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Unkempt curls had invaded his space. His favorite witch's nose was deep in a thick book, as per usual, and like he often did, the blond peered over her shoulder to see exactly what it was that she was reading. Several mentions of Arsenius Jigger stood out against the tattered, yellow pages, and he could not help but smile. It was no shock that she was studying the famous potioneer. She had, after all, been mentioning him whenever she had the chance.

 

"Some light reading?" he drawled, pressing his lips against her bare shoulder.

 

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards, but she did not tear her eyes away from the book. Nothing could distract her from a good read. "I was just thinking about Jigger's Theory of Rebottling. It wasn't making much sense to me."

 

"Which part?" The wizard buried his face in her neck. Her scent was intoxicating, or at least it was to him.

 

"All of it, really," she admitted, marking the page. "I see how he concluded that the fourth time rebottling will lessen a potion's strength, but I don't understand how he can assume that's true for all potions. He only tested three, and all of them have at least two ingredients in common."

 

"Moondew and lacewing flies." The blond pondered for a few seconds. "And it is known that when trimmed, Moondew—"

 

"—loses its properties when exposed to the elements," she finished. "Yes, exactly. So I want to do some testing with ingredients that don't have this property."

 

"Granger," he said, meeting her eyes, "we have to be at the gala at two. For our findings. We can mess with this tomorrow, yeah?"

 

"Malfoy," she mocked him, "are you telling me you can't finish a few small experiments before two? You're slipping."

 

"Am I?" He smirked and embraced her lips with his, softly moving his tongue against hers in a lingering moment of bliss. When she finally pulled away, it was back to their everyday routine. "Did you feed Barth yet?"

 

She shook her head. "He was still asleep."

 

Draco swung his feet over the side of the bed and stretched. It had been months since Hermione had left his cottage, and though he sometimes teased her about the flat she still paid for, he would have it no other way. An arrangement that once would have been taboo had become nothing less than natural for the both of them. Funny how things could change so swiftly.

 

He padded towards the kitchen and frowned when he saw the Wampus cat gnawing on a bleeding steak. Their unusual pet had made quite a game out of tricking them into feeding him twice—a game they were losing. "Granger! You did feed him!"

 

"Ugh! I'm sorry! He must've hypnotized me again!"

 

Chuckling to himself, Draco patted the animal on the haunches. Menace or not, he loved Bartholomew just as he imagined someone might love their firstborn child.

 

 

***

 

 

The gala was as expected: ostentatious, crawling with scholars, and swimming in the aroma of decadent food. Though it had taken nearly an hour, Hermione had managed to smooth her hair with a potion Draco brewed just for her—a potion that turned out to be much better than Sleekeazy's. It started out as a bit of a joke, but eventually, she came to love it, much like she came to love Draco.

 

"You look nervous, Granger."

 

"I'm not," she fibbed. The witch was terrified, mostly of her friends that would be attending. She had not spoken to them much at all since she and Draco were featured in Potioneering Quarterly, and based on Harry's reaction, he was more disappointed than he was proud. Apparently, Aurors couldn't endorse keeping illegal magical creatures in captivity, and they really couldn't endorse Malfoys.

 

"No need to lie," Draco purred in her ear. "Can't say I look forward to seeing Potter either. He'll probably hex me."

 

"He won't hex you," Hermione hissed. "He'll just—well, honestly, I don't know what to expect. This is sort of uncharted territory with him."

 

"Oh, he hates me enough that I wouldn't put it past him. I can't say I expected him to use that Sectumsempra curse of his on me, but a nice trip to the hospital wing proved me wrong."

 

"He didn't know what that curse would do!" Hermione insisted. "I warned him about that dreadful book he got it from."

 

"Honestly, I was just shocked he knew something other than 'stupefy ' and 'expelliarmus'." Draco cocked an eyebrow. "You know, if we were friends in school, we both probably would've finished our N.E.W.T.s a year early. Think of all the time we wasted between both of us, babysitting Potter and Weasel, Crabbe, Goyle."

 

Hermione narrowed her eyes. "We probably would have been friends if you weren't so prejudiced."

 

"Yes, well, I'm not now, am I? Wouldn't be shagging you if I were."

 

"Right," Hermione agreed, though she was still a little irate with him. "But that doesn't mean Harry approves of you. He's stubborn, Harry. I don't know if he'll ever get used to the fact that we're together."

 

"I know he hates me. No need to sugarcoat it."

 

"Sure, but he does know how important this is to me. I can't imagine he'll make too much of an arse out of himself." Hermione sighed. "Speak of the devil."

 

The bespectacled wizard was headed towards them, his lips pressed together and Ginny Weasley on his arm. Hermione could not help but notice how toned her friend's arms were after her year of practice with the Holyhead Harpies. Never had she seen someone look so good in an olive green dress.

 

"Ginny," she breathed, reaching out for a hug. "You look great!"

 

"So do you," the redhead replied, grinning. She pulled away and raised her eyebrows, clearly wanting more details about Draco Malfoy. "It's been a while."

 

"Certainly has," Hermione agreed, clearing her throat. Her eyes trailed a bit left to her other friend. "Harry."

 

"Hermione," he said, stiffly.

 

"Glad to see you were both able to make it," she murmured, lacing her fingers together. "There's a buffet, if either of you are hungry. Seafood, steak, potatoes with gravy, chocolate gateau. Potioneering Quarterly really didn't disappoint."

 

Ginny gave Harry an expectant look. "I probably ought to get my daily bit of protein in."

 

Harry's gaze was fixed on Hermione and the wizard just behind her. Only when Ginny tugged on his hand did he say, "Yeah. Yeah, alright."

 

Once the two of them were out of earshot, Hermione said, "Well, at least Ginny seemed fine."

 

"Potter wants me dead," he chuckled. "Did you see the look he was giving me?"

 

Hermione pressed her lips. "He'll get over it. At least he was civil, right?"

 

Draco didn't respond.

 

"Our speech is in an hour," she said, peering down at her watch. "Merlin, I hope everything goes fine. I don't have the background that some of these people do, so I'm really not sure what all they might ask. Oh, and Draco, what if they want to know about the first test? People might think I endorse such things. I'd look like such a traitor, after talking to the Prophet about S.P.E.W. and—"

 

"Granger!" Draco interjected, seizing her by the shoulders. "Just slow down, okay? Everything will be fine."

 

Hermione was not convinced. "What if they ask about Barth?"

 

"Well, if they do, let me do the talking. Nobody needs to know about him," he muttered. "We'll have these snakes knocking on our door all hours of the day wanting hair samples."

 

Hermione opened her mouth to respond, but to her horror, she saw another flash of red amongst the crowd. Her eyes darted to the buffet. Ginny was loading a plate, her hair pulled into an updo.

 

"Ron is here!" Hermione exclaimed, turning back to look at the man. He was now pushing his way through the people crowding Ruby Shillbend, a rather infamous potioneer that moved to Russia to work with nightshade. If Hermione wasn't so flustered, she might have rushed to meet the woman herself.

 

Draco frowned. "Weasley? Are you serious?" Just then, he noticed the same figure that she did. He was nearly past Shillbend's fans. "Merlin's beard, it is Weasley."

 

"What is he doing here? I most certainly did not invite him."

 

"Well, did you invite Romilda Vane?"

 

"No, why?"

 

"Well, he's got her on his arm. You might not be able to see but if you lean this way—yes that's it. That's her trailing just behind him, isn't it?"

 

It had been a long time since Hermione had seen Romilda Vane, but the woman certainly looked like her.

 

"Thought maybe she brought him as a date," Draco went on. He raised a brow. "You think he's trying to gatecrash?"

 

"Obviously."

 

Her heart pounded as he drew closer, determination in his gait and Romilda Vane in tow. Rather than traditional robes, he was adorned in a blue button-up and grey slacks that she had bought for him to wear to her cousin's wedding. The man was dressed to impress, and Hermione had a feeling it wasn't Romilda Vane that he hoped to woo.

 

"Hermione!" he said, waving a hand wildly. "Oi! Hermione!" He tugged Romilda Vane towards her and Draco, spilling the poor woman's martini everywhere. Romilda screeched, which earned her several glares.

 

"Ronald." Acknowledging him was her only choice when he called her by name. Oh, how she wished he could have just watched her from afar like he usually did during their breakups. It was always easier that way.

 

"Decided to come as soon as I heard," he said, breathlessly. "Brilliant thing you've made. Read about it in—erm—that potion book that you were in." He scratched the back of his head. "Er—you remember Romilda?"

 

"Yes," Hermione drawled in an all-too-Draco-like fashion. "Lovely to have you here, Romilda."

 

"Lovely to be here," Romilda replied, smiling widely. Exchanging pleasantries did not seem to be the source of her giddiness, though. Her eyes were drinking up every inch of Draco. He was particularly handsome in burgundy robes, and while Hermione couldn't blame her, she still felt a pang of jealousy. "I see you brought your partner."

 

"Partner, boyfriend, it's a bit of a mixed bag." Draco chided, his focus solely on Ron.

 

"Right," Romilda said, sounding a bit let down. "I'd heard but wasn't sure if the rumors were true."

 

Hermione inhaled. "I assume you two are an item, then?"

 

Still all too entranced by Draco, Romilda opened her mouth to say something. Ron cut in before she could. "Yeah! Yeah, we are. Been together for the last couple months. It's been great, hasn't it, pumpkin?"

 

Romilda looked sour but nodded as he elbowed her. "Yeah, right. Just great." The smile was forced.

 

"Wouldn't want to spend it with anyone else," Ron continued, locking eyes with Hermione. "Everything I ever wanted, Romilda is. Ran into her in Diagon Alley and just couldn't help myself. Asked her out right then."

 

He was all too obvious, but so was Romilda. Draco's face was crumpled in confusion, perhaps even disgust, as the witch stared at him.

 

"Is that so, Romilda?" Hermione asked, acidly.

 

The woman blinked a few times. "Erm—yeah. Yeah, all true."

 

"Well, isn't that nice," Hermione said, flatly. She took Draco's arm in hers with enough force that she nearly pulled it out of its socket. "Draco and I ought to mingle. Thanks so much for coming. Was lovely to chat."

 

She pulled Draco away.

 

"I can't believe he showed up," she hissed. "Did you see the way she was looking at you? Clearly, they aren't together."

 

"Weasley's just trying to make you jealous." He frowned. "Don't tell me it's working."

 

Hermione snorted. "Fat chance. I just wish he would've done this any other time. I've got enough to worry about what with the speech and all."

 

He kissed her temple. "You'll do great. If you bugger it up, I'll come in for the save, yeah?"

 

There was nothing that could keep her from grinning at that moment in time. Ron had never "come in for the save".

 

 

***

 

 

It was time. She had been dreading the speech for weeks, and as she stepped up to the podium, she saw why. Witches and wizards that had recently become her idols were swarming around the stage, expectantly looking up at her. In the crowd, Harry, Ginny, and Draco waved, while Ron forcefully pulled Romilda Vane in by the waist. Hermione swallowed hard. At least Harry found it in him to be supportive.

 

"Hello, everyone," she started, awkwardly. "I hope you're all enjoying your afternoon."

 

Bored stares were the only response, accompanied by the light clinking of wands against cocktail glasses. Hermione's nightmares were filled with the bulbous eyes of her new colleagues, and it seemed that those nightmares had become a reality.

 

"If you haven't made it to the buffet yet, I highly recommend the prawns and the mash," she said, cursing inwardly as she heard the words out loud. Between her cliche introduction and her ex-boyfriend's outfit of choice, it was just like being at Cousin Lucille's wedding all over again.

 

The crowd continued to stare at her. Then, she caught Ginny making a gesture, urging her to keep going.

 

Hermione cleared her throat, "Erm—a big thank you to Potioneering Quarterly for putting this event together and for featuring us in last quarter's release. Draco and I couldn't have gotten the news out without your assistance."

 

Ginny was giving her a look again. Hermione wasn't sure whether it was helping or making her more nervous.

 

"Of course, not all of you may know exactly what the news is, so we'll get to it in a moment, but first, I'd like to talk about Wampus cats."

 

Several cheers commenced. Wolf whistles and cat-shaped sparks filled the air, and finally, Hermione had the small boost of confidence that she needed.

 

"Ah, yes. Our Ilvermorny alumni," she chuckled. "I suppose some of you were in Wampus House. You probably know all about them, then. Impossible to control, dangerous, cunning—all words most would use when describing the Wampus. All words I probably would've used too—but then I came to know them differently.

 

"You see, Wampus cats are all of those things, sure, but they are more than that. They know how to love. They cuddle. They like having their ears scratched. In a lot of ways, they're like your average housecat—loving, but quick to tell you if you're bothering them. This is, of course, if they are raised in captivity. In order to harvest their hairs, it is pertinent that the cat is raised from kittenhood."

 

The crowd buzzed with disapproving whispers. Hermione expected such a reaction, and she hoped she could quickly change their minds.

 

"It took a lot of work to get the Ministry to agree to permit the captivity of Wampus cats. Draco and I had to invite Ministry leaders into our home. We had to show them our lovely boy, Bartholomew, and demonstrate how housebroken he was. I would've brought him tonight, but I don't think we can be confident in how he'd be with this many people."

 

Some people in the crowd snickered. Most just looked concerned.

 

"When Draco had the idea to use Wampus hairs in potions, I wasn't sure that it would work. Honestly, I thought what you are all probably thinking right now. Is it worth it? Even if it's possible, why risk it? But it wasn't the desire for glory that brought us together. I was curious, yes. Hungry for recognition? Perhaps. I think most of you can relate. Still, such things were hardly enough to drive me to working with a dangerous beast. Like some of you here, I had my fair share of Blast-Ended Skrewts in my fourth year at Hogwarts. I'd seen what controversial creatures were like."

 

Harry and Draco sniggered at that. She recalled Draco detesting the Skrewts more than anyone else—so much so that he spoke to Rita Skeeter, of all people.

 

"But there was something about that Wampus cat. He was far too young to perform hypnosis, according to the little bit that I'd read up on them, so why I couldn't turn him away when he looked at me? Why did I follow Draco Malfoy—who some of you may know, bullied me quite badly during our time in school—all the way to his home? I told myself it was for Draco's own good. I told myself it was to keep Draco out of trouble. When I reflect on it, though, I realize it was something else. I was drawn to him—not Draco, but the Wampus. If he could bring a Muggle-born and a Malfoy together, I wondered: what other powers could he possess? What untapped potential did this species have and what would I be missing out on if I were to walk away from it?"

 

The audience was still staring at her, but now there was a glimmer of curiosity in their expressions. Even Ron seemed fascinated.

 

"So, I started spending my days with two boys: a Wampus cat named Bartholomew and the man that decided naming a Wampus cat was a good idea," Hermione went on, smiling a bit as she earned more laughs. "We studied ceaselessly while we waited for him to grow, and by the time he was large enough to harvest his hair, we were ready to test."

 

The potioneers of the group started to clap and whisper in awe. Harry and Ginny were visibly confused, but Hermione could not blame them. Only potion enthusiasts would clap for something as universally boring as test preparation.

 

"As many of you in the audience understand, testing was easily the worst part. Some might think raising a Wampus cat to be difficult but I'd rather raise five Wampuses than ever crush another beetle in my lifetime." The roars of laughter only sparked more confidence. "Draco and I were practically tearing our hair out. We'd work ten hours a day, making lunch and then realizing we coudn't even eat it because we contaminated it—again." She went on, smiling a bit at the many chuckles. "But then, one potion came out perfect. One potion, the potion we came here to speak about, came out strikingly pink, and it gave the user an incredible amount of energy with no dangerous side effects. Unheard of, right? Well, we knew that it was. We discovered something groundbreaking and we knew it, but it made us ask the question: how much further can we go?

 

"Wampus hair might have multiple uses. We should keep testing. You should keep testing. We've only used adult hairs! We should try it with kitten hairs, hairs of different mutations, hairs from specific parts of the body—claw shavings, even! We want the world to benefit from our findings. And through you, the world's greatest potioneers, there may be more benefits to be had. Thank you all for coming, and thank you for supporting us on our journey."

 

The crowd clapped, especially Draco. Ron looked a bit bewildered, but as she stepped down from the stage, she found that she didn't mind. She pressed her lips to Draco's and with all of the greatest potioneers in the Wizarding world surrounding her, she knew where she belonged: with Bartholomew, with Draco, and most importantly, with a mortar and pestle.

 

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