Disclaimer: In its use of intellectual property and characters belonging to JK Rowling, Warner Bros, Bloomsbury Publishing, et cetera, this work is intended to be transformative commentary on the original. No profit is being made from this work.

Author's Notes: First of all, a huge "thank you!" to my betas, Captainraychill and dormiensa. You rock my world, ladies. Thank you so much for your cheerleading, hand-holding, and fantastic feedback, comments, and suggestions, but most of all, your senses of humour. (Any remaining errors are mine. I made minor tweaks after beta.)

Secondly, this fic was originally written for the Treasured Tropes Challenge at Hawthorn & Vine. Every fic and every piece of art focusing on at least one of the many tropes in the Dramione fandom. :)

What is a 'missed connection'?

"A 'missed connection' is an occurrence where two or more people are unable to exchange contact information or the information that is exchanged is lost. These missed connections are generally associated with romance. Often seen in the personals section of newspapers as 'I saw you' messages, they are placed by one person hoping to catch the attention of and establish contact with an individual whom they found intriguing." (From )

"A section of Craigslist where people can post about strangers they saw on the subway, at work, in elevators, at rock shows." (From )

"If you're wondering what a 'missed connection' is, think of it as anyone you've ever met or just exchanged glances with and want to get in touch with, but you don't have their contact details. Some situations Missed Connections can help you with:

You were too chicken to ask for somebody's number

You're looking for a long lost friend

Any other missed connection you can dream up

You can also use Missed Connections to post about a crush you have at work or somewhere else." (From )

Saturday, September 18, 2004

"Hermione, I'm starving! Haven't you read all of these already?" Ron complained for the third time in five minutes. He'd just been reading the Quidditch results in the day's issue of the Daily Prophet, which had put him in a grumpy mood because the Cannons had lost – again. Now, he was champing at the bit to leave Flourish & Blotts. He waved a hand in my direction. "Harry's hungry, too. Look at us, we're wasting away."

Hermione was stretching up to reach a book from the top shelf of the Magical History section. "Ron," she said, "It is very nice of you, Harry, and Ginny to take me to lunch for my birthday, but we just spent an hour in Quality Quidditch Supplies and another forty-five minutes in your brother's shop so you could flirt with his clerk, Verity. You and Harry can wait a few more minutes for lunch while I buy myself a present." She retrieved the book, tossed her old Gryffindor scarf over her shoulder, and began to read on the spot.

I laughed. "Hermione's right, Ron. She deserves some time to pick out a new book. Besides, we said we'd wait here for Ginny before we go eat." I pointed at the paper he held loose in one hand. "See anything new in the Personals?"

The Daily Prophet had recently started printing a Personals adverts section. Some of the messages were sickeningly sweet, some sad, and most were just awfully, hilariously pathetic. We Aurors had a good time passing them around on slow days at the office.

Ron brightened up a bit. "Hey, I haven't checked. Let me see…" He flipped to the inside back page of the paper and began to scan through them. I grinned. He was mumbling to himself as he read.

"Ha, this one's brilliant." He cleared his throat and read aloud, " 'You: A spectacled witch with big bosoms and bright red lips. Me: a tall, dark wizard with a big ebony wand. I saw you in the special waiting room at St. Mungo's. My problem's cleared up, how about yours? Owl me if you're cured.'"

We both burst into peals of laughter. Even Hermione snorted, ensconced in her book though she was.

Ron wiped tears from his eyes. "Oh, oh, here's another! 'You used the stall next to mine in the Leaky Cauldron's men's room. I laughed at your farts. They were most impressive. You said I sounded like a donkey. Or maybe it was an "ass", I forget. Respond here if you remember me.'"

He and I cracked up again, holding our sides. My glasses fogged up and his hat fell off. Hermione huffed and closed her book. "How lovely. Bathroom humour gets you two every time. Would you two little boys please stop reading aloud those desperately awful Personals and let me have some peace? Thank you!" She put that book back on the shelf, selected another, and turned away from us. Ron's stomach grumbled and he stuck his tongue out at Hermione's back. I shook my head. I thought, once again, how glad I was they weren't dating anymore. One of them would have surely killed the other by now.

I decided we needed to give Hermione some space. "C'mon, Ron, let's go check out the Defensive Magic section. I've been looking for something on Disillusionment techniques for the new Auror recruits. "

Ron muttered, "Maybe you can't find anything because they are Disillusioned," as he nevertheless slumped off towards the rear of the store.

Scowling at the floor, he wasn't watching where he was going and almost ran smack into Draco Malfoy. It took some slick footwork on Malfoy's part to avoid a collision, and he instinctively drew his wand, at the same time dropping the package he was carrying onto Ron's foot. Ron cursed and grabbed his foot, hopping on one leg, and the two of them glared at each other.

Malfoy, realizing who it was, relaxed and slid his wand back into the holster hidden under his sleeve. "Watch where you're going, Weasley," he drawled. He brushed imaginary dirt off his Auror's uniform. "You'd better not have caused damage to my books."

Ron set his foot down gingerly and scooped up Malfoy's parcel. He shoved it roughly at him. "I'll damage your looks, you arrogant git. If anything was hurt, it was my big toe. Why are you in here instead of working, Malfoy? Aren't you on duty?"

"Ever hear of a lunch break, Weasel?" Malfoy asked. "I came in to buy something to read while I eat. You know what reading is, don't you, Weasley? It's that thing that youdo while moving your lips."

I stifled a laugh behind a cough, remembering Ron's mumbling perusal of the Personals minutes before. Ron's face darkened and his fists clenched, even as his stomach rumbled audibly. Uh oh. A hungry Ron is an ill-humoured Ron. It was time for me to step in before he started swinging.

I nudged him towards the exit. "Ron, go grab a table at the Leaky and order our food. Ginny'll be along soon, and we'll all join you." I lowered my voice. "Don't forget to request the cake for Hermione."

Ron's face lost some of its angry scowl at the promise of imminent grub. "Yeah, all right, Harry. See you over there." He shot a look at Malfoy. "Watch yourself, ferret," he said, and made a rude gesture as he left the shop.

Malfoy shook his head in mock awe. "Ah, Weaselbee. Always ready with the swift repartee." He turned to me. "All's quiet in the wizarding world, Potter. You aren't missing anything. You picked a bad day to take a day off work."

I shrugged. "Oh, I don't know about that. Any day that involves birthday cake is a day worth taking off in my book."

He raised an eyebrow. "Today's Granger's birthday, is it? What is she now, twenty-five?"

"Yes. As a matter of fact, her birthday's tomorrow, but since she's spending her actual birthday with her parents, we're celebrating with her today." My cheeks reddened with embarrassment as it dawned on me that we hadn't invited him to join us. I felt a small pang of guilt. He was my officemate and partner, after all. He'd pulled the pure-blood supremacy stick out of his arse after the war, and he'd turned out to be a halfway decent bloke. Ron still didn't like him much, but Hermione seemed to tolerate him well enough. Yes, he was still arrogant and snarky, but the prejudice was gone. Now, he showed equal disdain for everyone. "You, uh, you're welcome to have lunch with us, if you'd like," I said, wincing at how lame that sounded.

Malfoy's eyes glinted, but he shook his head. "Hmm. Thanks for thinking of me at the last moment, Potter, but I'm working hard, remember?" He pursed his lips in thought. "So, an older woman, eh? Is that why she and Weasel split up? He didn't want to be Granger's boy toy?"

"She's not that much older, Malfoy. We were all in the same year." I completely ignored his questions about their breakup. He and I had settled our differences and got along fairly well now, but even though he was a damned good Auror, partner, and poker player, my two best friends' love lives were none of his business.

Hermione and Ron had split over a year and a half ago. They'd had the dullest romance on record. It had annoyed Hermione and frustrated Ron. He'd been afraid of losing her friendship when he suggested they see other people, but she had taken it remarkably well. Hermione had confided to me later that it had been the biggest relief she'd felt in a long time. They truly were better off as friends. Since the breakup, Hermione had had two casual relationships, neither very serious, but Ron had only managed three failed blind dates in the last eighteen months. He'd been hoping to get somewhere with Verity, but she hadn't been showing much interest. If Malfoy knew the details, I wouldn't put it past him to needle Ron about his unromantic nature or something equally harsh. He enjoyed it too much to pass up a chance to ruffle Ron's feathers. The fact that Malfoy had a fairly constant stream of girlfriends passing through his life didn't help matters. He'd probably offer to set Ron up with one of his cast-offs.

I could tell he was about to say something, and I was ready to cut him off when feminine laughter and cries of delight from the front of the shop distracted both of us. Other shoppers looked up, smiling good-naturedly as they peered around for the happy woman. I left Malfoy and headed towards the sound.

It was Hermione. She had a brilliant smile on her face and was clutching a book to her chest. She had tossed aside her cloak due to the warmth of the shop and but still wore her scarf, which fluttered as she bounced up and down. "Look, Harry, the new edition of Hogwarts: A History has arrived at last! I knew it was due out this month. This is the perfect birthday present to buy myself!" Her eyes shone as she kissed me on the cheek and then made a beeline for the shop clerk to make her purchase, weaving neatly around the other patrons. "Hi, Malfoy," she said brightly as she brushed past him.

"Granger," was all he said in reply as he turned and watched her disappear up the aisle. She looked every inch the eager schoolgirl, with her red and gold argyle, knee-high socks, grey jumper, and short plaid skirt. It swayed in time to her rapid steps, just like it always had in the halls of Hogwarts. I gazed after her fondly, grinning – at least, until I realized that all of Malfoy's attention was focused on my best friend's bum in that swishy, little skirt.

What? My mouth gaped in surprise, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. He couldn't really be checking out Hermione…could he? When I re-opened them, the scene was the same. Malfoy was still looking intently in the direction that Hermione had gone. His eyes were half-lidded, and he had an almost predatory look on his face. Suddenly, he came out of his trance-like state, turned, and did a double-take when he saw me staring at him.

"Once a swot, always a swot," he said with a sneer, jerking his head towards Hermione. "And only a swot would think a copy of a book she'd already memorized was a great gift. I've wasted enough time around you Gryffindors; I'm off to have lunch – in peace." With that, he headed out the door, letting it slam shut behind him.

Now, there was the Malfoy I knew. I laughed at myself for jumping to conclusions and thinking there actually had been some sort of spark in his eyes. Of course there hadn't been. It just wasn't possible.

There was no way that Draco Malfoy could possibly fancy Hermione Granger.

Monday morning, September 20, 2004

"Harry! What's this?" Hermione tossed that morning's edition of the Daily Prophet onto my desk. I stared at it bleary-eyed. I was more of a night person, and Ginny and I had made the most of that fact last night. I hadn't yet had my four morning cups of black coffee, so I was still slow on the uptake.

I hazarded a guess. "A newspaper?"

"Of course it's a newspaper, you prat. I meant what's this?" She stabbed at the paper with her index finger for emphasis. It was folded to the Personals section. With my nose almost touching the page, I stared at the circled box of text she'd indicated until it swam into focus. It read:

'You: Are a lover of books with a head of riotous brown curls, whom I saw in Flourish & Blotts on Saturday. Me: Tall, handsome, and humble. I like the swish of your skirt. Reply here if you can tell me how to Apparate into Hogwarts.'

I continued to stare at the words as my brain processed them. Realization reared its ugly blond head. With my face turned away from Hermione to buy time, I closed my eyes in disbelief.

Oh, my God. Draco Malfoy does fancy Hermione Granger.

"Well?" she demanded. "What do you make of it?"

I lifted my head, removing my glasses at the same time, ostensibly to clean them. In reality, I wanted to hide my reactions behind a near-sighted, unfocused squint. As I polished them with my sleeve, I carefully considered what to say. I didn't want to be dragged into this without knowing more, first.

"Sounds rather a lot like a description of you," I began. My glasses really were awfully dirty.

Hermione snatched up the paper. "That's what Susan said, too, when she showed it to me. I was wearing my little tartan kilt that day." I knew without looking that she was reading it again, even though I was sure she'd already memorized it before she came to my office…

… the office I shared with Malfoy.


He hadn't arrived yet, but he'd be there any moment. I really needed my coffee before trying to deal with his compulsive arrogance and Hermione's obsessive tendencies.

"I guess some mysterious stranger took a fancy to you at the bookshop on Saturday," I said quickly, shoving my glasses onto my face and standing up. I picked up my extra-large coffee mug that said Aurors Do It with Constant Vigilance! "You did look nice in that outfit you had on, and the shop was crowded." I grinned. "Lots of blokes like short, pleated skirts. Ginny looks great in her old Hogwarts uniform."

Hermione shot me an amused glance. Feeling my face growing red, I quickly added, "Why are you asking me about it, anyway? I certainly didn't write it." I gestured with my mug towards the door in a silent suggestion of getting a hot beverage. She turned and slowly followed me, eyes still glued to the paper.

"I know you didn't write it, Harry. I was hoping you might know who did. Do you have any guesses?" She was biting her lip, a sure sign of anxious thoughts. "I've been thinking I might write back, but, well, who could it be? I wish I knew so I could decide."

"Hermione, that's supposed to be part of the allure of these things, isn't it? You know: the whole wondering and guessing bit, imagining who your secret admirer might be," I hedged.

"So, you didn't notice anyone, um, noticing me?" she asked, her cheeks turning pink.

"Noticing you what, Granger?" The dreaded, familiar drawl came from the doorway. Damn, I was too late. Hermione and I both looked up to see Malfoy lounging against the frame with a smirk on his face, looking entirely too awake for that hour of the morning. How was it that his hair was never, ever messy? I sighed as I ran a hand through the rat's nest on my own head.

"Someone's written a missed connection in the Daily Prophet that fits Hermione's description," I said, ignoring her protest and pulling the paper out of her hand. I held it up so Malfoy could see the ad in question. I watched his face carefully, but though his eyes definitely moved across the page, his expression remained in a barely-interested, mostly-bored state.

"Hmm. I suppose it could be you, Granger," he said. His gaze flicked from the advert to her. "You certainly do have riotous hair." He pushed the paper aside and moved to his desk, dropping his satchel. "So, can you?" he asked, unbuttoning and removing his cloak. Underneath, he wore the black trousers, white shirt, and sleeveless green doublet that were part of the new Auror outfit. Reinforced with defensive spells, the doublet was the magical equivalent of a Muggle bullet-proof vest. Like the rest of us, Malfoy wore it whenever on duty. Unlike the rest of us, his doublet was spotless and wrinkle-free. Just like his hair, I thought grumpily. Git.He looked a bit like a blond version of Errol Flynn.

Hermione seemed distracted and didn't appear to have heard the question. Malfoy asked again. "Can you, Granger?"

"Can I what?" she asked, genuinely puzzled.

Malfoy spoke slowly. "Can you tell that pathetic, mysterious advert writer how to Apparate into Hogwarts? Or are you afraid to admit you don't know the answer to his question?"

She glared at him. "I most certainly do know the answer," she spluttered. "You would, too, if you had read Hogwarts: A History, Malfoy. Honestly, you're as bad as Harry and Ron."

"Then, I dare you to stop faffing about, show some Gryffindor courage, and write him back," Malfoy said. "But, Granger, be assured that while Potter may share a very small fraction of my more impressive traits and skills with me, I am in no way, shape, or form even remotely similar to the Weasel." Sitting down at his too-neat desk, he flipped open one of our case files with one hand and picked up his own coffee mug with the other. In bold green letters, the slogan emblazoned on it read: This Sexy Auror Wants to Slytherin to Your Bed. Without looking up, he said, "While you're up..." and wiggled the cup in the air.

Hermione and I looked at each other in amazement. Then, to my surprise, she reached out and snatched the mug from his hand. "All right, then. Are you that trusting, Malfoy?" she asked with a wicked glint in her eye.

He looked up at her tone. "Whether I trust someone or not depends on the person. Weasley? Not on my life. Potter? It depends on whether he's gotten laid recently. As for you, Granger…" Their eyes met, and he considered her unblinkingly for several seconds before tweaking an eyebrow at her and returning to his file. Hermione frowned and opened her mouth to say something – most likely a demand that he finish what he'd been saying – but I quickly led her away towards the tea-and-coffee station.

I filled my mug to the brim and swigged down about half the scalding liquid in one gulp as she silently began to prepare Malfoy's coffee. "I can't believe you are actually fetching and carrying for him, Hermione," I said. She smiled sweetly at me but said nothing as she dropped in the two sugars – no more, no less – that Malfoy always added. Then, she reached towards the cream, of which he always used a gallon, it seemed. Instead of the cream, though, she selected the carton of skim milk that stood beside it. Dumping in a generous portion, she stirred the coffee thoroughly before adding another two sugars, tasting it, and adding yet another two.

"There, that should do it. Let's see if he ever suggests to me that I get his coffee again," she said with a nasty grin. We walked back to my office, where Malfoy was busily making notes. I put my cup on my desk and threw myself into my chair.

Hermione placed Malfoy's Slytherin cup on its coaster. He nodded his thanks, eyes still glued to his parchment, and reached for the mug, lifting it to his lips. Hermione winked at me before leaving. I had just enough time to flip open my own copy of the case file and look engrossed before Malfoy spewed a great mouthful of the hot, sickly-sweet, weakly-caffeinated mess across his desk. "Granger!" he shouted.

My face hidden, I let myself grin hugely. Atta girl, Hermione, I thought.

Tuesday morning, September 21, 2004

Susan Bones met me at the main door to the Auror Office the minute I arrived the next morning.

"She's written him back, Harry. Look!" Susan actually squealed. I winced at the sound. Didn't anyone realize how important my morning caffeine was for my higher functions? I tried to focus on the advert but failed miserably.

"What are you talking about, Sue?" I muttered, dropping my bag at my office door. I didn't even hang up my cloak before going to get coffee. Ron was there, too, yawning so wide his head was in danger of splitting in two. He was just pouring himself some tea.

Susan had followed me. "I'm talking about that mysterious missed connection from yesterday that described Hermione. Remember she showed you? She wrote back to him!" Just then Ron snorted tea up his nose and began to splutter. I started banging him on the back. Susan cleared her throat and read, "'You: Complimented my skirt, for which I thank you. As for your question, Apparition into or out of the Hogwarts grounds is impossible. Haven't you read Hogwarts: A History? If not, you should. It's fascinating. It even refers to the Chamber of Secrets and the cockatrice that was petrifying all those Muggle-borns.'"

Hunh. A deliberate mistake on her part. It seemed Hermione wasn't going to waste time. She was testing this "mystery wizard". "Hmm," I said aloud. "That sounds like her. Are you sure she wrote it?"

"I asked her when she got in. She gave me one of those wicked smiles of hers. It's brilliant." Susan shook her head, beaming with Hufflepuff pride at her partner's boldness, and went back to the office she and Hermione shared.

"What… what's all that about?" choked Ron, fighting to get his breath back. "Did I miss something? Hermione's answering Personals adverts now? Why did she say it was a cocka – "

I elbowed him in the ribs. Even though we were the only two there at the moment, I didn't want anyone overhearing him. If Malfoy was going to woo Hermione through the newspaper, he was going to have to do it on his own. No hint-dropping from anyone. "She's challenging him, the way he challenged her. You know how Hermione loves a challenge." I quickly filled a spare mug with coffee and left him standing there, looking bemused.

Back at my office, I retrieved my bag from the hall and found Malfoy already in place at his desk. He was munching an apple—green, of course, his favourite— and reading the Daily Prophet. I said nothing as I hung up my cloak. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that he was perusing the Personals page. Suddenly, the chewing stopped. A smile slowly crept onto his face, and I saw him circle Hermione's response with his quill. He then slid the paper partly under his desk blotter, concealing the advert from view.

"Good morning, Potter," he drawled, Vanishing his apple core with a quick wave of his wand. I toasted him with my mug and began to put the finishing touches on a report I'd written the day before. While doing that, I wordlessly cast a Reflecting Charm on the framed photo of Ginny I had on my desk. It was angled just right so I could watch Malfoy. Sure enough, instead of immediately finishing his own paperwork, he put quill to parchment and, referring back to Hermione's missed connection in the Daily Prophet, started to write what had to be his response. It took him a good few minutes to write it, too. He seemed to have more to say this time. Finally, after blowing on the letter to dry the ink, he folded it carefully, scribbled the Prophet's address on it, and tucked it away in his pocket.

I hated to admit it, but I was starting to become curious about this whole exchange. Hermione had deliberately made a mistake when she said the monster in the Chamber of Secrets was a cockatrice. It had never been widely discussed that the creature had been a basilisk. Would Malfoy know the real answer? If he did, that was sure to intrigue Hermione even more. That thought left me sitting there in horror, staring at my messily-scrawled report for a minute. I finally shook my head and cast a Perfect Penmanship Spell on it so it would be legible. Hermione and Draco? No. I just couldn't fathom it.

"Aurors Malfoy and Potter, I need you out in the field. We've had a reported sighting of Rabastan Lestrange," Head Auror Robards said as he strode in.

"Yes, sir," we said in unison. I tapped the report with my wand, sending it off to its lucky recipient, and followed Malfoy out the door. Enough paper-pushing. It was time to earn our Galleons.

Wednesday, noontime, September 22, 2004

It was raining cats and dogs. The Dancing Unicorn, the pub near the visitors' entrance to the Ministry, was our favourite place for lunch on a rainy day. It was close by, there was plenty of good food and drink, and Phineas Firkin, the proprietor, was a Squib who had a knack for serving Muggles and magical folk alike.

Malfoy and I had joined Ron and Neville at one of the booths in the back. We had just gotten our drinks, ordered our food, and sat down when Hermione and Susan came bustling in. There was just enough space for them to sit with us, so we waved them over. They quickly ordered drinks and pub lunches from the barman, took off their dripping cloaks, and crammed in beside us: Susan next to Ron and Hermione next to Malfoy. Hermione tossed a small notebook onto the table before sitting, saying she had to finish writing down her case notes before she ate. She whipped out a pencil and immediately set to work.

I ended up squashed against the wall, with Neville across from me looking equally uncomfortable. Malfoy squirmed a bit, bumping against both Hermione and me, before he said, "Well, Potter, as friendly as we are now, I have no desire to be quite this close to you." He lifted his right arm and casually draped it across the back of the seat behind Hermione. He sighed contentedly. "That's much better."

I suddenly had much more breathing room, and a quick glance told me that Malfoy had shifted himself along the bench as he'd moved his arm, so that his thigh was pressed against Hermione's. She seemed oblivious, bent over her notebook as she was, scribbling away. "There!" she exclaimed, adding the last period to the page with a flourish. "I've really got to get a new Quick-Quotes Quill. They are so much faster." She closed the notebook and stuffed it into the pocket of her uniform doublet. When she sat back she was startled by the presence of Malfoy's arm. "Oh! Well, hello, Malfoy. Making ourselves comfortable, are we?" She said it with such a saucy grin on her face it was obvious she didn't mind.

"Due to the tight quarters in this booth, Granger, it was either you or my partner who was going to receive the benefit of my embrace. There was no contest. You smell much better than Potter does," he said lazily, settling himself against the seat back. Hermione's cheeks took on a rosy tint at his words, but she said nothing else and didn't try to wiggle away from him.

You dog, Malfoy.

Neville had been working the magical crossword in the Daily Prophet before Susan and Hermione's arrival. Still a bit pink, Hermione asked to borrow the paper and he slid it over, saying, "Yeah, take a look at 22 Across. What's a nine-letter Latin word meaning, 'to tickle'?"

"Titillare," Hermione said immediately, and she quickly filled it in before she began to flip through the Prophet. The silence at the table made her look up. "What?"

"How do you always bloody well know the answers, Hermione?" asked Ron admiringly, while the rest of us just stared at her.

Hermione scoffed. "Well, that one was easy. It's the Hogwarts motto: 'Draco dormiens numquam titillandus.' Loosely translated, it means, Never tickle a sleeping dragon."

"Oh, I don't know about that," drawled Malfoy. "It would depend on where I was being tickled." He wiggled his eyebrows at the two women. "And on who was tickling me." We men chuckled. Susan laughed, casually leaning against Ron as she did so, and Hermione's entire face turned a deep rosy color.

"Anyway," she continued, ignoring Malfoy, "It's on the Hogwarts crest, so all of you have seen it." She looked pointedly at Ron, Malfoy, and me. "Even those of you who haven't read Hogwarts: A History." Ron and I protested good-naturedly, but Malfoy just sat with a maddening little smile on his face.

She quickly turned back to the newspaper. Turning to the Personals section, she skimmed through the adverts, gave a small shout of triumph, and turned the paper around so Susan could read it. "He answered. Look." She indicated the correct missed connection. Susan clapped with delight and read it aloud:

'You know perfectly well, my dear, that it was a basilisk, not a cockatrice, that Petrified you in our second year. Strange that neither creature was covered in any of our D.A.D.A. classes. One would think that our professor would've made sure we learned more about such dangerous creatures, given his... beastly nature. You test me, I test you, pretty witch.'

Hermione was smiling as Susan finished. Susan looked at her. "You're going to write back, aren't you?" At that, Ron rolled his eyes. Neville looked a bit confused, as he hadn't been filled in by anyone on Hermione's burgeoning Want Ad Romance. I tried to keep a mildly-interested poker face, and Malfoy smirked. I had to fight the urge to poke him with my wand. Hermione seemed to really be enjoying this game, and I needed to remember she could take care of herself.

Before she could say more than, "Oh yes, I intend to. I already have an idea," our food arrived, and soon our mouths were too busy for conversation.

Thursday afternoon, September 23, 2004

Malfoy had been in a bad mood all day. It started that morning, when he'd noisily skimmed through the entire day's Daily Prophet, angrily flipping through the pages, before balling it up and tossing it into the air, incinerating it with an Incendio Charm, and letting the ashes fall like snow. He muttered things under his breath along the lines of "should have known" and "can't trust that witch" and "my own damned coffee" as he stomped out the door.

While he was gone, I quickly checked my own copy of the paper (I never read it, but it was great for lining owl cages) and discovered that there was no missed connection advert from Hermione. So thatwas what had his wand in a knot. That seemed odd, though. She'd been having fun with this Lonely Hearts game. Why would she just stop like that?

Before I could head over to her office to ask her, Malfoy came back into our office just long enough to say "Potter, dueling practice. Let's get the hell out of here. Now."

I wasn't going to argue. I've always liked dueling, except for that catastrophic first attempt with Gilderoy "Shite for Brains" Lockhart during second year, so I followed him to the Duelling Range without comment. We spent hours cursing and hexing one another. I knew he needed to blow off some steam, so I focused on irritating the hell out of him by just barely avoiding his attacks. His near-misses wound him right up tight, and he attacked with increasing vigour as the afternoon wore on. By the time Malfoy decided he'd had enough, we'd worked up a fearsome sweat. Our doublets were soaked through and had taken a lot of magical damage; they needed complete recharges of all their protective enchantments. By then, Malfoy had passed being actively angry and had slipped into the silently-fuming stage of his usual bad mood cycle. I ignored his silence, not wanting to get him riled up again. We stripped down and hit the showers and then grabbed a takeaway meal of fish and chips from the Ministry's cafeteria. There was to be an all-staff meeting at five o'clock, and we'd missed out on lunch.

These meetings were almost always excruciatingly long and dead boring unless someone had a juicy case to discuss. I usually sat near Ron and we both would make faces at Hermione, trying to make her snort out a laugh, but she wasn't there. That was odd for Miss Punctuality, but her partner Susan was also absent and Robards didn't seemed concerned.

Malfoy and I reported on the alleged sighting of Rabastan Lestrange we'd investigated on Tuesday, which had turned out to be a false lead. A ninety-three-year-old witch, whose family had suffered at the hands of the Lestranges in the first Wizarding War, had been spooked by a cat outside her window and had contacted the Aurors in a panic. We'd checked the area and reassured her all was safe and sound, after which she'd given us each a chocolate biscuit in thanks. When we had finally started to leave, she had pinched Malfoy's bum. He left that part out of his report, so I made sure to include it in my part of the story. We had to be thorough in our jobs as Aurors, after all. My added comments earned me chuckles from my colleagues and an under-the-table Stinging Hex from my sulky partner. It was worth it.

Just as the meeting was ending after two hours of monotony, Hermione came bursting in through the door with Susan right behind her. Hermione's sleeve was torn and her wand arm was in a sling. Susan sported a nasty black eye. Both of them were glowing with self-satisfied pride.

It turned out they'd been in Marrakesh, Morocco for the past twenty-four hours on Robards' orders, tracking down a hot lead on the whereabouts of the Carrows. It had been quite exciting, it seemed. They'd had several close calls with some dangerous characters, including Fenrir Greyback. That announcement caused a ripple of concern among the rest of us, but they assured everyone that they were fine. After all, they said, minor injuries came with the job. In the end, they'd found out where the siblings' hideout was and had visually confirmed its location. Susan and Hermione had wisely returned home to report their findings. With their intel, we would be able to formulate a plan of attack so that the Carrows – and Greyback - could finally be apprehended.

Everyone congratulated them on a job well done, and on our way out the door, Ron and I stopped to praise them individually. I gave Susan a quick squeeze as Ron hugged Hermione, and then I hugged Hermione while Ron engulfed Susan in a tight embrace, which lingered on for rather longer than a merely friendly hug might do. Hermione and I caught each other's eye. She winked, I grinned, and then Malfoy approached.

The scowl he'd worn all day had vanished. He stopped in front of Hermione, looking quite pale (and for him, that's saying something). After staring at her for several seconds, he pulled her into a quick, tight hug. "Well done, Granger," I heard him say, though it was barely audible with the way he had his face hidden in her hair. He then pulled back, put both hands on her shoulders, and studied her intently for several more seconds before finally striding out of the room. Hermione looked after him with a quizzical look on her face. I hugged her once more before following Malfoy. He was going to give himself away before much longer with that sort of un-Slytherin-like behaviour, I thought to myself, smiling.

When I got to our office, Malfoy already had his cloak slung over one arm and his satchel over his shoulder. I was surprised he was still there at all until I saw why he had lingered. He was standing beside my desk with a deeply thoughtful expression on his face. In his hands he held a copy of the Evening Prophet. When I entered, he looked up, tossed the paper casually onto my desk, and said, "'Til tomorrow then, Potter." He swept out of the room like a knight off to battle.

What a drama queen. Rolling my eyes, I picked up the paper. Just as I'd thought, it was folded open to the Personals section. I scanned through the adverts, wondering if I'd be able to spot it… and there it was: Hermione's reply to the Mysterious Stranger's last note.

'Don't be ridiculous. Professor Lupin was a wonderful teacher and a true friend. I miss him terribly. He was smart, kind, and noble. He was certainly not a monster. He struggled to overcome his 'beastly nature', as you call it, every day of his life. No, the real beast is the one who attacked Lupin as a small boy and forced his affliction upon him, the one who also mauled Bill Weasley and scarred him for life. Fenrir Greyback is the true monster.'

Friday, September 24, 2004

I always brought a basket of Molly's homemade blueberry muffins into the office on Fridays. Contrary to what Malfoy hinted at, I was not trying to curry favour with the boss. I just didn't want them all at 12 Grimmauld Place. I would end up eating all of them, and then Ginny would complain that she didn't get any, and then Molly would send twice as much home with her daughter the next week.

Instead of going through all that, I would leave half a dozen at home and take the rest to work, where they were scarfed up by all the hungry Aurors within minutes. That way, Ginny couldn't complain that she didn't get any, and I didn't have to worry about not getting any.

I left a muffin next to the green apple on Malfoy's desk blotter, since I didn't want to deal with a repeat of his sulk from the day before, and went to drop off the rest at the tea-and-coffee station. When I got there, I glanced over at Ron's office to see if he was in and almost dropped the basket. He was in, all right. There he stood, with his arms wrapped around Susan, kissing her like there was no tomorrow. She was clinging to him tightly with her hands in his hair, and she was enthusiastically returning his snog.

Well well well. Ron had found love at last. Good for you, mate. I grinned as I filled my mug with coffee, poured tea into another mug, took two of the muffins just before the vultures descended, and made my way over to see Hermione.

I stopped dead in her doorway. Hermione's arm sling was gone (thanks to the wonders of magical healing draughts) and she was reading the Prophet like she did every morning.

Unlike every morning, she was weeping.

"Hermione! What's wrong?" I put down her tea and muffin and sat on the corner of her desk.

"Oh, Harry. Read his response!" She handed me the paper and then blew her nose loudly.

Even if she hadn't circled the advert in question, I would have had no trouble finding Malfoy's message. It was by far the longest on the page. It read:

'Greyback is a true monster. Truer words were never written. He is vile, evil, and grotesque.

Did you know that Death Eaters would capture Muggle children and take them to Greyback during the full moon? They did. They enabled his murdering, sadistic, cannibalistic desires, and they would bet on how long each child would last. That makes them even bigger monsters than he.

I have just now realised, my lovely, brilliant witch, that this means I, too, am a monster. No, I never bet on the death of a child, but I made choices and did things that enabled Greyback to harm good, brave people. Good people who were your friends, your classmates… and you.

I am so very sorry, sweetness. Can you forgive me?

I am not sure I can forgive myself.'

Feeling rather shaken by the emotion and vulnerability contained in Malfoy's message, I dropped the paper and handed Hermione another tissue. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose again before Vanishing the now-soggy mess. I've thought it more than once: Evanesco is a damned handy spell.

"Well," I began, noticing how dirty my glasses were again and pulling them off my face. "What do you make of that? Are you going to answer him?"

Hermione sniffled a bit and didn't immediately answer my question. I found that my shirttail was not a very good polishing cloth. Either that or the stains on my glasses were extremely stubborn.

Instead of speaking, Hermione took out a quill and some parchment and began to write. I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. Then, it hit me. Malfoy had done the same thing when answering her reply to his first message.

My glasses now clean, I sat quietly, eating my muffin and absently swinging my leg back and forth. I stopped when Hermione glared at me over the top of her quill.

When she was finished, she dried the ink and handed the parchment to me. "How does this sound?" she asked.

'When a person is forced into a situation where every choice is a bad one, with no way to escape the situation, he is not a monster. He is as much a victim of war and hatred and bigotry as the people who may be harmed by his choices.

I can forgive. I want to forgive. I must forgive, if I am to find peace.

No more misses for us. The time has come for us to finally connect. Meet me at Flourish and Blotts tomorrow morning. They open at eight. Be holding a copy of my favourite book so I know who you are. You already seem to know who I am. Let me show you in person how much I forgive you. I hope you will then be able to forgive yourself, because I want you to find peace, too.

Self-loathing and self-recriminations have no place in a heart full of love.'

I looked up when I'd finished. Hermione twisted her fingers together and bit her lip, waiting for my reaction.

"It's brilliant, Hermione. Send it in. It can make tonight's Evening Prophet."

"Yes," she said, shakily. "I plan to do just that."

I pondered whether or not to ask and then decided what the hell. "Do you know who your Mystery Wizard is?"

She shook her head. "I can't be certain. But I do have one particular suspect in mind." She finished addressing the folded piece of parchment and whistled for one of the messenger owls. After she tied the note to its leg and sent it on its way, she asked, "Will you come with me, Harry, just to keep an eye on things? You know, sneak and spy, like you used to do in school?"

I laughed. "I'll even wear my Invisibility Cloak, if you'd like." I left her office with the sound of her chuckle following me and went to get a refill. I hoped there were still some muffins left, too.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

It was proof of my love for Hermione that I was upright and dressed at seven-thirty in the morning on a Saturday. Ginny hadn't even stirred when I'd gotten up, and I'd been sorely tempted to just flop back onto the bed. But I had promised Hermione, so here I was, standing beside her in Diagon Alley, waiting for Flourish and Blotts to open for the day.

It was a warm day for September, and Hermione was wearing the same outfit she'd had on a week ago, right down to the little tartan skirt and argyle socks. In her hands she held something wrapped up in newspaper. Once again, she was the spitting image of a school girl.

"He's going to be incoherent when he sees you, you know."

She frowned. "Why?"

I said nothing and quelled the urge to roll my eyes. I didn't want to try to explain how much men liked short, pleated skirts on their women. I yawned hugely.

The door to Flourish and Blotts finally opened with a tinkle of bells. Hermione's Auror training did her well, then. She managed to wait another five minutes before motioning to me to enter the shop. I went in and positioned myself by the magazine display, where I could watch the door and see the main aisle of the shop as well. I cast a Disillusionment Charm on myself next, so I could observe without being in the way.

A few minutes went by. Hermione came in and slowly began to wander the aisles. I think she hoped to pounce upon her Mystery Wizard unawares. Before too long, though, she was distracted by a shiny new book and had begun to read.

Where the hell was Malfoy? I peered around over the tops of the shelves but didn't see his trademark, fat, blond head anywhere. I relaxed my stance, deciding this was going to take a while. Another yawn came over me, and then another.

Finally, the bells over the door rang, signaling the entry of a new customer. Hermione's head popped up like a prairie dog as she looked to see who had come into the shop.

It was Malfoy. He looked very Muggle in his jeans, green jumper, and trainers. He also wore a nervous expression. He was holding a battered and obviously much-read copy of Hogwarts: A History. It fairly bristled with bookmarks. So, I thought, that sly snake had read it. He held the book in front of him like a shield and stepped further into the shop.

Hermione could barely see over the shelves. When she saw Malfoy holding her most favorite book in the world, she gasped and dropped down out of sight. But she regained her courage quickly and walked around the corner to face him. He froze when he saw her, still holding the book out. She started moving towards him. When she was two steps away, she stopped, took the book, and held out the newspaper parcel for him to take. He did so with a questioning eyebrow raised. When she nodded at him, he carefully unwrapped it.

It was a green apple, wrapped in the Personals section from Monday's paper. His missed connection advert was circled in red and green ink.

Malfoy stared at it for a minute, his face frozen in an expression of surprise. Then, his eyes rose to meet Hermione's, and he broke into a smile – a real smile that positively shone with joy. He closed the distance between them, slipping his free hand around her waist. She reached up and put her own arms around his neck.

"So, Granger," he drawled. "Nice skirt."

"Thank you, Malfoy. I've read that it swishes rather fetchingly."

A blush crept into his cheeks, and he smiled even harder.

Then, the smile faded and he bent over her, resting his forehead against hers. "I'm sorry for—" he began. Hermione covered his mouth gently with her fingers.

"I know you are, Draco," she said. "I know. You had nothing but rotten choices to choose from, and that's the same as having no choice at all. I forgave you years ago."

Draco dropped the apple as he crushed Hermione to him and began to snog the stuffing out of her. The book fell from her hands, and she let out a giggle that was quickly muffled. After that, there was nothing to hear but those wet, happy sounds that a swamp full of ducks — or two people in love — might make.

Suppressing my gag reflex, I edged my way past the oblivious couple and slid out the door, immediately heading for the Leaky Cauldron and its breakfast menu. Even though I loved Hermione and found Malfoy to be quite tolerable, there was no way I was going to be able to watch my best friend suck face with my former enemy any longer.

Not without several cups of strong black coffee inside me.

~ FIN ~