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A Matter of Practicality

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“There’s a spot there,” said Hermione, pointing, and Aberforth shifted grudgingly to address the spot in question. “No, never mind, I’ll take care of it,” she insisted, waving him away and wandering behind the bar. “Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, so Ron,” she said, and then frowned, straightening with a cloth in her hand. “I was talking about Ron, right?”

Aberforth, who knew only that Ron was the redheaded one with no lightning-shaped scar, made a gruff noise in concession.

“Right, well, the arguing escalated to howlers, which of course escalated to silence, and now—” Her cheeks flushed. “Let’s just say I can’t exactly go to the Burrow for Christmas at this point. Not that I’m not perfectly fine here, of course, because obviously I am.” She scrubbed aggressively at a ring of condensation on the bar. “In any case, I’m available to help during the holidays, if you need me. I’d study, of course, but I finished my compulsory reading in October and Professor McGonagall seems to have run out of supplemental recommendations.”

She stared somberly into nothing, then forcefully brightened.

“Well, at least it’s very quiet. Almost no one stayed behind,” she said, “so I have plenty of space. And, you know, silence.” She shifted to squint down at the bar, observing her handiwork. “I’ve been improving my charms, actually, in my free time. I recently developed a charm for my mittens,” she informed him spiritedly. “Well, for anything that comes in pairs, but of course mittens are highly likely to be separated. In my experience, anyway.” She gave a high, apprehensive laugh. “So, at least there’s that. If nothing else, my mittens might manage to stay together.”

She meandered into an awkward pause, cheeks reddening. “You know, I should really file it with the Ministry,” she said to herself. “Yes, I think I… I should look into the patents office. I’ve done so little research on the process, and it could be interesting. To some degree. I think. I imagine.” Another forceful laugh. “Well, anyway, I should go look into the details. Would you like me to come back tomorrow?” she asked Aberforth hopefully. “I could help decorate, if you'd like.”

Aberforth, lacking the energy to refuse, opted to nod in response.

“Well, tomorrow then,” Hermione said brightly, vanishing out the door in a swirl of knitwear and chatter and leaving Aberforth to the silence of his tavern, shaking his head at his goats.

On the list of things Draco Malfoy no longer was, ‘chatty’ was certainly unavoidable. While his particular ego was hardly undeserving of deflation, Minerva found herself ruefully disheartened by his punctured disposition.

“You seem to be doing fairly well in your independent study,” Minerva offered, as Draco cast a listless glance at her desk. “Provided you do well enough on your N.E.W.T.s, I’m sure your parents’ Wizengamot trials will prove immaterial.”

Draco grimaced, doubtful. “About that,” he said. “I find I’m having some trouble producing the necessary resources for the supplemental coursework you’ve recommended. The contents of my family’s vault have been,” he began, and paused. “Compromised.”

Minerva arched a brow. “You’re having financial trouble, Mr Malfoy?”

Unsurprisingly, he did not take this well. “It’s nothing. Thank you for permitting me to remain at Hogwarts through the holidays, Professor,” he said, rising to his feet in agitation, “but I assure you, there’s no need to concern yourself with my family’s affairs.”

“You could get a job,” Minerva remarked, pausing him where he’d half-pivoted towards the door. “It’s not unheard of, Mr Malfoy,” she added, though the look on his face firmly suggested otherwise. “You are of age now, and many businesses in Hogsmeade offer seasonal employment. It certainly wouldn’t replace the contents of your family’s vault, but it could ease some of your financial burden.”

Draco stiffened, one hand tightening apprehensively on the strap of his schoolbag. Perhaps he thought she hadn’t noticed that his robes had been repaired rather than replaced, or that his potion work had been underwhelming for lack of proper materials.

“I’m fine,” he said, proving her suspicions correct.

“Very well,” Minerva told him. “Just a suggestion.”

He nodded gruffly, then left without another word.

Draco was heading back from his predictably unhelpful visit to the headmaster’s office when something came hurtling around the corner, slamming into his shoulder and sending all of his possessions crashing to the ground. He bit back a slew of expletives and registered the flash of unruly brown hair, unhappily identifying the cause for his latest calamity.

“Granger,” he said shortly, and she looked up from where she’d hastily bent over the contents of her overturned bag. “Shouldn’t you be elsewhere? Like, say, rehearsing for your own brood of speckly ginger weasels,” he drawled, “or contributing to the latest primer for scrawny miscreants on the run—”

“Oh please, Malfoy,” Hermione muttered, glaring up at him. “As if you didn’t jump at the chance to… to defame Harry,” she accused with a sputter, “in that awful excuse for a biography—”

“I didn’t, actually,” Draco snapped, irritated. “You think I’d actually celebrate Potter’s aptitude for serendipitous accidents? No amount of money in the world would have convinced me to spare a single breath contributing to that ludicrous sham of a tell-all, Granger.”

For some reason, she looked up, startled. “You were paid?”

“Aren’t you listening, Granger?” Draco demanded, cutting her the loftiest glare he could conjure. “I just told you, I would rather set myself on fire than agree to—”

“You were offered money,” Hermione clarified, straightening to regard him with something like confusion, “and you didn’t take it? But Malfoy, you clearly need it,” she said, prompting him to bristle with displeasure as she registered what she’d said. “I just meant that it’s all over the news,” she leapt to assure him, cheeks flushing with twin spots of vibrance. “Well, I don’t… I don’t believe everything I read, of course,” she said hastily. “I know perfectly well it’s full of lies, but still, it’s not as if the outcome of your parents’ trials was any sort of secret—”

“Nothing’s a secret anymore, Granger,” Draco cut in stiffly. “In fact, I’m surprised I haven’t seen anything about the state of your sordid love life. Shall I presume the Granger-Weasley guide to sickening an entire kingdom is currently awaiting its inevitable June release?”

“Ron and I broke up, not that it’s any of your business—but Malfoy, listen, I have to thank you,” she exhaled, leaving him to suffer the aftershock of her tangential proclamation while registering that she was looking at him with a repulsive, infuriating benevolence, as if he required the charity of her sympathy. “The old Malfoy surely would have taken any chance to speak ill of Harry, and it’s just…” She trailed off, seeming to struggle with herself for a moment. “It’s nice to know you’ve changed a bit, that’s all.”

That, above everything, was the worst of her accusations. “If I have changed in any way, Granger, it’s only as an unavoidable consequence of Wizengamot mandate,” he informed her, leaning down to gather his things with a series of blindly artless motions, “and it hardly requires your insufferable presumption of pity. And now, if you could summon the ability to keep your big, bushy head out of something for the first time in your life,” he said with a nasty heaping of contempt, “I would ask that you employ the same effort to stay out of my way that you would use to… oh, I don’t know—” He shoved past her, clipping her with his shoulder as he went. “Repel all other human beings from your intolerable personality.”

He heard the sound of her turning sharply, a subpar retort probably lingering on the tip of her tongue, but he disappeared well before she could respond, descending the stairs through the blistering heat of shameful silence.

“I hate that you’re there alone with Malfoy,” Harry lamented to Hermione during their Floo call that evening. “I’d hoped he’d gotten over himself a bit, or, you know. Been transported to Albania, either or. George charmed a copy of that Rita Skeeter biography to follow me around the Burrow,” he told her with an amiable shrug, “and it’s not too bad, surprisingly. She speculates about my abs a lot, which is troubling, but the point is I assumed the lack of snide commentary meant Malfoy had spontaneously fallen into a coma.”

Seeing as she hadn’t touched the book herself, Hermione hadn’t considered it worth a second’s thought until, for some reason, right now.

“No, he, um.” She fidgeted, uncertain. “Turns out he declined an interview, actually.”

“Huh. Well, I suppose being on the losing side is its own form of silencing charm,” Harry said, glancing distractedly over his shoulder as something must have occurred on his end. “Ah, sorry, Hermione,” he said, turning sheepishly back to her. “I think Molly’s just calling us all down for some traditional Yuletide de-gnoming—nothing fun, of course,” he hurried to assure her. “I’m sure I can come back with new emotional trauma shortly, if you still want to chat. I hate that you’re not here—”

“Oh, you go ahead,” Hermione said brightly, trying not to let disappointment bleed into her smile. “Just, um. Have fun, Harry.”

She hoped it was her imagination, but he gave her a sad sort of smile. “I will, Hermione. Enjoy your holiday, would you? If you want to chat tomorrow just let me know, I’m sure I can arrange something—”

“Oh, I’ve got plans tomorrow,” Hermione said quickly, “but sure, Harry. Soon.”

He smiled at her, waving as they bid farewell, and pulled his head from the fire, leaving her to glance down at her books with a sigh. She’d been planning to look into filing a magical patent for her mitten charm, but unhelpfully, only one of her mittens was within sight.

She must have left one at the Hog’s Head, she reasoned, resolving to return the following day. Besides, Aberforth needed lights. The outside of the tavern always looked so dreary, and there was no reason it shouldn’t get precisely the same amount of customers as The Three Broomsticks if he cleaned it up a bit.

That would certainly take all day, she thought, exhaling her plans with satisfaction. She’d hardly lied to Harry at all.

Draco grimaced as he looked out over Hogsmeade, gloved hands tight around the strap of his schoolbag. If Hermione Granger had noticed his financial trouble, McGonagall was right about his needing a job, if only for the Christmas holidays. He was relieved no one else could see him now, having sunk low enough to seek employment from the very same inept shopkeepers he’d sneered at countless times before.

The revulsion of the task sank into his stomach, dragging into his abdomen with a lurch that nearly ricocheted him forward, prompting him to stumble in the snow. He’d thought at first perhaps a particularly strong bluster of wind had propelled him, but shortly, it became clear his feet were moving of their own accord. He bumbled unwillingly through the snow, something plucking him by the collar and giving him a yank until he successfully managed to drag himself to a halt, his bag careening from his shoulder to smack into his forehead and landing him flat on his back in the snow.

“Malfoy?” floated above his head, the impact of the fall manifesting in bright sunspots of dizziness behind his eyes. “Are you alright?”

He grimaced, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to simply fall unconscious.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, permitting his eyes to snap open for a full, inescapable view of Hermione Granger’s wide-eyed face. She had a thick, stupid-looking scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, her nose and cheeks pink with cold, and she was holding a series of dangling lights, half of which trailed from her grip while the other half had been unevenly strung from the roof of a dingy tavern.

“This looks atrocious,” he informed her, eyeing the tangled mass in her hands, and her mouth tightened.

“Well, I haven’t arranged them quite yet,” she said defensively. “I’m just putting them up and then I’ll fix them, obviously—”

“Are you using the right detangling charm?” he asked her, sitting up. His head throbbed from the source of the impact, and he delicately raised a hand to it, wincing. “Also, is there some sort of… of enchantment on the village? Something a bit—” He tried to explain it, unable to define the sensation. “Something pulling, or perhaps luring, or—?”

“Malfoy, you sound utterly nonsensical,” Hermione said, abandoning the unstrung lights and gripping his arm. “Come inside, you clearly have some sort of concussion.”

He groaned, stumbling to his feet. “I’m not concussed, I’m just—”

But she was stronger than she looked, yanking him up and dragging him behind her as he pressed a hand to his throbbing head. The inside of the tavern was no better than the outside; it was equally filthy, and smelled strongly of what he confirmed was goats when one knocked into the back of his legs, pitching him forward to renewed instability.

“Malfoy, you’re a mess,” Hermione said with rigid disapproval, fussily easing him onto a wooden chair and propping her bag beside him. She dug through it for a moment, her right arm disappearing entirely as she searched, before groaning to herself about something it inconceivably lacked. “Just wait here, I’ll be right back—”

She disappeared into a back room as Draco, left to stare at what was either multiple goats or the same goat blearily manifesting in multitudes, pondered what exactly the fuck had brought him to this particular series of coincidences.

“What do you want?” came the voice of an older man who looked startlingly familiar, and Draco looked up, squinting at him through waves of nausea.

“A job,” Draco muttered truthfully.

The man gave a grunt that seemed to indicate acknowledgement. “What are your skills?”

“Insulting people,” Draco said. “Making poor decisions.” He paused, then added, “Can charm things here and there. Scored well on my O.W.L.s, and I’m of age.”

The man considered it. “Can you work Christmas day? I have places to be.”

“You do?” Draco asked doubtfully, and the man fixed him with an impatient glare. “Sorry. Yeah, fine,” he said, shrugging. “I’ve got no family and no plans.”

“Fine. You’re hired,” the man said, and tossed an apron at him, the fabric of it smacking Draco square in the face. “Try not to destroy the place. Toilet’s more finicky than the goats, but less than the ghoul in the bins. Don’t steal anything,” he added, and the goat (or goats) gave Draco a firm, unyielding look of agreement. “Be here first thing tomorrow morning and you’ll be paid at week’s end.”

“Right,” Draco said, no more dizzied than he’d been before, and the man disappeared, leaving him behind with the goat(s) as Hermione abruptly reappeared, holding something that looked like a bag of ice. “You could have just charmed that,” he noted when he saw it. “Or summoned it.”

“Not everything needs to be done with magic. Now hold still,” she instructed in her incurably bossy way, holding the ice gingerly against the back of his head. “What’s this?” she added, gesturing down to the apron in his hands.

This close to her, he could smell a lingering sensation of flowers; something vaguely garden-y with a hint of vanilla, and he wondered if she realized this was the closest they’d ever been without someone getting slapped. “Some old man gave it to me. I work here now, it seems.”

“Oh, Aberforth?” Hermione said, musing it as she shifted his head, adjusting her hold on the ice pack. “Well, that makes sense. He does need an awful lot of help.” She paused, then added carefully, “It’s very nice of you to offer, Malfoy.”

He scoffed, wincing as it jostled his head. “Come on, Granger, don’t play stupid,” he muttered to her. “You obviously know I need the money.”

She adjusted the ice pack again, clearing her throat softly. “Well, in any case. I think it’s a marvelous idea for both of you,” she said. “Very practical.”

She leaned closer. She seemed not to have noticed that his face was now inches from her knitted grey jumper, or that he’d inhaled a lungful of petal-soft comfort that was inescapably tainted with her.

“Well, I should go,” he announced, lurching away. “This has been terrible and you’ve done nothing that I’ve asked, good day—”

“But Malfoy,” she argued, and then relented, resignedly holding the ice out to him. “At least take this, would you?”

“THERE’S ICE OUTSIDE, GRANGER,” he shouted back at a highly unreasonable volume, tearing from her grip and bursting through the door of the tavern, the apron shoved into his schoolbag.

It was only later that he realized the bag he’d taken with him wasn’t his.

It was really a pity all bags looked the same, Hermione lamented, rifling through her things later and realizing it wasn’t, in fact, her bag. She sighed, noting that Draco Malfoy seemed to have the same mittens she did—ironic, as they were red and hardly his color—and threw the bag over her shoulder, heading for the Slytherin dorms.

As she set foot on the stairs, though, she felt the lurch of them changing directions, nearly falling backwards as the staircase abruptly altered her destination. She was almost heaved over the railing before managing to grab on, her feet propelling her upwards and sending her tumbling sideways onto the landing to crash atop her (his) bag.

“Granger?” came a voice, and she parted the unruly curtain of her hair to glower up at Draco’s smarmy face of amusement. He was standing just outside the entrance to the library, bag slung over one shoulder as he leaned casually against the wall. “Walking not as easy as you remember?” he mused, tilting his head. “I suppose war heroes like yourself expect to be carried, or to simply levitate from excessive praise—”

“Honestly, Malfoy,” Hermione muttered, rising to her feet as gracefully as she could manage before thrusting his bag out towards him. “I’m just returning this to you, okay? No need to unload all your wit on me at once,” she added, annoyed. “I’m sure it took you a very long time to come up with that one.”

He rolled his eyes, but shifted her bag from his shoulder. “Here,” he said, swapping bags with her. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” she replied, and to her dismay, accidentally collided with him again, his bag whipping into her abdomen as his twisted firmly around her arm. “Malfoy, I’m trying to—”

“Granger, for fuck’s sake—”

He paused, gruffly disentangling them, and glared at her.

“I’m going to the library,” he said, angling her shoulders in the opposite direction to aim her at the stairs, and she scowled, tearing from his grip and pivoting around.

“So am I,” she informed him, giving him a shove.

“Aren’t you done with your reading?” he demanded, looking extremely inconvenienced by the prospect of her living her life.

“Yes,” she replied stiffly, “but I have other things to do. For example, I’m currently trying to file a patent—”

“Ah yes, I noticed the books on the Ministry’s bureaucratic process,” Draco said, arching a brow. “Ironic, really, considering the illegal expansion charm—”

“You went through my things?” she cut in, annoyed.

“It’s hardly as if I have any interest in your possessions, Granger,” he said, shifting his stance so abruptly he nearly tangled their bags again. “I simply happened to reach in and nearly plummet to my death. Patents are extremely complex,” he added as an apparent afterthought, frowning to himself. “There’s several different kinds and they each have different applications, not to mention the Office of Ludicrous Patents—”

“Have you submitted a patent before?” she asked, curious against her will, and Draco shook his head.

“I haven’t, no, but my father worked for the Ministry,” he said, and she blinked, remembering that little detail she’d dismissed. “So I have some familiarity with the process.”

“You do?” she asked, chewing her lip. “Well, that’s…” She cleared her throat. “Well, I’m sure you’re very busy, but—”

“I am,” he confirmed, tightening his hand on his bag. “There’s,” he began, and withered, tearing his stubborn gaze from hers to fix his attention somewhere near the floor. “There’s something wrong with a draught I need for my Potions N.E.W.T.,” he muttered to his shoes, kicking one foot out moodily. “I thought I’d fixed it, but—”

“I can help you,” Hermione offered quickly, and then amended, “If you’ll help me, that is. Practically speaking, it makes sense.”

Draco paused, considering it, and grimaced.

“Fine,” he said, gesturing her to the library’s entrance. “After you.”

“Oh,” Hermione said, falling to a halt as she entered the Hog’s Head; her entire absurdly-knitted form went rigid as she spotted Draco polishing glasses behind the bar. “I, um. Thought I might visit Aberforth, but I—”

“Forgot I work here?” he guessed. “Relatable. I often try to forget myself,” he remarked drily, “and yet—” He gestured around the tavern, shrugging. “Here we are.”

“Right.” She backed up uncomfortably. “Right, well, sorry to bother you—”

“You’ve got nowhere better to go either, I take it?” he said, not looking up from the glassware, and she paused in the threshold.

“No,” she admitted after a moment, and then, after two more beats of pause, she wandered further inside, slowly unwinding her scarf from around her neck. “Are you here because of the job, or—”

“Because my parents are currently serving prison time in Azkaban? Both,” he said, and she flinched.

“Well,” she said uncomfortably, “I don’t want to, um. Keep you—”

“What, from all these customers?” he drawled, gesturing to the empty tables. “Come on, Granger. You’re here because you broke up with your boyfriend and your only other friend picked him over you,” he reminded her, “so I hardly think you’re any less pathetic in this scenario.”

She seemed relieved by his predictable disdain. “You’re such an insufferably pompous arsehole, Malfoy.”

“No need for flattery,” he replied.

Briefly, her lips quirked up in a smile. She wandered further into the room, depositing her coat on one of the empty tables and settling herself at the bar across from him.

“One butterbeer please, barkeep,” she said, and he rolled his eyes, pulling out two glasses and portioning them each with a melancholy evening’s worth of Ogden’s. “Malfoy, I’m not…” Her eyes widened, aghast. “Jesus, that’s—”

“It’s Christmas, Granger, and we’re here with only each other for company.” He slid the glass across the bar to her. “Drink,” he advised, and she sighed.

“Fine.” She took a testing sip. “Not bad, actually,” she admitted, and grimaced. “Just what I need, really. War heroes Potter and Weasley go on to great Auror careers,” she said, mimicking Rita Skeeter’s voice, “while Granger returns to academia, accomplishing nothing and ultimately developing an incurable taste for vice.”

“Who knows,” Draco said. “A little alcoholism might make your personality more tolerable.”

She opened her mouth to retort but stopped, catching the look of amusement on his face and opting to sigh dramatically instead. “Dickhead.”

“Language, Granger,” he admonished, and paused, taking a sip from his glass. “So,” he ventured. “Things not work out with Weasley because of le fame,” he mocked, “or did you simply wake up one day and notice that’s what his face looks like?”

“Malfoy, honestly.” She took another sip, then wilted. “It just didn’t work out, that’s all. Some things just don’t work out.” She stopped for a second, considering something, and then said, “Why didn’t you take the Skeeter interview?”

He shrugged. “Scheduling difficulties.”

They paused, each taking a sip.

“I think I was quite boring when there wasn’t some mystery to be solved, or some death-defying adventure to be had,” she murmured into her glass, not looking at him. “It turns out we have very little in common. And aren’t very good at communicating.”

Draco eyed his glass in the light, then set it back on the bar.

“He saved my life,” he said. “I wasn’t going to repay him by slandering him in some steaming pile of Rita Skeeter delusion.”

Her mouth twitched again, both of them taking another sip.

“I bet they’d all have a laugh, knowing we’re here alone on Christmas,” she remarked, and Draco shook his head.

“We’re not alone,” he pointed out. “You’re here. I’m here. We’re alone next to each other,” he provided succinctly, “which surely counts for something.”

“Still,” she said. “I doubt I’m your choice of company.”

“Well, my choices have always been highly suspect,” he said, toasting her. “And yours?”

“Oh, egregiously poor,” she agreed, meeting his glass with hers. “So we have that much in common, at least.”

“I’ve seen foundations built on less,” he said. “Our misery-adjacency is so close to shared interests it’s very nearly cause for friendship.”

“Friendship, hm?” she echoed softly.

He noticed her truths were impossibly quiet. He always had to listen more carefully to hear them, leaning palm-up across the bar to catch the pieces that went unsaid.

“Hypothetically, yes,” he said. “Were I in need of it.”

“Purely as a matter of practicality, of course,” Hermione offered, and he nodded his agreement.

“Of course,” he said, both of them taking an indulgent sip.

The next day, Hermione poked her head into the Hog’s Head to find Aberforth staring expectantly at her, looking up from feeding his goats.

“Oh,” she said, clearing her throat. “Is… is Malfoy here? Not that I’m looking for him, of course,” she said quickly. “I just… well, I had a question for him. I know what you’re thinking,” she added, and Aberforth arched a brow. “You’re probably thinking my mitten spell doesn’t work, right? I mean sure, it isn’t currently working,” she conceded with a nervous laugh, gesturing to the single mitten in her bag, “but it, um. It could work, so I just… once I get it all ironed out, you know, I’ll want to file promptly, which is why I need Malfoy right away. I mean, I don’t need him,” she corrected herself, mortified. “Not like, need need, I just… it’s fine. I suppose he has the morning off? I can go find him in the castle. Or not look for him, because it’s not important. I can sort it out myself. Do you need anything, by the way?”

Aberforth exhaled wearily, shaking his head.

“Right. Okay, wonderful. Bye, then,” Hermione said brightly, and disappeared.

“This really isn’t difficult, you feckless baboon,” Draco was muttering to himself, pacing the corridor and drumming his fingers against his thigh. “It’s very simple, you simply say ‘hello’ and nothing else, she’s even more of a mess than you are—”

“Mr Malfoy,” Minerva called, and he froze, pivoting slowly to face her. “Is everything alright?”

“What? Nothing,” he said loudly, presumably mishearing the question, and shook himself. “I got a job,” he informed her, gaze darting wildly askance.

“How wonderful for you, Mr Malfoy,” she said, amused by his distraction. “Perhaps you should go, then?”

“Yes, excellent,” he confirmed, and stumbled into a suit of armor, sheepishly backstepping and aiming himself down the corridor as Minerva smiled silently in his wake.

Hermione smacked directly into what felt like a narrow brick wall precisely as she turned the corner, delivered right into Draco Malfoy’s chest with a muffled gasp and an immediate flood of embarrassment. “SORRY,” she exhaled in a panic, trying to back away and finding herself thrust firmly back into his arms. “I… sorry, I can’t imagine why—”

She broke off, her bag wrapping tightly around his torso and pinning her against him.

“I’m just very sorry,” she said with a dull rush of horror, skirting the little gaping where his shirt met his sternum and trying not to melt into the floor.

“Looking for me?” he asked her.

“No,” she insisted. “I was just—”

“Because I was looking for you,” he said, and reached behind him. “I found this,” he said, offering her one of her red mittens. “It was inside my bag.”

The moment he handed it to her, her bag seemed to sigh with relief, sagging with contentment. She dug out the match that remained inside, letting the two mittens suction together like a pair of magnets.

“Well,” Draco remarked, looking subtly amused. “This explains a lot.”

“Right,” she said, somewhere between relieved and disappointed to find her repeated collisions with him had actually been by her own witless design. “I suppose the charm works, then.”

She glanced down, noting with confusion that Draco hadn’t released her, nor she him.

“It’s a very good spell,” he said. “Very practical.”

“Thank you,” she said, and swallowed heavily. “It has its uses.”

There was a pause as his gaze quietly scanned her face.

“What are you doing for New Year’s Eve, Granger?”

“Oh, um.” Her cheeks flushed. “Well, I’ll be alone, I expect.”

“Ah.” He leaned his head closer, nose grazing hers with a soft, delicate brush of understanding. “Are you perhaps looking to be alone with someone?”

“I could… manage it.” The thud of her heart went jarringly arrhythmic, perilously thrashing against the fragile chambers of her ribs. “Will you be alone also?” she asked hopefully, his lips brushing her cheek to settle gingerly at the side of her mouth.

“No, Granger,” he said, the words warm enough to melt between her parted lips. “I’ll be with you.”

When he kissed her, the touch of his lips to hers like a tender sigh of relief, she held him tightly, keeping them aloft; keeping them close, her hips flush against his, so no part of him would feel any vacancy from her.

Better, she thought, for them to be together.

Practically speaking, anyway.