A big, loud round of applause goes to the wonderful jaspersbella for giving me the idea for this story. Without her, it would no exist, and I absolutely appreciate all the help she's given me over the months it's taken me to write it. I hope you enjoy and remember that I own nothing.
"I'm sorry, Miss Granger. There's nothing we can do."
Hermione Granger stared through the observation window at the two sleeping people on the other side of the glass. She heard the Healer's words, but her mind seemed incapable of processing them. It was her fault. The best plan she'd been able to come up with to protect her parents was to erase herself from their memories. Just before she left for the Burrow the summer before what should have been her seventh year, she'd performed the spell and implanted new memories to make them believe they were Monica and Wendell Wilkins, a childless couple who dreamed of moving to Australia.
Her charm had worked, but it had stuck a little too well. Though she had managed to track them down, she was unable to reverse the spell. For two years, they lay in a coma in St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. The best and brightest healers and curse breakers had been brought in to save the war heroine's parents, but all had failed.
"Please," she said softly, her voice thick with tears, "just try again. There must be something. They're all I have."
The healer, a middle aged woman with salt and pepper colored hair and kind eyes, rested her hand on the young witch's shoulder. "We've tried everything," she replied. "It might be best to just let them go, dear. For their sake, let them be the Wilkinses. I'll give you some time to say your goodbyes, then we'll bring them out of the coma and send them back to Australia."
Hermione choked back a sob as she entered the room. Her mother's was the first bed at which she stopped. Slowly, she leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry, Mum. So, so sorry," she murmured. "I'll miss our trips to the ballet and the hours we'd spend in bookshops. I've kept your music box safe. It's by your bedside so you can take it with you. I love you so much, Mum."
Then she moved to her father's side. She smoothed back the brown locks that had grown so long as he slept. "I'll never ride a bicycle without thinking of the time you let me go and I fell over," she said, touching her lips to his stubbled cheek. "You taught me to be brave and loyal, and it's served me well. I wish there was something I could do, but I hope you and Mum will be happy. You won't remember me, but I'll always be your favorite daughter just as you're my favorite father."
With one last glance at the parents who would never know her again, Hermione left the room and a part of herself behind. She leaned against a wall for support as another wave of tears swept over her.
"Not here, dear," a kind, soft voice spoke. "That chit, Rita Skeeter, is always lurking around."
She couldn't see who led her away, but Hermione was thankful for the warm touch. They entered an empty room and the door shut behind them. Once she was seated, Hermione looked up, surprised to find Narcissa Malfoy occupying the room as well. She was every bit as beautiful as the young witch remembered. Her long blonde hair was pulled back with a jeweled comb and her crystal clear blue eyes sparkled with an emotion she never thought a Malfoy could possess - sympathy.
"I was visiting a friend when I saw you," Narcissa said in a voice that Hermione could only describe as regal. "My family has been fodder for the newspapers for years. You seem upset, and it would be wrong for them to use your grief to sell a few more subscriptions. I've seen you here before."
Narcissa extended a handkerchief to the crying girl seated before her, and waited patiently for her to collect herself. "My parents," Hermione finally said. She found herself telling Narcissa about the memory charms and her year-long search of Australia to find them. "I thought I was doing a good thing. I thought I was protecting them. For years, all I've heard is that I'm the brightest witch of my age, and yet I can't reserve a memory charm. I failed them. They'll never know who I am. They'll never know who they are. I failed."
It was a move neither witch expected when Narcissa moved to Hermione's side and wrapped a comforting arm around her shaking shoulders. "You did a good thing," she assured her. "It's hard to accept now, but you saved them. If they'd stayed in England, they would have been hunted down, tortured for information about you and your friends, and inevitably killed. Your charms did exactly as they were meant to do. You still have your memories of them. Hold onto those memories, cherish them. As long as you have your memories, your parents will never leave you."
Hermione sniffled. "Thank you, Mrs. Malfoy," she murmured.
Smiling, Narcissa rose from her seat and gently touched the young witch's tear dampened cheek. "It was my pleasure," she replied kindly. "I hope to see you again soon, Miss Granger. Hopefully in less upsetting circumstances."
When they saw each other next, the situation was just as upsetting. Narcissa stood before the host's podium at The Tea Room, one of Diagon Alley's more upscale establishments. They seated only the cream of the crop, the richest and most well respected patrons. And Narcissa Malfoy was no longer among them.
"We have a strict policy not to serve Death Eaters," the maître d informed her, looking down as if she were a fly in his soup.
"I've had a standing reservation here for twenty years," she replied, trying her best to remain calm. "I'd like to speak with your supervisor."
He ignored her request once the door opened and Hermione Granger entered. Her eyes seemed to land on the blonde witch instantaneously and a smile crested on her lips. When they were close enough to touch, Hermione offered her a kiss on each cheek before turning to the rude man behind the podium.
"Hermione Granger, reservation for two o'clock," she said clearly; the look in her eyes conveying her dislike of the treatment the other woman had received. The nervous made quickly made a grab for a menu, pleased to accommodate a war hero. "And Mrs. Malfoy will be joining me."
The host stopped, stunned by her request. "I'm sorry, Miss Granger. We haven't the room to...but I'll try," he added, when she turned to leave.
"If you haven't the room for my friend, then you haven't the room for me," she stated.
Narcissa stood by her side, trying to keep the flummoxed look from her face. No one turned down The Tea Room. She schooled her features back to haughty superiority as the host gaped at them like a fish out of water. It wasn't until she was led outside by the young witch that she found her voice once more. "My mother would have deemed that foolish," she stated. "My father would have said you have spunk. I always tended to agree with my father more."
Hermione blushed at the compliment. "I'm sorry our tea plans didn't work out," she replied.
With a wave of her hand, the older woman dismissed her apology. "There is always the Manor," she suggested. "I know you don't have the fondest memories of my home, but perhaps we could set about righting that."
Memories of the hours spent at Malfoy Manor haunted Hermione's dreams nightly. She could feel the cold steel of Bellatrix Lestrange's dagger as it pierced her skin, leaving behind a crudely etched "mudblood" that ran the length of her inner right forearm. Her screams rang loudly in her ears as round after round of the Cruciatus curse were cast upon her. She vowed to never return to such a place, but she'd found a friend in Narcissa Malfoy and didn't want the past to jeopardize the future.
"Sure, let's go," Hermione decided as an uneasy smile settled on her face. Elated, Narcissa took hold of her arm, and in seconds they were in the foyer of the grand mansion. Hermione shut her eyes for only a moment to regain her balance before opening them again. The last time she had been there, she, Harry Potter, and Ron Weasley had been led to the sitting room to the right. Now the doors were closed as she was led further into the house until they reached the sun porch.
"This is my favorite area in the house," Narcissa said, sighing as she took a seat on the floral-upholstered settee. "I remember watching Draco take his first steps here. He ran into a potted plant and cut his forehead, but he didn't cry once. He just got back up on his feet and kept going. I wish you could have seen him when he was happy. He was such a beautiful boy when he smiled."
Tea service arrived before Hermione had a chance to reply. Perhaps it would have been nice to know the sweet, smiling boy described by his mother, but she'd only ever known the sneering, bigoted teenager of her school days. She wondered, though, if Narcissa had changed, was it possible Draco had as well?
"My mum always wanted a porch like this," Hermione said as she stirred a lump of sugar into her tea. "We had a bit of a backyard, but...well, I guess it doesn't matter now."
Reaching across the small table, Narcissa covered Hermione's hand with her own. "They would be proud of you," she assured the young witch.
Hermione shook her head. "I wouldn't be proud of the things I've done," she replied sadly, her eyes downcast as the sting of tears pricked her eyes. "Hubris has often gotten the better of me. I thought if anyone could reverse a memory charm, it would be me."
"I know you feel responsible for what's happened to your parents, but you can't go on blaming yourself," Narcissa said softly. "Your act was brave and selfless. Remember that, dear."
"I'll try," Hermione murmured, though she was unconvinced she could heed such advice.
Tentative acquaintances had bloomed into a wonderful friendship, and more than a few people noticed. Lucius Malfoy scanned the articles of the latest edition of The Daily Prophet, stopping only when a photograph of his wife and Hermione Granger caught his eye. The young witch had never seemed worthy of his attention, but the change he saw in Narcissa was clearly this girl's doing. It had been a long time since a genuine smile lit her face, and if Hermione Granger helped to put it there, he was grateful to her.
"Mother's home," Draco, his only son, informed him. "And she has shopping bags."
Lucius nodded, detecting the small groan in the latter part of Draco's announcement. Folding the newspaper in half, he rose from his seat behind the mahogany desk and followed his son to the foyer. Before them stood Narcissa and Hermione, both laden down with purchases as they laughed delightedly.
Narcissa was the first to notice that the women had company. "Oh, darling, if you look in the blue bag, I've bought you some new dress pants," she announced, kissing her son's cheek.
"Did you have a nice time?" he asked. With a flick of his wand, the bags floated to the top of the stairs and turned left, disappearing from sight as they made their way to the master suite.
"A lovely time," the smiling blonde replied. "Has tea been served yet? Perhaps, Hermione, you would like to join us?"
Lucius noticed the apprehensive glance she gave first to him and then to Draco. "I'd love to, but I have another commitment," she replied politely. "Perhaps another time."
Narcissa seemed disappointed, but bade her goodbye as Lucius led her to the sitting room. "I'll see her out," Draco said as they departed. When the former classmates were alone, he began to gather her bags.
"That's not necessary, Malfoy," Hermione said, making a grab for her bags.
Draco shrugged and managed to take hold of three shopping bags. "It's the least I can do, Granger," he replied, leading her to the door.
She followed him to the door, attempting to reclaim her purchases. "Honestly, Malfoy, I don't need your help," she stated as he led her outside.
Now standing on the front porch, Draco let the bags drop. "You never can let anyone do something nice for you," he accused. "I thought I could take this opportunity to thank you, but Merlin knows you're too stubborn to even listen to me."
His reaction flabbergasted the young witch. It was unheard of that Draco Malfoy would ever deign to thank someone of her background. "Thank me for what?" she inquired when she overcame the initial shock of his words.
Shaking his head, he walked down the stairs until he was far enough away from her. "My mother hasn't really, truly smiled since I was fifteen," he confided, his back to her making it easier to speak. "Between my father and You Know Who, she never had much of a reason to be happy. These last couple of weeks that she's spent with you have helped her get back to the way she used to be. It's been nice seeing her the way she was when I was younger, and I knew you were responsible for that."
Slowly, she descended the stairs, allowing her bags to float behind her. With his back still to her, Hermione rested her hand just above his elbow. "You're lucky to have a mother who loves you as much as Narcissa does," she told him.
He turned then, a look of curiosity in his eyes. "I'm sure your parents love you too," he said.
She removed her hand from his arm. "I'm sure you're right," she replied, sure he knew nothing of her parents' fate. "Anyhow, I should go."
"You really have plans now or were you lying to get out of tea with the Malfoys?" he inquired, walking her to the edge of the property.
"I'm going to dinner at the Weasleys' house," she replied. "Oh, and Malfoy, you're welcome."
The Burrow had become a second home to Hermione shortly after she had befriended Ron. A wonderful aroma wafted throughout the misshapen house the second she opened the front door. Loud, happy voices filled the air as a dozen people sat around the small sitting room. George was the first to spot her, waving her over to sit beside him. He looped an arm around her shoulders as he spoke softly, "I've heard a rumor that our dear, sweet Hermione Granger has taken up with the evil, nasty Malfoys."
"They're not evil," she replied, narrowing her eyes angrily. "I happen to enjoy the time I spend with Narcissa."
"Do you ever worry that she's lulling you into a false sense of security just to pull the rug out from underneath you?" he asked.
"George," she warned.
He held up his hands, either in self defense or surrender, and shot her a smile. "You're happy, right?" he asked. "I mean, for as happy as you can be after what happened?"
In the weeks since she had found out that her parents would forever be lost to her, she and George had become closer. Both had experienced a deeply profound loss as a result of the Second Wizarding War. George's twin, Fred, with whom he had shared everything, had been killed just before the cease fire was called at the Battle of Hogwarts. Hermione seemed to gravitate more toward him, deciding he could best understand how she felt.
"For a long time I couldn't remember what happy felt like," she admitted. "Talking with Narcissa is like having my mother around again. Don't get me wrong, I love your mum, but there's something quiet, peaceful about talking to Narcissa."
George leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I'm glad," he replied. "You deserve a little joy in your life, Hermione."
Angelina Johnson, his girlfriend of a year, joined them then, taking a seat on George's right hand side. "So do you," Hermione replied, getting up to give them some privacy despite the eight other people in the room. She wandered into the kitchen to see if Molly needed help. There she was greeted by the short, robust, full of energy woman.
"You haven't been eating," Molly admonished as she hugged the young witch. "Does Mrs. Malfoy not feed you when you join her for tea?"
"I'm eating just fine," she replied, rolling her eyes when the older woman turned away. "Anything I can help with? It looks like the table still needs to be set."
Over her shoulder, Molly flicked her wand and Hermione watched as plates, bowls, cups, and silverware swirled around her until it landed in its proper place on the table. Molly returned to stirring the large pot of beef stew simmering on the stove. Once more, Hermione asked to be allowed to help, but her offers went unheard.
"I'm not sure how I feel about you being around those Malfoys all the time," Molly finally said as she adjusted the fire beneath the pot. "I went to school with Narcissa and Lucius, and let me just say, they were no better then than they are now. I can't even imagine what they want with you, but I'm sure their intentions aren't the most pure."
"Narcissa has been nothing but kind to me," Hermione refuted, leaning against the sink with her arms crossed over her chest. "I was at the Manor just today, and Lucius and Draco were perfect gentlemen. Perhaps the war had an impact on them. They've clearly changed."
Molly shook her head and shut off the burner. "People like that don't change," she stated.
Uncrossing her arms, Hermione pushed away from the counter. "I'm really sorry you believe that," she replied. "Thank you for inviting me to dinner, but I think it would be better if I left."
Without giving Molly the opportunity to stop her, Hermione stepped into the fireplace and was transported home. Too riled up with anger to be alone, she flooed to Malfoy Manor. The family was seated in the parlor when she stepped out of their fireplace. "Sorry to interrupt," she greeted them, smiling nervously as all eyes were on her.
"Not at all," Narcissa replied, rising from her seat to greet their guest. "Have you eaten? Dinner will be served soon."
"Actually I haven't. Dinner would be lovely," Hermione decided, accepting a small snifter of brandy from Lucius. She took a seat beside Draco as Narcissa left to check on their meal.
"Thought you had plans with the Weasleys tonight," he commented, finishing off the last of his drink.
Hermione shrugged and took a small sip of her drink, wincing as it burned a path down her throat. "Plans change," she muttered. Lucius excused himself as they conversed, unbeknownst to the pair.
"I'd have thought you were staying there," he said, swirling the contents of his glass after refilling it. "I, um, my mother just told me today about your parents. I'm sorry."
Setting her glass aside, she looked toward the burning fire. She counted the logs in the hearth as she willed the tears to remain at bay. "Thank you, Draco," she finally murmured, but was still unable to look his way. "I've actually decided to return to my childhood home. It's lovely there, peaceful."
"Sounds nice," he replied. "This house scared me when I was little. The paintings talked, some shouted rude things as I passed. There are so many rooms and hallways that I got lost navigating the place until I was thirteen. And then...came the Dark Lord." There was no need for him to continue; both had their memories of the madman in conjunction with Draco's home.
Hermione looked down at her right arm. The skin had scarred over as it attempted to heal, but she could still make out the hideously cut "mudblood" forever etched into her skin. "It's a wonder you were able to return," she replied, looking at him for the first time since she sat down.
He nodded just as they were called to dinner. Rising from the sofa, Draco offered her his hand and helped her to her feet before tucking the hand he held through his elbow. Softly, they conversed on their way to the dining room as Draco pointed out paintings and she admired the work. When they arrived, Narcissa directed her to sit beside Draco.
Hermione glanced down at the place settings - several utensils on either side of the plate, three gold rimmed plates, and several goblets. "Is dinner always this fancy?" she asked Draco.
"Don't be daft, Granger," he muttered. "She's done this all for you. Half the time we don't even have supper together."
"But she didn't know I was coming. How could she-"
"Now, now, there will be no whispering," Narcissa admonished, smiling kindly at her friend. Lucius poured a red wine for each diner before taking his seat. "I'm so glad you could join us, dear. Your other plans fell through?"
Hermione nodded, not yet ready to discuss the Weasley family. For generations, there had been bad blood between the two families, and Hermione wondered if her friendship with both would widen the gap. What Molly had said couldn't have been true, she decided. The Malfoys had changed considerably. She had long believed that Narcissa Malfoy was a cold, unfeeling woman to allow such atrocities to take place in her home. Draco had always been a bully and a bigot, thanks to the lesson taught to him by his parents. And then there was Lucius. With his sneer and piercing gray eyes, he had intimidated her as a child.
Glancing beside her, she caught the smile Draco wore as he slurped his soup to get her attention. Across from them, Lucius and Narcissa scowled at his display of poor table manners, but Hermione laughed. "Afraid I'm not paying attention to you?" she teased.
"You seemed pretty lost in thought," Draco replied, taking another spoonful with a little more grace and class. Dinner continued on with quiet conversation and three more courses. When dessert was finished, Narcissa and Lucius excused themselves for the evening.
"I should probably be going too," Hermione decided wistfully.
Slowly, the young pair left the dining room and Draco led her back to the sitting room. "Do you like it?" he asked. "Living alone, I mean."
She shrugged, leaning back against the fireplace. "It's lonely sometimes, but it's nice not having to fight someone for the loo," she replied.
"I know I've said it before, but you really make my mum happy," he said. "I think you've become the daughter she always wanted."
Hermione laughed. "You're just happy that she's not dragging you to every shop in the Alley," she replied. The smile she wore disappeared as quickly as it had formed. "My mum used to do that too. We'd spend hours in a shop, and she would try on ten different items before deciding she liked none of it. Most of the time we'd leave empty handed."
Taking a hesitant step closer, he offered her a sympathetic smile. "Give it time, Granger," he advised. "It'll get better. Maybe not easier, but better."
Reaching for a handful of floo powder, she replied, "Thanks, Draco. I hope so."
He watched her leave in the swirl of green flames before joining his parents in his mother's study. They sat close together, quietly talking, when he entered the room. He let them know Hermione had left and Narcissa immediately called him to her side.
"You and Hermione seem to be getting along smashingly," she observed, trying to suppress her glee.
Draco smiled sardonically. "We're like a whole new couple of people," he joked, earning a narrow-eyed glare from his mother. Sighing, he changed his tune. "She's become a good friend of yours. I would hate to be the reason you lose that."
"And would you consider her to be a friend?" she asked.
Shrugging his shoulders, the young wizard leaned back against the sofa. "I haven't seen her in years, and the last time I did see her we were running for our lives from Fiendfyre," he recalled. "Neither one of us were ever very pleasant towards the other. I don't think talking to one another a couple of times makes us friends."
"Give it time," she replied knowingly.
The next week, Narcissa and Hermione had made plans for tea in Diagon Alley. Draco had let it slip that her birthday was coming, and Hermione had thought of the perfect gift. Narcissa had already secured a table at The Tea Room when Hermione entered, followed closely by a woman who looked oddly reminiscent of Bellatrix Lestrange before the madness had consumed her.
Narcissa was quick to get to her feet when she spotted the pair. "Andromeda?" she gasped.
With a nudge from Hermione, Andromeda, the black sheep of the Black family, approached her sister for the first time in twenty-five years. The sisters hugged, and Hermione noticed the tears in their eyes; eyes that were both as blue as the Pacific Ocean. She excused herself soon after, and entered the busy streets of Diagon Alley. A chill had risen in the air, and her cloak did little to ward it off.
"Cold there, Granger?" she heard a rich, drawling voice ask.
Turning, she spotted Draco a few yards away and she smiled. "I thought we were passed last names," she remarked, remaining where she was while he approached. When he reached her, he slipped off his own cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders.
"It's a bit long, but it should keep you warm," he commented, ignoring the shiver that ran up his own spine. He noticed the quirked eyebrow she presented, and knew she expected a reply to her comment. "Old habits die hard sometimes."
Nodding, they continued to walk through the narrow streets. "Shouldn't you be concerned?" she wondered.
"Concerned about what?" he asked.
"Being seen with me? My germs rubbing off on your clothing? What people might say about the great Draco Malfoy being seen with a mudblood?" she listed. "Take your pick," she added, shrugging her shoulders.
Sighing, Draco stopped walking. "I thought we had a better understanding of one another," he remarked. "The answer to your questions is no. The war's over, Hermione. It's taken years for me to get over the things I've done, the things I saw. It scared me to think that if I didn't make some changes in my way of thinking that I would end up as bitter and hateful as my father. I don't want that, and if I ever had a child, I wouldn't want him to be like me either."
There was a calculating look in Hermione's eyes as she listened. Rarely had she ever heard Draco speak so candidly and honestly, and it was something of a shock to her that he chose her to share his feelings. He had listened to her worries about her parents, and now he reciprocated in a way only friends did. Deciding he wouldn't hex her, she moved closer and wrapped her arms around his neck in what she hoped was a comforting hug. She breathed a small sigh of relief when his wound around her back. "I'm sorry," she murmured.
"What for?" he wondered as he continued to hold her.
"Not believing that you really have changed," she replied, resting her head against his chest. "You're not who you used to be."
He chuckled softly; the vibration from one chest reverberating off the other. "Don't get too ahead of yourself. I'm still a prat," he said.
Pulling out of his hold, she tucked her arm through his elbow and they continued their walk. "Trust me, I'll never forget that," she retorted, smiling up at him. They spent the afternoon together talking, strolling, and window shopping. Hermione could not remember the last time she had enjoyed herself so much in the company of someone her own age. It wasn't until the sun began to dip below the horizon that either realized just how long they had been out.
"We should get home," Draco commented as a drop of rain hit his nose. Still holding onto her arm, he was prepared to Apparate them both to the Manor.
"Wait," she said, as more drops fell from the sky. "May I ask you something?"
Draco looked to the sky as it began to darken. "Could you ask later before we both get soaked?" he asked.
"I just...I wanted to know...are we friends?" she asked nervously, her eyes scanning the scant crowds who looked for shelter from the approaching storm. A small group of onlookers stood in the doorway of a nearby shop, intently focused on the pair.
Draco spotted them first and scowled, which Hermione seemed to misinterpret as his answer. She attempted to walk away, but Draco held tightly to her hand. Neither spoke as Draco stood before her. Bending his head, he brushed his lips across her cheek. "Yes," he whispered when they reached her ear. Winding one arm around her waist and the other around her shoulders, he quickly Apparated them from Diagon Alley to the warmth of his family's home.
Narcissa descended upon them as soon as they appeared. Her words were a long string of gratitude and wonder as she told Hermione about her lunch with her long lost sister. Draco quietly slipped out of the parlor with a mirthful smirk on his pale face. They locked eyes until he disappeared from sight and Hermione's only choice was to focus on the excited Narcissa. She talked for hours, stopping only to have dinner brought to them. Even then she barely stopped talking long enough to eat. As the late hour approached and Hermione's eyelids became heavier, Narcissa had a room prepared for her friend.
Dressed in an ankle-length nightgown she found in the wardrobe, Hermione climbed into the king-sized, four poster bed and shut her eyes. Just when she believed sleep would come the bedroom door clicked open and closed just as quickly. Sitting up, she scanned the darkness for the intruder, but could see nothing. "Who's there?" she asked, panic rising in her voice.
"Just me," Draco whispered, moving closer to the bed. He lit a candle on the bedside table and took a seat on the edge of the mattress. "Sorry to bother you. I just, well, I wanted to...I'm not entirely sure why I came in here. To say goodnight, I guess."
Sitting up, Hermione placed a hand on his warm cheek. "Draco Malfoy, are you blushing?" she teased.
The heat built beneath her fingertips. "It's possible," he murmured. His gaze turned when a flash of lightning illuminated the corner of the room where the windows stood. "I hate these storms."
"Me too," Hermione agreed, shivering as she pulled away her hand. "They always remind me of-"
As if he could read her thoughts, he replied, "Me too."
"When I was little, I would crawl into my parents' bed and sleep there," she said, staring out into the night. "It made it easier to sleep through a storm knowing I was safely tucked between my mum and dad. It was always harder to sleep at Hogwarts, so I would sneak down to our common room to read until it passed. The fireplace helped to block out the noise."
"I used to sleep on the floor near my mother's side of the bed, and leave before my father awoke," Draco shared, finding his eyes would only focus on the distracted brunette. "It got easier at school, but then the war started. I found myself sneaking into their room a lot more often when You Know Who was here. I felt...I don't know. Safe."
Hermione nodded her understanding and tore her eyes away from the storm. "Will you stay with me?" she asked. "At least until I fall asleep? It's strange enough sleeping in a new place. The storm doesn't help."
Nodding, Draco waited until she moved over. He soon slipped beneath the blankets and extinguished the candle. They laid close together, but far enough away not to touch. With one hand beneath her head, Hermione let the other fall between their bodies. Draco covered her hand with his own and held it tightly. "I have a confession," he whispered.
Hermione opened her eyes and squeezed his hand. "What is it?" she asked.
He shifted uncomfortably beside her, but never relinquished the control he had on her hand. "When my mum told us she had befriended you, I was sort of glad. I hoped it would mean that we could put aside our differences," he replied.
"That's not much of a confession," she pointed out.
Rolling his eyes despite the darkness, he scooted closer. "That's not the confession part yet," he replied. "I didn't like you when we were younger because I wasn't supposed to. It was hard not to admire you though. You were smart and had friends who loved you, and I envied that. Sure, I had good grades, but I wasn't at the top of the class. As far as friends went, I had lackeys and familial obligations towards my parents' friends' children. I'd have killed for just a bit of what you had."
It was Hermione's turn to move closer until they were nearly shoulder to shoulder. "You have it now," she promised.
And for the first time, they kissed.
Her picture had been splashed across the pages of The Daily Prophet for weeks, but it was the most recent article that troubled Arthur Weasley. The picture encompassed the top half fold of the paper and showed Hermione and Draco Malfoy in a very public embrace. The accompanying drivel that passed for an article highlighted the Malfoy family's recent climb in popularity. As he read on, he was aghast that they would suggest that the family was using the young witch to reclaim the social ranking they had lost during and after the war.
The floo activated and out stepped Hermione. Arthur was the first to greet her, and he quickly pulled her aside where no one else would hear them. Hermione frowned when she saw the picture in the paper he still held. "You would think people wouldn't care anymore," she muttered.
"I'm worried about this, Hermione," he replied. He had long ago become a second father, and she trusted him above all else. "There's been talk."
"People talk, Mr. Weasley. I'm not worried about these rumors," Hermione explained calmly.
Arthur sighed and rubbed the back of his neck; a habit Ron mimicked when nervous. "There's been other talk," he said quietly. "Talk at the Ministry, the kind of talk that Lucius Malfoy makes."
Crossing her arms uncomfortably, she looked down at her feet. "And what does he say?" she asked.
Arthur rested a fatherly hand on her shoulder. "That it's been their plan for years to find someone like you, someone who fought with the Order, to boost their popularity," he replied. "He said that Narcissa and Draco are using you for that."
With her head still bowed, she wiped away the moisture that had gathered in her eyes. "Lucius really said all that?" she asked. She had to look up to see that he nodded his head sorrowfully. "Thank you, Mr. Weasley, for telling me. When Mrs. Weasley suggested it all those months ago, I thought she'd gone crazy. I honestly believed they would never do that to me. Guess I was wrong if Lucius admitted to it."
Pulling her into a hug, he rubbed her back softly. "I'm so sorry, Hermione," he murmured.
Sniffling, she pulled away and wiped her eyes once more. "I, um, came to borrow a recipe from Mrs. Weasley, but I won't be needing it now," she said, making her way back to the kitchen to floo home. Two impatient owls waited near her kitchen window when she arrived. She recognized both, and after accepting the letters, promptly tossed them in the rubbish bin beneath the kitchen sink.
It was a routine that went on for another week before Draco refused to leave without speaking to her. After ten minutes of pounding on the front door, she relented and let him in with no intention of talking or listening. While she moved clean, folded laundry from the sofa to the linen closet, Draco followed. "Why haven't you answered my letters?" he demanded on their second trip back to the living room.
Picking up the final stack of bath towels, Hermione disappeared once more. "Don't play stupid, Malfoy," she said upon her return. "I know your plan."
"What plan?" he asked, doing all he could to keep his anger in check.
When he approached her, Hermione did the first thing that came to mind. She slapped him with all the force she could muster. "You used me," she whispered. "To gain back your standing, you used me. Preyed on me when I was weak, made me think you cared about me. It was all an act. Please, just leave me alone."
While one hand cupped his cheek, the other reached for Hermione. He got a good grip on her arm before she could get away from him. She stared at him with wide, watery, fearful eyes. "I'll forgive you for slapping me," he said through clenched teeth, "but I won't forgive these accusations against my family and me."
"I don't want your forgiveness," she replied, suddenly sounded tired. Thoughts of Draco and Narcissa and Mr. Weasley's warning had plagued her mind for too long. "I just want you to go."
Removing his hand from his own cheek, he wiped away the tears that wet her cheek. "Fine, I'll go," he relented. Letting go of her arm, he pulled open the front door. Before he left he turned to look at her once more. "I do care about you, Hermione. None of what you know I feel for you is an act."
With that, he was gone. Hermione leaned against the nearest wall and sighed. "I hope that's true," she said to herself.
The Burrow had become a polarizing place since the news of Hermione's friendship with the Malfoys had become front page news. Molly often made her feelings about the relationship known, but lately she remained mum in Hermione's presence. It often fell to Ginny to keep the sullen Hermione occupied. Shoe shopping was her latest excuse for getting her friend out of the house. It took a great deal of force to get the witch into the floo as she reluctantly called out "Diagon Alley." Hermione, followed by Ginny and Molly, stepped out of the hearth in the Leaky Cauldron and made their way to the shopping center. Despite the charms in place to ward off the cold, Hermione felt a great shiver course through her body. Whether it was the chilly air or the sight before her that caused it, she couldn't be sure.
Molly, too, noticed Narcissa Malfoy exiting a nearby shop. And while Hermione seemed frozen in place, the Weasley matriarch marched forward before either Ginny or Hermione could stop her. "How dare you!" Molly shouted across the square. Narcissa turned, shocked by the commotion, and her eyes locked with Hermione. "How dare you use and hurt my child. I told her you were up to no good. You took advantage of a young girl so soon after she lost her parents. She thought she could trust you, but she was just a means to your sick desire to paint your family in a better light. You will stay away from her, or so help me you'll live to regret it."
Narcissa's teary gaze never strayed from a distraught Hermione. "I'm sorry," she said, more to Hermione than Molly. Turning on her heel, Narcissa left the storefront and took off for the nearest Apparition point.
"That was uncalled for," Hermione chastised, following the hurt blonde. But by the time Hermione reached her, Narcissa had already disappeared with a soft pop. In her place stood an angry Lucius, who seethed at the young witch.
"It is lucky for you that the use of Unforgivables would earn me a one way ticket to the Dementor's Kiss, Miss Granger," he stated angrily through clenched teeth.
She refused to back down to his threats. "I would be more inclined to allow the use of one had you not bragged to the entire Ministry about your plot to climb the social ladder by befriending me," she retorted.
Hitching his cane into the belt around his waist, he took hold of Hermione's arm and led her into a nearby alley. "You honestly believe me foolish enough to do something like that?" he inquired, letting her go only when he trusted her not to run away. "Have you that little faith in my family? My wife has lost a great many things because of the war, but our standing in society has been the least of her worries. I thought surely that you would understand the personal losses she's faced."
"Why would Mr. Weasley tell me you said those things if you never did?" Hermione asked.
"I do believe you're familiar with the term hearsay," he replied, smirking in a way that resembled Draco. "People often misconstrue what they hear, especially when it has passed by so many people. My wife and son have a great deal of respect for you, Miss Granger. They care far too much for you to stoop to such a level."
Hermione felt ashamed. Rather than allowing Narcissa and Draco the opportunity to explain, she had ignored their attempts at contact and brushed them off when she saw them in public. She had been an awful friend to the woman who had offered her comfort at the hospital. She had been rude to the one man who dared to romance her. In the months that had passed, she had seen a new and rare side of the Malfoys, the loving family who welcomed the muggleborn with open arms. It had been easy to dismiss Molly's warnings as she leaned toward jealousy when anyone threatened to mother Harry and herself. But Arthur was a kind, loving father figure who she knew would never let his negative feelings for the Malfoys cloud his judgment. It was why she had believed him so wholeheartedly. But he had been wrong, and now it seemed Hermione had lost people for whom she truly and deeply cared.
"I think I know that now," she replied. "Please tell Narcissa I'm sorry."
For the first time Lucius smiled. "It'll mean more coming from you."
Nodding, Hermione took the arm he offered and together they Apparated to Malfoy Manor. When they arrived, he led the nervous witch to the second floor and Narcissa's suite. Opening the door, Lucius gave her a small nudge until she was inside, and then closed it behind her. If Narcissa was aware that she had company, she never let it show. Instead, her head remained bowed over her needlepoint even as Hermione took a seat beside her. Resting a hand atop the one that held needle and thread, Hermione finally caught her attention. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "There's no excuse for what I did, but I am sorry for believing any of it."
"I'd have believed it too," Narcissa replied sadly. "We're not exactly known for our good intentions."
Hermione shook her head. "No, you've been a wonderful friend to me, and more than that, you've filled the role that my mother no longer can," she said, her brown eyes pleading for Narcissa to understand.
"Molly Weasley seems to believe she's filled that role," Narcissa stated, putting aside her embroidery. "She called you her child."
"Things changed after the war. Ron and I didn't work out, and she blamed me for that," she shared. "I was so focused on finishing school and bringing my parents home that Ron sort of fell by the wayside. Molly used to come to the hospital with me when they were first admitted, but she made such a fuss over everything that I had to ask her to stop coming. She has so many other people depending on her that I always felt in the way. I've never felt that way with you. It truly was like being with my mum again. I don't want to lose that a second time."
Letting go of her hand, Narcissa turned just enough to embrace the sad young witch beside her. "Not once did it occur to me that you could restore favor to our family's name," she murmured, holding Hermione close. "I remember seeing you that day at the hospital and thinking how, if it were Draco, I would want someone to take care of him."
"Are we alright?" Hermione asked, tightening her arms around Narcissa's back. She felt the nod of her head as blonde hair tickled her cheek. Pulling back, Hermione rose from the settee. "There's someone else I need to apologize to."
She took her leave and climbed the stairs to the third floor. Draco's room was at the end of the long hallway, and Hermione dreaded each step it took to get there. She knew Draco's forgiveness would be harder to earn than that of Narcissa. All too soon, she reached his door and opened it slowly. She greeted him softly so as not to startle him, but Draco paid her no mind. The book that laid open before him as he lay belly down on his bed held his attention until Hermione slipped it out of his line of sight and shut it.
"Give it back," he growled, setting furious eyes on her.
"I will," she promised, "after you let me apologize."
"I don't want to hear it," he muttered, sitting up to better his chances of retrieving his book. She managed to keep it out of his reach, and fixed him with a hurt, guilty stare. "Your tears won't work here, Granger. Just give me back the book and get out."
She placed it on the bedside table, but didn't leave. "Did I ever tell you about the time, back in third year, when Sirius Black sent Harry a new broomstick?" she asked. When he gave no reply, she continued. "I was worried that perhaps it was cursed, so I turned it over to Professor McGonagall. At the time, we didn't know that Sirius had been framed for the Potters' murders."
"What's the point of telling me this?" he asked angrily, his book now forgotten.
Sighing, she sat down in the chair near his bed. "Harry and Ron refused to speak to me for weeks," she replied. "I remember how upset I was that I'd lost my two best friends."
"The point," he said again, growing more and more impatient.
"The point is, it feels worse losing you," she said sadly. "I knew they would eventually come around, start talking to me again. But you - I'm afraid you'll never forgive me."
Looking at her, Draco saw the tracks of tears that slipped down her rosy, freckled cheeks. Not for the first time, he knew he had caused them. No longer, he vowed, would he be the cause of her unhappiness. Getting to his feet, he closed the small distance between them and took her hand to guide her to her feet. "Is my mother alright?" he asked, holding her in a loving embrace. He felt her nod her head against his chest. "She's been quite upset these past few weeks because of you. I haven't seen her like that since the war."
Her tears started anew as she replied, "There's no need to make me feel guiltier than I already do," she mumbled as her face pressed against his clean, crisp white dress shirt.
"I'm sure she's glad to have you back," he said, stroking her spine through her knitted jumper. "I guess if she can forgive you, then I can too."
Lifting her head, she smiled cautiously. "Really?"
With a nod of his head and a soft smile, he kissed her for the first time in weeks. It was sweet and gentle as if he were trying to memorize the soft planes of her lips before exploring further. He could hold her forever, kiss her forever, and still it would never be enough. For now they had each other, and he was content to live in the present.
"What about the Weasleys?" he finally asked when Hermione's lips moved to his jaw.
"You're actually thinking about them while kissing me?" she joked, pretending to be affronted. He shot her a pointed look, one that said he was in no mood to joke. Schooling her features to a more subdued look, she laced her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck. "They haven't been happy with me for a while. Perhaps theirs isn't the family I'm meant to be a part of."
"You'll always have a place here," he promised, cupping her cheek.
"That's all I want," she replied. "You, Narcissa, even Lucius. It's all I want."