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“Bloody hell.” Bill lowered his wand and wiped his brow. “What is that? Fourteen curses in three rooms? This place might as well be a goddamn execution chamber.”

A muscle in Theo’s jaw twitched. “Give or take.”

She kept her mouth shut, but it was fifteen and she was nearly positive Bill had forgotten about the flagrante curse on the front gate.

“Nasty curses, too.” Bill sneered, shaking out his arms, then stretching his neck from side to side. “I mean, a severing hex tethered to the banister?” Bill whistled. “Nice family you’ve got there, Nott.”

Theo’s lips rolled inward, his nostrils flaring.

“Honestly, Bill?” She rested a hand on Theo’s arm, his forearm like steel beneath her fingers. She didn’t mean to hold him back, but rather to imbue a sense of calm. He’d been on edge on all morning and Bill’s jibes didn’t help. “Could you not?”

Bill shrugged, gaze locked on the renewed spell-net he’d cast. With careful attention paid to the nooks and alcoves, he scanned the room, searching for any other hidden curses that glowed red on the spiderweb-like grid. “Just saying. This is what you’re marrying into, Hermione. Archaic curses meant to target Muggleborns and dark magic residue and who knows what else? They’ve probably got a pet dementor chained up in the dungeons.”

“Har har. Laugh it up, Weasley. At least her children won’t have to suffer through life with that unfortunate hair,” Theo groused.

Bill chuckled. “Nice comeback, Nott. Like I haven’t heard that one before. Real unique. Snagged yourself the cleverest snake of all, Hermione.”

Theo ducked his chin and dropped his voice. “If I make a dig about the hand-me-down robes, will you be cross with me?”

At least he’d asked. “Yes.”

Theo’s eyes narrowed, gaze assessing. “How cross?”

“Quite.” A muscle in her cheek twitched, but she would not give in. Laughing would ruin the entire effect.

Theo sighed, heavily put upon. “Whatever, Weasley. Less commentary, more curse-breaking, if you will.” He paused before chuckling. “Though, you’d do well to remember your mother was a Prewett, as was my father’s mother. Not to mention, cousin of mine, some-times-removed”—Theo’s lips twisted—"no one will ever hate my family as much as I do. Which isn’t to suggest you ought not to try, just understand, your attempts will pale by comparison.”

Bill snorted. “You think I’d be doing this if I didn’t know that? I am doing this gratis; fucking with you at least lets me feel like I’m getting something out of it.”

She pursed her lips. “Other than knowing you’re doing the right thing?” For the children.

He grinned. “And that. Messing with your fiancé—either of them, I’m not picky—is just a bonus.”

“Happy to be of service,” Theo grumbled beneath his breath.

“That, and I’m not about to let Fleur in here until—"

A siren rang out as Bill’s spell-net lit red in the far-right corner of the grid. His eyes narrowed as he cast a quick revelio, frowning as the letter opener on the sideboard swallowed the light around it as if doused in Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. He grimaced. “Don’t really care to know what that does. Offero.”

Theo swept an arm out, nudging her behind his back just before the letter opener emitted an ear-piercing screech, much like an injured bird. It trembled violently, refusing to go down without a fight. Whether from the shrill pitch or the vibration, the crystal decanter beside it shattered, splattering the wall with dark alcohol. Shards of glass collided with wallpaper, some embedding through into the plaster, the rest falling like diamonds to the ground.

Bill held his wand steady, eyes intent on the letter opener as it continued to thrash. A fine sheen of sweat broke out along his forehead as he murmured something softer and fast-spoken, another spell she couldn’t quite catch.

 A strange noise, not unlike static from the telly filled the room before the object in question fell still and silent. The darkness lifted, shadows retreating until that corner of the room looked no different than any other.

 Theo turned, pinning her with a wide-eyed stare. “Go home. Please.”

Getting Theo to agree to let her come along for the sweep of his ancestral manor had been a struggle, a topic that had spurred no fewer than three arguments over the course of the past week and a half. Draco had, at first, taken Theo’s side, but after she’d gotten him alone and explained her reasoning, he’d reluctantly taken a neutral stance, telling them to sort it themselves.

She wasn’t daft. Of course, the place wasn’t safe, she knew that, but, bias aside, Bill really was the best curse-breaker—not only that she knew, but period—and it wasn’t as if she planned on poking around places he hadn’t cleared. They'd all do well to remember she wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the destruction of cursed objects; horcruxes had been a bit of a dive off the deep end, baptism by fire.

“No? What do you mean, no?

Theo pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “N-o. A generally accepted alternative to the word ‘yes’. You’re not coming.”

“And you’re telling me this, I’m to assume?” She set her hand on her hips. “Just like that, your decision is law?”

He nodded. “Wonderful. I’m glad we’re both on the same page.”

Something like a growl slipped from between her lips. “We are certainly not on the same page, Theodore.” She crossed her arms, refusing to break the staring contest he’d started. “What would you have me do? Sit here and twiddle my thumbs until you come home? Did you fall and hit your head? Because that’s the only plausible explanation for you mistaking me as someone who’s satisfied being sidelined.”

Theo tugged at his hair. “Hermione. Listen to me when—”

“Try saying something worth listening to, then.”

“I won’t have you getting yourself hurt,” he shouted. His shoulders dropped as he slumped against the wall. “Fucking hell, can you try to see where I’m coming from? The place is bound to be a veritable landmine of curses intended to harm you.” He lifted a hand, covering his mouth with his palm and he blinked hard. “Damn it, love, do you know what that does to me? The thought of you coming into that—that wretched place because of me and winding up hurt or—or worse.” He shook his head. “No. That’s it. Be angry all you want, but I’d sooner have you brassed off at me for the foreseeable future than have you hurt.”

Well, damn. It was difficult to maintain her ire when he was looking at her like that, eyes wide and pleading. She sighed. “I understand where you’re coming from, Theo. I really do. But I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“I never said you weren’t.” He pressed off the wall and crossed the room, reaching for her hand. “I know you can take care of yourself. You’re a force to reckoned with. But there’s a difference between being able to take of yourself and needing to. You don’t need to put yourself in harm’s way, not for this.” With his thumb, he stroked the back of her hand. “This isn’t your battle.”

“It’s yours,” she said. “And that makes it mine.”

She couldn’t, in good conscience, let Theo go alone, not when he hadn’t been to his childhood home in nearly a year. She wasn’t about to let him exorcise his demons, be they literal or figurative, by himself. And definitely not when he was, in a roundabout way, doing it for her, doing it so they’d have somewhere for the orphanage, the school.

The timing was unfortunate. The only day Bill had available to clear the manor happened to be the same day Draco was scheduled to meet with the Potions Association within the Ministry of Magic. Their approval, being the governing body overseeing the production and trade of potions within Wizarding Britain, was required before any witch or wizard could distribute potions, even on a donatory basis. Draco, still hoping to redeem the family name and do something good with his money, wanted to fund the production and distribution of costly potions at a reduced rate. Ipso facto, he needed their authorization.

If she could be in two places at once, supporting them both on what was sure to be a trying day, she would. Alas, she was no longer in possession of a time turner and had to choose. And as stressful as Draco’s day was bound to be, Theo’s was guaranteed to be worse.

“Hermione—”

“Theo.” She squeezed his fingers. “I love that you care about me and I understand you’re concerned. But I’m going.”

He sighed, nostrils flaring. “You’re not taking no for an answer, are you?”

She shook her head. “Not a chance.”

Bill had progressed on to the far side of the drawing room, nodding that it was clear to follow as he made his way through the door to what looked like the library.

“I’m already here. I’m certainly not leaving.” Especially not before she got a look at the books.

Theo blew out his breath. “Three rooms down, a million to go.”

“Three rooms and the foyer,” she corrected, tangling their fingers.

Theo dragged his feet. “Ah yes, how could I forget the foyer where Bill disarmed that lovely Entrail-expelling curse affixed to the door-knocker.”

Curses aside, Nott Manor was grim, made Malfoy Manor pre-reconstruction look like Disney Land. The mansion was massive, the architecture gothic—all vaulted ceilings and drafty corridors and stained glass that bathed the rooms in an eerie glow—and the décor stereotypically Slytherin, all greens and blacks and dark, polished wood. Sneering portraits hung from the walls, and gilded mirrors lined the halls in a dizzying array, reflecting off one another and creating an unsettling funhouse effect. Once the place was curse-free, the next order of business would be cleansing it of the oppressive atmosphere—and painting it. Only then would they be ready to call it, not only habitable but child-friendly.

She had to tug so they could keep up with Bill who’d already disappeared around the corner. “Each curse broken is one less you need to worry about.” She squeezed his fingers before letting go and peeked into the room searching for Bill’s head of long, ginger hair. He must’ve been moving quickly because he was nowhere to be seen.

She paused, neck craning. What she could see, however, was magnificent, if not a bit dusty. Not as grand as the Malfoy’s library, granted, but there were shelves upon shelves filled with books spanning from one end of the large, square room all the way to the other. Perhaps Bill had started on the books. No doubt there were loads of curses on those, curses lying in wait to turn her blood to sludge inside her veins or give her necrotizing fasciitis or something equally as vile.

The shelves to the left were closest, but something in her gut said Bill had gone right, tackling the side of the room bathed in shadow. Though, unlike the cursed letter opener, the books on this side of the room seemed almost to glow from the recessed shelves, gilded text along the spines gleaming in the dark. She licked her lips. Curses aside, these were unique tomes, one-of-a-kind texts, first editions, rare volumes, and out-of-print books, everywhere. Oh, the stuff she could glean from these books, the knowledge she could absorb, apply. As if her curiosity were truly some devil on her shoulder, a hushed voice whispered in her ear, not words, but thoughts planted directly inside her mind, almost as she could see herself acting on the suggestions, witness what it would be like to act before she’d even made the decision. Her hands trembled, fingertips pulsing. Beneath her skin, she itched, an insatiable curiosity driving her forward. All she had to do was pick one book, reach for it, touch it and—

“Hermione, don’t!”

She froze—or tried. Her feet kept moving despite her knees locking in response to Bill’s shout. Her head gave a sharp throb, the whisper in her ear growing louder, a senseless noise she couldn’t understand even if the directive was clear. Keep moving, or else. Vision suddenly red, she wasn’t sure whether the anger was hers or its, whatever it was. She gritted her teeth against the compulsion to keep moving, keep walking, to touch the book, and gasped when her feet finally obeyed.

The backward momentum was too much, her balance off-kilter. Her back collided with the nearest wall—and hell, her right ankle screamed as it twisted, her teeth breaking through her lower lip. Ow. She winced at the shooting pain running up her leg and down her toes, her bloodied lip pulsing in time with her heart. Double ow. Her lids fluttered and—

Light reflected blink-and-miss-it fast against something metallic in her periphery. “Protego,” she shouted, word muffled from her busted lip.

A literal swarm of daggers hit her hastily erected shield and fell, clattering to the floor.

“Hermione. Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Theo was in front of her, hands bruising as he gripped her arms. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

She—Gods, had she been thinking? She clenched her eyes and shook her head, mind foggy. Moving from one memory to the next was like wading through pea soup. “I don’t—what happened?”

Theo’s breath whistled from between his lips, shaky. “We walked into the room and I swear to Merlin I turned my head for what felt like one second and when I looked back you were halfway across the room with your arm outstretched looking like—like fucking Sleeping Beauty reaching for the goddamn spinning wheel.”

The fog began to recede, replaced with a piercing pain behind her eyes like she’d drunk too much wine and woken up only to stare directly into the sun. She hissed through her teeth and let her head drop against Theo’s chest. “I don’t—I walked into the room and Bill wasn’t—I didn’t know where Bill was.”

“He was right in front of us,” Theo said, grip finally loosening. He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her against him. His chest was solid, his heart thundering hard enough she could feel it.

“What?” That didn’t make any sense. Bill was hard to miss, she'd have seen him.

“I was. I’d turned left, just barely, not right. I was right there,” Bill confirmed.

“We turned left and started walking, not far, just a few steps and suddenly you weren’t—” Theo swore beneath his breath. “You weren’t there.”

She straightened, shaking her head as she met Theo’s concerned blue eyes. “I don’t—that’s not what I saw. I didn’t see Bill, I thought…” She swallowed, eyes stinging.

Bill cleared his throat. His voice was soft when he spoke. “Disillusionment spell, I think.” His lips twisted. “Or illusion, rather. Meant to confuse you. Paired with a rather strong compulsion curse. Let’s be glad you didn’t actually touch the books over there, yeah?” Bill gave her a wry smile.

She shivered, trying and failing to forget about flesh-eating curses.

Compulsion. No wonder she hadn’t been able to stop walking, not without a struggle at least. “And the daggers?”

Bill winced. “Touch-activated, I’d wager. Bumped against some sort of trigger on the wall. Good thing you’re as quick on your feet as ever.”

“Constant vigilance,” she muttered, grimacing when she put her weight on her bad ankle. “Ah.”

Theo’s jaw clenched as he whipped out his wand.

“Hold still,” he demanded.

Like she was planning on going anywhere in light of what had just transpired. Simply breathing might put her in danger in a house like this. Though, that was rather the whole point.

He healed her ankle first, the ligaments knitting back together with a minimal amount of pain, no doubt because of the care he administered. Moving on, Theo snagged her chin, tilting her head back into the dim light of the room, surveying the self-inflicted wound with dark, fraught eyes.

Her stomach was a jumble of knots, and her head wasn’t much better. She couldn’t speak, not when he was holding her chin, but even if she’d been able to, she wouldn’t have known what to say.

His thumb caressed the swell of her lip, touch gentle as he avoided the place her teeth had punctured. His gaze dropped and hers followed, throat thickening at the sight of blood smeared against his hand. Theo blinked hard before lifting his wand.

Wound healed and blood vanished, the hand holding her jaw slid down, thumb stroking the front of her throat, smoothing over the spot where her pulse raced, belying her outward attempt at collectedness. His hand trembled against her neck, fingers tightening, whether to keep still or hold her in place, she wasn’t sure.

“Say goodbye to Bill,” Theo murmured, loud enough for Bill to hear.

She wavered, but something in his eyes made her swallow her protests at being bossed around. She cleared her throat. “I’m going to head home, I think. Maybe I’ll see you next week at the gala, Bill.”

Bill nodded, lips pressed into a thin line. “Honestly, that’s a good idea, Hermione. I’ll finish the place up. No worries.”

Theo kept her close, a hand on her back, guiding her toward the door from which they’d come. “I’m just going to walk her to the Floo. Be back in a few minutes, Weasley.”

Through the drawing room and into the hall, Theo hurried her along. She was prepared to be corralled all the way into the foyer, but instead, Theo turned, pressing her into an alcove nearly obscured by a tapestry. He buried his head into her hair and inhaled, breath ragged.

She was normally better at this, knowing what to say to calm him down, make him feel better. The words were there, but it was like they were trapped in her throat, her own shock rendering her mute.

“Fuck, Hermione,” he whispered, lifting his head. He reached out, cradling her face in his hands, thumbs stroking her cheekbones. “You almost—you could’ve—” He shook his head, eyes wide.

She wet her lips, mouth suddenly parched. “I’m okay. I’m perfectly fine. Really.”

Her voice sounded funny, distant, like there was some sort of disconnect between thinking the words and speaking them, hearing them come out of her mouth.

Theo frowned sharply. “You and I have wildly different definitions of the word fine, witch.” He dropped his forehead against hers, breath fanning against her mouth when he sighed. “Can wizards have heart attacks? Because I swear you nearly gave me one.”

Could they? On some level, magic did alter physiology, hence the longer lifespan and the inability of witches and wizards to acquire certain Muggle diseases, and conversely, a lowered efficacy of certain Muggle pharmaceuticals. But what of their arteries? Were witches and wizards resilient against arterial plaque build-up? Someone at St. Mungo’s really needed to fund a study on—

“Hermione?” Theo stared, eyes darting over her face. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt somewhere else?”

His hands performed a quick pat down, checking her for injuries.

“No,” she muttered. “I’m fine. I’m just—”

His eyes met hers, wide and nervous and it was—it was too much. She sniffed hard, but still her stupid eyes blurred with tears.

“Damn it.” Theo tilted her head back, fingers brushing away tears as they slipped down her cheeks. “You have to talk to me, love. Tell me what hurts so I can fix it.”

She shook her head, throat closing. “I’m—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—to…”

Gods, how could she have been so…so arrogant? A sickening sense of shame settled in her stomach, oily and oppressive. She should’ve known. She should’ve listened. But no, she’d been so sure of herself. She’d destroyed horcruxes; what were a few dark curses in an ancestral manor? Hubris at its finest.

Theo froze, a disbelieving chuckle slipping from between his lips. “Oh. Fuck me.” He shut his eyes and shook his head. “You stubborn, proud Gryffindor. You have zero sense of self-preservation, you’re aware of that, right?”

Her lower lip trembled. “Theo.”

His jaw clenched and it was then she saw, through the haze of her vision, that his own eyes were glassy. “You’re okay.”

The way he said it made it sound as if he was saying it more to reassure himself than her.

He dropped his forehead again, their noses nudging. His eyes were open, depthless pools of blue brimming with emotion, some she could put a name to, others she couldn’t. Fear. Frustration. Anger. Love.

Her breath caught, throat thickening once more, humbled by the magnitude of emotion crammed into that one glance.

Theo’s lashes fluttered as he tilted his head, lips brushing hers. She swallowed and leaned into it, lips parting, catching his, holding—

With a growl, Theo pressed closer, hips pinning in her place as he deepened the kiss. His teeth scraped against her lower lip, a gasp that was equal parts pain and pleasure slipping out at the rough treatment of her recently healed flesh. His tongue soothed the sting before sliding between her lips and tracing the roof of her mouth. She shivered, back arching, hips pressing into his.

Theo’s hands slid down her arms and rested briefly on her waist before his fingers flirted with the hem of her skirt, sliding beneath the fabric. A warm palm trailed up the inside of her thigh before he hooked his fingers around the crotch of her knickers and tugged them to the side. The air was cool against her bare skin, but it was Theo’s touch, two fingers parting her lips and slipping inside her that made her gasp against his mouth.

He drew back, just far enough to speak. The words rumbled against her lips, “Is this okay?”

She panted against his mouth, his fingers still moving, curling. “Yes.”

Gone. His fingers were gone, leaving her empty. She cried out.

Theo’s lips twitched, not quite a full smirk, a shadow of one. He lifted his hands to her mouth, brushing his fingers, her wetness, against her lips. His eyes darkened. “Taste.”

Without dropping his stare, she parted her lips, opening, tongue sliding between his fingers, curling around his knuckle, tasting the tang of her arousal.

Theo hummed softly, pressing closer, his cock hard against her stomach. “Good girl.”

Her chest loosened, just a bit, enough to suck a ragged breath in before biting down softly on the tip of his finger, lids fluttering at the praise, absolution.

Theo leaned in, lips brushing her cheek before he whispered against her ear. “Turn around.”

Twisting in his hold, she spun, resting her forehead against the wall. Theo’s hands slipped beneath her skirt, grabbing hold of her hips, urging her to arch her back and stick her arse out. Eyes closed, she did as silently instructed, her focus narrowing to the brush of Theo’s skin against hers, the sound of the zipper lowering on his trousers, the bite of fabric against the crease of her inner thigh as Theo once again tugged her knickers to the side.

The head of his cock slipped through her folds and her teeth sank into her lower lip to keep from groaning when he finally pressed inside, bottoming out with one thrust.

“Perfect.” Theo kissed the hollow beneath her ear, his lips warm and damp. “Love?”

“’m good,” she muttered, forehead rocking against the wall. A thought broke through the haze. “We have to be quiet.”

Theo chuckled. “Fuck that. When have I ever wanted you to be quiet?”

“Bill is—”

“Busy,” Theo said, one hand tangling in her hair. “And if he hears us, he’ll know better than to come looking. So, don’t you dare hold back.”

“Fuck,” she muttered when Theo withdrew all the way before pressing deep.

Theo slipped a hand around her body, fingers finding her clit. He circled it, a little rough, seemingly more determined to get her off and make it quick than tease. She bit down hard, teeth clenching, as Theo played her with practiced ease. Thrusting shallowly, Theo seemed to focus his attention on strumming her to climax, pleasure building and cresting and—“Gods.”

Everything clenched, muscles fluttering around his cock as he held still, buried inside her.

Theo dropped his hand, chuckling darkly. “What was that? A minute? Fuck.”

She whimpered, too loud, when he withdrew only to thrust hard, hips gaining speed, his cock hitting that spot inside her, the one that knocked the breath from her lungs, each time, without fail, the pleasure heightened by just how stupidly sensitive she was after coming once already.

“Don’t stop,” she panted, nails raking against the wallpaper, seeking purchase and finding none. “Please, don’t stop.”

A sharp tug of her curls made her back bow, her breasts shoved into the wall. Theo bit down on the curve of her neck, tongue soothing the sharp sting, before leaving a messy, wet kiss against the tender mark as his hips continued to piston. “Don’t stop?” He chuckled, barely out of breath. “Greedy. Saying you’re the only one allowed to come?”

She whimpered. She’d have bruises on her hips from his hands, squeezing her, keeping her arched just so without slumping into the pleasure. “No. Want you to come.”

The sound of his cock sliding into her was lewd and paired with the rhythmic slap of sweat-damp skin on skin, the concept of keeping quiet was a lost cause, one she didn’t so much mind abandoning. She’d come once already and she was primed to tip over the edge once more just from the sounds of Theo fucking her. Paired with the thought of him finishing, of finding and taking his pleasure in her? She was barely hanging on by a thread.

“Yeah?” Theo’s hand left her hair and slid around her neck, fingers wrapping tenderly around her throat before applying just enough pressure to curl her toes. “Want me to come inside you, love?”

She shivered, cunt fluttering around his cock. Holy fuck, so close. “Yes.”

Theo squeezed, just a little harder. “Ask for it.”

Fuck. “I want you to come inside me.” He thrust a little harder, deeper, cock nudging her cervix in a way that was almost too much, was intensely overwhelming, her knees buckling. His grip on her hip tightened, holding her weight. “Please.”

“I don’t know.” He licked a stripe up her neck. “Do you deserve it?”

Yes. “I do. I—oh, yes. Please.”

He growled against her neck, hot breath tickling. “Fuck, love, you’re desperate for it, yeah? Desperate for me to fill this tight little cunt up with come, aren’t you?”

So close. She nodded, breaths harsh and loud. “Yes.”

“Say it,” Theo demanded. “Beg me for it.”

Already closed, her eyes clenched. “Fuck. Please, Theo. I want”—she had to swallow, mouth dry and face on fire—“you to fill me up.”

“Shit.” Theo’s fingers dug into her skin, grip bruising as he—fuck—did the exact opposite of what she wanted, slowing until he was barely thrusting, the drag of his cock lazy. She whimpered.

He swallowed, his throat clicking. “Here’s what’s going to happen. Are you listening, love?” He waited until she nodded. “I’m going to finish fucking you until you can’t feel your legs and then you are going to hop inside the fireplace and Floo straight home to Draco.”

She whimpered, legs shaking. “Theo.”

He shushed her. “Shh, that’s right. I want you to head home dripping come down your thighs, your knickers in my pocket, so you can show Draco what a good girl you are, hmm? It’ll be up to him what he chooses to do with you.”

She didn’t need convincing, already planned on leaving. Theo was the one who’d derailed her with this. But Gods, had she not been on board? He made a convincing argument.

“Okay.” She was beyond the point of caring how desperate she sounded. “Just please—”

Theo gave her curls another scalp-tingling tug and resumed fucking her into the wall as if he’d never stopped. The possibility of coming again hovered in her periphery, hers for the taking if she stretched for it, focused hard enough. But this was good, enough, more than enough, Theo’s shuddered breaths coming fast and hard against the shell of her ear, signaling his rapidly approaching end. His tongue darted out, curling around the lobe of her ear before he gasped, the rhythm of his hips faltering as he shoved further into her, so deep, fingers spasming against her waist as his cock twitched.

And then it wasn’t up to her if she wanted to come again because Theo had decided she would. His fingers circled hard over her clit until she tensed, knees locking as she snapped her eyes shut and shattered, spots dancing behind her lids as she panted against the wallpaper.

Theo buried his face in her neck, catching his breath. Her heart rate wasn’t quite normal when he drew back, cock slipping from her along with a flood of wetness that made brought heat to her cheeks.

There was the sound of cloth rustling followed by Theo’s zipper, and then he was tugging on her gently, turning her around. A soft, tender, smile graced his face, quite the contrast to the gleam in his eyes as he knelt in front of her, hands sliding up the outside of her thighs before curling around her knickers and sliding them down her legs. Lips pressed together, she stepped out of them, eyes narrowing when Theo grinned, tucking them inside the front pocket of his trousers.

He wasn’t through, not yet. He rucked up her skirt, tucking it inside the waistband, and then reached between her legs, fingers parting her folds. His thumb ghosted over the hood of her still-sensitive clit, and that gentle brush alone made her spasm and bite her lip. Another rush of wetness spilled from her cunt and it was impossible to decide what was more arousing—the way Theo’s dark, dilated eyes tracked the slide of his come through her folds, or that itself. Either way, her breathing was nowhere close to normal.

“Come on.” He fixed her skirt and stood, holding out a hand. As soon as she took it, he tangled their fingers and led the way to the foyer where the Floo was located.

Standing in front of the fireplace, Hermione nibbled on the edge of her lip. Staying here wasn’t a smart idea—she’d learned that the hard way, yes—but leaving Theo here by himself, or without someone to lean on, didn’t sound brilliant, either. “Theo—”

He pressed a finger to her lips, silencing her. She narrowed her eyes, ire rising, making her chest tight.

“You want to help, I know,” Theo said, fingers sweeping against her jaw, butterfly soft against her skin. “And I love that, I love you. Which is why you can help me by going home where I know you’ll be safe.” Theo’s jaw slid forward, throat working through a swallow. “This house won’t hurt me, but it could kill you and I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you. So, please, go home and check on Draco and—give me a warm bed to come home to, okay? I promise I’ll let you coddle me emotionally later. Please.”

Just like that, her frustration at being hushed evaporated. “Fine. Play nice with Bill, okay?”

Theo nodded. “Of course. Now please, go. Each minute you spend inside the house is a year off my life. You’re ratcheting up my anxiety.”

A bit dramatic, but she’d grant him his histrionics without comment, just this once. She reached for the Floo powder. “Love you.”

Theo grinned. “Love you, too. Now go. That message for Draco is time sensitive.”

She rolled her eyes and, in a flash-bang of green flames, she was gone.

Chapter Text

Slipping inside the bedroom, Hermione shut the door and smiled. Draco was lounging on the sofa, ankles crossed, his shirt untucked, one arm curled behind his head as he read. His feet were bare, something that had always struck her as startlingly vulnerable. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition with the rest of his clothing, how his crisp, grey trousers brushed the tops of his naked feet, but it just felt…intimate, more so than if he’d been reclining fully nude.

Or maybe that wasn’t right. It wasn’t more intimate, but a different sort. A quiet intimacy, the type that came from knowing, like how she knew what the scar on his chest felt like against her lips, raised and smooth, or how the inside of his left knee was ticklish, so ticklish than even breathing against it would make him jerk, startled laughter falling from his lips.

There was an excitement to the discovery—and no doubt she had more to discover—but knowing was its own kind of joy. Less about sparks and more like a simmering warmth, kindling that kept a fire roaring past an initial burst of flame.

Draco’s grey eyes flicked up, lips curling as he marked his space and set his book aside, all without taking his eyes off her.

A knot of tension she hadn’t realized she’d been carrying unfurled in her chest. “Hi.”

Draco cocked his head, gaze sliding down her body, one pale brow hiking up. His lips twitched. “You’re home early.”

She didn’t mean to, really, but the twinge of her facial muscles drawing into a sharp wince was involuntary, a phantom pain lancing through her ankle.

Draco sat up, brow pinched. “What’s wrong?”

She sighed. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell him, it was just that the greatest wound had been to her pride and there was no spell to heal that. None she knew. “It’s—okay, it’s not nothing, but it’s fine.”

“Are you okay? Where’s Theo? Is he okay?”

He looked like he was about to jump off the couch and perform a thorough analysis of her person. Rather than let him, she crossed the room, thighs beginning to go sticky. She muscled through and perched on the arm of the couch beside him. “Everything’s fine and Theo’s still at the manor. He and I agreed it would probably be best if I sit the rest of the curse-breaking out.”

“Theo and you agreed, oh?” he asked, sounding skeptical.

“Well…” she paused. “In the end, yes.”

“Granger,” he bit out, massaging his temple. “Out with it.”

Best to rip the plaster off, maybe? “There was a tiny incident with an illusion spell, a compulsion curse, and erm, some daggers, but I’m fine. It’s just—Theo and I agreed it was an unnecessary risk.”

The confession grated. Even knowing it was true, a tiny, unreasonable part of her brain whispered that leaving meant defeat and made her weak. Rubbish, yes, but her wounded pride said otherwise.

Draco stared. “A tiny incident?”

Oh boy. “Mhm.”

Draco said nothing. Instead, he stood and crossed the room to the bar cart where he proceeded to pour himself two fingers of firewhisky he quickly tossed back. Wincing at the burn, he hissed through his teeth and opened his eyes, shaking his head in abject disbelief. “Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like? Watching you put yourself in harms’ way and only narrowly escape danger? Or worse, hearing about it after the fact?”

She bit back a smile at the fondness coloring his words, intentional or not. “You both should’ve known what you were signing up for. I am a Gryffindor.”

“As if I could forget.” Draco crossed back to the sofa. “You make it impossible, constantly flaunting your utter disregard for your own well-being. Merlin help me, you are in desperate need of a lesson on the meaning of self-preservation.” One hand curled protectively around her knee, while the other brushed along his jaw where a shadow of pale scruff covered his skin.

“Not so. I already received that lecture from Theo.” Her face burned. “Erm, speaking of that, I have something to…tell you. But first I want to hear about how your day went. Tell me about the Ministry.”

Draco’s face darkened. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Draco—”

He held up a hand. “Look, it’s fine.” It was less fun being on the receiving end of that word. “They spent most of the time grilling me on my knowledge of competitive market regulations and the—”

“Isn’t that their job to know, not yours? And it’s a moot point. You’d be a nonprofit; it’s not as if you plan to create some sort of potions production monopoly. You’re filling a gap in the market, not trying to compete.”

Draco shut his eyes. “I know that and so do they. Which is why they spent the rest of the time interrogating me as to my underlying motives. Why would a Malfoy possibly want to do something that it isn’t self-serving?” Draco opened his eyes and scoffed. “They didn’t say quite it in those terms, but the writing was on the wall. They’re going to reject my request.”

Based on what he said, that those imbeciles hadn’t immediately done so was surprising. “You don’t know that.”

Draco shot her a look, brows drawn over stormy eyes. “Sure.”

“You don’t.” She covered his hand with hers, briefly squeezing his fingers. “Have you heard from any of the other potioneers you reached out to?”

If possible, Draco’s expression grew grimmer. “No. Just Slughorn. And he’s not willing to put his support, or his name, behind anything until it’s Ministry-approved.”

One waffling potioneer was rather dismal.

“Look,” Draco said when she opened her mouth. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about this anymore.”

Reluctantly, she nodded. They could table this…for now. “Okay.”

“Thank you.” He squeezed her knee. “You mentioned you had something to tell me?”

Oh. Her face heated. “It was nothing.”

Draco chuckled dryly, eyes darting to her neck. “Nothing, oh? Not something to do with that vicious looking love-bite that wasn’t there this morning?”

Well, damn. She lifted a hand to her throat and huffed. “You know how Theo is.”

Nodding, Draco’s thumb made small circles on the side of her knee. “Let me guess, he wanted to make sure you were okay after your”—Draco pulled a face, lips twisting—“tiny incident? Gave you a thorough checking over?”

Something like that. “Yes, and he discovered I’m fine.”

Draco huffed. “I heard you the first time, Granger. What are you worried I’ll do? Grab my wand and try to—what? Give Nott Manor a what for? Tear the place down brick by brick?”

No, if anyone was likely to go that route, it was Theo. Draco would sooner internalize what had happened to her, somehow twist the event in his mind and spin it as some fault of his. Blame himself using the skewed logic that she wouldn’t have been at Nott Manor had she not been in a relationship with either of them. He wouldn’t push her away; he’d swallow the guilt and let it fester. She wasn’t about to have that happen. “Admit it— you and Theo are prone to overprotectiveness.”

Draco stared.

She huffed, face warming. “Okay, fine, so am I.”

It was just, her worrying tended to center around their emotional wellbeing.

His lips twitched. “I’m glad you’re fine. If you weren’t, that would be a different story. But quit stalling. Not that seeing you flustered isn’t enjoyable, but you’ve got me on the edge of my seat.”

“Right.” Her fingers curled into her skirt. “Theo, erm, he sent me home with an instruction.”

“Oh?” Draco’s eyes flashed with intrigue, probably because Theo’s directives were seldom something mundane, and they were always promising. “And you were planning on ignoring it?” Draco tutted. “For shame.”

“Only because…” Now hadn’t felt like the proper time to hike up her skirt, not with day Draco had had.

“You best get on with it.” He smirked and slid forward to the edge of the cushion. “Before you faint from the severity of your blush.”

She poked him with her elbow. “Theo told me to go home and show you…”

Both his brows rose. He gestured for her to go on. “Well, then. I’m waiting.”

He sounded far too pleased with this turn of events, her suddenly in the proverbial hot seat.

She gripped her hem. “Fair warning—he pocketed my knickers.”

His eyes narrowed. “Now you’re just teasing me.”

Swallowing her groan of—she wasn’t so much embarrassed as, okay she was, but it wasn’t bad. It caused the flush to spread from her face down, her nipples pebbling against the cotton of her bra, sensitive, and she could feel her pulse between her legs, throbbing. She lifted her skirt, thighs parting.

Draco cocked his head before sliding off the couch on to his knees. He shifted until he was in front of her, gaining himself a front row seat to the view between her thighs.

Tongue swiping against his bottom lip, Draco stared with dark eyes. “Fuck.” His smirk was slow and dirty, made her clench. “Come here.”

His hands slid up the sides of her thighs and around her bum, hauling her off the arm of the couch and down onto the cushion. She held her breath, teeth biting the inside of her cheek when Draco sank back on his haunches and kissed the inside of her knee. Then again, higher.

“You don’t have to,” she blurted, words running together. He’d had a bad day, worse than hers. If anyone should’ve been on their knees, it should’ve been her.

Draco bit the inside of her thigh. “Shut up.”

She swallowed a gasp. He didn’t have to tell her twice.

On a mission, he nuzzled her leg, lips brushing her skin. A low groan slipped from his lips and one of his hands dropped to his lap, pressing against the bulge in his trousers. “You smell like sex. Like you and Theo. Like come.”

His tongue swiped against the skin of her inner thigh, the crease where her leg met her body. The muscles in her stomach convulsed as she sucked a ragged breath in, fingers clenching on the arm of the couch, careful not to mar the leather. Anticipation curled her toes as Draco breathed against her without touching. Gods, she wasn’t above begging but—

Draco.” Her back arched off the couch when his tongue swept through her folds before latching on to her clit and sucking it between his lips.

He hummed and—oh sweet, Merlin.

Draco drew back and licked his lips. “You taste like you and Theo, too.”

There was a plea on her lips, a plea that turned into a long mewl when Draco leaned back in and flicked his tongue against her clit, one hand holding her open, the other circling her entrance, teasing.

Burying her hands in his fine blond strands, Hermione bit her lip. From beneath a fringe of pale lashes, Draco’s eyes met hers, stare holding.

Close.

Draco slipped two fingers inside and curled them, hooking and pressing until her legs trembled, stomach hardening. Her breath caught, and all at once, the tightly wound thread holding her together snapped. Heat spread from her core and down her limbs, toes curling as she shook, Draco’s grip tightening on her thigh to keep them from snapping shut.

He placed one, lingering kiss on her clit before lifting his head and licking his lips. He raised his hand to his mouth, sucking his fingers, all without breaking his stare. Her chest heaved, breath ragged.

He ducked his chin, smirking. “Any further instructions from Theo you’d like to relay?”

She swallowed and sighed, melting into the couch. “Just that it would be nice to come home to a warm bed.”

Draco stood, hands wrapping around her waist and—so much for getting comfortable on the couch. He lifted her boneless body off the sofa, waiting until she wrapped her legs around his waist in order to carry her over to the bed. He set her down atop the mattress and climbed in behind her. “Anything else?”

She shook her head.

“Good.” Draco curled an arm around her waist and tucked her against his chest. Tossing one leg over both of hers, he had her in a full body-bind, snuggling her like an octopus.

“Uh, Draco?” She bit the inside of her cheek. He was hard against her bum. “Did you not want me to…?”

Draco huffed out a laugh and kissed the nape of her neck. “Later. If you’re offering.”

He didn’t say anything else, just held her tighter. That meeting had to have been worse than even he had let on if he’d rather hold her than do something about his erection.

She counted her breaths. Four, five…twelve…nineteen… At fifty, she shifted until she was facing him. As soon as she was resituated, he threw his leg over her calves and rested a palm over the dip of her waist. Tiny purple veins were visible through the thin, translucent skin of his closed lids. “Draco?”

He hummed, brows rising though his eyes remained shut.

“Did—did something else happen? At your meeting, I mean?”

Draco opened his eyes, lips thinning. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

That he’d confessed even that much was a decent sign he’d be willing to divulge the rest, as long as she remained patient. Prying would get her nowhere, would be more likely to make him clam up. It was a delicate dance, being persistent without pushing, encouraging him to come to her.

Sure enough, after a moment, he huffed quietly. “You remember Roger Davies? His wanker of an uncle, Alexander Davies, is on the board. The first thing he said to me was, “How’s your father?” and he did it with this gloating little grin that made me want to hex it off, to be honest. I figured the meeting was over before it had begun but then I realized something.”

She brushed a strand of hair away from his eyes. “That you shouldn’t give up?”

Draco looked at her as if she’d grown a second head. “I realized Alexander Davies’s darling little sister Esther is married to Felix Rosier, son of the late Evan Rosier, and Felix’s own allegiances were circumspect during the war. He and Esther had a baby three months ago. I simply asked after my cousin.”

“Your cousin?”

Draco nodded. “Evan was cousins with my mother on her mother’s side. Druella Black née Rosier. Alexander’s new nephew is my distant cousin. You should’ve seen Davies’s face.” Draco looked away, lips curving. “I’m not above admitting I found his discomfiture amusing.”

The amount of pureblood gossip she’d been privy to over the past months was staggering. Half of it she promptly forgot, and the rest she honestly wished she could bleach from her brain. Not enough family trees forked among the so-called Sacred Twenty-Eight.

“And then?”

His lips twisted in a sneer. “Well, I felt vindicated for all of ten seconds before Davies began his interrogation. The rest of the board, save a few members, joined in.”

She shouldn’t have been surprised that grown men and women could behave so childishly in what should’ve been a professional environment—Fudge and Umbridge had shown her that—and yet part of her was. Perhaps it made her naïve, but she’d hoped for better out of the current administration. The worst part was that those people like Alexander Davies probably felt justified in their bullying because of who Draco was, not bothering to listen to what he was trying to stand for.

“No matter what their decision is, I’m proud of you.” Leaning in, she brushed her lips against his.

She wouldn’t have said it, or she’d only have confessed it to Theo, but Draco, in all honesty, needed a win.

With Hogwarts behind them, that chapter in their lives closed for nearly two months, she had thrown herself into checking off the tasks required to open the orphanage and primary school, and Theo had amassed a staggering amount of research on wizarding culture and practices in order to craft and refine lesson plans.

Similarly, Draco had slaved over his donatory potions plan and proposal, but whereas she and Theo were working toward inevitable outcomes, Draco’s future, that part of it, was clouded with uncertainty. And not unlike her, Draco didn’t handle uncertainty well.

No one was one-hundred percent healed from the war. Anger, fear, grief, regret, those might never go away, not completely. Healing for Theo, in part, meant control, not only taking it but being allowed to, trusted with it. Like being trusted with the education and welfare of the children he’d teach as soon as the school was up and running. Responsibility. Trust was equally as important to Draco; he needed to be believed in, believed capable of doing the right thing for the right reasons. Redemption.

But there was only so much she could grant him, or Theo, or her to Theo or any combination therein. As much as it occasionally felt like it, they didn’t exist in a bubble, and as such, though they might have meant everything to one another, they couldn’t be everything for one another. At some point, the rest of the world had to come into play, as it should. Well-rounded lives and all. Problem was, try as she might, she couldn’t control the rest of the world, nor how the rest of the world chose to see Draco. That sort of powerlessness made her want to throttle someone.

Draco’s smile was small and self-effacing, and something in her chest panged. “Thanks, Granger.”

***

By the time she woke up, the bed was cold on either side of her and the sun shined bright through the gap in the curtain.

Yawning wide, she fumbled on the nightstand for her wand, fingers catching on the vinewood. 10:23? Merlin. She must’ve needed the rest to have slept that late. It was no wonder she’d woken up alone.

After slipping on a pair of loose-fitting lounge pants and sliding into her slippers, she left the room, padding down the stairs. Narcissa was seated in the dining room, Daily Prophet spread out on the table beside her plate of soft-boiled eggs and honeydew. She glanced up, smiling broadly, and with a tap of her wand, the paper folded itself neatly.

“Good morning, dear.” Narcissa dipped her chin to the chair across the table. “Come sit.”

“Have Theo and Draco left already?” She slid into the chair that had become hers. A plate appeared before her, her usual fair of toast with jam, scrambled eggs, and strawberries making her stomach rumble.

Narcissa reached for her tea. “They did. Draco received a last-minute owl from”—Narcissa paused for effect—"Damocles Belby. Draco left an hour ago.”

Damocles Belby? Draco must’ve been over the moon. With a revered potioneer like Belby attached to the project, the Potions Association would, at the very least, have to give his proposal a chance.

“He was thrilled, wasn’t he?” She bit into her perfectly-crisped toast and reeled in a moan. Ridiculous that toast could elicit such a reaction, but the blackberry jam Milly slathered on it was incomparable.

Narcissa’s pale blue eyes gleamed. “Ecstatic. Not that he said, of course.”

Of course, he hadn’t. “I hope it goes well.”

She was crossing everything, fingers, toes, everything.

“As do I.” Narcissa set her cup aside. “As for Theo, he left shortly after Draco, just as eager, though less…enthused. Determined.”

She nodded and speared a slice of strawberry. “Yesterday was challenging. I think he’s eager to see the curse-breaking finished, less eager to bear witness while it happens.”

And yet he considered it his cross to bear, watching while Bill dismantled the curses one by one. Granted, there were certain areas of Nott Manor that were cloaked, hidden passages and several secret rooms only a Nott could access. He could’ve shown Bill those and then stepped back, letting him do the rest, but no. He had to be privy to it all.

Narcissa hummed and with a delicate shove, pushed her plate aside, clearing the table. As soon as her plate vanished, she set her hands on the table, graceful fingers smoothing the place-setting. “I suppose this means I get you all to myself today, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose? Until Bill gives the manor the all-clear, there isn’t much for me to do, much I can do, I mean.”

Her hands were tied, but once Bill was finished, there’d be cleaning and painting and—Gods, they’d need to completely restructure the manor. She’d need to purchase twin-sized beds and desks and blackboards and—

Narcissa waved a hand, batting that topic aside. “I meant we can finally discuss—“she took a deep breath, smile blinding—"the wedding. Milly.”

The house elf appeared by Narcissa’s chair in a snap. Her outfit of the day was a bright blue halter-dress with wedges so tall she was nearly the height of a third year. “Mistress requires Milly?”

“Would you be a dear and bring me my calendar and the binders I’ve left on my desk?” Narcissa requested.

Milly’s blue eyes widened. “The wedding planners?”

Gone one minute, Milly reappeared the next, straining beneath the weight of three thick, brimming binders. She set them on the table, clapped her hands together, and let loose a cackle much too devious for an elf who looked that sweet. “Finally.”

Milly vanished, the sound of her dastardly giggles echoing.

They’d only been engaged two months. To say finally, was a bit extreme, especially since it wasn’t as if she’d put zero thought into the wedding. She had a vague idea of what she wanted. She simply hadn’t sat down and put pen to paper, not with Narcissa, planner extraordinaire. There hadn’t been time. Seemingly every minute of her days had been structured, filled with budgeting, teaching herself—not to mention everyone else on board—about childhood development relevant to early education, crafting lesson plans for ages varying from five to ten, and trying not to second-guess herself because Gods, who exactly did she think she was, spearheading something this important—the education and well-being of children—when she had no formal training? Not that anyone had formal training, but still…

There hadn’t been time for wedding planning.

Narcissa opened the first binder and withdrew a small stack of parchment, nodding to herself. “Ah, perfect. I was thinking we’d begin with the guest list.”

She scratched the side of her neck. The guest list. Sure. “All right.”

Narcissa scanned the page, humming thoughtfully to herself as she reached for a quill. “I made a bit of a preliminary list, a rather rough draft, but it’s something to work off.” She lifted her head, pinning Hermione with a stare and a smile that together made her gulp. “I’m assuming you’ll want all the Weasleys in attendance.”

She pushed her plate aside. Much like Milly, her appetite had vanished. “Well, Ron, certainly. And Ginny. Bill, too.”

“Miss Delacour-Weasley, as well.” Narcissa checked names off her list.

“Definitely.” She laced her fingers together in her lap to keep from drumming them against the edge of the table. “And—uh, George isn’t—he’s…”

Narcissa frowned.

“Not quite…well.” George had good days and bad days and he spent almost all of them holed up inside Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. “But I’d like him there if he chooses to come.”

Another check followed by a long pause when Hermione didn’t say anything. Narcissa arched a brow. “And Molly, Arthur…Charlie, and—Percival, is it?”

“I—”

Was there a tactful way to say she wasn’t sure she wanted all the Weasleys at her wedding? None she knew of. Just—she had no problem with Arthur save for his occasional, inadvertent treatment of Muggles like the subjects of a sideshow attraction. Charlie was usually absent, working in Romania, so she hardly knew him, and Percy was a bit of a prat even if his work ethic was admirable. As for Molly…well, excuse her if she wasn’t too excited to have the woman at her wedding when Molly had practically barred Hermione from the Burrow. Not quite so severe, but singled out and made to feel unwelcome? Bad enough.

The logical, not to mention nice, part of her brain reminded that the lack of an invitation would only burn already rickety bridges and she didn’t need to do that, not when Ron and Ginny were too important. “I suppose it would be polite to invite the whole family.”

Narcissa tilted her head, eyes appraising, lips pursed thoughtfully. “Your grace is commendable.” She dropped her eyes to the parchment and the way she smirked reminded Hermione of Draco when he was about to suggest something wicked. “I’ll just make a note to seat Molly near the door. Encourage a short stay.”

She ducked her head, smothering her grin with a sip of tea.

“Obviously, Harry.” Narcissa checked him off without waiting. “The rest of your housemates, too?”

No? “Neville, yes. Dean and Seamus, too, I suppose. And outside of Gryffindor, there’s Luna.”

Narcissa nodded. “Go on.”

Who else? “Professor McGonagall. Hagrid. Kingsley.”

Narcissa chuckled. “Of course, we’re inviting the Minister, dear. Keep going.”

She took a deep breath, holding it until her lungs burned and then let it whoosh out all at once, words coming along for the ride. “That’s it.”

Narcissa’s head snapped up so quickly that her own neck gave a twinge in sympathy. “That’s—that’s it?” She shook her head. “That’s…seventeen guests.”

“Oh!” How could she forget? “Your sister, too. And Teddy, obviously. I was actually thinking he could be the ring bearer.”

Narcissa slumped, waving her hand. “Of course, of course. But—no one else?”

She shrugged. “I was hoping to keep it small. Just family and friends. Plus, whomever Draco and Theo want to invite, obviously.”

Their social circle was smaller these days, but they kept in touch with several of their classmates. Blaise, who’d moved to Italy with his mother, foregoing their eighth year, and Pansy, who, last Theo had mentioned, was living in New York City, enjoying her wealth—and anonymity. There were others, but not many.

Gutted. Narcissa looked gutted, her lips parting in silent shock. “Small.” She shook her as if that might clear it. “Why?”

“Well, it seems sensible to—”

“Oh, no.” Narcissa tutted. “This is a wedding. The only concern you should have regarding sensibility is the shoes you choose to wear. And even that can be taken care of with a cushioning charm.”

Humph. That likely meant other adjectives like practical or realistic were out, as well.

“I only meant, to me, the wedding is—pardon, the pun—icing on the cake. I’d rather celebrate with family and friends, keep it…special.”

Narcissa sighed, looking forlorn. “Large weddings can be special.”

“And unnecessarily costly,” she pointed out.

Narcissa drew back, looking as she’d been slapped. She lifted a hand to her throat, fingers brushing the strand of black pearls that rested against her skin. “That is to be the least of your worries. Quite frankly, the cost shouldn’t even be of concern to you. You shouldn’t even think of the price. It is no object. This is your wedding.”

“Right, but I am thinking of the cost and I don’t—”

“Hermione.” Little creases appeared beside her eyes. “Are you concerned we can’t afford this wedding?”

That was the last thing she’d meant to insinuate. For one, she’d never intentionally offend Narcissa like that and also—it was patently ridiculous. Of course, they could afford it. Even after all the post-war reparations had been paid, the Malfoy vaults were flush and so were Theo’s. Even the most extravagant affair, the sort of society wedding that was so lavish it made her cringe, would likely be nothing more than a drop in the bucket.

It was another matter entirely that Narcissa had assumed the Malfoys would be footing the bill. Hermione’s own vaults weren’t exactly empty, but the gold in her coffers was pennies to the Malfoy’s pounds. Sickles to galleons, rather. Even then, what it came down to was the necessity, or lack thereof, of having a large, costly wedding, regardless of who was paying for it.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “I only meant you shouldn’t have to—”

Narcissa tutted. “It’s not a matter of obligation, dear. I wouldn’t dream otherwise.” She smiled, something small and secret. “Didn’t you ever dream about your wedding when you were younger? Was it small and sensible?”

Of course, she had, and no, the specifics had been vague, though she’d certainly never dreamt of two grooms. Her imagination had conjured up the white dress and fuzzy-faced groom at the end of aisle her father would walk her down.

She closed her eyes and swallowed tightly. “Maybe we could table the guest list? Just for now?”

“Certainly.” Narcissa shut one binder and opened the other. “We have plenty else to do and not even five months to do it in.”

“I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “Five months?”

Narcissa hummed and jotted something down against the parchment in front of her. “Until the New Year.”

Her stomach lurched worse than the Ministry lift.

“Five months,” she muttered. “I was, erm, thinking more along the lines of May. Late May.”

Not June. Draco and Theo had been crystal clear that there’d be no June wedding, Narcissa’s distaste for them epic.

“Why ever would you want to wait that long?” She looked confused, like the concept of an eleven-month engagement was unfathomable.

She cleared her throat, fingers rubbing the hollow there, massaging. The whole conversation was making her windpipe narrow. “I was thinking we’d wait until after the school year. We won’t be able to open the doors this September, but we’re on track for a January start.”

“You’re right. Our plans are fairing exceptionally well.” Narcissa smiled. “There’s little planning left for you to worry over. Once the manor is clear, all that’s left is a bit of sprucing up and notifying families—”

“I’d like to be a part of that. Notifying the families.”

If anyone knew what it felt like, receiving their Hogwarts letter and being told they were a witch, it was her. No one else who’d be teaching—not Luna, nor Theo, nor Andromeda, well, besides Dean—knew what that was like, learning about the existence of magic, the reality of it, for the first time. One conversation had changed her life and she wanted to be a part of that for someone else, a child whose entire world was about to transform, expand, make sense.

Narcissa nodded. “And that will only require a few tea-time visits to—what is it? Thirty families? Between everyone that will take one week, two max, and that will be taken care of. If you have the wedding in December, you can enjoy the holidays and your honeymoon before classes even start.”

“Draco’s potions’ donatory program is—”

“Unfortunately, out of your hands, Hermione.”

She sighed. The view from the corner her future mother-in-law had backed her into was grim.

“Perhaps we could table the date for now, too?”

Narcissa wrote something on her parchment that, upside down, looked suspiciously like 12-18-99? That was less than a year since they had even officially been together.

“Let’s talk about color schemes. Usually red and green for Christmas is rather…kitsch, but burgundy and emerald? Or maybe cranberry and sage? It’s so obvious, it practically makes a full turn to the unexpected. And it’s a nod to your houses, that paired with something like a nice champagne-neutral could tie it all…”

***

Two pots of tea, three hours, and too many biscuits later, she finally made it back to the bedroom where she shut the door and slumped against it.

Narcissa had her heart in the right place, that much was obvious. She wanted the day to be magnificent, for her to have the wedding of her dreams, and that was lovely, except that they had very different opinions as to what sort of day she’d been dreaming of. And even if she did want a huge wedding, it still wouldn’t have been the wedding of her dreams, definitely not if it happened in fewer than five months.

Honestly, she truly couldn’t have cared less about the size of the wedding as long as her friends and family were there but—that was the rub. A ginormous wedding only meant the absence of her parents would be felt more acutely. Some might argue the opposite, a small wedding highlighting their absence, but no. A small wedding could be kept small for any number of logical reasons—a separate Muggle ceremony perhaps—but a large wedding with a guest list the size of the Hogwarts directory would offer no excuse as to why her parents weren’t there when everyone else and their cousin was. None with merit, at least.

Pressing off the door with a sigh, she trudged over to the desk she’d taken over in the corner of the room. She opened the top drawer and reached all the way into the back until her fingertips grazed cardstock. Swallowing tightly, she withdrew the rote Hallmark card her parents had sent in response to her letter letting them know she was engaged.

She traced the silver embossed writing on the front of the card.

Forever good together. Forever happy for you both.

Someone had hastily drawn a slash through ‘both’ and replaced it with ‘three.’

She flipped the card open and frowned, her chest burning no matter how many times she read it.

Congratulations and best wishes on your marriage.

Love,

Mum and Dad.

The last line had been written by her mother, but the rest was all prepackaged platitudes, empty and meaningless considering she’d written them a four-page letter and this was what she’d received in return. This was all she’d received.

At first, she’d considered that maybe they were upset or confused or disappointed or some messy feeling not easily put into words, especially not written words, because she wasn’t marrying one man, but two, but that wasn’t like her parents who were rather openminded, except where it came to the consumption of sweets. That, and, it wasn’t as if it were the first mention of her relationship. She’d written to them before, received brief responses, polite but disengaged, but nothing that communicated disapproval at her choice of partners or that there were two of them rather than one.

No, it had nothing to do with Theo or Draco or that she was nineteen or really that she was getting married at all, but was rather one more instance in a long line of instances that cemented the fact that her parents still had not gotten over her manipulating their memories during the war, and apparently not even her getting married would nudge them closer to burying the hatchet.

They might say they were over it, that they understood she’d had no choice, but they weren’t and they didn’t. Why else were they still in Australia? Her father had given her a bollocks excuse about enjoying the weather and being unable to shut down the dental practice without losing money, but she’d seen right through it. They didn’t want to come back because they weren’t all that enthused about seeing her.

Granted, they’d progressed from barely speaking to her to this, impersonal letters. It was something, but not enough to pin any hope of them flying to England in five months for her wedding. Eleven months, maybe, but even then, she’d wanted something small so she could think of it more like a celebration of her relationship with her friends and the family she’d amassed over the past eight, nine years, rather than a wedding, with all the expectation that word entailed.

Not to mention, her friends wouldn’t be likely to pry, but everyone else?

Where are your parents, Hermione? Oh, they couldn’t make it? It must be so difficult to integrate these events, make them Muggle friendly. No, that’s not why they couldn’t come? Can teeth-healers not take time off for their only daughter—their only child’s—wedding? Oh, they didn’t want to. I see.

This hypothetical person her brain had so helpfully created certainly did not see.

Maybe it was silly or fantastical or frivolous and some might argue unlike her—those who didn’t actually know her—but she had dreamt of her wedding day. Nothing big, nothing flashy, but warm and cheerful and her dad would walk her down the aisle and her mum would sit in the front row and cry happy tears. No perfectly selected China patterns or floral arrangements could replace that.

Only, she couldn’t say that to Narcissa.

Narcissa was beyond excited, excited to the point where the word didn’t do the level of her enthusiasm justice. She’d cried, actually cried, when they had announced their engagement. Delicate tears she’d quickly dabbed away before reaching first for Draco, wrapping him in a hug, and then her and Theo. Blue eyes rimmed red, Narcissa had given her a blinding smile, clasped both Hermione’s hands in hers, and asked if she could help with the planning. Narcissa had visibly held her breath, clinging to the edge of her seat, waiting for Hermione’s answer.

She hadn’t been able to say no, hadn’t wanted to say no. It was Narcissa’s only child’s wedding. Of course, she could help.

Hermione appreciated the assistance, truly, and she appreciated Narcissa. The woman had opened up her home and welcomed Hermione into the family with incontrovertible grace. Planning the wedding made her so ridiculously happy that saying something to burst the woman’s bubble was inconceivable. That, and saying something after Narcissa had done gone above and beyond to make Hermione feel comfortable, welcome, like part of the family even before their official engagement, would’ve been an affront, like spitting in the face of all she’d done.

She couldn’t say something, didn’t want to say something. There was nothing anyone, not Narcissa nor Draco nor Theo, could do about it, so what was the point?

It was fine.

She was marrying the men she loved and she hadn’t lied when she’d told Narcissa that the wedding was the icing on the cake. They could elope, for all she cared because—who needed icing, right?

She was fine.

Hermione shoved the card back into the drawer and slammed it shut, wincing when a picture frame atop the desk fell to the ground and shattered.

Now if only she could start believing it.

Chapter Text

“Tell me again whose bright idea it was to hold a midsummer gala during the first week of August.” Theo yanked at his tie, flubbing the knot. “Damn it.”

Draco chuckled beneath his breath and reached over, swatting Theo’s hands aside. “I think the Ministry is bucking tradition and working off the more literal middle of summer meteorological definition rather than astronomical midsummer.”

“Heathens.” Theo scoffed. “All of them.”

Heathens?” She laughed. “As I missing something? Another ancient Pureblood practice?”

“No,” Draco said, straightening Theo’s now carefully-knotted tie. “There’s the Pagan holiday, Litha, celebrating midsummer in June, but while, historically most witches and wizards were Pagan, not all Pagans were witches and wizards. So, not really.”

“I just like referring to the Ministry as a bunch of heathens,” Theo confessed. “It sounds better than bureaucratic arseholes, so in all honesty, they should thank me for making them sound cooler than the paper-pushing politicians they are.”

“Say that five times fast,” Draco muttered beneath his breath.

Theo opened his mouth to do it but stopped when she fixed him with a stare. He grinned. “I’ll behave.”

Draco snorted. “Behave isn’t a word in your vocabulary.”

“Damn. You’re right.” Theo snapped his fingers. “Can’t say I didn’t try. Not my fault I didn’t understand the assignment.”

“Look”—she snatched her clutch off the nightstand—“we won’t have to stay for long. We just need to put in an appearance so Kingsley can see I kept my word. Though it wouldn’t hurt to speak to several of the families who—”

“Hermione.” Draco rested one hand on her waist, the other tipping up her chin. “While it’s not my ideal Friday evening, we’ll live.”

He lowered his head, lips brushing hers in a gentle kiss.

Suddenly Theo was there, lips smacking first her cheek, then Draco’s, making them both laugh. “While you both look delectable all dressed-up, my ideal evening would involve far fewer clothes.”

She didn’t know about herself—she looked fine in her plum-colored gownbut Theo was right in that he and Draco managed to make their dress robes into something approaching indecent. Not that they weren’t entirely function-appropriate and tailored to perfection, but Gods, did they have to fit quite so well?

When Draco arched a brow, Theo sighed. “Fine. No clothing. Your finery would look better on the floor. Happy?”

Draco smirked. “Ecstatic.”

The look Theo aimed at Draco was so heated, her own breath stuttered. “I don’t know. I’d personally reserve ecstatic for what comes after the clothes wind up on the floor.”

“Okay,” she piped up when Draco’s eyes darkened. “Not that this isn’t—”

She was going to say arousing, but the word caught in her throat.

Theo dimpled. “Go on.”

“If I finish that statement, we’ll never make it to the gala on time.”

Not that the devil on her shoulder gave a lick about punctuality. As much as attending this gala was a necessary evil—she had promised Kingsley in return for granting her access to the Book of Names—she wasn’t looking forward to it. Not. One. Bit. Word of their engagement had hit the papers last month, but this would be their first public appearance, all three of them, since. Save for the Remembrance ceremony, it would be their first official public appearance period. Cameras and reporters—all save one highly vetted, Ministry-approved journalist—had been banned from the Remembrance Day proceedings, but no doubt the gossip fiends would be out in full force at the gala.

Based on Theo’s unusual inability to tie his own tie and how Draco had fidgeted all day, cracking his knuckles constantly, they weren’t looking forward to it, either.

“Come on,” Theo said. “A little boozing, a little schmoozing, it’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?”

***

Theo had spoken too soon.

As if illuminated by a spotlight—she glanced toward the ceiling to make sure there wasn’t one—everyone in the Ministry’s grand ballroom turned and stared as soon as they walked in.

Theo maintained a smile, speaking through clenched teeth. “Like I said, heathens. Didn’t their mothers tell them staring was rude?” He snorted. “My mother died and even I know that.”

Draco cleared his throat. “I need a drink.”

“I think I need several,” Theo said.

Not a bad idea and—perfect. “Come on. I see Harry and Ron over at the bar.”

“Brilliant idea,” Draco muttered. “Let’s go stand by Potter so all the people who are staring at him can stare at us.”

“We usually stick together at these functions. That way Kingsley can’t possibly miss that we’re in attendance, we present the united front he’s looking for, and it saves us time.”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with some people being too timid to approach the entire Golden Trio.” Draco smirked.

“Hush.” She laughed.

Harry caught sight of them before Ron, lifting his glass of firewhisky in greeting. “Hermione, hey.” He leaned in, hugging her briefly before nodding to Draco and Theo. “Malfoy, Nott, good seeing you.”

Draco’s lips flattened as he took a seat on the open barstool beside Harry. “Get me a drink and I might consider returning the sentiment.”

She rolled her eyes when Harry looked affronted. “It’s not you. It’s everyone.”

“Oh. Well, then.” Harry gestured to the bartender with three fingers. The man was quick to comply, all but jumping at the chance to serve Harry Potter. “Alcohol helps.”

“’Mione.” Ron gave her a quick, semi-awkward peck on the cheek. “I thought you lot would be used to these sorts of shindigs. Rubbing elbows and all that.”

“Right. Aren’t you Slytherins groomed for a life of politics?” Harry smirked, passing them their drinks.

Firewhisky wasn’t her drink of choice, but she’d take it, at least for something to hold to keep from fidgeting as she was prone to at these events where everyone stared.

Draco nodded, conceding the point. “Accurate, but you’re forgetting a key detail. All those parties I was forced to attend growing up? Everyone disliked everyone to some degree. It was mutual and leveled the playing field. Here…”

“Everyone hates us.” Theo pointed between himself and Draco. “It’s a real buzzkill.”

“No one hates you,” she said.

Draco tipped his head pointedly to a group of staring women whispering behind their hands. At her glance, all but one woman hurried to look otherwise occupied. The woman still glaring—Hermione was almost certain she’d been in her sixth year, Ravenclaw, when they’d been first years—curled her lip in a sneer, nose wrinkling as her eyes flashed between Draco and Theo.

Bitch. Hermione glared right back, refusing to break eye contact until the woman finally blinked, shaking her head before giving Hermione her back.

"Meow," Theo whispered, miming a swipe of claws with his fingers.

“Okay, some people hate you,” Harry admitted. “But come on, it’s got to be a little mutual.”

Draco shook his head. “Actually, no. I wouldn’t say I’m fond of most of the people here—”

“He’s not fond of very many people, period.” Theo grinned. “It’s a select club.” He dropped his voice. “The membership fees are exorbitant.”

Ron snorted. “What, just you and Hermione?” He paused, mouth twisting in a grimace. “I don’t think I want to know about your membership fees.”

“Don’t worry.” Theo waved him off. “We don’t deal in money. Strictly sexual favors.”

“Oi,” Ron said. “Gross.”

Theo,” she hissed, face heating.

So much for behaving.

Ron threw the rest of his drink back and lifted the empty glass, signaling to the bartender for a refill.

“Sorry, right.” Theo nodded, holding up his hands in placation. “Exclusive club. State secrets. I’ve said too much.”

Ears flushed, Draco cleared his throat. “As I was saying, I might not be fond of most of the people here, but I don’t hate them. I could simply do without the whispers and the staring. It’s rude.”

Hea-thens,” Theo sing-songed under his breath.

Harry nodded, lips twisted in sympathy. “I wish I could say it gets better, but that’d be a lie.”

“Oh yes,” Draco spoke into his tumbler. “I’m sure it’s so difficult having all these people want to shake your hand and thank you for saving their lives.”

He lifted his head, grey eyes dancing with humor.

Harry’s hand twitched around his glass, his eyes narrowing, lips rolling in before quirking to the side. “You should really come to more of these things.”

Draco reared back. “Why in Salazar’s name would I want to do that?”

Harry rolled his glass, ice cubes clinking. “With you around, no one wants to come near us.”

“Funny.” Draco smirked. “Saint Potter has jokes.”

“Oh, I wasn’t kidding. No one’s approaching us for a photo or coming to shake my hand or ask me my opinion on a subject I’m wholly unopinionated on.” Harry grinned. “It’s great.”

“Happy to be of service.” Draco rolled his eyes.

“Draco does have a point,” Theo said, eyes skimming the room. “We don’t hate anyone here we just—oh wait, I spoke too soon. We definitely hate her.”

Hermione spun, looking in the direction Theo was covertly pointing. “What’s wrong with her?”

Theo shrugged. “She just has one of those faces, you know? Ow.” He rubbed his arm where she’d elbowed him. “Kidding. That’s Elena Selwyn and she’s one of the holdouts refusing to send her precious little Marco to our school. And she hasn’t been quiet about it, either.”

“For what it’s worth.” Draco took a sip of whisky. “My mother can’t stand her.”

“Why not?” she asked.

Draco sighed. “Some tiff over thank you notes. Elena sends them to everyone but my mother, so now she includes a thank you note with her gift, already filled out save for the signature. And the gift is always the latest edition of Madam Etheridge's Guide to Etiquette for the Modern Witch.”

“Damn." Theo whistled. "Power move. Go Narcissa."

“Oh.” She frowned. “Okay. Well, go talk to her.”

Theo balked, holding a hand to his chest. “Me? Why me?”

“Do you really think I’m the right person to convince Elena Selwyn to send her child to an integrated school?” she asked.

Theo winced.

Draco shook his head. “I’m out. Her feelings toward my mother extend to me, no doubt.”

Theo huffed. “And I’m any better?”

“What was it you once said?” Draco smirked. “You’re charming and affable?”

Theo mock-glared. “Fine.” He straightened his already perfect tie and sniffed. “But if the woman is anywhere near as dreadful as her brother-in-law, you both owe me.”

Sauntering across the room like he owned the place, Theo plucked a glass of champagne off a passing tray and made his way over to Elena Selwyn. She frowned when he greeted her, head turning sharply, brushing him off without even aiming for subtlety. Undeterred, Theo pressed on, his smile unflappable even in the face of such appalling manners. Whatever he said made her pause, chin tilting, glossy black curls spilling over her shoulder as she listened, eyes narrowed. Theo held out the glass of champagne and she stared at it for a moment before accepting, a small smile gracing her lips. Theo’s next words made her laugh, her porcelain skin pinking beneath the warm light of the ballroom’s chandeliers.

Draco chuckled, low and throaty, and held his tumbler up to hers, clicking their glasses together.

Charming was right. Not only was it entertaining seeing a stone-cold viper like Elena Selwyn simper, but it was also extra gratifying knowing Theo's schmoozing was for a worthy cause. Because if Elena Selwyn agreed to send her son to the integrated primary school, the other women in her little clique might follow suit. Lions weren’t the only ones who ran in packs, apparently.

Just then, Theo shifted, lifting his head and winking in their direction.

“Cheeky bastard. He’s enjoying this far too much.” Draco shook his head at Theo, lifting his glass in a salute.

“He’s good at that,” Ron muttered, sounding half-impressed, half-perturbed by Theo’s prowess.

“What he’s good at—” Draco drained his drink and stood “—is showing me up.” He set his glass on the bar and nodded toward the corner of the room. “Montague Warrington is on the board of the Potions Association, one of the few members who, dare I say, doesn’t loathe me. I should say hello.”

His warm lips brushed her cheek, lingering a second longer than needed. Who cared if half the room was watching? She leaned into it, smiling.

“What?” Harry shook his head, sliding his glasses up when they slipped down his bridge. “No. If you leave, I have no buffer.”

Draco clapped Harry on the shoulder. “Sorry, not sorry, Potter.”

He left, striding across the room, long fingers buttoning his suit jacket as he moved. His face was a closed book, his eyes sharp and jaw clenched. Colder and harder than ice, Draco looked completely unmoved by the stares and whispers that followed as he crossed the ballroom, the crowd parting before him. The only signs of his discomfort were that his shoulders were just about an inch too high and his stride ever so slightly shortened, and it was unlikely anyone but she noticed.

She held her breath when Draco greeted Mr. Warrington, an older-looking wizard who could’ve been eighty or one-hundred and fifty, she hadn’t the slightest. The lines around the man’s mouth were severe, the furrows in his forehead deep grooves. The man looked more accustomed to frowns than smiles, but when Draco nodded and extended his hand, Mr. Warrington offered his own with a friendly upturn of his lips. He then gestured to the woman by his side whose wrinkled face positively lit up when Draco kissed the back of her hand. Something she said made Draco laugh, his smile blinding.

Thank Merlin. Shoulders dropping, she took a sip of whisky and winced at the burn.

“All right there?” Harry asked, brow pinched.

“Who, me?” When he nodded, she sighed. “I’m fine. I’m just tired of these galas.”

For one, they always required her to dress up. Not something she inherently hated, but the Daily Prophet, without fail, ran a foul column dissecting what she wore the following day. Not Harry, not Ron, her. And, without fail, there were pictures, pictures she usually looked passable in, but occasionally there would be a shot or two captured from an unflattering angle, one that made her hips too wide and her breasts too small and her hair frizzy…frizzier than normal. Special attention had to be paid to every outfit, her hair, her makeup, just so she wouldn’t be caught looking a mess in the next day’s paper.

Then there was the staring. Leers and glares and disingenuous smiles that never quite reached the eyes. Worse were the people who wanted photos and that meant forced grins and putting up with hands placed just a little too low, too close to her arse. Not so low she could say something—because she would, absolutely—but low enough to make her uncomfortable.

Conversely, there were the people who genuinely wanted to express their appreciation, give thanks. Mothers whose eyes would well with tears and fathers who couldn’t seem to let go when they shook her hand. There were families with stories of loss whose grief, even a year later, was so palpable it took everything she had not to cry until she could slip off to the restroom. Families with stories of near-losses, too, who were so appreciative, appreciative of her and she never knew what to say to those people. You’re welcome? It was nothing? It was the right thing to do? People felt compelled to share with her, for some reason, as if she needed personal anecdotes to understand just how bleak the war had been and what she’d prevented from transpiring when she’d witnessed the worst of it firsthand.

Of course, there were also the people who wanted to pick her brain. Some wanted a play-by-play of her thought process during those grim months spent searching for and destroying horcruxes and others wanted to know if there were different choices she’d make in retrospect, a cruel question, turning the war into some sort of post-Quidditch match locker-room interview.

She didn’t know what to do with any of it—the good, the bad, or the just plain awkward. All of it turned her into a spectacle and she hated it, hated that she’d been reduced to adjectives—female, Gryffindor, Muggleborn, the bright one, or worse, the brains as if Harry and Ron lacked those entirely, or she lacked heart or nerve or whatever it was they in turn possessed—and that all anyone wanted to talk about was worst year of her life.

Harry gave her a grim smile and nodded. “Awful, isn’t it? On the bright side, we won’t have another one of these to worry about until the holidays.”

She frowned at her empty glass. Right. The holidays. If Narcissa had her way, there’d easily be this many people in attendance at the wedding. Hundreds of people, most of whom she might not even know, all wanting a piece of her on what was supposed to be her day. Hers and Draco’s and Theo’s, not theirs, these other people. Braving the whispers and stomaching the stares at Ministry parties was one thing, but her wedding shouldn’t be a spectacle, performance art, something to be chewed up and spit out in the Prophet. What vultures.

No. She wanted to be able to breathe on her wedding day, not worry that all her happy moments would wind up reduced to unflattering photos alongside a puffed-up editorial piece that would probably harangue her taste in food and flowers, and no doubt refer to the absence of her parents as curious.

“’Mione?” Ron touched her arm. “Sure you’re okay?”

She shook her head, forcing herself to smile. It would be her luck some photographer would be lying in wait for the perfect moment to snap a picture of her frowning by the bar. The headlines would read something like, “Trouble in paradise? Golden Girl Spotted Sad and Alone While Her Fiancés Mingle” or “Has the Brightest Witch of the Age Finally Come to Her Senses and Ditched Her Death Eater Beaus?” Even with Rita no longer writing for the Prophet, the paper took liberties and then some. Only a fool would think of a strikethrough as anything but a raised underscore.

“I’m fine, really.” When Harry and Ron continued to look suspicious, she waved them off. “Seriously, you two, I’m just over these galas. I only came because Kingsley asked quid pro quo. Convincing a few naysayers to enroll their children was a plus, but Theo seems to have that handled.”

Across the room, Theo was surrounded by several of Elena Selwyn’s friends, all women in their thirties and forties and fifties who looked positively delighted by his presence. She rolled her eyes. Honestly, why hadn’t they thought to give Theo the task of drumming up interest sooner? Talk about saving time and a hassle. They should’ve just tossed Theo in a room with a bunch of bored Pureblood housewives and bam, problem solved.

She bit the inside of her cheek. Not that she was suggesting they pimp out her fiancé, no. Gods no. But he could charm the pants off a mountain troll; convincing a few lustful witches to send their children to a new school? Easy as breathing.

“He’s good,” Ron admitted before frowning. “He’s not part Veela, is he?”

Harry snorted so hard firewhisky shot out of his nose. “Oh, hell. That burns.” He pinched his nose, eyes watering, his other hand cradling his forehead. His glasses slipped, skewing to the left.

She patted Harry on the shoulder. “Of course, he’s not, Ron.” She couldn’t not tease him when he’d set himself up for it so perfectly. “Finding yourself enamored, are you?”

Harry tugged off his glasses and wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “I was going to ask the same thing before I blew fire out my nose.”

Ron huffed. “No. Of course not. Don’t be stupid. I’m only saying.” He crossed his arms and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “He’s just kind of brilliant at that.” He gestured across the room.

“I’ll make sure to pass on the compliment,” she teased.

Ron flushed. “Don’t you dare.”

“And if I do?”

Ron groaned. “’Mione.”

She grinned. “I’m going to find Kingsley and say hello.” The sooner that happened, the sooner she could leave. She pointed a finger at Ron and Harry warningly. “Don’t you even think of sneaking out of here without saying goodbye.”

“Like you haven’t thought of doing it.” Ron rolled his eyes.

Two minutes was all it should’ve taken to find Kingsley—it was rather difficult to miss him as he was flanked by aurors—and yet it took twenty to reach him. She had to shake hands, engage in small talk with at least a half dozen people. She was doing well. Yes, she was really engaged. Yes, the article in the Prophet had been right. She really was engaged to a Malfoy and a Nott. No, she wasn’t barmy. That question and the answer had both been implied. Yes, that was the ring. No, they didn’t have a date set. No, she wasn’t working at the Ministry. Yes, she was working. Yes, the rumors of the primary school were true. On and on, the same questions she’d been asked with a few new ones added in. Utterly tedious.

Her chat with Kingsley was brief because if there was anyone more in demand than her, Harry, and Ron, it was the Minister. Next year was reelection year and he was fielding questions left and right, his time for her blessedly limited. A quick hello, a good to see you, you’re looking well followed by a promise on her end to speak with the woman in the red dress at table three, a visitor from Brazil with deep pockets who wanted to meet her, of all people. Kingsley nudged her in that direction and then turned, greeting someone new.

She rolled her eyes and did as bade, pasting on a smile as she approached the table.

Another thirty minutes later and she was free, the woman having written two sizeable checks, one to the Being Division of the DRCMC and another for the orphanage, after getting Hermione to sign chocolate frog cards of herself for the woman’s nine children. Merlin.

“Hey.” She turned, spinning right into Theo who caught her around the waist before she could topple over. He grinned down at her, fingers teasing the skin left bare by her backless dress. “Just the witch I was looking for.”

“Oh, really?” There was a smudge of pink lipstick on his cheek that she wanted gone but didn’t want to touch. “You’ve got lipstick on your cheek.”

Theo wrinkled his nose and pulled back, lower lip jutting out. “Oh, Gods. Marliese Avery doesn’t like to take no for an answer. She’s old enough to be my mother and she kept running her nails, no, claws, up my arm. I feel violated, Hermione.”

She huffed and withdrew her wand—thank the heavens for gowns with pockets—tergeo’ing the makeup from his skin. Twice, for good measure. “Violated, hmm?”

“You know the only witch I want touching me is you.” Theo crowded closer, hands dipping, just shy of indecent territory. He lowered his head, lips brushing her ear, making her shiver, her shoulders curling in. “And the only lipstick I want on me is yours. Preferably all over.”

“Smooth.” She laughed. “I’m not actually upset, you know. Well, I’m upset they took liberties and touched you without permission, but—”

He leaned in, kissing her quiet, cutting her off. He pulled back, chuckling. “I know. Your eyes didn’t scream homicide, so I figured I was safe.”

She huffed. “Did you at least have a nice conversation?”

“If by nice, you mean was I persuasive?” Theo shrugged. “You’ve got eight new enrollees, so I’ll leave that for you to decide.”

Eight?” She smacked his arm. “Oh my God, Theo. You convinced them all?”

“Everyone I spoke to with children of primary school age, yes.” He grinned. “They seemed particularly sold when I said I’d be teaching Magical Cultural Studies.”

“Of course, it’s a much-needed course that—” She paused. “No. It was the fact that you’re teaching, wasn’t it? Perfect, now we’ll be stuck dealing with a PTA slash fan club.”

“PT what?”

She smiled. “Parent-teacher association. They encourage and facilitate cooperation and communication between, well, parents and teachers. Parents often volunteer to hold fundraisers, bake sales usually, for field trips. Occasionally parents volunteer in classrooms, make copies, that sort of thing. I’m not sure what the magical equivalent would wind up being, but let’s keep that between us so we don’t have witches showing up offering to help Professor Theo with his grading, okay?”

She’d rather not be arrested.

He winced. “Why anyone trusts me with their children, I still haven’t the slightest.”

“Theo—"

“You can explain it to me again later. Right now, I really want to find Draco and leave, if you don’t mind.”

Draco was back at the bar, deep in discussion with Harry and Ron who looked as if they hadn’t left, not even for a moment. Ron’s laughter was a touch too loud, probably from all the free firewhisky. At least, from the looks of his glass, he’d switched to water at some point.

“Seriously?” Draco asked, staring at Harry with a brow arched in apparent suspicion.

“You say it like you’re shocked, but you’ve played with us before, Malfoy,” Harry said.

“Yes, but that was because the seeker for the DoM was stuck in—”

Ron and Harry spoke at once, “Shhh!”

Theo laughed but she didn’t find it funny that some poor Unspeakable was still stuck in time.

“Look, Jenkins can’t play seeker to save his life. No one else is decent and I’d like to play against someone who actually poses a challenge,” Harry whined. “I’d ask Ginny, but she’s training up in Scotland.”

“Huh, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m strangely flattered, Potter. Prepare to get your arse handed to you. Again.”

Harry scoffed. “It was a draw and that was only because we got called for an emergency.”

“Planning another interdepartmental Quidditch match?” Theo asked.

Harry shook his head. “Just us in the DMLE. It’s just for fun.”

And the interdepartmental matches weren’t for fun?

Ron shrugged. “Even Barry who does all the filing joins in. Bloody amazing beater, it turns out.”

Harry nodded at Theo. “You can join, too, if you want. Micaela, one of our chasers, is out sick and I was planning on swapping Jenkins over, but it’s really not just seeker he’s awful at, it’s the whole damn game.”

“Bloke should stick with his clerical duties.” Ron grimaced

Theo shrugged. “Eh, I’m not exactly what you’d call skilled at Quidditch.”

Harry frowned. “Can you fly?”

Theo arched a brow. “Yes.”

“Can you do it in a straight line?”

“Who can’t?”

Harry sighed. “You’re already better than Jenkins, trust me.”

Ron glanced at her, chuckling under his breath.

“Excuse you,” she said, resting her hands on her hips. “I can fly in a straight line, Ronald. I simply choose not to. Fly, I mean.”

Draco shook his head. “I’m going to get you on a broom eventually, you know that?”

“Save your breath, mate,” Ron said. “No use. I tried for years.”

Draco seemed to take that as a challenge, smirking opening. “We’ll see about that.”

Hah. “You can try.”

Draco continued to look far more confident than he had any right.

Theo shrugged. “All right. I’m in. When?”

“Tomorrow,” Harry said. “Eleven o’clock. I’ll meet you both here and you can side-along to the field. You should come, too, Hermione. Watch.”

As tempting as the thought of seeing both Draco and Theo dressed for Quidditch was… “Thanks, but no. I have a few loose ends I want to tie up with the funding, and Dean owled this afternoon and I didn’t have a chance to respond. Something about a magical-electrical crisis? But have fun. And try not to get hurt.”

“Just for that, we’re definitely going to try to get hurt,” Harry joked.

“You say that like it’s funny.” And it wasn’t. Not in the slightest.

“It’s a little funny.” Harry held up two fingers held closely together.

“One word, Harry. Skelegrow.”

Harry went green.

Point made, she turned to Draco. “Are you ready to head home?”

“Absolutely.” He nodded. “See you tomorrow, Potter. Weasley.” He dipped his chin.

“Bye, Harry.” She leaned in, hugging him, holding him a second longer than usual so she could whisper in his ear, “If either of my fiancés come home hurt tomorrow, I’ll have your broom for kindling.”

Harry grinned. “No promises.”

Ron’s hug was brief. “See ya, ‘Mione.”

Theo shook both their hands and then they were off, making a beeline for the door, hurrying before someone could stop them.

“Draco.”

They groaned in unison. Thwarted, and just when they’d been so close.

Narcissa waved from a cluster of women, some of who had been the ones clinging to Theo’s every word. And his body, apparently.

Luckily Narcissa came to them and they weren’t forced to join her. Hermione didn’t know what this Marliese Avery looked like and the woman should count her lucky stars for that fact.

“Leaving so soon?” Narcissa asked.

Draco nodded. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

“A last-minute decision,” she said. She gestured to her dress, a sleek black number that clung to her curves and shimmered green in a certain light. “Andromeda convinced me and I hardly knew what to wear.”

“You look amazing,” Hermione said.

Narcissa smiled. “Oh, this? Just something I had in my closet.”

She’d bet galleons, loads of them, that Narcissa hadn’t simply thrown something on, but had instead carefully selected her dress for the occasion, perhaps going so far as to have had something designed specifically for this event. This was, after all, the first time she could recall seeing Narcissa at one of these Ministry galas, and she was attending without Lucius by her side, his house arrest nowhere close to complete.

“You look lovely as well, dear,” Narcissa added, eyes narrowing. “That’s a stunning silhouette on you. Something to consider for the wedding, maybe? With a train, of course. Perhaps sleeves? Could you turn around so I could—”

“Mother.” Draco chuckled. “We’re leaving. You can see the back of Hermione’s dress when we walk through the door, how’s that?”

Narcissa sighed, put out. “If I must.” She rested a hand on Hermione’s arm. “You aren’t busy tomorrow, are you?”

“Erm, not terribly? I need to look over a few details and respond to a letter, but—”

“Perfect. I saw the most stunning serviettes in The Wedded Witch that you have to see.”

Cloth napkins? Not something she’d ever refer to as stunning, but okay.

Hermione smiled. “Sure. We can talk about…serviettes tomorrow.”

Narcissa chuckled. “Not just those. Centerpieces, too. I was thinking just a touch of holly. Nothing garish.”

Holly. Christmas flowers. She pasted on a smile. “Maybe.”

With the promise of talking tomorrow, they were finally able to slip out of the party undisturbed. One quick Floo trip later, they were back inside their bedroom, having had the forethought to Floo directly to that grate rather than the one downstairs.

Theo and Draco looked exhausted, no longer bothering to hide behind the façade of cool, calm, collectedness.

Theo dropped his head to her shoulder with a whimper. “Hermione. That was awful.”

Oh, Gods. She bit the inside of her cheek and tutted. “You’re okay.”

He lifted his head, eyes wide with faux-innocence. Those women had no idea who they were teasing. Maybe that was a good thing. If they’d had the slightest clue just how devious—wonderfully devious, mind—Theo could be, they might’ve done more than stroke his arm. Stroke something else, maybe. “You know what would make me feel better?” He smiled, dimpling impishly. “A kiss.”

Snorting indelicately, she leaned up on her toes, lips skimming his cheek quickly before he could turn and steal an actual kiss.

Draco slipped off his tie, frowning. “What happened?”

Theo’s sighed, dropping the act, rolling his eyes. “Marliese Avery happened.”

With a scoff, Draco tossed his tie on the bed and moved on to the buttons of his shirt. “You had to deal with a handsy housewife, boo hoo.” Apparently, the woman’s reputation preceded her.

Shirt hanging half-open, Draco dropped his hands and stared at them, grey eyes haunted. “You saw Mrs. Warrington, yes? The woman’s—what? In her nineties? Certainly didn’t stop her from pinching my bum.” He frowned, one hand reaching back to touch the offended area. “Woman had a grip to rival a grindylow, too.”

Theo’s lips twitched, a muffled snort of laughter slipping out.

“The barmy old bat did it right in front of her husband. Worse? He smirked like he thought it was funny.”

“Maybe they were both on the pull?” Theo waggled his brows. “Looking to spice up their sex life? Geriatrics need love, too, Draco.”

Her lower lip wobbled and she covered her face, shoulders shaking.

Draco sneered. “I’m not that desperate to have my proposal approved.” He winced. “I think I have a bruise.”

“Want me to kiss it better?” Theo offered.

Draco sniffed. “Not if you’re going to laugh at me.”

She took a deep, cleansing breath and dropped her hands. “Sorry. Neither of you would be laughing if it had been me, so it’s really not funny.”

With a look that could only be described as contrite, Theo said, "Good point."

Draco frowned thoughtfully. “I'm fine. I was mostly just scandalized that the woman would be so bold. And in public no less.”

“Not to correlate the events, but did Warrington mention your proposal?” Theo asked.

“Vaguely. Said he finds it noble.” Draco dropped his head and gave a dry laugh. “Not sure I can rely on his understanding of that word in retrospect.”

Theo shot her a look, a flash of wide eyes and lips pinched white. “Who knows, maybe he’ll—"

“Not that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do, because I absolutely saw that look, but can we not?” Draco shook his head. “I’d rather not dissect it further. All we’re doing is speculating and it gets us nowhere.”

“Okay.” Though it was absolutely in her nature to examine an issue from every angle, real and imagined, she could concede that if it wasn’t making him feel better, they’d best drop it.

Theo nodded. “Fine.”

“Good, now screw your shower, Theo.” Fingers returning to his buttons, Draco finished with his shirt and moved on to his trousers. He lowered the zipper and lifted his brows. “If you want to make me feel better, go draw us a bath.”

Chapter Text

Hermione flopped back against the mountain of pillows and frowned up at the canopy.

Bored. She was bored out her mind, a travesty in a house with a library the size of a house. The only problem was, she couldn’t go down to the library because she wasn’t feeling well.

She was fine but—she winced—Narcissa didn’t know that.

With a tug, Hermione freed one of the pillows behind her head and pressed it over her face, muffling a groan. Lying wasn’t something she enjoyed and she certainly didn’t take great pleasure in lying to her future mother-in-law. Her future mother-in-law who had positively coddled her upon hearing she was unwell, sending her straight up to bed with a cup of tea, but not before checking her for a fever with a hand pressed to her forehead.

Maybe it wasn’t entirely a lie? Stretching the truth, certainly, but not a full-blown lie seeing as the thought of sitting through an afternoon of wedding planning did make her head hurt.

She tossed the pillow aside and huffed. Not that that delineation made her feel better. No, it was terribly un-Gryffindor of her, cowardly even to beg off under the guise of not feeling well. But even the bravest people had moments of weakness.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to talk about the wedding or think about it or even put plans into motion. It was just… complicated, and she couldn’t say anything and pretending everything was peachy in front of Narcissa was exhausting and if she didn’t figure something out soon—either what to say or how to muscle through—someone was going to pick up on her strangeness, her reluctance, and get the wrong idea. Someone might misinterpret her behavior as dragging her feet, or worse, assume she had cold feet. Which she did not, not at all. Her feet were positively toasty. If there was one thing about this whole wedding she was certain of, it was her feelings for Draco and Theo. Everything else…

The consequence of her cowardice was that she was now not only trapped in the story she’d spun, but trapped in her bedroom. She’d read all the books kept here, finished writing to Dean, and had finished balancing the budget for the school. Now she had nothing to do and it was—she glanced at the time—only one in the afternoon.

A loud crack filled the room, and a second later Milly appeared near the foot of the bed. Her big, blue eyes blinked at Hermione balefully. She shook her head, tutting softly. “Mistress Narcissa asked Milly to check on Mistress Hermione and see if she requires more tea. Poor Mistress Hermione looks so unwell.”

The thought of her being a house elf’s mistress was still rather unfathomable. Not that she had a problem with how Milly was treated—Milly had made it perfectly clear that she served of her own volition and enjoyed the work and her ample wages—but it was the word. Mistress. Like nails on a chalkboard, it grated, made her openly wince. Or, it had until she’d politely asked Milly to just call her by her name, or if she must, go back to calling her Miss Hermione like she had before the engagement. But Milly’s eyes had welled with fat tears and her little lower lip had wobbled, her chin trembling as she tugged on one ear. Does Mistress Hermione not want to be Milly’s Mistress?

What a loaded question. Had she said no, Milly might’ve taken that as meaning Hermione didn’t want to marry Draco, or that she had some problem with her, with Milly. She’d assured Milly that wasn’t it at all, that she’d be thrilled to be her Mistress. Milly’s tears had gone as quickly as they had come, and the whole experience had served as a lesson in who was really in charge, the moniker of Mistress or no.

“Thanks, Milly, but I’m fine. Just, you know.” She gestured to her head. It had been swimming.

Milly worried her hands. “Mistress Hermione requires nothing of Milly, then?”

Hermione opened her mouth, only to pause. “Actually, do you think you could do me a huge favor and bring me something to read?”

A book, a newspaper—okay, not a newspaper; she wasn’t keen on reading the Prophet’s write-up of last night’s gala—Merlin, she’d read a bloody instruction manual at this point.

Milly frowned. “Something to read? But isn’t Mistress’s head hurting?”

Oh, Gods. She was awful at this, lying. Absolutely pants at it and it made her stomach ache, guilt twisting her insides.

“Uh, it’s not that kind of headache?”

Milly cocked her head, gazing up at her suspiciously. “Well, all right. Oh!” She snapped her fingers. “I know just the thing.”

She was gone in a crack, returning a moment later, arms full of—“Wedding magazines!” Milly crowed. “Mistress Hermione can flip through these while she rests.”

Perfect. Just perfect. “Thanks, Milly. I’ll do that.”

Milly set the stack of magazines that was nearly as tall as she was on the nightstand and snapped her fingers, leaving her to it.

Wedding magazines. Well, she had considered instruction manuals passable, so…

Leaning across the bed, Hermione grabbed the first magazine off the top of the stack and took a deep breath. It was just a magazine. It wasn’t going to bite her once she opened it. She flipped the cover and was met with a flurry of white and off-white, pale shimmering pink, and champagne.

Dresses, it looked as if this particular magazine was dedicated to helping witches find the perfect gown for their wedding day.

Her shoulders dropped from where she’d unintentionally had them lifted, and the knot inside her chest loosened, her breath coming easier as she settled against the pillows.

Perhaps planning this wedding wasn’t all bad. Really—she snorted at a picture of a witch who looked more like a cupcake than a woman—some of it might be fun, even. She could use a bit of frivolity, the past two months having been spent up to her eyelids in primary school planning.

She didn’t have anything against this, dresses and tuxes and—she bit the inside of her cheek—serviettes. Just, the whole thing was rather bittersweet. She’d be getting exactly what she wanted, marrying Draco and Theo, just not everything she wanted. But who did, really?

Rather than focus on the negatives, she simply needed to change her thinking. If she couldn’t have everything, namely her parents in attendance—she might as well focus on everything she would have, everything there was to celebrate and rejoice in. It was certainly more than she’d ever planned on, more than most other people ever got.

Setting that magazine aside, she moved on to the next. Menswear. If anyone looked dashing in formal wear it was Draco and Theo, as evidenced by how they’d looked last night at the gala. Letting her lids fall shut, she tried to picture what they might look like standing at the end of the aisle, waiting. Dapper tuxes, all black, perhaps? Crisp lines and gleaming cufflinks. Her lips curled. Fitted trousers. She pinched her lips together, eyes flying open when the knob turned, the subjects of her fantasy entering the room—

Oh, sweet Merlin.

It wasn’t formal wear, but…

Sweat darkened their shirts and caused the fabric to cling to their chests like shrink-wrap over their muscles. Their hair was wind-rumpled and damp, curling around their ears, and Draco’s pale strands were several shades darker than normal. His skin was flushed rosy, his eyes bright and Theo—gods. Theo lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe his face, the move flashing his stomach, the trail of dark hair beneath his naval on display.

She lifted a hand to her mouth, checking for drool.

They hadn’t noticed her, not yet. Draco watched Theo, a smirk playing at the edge of his lips. His fingers twitched at his side just before he lifted his hand, smacking Theo’s arse.

Theo dropped his shirt and jumped. “Fuck.” He growled. “Careful, love.”

Draco hummed, stepping closer, fingers of his right hand slipping under the hem of Theo’s shirt where he traced the waistband of his grey joggers. “Or what?”

Theo grinned and wrapped his hand around the back of Draco’s neck. “Or I’ll do a hell of a lot more than swat you.” He stepped closer, crowding Draco.

“Have other plans for my arse, do you?” Draco leaned in, nose nudging Theo’s, lips ghosting across his mouth.

Holy—

Theo chuckled, tongue darting out to flick Draco’s bottom lip. One hand dropped to Draco’s arse, fingers squeezing. “If I do?”

Draco slipped a hand between their bodies and though she couldn’t see what he did, from the sharp hiss Theo gave, she had a decent idea. “I’m not going to beg for it.”

Chuckling darkly, Theo shoved Draco’s hand away and thrust his pelvis up against Draco’s, making him groan. “You always say that.”

Her face burned. She really needed to say something, but didn’t particularly want to interrupt. Not when watching was this much fun, even if it made her a voyeur.

Though, their knowing didn’t necessarily preclude her from watching…

She cleared her throat.

They froze, heads turning.

“I didn’t say you needed to stop,” she teased, the effect a bit diminished by the breathlessness of her voice. “Just thought I’d make my presence known.”

Theo smirked. “Didn’t see you there, love.”

“Didn’t think you had. You looked a tad preoccupied.”

Draco stepped back, chuckling when Theo pouted. “Feeling any better?”

Her? Feeling—oh. “Did your mother say something?”

“Just that you weren’t feeling well,” he crossed over to the bed, frowning down at her. “Caught us on the way up the stairs.”

From this angle, she had the perfect view of his tented joggers, cock straining against the fabric. She pressed her thighs together. “I’m fine.”

Draco crossed his arms, light from the window glinting off the fine hairs on his forearms. “I don’t know. Your face is flushed.”

Theo took a seat on the edge, one hand encircling her ankle where he stroked her bare skin. “You are looking a bit peaked.”

Her mouth was dry, tongue heavy, but not too heavy to keep from sating her curiosity and teasing them in one fell swoop. “What were two going to do? If I were sleeping? Shag on the other side of the bed?”

Theo scoffed. “Come on. That would’ve been rude.” He grinned. “We’d have shagged in the bathroom.”

The mental image of Theo fucking Draco against the vanity made her whimper.

Draco chuckled and lifted a hand to her forehead. “You sure you’re feeling well? You’re looking a little feverish.”

Dragging his hand from her forehead, she brought his fingers to her lips and pressed a kiss to the middle digit, tongue darting out to taste. He shivered.

Beside her, Theo hummed. “I think someone wants to play, Draco.”

Rather than respond, she pressed against Draco’s stomach, urging him to take a step back. When he did, she slipped off the bed and sank to her knees in front of him.

She hadn’t even touched him, but her intention was clear, the message received, reflected in the stormy grey of Draco’s eyes as he stared down at her, his perfect teeth biting into his lower lip. Behind her, Theo made a soft noise of interest as he shifted, settling in for the show.

Wetting her lips, she reached for the waistband of his sweats and did her level best to ignore the incessant throb between her thighs. It wouldn’t do to get distracted before she’d even begun.

She curled her fingers around the fabric and tugged, pausing when Draco set a hand on her wrist, halting her. His cheeks were pink, his ears a vicious shade of red, and he licked his lips, oddly shy.

“I spent the last three hours playing Quidditch,” he explained. “I need a shower.”

As if she cared. She yanked hard on his waistband, spit pooling under her tongue when his cock sprang out, bouncing slightly in front of her face. Draco’s nostrils flared, his jaw clenching.

“That’s just your way of trying to get me in your bathtub.” She wrapped her fingers around his cock, fingers stroking down his shaft and swiping over his slit, capturing precome on her fingertips. “It’s practically your M.O. by this point.”

Theo chuckled, but otherwise stayed silent, though she could feel his eyes on her, watching.

Draco snorted. “Not to be crass, but I’ve been sweating, Granger.”

She rolled her eyes. As if none of them ever broke a sweat, or even sweat profusely, when having sex. There had been times when they’d been at it all night, shagging until the sheets were soaked and their skin was tacky with dried sweat—among other things—and the room reeked of sex so strongly she could taste it.

She held his stare and flicked her tongue against the underside of his cock, the sensitive ridge just beneath the glans. No different, just salt and musk, a little sharp, but under it all she could smell his skin and muted sweetness of his soap. The back of her mouth flooded with saliva and she closed her lips around the head of his cock, her cheeks hollowing as she lowered, swallowing as much of him as she could before dragging her lips back up and repeating the move over again.

Draco’s jaw twitched, lids hanging heavy like he was torn between shutting them and watching.

A hand tugged at her tank top until the neckline slipped low enough to reveal an indecent portion of her bra. Theo yanked at one of the cups until her breast was free, his fingers circling her nipple until it pebbled, then pinching it. Hard. She moaned, the sensation traveling to her core.

“Fuck.” Draco hissed through his teeth and lifted one hand to her face, thumb brushing the hollow of her cheek reverently.

“This is getting you hot, isn’t it?” Theo whispered in her ear. “Sucking Draco’s cock?”

When she hummed, Draco’s eyes rolled back, his breath coming quicker.

Behind her, Theo shifted. The hand teasing her breast disappeared, returning a second later, wrapped around her throat. Her pulse tripped, speeding.

“That’s it.” His other hand was in her hair, his grip firm but gentle as he urged her to swallow more of Draco’s cock. His other thumb stroked the front of her throat. “Relax.”

She took Draco deeper until the blunt head of his cock bumped up against the back of her throat. Her gag reflex tremored, but she breathed through it, past the urge to convulse and lowered more until his cock was in her throat and her nose was pressed against his groin, the musk of him stronger, but nowhere near unappealing.

Draco gasped, hips twitching, sending him a little deeper. “Sorry.”

Pulling off, and panting just a bit, she shook her head, hand stroking his shaft with firm pulls. “It’s fine.” She licked her bottom lip. “You can…if you want.”

His eyes bounced between her exposed chest and her face, gaze darting briefly over to Theo before he released a trembling breath. “You’re sure? I don’t want to hurt—”

“Go on,” Theo urged. “She wants you to fuck her face, Draco. Don’t you, love?”

The hand not stroking Draco’s cock dropped to her thigh, fingers meeting denim. Stupid trousers. “Yes.”

When he continued to look a touch reluctant, she met his eyes and smiled. “Please?”

Draco swore, and nodded, jaw clenched as he brought himself to her lips and slowly fed her his cock, inch by inch.

He never did this. Really thinking about it, she could count on one hand the number of times Draco even let her get down on her knees, let alone stay there for longer than a minute or two before shifting her somewhere softer.

Sweet as the thought was, she liked this, liked being able to look up at him from her knees while she brought him to his, metaphorically. And it was no secret she liked it when he lost himself in it, his reactions instinctual, reflexive, just a little wild. Rarely did he ever let himself get as rough with her as Theo, but when he stopped thinking, stopped worrying, and let himself go—Gods. He never stopped being sweet, the look in his eyes, even when lost in the pleasure of the moment, always a touch awed, amazed, a look that would never get old.

The fact that he was doing this, hips thrusting as he shallowly fucked her mouth, had a flood of wetness slipping from her, drenching her knickers. For the second time, she cursed the fact that she’d chosen to wear trousers and not a dress or a skirt, something she could’ve slipped her fingers under.

“Fuck, that’s hot,” Theo muttered.

Draco’s brow furrowed, lips rolling together before his jaw slid forward. His hips sped, just a touch, the head of his cock nudging the back of her throat on each thrust. She let her eyes fall shut, loosing herself in the feeling of his cock, heavy on her tongue, the musk of him growing as he began to leak precome.

A muffled groan made her open her eyes a minute later. She clenched her thighs together and, had her mouth not been solidly occupied, she’d have groaned at the sight of Theo and Draco kissing above her, Draco’s teeth tugging at Theo’s bottom lip as he struggled to control himself, the sway of his hips losing rhythm.

“Close?” Theo asked, one hand still wrapped around her throat, the other gripping the back of Draco’s neck.

Draco swallowed, the smooth, alabaster skin of his neck jerking. “Yes,” he gritted out.

Theo applied gentle pressure to her throat. “Stop.”

What?

Apparently, Draco had the same, equally appalled reaction because he growled beneath his breath, chest rising and falling. His hips faltered, slowing to a stop. “Theo.”

Theo chuckled and reached down, snaring her around the waist and helping her stand. As much as she’d enjoyed being down there, her legs were a touch weak from kneeling. Luckily, Theo held her tight against him, supporting her weight. His lips latched on to the side of her neck, sucking a mark into her skin. The hand not supporting her reached down, fingers wrapping around Draco’s cock and squeezing. “If I don’t fuck one of you, I’m going to go spare.”

Draco scoffed even as his hips jerked into Theo’s fist. “And you couldn’t wait thirty seconds?”

Theo grinned.

“I thought I was deciding what we did,” she said, and if it came out a touch waspish, oh well.

Theo had the gall to bop the tip of her nose. “It’s adorable when you try to top from the bottom.”

Draco covered his laugh with a cough.

“I see how it is,” she said, taking a step to the side, away from both of them. “Well, then maybe I should just—”

Theo grabbed her around the waist and hefted her over his shoulder, tossing her on to the bed. When she glared, he laughed. “It’s easy riling you up, sorry. What did you have in mind?”

She didn’t answer, not immediately. Making quick work of her tank and bra, she moved on to her jeans, wiggling her way out of the restrictive denim before slipping her ruined knickers down her legs. She tossed them at Theo’s head. Reflexives sharp, he caught them, eyes heating as he lifted them to his face and saw how wet they were.

Heart beating almost painfully inside her chest, she settled back against the pillows on the far side of the bed. “Pretend I’m not here.”

Draco frowned, and Theo cut his eyes, asking, “Pretend you’re not here?”

She nodded and slid one hand down her stomach, the move suggestive enough to get her point across if the way Draco’s silver eyes darkened was proof. “If I weren’t here. What would you do?”

Theo turned, looking at Draco. Something silent passed between them before Theo reached behind his neck and lifted his shirt over his head. He let it fall it to the floor, forgotten, and reached for Draco, hands tugging at Draco’s shirt as Draco kicked his trousers off the rest of the way.

It didn’t take them long to pick up where they’d left off when they’d first entered the room.

Lips brushing Draco’s jaw, Theo muttered, “Tell me you want it.”

A smirk flirted at the edge of Draco’s mouth as he shook his head. “Make me.”

Her breath caught in her throat when Theo wrapped a hand around Draco’s cock. Draco dropped his head back, throat exposed and eyes fluttering shut as he swore quietly, Theo’s hand working him slowly.

Despite having the intellectual fortitude to lock herself in a library and revise for hours, Hermione lacked patience when it came to this. Theo could draw it out, impose patience upon her, but she couldn’t tease herself, not the way they could. Her fingers went straight to her clit, circling, her teeth sunk into her lower lip while she watched.

“You realize”—Theo’s teeth closed around the lobe of Draco’s ear, tugging hard—“you’re not coming until you ask me for it.”

Draco clenched his jaw, white teeth flashing. “Fuck you,” he groaned, the words lacking malice.

Theo laughed, and slipped his other between their bodies, tugging at Draco’s sac. “All right. Now, this time, say please.”

“Tosser.” Draco’s hips twitched, his pale chest flushing pink.

Still laughing beneath his breath, Theo dropped his hands, making Draco groan at the loss, and tugged at his joggers, stepping out of them, leaving him in a pair of tented blue boxer shorts. Before Theo could resume his teasing, Draco grabbed his around the arse, fingers slipping under the waistband of his pants and digging into his skin. With a hiss, Theo stepped closer and buried his face in Draco’s neck, hips rocking.

Her fingers sped, one hand moving up to roll a nipple between her fingers. A light sheen of sweat broke out between her breasts as her breath quickened.

“Fuck, Draco,” Theo panted, rutting against Draco’s hip. His teeth closed around the tendon in Draco’s neck, the one she liked to lick, and sucked hard, tugging at Draco’s skin, drawing a low moan from deep in his chest.

Toes curling into the bedsheets, Hermione bit the inside of her cheek, back bowing as she shuddered through her release.

When she finally opened her eyes, Draco and Theo were both staring, chests heaving as they breathed hard.

Theo whispered something in Draco’s ear that made him shut his eyes, chin dipping in an abrupt nod of agreement.

Cock flushed so red it looked painful, Draco stepped away from Theo and climbed onto the bed, prowling his way toward her. She held her breath when he grabbed her by the hips and tugged her onto his lap. Limbs still a bit shaky, Hermione gripped his shoulders for balance as she held herself aloft over him.

“I’m not supposed to be here, remember?” Her voice shook almost as bad as her knees.

One of Theo’s hands gripped her waist from behind, holding her steady. “But you are here.”

“You could pretend.”

Theo pressed a kiss to the ball of her shoulder and reached between her legs with his other hand, fingers closing around Draco’s cock, dragging it through her folds. “We could…”

Draco’s grip on her hips tightened when Theo urged her to sink down and—“Oh.”

Sliding a hand from her hip to the back of her neck, Draco dragged her down for a kiss, his lips closing around her bottom one, sucking gently. His hips rocked up, driving himself deeper. She gasped against his mouth and then jolted when Theo’s hand slid from her waist downward, over the curve of her arse and lower, to where she and Draco were joined, her cunt stretched around his cock. Pressing alongside Draco’s cock, Theo slipped a finger inside her, chuckling darkly when she and Draco both groaned, her at the stretch and him, presumably, at the friction.

Draco released a shuddered breath against her neck. “Theo.”

Shifting, Theo lightly circled her pucker, making her bite her lip to keep from whimpering. “Draco and I had something else in mind. Want to?”

Draco dropped his head, lips closing around her nipple and sucking, his teeth grazing her gently. She nodded. “Mhmm.”

One hand stroking his cock, Theo reached across the bed to the nightstand and grabbed the lube from the drawer, quickly slicking his fingers.

She panted, holding still as Theo pressed a finger inside her, then another, prepping her. “Yes.”

They didn’t do this often. It was a bit of a balancing act, took coordination they didn’t always have the time or space for, and it proved, without fail, intense and overwhelming. She didn’t always have it in her to come like that, her will to move afterward vanishing for a solid hour.

One of these days, Hermione was going to get watch them the way she wanted, but this? A worthy alternative.

Theo slipped his fingers from her arse and slicked his cock, the sound of his hand moving against his flesh noisy, making blood rise to the surface of her cheeks. Draco lifted his head and hooked his chin over her shoulder, watching Theo. He groaned softly. “I’m not going to last long, fuck.”

“Would think not,” Theo said. She took a deep breath when he pressed against her hole.

Gods. Theo pressed deeper, cock stretching her, the burn subtle, a delicate warmth paired with pressure so good she couldn’t see straight. He slid inside, deeper until his groin was flush with her rear. She held still, the muscles in her stomach occasionally trembling, her arms shaking lightly around Draco’s shoulders.

Draco tipped his head back. His lids were heavy, his jaw tight, making his features sharp, the afternoon sun streaming through the window beside the bed making shadows of his angles. “All right?”

She nodded. If she opened her mouth, Merlin only knew what embarrassing sound would slip out.

Nose nudging the nape of her neck, Theo sighed, breath warm against her top vertebrae. “Hermione?”

Right, it was better if she did the moving, mostly, they’d found, at least when they were like this. Bracing her hands on Draco’s shoulders, she tensed her thighs and lifted, whimpering at the drag of them inside her.

Theo’s hands tightened on her hips, holding her steady as she established a rhythm, rising just until she couldn’t without someone sliding out, then sinking back down. Her nails bit into Draco’s skin, and he groaned around her breast, teeth toying with her nipple.

“Fuck.” She dropped her head against Theo’s shoulder and arched her back, pleasure building between her legs, everything going hot and tight, swollen from arousal.

Draco’s hips snapped up, messing with her rhythm, but it was good, so good, because she was having trouble keeping up the pace, and the angle was brilliant, nudged against her just so, her eyes crossing. Pressure built just beneath her belly button, threatening to bubble over.

Theo gripped her harder and growled under his breath. “Come on, Hermione.”

One hand reached around her body, Theo’s fingers searching between her folds for her clit, rubbing the slick, swollen bundle until she was writhing, trapped between them, all three of them damp and hot, skin sliding against skin. Her hands twitched against Draco’s back, involuntary spasms. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t—Gods, she was—

Draco grabbed her by the neck, mouth covering hers.

She shattered, his mouth failing to fully muffle her scream, the pleasure sharp, intense, so intense her stomach burned, so much more intense when she was this full, the stimulation coming at her from what felt like everywhere, inside, outside, pleasure reverberating and stacking and echoing.

“Fuck.” Theo’s hips jerked, his cock shoved deep inside her, twitching. He bit down against her neck, the fingers of the hand on her hip squeezing hard.

Mouth still pressed to hers, panting against her lips, Draco froze, their eyes locked, so intimate it made her chest ache. His pupils dilated as he came, a low groan spilling from between his lips.

Arms unlocking from around Draco’s neck, Hermione lifted her head and—

Feathers. Hundreds of feathers floated around them, hovering at head-height.

When she gasped, the feathers fell, fluttering to the bed and the floor beside it.

Theo snorted. “Whoops?”

Chapter Text

“You’re saying you think it was accidental magic?” Despite having showered, she couldn’t help but worry there were still feathers trapped in her curls. “That hasn’t happened to me since I was a child.”

Hands tucked gracefully in his pockets, Draco shrugged. “Extreme emotion can trigger accidental magical outbursts in mature witches and wizards, too.” His lips quirked. “Come on, Granger, that was pretty damn spectacular.”

Theo slipped down the banister, landing on his toes, righting himself at the last minute. He turned and grinned. “Quite spectacular. Besides, it would figure, what with our affinity—magical, I mean—being what it is. Working off of the whole idea of multiplying magic and compatibility being similar to wand affinity, I’d say what we just did was like giving you two wands instead of the usual—”

Stop.” She laughed, shoving his arm. “You are not comparing your”—she dropped her voice—“cock to a wand. That’s ridiculous. It’s not a magical instrument, Theo.”

He arched a brow. “That’s not what it sounded like upstairs.”

Draco coughed into his fist and shrugged. “Well, he has a point. You did perform traditionally wandless, accidental magic, covering the room in feathers.”

She bit the inside of her cheek. That did give a whole new meaning to the proper pronunciation of Leviosa, didn’t it? Little had she known there was a bit more ahhh to it than she’d first thought.

“And you ruined our pillows,” Theo said, sounding a bit put out.

“Whoops?” She shrugged. “At least I didn’t break anything valuable. Just in case, perhaps we shouldn’t do…that until—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Theo set his hands on her shoulders. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. No harm done. Right, Draco?”

Draco grinned. “Right. We’ll just replace anything you happen to break in the throes of orgasm.”

“Exactly.” Theo said. “Ridiculous, suggesting we not do that.”

“I wasn’t suggesting never,” she said. “I only meant until, I don’t know, bonding is supposed to settle this, right? Strengthen it, but make it a less temperamental?”

“Until we get married?” Theo frowned.

“I didn’t say no sex, I meant that sex.” She shook her head, chuckling softly. “We don’t even do that terribly often.”

Theo tutted. “A crying shame.”

Draco hummed in agreement. “The true travesty.”

“You do recognize the irony in this, yes?” She stopped walking. “You both are whinging about a bit of abstinence, not even total abstinence mind, when—who exactly made whom wait to have sex in the first place?”

Theo jerked a thumb at Draco. “He did.”

“Sweet Salazar.” Draco pinched the bridge of his nose. “Not even a month, Granger. And besides, it’s not like in that single month you were left wanting.” He smirked. “Or are you forgetting about how you crawled into my lap and slipped my hand inside your knickers in the middle of the library?”

Her face heated.

Theo lifted a finger. “He has a point.”

“Ha!” She gesticulated wildly at the space around them. “And this is any different, how? I’m not suggesting total denial, only of that.”

“What a load of shite,” Theo muttered, pouting.

Draco chuckled, glancing up from beneath his lashes. “Color me surprised that you would stoop to use a false equivalence to argue your point.”

“I beg your pardon?” She crossed her arms.

Draco stared.

“Well?” She huffed.

“You said, I beg your pardon.” He shrugged, cheek twitching. “I’m waiting for you to beg for it.”

“Oh, you—” She swatted his arm, stepping after him when he stumbled backward out of reach, laughing as he avoided her hands. Theo chuckled but stayed out of their way.

“Stop.” Draco snared both her hands in his, smiling down at her. “I’m teasing. No need to get violent with me.”

“Oh, come on.” Theo tsked. “Don’t act as if you don’t like it.”

He rolled his eyes. “My point was, you’re using a logical fallacy, acting as if the situations are identical. They’re not.” He swept his thumbs against her palms. “You couldn’t miss what you’d never had.”

“We know exactly what we’d be missing,” Theo added.

“Fine.” She wiggled out of Draco’s hold and lifted her hands, conceding defeat. Not that she’d argued very hard…for reasons. “I’ll keep ruining the pillows.”

“Better those than the books,” Draco pointed out.

Dropping the subject, they entered the dining room. Across from one another, Narcissa and Lucius were already seated. And uncharacteristically quiet.

“Good evening,” she greeted, smiling as she slipped into her chair. Draco nudged her seat a little closer to the table before rounding the table to the opposite side. Theo, as always, sat beside her.

Narcissa’s blue eyes flitted across the table before resuming the stare-off with her place setting. “Feeling better, I presume?”

Draco frowned. She’d never really answered or explained what exactly had had her in bed. Thankfully, Theo and Draco had both been easily distracted.

She glanced at Theo when she felt eyes on her from the side. His brow was pinched, his lips turned down, his eyes inquisitive. She turned away, avoiding his silent question lest her own eyes give too much away. Theo was too perceptive, read her too easily. “Much better.”

Narcissa smiled at the table. “That’s—that’s good.”

Lucius cleared his throat. His face was an unreadable, neutral mask, but his eyes seemed to be laughing. At her. “My apologies. I had a…tickle.”

Right.

Lucius, for all his icy stoicism and finery, was strangely normal, if such a thing as normal truly existed. These two months in the manor had humanized Lucius, more than ever. Not that they spent actual time together, no, but their paths crossed and they took most suppers and the occasional breakfast together. Lucius tended to keep to a separate wing, easy to do in a house this size, but there were times she’d stumbled upon him in the library or the sitting room, one memorable occasion in the kitchens. He’d been in the middle of fixing himself a toasted cheese using the Muggle oven because he still wasn’t allowed a wand and—if only she’d known, back in fifth year, that one day she’d stumble upon Lucius Malfoy, Death Eater and all around menace, fiddling with the dials of an oven and mumbling to himself about the proper degree of meltiness and why isn’t this damn thing crisping?, she’d have thought herself mad.

She’d disguised her laughter with a cough and he’d turned, grey eyes widening briefly in abject horror at being discovered, before his entire countenance had shifted. He’d drawn himself up, posture perfecting, and looked down his nose at her. “Perhaps you can fix this. I’m sure you’re accustomed to these”—he’d gritted his teeth— “Muggle innovations.”

And that was the day she’d introduced Lucius Malfoy to the wonders of the broiler.

It was rather difficult to remain intimidated by a man bested by an oven. Not that she was comfortable in his presence, not quite, but it was less awkward than she’d have thought, living in the same house.

Why he’d be laughing at her, though, she hadn’t the faintest idea. Unless she did have feathers in her hair…

Ignoring him, and because a bit of guilt at her fib lingered, she turned back to Narcissa and added, “Milly brought up some of the wedding magazines and I flipped through several.”

“Oh?” Narcissa didn’t lift her eyes from the table. Gods, what was with them? Narcissa wouldn’t look at her and Lucius, he continued to look somehow both bored and amused. “That’s wonderful, Hermione.”

She glanced at Draco, then Theo, both looking equally as confused as her by this sudden stiltedness.

Well, she wasn’t one to beat around the bush. “Did I do something, Narcissa? You seem a bit…off.”

Narcissa raised her head, eyes widening as she finally looked at her. “No, of course not. You’re perfectly fine, dear. I’m terribly sorry for giving you the wrong impression. I’m wonderful. I promise.”

She didn’t sound insincere, though she did reach for her glass of water, which she gulped down a third of rather hastily.

Across the table, Draco lifted his shoulders in a subtle shrug. Huh.

The meal appeared, serving dishes brimming with couscous and roasted chicken.

“Looks delicious as usual.” Theo appeared to be barely restraining himself from digging in. They had worked up quite the appetite.

They were hungry, yes, but that didn’t entirely explain why the only sound that filled the dining room was the occasional, quiet clang of silverware against china. Usually, the conversations were lively. Not boisterous as the meals at the Burrow were, no, but conversation normally flowed easily between her, Draco, Theo, and Narcissa, while Lucius would interject a comment here or there, usually something well-reasoned, and occasionally surprisingly droll, a welcome addition, if not one that had taken a bit of time to get used to.

No, this was odd.

Theo seemed to think so, too, opening his mouth only to shut it when Lucius once again cleared his throat.

“Draco?”

Draco lifted his head, brows flying to his hairline. “Yes?”

Their relationship had improved, Draco slowly warming up to his father, but the net sum of their interactions was rather chilly. Cautiously wary, Draco still looked at Lucius askance, studying him carefully as if waiting for the moment when the man would reveal this, his changed behavior, had all been some sort of farce. At least they—namely Draco—had moved beyond open antagonism and was giving his father a chance. A bit of wariness was warranted, she figured. She hadn’t entirely dropped her guard, either, and she wasn’t sure she ever would, not on a subconscious level, at least.

Lucius set his fork aside. “If I asked you to mend a tear in my shirtsleeve, what charm would you cast?”

Draco looked confused, brows furrowing. “What have you been doing that’s torn your—”

“A hypothetical question,” Lucius said.

Reparo,” Draco answered. The obviously was strongly implied.

Lucius reached for his wine. “And if I requested you turn the wine in this glass, say, green, how would you do it?”

Draco frowned. “Colovaria viridis.”

After taking a sip, Lucius set the glass aside, expression thoughtful. “How would you turn a glass of vinegar into wine?”

Oh, she was good at that, but—what exactly was Lucius getting at?

Acidum vinum.” Draco shoved his plate aside with no little irritation. “I wasn’t aware I was to be tested. I did receive an Outstanding on my charms’ N.E.W.T, or have you forgotten already?”

She set her spoon down and turned her head. Theo glanced at her with wide, worried eyes. They hadn’t ramped up like this in weeks.

Lucius shook his head, face giving nothing away. “It is not a test, Draco. I simply find myself confused.”

Draco reared back. “About what? Basic charms?”

“No.” Lucius waved his hand, batting the suggestion aside as if it were as ridiculous as it sounded. “Of course not. I only find it curious how you know so very much and yet, somehow, it appears a simple muffliato is beyond your capabilities.”

“That’s absurd.” Draco’s jaw clenched. “I can absolutely cast a—”

No. She shut her eyes, pieces of the puzzle falling into place. Why Lucius looked so dryly amused. Why Narcissa wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Comprehension dawned on Draco, his grey eyes widening as color rose in his cheeks.

Humiliation burned bright, her face sizzling. “Oh, God.”

“Why yes, Miss Granger, you do tend to say that phrase frequently.” Lucius steepled his fingers. “I wouldn’t have the extreme misfortune of knowing this particular intimate quirk had you been more judicious with your charms, Draco.”

Lucius.” The crest’s of Narcissa’s cheeks were tinged pink.

Expression torn between indignancy and shame, Draco opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

Theo coughed. “Awkward.”

“Thank you for stating the obvious,” Hermione hissed, dropping her head into her hands.

“Ah, Theodore, yes, I suppose I should give you the same lecture,” Lucius said. “Fair is fair. You, too, should’ve known better. The only reason I’m not chastising Miss Granger is that I was raised to believe it was the man’s responsibility to cast certain pertinent charms. Call me old fashioned, in that, I suppose. I’d have hoped one of the two of you would have still had your wits about you. Alas…”

“I’m choosing to take that as a compliment as to my—ow.” Theo hissed through his teeth. “Don’t kick me, Draco. Your loafers hurt like a mother—okay, okay.”

She loved Theo down to her bones and then still even deeper, but sometimes when his cheek crossed a line, she really wanted to wring his neck. Lovingly.

A crack of apparition sounded beside her, but she refused to open her eyes.

“Would Mistress Hermione like more wine?” Milly asked.

“Yes, please, Milly,” her voice was muffled by her hands, but hopefully Milly would understand because if Hermione couldn’t sink through the floor, and it seemed no amount of wishing for it to happen would make it so, she could at least soften the sting of humiliation with alcohol.

Theo laughed. “Why don’t you—yeah, just keep pouring. No, to the—yeah, that’s good, Milly. You’re a peach.”

She lifted her head and opened her eyes to reach for her very full glass of wine. All right. Theo had redeemed himself. For now.

“Perhaps it would be best if you demonstrated, Draco,” Lucius suggested, expression still infuriatingly neutral save for that persistent twitch in his left cheek and his laughing eyes. “Make certain you aren’t out of practice with the charm so the rest of the occupants of the manor—in case you forgot there are others living here—can rest easy knowing we needn’t overhear you…fornicating, in the future. Go on. Theodore, you, too. Miss Granger, too, if you feel so inclined.”

If she never heard the word fornicate pass his lips, it would still be too soon.

“Lucius,” Narcissa hissed. “That is enough. You are embarrassing them.”

Embarrassment had no doubt been the point.

“I simply would like to make sure our son hasn’t forgotten the charm, Cissa,” he said, brows rising imperiously. “If he’s forgotten one, it’s not unreasonable that he’ll forget another. Perhaps one a touch more critical in instances such as these.”

Draco pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

“And I”—Narcissa’s voice rose— “would like to have grandchildren in this lifetime and with the rate you are going, that will never happen, charms aside. Quit discouraging them or Draco will never sire an heir and the Malfoy line will die. How would you like that, Lucius? Hmm?”

Theo snorted. “Now hold on. That’s a tad extreme. The shame would wear off eventually, so I wouldn’t say never—”

“Theo,” she chided. The last thing they needed was to add fuel to the fire.

Draco looked like he was about to burst, his face crimson. “Understood. Now, can we please move on?”

Narcissa continued to stare at Lucius across the table, gaze hawkish. “Lucius?”

His eyes widened and for a brief moment, the man looked first shocked at having the tables turned, then appropriately chastened. “Yes, dear.”

Silence blanketed the room, thick and oppressive.

Narcissa cleared her throat before smiling broadly. “Who’d like pudding?”

***

“Well,” Theo said. “It could’ve been worse.”

“How? How exactly could that have possibly been worse?” she demanded.

They’d heard them—her—while they were—ugh.

It wasn’t as if she didn’t know that Lucius and Narcissa knew they had sex—obviously they knew, they weren’t daft—but there were lines, and knowing that her future in-laws knew what she sounded like in the throes of passion crossed those lines and then some.

Draco was silent as they walked up the stairs. Silent and pale, he looked as if he needed to lie down.

“They could’ve walked in on us,” Theo suggested. “Not like that hasn’t happened.”

“Not to me, it hasn’t,” she retorted.

And thank Merlin. It was awful enough knowing they’d overheard her—Gods, she’d been dreadfully loud, hadn’t she?

“Eh.” Theo waved her off like it was no big deal. Which, considering the stories he and Draco had shared about Narcissa walking in on them, maybe to him it wasn’t. “Perils of sharing a house with your in-laws. At least you haven’t overheard them.”

She froze one stair from the second floor. “You have?”

Draco looked in need of a good brain bleaching. “While I suppose it’s… nice my mother and father still love one another, I could’ve gone my entire life not having firsthand knowledge of what they sound like while loving one another.”

Behind him, Theo waggled his brows.

“Look on the bright side,” he said, looping an arm around Draco’s shoulders. “Your father, in a roundabout way, gave his seal of approval.”

“Was that still indeterminate?” she asked.

Wouldn’t he have voiced some sort disapproval before? Perhaps when he’d first learned of their relationship, or maybe when she’d moved in, or, you know, when they’d gotten engaged? A bit late, now.

“There’s a lack of disapproval versus his actual approval,” Theo said. “He could’ve said nothing, or ordered Draco to be more discreet, but this…” Theo chuckled. “Lucius Malfoy just took the mickey out of all of us.”

Draco sputtered out a laugh and she, despite the lingering embarrassment, joined in.

Chapter Text

The letter came on a Thursday.

Delivered by a stern-faced owl that didn’t bother to stop for a bite of bacon, the letter sat untouched until Draco set his jaw and reached across the table. Its waxy red Ministry seal didn’t go unnoticed, not by her, and from their wide eyes and bated breath, not by Theo or Narcissa, either. Even Lucius looked carefully intrigued.

Of course, as soon as Draco plucked it off the table, they all looked away, suddenly absurdly interested in the food on their plates.

That didn’t mean she wasn’t listening. The rustle of parchment was loud in the otherwise silent room, louder even as she held her breath. Covertly, so he wouldn’t feel more put on the spot than he likely already did, Hermione peeked at Draco, watching him as his eyes scanned the page.

He didn’t need to say anything. The furrow between his brows grew incrementally deeper the longer he read until, apparently reaching the end of the missive, Draco’s face went carefully blank. He folded the parchment back up and slipped it inside the envelope, setting it aside.

“Draco?” Theo was the one to speak first, and his tone was cautious like he didn’t know how Draco was going to react to something more than his name.

It took him a moment to respond, his jaw working steadily, sliding forward, then back. “They rejected it.”

Narcissa gasped quietly, a hand quickly covering her mouth. “They what?”

“I’m going to assume that was rhetorical and you don’t actually need me to repeat myself, Mother,” Draco snapped.

“Draco,” Lucius warned, his tone cool and measured.

His cheeks flushed, his nostrils flaring. He dropped his eyes to the table. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“What did they say?” she asked. “Did they give you a reason, or…”

She trailed off. The alternative, a cold, form rejection, was too much to wrap her head around when he’d worked so hard.

Draco tossed the letter across the table. “Go ahead. Read it yourself.”

Theo quickly stood and rounded the table to read over her shoulder.

The parchment was thick and the message brief.

Dear Mr. Malfoy,

On behalf of the Potions Association, I regret to inform you that your request dated the 22nd of July has been denied.

Reason for denial—insufficient potioneer interest provided.

 If, however, you are still interested in the matter of the distribution of free and reduced-cost potions, we suggest you make a donation to a Ministry-approved apothecary.

Regards,

Alexander Davies

Chairman, Potions Association

Ministry of Magic, Great Britain

She read it three times and each subsequent time, her blood pressure rose several points. “This—this is—”

“Absolute fuckery is what it is,” Theo stated.

Narcissa cleared her throat.

“No.” Theo shook his head. “I’m just calling it like I see it. They want Draco’s galleons as long as his name isn’t attached to it and that’s some bureaucratic bullshite.” He gave Narcissa a belated wince.

“Theo’s right,” she said. “You need to appeal this, Draco. They want you to funnel your money into an apothecary that, quite probably, won’t even use the funds to distribute potions at a lower cost.”

“Or, they’ll barely reduce the cost of the potions, still continue to profit, and get all the accolades for doing something so altruistic,” Theo complained.

“Yeah, well, maybe my name shouldn’t be attached to it.” Draco stood and tossed his napkin on the table beside his plate. He glared at his father. “Maybe my name shouldn’t be attached to anything.”

Turning on his heel, Draco left the dining room. A minute later, Lucius stood and made his own exit, turning left from the room where Draco had instead gone right.

Theo dropped his chin and sighed. “I’m supposed to be meeting Andromeda to discuss my lesson plans.”

Which meant approaching Draco and figuring out what to say would be up to her.

She squeezed his arm. “Go. It’s fine. I’ll—we’ll be fine.”

Theo gave a sharp nod. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

He pressed a kiss to the top of her head before hurrying from the room, leaving only her and Narcissa at the table.

Narcissa cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you’re in the mood for wedding planning at the moment, are you?”

From the arch of her brow and subtle quirk of her lips, it was clear she was joking.

“Not particularly, no,” she admitted.

Narcissa dropped all pretenses, sighing heavily. “I wish I could say I am an expert when it comes to handling Draco, or Lucius for that matter, when they get in one of their…moods. They’ll swear they want to be left alone when what they really want is to be coddled, only when you do that, you’re smothering them.” She snorted delicately, shaking her head. “I’ve found the only remedy—though it’s more provisional as it doesn’t really solve anything even if it makes them feel better—is, well…” Narcissa rolled her lips together, smothering a grin. “Sweets.”

Despite feeling terrible for Draco, she laughed. “I can see that. Draco does have a sweet tooth, doesn’t he?”

All those packages of candies and confections Narcissa had sent him over the years came to mind. Perhaps what they had all viewed as a mother spoiling her child rotten was Narcissa’s way of making Draco feel better the only way she knew how from afar.

Narcissa hummed. “He does. Rivaled only by his father.”

“They’re both so thin.” Lucius had gained back a bit of weight following his stint in Azkaban, but the man was still leaner than he’d been prior. “It’s a wonder neither’s diabetic.”

Narcissa’s brow pinched.

“High blood sugar?” she tried.

Narcissa looked aghast, eyes widening. “Sugar in your blood?”

Well, that answered that. “Never mind. Muggle disease, I suppose.”

“Ah.” Narcissa nodded. “None of that. As for the trim figures, that is owed to fine breeding.” She paused, lips parted. “Oh. I didn’t mean—”

She waved her off. “It’s fine. I know what you mean. Muggles would call it genetics.”

She highly doubted Narcissa was correlating blood status with an inherited fast metabolism.

Narcissa appeared relieved, her shoulders dropping ever so slightly.

“Speaking of sweets—do you think Milly would mind terribly if I asked her to bake something?”

“Mind?” Narcissa chuckled. “She’d be delighted. Though, if you’re seeking a quicker solution, might I suggest you check the cupboard nearest the icebox in the kitchen? Milly keeps it stocked with treats. Certainly all of Draco’s favorites.”

Hermione placed her napkin on the table and stood. “Perfect. Thank you.”

She was halfway to the door when Narcissa called out, “Hermione?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sure you know my son has a temper and can be quick to anger, quick to lash out, but the person he’s most prone to fight is himself.” She sniffed, blue eyes rimmed red as she stared off into space. “He might say he wants to be alone, but what he needs is someone to fight for him, even if occasionally that means fighting with him. Which is all to say, it is near impossible to smother Draco with too much affection. If he claims you’re holding him too tight, the best thing you can do is hold him tighter.”

Hermione swallowed thickly and nodded. “I’ll—I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Narcissa shook her head. “No, thank you.”

The kitchen was located down a short flight of stairs, tucked away near the back of the house. Milly had stressed that anything Hermione might want, she need only ask for, but her legs weren’t broken and sometimes she needed to stare into a cabinet to figure out what she wanted to eat. Old habits.

Turning the corner, she drew up short, footsteps faltering. Bent over at the waist, Lucius was rifling through a cabinet, his long hair obscuring his face. She cleared her throat, announcing her presence.

Semi-startled, Lucius straightened. Sharp eyes stared out from an expressionless face—she covered her laughter with a cough. Lucius arched a haughty brow.

“You have”—she coughed again— “a little something…”

She pointed at her mouth. His eyes widened briefly before he quickly swiped at his lips, brushing biscuit crumbs off his face.

“Thank you,” he murmured, and if she wasn’t mistaken, the crests of his cheeks turned the slightest shade of pink.

“Mhmm.”

He was standing in front of the cabinet Narcissa had mentioned, the one apparently stocked with sweets. And Gods was it ever. Ceiling to floor, each shelf brimmed with biscuit tins and candy boxes, cellophane-wrapped confections, and even jars of what she’d have wagered were preserves, apple preserves.

She nodded at the pantry. “Do you mind if I…?”

Lucius stepped aside. “By all means.”

Without a doubt, perusing the pantry could eat up a whole day. Fortunately, a package on the third shelf, slightly off-center, caught her eye. She snatched it, and—feeling eyes on her—turned back to Lucius.

He stared openly at the bag in her hands. “Caramel apple pops.”

It wasn’t a question, but she nodded anyway. “Draco likes them.” And then, for some reason beyond her, added, “They’re Muggle.”

Lucius cocked his head. “So I gathered.” He paused. “They’re not bad.”

Perhaps she’d buy two bags next time instead of just the one.

She could’ve left then, slipped away with a smile and nod, but Lucius still had crumbs on his face and was staring forlornly at the cabinet like he wasn’t through eating his feelings. Like father, like son, indeed.

She’d leave most of the soothing to Narcissa, but she couldn’t very well say nothing. “Draco doesn’t blame you, you know?”

Something flickered in his narrowed grey eyes.

“He’s angry, but not at you.”

Lucius turned back to the cabinet. “That’s a lie, but it is…kind of you to attempt to preserve my…feelings.”

The words sounded foreign on his tongue like he was trying them out for size for the first time.

“I’m not. Lying. I’m not suggesting everything is perfect between you two because it’s not, but this? This isn’t really about you. He’s just disappointed,” she said. “And rightfully so.”

He continued to stare into the cabinet, but it didn’t look as if he were truly searching for anything. Not something that could be found on a shelf, at any rate.

After a moment, he wet his lips. “Disappointed. My wife and I chose to circumvent most unpleasant situations such as these by giving Draco whatever he wanted and when he couldn’t have what he wanted…well, suffice it to say, there were seldom occasions when together we could not achieve some means of making it happen.

“We spoiled him, I’m well aware. What a Malfoy wants, a Malfoy gets. Don’t misunderstand, we did instill in him a work ethic, we simply made it clear that if at first traditional means do not succeed, use the other… skills at your disposal.” Lucius paused, jaw clenching. “Draco is not accustomed to being told no, but I fear this is to be but the first of many no’s he’ll be dealt in the coming years.”

Draco was no novice when it came to repudiation and ostracism, but she didn’t say that.

“I understand why you did it, spoiling him. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand.”

“And the Ministry rejecting him, not on the basis of merit or lack thereof, is right?” Lucius shook his head, tutting softly. “Honestly, Miss Granger, if you’ve yet to figure it out, life isn’t fair. All we can do is work to level the playing field.”

“I said I understand. But even you have to admit there’s a difference between working to restore justice and being self-serving. You didn’t have to purchase brooms for the entire Slytherin Quidditch team to buy his position.” She pursed her lips. “Not that he wasn’t talented…”

“Ah, yes.” He nodded. “And confunding a player during tryouts to earn your Weasley friend a spot on the team was so…just.”

She narrowed her eyes.

Lucius smiled. “I hear things. And that, to my knowledge, is but one example of your honorable pursuits of justice. I do believe you’re to thank for Rita Skeeter’s departure from mainstream journalism.”

How he knew that was beyond her. Draco knew, as did Theo, but she couldn’t picture either of them divulging that knowledge to Lucius. The man was occasionally still a mystery.

“Point taken.”

Lucius reached into the cabinet and grabbed out a tin of butter brickle. “My actual point is that we’re all willing to go to certain lengths for those whom we love. An unconscionable act in the eyes of one is righteous in the eyes of another. We all have lines, it is only a matter of where we choose to draw them.”

Lucius stared at her, one brow cocked.

Her hands clenched around the bag of suckers. “Are you—are you suggesting I do something?”

Lucius blinked. “Am I?”

“Like what?”

He tilted his head, brows rising in thought. “I wouldn’t dream of telling you where to draw your line, that’s personal.”

Oh, he could come off it. “Well, you mentioned Rita Skeeter. Are you suggesting I blackmail somebody?”

He held a hand to his chest. “Why I’d never suggest a thing like that.” His lips twitched. “I’m reformed now, hadn’t you heard?”

She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help but chuckle under her breath. Was Lucius Malfoy going to join up with another Dark Lord? No. She could believe him changed in that he no longer viewed her and other Muggleborns as inherently lesser, but to suggest that he was some picture-boy for law and order was hilarious. “What I think, is that you have no wand, you’re restricted to your home, and the Ministry is and will be watching your every move for Merlin only knows how long.”

“Too true.” Lucius smirked. “Blackmail, Miss Granger, as I’m sure you know, requires the possession of knowledge someone desperately does not want spread. Are you currently in possession of such knowledge?”

She shook her head.

“Perhaps—hypothetically of course—you should play to your strengths. Use the tools you do have at your disposal.” Tin in hand, Lucius crossed to the door. “You might be surprised at what you can accomplish without breaking any rules. Bending them, on the other hand…”

Lucius left the kitchen looking much happier than he had when she’d found him.

What did it say about her that the first thought her mind had jumped to had been blackmail? When it came to the people she cared about, her impulses could be a bit…grey, maybe. She might not say it to anyone else, but upon reading that letter, she’d wanted to retaliate against Alexander Davies, make him regret being such a peevish arsehole. A peevish arsehole who hurt Draco.

But what she wanted was inconsequential, and that was where she and Lucius differed. It wasn’t a matter of the lengths she would or wouldn’t go to for Draco, but rather what he needed, what was truly best for him. Maybe it would be satisfying to give Davies a taste of his own medicine, but it would a hollow victory.

Draco wanted his proposal approved, but he needed to get there on his own, to do it of his own merit, to know that it was he and he alone who’d earned it. As tempted as she’d been, and partially still was, to pen a strongly worded letter to Kingsley, she couldn’t do it.

Doing nothing didn’t feel right, either.

Bag of apple lollies in hand, Hermione twisted the knob to the bedroom and slipped inside, shutting the door behind her.

The room was dark, the curtains drawn. Stewing in his misery, Draco was hunched in the armchair, a tumbler of firewhisky dangling from his fingertips. It wasn’t even noon, but she wasn’t about to say anything, not when he looked so pitiful.

His eyes flickered to her before he went back to glaring a hole in the floor. “I’d like to be alone if you don’t mind.”

She crossed the room, stopping directly in front of him. “And if I do?”

He looked up, brow pinched in a scowl. “I’m not going to kick you out; it’s your room, too. But I don’t want to talk. And if you insist on it, I’ll leave.”

Well, that wouldn’t do.

Before he could stand, she sat on his lap, effectively locking him down. Her lips twitched when he glared. “Granger.”

“I’m proud of you.”

It wasn’t what he expected. He blinked and drew his head back. “What?”

She shifted on his thigh. “I said I’m proud of you.”

“For what? Failing?” Draco shook his head. “Tell me, are your standards that low for everyone, or did you lower the bar just for me?”

“My standards aren’t low.”

“Yeah, well, you could’ve fooled me.” Draco scoffed. “I’m not an elf or an orphan, so go champion someone else, all right?”

Ouch. What was it Narcissa had said? Fighting for Draco might mean fighting with him? She tried not to let her face reflect just how much she hated the bite in his words.

She must not have done a good job because Draco sighed loudly through his nose. “Look, I’m in a piss-poor mood and I don’t want to say something I’m going to regret. It’s better if you just leave me alone, all right?”

Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge what he’d said—any of it—she reached inside the bag on her lap and withdrew a sucker. “Caramel apple pop?”

Draco frowned and brought the whisky to his lips. “No. Thank you.”

She shrugged and peeled the plastic off the caramel exterior, tossing the wrapper back into the bag before popping the sucker into her mouth. She wasn’t looking at him, but she could feel his eyes on her, watching, most likely waiting for her to speak.

Patient was not a word she’d use to describe herself, but all she needed to be was more patient than Draco. Until he caved, she could bide her time. His lap was comfortable and her candy was delicious.

After a moment, Draco huffed loudly. “Did you come in here to make me feel better or turn me on?”

Her head snapped to the side. “What?”

He was staring at her mouth, the look on his face pained.

Oh.” She looked at the sucker and then back at him. “Is this—is this doing it for you?”

Draco snorted, looking torn between aggravation and laughter. “Has it seriously escaped your notice that everything about you does it for me?” He shook his head. “But yes, you’re sucking on something. Not to mention, the sounds you’re making are practically pornographic.”

Face hot, she stuck the lollipop back into her mouth. With an exaggerated lick, she twirled her tongue around the candy and fluttered her lashes, moaning obnoxiously.

Draco burst out laughing. “Okay, now you just look ridiculous. It’s sexier when you aren’t trying.”

Chuckling, she offered him the sucker by tapping against his lower lip. He took it, popping it in his still grinning mouth.

Slowly, the smile slipped from his face, his mood darkening. “Sorry,” he muttered.

She shook her head. “You don’t have anything to apologize for. You’re upset and you have every right to be.”

He frowned around the stick in his mouth.

“Okay, the bit about the orphans and elves was uncalled for. You’re not some project, Draco. But I wasn’t lying. I am proud of you.” When he opened his mouth to argue, she shushed him. “Shut up. I am and I’m not patronizing you, either. I’m proud because it’s not always easy doing the right thing, but you did it anyway. You slaved over that proposal.”

“Fat lot of good it did me.”

She sighed. “Which is why you’re going to make an appeal.”

Draco rolled his eyes and yanked the sucker from his mouth. “It won’t change anything. My last name will still be Malfoy and I’ll still have this. Everyone looks at it, even if they can’t see it, they all know it’s there.” He lifted his arm. His sleeve was rolled down to his wrist, but she knew what he meant. A bitter look passed over his face, his lips twisting. “I wasn’t kidding when I said my name shouldn’t be attached to anything.” He looked at her, frowning. “I won’t tarnish you by association. No more than I have already.”

They hadn’t discussed what name she’d take, if she’d even change her name. If she kept her name it had nothing to do with not wanting his and more to do with the hassle of somehow configuring three last names.

“Hadn’t you heard?” She smirked. “I’m golden and last I checked pure gold doesn’t tarnish.”

Arrogant words, even in jest, felt funny on her tongue, but Draco shook his head, lips upturned. “Cute.”

She ran her fingers through the fine hair at the back of his neck. “I love you. And I am proud of you. I wish you’d believe me.”

She wished he’d be proud of himself, but that would take time.

Draco’s jaw slid forward and back, his brow furrowed. After struggling for a minute, he confessed in a near whisper, “It’s not—it’s not just you. I don’t want life to be difficult for our children because of their last name, because of who their father is.” He swallowed and stared hard at the wall, unblinking. “I don’t want them to hate me.”

Her heart fractured. “Draco—”

He shook his head. “Yeah, I want to do the right thing, and sure, I want to do it for the right reasons, but part of me wants to do the right thing so the name Malfoy might be associated with something other than dark arts and Death Eaters.” He sighed. “But I don’t know how when I can’t even be allowed to do something good because of my name.”

“Which is why you should appeal the ruling.”

“They’re not wrong about me not having potioneer support.” Draco popped the sucker back into his mouth with a frown.

That was unfortunately true. “Well…”

Draco arched a brow.

Hopefully, what she was about to suggest wouldn’t irk him further. “You’re right. You don’t have the support and I’m not sure how to change that.” Draco’s face grew grimmer. “But perhaps we’ve been looking at it wrong. Maybe instead of seeking out a potioneer, you should”—she took a deep breath— “become one.”

He frowned. “Become one?” He shook his head. “You’re suggesting I pursue a mastery in potions?”

She nodded. “It would put the donatory program off a few years, granted, but that way when you appeal, there’s nothing standing in your way.” He opened his mouth but she continued. “You’ll stress the desire to see potions provided to those in need, not at some Ministry suggested apothecary, but St. Mungo’s and you’ll be providing both the funds and the potions. You wouldn’t be a middle man, you’d be entirely in charge of production with St. Mungo’s distributing to those in need.”

For a long, fraught moment, Draco was silent. “You think I can do that?”

He sounded so small, so unsure, and her heart broke all over again.

“Of course, I do,” she said. “You’re brilliant at potions and you know it.”

Maybe Lucius wasn’t all wrong. Only, maybe playing to her strengths, using the tools in her arsenal had less to do with influencing the Potions Association and more to do with loving Draco stubbornly, loyally, and loudly.

Draco reached back and pulled her hand off his neck. He grabbed the sucker out of his mouth and brought her hand to his lips, kissing her palm. “Thanks, Granger.”

She worried the inside of her cheek. “And as for our children, when we have them, they’re going to love you. Not because you’re a Malfoy or because you donate your money to a good cause, but because you tuck them in at night, and read them stories, and teach them how to fly a broom even if it gives me a heart attack”—Draco laughed—“and because you love them. They’ll love you because you’ll be their dad. And one day, they’ll learn about the war and the things that happened and they’ll figure out that you’re not perfect, that you’ve done good things and bad things and plenty in between, but the good you’ve done will outshine the bad and they’ll still love you because we will have taught them that we make mistakes and deserve second chances. And they’ll see how much I love you, and how much Theo loves you, and they’ll realize you aren’t perfect, but no one is. They’re going to love you, Draco, because you will have taught them what it means to love somebody with your entire heart.”

Draco swiped a hand over his eyes, sniffling loudly. “Gods, do the elves not dust in here?”

She gave a watery laugh and dropped her head to Draco’s shoulder, burying her face in his neck. He continued to sniffle until after a moment, he cleared his throat. “You’re a menace, you know that?”

“Why?” She lifted her head. “Because I tell you all the things you need to hear?”

He nodded. “Pretty much.”

He pursed his lips.

“What?”

Draco pulled the sucker from his mouth. “They’re going to love you, too, you know?”

Heat crept up her neck.

“Well.” She cleared her throat. “Not that we need to worry about that for some time yet.”

Draco tapped the sucker against her mouth. She opened, then closed her mouth around the sticky confection that had gone tart from the apple center.

Mouth no longer occupied, Draco leaned in and brushed his lips against her jaw. “Doesn’t mean we can’t practice.”

Chapter Text

“Erm, Hermione? Love?”

Words on the parchment blurred, no more legible than scribbles as she stared resolutely at the page in front of her. “What?”

She heard the snick of the door shutting followed by footsteps, two sets of them. Someone cleared their throat, the sound thick and stilted as it pierced the silence.

“Do you happen, by chance, to know why my mother is crying over her wedding magazines in the sitting room?” Draco asked.

“She what?” She spun in her chair. Theo and Draco were both staring at her, eyes wary.

Without a doubt, her conversation with Narcissa had gone poorly. Understatement, truly. Still, she hadn’t thought it bad enough to drive Narcissa to tears. Her, maybe, but Draco’s mother?

She’d caught Hermione on a bad day, the worst day.

Her period had come early. Not uncommon as she’d never been perfectly regular. More like downright irregular, especially after they’d disappeared altogether during her months spent surviving on scraps while hunting horcruxes in the wilderness. Tracking them now was rather futile and her inability to accurately pinpoint when she’d start occasionally led to unfortunate surprises.

The sky had been a hazy shade of navy with the barest hint of purple near the horizon when she’d stirred, waking up with a cramp rolling through her abdomen, thighs sticky, and sheets ruined. It wasn’t as if it were the first time she’d ever bled through her knickers and pajamas, but it was the first time it had ever happened when sharing a bed with someone else, with Theo and Draco.

Absolutely dizzy with humiliation, she’d had to wake them up so she could strip the sheets. At some point, Theo must’ve been curled up next to her because his leg was smeared with blood and—Gods, awful didn’t do her mortification justice.

Of course, they’d been quick to assure her it was fine, that it was nothing to be embarrassed about, which yes, she knew it was natural but it didn’t mean she wanted them that familiar with her body’s functions no matter how normal they were. Theo had gently shooed her off to the bathroom to clean up while he and Draco started on the bedding and—Draco had gone pale, his face grim as he stared at the bloody sheets. It wasn’t disgust, but rather horror that had passed over his face before he swallowed tightly and tugged the fitted sheet off the corner of the mattress.

By the time she’d finished in the bathroom, they had remade the bed and had kept a spot open between them. When she’d crawled in, Draco had wrapped himself around her, holding her tight. She hadn’t been able to fall back asleep, and from the way his breath had never gone even against her back, she had a feeling neither had he.

So, she was tired. And a little irritable. And still a bit horrified, not to mention worried she’d scarred Draco into some sort of flashback at the sight of all that blood. Both were gone to Andromeda’s to visit with her and Teddy the next morning when Hermione awoke, though someone had left a tray with tea, a pain potion, and a chocolate chip muffin on the nightstand for her to enjoy at her leisure. Only, before she’d gotten to so much as take a sip of tea, the post had arrived.

Delivered by a generic barn owl, the sort the Ministry used to re-route letters sent to magical individuals—who often had no official address—by non-magical individuals who didn’t own or have access to an owl, the letter was sealed inside a Muggle envelope, the sort with the sticky flap you needed to lick. It was addressed to her, in her father’s handwriting.

Hands trembling, she’d unfolded the paper and taken a deep breath.

Hermione,

Your mother and I have decided it’s time to sell the house.

Despite the logical part of her brain screaming at her that it was foolish to get her hopes up before having all the facts, her heart had leaped into her throat, her eyes widening.

We’ve already contacted a realtor, and the house will be going on the market within the next week.

That soon? She’d clutched the letter between her fingers and scrunched her eyes shut, giddiness nearly making her dance in her seat.

We’ve been advised that, given the current market, the house is likely to sell quickly.

They’d be back. Her parents would be moving back and—soon. It would be soon.

As such, we thought it best to give you a proper amount of time to gather any and all belongings you might have left behind. Also, if you could leave your key—

The words on the page had started to swim by the time she had shut her eyes. They weren’t coming back. Not now, not ever, not if they were selling the house. Not the house in Australia, no, but the one in Hampstead. The one she’d grown up in. The one she had formed the majority of her memories of her parents inside.

She’d crumpled the letter in her fist before silently incinerating it on the spot so she couldn’t torture herself by reading it over again.

Only just having pulled herself together, cleansing the tears from her face with a frustrated flick of her wand, Hermione had barely been hanging on by a thread when Narcissa had found her. What had started off as an innocuous, though perhaps one-sided conversation about how her birthday was only two weeks away took a turn for the worse when Narcissa had suggested—no, pushed—that it was time to set a date for the wedding.

She hadn’t meant to snap. Really. Her raw nerves and tender heart could only handle so much and this was just too much. Too much pushing, too much decision making, too much—just, too much. Narcissa gets what Narcissa wants, Draco and Theo had joked, but what about what Hermione wanted? Could she have been kinder? Well, yes. But she’d reached the end of her rope, an end she hadn’t known existed, as if the length of that rope had frayed and split, running up the middle until, too weak, the whole thing had snapped and left her holding something shorter than she’d bargained for. Not her shining moment, but she’d told Narcissa to—she winced, thinking about it now—to pick any sodding date she wanted because she couldn’t care less.

Oh, Gods. She’d really stepped in it. Hermione’s chin trembled, her vision blurring. Through the haze, Theo shot Draco an unmistakably terrified look, all flared nostrils and heavy brows over wide and wary eyes. It was a look Draco returned, and then some.

No, no this was bad, this was—expressly what she hadn’t wanted. Before she could even take a stuttered breath in, she burst into tears. “I’m—Gods, I’m so sorry.”

Theo swore, but it was Draco who got to her first, hauling her out of the chair and into his arms before settling her into his lap, right there on the rug. He made incoherent soothing noises, hushing her gently, his hand smoothing patterns against her back as if she were a child needing comfort. Gods. “You’re okay. Shh, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. Just—please stop crying.”

“No, it’s not.” She hiccoughed. “It’s not fine. I made your mother cry.”

There was a sharp click shortly followed by the sound of Theo dragging in a deep breath before releasing it, the smell of cloves drifting across the short distance between them. “Why don’t you tell us what happened?”

That would be the logical thing to do, wouldn’t it? Use her words? Only she wasn’t feeling so logical and she didn’t want to discuss it. But that was petulant, and the time for holding her tongue had passed. Perhaps had she not bottled everything up to begin with, she wouldn’t be in this position, cradled in Draco’s lap on the bloody floor with a sticky damp face and a nose so stuffed her could scarcely breathe while Draco and Theo stared at her as if she’d gone and lost the plot.

She took a breath in and held it, pulling herself together bit by bit until she was no longer hiccoughing pitifully. “I wasn’t very nice,” she confessed.

She chanced a look at Draco’s face. The tension around his mouth made it look as if he didn’t know whether to be concerned or laugh. “You? Not nice?”

She made a noise, a sound intended to be a scoff but all the phlegm in her throat and snot plugging her nose twisted it into something like a honking horn. “Yes.”

Theo’s lips quirked around his cigarette. He released a cloud of clove-scented smoke from the corner of his mouth and let the cigarette dangle from between two fingers. “Are you sure there wasn’t just some sort of misunderstanding?”

She twisted the engagement ring on her finger and stared down at the ink splotches staining her skin. If she stared hard enough, she’d no doubt start to see shapes like some sort of impromptu Rorschach test. She didn’t want to analyze her subconscious thoughts, not right now. Her stomach hurt and not just from cramps. “I told her to pick any sodding date she wanted for the wedding because”—she swallowed what felt like a rock, no, a boulder— “I couldn’t care less.”

Draco’s hand twitched against her back, but neither he nor Theo said anything for a long, painful moment that almost had her crying all over again.

“I feel like I’m missing something,” Theo muttered.

Draco hummed in agreement.

“Your mother, she keeps pushing me to set the date and I’m not—she’s insistent, Draco. Insistent we have the wedding in December. A Christmas wedding. What happened to—to there’s magic and then there are miracles when we talked about planning a wedding in under a year? I thought—” She cut herself off with a huff. She didn’t know what she thought anymore. “I know June is out. I just don’t understand why it has to be December. Why can’t it be May?”

Still standing, Theo held up his hands. “Just playing devil’s advocate here, but if she can pull it off, why not December?”

“It’s—it’s soon. It’s…too soon.”

Draco and Theo shared a look, something silent and weighty passing between them before Draco took a tremulous breath in as if steeling himself. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

“No!” She cried. Her stupid tear ducts decided to unleash another unholy flood and her nose decided she didn’t really need to be able to breathe through it. No, she could just gasp through her mouth, instead.

“Oh shit,” Theo muttered, and Draco resumed his shushing and back rubbing that somehow raised her hackles and also made her want to curl up into a ball because it felt really nice being taken care of.

This. She’d been afraid of this, of them not understanding, of jumping to the wrong conclusion, thinking she wasn’t all in when she was. She was all in and then some. Wasn’t it obvious? Apparently not based on how Draco had had to steel himself to ask the question and that it had even been a question that crossed his mind in the first place. It was like he was still waiting for her to reject him and that made bile churn in her stomach. The last thing she wanted was to throw up when she’d already bled all over the place.

Conversations like these should not take place when her nerves were shot and emotions raw, when her uterus was bloody well punishing her, and her hormones decided to reduce her to a sniveling mess. Gods, why today? That tiny, much-too-logical voice in the back of her head whispered the reminder that it was happening today because she’d put it off, hadn’t talked about it until now. A poor choice, but she’d made her bed.

She bit the inside of her cheek until the pain triumphed and she could breathe again, albeit thin, shallow breaths. “That’s not it at all. I can’t believe you’d think that.”

Theo crossed over to where they were sitting and dropped to his knees. He frowned at his cigarette before quickly vanishing it, and reached out, thumbs swiping tears from beneath her eyes. “Just a question, love.” He glanced at Draco. “We’re just trying to understand.”

“It’s—”

She hadn’t wanted to tell them about her parents, about the card, about how frustrated she was because there wasn’t anything they could do about it. But could she explain where she was coming from if she didn’t? That was crucial to her frustration and, in all likelihood, Theo and Draco were already feeling useless watching her sob herself silly.

“My parents,” she choked out before she could talk herself out of it. “They’re not coming.”

Draco frowned. “Can they not—”

She shook her head. “No, they could but they’re not going to. They’re not—” She licked her lips. “They might say they forgive me, but they don’t.”

A look of unadulterated rage passed over Draco’s features before he schooled his expression into something cold. His eyes continued to tell a different story. “They’re fools.”

Any other day, she might’ve taken offense to that, but not now. She couldn’t muster anything more than a shrug, a weak one at that.

“I sent them a letter, a long letter, letting them know we’re engaged and they sent a Hallmark card.” When Theo and Draco looked confused, she explained. “A generic congratulations. Nothing personal. Best wishes and a formulaic one at that.” She swallowed. “I thought, maybe if we had the wedding in May, I could’ve smoothed things over by then. Only, I got a letter this morning that they’re selling the house in Hampstead. They’re not coming back. Not ever.” She shook her head. Fresh tears slipped steadily, almost lazily down her cheeks. “Your mother caught me at a bad time and I know she means well but she keeps pushing me to pick a date and each time it’s been a reminder and I—I snapped.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” Theo frowned.

She swiped a hand under her nose. “You couldn’t do anything. And I know if one of you had told me something like this and there was nothing I could do to fix it, I’d feel awful.”

“You’d just expect us to suffer in silence, then?” Theo asked, jaw clenched.

She scoffed. “No. Of course not. That’s not—that’s not what I meant.”

“Then why in Merlin’s name would you expect to need to?” Theo demanded.

She shrugged.

“Hermione.” Draco frowned sharply.

Room, she needed room, needed space to breathe, distance so she wouldn’t have to feel the censure all but radiating from them. Hearing it in their words, in the way Draco said her name was bad enough. Freeing herself, Hermione stood and swiped a hand roughly over her face before crossing her arms. “It’s different.”

Theo stood from his crouch and Draco quickly followed suit until they were engaged in stare-off, two against one. Feeling for a moment as if she were being ganged up on, she turned her head, staring resolutely, if not unseeingly, at the bookshelf. Avoiding eye contact did nothing to quell the slick, sick feeling in her stomach as if she’d swallowed something rotten.

“How is it different?” Theo demanded.

She squared her shoulders. “I made a choice to tamper with my parents’ memories and whining about the repercussion of my actions isn’t going to do anything about it, so why bother?”

When, after a moment, neither spoke, Hermione turned. Draco stared resolutely at the floor, jaw clenched. Eyes wide and lips parted over a grimace, Theo shook his head slowly.

Bugger. She shut her eyes and swallowed over the lump in her throat. She hadn’t meant… “Draco, I didn’t mean—it’s not the same. It’s—”

“Isn’t it?” Draco cut her off. “Not in all the ways, obviously, but you and I both made choices during the war, choices to protect ourselves and our families. Your choices, arguably more altruistic than mine, and braver to boot. Do you think I’m simply whining when I talk about how difficult it is to overcome the past? Have you been, what, humoring me? Poor, whining Draco.”

She huffed, barely tamping down the urge to throw her hands up in the air because his insinuation was ridiculous. “Of course not. But your problems matter more than me being upset because my parents are behaving distantly.”

Eyes narrowed, Draco glared down his nose. “Merlin help me, if it’s something you care about, it matters.”

The fight drained from her as quickly as it had come. She swallowed thickly. There was nothing she could say that would be adequate.

“No one likes a martyr, Hermione. Or a hypocrite,” Theo said.

She wasn’t acting like a—was she? She’d only wanted to prevent Draco and Theo from feeling powerless in their ability to fix the situation, but she’d have been upset had they done the same in reverse. Upset and frustrated, and quite honestly, a little cross. And—the air fled her lungs in a punched-out sigh that curled her shoulders—hurt. She’d have been hurt that they’d kept something from her. Why was she any different? He was right. That made her a hypocrite. At least, she’d behaved like one.

She stared at the floor, lips trembling.

Theo grabbed her chin, lifting her head and forcing her to meet his eyes. Eyes that were dark and hard. “I can’t take care of you, if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

A quiet confession, the softness of his voice belying the power behind his words.

Her throat hurt when she swallowed. “Are you actually mad at me?”

Theo paused, lashes fluttering as he blinked down at her. He dipped his chin, just a curt nod that made her chest clench and her heart seize. “Yeah. I am.”

Draco said nothing, but he wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t meet her eye. Something about that hurt worse than if he’d shouted, if either of them had. They were angry but they weren’t yelling, weren’t even raising their voices, this—this fight existing as frustration and disappointment, not the sort of seething fury that burned bright and fast before fizzling. Her stomach crawled into her throat, simultaneously heavy. There was no telling how long this would last, or what it would take for her to fix it.

Sniffing hard, she pressed her lips together and shut her eyes against the urge to cry all over again.

This day was awful.

“Come on,” Theo said after a moment. “Let’s just—you should lie down.”

Her stupid lip wobbled so she bit down on it. It was probably asking too much, more than she deserved at any rate, but… “You, too?”

A pause, a lengthy one, followed and made her want to press rewind, swallow the question so she wouldn’t have to face the answer, one she might not like hearing. Rejection.

“Yeah,” Theo murmured, and her shoulders relaxed minutely. “Us, too.”

Theo drew back the covers. He kicked off his shoes and crawled in first, rolling on to his back and staring up at the ceiling as she joined him, followed by Draco.

The bed was large, yes, but the space between their bodies felt infinite.

Between the stress and the crying jags, she was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

The room was dark when she woke up, groggy from her nap.

Her head throbbed dully as she rolled over from side to her back, shifting to get comfortable. Draco was gone, no longer curled up a distance beside her, but Theo was on his side facing her, watching her quietly, his expression somber.

She opened her mouth to speak, but her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. As if anticipating her predicament, Theo reached over to the nightstand and handed her first a glass of water, and then a phial of pain potion. She took both without complaint, sipping, then swallowing, and finally murmuring a soft, “Thank you.”

Theo nodded and took the empty phial and glass from her, setting both back onto the nightstand before rolling over, resuming his silent watch.

Apparently he had no intention of speaking, simply staring. Which was usually fine, nice even, flattering sometimes, but now...this particular stare of his was unnerving. Or maybe it was not knowing what was going on inside his head that unnerved her.

“Where’s Draco?” she asked when the silence and staring got to be too much.

“Talking to his mother”. Theo’s voice was a bit scratchy as if he’d been smoking more than normal. Likely, as the scent of cloves and spice hung heavy in the air like incense.

Narcissa. Gods, Hermione was going to have to explain and then apologize. Profusely. Unless Draco was explaining in which case, she could spend all her time apologizing instead. “Is he telling her?”

Theo nodded. “He’s telling her December won’t work.”

For one stupid moment, her heart froze. Theo, no doubt having seen the flash of fear on her face, added, “May, Hermione. He’s telling her to go with May.”

Her breath whistled from between her lips as her heart steadied. “Right. Okay.”

Theo sighed loudly, eyes scrunching shut briefly before flaring open. The sound was impatient as if he was fed up with holding his tongue. “You know why I’m mad, don’t you?”

She nodded. “Because I didn’t tell you—”

“Because you didn’t trust me, us,” he corrected. “You didn’t trust us.”

Her breath caught in her chest. He was wrong. That wasn’t true. Not at all. “I do trust you. I do.”

“Then act like it.” He shook his head. “It’s a two way—three-way street, Hermione.” He paused, brow quirking. “Which sounds like hell for traffic.”

She could barely churn up a weak snort.

“I guess what I’m saying is, this can’t be about you taking care of us, it’s got to be mutual. What is it Muggles say in their marriage vows? For better or for worse?”

How he knew that she wasn’t sure. But it wasn’t his knowledge of Muggle wedding ceremonies that took her by surprise. It was the whole sentiment, the heart of Theo’s apparent frustration. It…made sense. “Yes.”

His blue eyes were intent, unflinching as he stared. “It’s not just our worse, okay? It’s yours, too. And everything in between.”

Had Draco or Theo been holding on to something that was eating at them, she’d have been upset. Upset not simply because they hadn’t shared, but because they hadn’t felt it necessary—or perhaps possible—to confide in her. “I really am sorry.”

“I know you are.” Theo smiled, just a tiny quirk of his lips that almost looked sad.

A moment passed with only the sound of her heartbeat and the constant tick of the clock on the opposite side of the room. Finally, Theo blew out a noisy breath. “I’m also angry with my myself because—damn it, I should’ve known.”

“What?” She rolled on to her elbow. “How could you have—”

“I should’ve.” He brushed his lower lip with his thumb, frowning. “You’ve been…distracted, somewhat. I noticed that, but I didn’t think it was…I figured it was the school or that you were worried about Draco, because I’ve been worried about Draco, but it looks like we both should’ve been worried about you. I didn’t think—”

“I didn’t want you to. That was the whole point, Theo. The fact that you noticed anything is a credit to your perceptiveness.”

“Well, I could’ve asked,” he groused. “We’re supposed to communicate, but apparently this is a thing between us, where you don’t say what you’re feeling and I’m forced to drag it out of you. Granted, it’s much more fun when you’re confessing to wanting to shag me and Draco and feeling all adorably, morally conflicted.”

She worried the inside of her cheek for a moment. “I wouldn’t have told you.”

Words unspoken hung in the air. She’d have lied and said she was fine when she wasn't. From the way Theo stared, blue eyes hard, he knew it.

She dropped her gaze to the bedspread and blinked back wetness. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Are you going to do it again?”

Her head snapped up. “No.”

She'd had her reasons for not sharing, for holding her feelings in, but those hardly felt like decent excuses now. Flimsy, more like.

Theo weighed her answer before speaking. “You're forgiven.”

“I am?"

He nodded.

She chewed on the corner of her lip until he reached out, prying it from between her teeth. “Really?”

Theo huffed softly and rolled his eyes. “Really. I know why you did it. I only wish you wouldn’t have felt it necessary.”

Hearing it wasn’t the relief it should’ve been. Which wasn’t to say she didn’t believe him, but maybe she didn’t forgive herself. Or maybe it was a hard pill to swallow, this idea of being taken care of.

Theo watched her intently, and if not for the fact that she did trust him implicitly, she might’ve wondered if he’d taken a slip inside her head. After a moment spent studying her, he reached out, brushing a curl off her forehead. “How are you feeling?”

She opened her mouth, then paused. “How do you mean? Physically or emotionally?”

His lips quirked. “Both.”

“Quite crummy, to be honest,” she confessed. Though the pain potion she’d swallowed had worked wonders on her headache, she still ached other places. Her back. Her stomach. Her heart, too.

Theo frowned, skimming his knuckles along her jaw and down her neck before dancing his fingers along her collarbone. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

She’d be fine. She shrugged, sniffing lightly.

He continued to dance his fingers down her arm, along the dip in her waist, and across her stomach. When he paused on the metal button of her trousers, her breath caught and held.

Theo flicked his eyes up, one dark brow arching in question.

Her face was on fire. “I’m—”

“Having your monthly, I know,” he said it like it was no big deal, which it wasn’t, but… “If it bothers you, that’s one thing. Otherwise”—he shrugged—“I don’t care.”

In the months since they’d gotten together, they hadn’t done this. She’d always shifted their hands away, quietly muttering that it wasn’t a good time, and neither had pressed further than that, respecting the warning and taking it at face value. Brief as her periods were, three or four days, it hadn’t really mattered.

“You don’t?” she whispered.

He shook his head, fingers popping the button of her jeans with ease. He paused, fingers tucked just barely beneath the cotton of her knickers. “You can say no.”

She knew that. She could always say no. “Maybe just…” She met Theo’s eyes and he looked so earnest that suddenly she felt terribly silly for stammering all over herself. “Not inside right now, okay?”

His tongue darted out, wetting his bottom lip as he nodded. He slipped his hand further inside her knickers. When the tips of his fingers grazed her clit, she jolted, teeth sinking into her lip.

“Sensitive?” he asked.

She nodded.

Keeping his touch light, Theo circled her slowly. She was more sensitive, every stroke of his finger pads feeling so much more intense than usual. She swallowed, pulse already speeding, her breath quickening.

Theo shifted, tossing his right leg over hers and pressing their foreheads together. His nose bumped her, but he didn’t lean in, didn’t try to kiss her. He kept his eyes open, staring into hers. She squirmed. “Theo.”

His lashes fluttered and when he wet his bottom lip again, she could almost taste the clove and smoke of his mouth. "Shh. Let me take care of you."

She was trembling and she couldn’t stop it. Under his fingers, she practically throbbed in time with her pulse, another heartbeat between her thighs. Sweat broke out along her nape and upper lip, her hairline. Her breath caught inside her throat as everything inside her went impossibly, almost painfully tight. Her legs shook, everything from her toes up to her jaw clenching before releasing.

She promptly burst into tears.

If Theo was shocked, he didn’t show it. Instead, he slid his hand from her knickers and buttoned her trousers before leaning in and kissing first the tip of her nose, then her forehead, and finally her lips.

Her hands clutched his shoulders and he braced his weight on his forearms, holding himself aloft over her. Which wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to feel all of him, feel his weight pressing her down into the mattress. She tugged against him until he got the message and dropped a bit, still not all his weight, but more of it.

He was hard against her stomach, but he wasn’t doing anything about it. She wasn’t sure this had been about that.

Slowly, she stopped sniffling. Through it all, Theo waited patiently, until, after she had taken a shaky breath in and her tears had finally dried up, he nudged her nose with his. “I love you.”

She knew. But hearing it provided her a comfort she hadn’t known she needed. “I love you, too.”

By the time Draco returned, Theo had rolled them over. He was on his back and her head was on his chest. He had one arm curled around her waist and she was holding on to him like he’d float away if she let go.

Expression inscrutable in the dim light, Draco crawled into bed, facing her with Theo between them. “Hey.”

She swallowed. “I’m sorry.”

A beat of silence followed, just long enough to give her time to hold her breath. Draco cleared his throat before reaching across Theo and tucking a curl behind her ear. “Apology accepted.”

***

She woke up later in the evening, heart still heavy.

Draco was wrapped around Theo, his face turned and smushed into the pillow behind them. Flat on his back, Theo’s lips were parted, his nose occasionally twitching. She slipped out of bed quietly so as not to disturb them. On the table near the fireplace was a tray of food, likely under a stasis charm. Her stomach rumbled, but she ignored it and the food both, instead ducking out into the hall.

It couldn’t be that late. With any luck—she took a deep breath—Narcissa would still be awake.

The dining room was dark, but sure enough, a light was on in the sitting room, illuminating the entry in the hall.

Biting her lip, she paused. Draco had obviously said something, told his mother December wouldn’t work. Had he said why or had he left that up to her? She shut her eyes. Talking about it was exhausting. Not that she didn’t understand why she needed to, but each time it was like pressing a still-open wound.

She had to explain, apologize. Narcissa deserved that much, at least, because Hermione had been completely out of bounds.

Now or never, Hermione took a step into the light, pausing in the entryway.

Narcissa looked up from her book and gave her a wan smile. She shut her book and set it aside, then patted the cushion beside her. “Come here, dear.”

She hurried across the room. “Narcissa, I am so terribly sorry for what I said.”

Narcissa reached out and rested a hand over Hermione’s. “Had I known it was a sore spot, I wouldn’t have pushed you so hard.”

“You couldn’t have known. I should’ve said something.”

Narcissa pursed her lips. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I don’t enjoy talking about it. And there’s nothing anyone can do, so…” She shrugged. “And you seemed so excited about planning everything. I didn’t want to put a damper on any of it.”

Narcissa squeezed her hand. “I am excited. I’m excited for Draco, that he’s found two people who love him as much as he loves them. I’m excited that our family is growing, that I’m gaining another son and a daughter. I’m excited that it’s you.” She smiled. “It’s not just a wedding, and yes, planning it does make me happy, but only so far as it makes you happy.”

She swallowed over the lump in her throat. “I am happy.”

“You’d simply be happier if your parents were in attendance.”

It wasn’t a question, but she nodded anyway. “I feel like that makes me selfish, that I have everything else I want, more than I thought was possible, and I still want more.”

“What I think that makes you”—Narcissa reached out, fingers toying with a curl— “is human. And very selfless, actually, for even considering it possible to want for too much. And as for your parents, there’s much I could say about them and their inability to comprehend how much of a gift you are, but I wouldn’t want to offend.” Narcissa’s smile went sharp, her eyes like blue flames, and had Hermione forgotten the woman was a Slytherin, that look alone would’ve been an ample reminder. “I’ll settle for saying their loss is my gain.”