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Chapter Twenty-Two

After almost five minutes of trying to convince the curly headed witch in front of him that she would be back on time to her work, she had finally settled down. Hermione allowed Draco to guide her to his usual eating room where he normally dined alone unless his mother made a surprise house call. Fortunately for him, he had invited this witch this time around and she wasn't going to meddle in his nonexistent relationship with Pureblooded witches – intentionally. Draco knew bringing the witch of his affections to his own home was a big step for the both of them; she had trusted him enough to bring her and he her. However rushed it felt, he needed to get his mind off his family and Hermione Granger definitely provided a pleasant diversion. When they stepped into the off-white-colored room, Hermione quirked her eyebrows up. Draco didn't have to wait long before she spoke her thoughts.

"You're minimalistic compared to your mother."

She said. Draco snorted, motioning to the one table to have a seat.

"Everyone is minimalistic compared to my mother."

He said and that earned himself a soft laugh from the witch. He tried to stamp out the flip in his stomach at her laughter but failed miserably as he pulled the chair out for her, holding the frame harder than necessary. She took her seat and he walked around to take his.

"The food will arrive shortly, it's still being made."

He offered as he watched as she pressed her fingers to her palms. He would have done the same if she hadn't been distracting him. She nodded but didn't say anything and chose to look out the window, giving Draco plenty of liberty to openly stare at her. She wore a rich blue that looked nothing short of gorgeous on her, her oxford hugging her frame. Her hair was tied back into a tight updo, but her shorter, riotous curl escaped to frame her thinning face. Draco frowned internally thinking she wasn't eating or getting enough rest if she was losing weight. Thanks to her attractive brown skin, the circles under her eyes weren't as noticeable, but Draco could see the darker shade around them. Even though being overworked was showing, all Draco could think was, she's beautiful. He quickly tried to squash the blush that threaten to appear. Thankfully, the food he ordered appeared on the table before them. A surprised but pleased look showered Hermione as she looked at food before her and Draco was quite pleased with himself. The food settled before them as he said over the phone.

"Bon appetite, Granger."

Draco said and Hermione smiled softly at him before digging in. It took him a moment to also dig in as her smiles often caught him off guard. She seemed to enjoy the bacon quiche with an assortment of fruits and an apple and chicken side salad. While it wasn't his initial plan to have a quiet, intimate lunch at his home with Hermione Granger, he wasn't going to complain.

"You're lucky I'm starving."

Hermione said before taking another bite of the quiche. He rolled his eyes at her as she tried not to smile at the flavors. Draco himself didn't have much of an appetite; however, he didn't want to make her feel uncomfortable so he ordered himself a tomato basil soup with small pieces of baguettes; he also took some blueberries and green apple slices to randomly pick on while he sipped his tea. Dally had successfully sent a teapot of his preferred black tea with ginger, some milk, and helping spoonful of honey without being verbally asked. His house elf would know he had a guest and while most elves tried to outdo themselves in the presence of others, Dally was more introverted which Draco enjoyed. He also didn't know how Hermione would react to his personal elf. Draco was also grateful Dally had sent in a glass jug of water as he didn't know what Hermione would want to drink. He served himself a cup of tea while she chose the chilled water in a glass.

"Don't deny the food is infinitesimally times better than Ministry food."

Draco quipped, smirking in his teacup before taking another hot sip. Hermione initially ignored him as she continued eating.

"Well, I can't travel to France every day for lunch now can I."

Hermione said. You could, was lodged in his throat and he forced himself to put his drink down and take a healthy sip of his warm soup, uncharacteristically stuffing his mouth with more bread than needed. After a few moments of chewing, Draco could see the witch's nervous habits arising. She stopped eating, started handling her own water cup more often than necessary, and she started biting the inside of her cheek. Another bite of an apple slice to stop himself to not ask what was on her mind, but thankfully, he didn't have to wait long.

"Everyone displays grief differently, Draco."

She said, softer than before. He quirked one eyebrow, reaching for his teacup to also give himself something to do, to appear calm despite the inner turmoil.

"I'm sure your mother cares about your father's fate."

She said. Bloody hell. Draco inwardly cursed as he set his cup back down and turned his face to look away from her. Of course she wants to talk about mother's reaction. How much did she hear? Draco asked himself as he continued to ignore Hermione's advice.

"Perhaps this will bring you both closer and she'll – "

"Granger, don't presume to know my mother."

Draco couldn't help but to snap at her. He instantly regretted it when she didn't say anything more and slowly continued to eat. Bugger. Draco inhaled deeply, watching enough of the French skies before him to turn to look back at Hermione. She was almost done with her quiche and she was sipping on her water. If it was anyone else, he wouldn't be bothered to care; his mother and friends knew of his notorious attitude when it came to touchy subjects such as his father. The only one he'd ever truly felt bad for snapping was Pansy but that's because she had the most patience when it came to him and his outbursts. He knew he didn't want to end their lunch on a bad note.
"I don't want to talk about it."

He unwillingly said and averted his eyes to look down at his unfinished food. The red soup stared back at him, not even halfway done.

"I heard Potter might have birthday celebrations soon – are you attending?"

Draco cleared his throat before asking, changing the subject. He didn't make eye contact but was no longer looking down. He was lying, but he did know the war hero had a birthday coming up and he desperately needed something else to talk about. Usually, he would have talked about quidditch, but he knew Hermione didn't follow the sport like many else did. Hermione chewed on a peach slice and nodded.
"He doesn't have any planned as of yet, but we'll definitely do something."

She replied. He nodded at her response, she took another bite of another slice before she asked,

"Will you be attending too?"

Draco shrugged in response. He didn't think so, but Potter's easygoing nature was hard to say no to.

"Like you said, he hasn't had anything plan but I'm sure Theo will force me along regardless."

He answered. That brought a laugh to her lips and Draco wanted to hear more. He rather liked her laugh and making her laugh.

"So you'll be Theo's date?"

She asked, a smirk on her lips as she teased him. The tension slowly dissipating at her question. Draco couldn't help but to roll his eyes but let a smirk mirror on his own lips.

"Jealous?"

He asked, a teasing tone in his question but he realized his mistake if she took it seriously. Luckily, she laughed again, louder this time as she reached for another peach slice.

"Theo's a darling, but no, definitely not."

She answered.

"I'll let him know about your repulsion."

He said, his smirk growing as she instantly became frazzled. She dropped the fork she had in her hand and shook both of her hands in front of her, her dark skin concealing the blush that spread throughout her face.

"W-What! I did not say that!"

Hermione exclaimed. That's when Draco realized he liked he frazzled state a bit more than her laughter. She scowled at him, realizing he was joking. Draco reached for his teacup once more, taking a sip as he hid his smile. He didn't smile in the presence of others that weren't his mother, Theo, Blaise, and Pansy, much less in public; he didn't show any emotion that wasn't nonchalant or indifference, unless it was disgust. He didn't tease and was teased back with ease, but the witch before him was pushing his limits. He hated when his close ones teased him, but he didn't seem to mind much when Hermione did it. Draco didn't know if he liked it or not.
"You two make a very nice couple."

She said, taking him away from his inner thoughts. It was now Draco's turn to blush, but his pale skin was not advantageous in concealing it. He almost dropped his teacup and choked on the taste. He almost yelled something along the lines that she was barking when he saw her own smirk, a gleam in her eyes. She's going to be the death of me, he silently thought to himself.

"As much of a nice couple we'd make, we're strictly platonic."

Draco answered after clearing his throat, his blush still not fully gone. He wouldn't have even bothered to reply, but it did not work in his favor if Hermione assumed Theo and he were seeing one another. Hermione laughed once more before finishing the rest of her quiche. The rest of their impromptu lunch passed with an easy silence and when Hermione was finally done with her salad, only a couple of fruit slices left over, she placed a clothed napkin down.

"This was delicious."

She ruefully admitted. Draco's half eaten soup would disagree but he nodded.

"I'll escort you back."

He said, standing up but she shook her head. She stood up as well and Draco appreciated the height difference. She could easily fit against you, like a missing piece… Draco shook the thought from his head as he cleared his throat and mind.

"No it's okay, really."

She protested in true Hermione Granger fashion; he knew she wasn't accustomed to having proper mannerisms around her, but that didn't mean he was going to stop unless she told him to. He had seen how she interacted with Theo's comforting hands and words and Blaise's prim attitude; he was curious to see how she'd react to his.

"Granger, this floo is not connected to the Ministry. You'd have to floo back to the Manor then to the Ministry, and I'd rather you do that with me."

Draco explained. Hermione reluctantly accepted and they made their way back to the floo room. Once more, he placed his hand on the small of her back, soothing his urge to touch her, and she noticed, her brown eyes looking up at him. He ignored her quizzical stare and with his free hand, he threw the green powder down he obtained prior to stepping in. He said firmly,

"Malfoy Manor."

They barely stepped out again to retrieve more powder when his mother appeared before them. She appeared to be heading towards the fireplace itself and looked surprised to see both of them but she quickly schooled the emotion into a blank stare. Draco ignored his mother stare and returned a blank mask of his own.

"I'm sorry, but I thought you were escorting her out, Draco."

She said shortly.

"I am."

Draco offered back, before leading the way once more, his hand falling back on Hermione's back; if she was uncomfortable, she didn't say anything and that gave Draco a little relief he didn't know he needed. They made a quick leave before his mother had anything more to say.

"Ministry of Magic."

He said and they were surrounded by green flames once more. He'd rather not have his and Hermione's faces on the gossip pages of the Prophet, so he gave her a quick smirk, not stepping out, as he was returned back to Wiltshire.

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"Was that Draco Malfoy?"

Hermione heard the appalled question behind her to come face-to-face with Parvati. The beautiful brown witch was dressed in plain, muggle business wear with shades of cremes and gray appearing to drown her curvy figure, her dark brown hair was cut short in a long bob. The witch in question was staring at Hermione with her with an uneasy interest. Shite. Was all Hermione thought, forcing herself to stand still lest she give something away. She was taking a lesson from her cooler friends – the Slytherins – on calming herself outwardly. Parvati, unlike her twin, did not return to Hogwarts for her final year. Instead, Hermione had heard from her peers, Parvati took an apprenticeship for the Daily Prophet. Parvati herself was a conundrum unlike her Ravenclaw twin; half of the time she advocated about the importance of mental health for her peers and those who were involved in the war and the other half she was writing gossip about the upper society circles of the U.K wizarding society. Hermione was sure she would be the one writing, or the very lease aiding, in the next article that announced Ron and Padma's relationship. Rarely did she write about her own peers unless they were involved in some high-end party or social event unless they were in the wrong side of the war. Parvati was vicious when it came to former Death Eaters and their families and friends.

"I believe he was right behind me to come in."

Hermione lied and then offered an easy shrug before heading towards the lift. True to his word, she was not late and had a few minutes to spare before going back to her work. This did not mean that Hermione wanted to or had the time to get caught up in whatever Parvati was assuming and planned on writing about her and Malfoy.

"Really? He seemed to be accompanying you, Hermione."
Parvati did not let it go as she walked step-by-side with her. Fuck. Hermione internally swore and clenched her left hand together. Breathe, Hermione. She reminded herself before she had a mild panic attack in the middle of the Ministry atrium. She knew she would probably get the most negative reactions consorting with a former Death Eater, but she also speculated that Malfoy didn't enjoy the press as much as his mother did. It would be good for his public image, but if he wanted to use her for that, he would have already done so. Hermione forced a laughter out before stepping in front of the closed lift.

"Don't be absurd, Parvati. We were certainly not travelling together."

Hermione said, letting a small smile grace her lips. After a few insufferable seconds of Parvati's careful brown eyes scanning Hermione's face for any lies, Parvati finally laughed.

"I must need eyeglasses, sorry Hermione."

She said. Hermione managed to keep the fake smile on her lips all the way into the lift and out, unluckily for her that Parvati joined her; she was certain Parvati's eyes never left her only escaping their scrutiny when the lift they shared closed its doors and they parted ways. Bloody hell. Hermione cursed once more internally before making her way back to her office.

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More than ever, Draco wished his own floo was connected to the MoM as soon as he saw his mother still standing in the same place he had left her in. She seemed to glow in the darkness of the room – it was unsettling.

"Must go, mother."

He quickly said but before he could reach for more floo powder, the onyx bowl disappeared; Narcissa vanished it nonverbally, her elm wand at her side. Draco held in the sigh that threatened to leave and rapidly begin to prepare himself mentally and physically for the questions that were soon to assault him. He fully stepped out the fireplace and kept his calm mask in place.

"Yes mother?"

He asked her. The sooner, the faster I can leave. Draco thought to himself. Narcissa's sky blue eyes narrowed at her son's tone.

"Why was Miss Granger here?"

She asked.

"I was escorting her to lunch with Theo and Blaise before I got the news about father. She accidentally followed."

Draco said truthfully. His mother could smell lies if he tried, but he didn't have to tell her the entire truth. In truth, Draco believed his mother to be a legilimens because even the smallest of white lies, she knew. But with a handful of training from his deranged aunt, he quickly blocked his mind from anyone – including his mother. It was a handy coping mechanism trick as well, but tiring. Draco also wasn't used to keeping secrets from his mother and was used to her knowing everything. A few seconds passed before she spoke again.

"I had no idea Theo and Blaise were friendly with her."

Narcissa said. Draco shrugged as his response, opting to look towards his left, appearing bored with the conversation. His mother stepped towards him and Draco looked back towards her; he was taller than her, but by no means did that make her less intimidating. She was curious and Narcissa Malfoy nee Black being curious was never a good sign for him. Better her than Lucius. Draco reminded himself.

"I didn't know you were friendly with Miss Granger either, Draco."

She said, her voice soft and low like a viper waiting to strike – she was a Slytherin after all. Draco's occlumency shields were immediately up.

"Is that a problem, mother?"

Draco asked, his eyebrow quirking up, his tone light. Despite the innocuously asked question, Draco was trying to see where his mother's blood purity views lied. He needed to know, before he truly began pursuing Hermione, what his mother thought about Muggleborns. He could feel a slight push against his forehead and if he had not put up his shields, Draco would have reacted to his mother's probing.

"Of course not, darling."

Narcissa replied with a too big smile on her pale lips. Draco nodded once before opening his palm to her, without words, asking her for the floor powder. He didn't entirely believe her, but her answer would have to suffice for now. Narcissa placed her free hand on her son's right cheek, a soothing gesture he was accustomed to but confused why she was currently showing affection, before the heavy bowl appeared in his hand. Draco almost dropped it but grabbed hold of the bowl with both his hands as his mother dropped her hand and stepped back.

"I'll see you and your friends for dinner later."

She said, prompting another nod from him. He almost forgot about his biweekly dinners with his mother and best mates. Theo had volunteered and Blaise and Pansy shortly did as well when Draco would come to them with an abundance of grievances from dining with his mother. Draco was almost scot-free – floo in hand as he placed the bowl on the small, matching onyx table besides the fireplace – before his mother had the last words.

"Oh Miss Greengrass is coming as well."