea and quite certain his 'equipment' would refuse to function.

"Well, there are some alternatives and options available, but…"

"No! You don't understand. My family will never accept that as a valid marriage!"

"Draco, it doesn't have to be a Muggle. It could be a Muggle-born witch," Healer Hubert said, trying to placate the clearly distraught young man. "And although best results are usually achieved with natural conception, we can still explore treatments such as in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and ova donation."

"What's the difference? Seriously?" Draco had pushed out of the recliner and was pacing the small room, pushing his hands through his hair in frustration and fear.

"Draco, don't you think your family will understand and support you, if this is the only option available to you if you hope to father a child?"

"I don't know for certain, but I doubt it. My family charter may not even allow it. The British Malfoy family could very well end with me." Draco sank into the recliner once more, devastated and stunned.

Hugo and Rose were spending the day with the Weasley family, allowing their mother a rare day to herself. Hermione planned to soak in a tub for at least an hour, ensuring that her wand was at the ready to keep the water at the perfect temperature, read something strictly for pleasure, and eat a meal that did not include bland, child-friendly flavors. A nice, hot curry came to mind.

The transition from wife and mother to divorcee with two small children had not been quite as horrid as the erstwhile Gryffindor had feared. Hermione Granger (she'd dropped the Weasley, despite the protests of many of her former husband's relatives, who insisted she'd always be part of the family), was not one to back down from a challenge. She had, after all, faced Bellatrix Lestrange and lived to tell the tale.

The children were attending day school, as they always had, and were cared for by their grandmother for two hours after classes, as had been the case for the last two years. Molly had been furious with her youngest son and had only allowed him to stay at the Burrow until he managed to save enough money for a small flat of his own. He hadn't moved in with his paramour as she still lived with her parents, a fact that was sorely testing his own patience. He got no sympathy from any quarter.

Molly gave her son a deadline of four weeks, which he met only by borrowing a stack of Galleons from Harry, who had reluctantly agreed to help only because he knew his mother-in-law would throw his brother-in-law out on his no-good arse without hesitation. Ginny had been furious when she found out, but figured it was a better solution than Hermione suffering the possibility of running into the bugger when she picked up the children each evening.

Hermione had taken a couple of days off from work immediately after their divorce had been final. She was grateful that Harry had been able to talk Ron into allowing it to proceed uncontested, but the lack of Wizengamot hearings hadn't meant that no stress was involved. They had known each other for sixteen years – nearly two-thirds of their lives - been in a relationship for more than half that time, and created two children together. For the change alone, it had been earth-shaking. The betrayal, with someone whom she'd once considered a friend, was wrenching and painful. While she knew she would certainly focus on being a good mother to her two children, who were only four and six years old, and earning a living, she really had no idea what she'd do next with her life.

The only thing Hermione knew for sure was that she wanted and needed some time to be a young woman again, however she could do that while still meeting her children's needs. Someday, she might like to have a relationship again, if she could find a man who would love both her and her children and give her the intellectual and emotional respect that she deserved. She was convinced that finding such a man would be a tall order; she was not terribly optimistic about the prospects, as nearly everyone she knew in the wizarding world was already married, and the remaining handful of men anywhere near her own age were only interested in other wizards. While she hadn't yet resigned herself to a life alone, she anticipated that it might be a very long time before another man shared her bed. That idea was just a bit depressing.

Draco had retreated to his flat for a few hours after his appointment with Amedee Hubert. He had to absorb what he'd learned; there was no doubt that his future had just taken a radical turn. He was debating how to break the news to his parents. They certainly knew the general problem, but the myriad ramifications and eminently distasteful solutions were almost as bad as if he'd been told that he was completely sterile. It was small consolation.

While the "how" was still up for debate, the "when" decision had been taken from him. The Floo chime had rung not two minutes earlier, and his father had summoned him to Malfoy Manor. Since his parents had known about his appointment with the fertility specialist, the likelihood that the meeting was for any other purpose was as slim as that of Draco keeping the Malfoy empire intact. Avoiding the discussion would not change its content or outcome; he'd suck it up and face the music.

When he stepped through the Floo in his father's study, Draco was met by the concerned and vaguely hopeful faces of both of his parents. His mother greeted him first, not with words, but with an enveloping and teary embrace. She'd been doing a lot of that lately. His father's greeting was less demonstrative but no less emotional. "We've been anxious to hear, Son. Are you… all right?"

Hearing such heartfelt concern from his parents was Draco's undoing. The stress and tension of the last few weeks came fully crashing down on him, and he shook his head slowly as his eyes filled with tears. He released one sob before forcing himself to regain control, though his grip on that was tenuous, at best. He hadn't felt so lost, so young, since the day he'd been branded with the Dark Mark a more than a decade earlier. He allowed his mother to hold him again while he tried to slow his breathing and his racing heart. He heard her whisper into his ear, "Tell us, my little dragon, and we'll do whatever we can to ease your pain."

Draco straightened and removed a silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of his robe to wipe his eyes. "Mother, the news is quite dire. I fear that my future – our future as a family – has met its end."

Lucius and Narcissa glanced at each other, and by silent agreement, the head of the family took control of the conversation. "Draco, you need to tell us exactly what the Healer told you. I'm no physician, but we need to understand exactly what our position is."

The younger Malfoy nodded, recognizing that he'd not be able to keep the brutal truth to himself. "Healer Hubert has told me that my chances of fathering a child with a pureblood witch are effectively zero, and less than one percent with even a Half-blood witch."

Narcissa stifled a gasp at hearing the definitive pronouncement. She'd hoped against odds that the bigger difficulty had been with her former daughter-in-law. It now seemed that the problem between the young couple was mutual. Lucius glared at her.

"That's certainly troubling, but not really unexpected, Draco," his father stated. "What else did he tell you? I sense that there's more."

"There is. The only good news, if you can call it that, is that I am not sterile. He says that my… potency has improved since our last test." The humiliation the young man felt at discussing such intimate detail with his parents was evident in the bright red flush on his cheeks.

"So, you could father a child under the right circumstances?" Narcissa concluded.

"Technically, yes. The circumstances, though, are quite unpalatable."

"What are they? If there's anything we can do to facilitate success for you, it will be done." The offer from his mother was vehement.

"Don't make promises you won't want to keep, Mother," Draco warned, trying to ensure that she wouldn't get her hopes up, only to be so quickly and thoroughly dashed.

She scoffed at his rejoinder with a wave of her hand. "I can't imagine anything that would preclude us going to any lengths on this, Draco."

"I have to mate with a Muggle," he nearly shouted in one breath.

Her gasp this time would not be held back.

"Except that?" Draco bit out.

"Are you sure? Is it the only way?" The desperation in Narcissa's voice nearly matched his own.

"Well, technically, it could also be a Muggle-born witch, but essentially, yes." Draco sighed, all of his disappointment and despair finally on display.

Lucius had been strangely silent through the latter part of his son's exchange with his wife. The family patriarch was absorbing and calculating, a habit that had usually served him well. He had a question or two before he would outline any plan that he might formulate.

"Did the Healer tell you what the cause of the problem is?" he inquired.

"Genetics. His testing confirmed what we feared and suspected. Apparently, as we were warned years ago, there has been too much in-breeding within pureblood circles and we are all too closely related for us to… successfully reproduce. As I know you've heard, Astoria and I are not the only couple, by a very long measure, who have had… difficulties. It seems that the purer one's bloodline, the worse the problem is. We Malfoys certainly fall into that category."

"What did he say about your chances of conceiving with a Muggle-born witch?"

"He said that they were near normal," Draco answered, feeling no comfort in the news. Truth be told, it made him feel worse.

"Then that's what you will do," his father pronounced.

Draco's eyes flew wide. "You can't be serious! Destroy thousands of years of tradition to preserve a few Galleons?"

"Well, it's more than a few, Draco, and the tradition clearly no longer serves us. In fact, it has potential to become our ruin."

"But doesn't the family charter preclude marriage and procreation with anyone but another pureblood? Wouldn't that cause forfeit of the legacy in itself?"

"In normal circumstances, yes. But this is not the case. You have made a good-faith attempt in your first marriage to a pureblood witch. The terms for a second marriage would be slightly different, and a bit less restrictive. If your physician certifies that there is a medical cause that no pureblood witch is an acceptable match, you may choose anyone who is capable of giving you children to carry on the family line."

Draco was stunned. He'd never heard of this exception. "Anyone? And you wouldn't object?"

"Why would we? If it means the difference between you having children and continuing the family line, or having it all end with you, there is no discussion. I'm sure your mother and I would prefer that you select a Muggle-born witch than a Muggle, but whatever you decide, we will support." Lucius' matter-of-fact tone was as surprising as anything Draco had heard in the last twenty-four hours. He could really choose… anyone. The idea was immensely liberating, even in the face of having to pair with someone whom he would have thoroughly rejected just hours earlier.

"We would counsel, however, that you are very deliberate in your selection. Any witch you pick must be of stellar reputation and magical strength. You would also want to have as much proof of her fertility as you can reasonably obtain."

Draco snorted. "What am I supposed to do? Ask someone if they're ovulating?"

"I feel confident that you will figure out a way to solve that issue," Lucius replied. "There is one thing, though, that you should keep in mind."

"That is?"

"The time table does not change. Your thirtieth birthday is still the deadline for you to achieve your legacy. There is nothing I can do to change that requirement," his father informed him, not without empathy.

"I expected that to be the case, but I'd rather know than guess," Draco allowed.

"You'll need to give some thought to how you'll proceed. There really isn't a lot of time to play the bachelor," the elder wizard cautioned.

"I sowed plenty of wild oats when I was younger; I see no need to screw around for fun's sake. I have responsibilities, and I will take them seriously. Give me a few days, and I'll craft a plan to find a new wife."

"You will let me know if you need introductions, dear?" Narcissa suggested.

"Mother, while I appreciate the offer, I sincerely doubt that you will be much help."

At her affronted huff, he explained his comment. "How many Muggles and Muggle-born witches do you actually know?" Snitch in hand; match to Draco, he thought.

Narcissa had the good grace to accept his mild rebuke with a nod and a smile. "Of course, Draco. Then again, how many do you know?" She had not been a Slytherin for nothing.

"Not many, at least not terribly well, but I'd venture a guess that someone in my social circle will have an idea or two." Draco was thinking of Blaise and Pansy. Since Pansy was the biggest gossip in all of wizarding Great Britain, he felt sure she would know every person who was single and available, regardless of their blood status. It was time for a gathering of old friends, Draco concluded.

Pansy Parkinson Zabini never simply walked anywhere; she flounced, even when exiting a Floo. Draco's smirk on seeing her do just that into his sitting room earned him a resounding smack to his shoulder. "If you want my help, Draco Abraxus Malfoy, you'll behave yourself," she scolded.

"Yes, Pansy, I want your help," he chuckled. "Where's your idiot husband? Isn't he joining us?"

"He'll be here in a few minutes. He wanted to stop off to get a bottle."

"What? He thinks I wouldn't have the appropriate libations to serve my guests?"

"I'm sure he simply wanted to be certain of the highest quality of those libations."

Draco shook his head. The one-upmanship between the two of them never ended. If he served the seventy-year-old version – at forty Galleons a bottle –the son-of-a-bitch would insist that only the hundred-ten-year-old blend was remotely acceptable. Whatever the reason, it did mean that the two would drink nothing but the very finest. Draco was accustomed to that.

"Besides, I wanted a few minutes alone with you before he joined us," Pansy confessed.

"I don't think Blaise would object to you and I having a private chat, Pans. We've known each other since before either of us could speak."

"Of course he wouldn't, and if he did, I'd hex him into next week and freeze him out of the bedroom for good measure. It was just a convenient ruse to protect macho pride and posturing," she added with a laugh.

"Fine – I get it. So what did you want to discuss without your hovering husband?" Draco prodded.

"I just wanted to make sure you're really okay. You've always hid your pain, Draco, and I'm one of only two people you've ever truly let see you at your worst. One day in the summer of sixth year comes to mind."

She was right. After he'd been coerced and manipulated into taking the Dark Mark, Pansy had held him into the wee hours of the morning as he'd wailed through the pain. It was good to have a sister. She never judged and never made him feel like a lesser person; she was the closest friend he'd ever had. It was unspoken that the other person who'd served that role was his mother.

"I'm coping. I loved Astoria in my own way, but I was never in love with her. I miss her, but I think it's more the companionship that I find lacking. I guess there's just a lot of… disappointment all around."


"Now it's clear that I need to remarry, but my usual choices are no longer an option." Draco met his friend's eyes, confusion and worry quite evident in the steely grey.

"What else? Don't hold back on me, Draco. You know I'll get it out of you sooner or later," she cajoled.

He blew out a breath. "For all my life, I've been told, and if I'm honest, believed that anyone who wasn't a pureblood was a lesser person. Half-bloods were fine to have as friends, but considering one for my spouse was unacceptable. 'Mudblood' was a term that I learned before we ever got to Hogwarts, and I'd never even met a Muggle. Until I was in my mid-teens, I thought they'd kill me for just being a wizard. Now, I've learned that my family's entire existence, and my own well-being, are dependent on me being able to form a relationship with one of those people that I was conditioned to fear and revile. I can't say that I feel as I did about them ten years ago, but being tolerant and civil is a far cry from mating with someone." He stopped abruptly, rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes. "This is all just… surreal."

"So, what do you plan to do about it?"

Pansy, ever the practical one, Draco thought, at least when it comes to affairs of the heart. "I haven't much choice. I need to find a Muggle-born witch, or worst case scenario, a Muggle, who will be willing to marry me and have my child before my thirtieth birthday."

"What are the consequences to you if you don't do that?"

And she boils away the excess. "We forfeit the bulk of the Malfoy fortune to a distant cousin and his family. Any marriage I have would be childless. Apart from that, not much." His talent for sarcasm, at least, had not suffered.

"So what? Do either of those things really matter to you, Draco?"

Damned good question, Pans. He took a moment to deliberate over that, staring at the hands he'd clasped over his knees. "You know," he finally answered, "the money doesn't matter as much as I thought it would at one point in my life. I have enough of my own investments and inheritances from my mother's side of the family that I'll never go hungry. It's more the role we play in society that matters to me now. I've been groomed for this my whole life. If I lose it now, who am I? If you had asked me about fathering a child a few years ago, I'd have given you the same answer that I give you now, but for a different reason. I do want to be a father, but when Astoria and I were first married, it was all about fulfilling my destiny." He laughed without humor. "Kind of like the royal family, you know? Produce an heir and a spare. Today, I still want that child, and the responsibility is part of it, but it's more now. When you can't achieve such a basic, natural, human thing, it becomes consuming. I want to know what kind of man I can be, through what kind of father I will be. My parents shocked the hell out of me when they told me that they would support me in marrying a Muggle-born. I'm not foolish enough to think that there's no dynastic motivation behind that, but I know they understood that I'm hurting for the lack of that child, not just as a symbol, but as someone I want to groom and guide and nurture. They want me to be happy as much as they want me to carry on the Malfoy line. I want that, too."

When Draco looked up again, Pansy's cheeks were wet, and she'd reached over to hug him "Oh, Draco, you've really, finally grown up." She kissed his cheek, which was equally not-dry. "Some witch out there is going to be very lucky to have you, and you will be a fabulous daddy."

"I feel like I still have so much to learn. If I'm so freaked out about having to mate with a Mudbl… I mean a Muggle-born – see, I can't even remember that that's a nasty, taboo term! – how can I build a real life with that person? Is my prejudice so ingrained that I can't overcome it? How can I do this, Pans?"

"I think you ought to start by giving yourself a break, mate." The voice that answered Draco's semi-rhetorical questions was significantly deeper than he'd expected. "Hey arsehole, why are you hanging on to my wife?"

"I believe that, in fact, she is hanging on to me, arsehole," Draco retorted, releasing his hold on Pansy to greet Blaise with a quintessential guy-hug.

"Yeah, mate, because you're such a loser, she has to hold you together. Find your own damned wife to keep you in one piece, why don't you?" he teased.

"Had one of those; didn't work out the way I expected," Draco replied with a sardonic grin. He paused for a brief moment. "Actually, guys, that's why I asked you to come over tonight. I know both of you are better connected than I am to the social network. I need… information and guidance."

"No need to flatter. How can we help, Draco?"

Draco smirked at Pansy. "Since when is calling you an incorrigible gossip flattery?"

"Hey, for someone who wants our help, you're awfully snide, Mister."

"Okay, I give. It just wouldn't be any fun if we didn't take the mickey out, would it?" he reasoned. "I am serious, though. I don't really have many – fine, any – true Muggle-born friends. The dozen or so acquaintances that I have are all married. I need to find a witch who's available and might be convinced to give me a chance."

"Hmm. Not an easy task. Age range?" Pansy wondered.

"Old enough to be legal and young enough to be fertile."

Blaise arched an eyebrow. "Seriously, mate?"

"Well, maybe not literally. I'd say… five years younger or older."

"Any preference on whether they've been in a previous relationship?"

"Couldn't care less. As long as they're not currently married, it doesn't matter. I'm divorced, so I can't really expect them to be free of romantic history."

"What other preferences or requirements do you have?" Pansy asked.

"I'd prefer someone with some intelligence. I know beggars can't be choosers, but I'd hope that they have a decent personality and not… unpleasant to look at."

"Can we assume you'd rather not have a Millicent clone?" Blaise taunted.

That earned him a swift kick to the shin from his wife.


"I'll thank you to remember that Millie is a dear friend. She may not be the most beautiful girl in the world, but she's always been very kind to me."

"Regardless," Draco reminded them, "she's a pureblood. Automatically disqualified." He shook his head in disbelief. "I never thought I'd ever hear the day that phrase would come out of my mouth."

Draco's guests were quiet for a moment, considering the criteria he'd outlined.

Finally, Pansy spoke up, but it was clear from the expression on her face that she wasn't optimistic about Draco's reaction. "I'm sorry to say this, Draco, but there aren't a lot of available women who fit your specifications. There's one who comes to mind, but I don't think you're going to like the idea."

"What's she like?"

"Well, she's undoubtedly very smart; she finished first in her class. She's got a sharp wit and many friends, so that probably speaks well of her personality. She's also recently divorced. I'd say that she's pretty in a natural, earthy way. You should also know that she has two young children from her previous marriage."

"That could be an advantage, though. At least I'd know that she's able to have children. Who is she? Do I know her?"

"You most certainly do, although I don't think you've seen her in a while."

"What's her name?" Draco asked, now curious and intrigued.

"Her name is Hermione Granger."

The silence in the room was deafening.

Twelve weeks had passed since Hermione had kicked her bum of a husband out of the house. Harry and Ginny were encouraging her to emerge from her funk and quit moping over the man who'd treated her so abysmally. (Along the way, she'd learned that the creep had been playing around with the slaggy Miss Brown almost since the beginning of their marriage. Ron's appetites, it seemed, were not satisfied by just one witch, no matter how accommodating she'd been to his desires.) Thus, the invitation to hang out at the Swish & Flick, a new night club that had opened in Diagon Alley, for a few hours was offered and accepted. Hermione didn't think she was ready to beginning dating again, the slim pickings of available wizards notwithstanding, but going out for an evening with friends sounded like an enjoyable proposition. She'd arranged with Molly to have the kids stay overnight at the Burrow, and Ginny had arrived via the Floo, insisting that she was going to help her former sister-in-law "get all dolled up" for her first night out as a newly single woman.

Hermione had protested that there really wasn't any point; she couldn't imagine that there would be anyone there that she'd want to impress. Ginny had rejected that argument, saying that it was simply for her own self-esteem. That was a contention that was hard to refute; Merlin knew it had taken a bit of a hit with her husband's infidelity. She'd reluctantly allowed the red-head to select her clothes (soft, sensual silk in a rich burgundy v-neck sleeveless dress that skimmed her still-trim shape and flattered her coloring), corral her hair (with the shorter cut she'd recently had, it wasn't nearly as untamable as it had once been), and apply subtle makeup (to emphasis her pretty eyes and well-formed lips). They had giggled over the whole process much as they had done when the two were newly out of school and trying to impress their boyfriends, back when everything was bright and optimistic, when they'd been fresh from their victory over darkness. Once or twice, Hermione had drifted away into melancholy; Ginny didn't dwell nor comment.

They had met Harry, Neville and Luna, Seamus and Hannah, and Dean and Justin just before half eight. The rest of the crew was already two drinks in, and they cajoled the new arrivals into two shots of Firewhisky apiece to "keep things even," they'd said. Two rounds more ensured that everyone was feeling a little less pain and the laughter and conversation flowed a little more freely. When the small live band began to play covers of The Weird Sisters' greatest hits, Justin even tore away from his lover to allow Dean to dance with Hermione for a handful of upbeat tunes. It had felt like an age since they'd all had so much fun together.

In the opposite corner of the dark pub, another group of friends imbibed and chatted. Blaise and Pansy Zabini, Theo and Daphne Nott (who were also childless after nearly six years of marriage), and Draco Malfoy had arrived together just after nine. Draco had graciously inquired about his ex-wife's well being when his former sister-in-law arrived, but the two had, by silent assent, not spoken of her further; everyone knew that the circumstances were both difficult and beyond their control, further complicated by the similar position in which the Notts would soon find themselves, if something didn't change for the better. The group could not help but notice their former schoolmates having a grand old time just a few meters away, and Pansy was the first to make a comment.

"Looks like the old crew is still intact," she observed.

"Except for the King Weasel," Blaise noted, snidely.

Daphne was insatiably curious. "Anyone know what happened between him and Granger? I heard they split up."

All eyes fell on Mrs. Zabini; the group had every confidence that she would know, and she didn't disappoint. "He was screwing around with that Brown slag from school and Granger kicked him out. It had apparently been going on for quite some time. Or so the rumors say."

Theo, never one to hold back an opinion, offered his commentary. "He was fucking Brown when he had that at home? What an ass! And I'm talking about Granger, here. She grew up good."

Draco was ever so tempted to look, but just couldn't bring himself to give in to the urge. The last thing he needed was to be perceived as accepting the suggestion offered by Pansy and Blaise when they'd identified the new divorcee as Draco's best prospect within the wizarding UK.

Fate had other ideas, however, when a passing patron, far too tipsy to be walking unassisted, stumbled and spilled a full tankard of ale onto Draco's lap. The cold, wet, foamy substance soaking into his trousers forced him to stand abruptly and make a trip to the Men's loo for a little clean-up; it was a bit too much for a quick Scourgify to handle. That trip forced him to walk past the spot where Granger and her friends were enthusiastically dancing to a particularly lively number. He had no choice; she was right in his path. And fuck him if Theo Nott wasn't spot on in his assessment of said female's… assets.

But she's Granger, his brain argued. No way, no how, not in this lifetime. It was hard to admit, but the subtext was just as insistent: as much as he struggled with the idea of her, she would never have him. In the loo, he'd had to use two applications of a siphoning spell, another to dry the damp fabric, and yet another to remove the offensive odor from his good trousers. As he made his way back to their table, he noted that the dance floor had become more crowded and he lost sight of the group his friends had been curiously watching.

Fate intervened once more when he plowed directly into the very person he'd been hoping to… avoid. He tried to mumble an apology without making eye contact. He tried to move away from the crowd of bouncing, weaving, swaying bodies. The universe had other ideas; the song was one of the most popular dance tunes in recent memory, and it seemed that everyone in the pub had decided to surge to the dance floor en masse. He was trapped, face to face, mere inches from Hermione Granger. He resolved to not be rude or nasty; that would damage his overall reputation, and there was clearly no need to renew any rivalry or animosity they might have had as children. It would serve no purpose.

For once in his life, at least when it came to Gryffindor-Slytherin relations, Draco Malfoy took the high road and began to move, rolling his hips as he picked up the beat. "Hi, Granger," he drawled into her ear over the way-too-loud music, "Fancy meeting you here."

She gasped in surprise at the sight of the man who'd been her tormentor for so many of her formative years. Recognizing that neither of them had any possibility of moving out of their position, and being just tipsy enough to not really care, Hermione shrugged and continued to dance, returning his greeting. "Malfoy, it's been a long time."

The music was way too loud for there to be any further conversation, but their involuntary dance had not gone unnoticed. Two Zabinis whispered to each other, and a pair of Potters arched eyebrows in surprise. Neither couple could say that they knew quite what to make of the unexpected development, but both would swear that they had a felt a tectonic shift. That could be the only rational explanation for the stunning sight of these two one-time antagonists moving in tandem before their eyes. In a sure sign of the approaching apocalypse, when the music changed and the crowd thinned, Draco was seen speaking to Hermione without sneering, lifting her hand to his lips, and dropping a swift, gentlemanly kiss on her knuckles. She was witnessed responding with a laugh, a smile, and a disbelieving head shake.

Both returned to their friends to complete the evening's fun. Neither would have predicted what came next.

In the comfort of Draco's large, open sitting room, four Slytherins peppered a fifth with questions.

"I thought you said Merlin would walk the earth again before you considered Granger," Blaise taunted, his smirk looking significantly more dastardly than one Draco could ever produce.

"Who said I 'considered' her for anything?" Draco pushed back.

"You asked her to dance!" Pansy observed.

"No, I didn't." His reply was firm and definitive.

"Oh, so she asked you to dance," Daphne concluded.

"No, she didn't." There was no equivocation in his response.

"Then how in Salazar's name did you two end up practically screwing on the dance floor?" Theo accused.

"We weren't even touching, and we were both fully clothed, so how could we be screwing?" Draco retorted, beginning to get a little annoyed with the Inquisition Squad. He could easily clear up the whole thing, but it was, he decided, much more amusing to tease them with nothing than to give in to his momentary irritation.

"Hips generally only move like that when you're going deep, mate," Blaise teased, "or when you want to be going deep."

"Whose hips?" He resolved to drag this out as long as possible, just because he could.

"Yours and hers. There was enough hip movement for somebody to get off at least a couple of times." Blaise earned a punch to the arm from his wife for that smart remark.

"Must you really be that crude? Tease all you like, but have a little respect for the ladies."

"Where? Who?" Blaise made a big show of searching the room.

That earned him a stinging hex. He hadn't even seen the wand under his wife's folded arms.

Draco watched, grateful for a few seconds' reprieve while his best friend and her husband sparred. It was not to last long, however.

"So, you claim that neither of you asked the other to dance. How, then, did you end up hip to hip with her?" Theo questioned, sounding every bit the aggressive Solicitor that he was in his day job.

Draco shrugged, maintaining his disinterested mien. "Just happened, I guess."

"How does something like that just happen? You accidentally start to dirty dance at the same time she also accidentally starts to dirty dance, while you both just happen to be facing each other with less than three inches of space between you?" Incredulity, thy name is Daphne Nott.

The blond wizard shrugged once more. "Close enough." He coughed to hide a laugh that he couldn't prevent from escaping for every Galleon at Gringotts. He became Pansy's next victim. "Ow!"

"The next one will be worse. Spill it, Malfoy. How did you end up dancing with Granger?" Pansy was getting annoyed now. It generally wasn't a good idea to allow her to progress past that into full-blown angry. Draco decided it was time to end the group's misery and speculation.

"I wasn't lying. Neither of us requested a dance of the other. It actually was sort of accidental, but I decided to not make an issue of it." He paused as he saw more bewilderment than comprehension. "Okay, what really happened was that when I was coming out of the loo after cleaning up the ale on my trousers, I literally bumped into her. Totally unintentional and accidental, I swear." He placed a hand over his heart, as if to demonstrate his sincerity. "The band was playing that dance cut and everybody seemed to come to the floor at once. I couldn't move; I had absolutely nowhere to go. So I figured, why not? I said hello to her, she said hello to me, we danced, and I thanked her. End of story."

Pansy and Blaise exchanged the same glance that Theo and Daphne did. "So when are you going to see her again?" Since all four had spoken in unison, Draco only had to answer once.

"Uh, never?"

"You didn't make a date with her?" Pansy shrieked her disappointment.

"Of course not. Why the hell would I?"

"Mate, if you two can move together like that when you're both vertical and three-quarters to pissed, the sex would be outrageous."

"Blaise, I'm not looking to get laid. I'm trying to find a wife."

"Exactly my point! Can you imagine tapping that every night for the next forty years? Why wouldn't you want a wife who sets your blood to boiling?" Blaise sounded just a little too enthusiastic on the point for his wife's liking, and it earned him another stinging hex, after which he summoned her wand, tucking it beside his own in the deep wand pocket in his trousers.

"Look, I'll freely acknowledge that she's not bad looking, but with our history, there's just no way it would ever work out. I'm going to need to expand my search beyond Great Britain," he concluded.

"No!" Pansy said firmly.

"Why do you care, Pansy?"

"Because I love you and I actually think you and she could be compatible if you could get past your childhood crap."

"What makes you say that?" Draco was curious about what Pansy seemed to see that he clearly didn't.

She starting ticking off her fingers as she spoke. "First, you're both ridiculously smart. Neither of you would be bored with the other. Second, it's pretty clear that you have at least a little physical attraction to her, and it didn't seem like she thought you were heinous, either. Third, she's got a great reputation in the wizarding world. For Morgana's sake, she's a heroine with an Order of Merlin, First Class. It really doesn't get much better than that. Fourth, we know she's generally a well-liked person, even if she wasn't terribly nice to us. I can excuse and understand that, because we weren't terribly nice to her. Fifth, she's not married or in a relationship. Sixth, I'd bet every gem I own that she wouldn't care at all about your money, and last but not least, we know she can have children." She stared at him pointedly. "Think about it, Draco. You could do one hell of a lot worse."

Draco was silent as Pansy corralled her husband and the Notts and activated the Floo. The flat's remaining occupant absently waved goodbye to a completely empty room.

Harry offered to escort Hermione home after their outing to the Swish & Flick; she was marginally too pissed to safely Apparate without splinching, and Ginny had been concerned she wouldn't articulate her address clearly enough for the Floo network to interpret and deliver her to the proper place. Thus, the ever-chivalrous Mister Potter had wrapped her in a brotherly hug and with desire, determination, and destination in mind, deposited both of them safely in Hermione's foyer. The wards easily recognized him as a family member and allowed him to release her security measures, ensuring perfect floor-to-door delivery. He made sure she had comfortably settled on her sofa, and went to her bathroom to retrieve a sobering potion. While she wasn't thoroughly drunk by any stretch of the imagination, she was just tipsy enough that he preferred not to leave her in that condition alone.

"Drink up, my dearest sister, because I can't leave until you do," he teased.

The instant the potion hit her bloodstream, she was as lucid and sober as Professor McGonagall during N.E.W.T.s.

"What's the matter? Is your wife eagerly awaiting your return?" Hermione teased right back.

"You bet your sweet, uh, thing. So go get changed and I'll make you a cup of tea."

"I thought Ginny was waiting?"

"Yeah, well, we all have to make sacrifices now and again. Besides, I want to talk to you about something. Tea is required."

When she opened her mouth to speak, he shushed her immediately. "Not until you've changed and the tea is ready. Get."

"And you call me a bossy-pants," she grumbled. She did, however, comply with his command.

Ten minutes later, Hermione entered her kitchen wearing a comfortable set of lightweight turquoise fleece running pants and a matching zip jacket. She pulled out a chair and joined Harry at the table while he poured her tea, adding the one teaspoon of sugar and splash of milk that she preferred. "You take such good care of me, Harry," she said in thanks, stretching in her seat to kiss him on the cheek.

He shrugged. "No more than you've ever done for me, love."

"So, what is it that you wanted to talk about that couldn't wait until morning?"

He ran fingers through his perpetually messy mop of black hair. "It's more that I wanted this conversation to be private than that it couldn't wait."

"From Ginny?"

"Well, she is Ron's sister, and while right now I'm certain she'd rather toss him back than keep him, she'll always have some loyalty, even when he's been the biggest arse on the planet."

"What does that have to do with me?"

"It's just that I want you to understand that, even though Ron is my brother-in-law and will always be a friend, I will do everything in my power to make sure that you are happy and taken care of. That includes putting your needs ahead of Ron's. If I had known…"

"I know, Harry, and I appreciate the thought. I am a big girl, though. Even if I got hurt, I'm still strong and I can still take pretty good care of myself. It's nice to know that you've got my back, and I won't ever refuse your caring, but there will be things I need to do and decisions I need to make."

"Even decisions about having another relationship sometime in the future?"

"Well, of course that's a possibility some day. Can't imagine it would be soon, though." She shrugged and sipped her tea. "Why do you ask?"

"I saw you with Malfoy tonight. On the dance floor."

She laughed heartily. "That was pretty funny, actually. There he was, all of a sudden, bumping in to me. I can't remember the last time I saw him; it had to be at least three or four years ago."

"You seemed to be… enjoying each other's company."

"Oh, Harry," she scoffed, "it was just a dance. He said hello to me, I said hello to him, we danced, and he said thank you. End of story."

"Did you know he's also recently divorced?"

"I think I heard something about that, yeah. A marriage contract issue, if I'm not mistaken."

"He's probably out looking for someone to, uh, warm his cold nights."

"Geez, Harry. We're not twelve any more. Besides, if Malfoy wants to get laid, I'm sure he can find an easier target than me. And I'm quite certain I would be on the bottom of that list, no matter how you look at it. Not that there's anything wrong with wanting a little… warming." She roared with laughter at Harry's scandalized expression. Just to tweak him a little more, she added, "There's no doubt that he knows how to move his hips, though. The man's got rhythm."

"Merlin, please don't tell me you're attracted to Malfoy!"

"Not in any appreciable way. I mean, he's not a bad looking man. Even in school, if he hadn't been such a git, I had to admit that he was easy on the eyes. It's not like there's any chance of the two of us even becoming friends, so I wouldn't worry your pretty little head about it, Harry."

"How much did you have to drink tonight, Hermione? Because I think you need a little more sobering potion. You only talk like this when you're half-pissed."

"I didn't have any more to drink than you did. I'm completely sober. See?" She extended her hand to show its perfect steadiness as proof. "I'm just feeling… delightfully mellow and relaxed."

"By the way, I outweigh you by eighty pounds, at least. Drink for drink, that'll make a big difference."

"Harry, I don't know what you're worried about. The likelihood of me even running into Malfoy again is just about nil. I'm not one of his little pureblood princesses and we don't run in the same social circles. It was one dance. A nice dance, mind you, but that's all it was. I probably won't see him for another three years, so chill!"

"I'm worried because I saw the way he looked at you."

"And how was that?"

"Like he wanted to eat you up, bite by bite."

"Oooh, Harry, now you're going to make me blush!" she teased again, laughing at the absurdity of his paranoia.

"Hermione, just be careful with him. He's not nearly the complete arse he was in school, but he's not exactly…progressive, either. I know what men want, and it's not necessarily good for women."

"Harry! Will you listen to yourself? Who's being bigoted and narrow-minded now? I am a grown woman and I will make my own decisions, including whether, when and who I decide to have sex with. I am twenty-eight, not sixteen. So, as much as I love you, brother dear, butt out."

Harry looked a little stunned and thought for a moment about what Hermione had said. She wasn't wrong. He had been a bit judgmental about Malfoy's motives, and it had only been the one dance, even if it had been… quite the display. "You're right; I'm sorry. It's certainly possible that Malfoy had no ulterior motive and it was just a, uh, nice dance between two people making peace. Who knows? Maybe his divorce has changed the way he thinks about things. I shouldn't have been so hasty."

Hermione stood up from the kitchen table, prompting Harry to do the same. He was being dismissed. She dragged him into as much of a crushing hug as someone could deliver with an eighty-pound weight deficit, and whispered in his ear. "I know you care, Harry, and that you're trying to look out for me after everything that Ron did. I appreciate that more than you know. But I do need to live a little. I'll always be the same responsible Hermione, always trying to be the perfect mum and the most productive employee, but I am a woman, too. Someday, if I find the right person, and if he's good for me and to me, I'll want to let him in to my life. You're going to need to be there to support my decisions, but you can't make them for me. I love you, Harry. Now go home to your wife. She hates it when you wake her up to have sex, so if you want to get lucky tonight, get a move on." She pushed him away toward the Floo with a grin.

"Did she seriously tell you that?" Harry asked, incredulously.

Hermione arched an eyebrow. "She's my sister. What do you think?"

Harry shook his head, dumbfounded. There really was no effective response. "Goodnight, Hermione. I love you, too." He kissed her cheek, tossed the Floo powder into the flames, and called out his address, "Potter Place." In a flare of green, he was gone, and Hermione was now alone with her thoughts. After everything that Harry had said to her, she couldn't help but wonder, why had Draco Malfoy danced with her? And why had he called her "Hermione" when he whispered his goodbye?

Draco sat in that chair for nearly an hour after his friends departed. Pansy's list of Granger's "qualifications" had been a surprising catalogue of factors that were nearly identical to the attributes he'd listed when describing the woman who would be his next wife, and if the Fates were kind, the mother of his children. With all the animosity and bad blood (no pun intended) between them, he couldn't see how they could make it work, regardless of her near-perfect personal resume. Finally determining that there was nothing to do about it at three o'clock in the morning, he decided to drag his tired body to bed; morning – or early afternoon – would be time enough to have the two conversations that he thought might help him make a decision about whether to consider Ms. Hermione Granger as a viable option.

He used the loo and brushed his teeth, remembering that there were few things as unpleasant as the taste in one's mouth after a night of drinking, then stripped off his clothes, crawling into bed naked, as was his usual habit. Draco was sure he'd quickly succumb to his mental and physical exhaustion. While he did fall asleep quickly, his slumber was fitful and restless, filled with dreams. First, and most vividly, he dreamed of dancing the might away with a dark-haired beauty, then a hazy, ill-defined conversation that escalated into an argument which ended in a passionate claiming of lips and tongues. There seemed to be a passage of time in his dream world, and he saw himself holding a tiny, dark haired baby, its pink lips puckering against the bottle he offered. Another passage of time drew him to a scene where a small tot ran through a garden, giggling while chasing butterflies, as he stood with his arms wrapped around a woman, her belly swollen and round. She leaned back against his chest and they both watched the toddler, laughter bubbling when the butterfly chase was suddenly abandoned in favor of the pursuit of a frog. He couldn't see her face; that made him sad. Draco tossed and turned, sheets becoming tangled in his legs. He awoke abruptly and knew there would be no further rest. When he peered at the cuckoo clock on the wall, he calculated that he'd only slept – if his restlessness could qualify – barely five hours.

Kicking his legs free of the tangles, he pushed himself out of bed and into the bathroom. The heaviness between his legs reminded him that he had a medical directive to deal with; it had been four days since he'd ejaculated last. He sighed. At least that was an acceptable way to begin a day. He set the taps in the shower to the appropriate temperature and stepped in under the spray, creating lather with the soap bar in his hands. He closed his eyes, willing himself not to think of the dark-haired beauty who had invaded his dreams and failing miserably. A few seconds and a few strokes had his penis fully erect and his imagination conjuring the witch he pinned against the shower's walls, thrusting into her warmth and wetness, rolling his hips in exactly the same way he'd done the night before, on the dance floor. The image paired with his firm, insistent stroking was more than enough; his orgasm was powerful and long, causing his knees to buckle and ripping a deep groan from his chest. "Shit," he said to the empty room. "Pansy, I'm going to have to kill you for planting that idea in my head," he muttered. He finished his shower in short order, drying off, shaving, and brushing his teeth in record time.

There was no way that Pansy would be awake yet; she regularly slept till ten no matter what the evening's activities and schedule. He would meet with his other confidant first. Draco selected a pair of black trousers and a white oxford shirt and dressed quickly. If he hurried, he'd be able to have breakfast at his destination rather than alone.

When Draco arrived five minutes later at Malfoy Manor, his mother was descending the sweeping staircase, looking every bit the wealthy aristocrat she had been raised to be. Her only concession to surprise at seeing her son so early in the morning was a barely-perceptible blink. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning, my sweet?"

"I've been thinking, Mother, and I need some advice. I hoped you could spare some time for me this morning."

"Of course, dear. I was just going to have a little breakfast. Won't you join me?" she invited.

"That would be nice," he replied. "Uh, is Father home?"

"No, he left about thirty minutes ago. He had some business to tend to at Gringotts. I don't expect him home for at least an hour."

"Good," he answered, and then tried to backtrack as soon as he realized how bad that had sounded. "I mean, uh, it's good that business is good, uh…"

Narcissa laughed. "It's fine, Draco. You're allowed to want to have some private time with your mother. Silly thing," she added, tapping her finger on the tip of his nose, as she'd done so often when he was a child. "So, what's on your mind?" she asked, getting right to the heart of the matter. The breakfast she'd requested, poached eggs on rye toast with a rasher of bacon, appeared at her plate.

Draco reached for an almond scone while a house-elf poured tea for both of them. "I went out last evening with Pansy, Blaise, Theo, and Daphne, and we encountered some old schoolmates at the pub. One of them was someone that Pansy keeps prodding me to consider as a solution to our little… situation."

"Who is that, dear?"

"Before I tell you that, I want to share with you what Pansy said about her 'qualifications' for the role."

"Certainly, if you feel that's helpful." She waved a hand, encouraging him to speak.

"We were year-mates at Hogwarts, so obviously you know that means she's a Muggle-born. She, like me, is recently divorced, and though there was some scandal involved, the fault was not hers. She is… attractive and well-liked, and very well-respected. She has two children by her ex-husband, who was also a pureblood, so I know she's capable of conceiving. She is extraordinarily powerful, and she was the only person who beat me in O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s." Draco stopped speaking when he saw his mother's eyes go wide and her hand lift to stall his monologue.

"Has this young woman ever… visited this house?" she asked, a slight tremor to her voice.


"It's Miss Granger, isn't it?"

"On the nose, Mother."

She sat back in her chair, a rare occurrence which displayed her unease. "She sounds perfect in nearly every way but one."

"Yeah. She hates me."

"Draco, I'm sure it would be more accurate to say 'hated.' Your school days were a very long time ago. Maybe she'll have revised her opinion of you," she offered with a hint of optimism.

"For what reason, Mother? Until last night, I hadn't seen her in at least four years. She'd have no reason to temper her poor opinion of me."

"What happened when you saw her last night?"

"I bumped into her, literally, on the way back from the loo. We greeted each other politely, and we had one dance. I thanked her, then rejoined my friends."

"Was she… amenable?"

"She was very nice. She was also a bit tipsy, and the floor was so packed with people that she really had no choice but to dance with me."

"How did you depart?"

"The way a gentleman always does. I told her I enjoyed the dance, I complimented her ability, I kissed her knuckles, and I said goodbye."

"Was the dance a waltz, a foxtrot, maybe a tango?" Narcissa asked, seeking to understand the young lady's training. She was flabbergasted at Draco's reaction.

He roared with laughter. "Oh, Mother, not even close! We were at the Swish & Flick, not at a dance hall or ball. It was closer to a… rumba."

"Even better! A Latin dance of love and seduction. You say she responded well?"

"Again, Mother, as well as could be expected under the circumstances."

"Hmmm. And Pansy has been encouraging you to pursue Miss Granger? She feels that the two of you would be compatible?"

"So she says."

"Fine. I will send her an owl later today. She and I will have a little chat and we will craft a strategy to approach the lady. Now, what else can you tell me about her?"

Forty minutes later, Narcissa had a better understanding both of who Hermione Granger was as a person, and why Draco might be interested in her. She could see why Pansy had been so vehement about the suitability of their former classmate. She postulated that, if the young woman had been a pureblood instead of a Muggle-born, Draco probably would have been quite taken with her years earlier, though she kept that thought to herself.

Ninety minutes after Draco left, she received a reply from Pansy and was now awaiting her arrival, scheduled for one o'clock. They'd have a light lunch in the garden while figuring out Draco's future.

At five minutes 'til one, Pansy arrived in the main Floo off the grand foyer. She was greeted by Narcissa Malfoy with all the affection of a long-lost relative. The two walked arm-in-arm through the halls and out a set of French doors, where a white-painted wrought iron table was draped with a floral linen tablecloth and set with fine white china edged in platinum. Baccarat crystal goblets were filled with freshly made lemonade. A cold chicken salad was held in stasis on a sterling silver platter, covered by a domed sterling silver lid. A basket of freshly-baked breads and rolls sat to the right of the platter.

The two witches nibbled on their lunch and focused the bulk of their attention and energy on the topic at hand: how to best ensure that Draco could successfully woo Hermione Granger.

"As I see it, Pansy, there really are two options," Narcissa concluded, "and they both have inherent risks."

"Option One would be the lesser, I think. With both of them being newly single, there's something relatively normal about Draco seeking companionship with her. If they can find their way to being friends, then he could start to woo her more seriously," Pansy opined.

"I agree there's less immediate concern with that approach, but my concern is the time factor. It's been a little over four months since Draco and Astoria divorced. He has two years and eight months to get married and have his new bride conceive. There's no guarantee that they'd have an easy time getting pregnant, regardless of the Healer's opinion. I'm concerned that he'll run out of time."

"I agree that's a concern, and although I really don't know Granger beyond reputation, I'm nearly certain that Option Two would be shot down like a Hippogriff gone wild," Pansy stated. "Of course, the other risk with Option One is that, if she found out he had a hidden agenda, it would end things rather quickly."

"I've always heard that she's such a 'bleeding heart.' You don't think she could be persuaded to 'help' Draco with his problem?"

"Oh please, Narcissa. What would be her motivation? They barely know each other, and her opinion of Draco is based on the utter prat he was to her for so long. Can't say I blame her, to be fair. Draco's thinking may have shifted since the war, but he's never been especially close to any Muggle-borns. She certainly hasn't had any opportunity to see that he can be civil and have good working relationships with them. And if we're being honest here, just a few weeks ago, he was fairly horrified by the idea of having to mate with one."

"Well, she wouldn't ever have to know that part, would she?" Narcissa noted.

"True, as long as Draco doesn't flinch whenever he has to touch her." Pansy took a sip of her lemonade, trying to hide her slightly evil grin. "Although, he didn't seem to have any difficulty with some very close-quarters dancing last night."

"Right, so he admitted to me as well. And that's why I think there's more hope for Option One; he has at least some degree of physical attraction to her, and she to him, if he's been honest in his description of their encounter."

The younger witch was silent for a long moment, her brow furrowed in deep thought. As a new possibility took hold, her eyes lit up along with her broad grin. "Narcissa, I think I've got an idea," Pansy beamed. "We have a place to start!"

"And you think it's something Draco will accept?" his mother wondered.

"Well, I'm quite hopeful he will, but I'm not going to leave that up to him. I have a couple of Floo calls to make to put this in motion, but Draco and Granger aren't going to know what hit them." The two witches laughed heartily, spending another half-hour together before the younger left to begin her behind-the-scenes manipulation. They had agreed that the plan was ambitious, and had several possible pitfalls, (particularly as it required cooperation from someone with whom Pansy had had a difficult prior acquaintance) but it seemed the most likely path to success, unlikely alliances aside.

Two hours, three Floo calls, and one headache later, the basic plan was in place. Now, Pansy had only to wait for everyone to keep their promises and do their parts.

Draco had been just a little surprised when his mother had sent an owl message to him after they'd spent a good part of the morning together, until he read its contents. While it was clear that the two witches to whom he was closest were now in cahoots, the last thing he'd expected was an etiquette lesson.

He read her note with interest and amusement:

Dearest Draco,

Since it seems that you've determined that Miss Granger may be a potential candidate for your affections, it would be appropriate for you to follow some of the old traditions in your interactions. I recognize that your meeting last evening was not planned, but you should treat it as though it were. Send her a Thank You note for the time you spent together, and possibly a token of a floral bouquet.

It seems that dear Pansy does support your pursuit of Miss Granger and is willing to assist us in this endeavor. I'm certain that she will contact you very soon with further details. I suggest that you take advantage of her aid.

Please do drop by for brunch on Sunday. We'll serve at 11:00am.

With love,


Then again, Mother, he thought, what makes you think that Granger will respond to the old ways? His upbringing was rather ingrained, though, and the suggestion his mother had made was something he certainly would have done with any witch he was dating; he'd without doubt done the same for Astoria. Realizing that the gesture was unlikely to do any damage, Draco penned a note and ordered an arrangement of campanula, dark pink roses, and olive greens to be sent to the lady's home. If for nothing more than pure entertainment value, he was deadly curious about her response. For all his amusement, Draco had been thinking about his earlier conversation with his mother for a solid two hours. It had prompted some… radical thinking. He resolved to allow it to just percolate for a bit.

Shortly after his "thank you" tokens were sent, Draco's Floo chimed. He was unsurprised to see the face of Pansy Zabini in the flames.

"Move out of the way, love, I'm coming through," she commanded.

He arched an eyebrow at the woman's temerity, but stepped aside to allow her entry nonetheless. "Won't you come in for a visit, Pans?" he drawled sarcastically.

"Hush up, you. We have work to do," she told him with two sharp pokes to his chest.

"Ow! Trim your claws, woman." Draco rubbed at the spot just below his clavicle that she'd attacked.

She glared at him, an expression that never failed to instill at least a little dread in any wizard to whom it was targeted. "If you want my help, Draco Malfoy, you'll hold your tongue and do as I say."

Feeling extraordinarily juvenile at that moment, the blond actually stuck out his tongue and grasped it between his thumb and forefinger, earning him another poke.



"Since we both clearly know who and what we're dealing with, shall we dispense with the introductions and do something productive?" Pansy imperiously offered, though the smirk she'd been desperately trying to hide chose just that moment to break through.

The two shared a laugh and a hug, and Draco ushered her to a seat in the kitchen, where he prepared tea.

"I heard from Mother. She tells me that you've concocted some grand scheme to get me into Granger's good graces."

"Well, sort of. We've formulated a plan that will allow you the opportunity to earn her interest. As you well know, there are no guarantees. I have, however, been able to secure an… ally of sorts in the opposite's camp. Your job will be to show up where and when I tell you and to be your not-so-usual charming self."

"And who is this ally?" Draco queried.

"For now, that's none of your beeswax. I simply ensured that an appropriate person understood that you have developed an interest in mending fences and, specifically, apologizing to some people you may have… wronged in the past. Just be at the Swish & Flick again tonight at quarter after nine, and be prepared to grovel and/or dance, whichever the situation seems to warrant," she instructed.

"Am I to assume that a certain brunette witch will also be there?"

"That's the thinking and intention."

Draco sighed. "I really hate manipulation, just so you know."

"This is not manipulation; it's orchestration. There's a big difference," she reasoned. "And you're the king of manipulation, so you have no room to talk, Mister Slytherin."

"To be more precise, then, I hate to be the target of manipulation," he clarified.

"I know; I know: what's good for the goose, blah, blah, blah…" she teased. "That's rich."

"Fine. So I need to be there tonight bearing a posy of viscaria, ferns and blue periwinkle?" he asked with a chuckle.

"Couldn't hurt."

"I already sent flowers today."

"Really? What did you send?" Pansy asked eagerly.

"A bouquet of campanula, dark pink roses, and olive greens."

"Hmm. Gratitude and peace. Not a bad start," she complimented. "Do you think she'll have a clue?"

"Are you kidding? This is Granger we're talking about. She'll have every last blossom tested, analyzed and thoroughly vetted. Besides, I sent a note with them. Her homework has been done for her this time, but she'll get the message."

"Draco, I didn't give you enough credit. There may be a romantic bone in your body after all."

"Well, that, and a mother who drilled it into me for more years than I care to remember, thank you very much," he admitted.

"Well, whoever had the idea, it can't hurt to pave the way."

"I'm happy to pave the way, but the question is, to where?"

"That really depends on you. How committed are you to the idea?"

"That's the real question, isn't it? Since last night, and after talking with Mother this morning, I've been doing a lot of thinking."

"That's dangerous," she muttered under her breath.

"Hey! I'm being serious here. What if we admitted to ourselves that they really were right all along? That we were the ones who were completely twisted in our thinking? I've been adding up every piece of evidence I can think of since we got back last night, and as much as the expediency of the situation pushes me toward Granger, or someone like her…"

"Even I can admit there's really no one like Granger…"

"Fine, but theoretically… we purebloods have literally screwed ourselves into a corner. There's nowhere for us to go. We have failed ourselves and our society miserably with our short-sighted behavior. I'll freely admit that I played my own part in that, but why should we perpetuate our failures just for the sake of tradition that has ultimately contributed to the veritable collapse of life as we lived it for more than a millennium?"

"Are you feeling all right, Draco? Where's my self-centered snob of a best friend?"

"He's spent the last twelve hours examining his conscience and his future, and found the former lacking and the latter ready for a substantial re-write."

"So, what do we do? Throw ourselves on their mercy, beg forgiveness, and hope for a share of the crumbs? Or do we go the route of that orchestration that allows us to achieve our aims while keeping our own counsel?"

"That's the point, Pans. I think if we want to achieve our aims, not just as individuals but as a culture, we don't have much choice but to honestly re-think our preconceived ideas and how badly they've served us. We can still be true to our inherent ambitious nature; in fact, if we approach this right, we could be leaders at the forefront of a new resurgence of the wizarding world. But the path we take must now be walked with people who are not exactly like us. We may have to both find and create common ground that we've always thought couldn't exist."

"When did you become so philosophical and idealistic, Draco?"

"Since I started considering the very real consequences of my own mortality and legacy. I've gone along with practices that weren't entirely square with my observations to keep peace in my family for far too long. I need to make my own mark and be my own man. This," he bared his left forearm, "is not what I want to be remembered for," he added solemnly.

Pansy stared at him for a long moment, apparently weighing what he'd said against what she saw in his eyes. "Sometimes, even after all the years I've known you, you surprise the hell out of me, Draco Malfoy. I'll think about what you said and… ensure that whatever I do will be in keeping with both the spirit and the goals you've talked about. I have to go, though, so you're on your own for now. We'll see you at the Swish & Flick just after nine." She pressed a kiss to his cheek, poked him once more, just because she could, and activated the Floo to take her home.

Draco was left shaking his head and absently rubbing the sore spot on his chest. This, he thought, was going to be an interesting evening.

The delivery of a note and flowers at Hermione's house was unexpected. She was puttering around, doing chores in advance of her children returning in the next hour with their grandmother, when an enormous eagle owl carrying the substantial burden had appeared at her kitchen window.

The blossoms were magnificent, and she inhaled the fragrant aroma deeply before placing the arrangement into a large but simple crystal vase. The card had been what had really floored her. It read:

Dear Hermione,

Please accept my gift of flowers as thanks for the dance we shared last night. It was a lovely surprise to see you again after so many years. I hope that we may have the opportunity to meet again soon, on peaceful and happy terms.

My best regards,

Draco A. Malfoy

Knock me down with a feather, she thought. She concluded that he was at least attempting to be courteous and civil. That he'd even remembered their dance was a surprise; the acknowledgement was positively stunning. She resolved to chalk this up to an old rivalry being laid to rest and thought nothing more of it until her erstwhile sister-in-law appeared via Apparition in her foyer.

"Hermione! Where are you?" Ginny called out as she made her way into the kitchen.

"Hey Ginny. What brings you here? Did Molly send the kids back with you?" she wondered, looking around the woman to see where her children were hiding.

"No, and Mum's going to keep them again tonight," she announced.

"Oh, really? And why is that?" Hermione asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Because we're going out again. We had such fun last night that Harry wants to get everyone together again this evening. He says it was good for you, and I can't disagree. So, your darling children will spend one more night being spoiled by their grandparents."

Hermione eyed the younger witch suspiciously. "What are you up to?"

"Me? Nothing!" she swore with her hand raised in promise. "Hey, who sent the flowers? Very nice!"

"I'll give you two guesses, and if the first one isn't 'Draco Malfoy,' you can try again."

"No, he didn't," she breathed.

"Yes, he did. And he wrote a very sweet note. Seems like the pureblood scion is trying to make peace."

"So, did he ask you out?"

"No, and I sincerely doubt he will. I think he's just trying to apologize for being an arse to us, in his own way."

"Well, there may be some truth to that, but the flowers and note weren't sent to all of us, now, were they?"

"And I would argue that he was probably nastier to me than nearly anyone. Maybe he just going to work his way down the list, from worst to least," Hermione offered by way of explanation.

"Hmm. Maybe. But he's also single now, and you must admit that, regardless of how much of an arse he is, that arse is mighty fine-looking. Couldn't hurt to have a little fun." Ginny laughed and wiggled her eyebrows.

"Yes, he is a reasonably attractive man, but I'm not interested in playing 'hide the salami' with Draco Malfoy. You know that's all he's probably after."

"Oh, I don't know about that. Scuttlebutt has it that the reason he left Astoria was that he was looking for 'more' in a marriage. What that is, I couldn't tell you. But it seems that the ferret is getting deeper in his old age."

"They were an arranged match, weren't they?"

"Yes, as were several others as we were coming out of the war. There are a fair handful of them that have divorced in the last year or two, so I wonder if they're thinking about the wisdom of not marrying for love. I'm sure you've also heard about the problems many of them have had in delivering healthy children."

"That's been an on-going discussion for more than a decade. The high incidence of squibs, birth defects, and still-births in purebloods was one of the arguments the Ministry made for mixing with Half-bloods and Muggle-borns before the war. It seemed that the warnings were mostly ignored."

"Yes, to their detriment."

"Did Malfoy and his wife have any children?" Hermione wondered.

"Not that I'm aware of," Ginny confirmed.

"Hmm. I wonder if that's what caused their break-up. I'd bet that if he doesn't have kids, his parents would disown him," Hermione postulated.

"Knowing them, it would need to be pureblooded children, though. Where is Draco going to find another unmarried pureblood witch? There aren't any that I know of within a hundred kilometers."

Hermione was suddenly feeling very uneasy. "You don't think… Nah. Never mind. That's just way beyond crazy."


"Is Malfoy on the prowl for wife-cum-baby-maker number two?"

Ginny laughed aloud. "I'm sure that's possible, but seriously, Hermione, you'd be the very last one on his list."

"Exactly. So why is he sending me notes and flowers?"

She shrugged. "Couldn't say. Maybe you'll just have to ask him the next time you see him."

"With any luck, it'll be another four years before that happens."

"Why? I thought you had a nice time with him last night."

"Where did you get that idea? We had one dance." Hermione looked at her as though she'd grown another nose.

"Just noticed that you two danced rather well together, and you were both laughing and smiling."

"So? What was I supposed to do, hex him on the dance floor? Besides, we had both been drinking, thus our mutual state of relaxation and acceptance."

Ginny guffawed. "Do you listen to yourself sometimes, Hermione? Really? So if we were to keep both of you tipsy and doing the vertical mamba, you might have a cordial relationship. Is that your conclusion?" She shook her head in disbelief.

"Well, I'm sure there are other circumstances under which we could be civil to each other. I just can't think of what they might be, at the moment."

"You, my dear sister, are priceless." She finished the tea that Hermione had poured for her twenty minutes earlier. "So, come to our house through the Floo around eight, and we'll all go over together." She looked at the cuckoo clock over the sink. "I've got errands to run, so I'm going to scoot out of here. I'll see you in a few hours. Dress like you mean it," she warned as she stepped into the Floo.

"Mean what?" Hermione called to the already-departed witch.

As crowded as the Swish & Flick had been on Friday night, it was significantly more packed on any given Saturday. This was both the reason and the methodology for phase one of Pansy and Narcissa's plan to aid Draco in getting access to the witch they thought might be "the one" for his next steps in life. If nothing else, they'd agreed, developing cordial relationships with the former Gryffindor group would allow Draco better chances of meeting other witches, should his pursuit of Hermione Granger crash and burn like a broom afire. The war heroes were notoriously well-connected in progressive circles, which included Half-bloods, those who had once been known as Blood Traitors, and most importantly, Muggle-borns.

As agreed, the Potters, Longbottoms, Finnigans, and Ms. Granger arrived first and secured a slightly larger than strictly necessary table on the promise that the Thomas-Finch-Fletchleys and "a few other friends" might be joining them throughout the evening.

The first group settled in, had a drink, and chatted a bit before the really loud music was likely to begin in an hour or so. If Hermione noticed that both Harry and Ginny seemed to be watching the entrance intently, she didn't comment. Their reasons for the close scrutiny, however, couldn't have been more different. One was anticipating the arrival of someone in particular; the other was dreading the possibility that a certain person might stride through the door.

"Did I tell you that you made a perfect choice of dress tonight, Hermione?" Ginny asked for the third time.

"Yes, Ginny, you might have mentioned it. I'm very glad you like the black chiffon dress that I've worn at least a half dozen times before in your presence," Hermione reminded her.

"I know, it's just that it looks really good on you. Really emphasizes all your best attributes," Mrs. Potter complimented.

"Must be the halter style. It shows off my shoulders. I have to say, I kind of like my shoulders."

"As well you should. They're very nice shoulders," she agreed. Turning to her husband, Ginny prodded, "Harry, doesn't Hermione have nice shoulders?"

"Uh, what?"

"Hermione's shoulders – aren't they nice?"

"Oh, yes. Very nice shoulders. They're very… square, not at all droopy," Harry noted, not really grasping what they hell his wife was getting at.

"Thank you, Harry," Hermione replied, rolling her eyes and taking a long drink of her red wine. She mumbled into the glass, "At least they aren't talking about my breasts."

As luck would have it, that was the exact moment that a second group of Hogwarts alumni approached their table.

"What was that about your breasts, Granger?" a voice whispered into her ear.

That drawl could only belong to one person. Fuck, Hermione thought. "Mister Malfoy, what a surprise to see you again, so soon," she offered, now thinking that she was totally clear on what the group was doing out for a second night in a row. The only question was who had set her up. She had her suspicions. "And I said 'vests,'" she lied. "We were talking about clothing."

"Of course, my mistake and my apologies," he allowed, not believing her for even a heartbeat. He had, after all, been bending to offer a greeting when she'd spoken.

Pansy took the opportunity of the momentary lull afforded her and greeted the group. "It's nice to see old classmates enjoying themselves. So many of us have scattered throughout the UK that we don't get together often."

She made a show of looking around the terribly crowded club. "It appears that we've all had the same idea tonight. Well, we should be off to find a table. It was nice to see all of you." She smiled and nodded pleasantly.

"We've got room here, if you'd like to join us," a male voice was heard over the din.

Hermione's eyes widened in surprise at Harry's invitation, but she held her tongue.

"Oh, really? Well, if you're sure…" Pansy hedged, failing completely in sounding like there was any hesitation on her part. The first group squeezed in to make sufficient room for the three new arrivals, Draco sitting beside Ginny, who had been on one end of the U-shaped bench, and Pansy beside Hermione. Blaise dragged a chair over from another table, settling in beside his wife.

After the new arrivals ordered drinks from the passing wait-witch, Pansy cleared her throat and made eye contact with Harry. "Let's be up-front here. We all know we weren't friends in school, and Merlin knows there were more than a few hexes and bad feelings amongst us. The thing is, we're all grown up now, and the world has changed. Regardless of the way we," she nodded at her husband and her best friend, "were raised, the realities today are different. We've decided it's in our best interests to recognize the fallacies of our previous thinking and embrace new things and new people. That's why I placed that Floo call to you this morning, Harry. We want, at the very least, a détente. We are all hoping for something a bit better than that. We come in peace, and offer to bury the proverbial wand. No strings, no conditions, at least from our end. So, what do you say? Can we let bygones be bygones?"

Of all the stunned people around the table, the most shocked was easily Draco Malfoy. Whatever he'd expected Pansy to do, this was not it. She'd laid out the fundamental details of the most heart-wrenchingly personal conversation the two of them had ever had, for all their former adversaries to hear. He thanked Merlin – and his mother – for having been schooled in keeping his thoughts and emotions from being displayed all over his face. The barest blink and slightest smile were his only outward reaction. As the group, one by one, began to emerge from their stupor to offer responses to Pansy's proposed treaty, he simply nodded in agreement and assent.

Neville, predictably, was first to reply. Though great damage had been done to his family and his time as a soldier had toughened him, his was a most gentle soul and forgiveness was something that came naturally to him. "If you're willing to try, then so am I." His wife's long blonde curls swayed as she nodded her approval. "The Snorkacks have all left the building. It's a good time for new friendships," Luna announced.

Seamus was a little more reluctant and suspicious; he forgave less easily and forgot absolutely never. "Should you prove yourselves genuine by your actions, I'll give ye a chance," he stated in his clipped brogue. Hannah then spoke her mind. "I despise conflict, so if you're willing to be cordial, I am too."

Ginny was busy staring at her husband. She was flabbergasted that he hadn't told her about Pansy's call this morning. Her typically hot temper was on simmer, but it was more directed at Harry for his subterfuge than at Pansy or the other two former Slytherins. She crossed her arms and peered directly at Mrs. Zabini. "That's a lovely speech, Pansy, and I would certainly like to believe you're sincere. I guess I'm wondering two things: first, why the sudden change of heart, and second, what's in it for you, and for us?"

Draco spoke up then. "If I may?" He smiled when Pansy tipped her head in deference. "Our approach to you is sudden, but the thinking behind it is not. We've all worked and done business with Muggle-borns and Half-bloods for years. The social and political realities have been clear for a long time. I'm certain that you recognize the influences and teachings we Slytherins were exposed to. A lifetime of taught prejudice is not overcome overnight, but that doesn't mean we haven't seen and suffered from the errors we made. Hermione alone is pretty solid proof that what we believed about pureblood supremacy just didn't hold water. We also know that the number of purebloods has been dwindling rapidly, and we're learning the hard way that just about everything you warned us about years ago was correct. We were wrong. We want to make amends."

"So if we accept that as your motivation, what about the second part of my question? What's in it for you, and for us?" Ginny pressed.

"It allows all of us to survive, and maybe even to thrive beyond where we are now. If we don't start figuring out ways to integrate into the broader wizarding society, the purebloods will be completely gone in just a generation, two at the very most. We know that many of the old ways are… unpalatable. We also know that some of our historical traditions and knowledge are what makes our world worth living in.

"You may have heard that my wife and I recently divorced, and that's true. I'm fond of Astoria, but we were never in love. Arranged marriages are one of the old traditions that need to be abandoned. We want our own choices. We want to be able to build our own families with whom we choose, not because of a political alliance desired by our parents', or worse, our great-grandparents' decrees. Many of us will live with the consequences of their thinking for years, but we don't want those same shackles on our children, if we're lucky enough to have them. It has to stop, and we need to take back control of our own lives." When Draco stopped speaking, he noticed that he'd leaned in to the table and that his breath was coming more quickly with the passion of his declaration. Damn, he thought, there's more truth than I've spoken in years, truth I didn't know until it spilled from my own lips.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, "I've let my passions run away."

"Don't apologize for that, Draco. It feels like the first really honest thing I've ever heard you say."

All eyes turned to Hermione. "What? I appreciate his candor."

Harry, who had been silent after Pansy's initial declaration, spoke next. "When Pansy called me this morning, asking me to gather our group, I was initially reluctant. Then on second thought, I had no choice but to agree. All of us, the Slytherins included, have seen the ill-effects of small-minded bigotry and ingrained prejudice. We're such a small community, when you think about it. The Muggles out-number us by easily a million to one. If the wizarding world is to survive to the next century, we need to do everything we can to build ourselves from within. The more in-fighting and squabbles we have between us, the less likely that we'd be able to survive any external threat, and the less likely that we'll preserve what's worth keeping, at our own expense. I agree with Pansy. We've done enough to tear ourselves apart over the years. For once, even if it's only within this small group, let's do something that joins us together."

He turned to Draco. "I know that many of the things you did when we were in school were not of your choosing. You and I both know exactly what happened on the Astronomy Tower. And we both know what happened during the final battle. You knew then, Malfoy. And I appreciate how difficult it is to tear yourself away from what your family has done for, in your case literally, a thousand years. The courage you've all shown today in reaching out, if you are as sincere as I think you are, easily meets Godric's own." Harry extended his hand across the table. "My name is Harry Potter, and we should be allies."

Draco had to struggle not to allow his jaw to drop. He reached across, meeting the dark-haired wizard half-way. "And I'm Draco Malfoy, at your service." One firm grasp sealed a new pact.

Blaise Zabini had watched the whole interaction, taking in everything. He wondered just how much of what his wife and best mate had said was genuine, and how much was to meet Draco's unspoken agenda. He had been astonished at Draco's vehemence and at his wife's seemingly straight-forward approach. If they were both as serious as they sounded, this was a watershed moment. Too heavy for my tastes on a Saturday night, he thought. "Now that we've all declared our mutual love and respect, I propose a toast." He lifted his Firewhisky toward the center of the table. "To a new era of success, fruitful prosperity, and cooperation in wizarding relations." As they all tapped glasses and drank, he smirked at Draco, who undoubtedly caught his double entendre, and was impressed by the blond's ability to keep a straight face. Maybe the wanker did mean it, Merlin help us.

While Hermione had made a brief comment directly in response to Draco's embarrassed apology, she had not made a broader statement. She watched and listened as the couples to her right and left conversed about relatively safe topics such as Quidditch (though any discussion between a Harpies fan and a Cannons fan was likely to erupt into fisticuffs) and career choices. As libations continued to flow, the topics became lighter and laughter more free. Soon, couples decided to take a turn or two on the dance floor, which left two single people alone at the table.

She broke the silence between them. "Thank you for the note and flowers. They were unnecessary, but appreciated."

"My mother raised me to be a gentleman, Hermione." He paused for a moment. "I know it probably sounds a little odd for me call you by your given name, but I hope you're not offended. Somehow, it doesn't feel right to call you 'Granger' any longer."

"Well, technically, I am 'Granger' again, so if you feel more comfortable with that, I won't hex you." She softened the comment with a twist of her lips.

"I'd heard. Sounds like you and I are sort of in the same boat."

"How so?"

"Just that we're both single again. Regardless of how badly I may have treated you, I always thought that you deserved better than Weasley. You were so out of his league," he commented, undoubtedly trying to make it a compliment.

"Thanks, I think."

"No, I just meant that people who are trying to be friends generally don't call each other by their surnames. It's not terribly… uh, friendly." Draco flushed with mortification at his awkward and fumbling choice of words. "Sorry, I guess my chatting-up skills are a bit rusty. I feel like a fifth year on his first date. Oh, not that I think this is a date; I mean, just comparatively, skill-wise, I apparently, um, suck."

Hermione laughed out loud. "Draco, will you relax? By Merlin and Morgana, there's no need to try to impress me."

"Well, there may be no need, but I certainly don't want you to think of me as a bumbling fool. I generally have more than two functioning brain cells to rub together."

"I seem to recall that you were always neck-and-neck with me in class ranking."

"Academics skill doesn't necessarily equate to social facility. While my goal is not specifically to charm the knickers off you, I'd prefer you don't think me a complete social moron."

"And you're back in stride," she chuckled as she sipped her glass of merlot.

He smirked cheekily and then sat quietly for a moment, the debate going on in his head evident on his furrowed brow. Because the noise of the music and conversation was nearly deafening, Draco slid over a couple of seats so that what he had to say remained private between him and the woman who was twirling the stem of her glass between two slim fingers.

"Hermione, until I spoke a few minutes ago, I hadn't ever really articulated those thoughts and feelings in such a stark way. I understood them, and felt them in varying degrees over the years, but never had I been able to express them. They came to me slowly and gradually, and only very recently have they jelled so clearly, partly because of recent events in my own life. I sent you that note and the flowers because I wanted you to know that you are in every way an equal to everyone else in our world, and you deserve every courtesy that I would extend, no matter what the occasion. I was so thoroughly wrong about you when we were kids, and even if it's taken me better than ten years to truly absorb what that means to me, I want you to know how genuinely sorry I am for the hurt I caused."

"How honest do you intend to be with me, Mal… uh, Draco? Because as much as I'd love to believe that your change of heart is altruistic and lasting, I can't help but feel that there's a subtext," she challenged, but not unkindly.

This was a moment of truth. Just how far would he go in either baring his soul or in obfuscating? If he were true to the comments both he and Pansy had made, he go all in and tell her everything, or nearly everything. Or he could offer a reasonable pretense based on the selfless premise they'd shared.

He breathed deeply and looked her in the eye. "If you had asked me that question a couple of months, or even weeks ago, I'd have answered differently. The last few years have been challenging for me in ways I never expected. My wife and I… our marriage was not successful on several fronts, and that has forced me to reflect on what I really want in my life, and why. I know that I want to marry again someday, but my next wife will be a very different person, and she'll be getting a very different Draco."

"If it's not too personal, may I ask why you and Astoria divorced? It's very unusual in pureblood marriages, I understand." Neither seemed to notice or care that the extreme noise levels were forcing them to speak directly into the other's ears.

"We divorced because our marriage contract required it," he said with a bark of a laugh. He saw the confusion and surprise in Hermione's eyes. In for a Knut, in for a Galleon. "We were unable to conceive a child in our seven years of marriage. Our agreement was iron-clad. We had to divorce. No need to cry a tear for us, though. I was… am fond of her, but we never loved each other. As I mentioned earlier, our marriage was arranged." He stopped for a minute, debating just how far he was willing to go.

"My family's inheritance rules and political power have always been based on our total blood purity. That very essence of life is our eventual un-doing. You and your friends were right years ago when you said that our in-breeding would be the death of us. Astoria will almost certainly never have children. My own chances are… less bad. But the one thing I've learned in all of this misery is that, maybe partly because it's been so difficult to achieve, I want, more than anything, to be a father. A good one, who allows his children to form their own opinions and make their own decisions. Who guides and counsels rather than coercing and forcing. And I want a wife who's a fully equal partner in building our family, should we be lucky enough to have one. Astoria was sweet, in her own way, but she wasn't the stimulating challenge that I think I prefer." He saw Hermione's eyebrow arch at his choice of words.

"Not in the bedroom, Granger, I mean mentally stimulating," he clarified with a wolfish grin. "Astoria was… kind of… thick." He covered his face with both hands and laughed heartily for a moment. "I'm sorry. It's just that I've always thought that about her, but never had the guts to say it aloud. Must be all the Firewhisky," he attempted to excuse his indecorous remark.

"You've only had two, Draco," Hermione observed.

"Hunh. So I have. I wonder why I'm spilling my guts to you. Any insight to offer on that?"

"Haven't a clue, although I have been known to let people cry on my shoulder from time to time."

"That must be it: your plainly sympathetic soul reaching out for poor sods like me."

"So what's next for you?"


"What is your plan? How do you intend to move forward?"

"Oh, well, I can't say that I really have a plan, unless you consider broadening my social circle and being truer to my own heart."

"Is that what this is about? Broadening your social circle?" she asked, suspiciously.

"In small part, yes, but it's actually a pretty powerful political stand. The impact of a Malfoy acknowledging the folly of old pureblood marriage practices is incalculable. Not to be self-centered, Hermione, but people will pay attention when I marry someone other than another pureblood. It will signal a sea change."

"Do you really believe what you're telling me, Draco, or is this some line you're cooking up to suit your own ends?"

"Hermione, if I were playing a game here, I'd never have mentioned a single word about my own problems. I've done a lot of thinking and soul-searching (since midnight last night, he silently added) and I swear on Merlin's wand, I've had an earth-shaking change of mind and heart."

"I hope that's the case. It will make your life richer and fuller in ways you can't even imagine."

"I'm sort of counting on that," he replied, keeping eye contact with the dark-haired witch beside him.

They sat companionably, sipping at their drinks and listening to the music. Finally, Draco mustered enough courage to speak again.

"Would you like to dance?"

She shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

He took her hand and escorted her to the dance floor, where they tucked in among the crowd. The song was similar to the one they'd danced to the previous evening, and they quickly fell into an easy rhythm, allowing the music to take them where it would.

"You're a good dancer," he told her as he leaned into her body. "Lots of natural rhythm."

"Thanks. You're not so bad yourself."

"Years of dance lessons when I was a kid." They were stunned when exactly the same phrase left both of their mouths in unison. Laughter quickly followed, somewhat lost in the noise of the loud music.

"See? We have something in common besides Hogwarts," he observed, leaning in even closer and speaking into her ear.

"Is that important?" she wondered, following suit.

"It's generally preferable for friendly-type people to have more than one interest in common. Cuts down on the long lulls in conversation," he replied.

"Somehow, I don't think boredom would be an issue in spending time with you. That rapier wit, even when it was directed at me, was something to behold, Draco."

"I recall getting as much as I gave with you, Hermione. And I think you're still one-up on me in the 'besting' department, and likely to remain so," he noted.

"How so?" she asked, a bit confused.

"Fourth year. One broken nose," he reminded her with a bit of a shudder. "Regardless of how much of a cad I am with my words, I do not, have not, and will not ever strike a woman. Thus, you have bested me in the physical assault department and so it will be." He smirked and winked, trying to convey the message that he was simply teasing.

"I'll try to keep violence to a minimum, should we have occasion to spend any time together," she promised.

"And I'll be sure to temper my tendencies to provoke. Old habits, so they say."

"I suppose it depends on what the provocation is and what reaction you're trying to elicit."

"Touché, Miss Granger. I'll amend my pledge to provoke only positive interaction."

"By whose definition?"

"Hmmm. Fair point. We may need to collaborate on a list."

"And at the top of that list?" she prompted.

"Dancing, without a question."

"I will stipulate to that request."

"How about… fine drink and dining?" he proposed.

"There could be occasions where such interaction would be acceptable. For instance, we are sharing fine – okay, adequate – drink at this establishment this evening," she noted.

"Ah, another shared interest?"

"Possibly. Should I take it to mean that you prefer a high-quality libation over a quick buzz?"

He pulled back slightly to look at her, as if to say… Are you kidding?

"Of course, utterly foolish question. And yes, I prefer smaller quantities of higher quality."

"You may have noticed, the list of shared interests has tripled."

"I had. Should we explore what else might make the list?"

"What could it hur…" Draco's question was abruptly interrupted and his eyes went first wide, then narrow at the approaching figure. Before he had the time to formulate another word, his dance partner had been suddenly wrenched away by a clearly intoxicated and utterly furious Ron Weasley.

Hermione squealed in surprise, followed by pain where the red-head had tightly gripped her arm, and finally anger when she saw who the interloper was. "Let go of me, Ron," she ordered from between clenched teeth.

"No, 'Mione. You're mine and I'm taking you home with me now. Besides that, what are you doing with this fucker?" His words were slurred and his eyes unfocused. It was surprising that he'd even noticed the other wizard.

"Let me go. Now."

He tried to use his substantial height and weight advantage to pull her off the dance floor.

Draco stepped closer. "I believe the lady asked you to release her. I suggest you comply with her request."

"And what are you gonna do about it?" Ron sneered.

"You really don't want to find out. Let her go and leave," he ordered, his voice low and deadly.

By now, the little drama playing out on the dance floor began to attract a little attention. Ginny approached, speaking to Ron from behind. "I told you not to come here tonight. Haven't you done enough damage already? Leave her alone. You had your chance and threw it away," she angrily scolded her brother.

"But I love her. I miss her," he whinged.

"No, Ron. You don't love me and I'm not sure you ever did. You relied on me. You used me. You depended on me. And I don't deny that you may miss me. But love? I don't think so. It's long over, and I want you to let me go," she told him, sadly and solemnly.

"No! You're mine!" he insisted.

Draco had had enough. "I'm giving you one last warning, Weasley. Release her immediately or suffer the consequences."

"What the fuck do you have to say about it?" Ron snarled.

"This." He pulled his wand from its pocket in a flash, casting a lightning-fast Stupefy which ensured that his grip on Hermione would fail. Draco reached out for her and tucked her body behind his protectively. He pointed the wand at Ron again and uttered a quiet, focused Incarcerous which bound only his wrists.

Harry stepped up now and grasped Ron's arm. "I'll take him out of here," he said, Apparating the two of them away.

Hermione moved from behind Draco and faced him squarely, with her hands on her hips. "I'm not sure whether to thank you or throttle you."


"I can handle Ron, you know."

"I have no doubt of that. My concern was that your wand was most likely in your purse at the table and without it at hand to defend yourself, and there was every possibility that he would Apparate away with you. I didn't want to see you in jeopardy. I'm sorry if I stepped over the bounds."

"Oh. Yeah. Well, that's true. I didn't think of that," she admitted. Hermione flushed as she realized that the wine had probably clouded her judgment, and dulled her reflexes, more than she'd thought. "Then I guess I'll have to go with the thank you option."

He bowed slightly. "At your service, madam." He thought for a second. "I do, however, require recompense for my chivalrous act."

"Oh?" she asked, arching an eyebrow in curiosity.

"Yes, it's in the damsel-rescuing manual. 'The rescuer may request a small token of appreciation from the rescue-ee,' it says. I think it's on page twelve."

"Oh, well, if it's in the manual, how can I refuse? What is this payment you require, Sir Draco?" she asked with great amusement.

"I require the pleasure of your company. For fine dinner and drink. Oh, and dancing, too. But not this kind of dancing. The real kind, where I actually hold you in proper frame and we glide across the floor to Mozart or Strauss. It would be such a shame to let all those dancing lessons go to waste, don't you think?" He looked at her, his expression more hopeful than she'd expected it to be.

"Since there's no question that the manual states this request is your prerogative, I suppose I have no choice but to accept. In fact, there's probably even a requirement in the damsel's manual, probably on page thirty, that I do. The dancing part has merit too. My parents would be so grateful that all that tuition expense had not been for nothing," she agreed. "When do you propose to collect your payment?"

"Oh, these things must be settled as soon as possible, or interest accrues on your debt, thus requiring additional payment. Then again, that may not be such a bad idea," he mused, ostensibly to himself. He smiled at her and was glad to see that she was smiling – or maybe it was a smirk – right back.

"Seriously, Hermione. I think I'd like to get to know the fascinating woman I failed to recognize when we were kids. I think we may be more alike than we are different. Are you willing to find out?"

"I think I am. How about next Saturday?" she proposed.

"It's only half nine. How about now?" he countered, offering his hand. Intrigued and curious, she accepted it with a nod and a grin.