We Were Never Here by phlox - Chapter 3


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SEPTEMBER 1998


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The music box was silver, small and rectangular, standing on scrolled feet. The ornate, Rococo design had a peacock motif, the swirls and flourishes highlighting the Malfoy crest on the raised center of the lid. It was clearly valuable, and Hermione placed it somewhere in the early nineteenth century. She'd been trying not to tinker with it, but standing there in front of the mantle on which it was displayed, she couldn't resist reaching out to run the tips of her fingers over the elaborate engraving. It was much nicer to focus on than the conversation she was having with Malfoy. That wasn't going well.

As she smoothed over the crest, she startled as a hinged cover popped open to reveal a multi-colored bird. A slow waltz she didn't recognize began, and she hurried to find the mechanism to shut it off.

"So, what would I be getting out of it?"

She jumped again and turned to face him, annoyed at how on edge she was showing herself to be. "What do you mean by that, Malfoy?"

Malfoy stood stiffly a couple of meters away, his arms crossed. "This isn't a strange concept Granger. It's customary, when asking for a favor, to try and find some sort of angle that makes the asked want to do what is being asked of them. That is, if one wants to reach any sort of success in their endeavor."

He'd been defensive in both stance and manner since she arrived, but this snarky turn was new. To be fair, she could understand that random check-ups by Ministry personnel would make for suspicion whenever another one arrived at your door, so she wasn't surprised that she hadn't been invited to sit.

"Alright then," she said, "what you'll get is the fulfillment of one of the terms of your parole: employment. In this case, by the Ministry. What's more, I would think you'd feel obligated—"

"I see."

Hermione had been looking away, still trying to get the music to stop, but her gaze shot back to him at his cold tone. Her hand slipped and forced the lid closed, the music stopping abruptly with a clink. She winced, clasping her hands together to hold them steady as she turned back to him.

"I'm not sure I understand your reticence, Malfoy. You'd be righting the same wrong done to you and your family and helping people reclaim their lives and their homes. Voldemort stored dozens of Dark artifacts in the residences of any number of distinguished families. You know as well as I that most of the people living with these things now are doing so largely by accident, all left behind when the hardliners in their family got sent to Azkaban. They're in danger, and they're ill-equipped to handle it."

Malfoy was standing very still, barely breathing. "Right. You think that I'm obligated to them, am I?"

Hermione wondered why she had thought this would be easy. She needed his help and she wanted to work with him, but she didn't know how to make him trust her sincerity.

"Fine, Malfoy, forget that. It was a poor choice of words. You should do what you want to do, what you feel is right, but if you feel like you'd like to do a good turn back to the Ministry... That's all I meant." She leant back against the mantle, feeling unsteady and wishing again that she'd asked him to meet her elsewhere, even though Malfoy pointedly steered her to the parlor opposite the drawing room she'd seen on her last visit. "Listen, I just need you to get me through the door and around these homes, most of which you know personally."

Malfoy had relaxed slightly throughout her explanation, but he was eyeing her as though he suspected she was planning to make off with the silverware. "What makes you think I can get you in? I'm not exactly popular with this crowd anymore, you should know that. And after assisting with this, I'm not going to be the favorite son. I'll become a social pariah. "

"Yes, well, I know how dreadful it would be to be cast from your social set," she said, wryly. He gave her an annoyed look, and something about it made her feel like they were back on familiar ground. "But to answer your question, the Ministry credentials will mostly get us through the door, as will the fact that most of these people know that they're unofficially under investigation. Once we get inside and are able to bargain with the actual family members... well, you have a better chance with them than I do. As for your reputation, you won't have to worry about that. We'll be using Obliviate on them."

Malfoy looked startled. Hermione wondered, and not for the first time, if she was unnaturally hardened against that particular brand of magic. She was already known for her skill with memory modification, but she worried that this reputation was destined to bring whispers and suspicious looks instead of respect.

"It's for their sake as well as for our own," she argued. "We need to keep them, as well as the public at large, ignorant to the very existence of these artifacts. Any leaks could inspire some rather horrifying treasure hunts. Besides," she said, smirking, "I know it would forever ruin your image to be known to associate with me."

Malfoy's expression remained serious. "As it would yours to be known to associate with me," he said softly. Sliding both hands into his pockets, he held her gaze. "But you say just a handy little Obliviate and the problem's solved? Just like that?"

"Just like that. It'll be like you were never there."

Malfoy's look was pensive as he looked past her, murmuring absently, "Like it never happened."

He then proceeded to argue and negotiate his exact role in the arrangement, including how they would be dealing with the Dark objects themselves, proving he wasn't quite as blasé about the offer as he hoped to appear. Hermione conceded that she'd had a hand in choosing him specifically, though that clearly made him suspicious of the reason why. She got through it without having to admit she'd chosen him almost exclusively because of the skill he had with a wand, though; that admission would have made him absolutely impossible to work with.

In the end, he saw the logic in taking the Ministry's offer of employment, as it would help rebuild his reputation at least within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, if not with the general public.

He saw her out of the manor himself, which surprised her, though not as much as when he continued to hold the massive door for her as she arranged her scarf and hat, which she did self-consciously.

The moment awkward, she said, "Hey, what was that song?" At his furrowed brow, she elaborated, "The one from the music box."

"Oh... It's by Heathcote, a wizard composer. It's my mother's favorite."

He was studying her, and calculation was clear in his eyes. She'd begun an embarrassed farewell and made to leave by the time Malfoy had come to a hasty decision, looking none too pleased about it. Taking her by the elbow, he turned her to face him.

"Thank you." He seemed to be trying to imbue those two words with as much meaning as possible.

She was distracted for a moment by the warmth of his hand, though his expression remained cool. "For what?"

"Don't be coy, Granger. That's the only one of those you're going to get."

He left her then, alone at the door.

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AUGUST 1998


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"It was Malfoy's hesitation that allowed Sna—Professor Snape the time to get to the tower to fulfill his promise to Dumbledore. He was lowering his wand when the Professor arrived," Potter said, his eyes bright from the recollection, but his voice steady.

"I guess you could say that he kept Crabbe from killing Harry, yeah. But, I mean... I couldn't say why he did it, you know? No idea with that git." A dainty throat-clearing from the gallery had Weasley scowling and sitting up straighter. "But yeah, if Malfoy hadn't deflected the curse then... you know."

"His refusal to identify us was a key part of our escape and the subsequent rescue of the other prisoners held at Malfoy Manor. The doubt in Lestrange's and the others' minds delayed their call for Voldemort for long enough that Harry, Ron, and Dobby were able to mobilize," Granger said, articulate as usual. (Her ability to withstand a Cruciatus better than he'd seen from hardened Death Eaters was certainly a noteworthy part of the episode, but no one seemed to care about any of that here.)

The trial had been moving along at a fast pace. It was the third afternoon, and his attorney was already deep in his summation, waxing on and on about his being 'just a little boy,' and 'confused and buffeted by forces beyond his control.' The barrister made a great deal out of the fact that Draco hadn't killed anyone (an important point, of course), and that his greatest crimes were committed before he'd come of age. It was beginning to get repetitive even to Draco, whose coping strategy involved breathing in and out and keeping his mind off of the varying sentences hanging over his head.

Glancing to the Wizengamot to see how it was playing, he was shocked to see sympathetic nods and murmurings from more than a few of them. His lawyer had said he'd be at an advantage having not been held in custody at Azkaban before his trial, but Draco had been doubtful as to how much, and as to whether there would be a backlash against his having gotten special treatment.

At the trials of Terence Higgs, Marcus Flint, and Adrian Pucey, he had seen the ravages that could come over even the youngest and fittest of men in just a matter of months at the prison. A man in dirty gray clothes with a haunted look was easy to view as something foreign, as wholly unlike the esteemed members of the legal body judging them. They looked like criminals, like animals who deserved to be kept in a cage, and without exception, the Wizengamot had returned those who came from the prison back to it forthwith.

Yet here he sat, with his pressed robes and his combed hair, looking for all the world like, well... like just a boy who had been confused and buffeted by forces beyond his control. Seeing the reaction from the Wizengamot, Draco began to hope. Something like it had flared without his consent when he heard the testimony given by that infernal trio on his behalf before he had quashed it. No use hoping for the best when one should be busy preparing for the worst, as his father liked to say.

His father was in a cell in Azkaban for at least the next decade.

The rest of the trial flew by in a blur, with the deliberation taking only an hour. The verdict: released with three years of probation, regular checkups and limited travel. The fines tacked on were ridiculously paltry, given the Malfoys' net worth, and the requirement to find steady employment for the duration of his probation within the year was daunting but reasonable. If Draco were an optimist, he would have thought this marked some astounding reversal of fortune. But he had been raised to be as trustful as a tiger, to always keep his back to walls, and to never stop listening for the 'thunk' of the other shoe.

As his mother wept, his lawyer preened, and the flashbulbs flashed, more than two years of tension and fear slid from his shoulders. Not even the shouts from scattered protestors about 'miscarriages of justice' penetrated the feeling of sheer relief at finding his life back in his own hands, such as it now was. Of course, it all went to pot when Potter (the aptly named) walked up to him as he left the courtroom, hand outstretched.

Draco entertained the idea of just walking past him or saying something about 'the right kind of people' (or whatever it was the shite had said years ago), but with the aforementioned flashbulbs still flashing, he had no choice but to clasp the hand and dread the caption in tomorrow's Daily Prophet. (Did they deliver the paper to inmates at Azkaban?)

Hoping his grimace looked enough like a smile, he tried to think of something to say that would convey some sort of magnanimous gratitude without having to use any of the usual words to that effect. His relief was making him feel all kinds of newness and possibility, but there was no need to forget himself entirely. Potter, predictably and heroically, saved him the trouble.

"Hermione did this, Malfoy," Potter said lowly, his tone fervent but benign. "You would do well to remember you owe her one. Hell, we all do, but you most of all, and you will from now on."

People were starting to gather, excited at the sight of these two together, and about what might be happening, and what it must mean as they were frozen in this tableau, hands clasped. Draco rolled his shoulder and wished for them to all get lives.

"I won't be able to forget it, Potter." He squeezed the hand one more time and let go. "But I know I'll try my best to."

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MAY 2, 1998


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God, she wanted her mum. Her nerves were as raw as her skin, as brittle as her nails, as tangled as her hair. After a year in the wild, she was done with fighting, with fear, with bravery, and with sorrow.

As she lifted her eyes from the sight of Molly kneeling next to a lifeless Fred, brushing her fingers through his hair and whispering things only a mother could guess, Hermione reached the end of herself. She felt like she'd break into a million pieces and float off in the breeze if she had to take in any more of the heartache that surrounded her.

No more.

So, as she turned toward the scuffle and shriek across the Great Hall, it was with exquisite calm that she knew what she would do.

Lucius Malfoy was magically bound and being led away with an Auror to either side of him, a much more tired sneer than usual on his face. The attention of the room, however, was on his wife, as Narcissa wept loudly and clung to a stoic Draco. Hermione had always found it so poignant to see a woman with her grown son towering above her; the little boy becoming the comforter and protector to the mother who had for so long been his own. This was the picture now, as Malfoy attempted to calm his wailing mother while trying also to peel her off of him as a particularly burly Auror tried to get him in position for binding.

No more.

Hermione had a flash of memory – a face and a name in a hallway at Grimmauld Place – and started toward them. "Barrett," she called out, "hang on there."

All three were startled enough by her intrusion to freeze on the spot, their heads swiveling around. Malfoy narrowed his eyes as Hermione leveled a steadying look to him, but he didn't seem to absorb it through his exhaustion. She turned her full attention to Barrett.

"He's cleared. He's not going with the others." A minimum of information is key to passing off a lie; have the facts at your disposal for follow-up, but keep it simple until it's necessary. Use clear, concise statements.

"Cleared... I didn't hear anything about that," Barrett said, his annoyance plain.

She shrugged. "It's not being broadcast. None of the students associated with the Death Eaters are being taken from Hogwarts." Don't be too ingratiating and always maintain eye contact.

Barrett raised an eyebrow. "Associated? Look, Miss Granger, orders are anyone with a Mark, and we've processed all the others—"

"Here, check with McGonagall." Don't argue, but keep control of the conversation.

Hermione scanned the hall and easily found her, a little worse for the battle but as stiffly upright as ever, talking with a devastated Andromeda Tonks. No more.She caught the professor's eye and gestured for her. As the Headmistress took in the scene, her expression went quickly from curiosity, to understanding, to determination as she crossed to them. Out of the corner of her eye, Hermione saw that Narcissa, who had ceased her wailing, was now looking at her positively gobsmacked.

"Headmistress, I've been explaining the special situation presented by Malfoy... how, as a current student at Hogwarts, Kingsley had approved that he stay—" Worry about explaining to Kingsley later.

McGonagall caught on more quickly than even Hermione could have hoped. "That's correct, Mr. Barrett," she said in that clipped tone that was death to any argument. "I am not permitting Mr. Malfoy off the grounds. He is to remain in my care."

Hermione let out her relief in a long, silent breath, gladly relinquishing this to the older woman's skill.

What followed was a back-and-forth between McGonagall and Barrett; a tussle for which the latter was woefully overmatched. For each time he tried to use the term 'Death Eater' she countered with both 'student' and 'child,' and peppered in a fair few references to her title of Headmistress just for good measure. Recitations of the Hogwarts Charter and School Code and an evocation of Dumbledore and his promotion of community in the wizarding world brought a tear to Hermione's eye. In the end, Barrett removed all holds and restraints from Malfoy's person and left with all the slumped-shouldered presence of a chastised second-year.

McGonagall gave her a pointed yet pleased look. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Miss Granger." Turning, she said sternly, "I trust you have no objections to helping with the cleanup and repair of the castle, Mr Malfoy?"

When the question was met with silence, Hermione turned to Malfoy to see him fixing her with an expression she'd never before seen on him. It was as though she was the most astounding thing he'd ever encountered, but the very notion of it disturbed him to no end. She found herself staring back with equal interest.

"Mr Malfoy!"

Malfoy's startle was weary and about two seconds too late as he jerked his head around. "Yes, Ma'am. I'd..." He looked helplessly at his mother, who had taken his arm with both hands and didn't look to be ready to let go any time soon. Narcissa was looking at Hermione, her mouth trying to form words she'd probably never before had occasion to use.

"Mrs Malfoy," McGonagall said kindly, "as I just finished saying, Headmaster Dumbledore believed that Hogwarts, as the center of our world, should always be available to those who have need of it. There are a number of empty staff quarters which would likely suit you quite nicely."

Hermione got her first good look at Narcissa as she stood stripped of all presence and pretense. She was suddenly reminded that the woman's maiden name was 'Black,' as she could clearly see Sirius in both the angles of her face and the expression of despair. A flood of sentimentality, both affection and regret, washed over her, and she felt a kinship with both mother and son: Sirius' family.

Sirius had once told her that you never could tell where a Black's loyalties may lie; their appearances were sometimes deceiving. Hermione had figured much the same for Slytherins in general, and she'd realized that they were more loyal to people than to ideals. If you could figure out for whom they cared the most, then you'd have one of your best chances at predicting their next move. She was a big enough person to recognize when she had misjudged, and she'd had to revise her preconceived notions of both Snape and the Malfoys quite a bit.

"I'll assume that your dormitory will be suitable quarters to you for your stay, Mr Malfoy?" McGonagall waited only for his cursory nod. "Then I suggest that Miss Granger escort you back to it, so that we can be sure that no others become confused about where you're staying. Mrs Malfoy, if you'll follow me."

Narcissa reached up and almost desperately flung her arm about the back of Malfoy's neck, and he bent down to allow her embrace. She pulled back and held his face in her hands for a long moment, the emotion in that one look was one only a mother could guess. With a nod and a small but sincere smile at Hermione, she followed the Headmistress out.

And that was that.

Hermione was relieved that their exit put an end to Narcissa's attempts at a thank you. She didn't do anything for her really, not for her, and she didn't really want it to be mistaken as such. It was for decency, or for her own sanity, maybe, she wasn't sure. What she was sure of was that watching a lot of adults trying to kill and apprehend a bunch of kids could change your feelings about allegiances and sides. After all, if there was one thing kids usually trusted less than each other it was the older generation. Maybe Malfoy had refused to identify them at the manor because he'd recognized more of a common identity with the trio than with the cloaked figures that had surrounded them.

You can want to slaughter someone at Quidditch, but not want them dead. You can bitterly oppose an adversary and yet refuse to be the instrument of their defeat. Hermione could despise the little boy who had whinged and railed over a Hippogriff, but not want him spending even one night in the cold of Azkaban.

She was more than happy to leave the hall and gestured for Malfoy to follow. It wasn't until she reached the stairs down to the dungeon that it occurred to her to check that he was in fact behind her. He looked like she felt; as though he had never thought about what it would actually be like for it to all be over.

He caught up to her as she paused at the large vault-like door to the Slytherin dorms. Trying to think of something to say, she stood dumbly while Malfoy muttered the password under his breath and walked through. As he continued with purpose through the common room, she decided to follow. Just inside she paused, starting to deflate from the rush of this last adventure.

"Why did you do that?" Malfoy stood in an open doorway facing her, his voice gruff and challenging.

She turned toward him from the examination she'd been making of the room. She'd never been in the Slytherin quarters before.

"What were you trying to accomplish? It's not..." He shook his head, hands flying to the collar of his robes as though they were suddenly choking him, fingers furiously unbuttoning, reaching in and digging into the knot of his tie. He pulled it from around his neck and busied himself with wrapping it about his hand, repeatedly smoothing and straightening it. She was mesmerized by the sight. "It's not going to make any difference, you know." Still focused on his tie, head bowed, his voice sounded smaller.

"How can you know what will make a difference?"

He looked up, anger coloring the exhaustion. Throwing the tie into the darkness beyond the open door, he raked his fingers roughly over his scalp and leaned heavily on the doorframe, arms hugging himself. "Wasn't that what all of this was about? Fate, and prophecy, and all that rot... and inevitability. Yet you think your little con games and worthless gestures are going to change things?" His laugh was hollow as he shook his head. "Don't pretend that there's any way out of what's coming to me."

Hermione sighed and put her hands on her hips. "Inevitable is just what people call things when they can't see the trail that led there. Think about it; your wand brought down a tyrant today, Malfoy. How could you have foreseen the way to that?"

He stiffened and gave a hard look, nostrils flared. "I wasn't the one behind it."

"Are you sure about that, Malfoy?" Her imperious tone brought a scowl to his face, so she softened it. "If we learned anything in the past year, it's that there is no inevitable. A billion decisions and wins and losses go into everything that happens. Who's to know what action will set off a sequence of events that rush you toward a supposed destiny? Who can know what will push you further from your course? You can't say where you're going any more than you could see what your part was in getting here."

She was struck with a barrage of memories then; emotions and images she'd been storing in a dark corner of her mind, keeping for later when she had more time. It was always later, when she had more time.

Malfoy was looking at her steadily, and she saw his face open and without malice for the first time. She realized with a start that she'd never before been alone with him and wondered that it didn't feel strange. It felt fresh and new, but she knew it was time now to go. She turned to leave, hesitating a moment before turning back.

"No one thing anyone does is really insignificant, Malfoy. It seems like big things drive wars, and build nations, and pull people apart, and draw them together... but life is lived in the little things. Those are all that really matter."

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MAY 2, 2001


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She was a funny bird, once you got past the toxic cloud of perfume. (The trick, he'd discovered, was to take shallow breaths until you'd properly acclimated.) It was easy to keep a good distance from her tonight, though, since the voluminous skirt of her dress created quite a nice perimeter. Draco had also had a fair few flutes of champagne and very few hors d'oeuvres, so he was finding himself easily amused. Adding to that how little he desired to mingle, and the Honorable Lady Keddle, of the Keddles of Queerditch Marsh, made a most delightful companion.

Having gotten there early, he was hoping that he could just make a showing and be done with it by the time the speeches began. He'd been looking forward to seeing Hermione though, and was disappointed not to have spotted her by now. Draco knew there was no way that one third of the trio would be absent from the Third Annual Morbid Veneration of Death and Dying (as he'd termed it) and had counted on her as a sort of ally in the room. It wasn't looking like he'd need one though; all had greeted him with civility, if colored by a little suspicion here and there.

He wore no apologies on his sleeve, but he was ready to move forward, to transcend his past. Draco finally felt like he was on his way to becoming the man he wanted to be.

"Draco, dear, I had the loveliest conversation with your mother last week. She was wearing this baby blue gown that was such a beautiful compliment to her skin, and your father was in the most scrumptious royal blue frock coat. Such a stunning pair when they took to the dance floor!"

Draco hadn't heard that they were holding cotillions at Azkaban, but he supposed stranger things had happened. He'd tried to get Lady Keddle talking business, to see if she would slip into lucidity long enough for him to pump her for tips on an investment he was considering, but he was having no such luck. He'd decided, after a time, to just keep himself entertained; it didn't matter what you responded with to keep her going.

"Well, Father has always enjoyed a good dance. Mum took him to one under the lake the other day, and he had a very good foxtrot with the Giant Squid."

Her gaze sharpened. "Now, Draco, darling, don't you try to change the subject on me! Your parents were quite in a snit about you, and I said I'd help."

"A snit, were they? Not about the geraniums again, I hope?" he said, taking a languid sip from his flute.

"Oh! Geraniums are so lovely for a croquet court, but don't get me started on that." She grabbed his hand (mercifully, not the one holding the champagne) with a surprisingly strong grip and started to look about the room. "I've thought of the most perfect... ah, there she is."

Lady Keddle yanked him behind her as she took off at a quick pace through the thick of the crowd. She spoke over her shoulder, not having to worry about where she was going, as her scent and skirt caused people to afford her a wide berth.

"Your mother is particularly worried about you settling down, Draco, sweetling. Your father of course wants your happiness, but it's really weighing on your poor mum. I told her that I had the most keen eye for matchmaking this world had ever seen, and that really put her mind at ease."

Draco was a bit taken aback by that pronouncement, as it could have been another sliver of sanity from the Lady. His mother had indeed been harping on him for his lack of companionship; which he found rather irking, since she'd complained of his being gone so much when he'd had it. She had been speaking about grandchildren and legacies in lofty, flowery language and had taken to pointedly remarking on his age in comparison to her own when she'd gotten engaged.

None of this was surprising, considering the general attitudes of pure-bloods toward their heirs. But what was a shock was when she talked of changing times and shifting perspectives and spoke vaguely about strength from mixing with those of a 'different kind.' His mother had asked him only once about the end of his relationship and had respected that he hadn't wanted to speak of it, but it seemed that she'd understood what Hermione had meant to him, even through his silence.

Stumbling along behind Lady Keddle, he couldn't see where they were going due to her considerable girth, so he was taken off-guard when he was knocked into both Potter and Weasley as he was dragged between them. He pulled up short when she stopped abruptly, and his face made contact with the pungent taffeta between her shoulder blades. He pulled back with a cough as Keddle whipped around.

"Stand up straight, duckling," she whispered harshly before turning grandly, arm outstretched to reveal the person behind her. "May I present to you, Honorable Draco Malfoy of the Malfoys of Wiltshire, the Distinguished Hermione Granger of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Ministry for Magic of Great Britain."

Hermione stood wide-eyed, clad in an elegant periwinkle blue silk gown, her hair down but tied back loosely with a blue ribbon, curls falling forward over her bare shoulders. Draco brushed his hand through his own hair and cursed his undignified entrance, hoping he didn't appear as disheveled as he felt. She looked bloody brilliant and was giving Lady Keddle some sort of greeting which he couldn't quite hear over the rushing in his ears. His mouth went completely dry when she turned to him.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr Malfoy," she said. She extended her hand, a gentle smile on her lips.

Even the anticipation of meeting her here hadn't prepared him for having her standing in front of him. He hadn't seen her in months, but it was as warm and inviting in her presence as he remembered, like the gentle spring sun after months of hard winter. Suddenly the thought of just telling her how much he had missed her, as he'd planned, seemed trite and woefully inadequate.

He swallowed thickly and took her hand, bending to kiss it. "The pleasure is all mine, Miss Granger."

"Oh, there's Mr Peasegood. He's promised to help with the infestation of Tebos I've discovered in the front garden. As you know, they're quite difficult to control once they get themselves nested..." Lady Keddle walked off without farewell, still talking as she went.

Draco could see out of the corner of his eye that his mad dash across the room with the Lady had caused quite a stir. He and Hermione were being discreetly observed by the majority of the ballroom, including Potter and Weasley, though they seemed stoically neutral on the matter.

Long moments passed before he realized the two of them were frozen, her hand still in his. A flash went off to his right and he jumped, turning to see one of the photographers from The Prophet hurrying away with a chipper wave.

As Draco scowled after him, Hermione chuckled. "I take it this is your first time at the gala, Mr Malfoy?" Her mild smile belied the challenge of her raised eyebrow. Indeed? Well, he could play it that way.

"Yes," he said, blinking at the spots floating in his vision, "I hadn't seen the point in coming before now."

"Oh? And what brought you tonight? Are you part of Gringotts' presentation on new security measures?" She blushed, an obvious tell that she had been following his work over the past six months, and his heart leapt at the implication.

He looked away, anxious about what he was going to say, not knowing exactly how to start. Because even though he needed to make an appearance for work, that was not the main reason why he was there. There was more to it than that, and he owed Hermione an explanation.

Looking down to where his hand held hers, he began, "I was hoping to start over... or to see if I might. If I could get to know people in a different way, if then I might be someone different... or I could try to be, anyway." Merlin, he sounded like an idiot.

"I know what you mean," she breathed. "Is this with... anyone in particular?"

He forced himself to meet her eyes, finding gentle encouragement there. The hope he saw there too, mixed with not a little fear of her own, gave him the courage to go on. He took a deep breath and nodded. "I've... there's someone I've missed. See, I thought I had to do without. I thought I had to go it alone in order to be strong, and I wanted to be strong for her. I—"

"People can sometimes do awfully stupid things with the best of intentions." Her expression was nearly apologetic, and he was suddenly overwhelmed.

"No, I... You—"He shook his head in frustration. "She deserved more than I gave her."

She was looking at him intently, breathing deeply, her eyes bright. His heart was pounding, but he anchored himself in her gaze. He knew that this was cowardly, trying to talk like this, without really talking to her, but he wasn't good at this sort of thing. Hermione was the kindest person he'd ever known though, and he knew she could take pity on even him. He hoped she would be generous enough to accept what little he had to offer. While he was struggling to go on, she spoke again.

"Well, this is a great place to meet new people," she said, purposefully light. "And, I don't know who this girl is, but you're making a good first impression on me."

He exhaled a surprised laugh. Hermione Granger had once again swooped in on one of her rescue missions. This time, he was gracious enough to appreciate it and accept it gratefully as the lifeline it was.

He dipped his head and said lowly, "Well, to be fair, I think first impressions could be a bit distorted tonight, what with everyone in formal dress and on their best behavior."

She laughed outright at that and said, "Think of it as leveling the playing field, Mr Malfoy. Everyone deserves the chance to put their best foot forward... to have a new start." She paused, looking down for a moment, and when she raised her eyes again, her look was determined. "Everyone needs one, every once in awhile."

Draco had no idea how any part of him had ever felt that he could live without this woman. Feeling a kind of buzzing excitement he hadn't felt in forever, he said, "You know, I've heard that this thing can really drag on and that it's best to just cut out early."

Her eyes twinkled as she gave an abrupt nod. "I've heard that very same thing. Fancy a bite to eat?"

He nodded and smiled fully. Pulling the hand still in his to wrap about his arm, he turned them away from the majority of onlookers. "Indeed. There's a new Italian place by Fortescue's I've been wanting to try."

At the mention of the restaurant, Hermione seemed to remember where they were, noticing the audience they had attracted, and her cheeks flushed impossibly red as she looked around. About half of the spectators had moved on to other things once they realized that a scene was not forthcoming from the two famous former enemies, but there were a fair few who still watched with interest.

Looking uncertainly back at Draco, she said, "So it's alright if we..." At his steady look, she took a deep breath. "Diagon Alley it is, then?"

Draco had learned in the past three years how to hope; it was the woman at his side who had taught him. He felt it blooming in his heart now, but he was not naive.

He and Hermione could grow and change and work and strive, but he would always be more closed off than she wanted him to be. She would forever stumble into offering her help where it was unwanted. He would walk away from their problems, and she would misinterpret his feelings and jump to conclusions. They would fight and make up and fight again. Who they were, at the most basic level, would never really change. The challenge would always be in how willing they were to accept each other's limitations.

But every relationship started with the possibility of being new, with a chance to be something more with the other person than you were without them. That promise was always worth the risk.

Draco dropped her arm and placed his hand on her lower back. Gesturing grandly toward the exit, he said, "After you."

He ushered her ahead through the crowd, ignoring the way it parted before them as well as the waves of whispers that enfolded them. As he followed her out of the hall, his fingers stretched forward and grasped one end of the ribbon in Hermione's hair. With a tug, he pulled it free.

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: THE END :


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REQUEST:

Preferred rating: NC-17

Describe what you'd like in as few words/keywords as possible: Action/adventure, with a side of angst and a realistic slow-burning romance. Time/era-wise, aftermath of Deathly Hallows (so they're still relatively young), EWE.

Optional: Song, Poem, or Quote (title/original creator): Skinny Love by Bon Iver.

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