Draco arrived at Madam Puddifoot's an hour earlier than the designated time and consulted with the august woman herself. While she appeared fussy and silly to the general public, Draco knew from his mother that she was one of the most powerful witches in the area. She'd dedicated her life to the magic of her tearoom, perfecting its charms over the years, so that the enchantment was unbreakable. It had made her rich and influential. Few people knew that she sat on the Wizengamot.
"She's very special to me, Madam," Draco confided to her about Hermione, "and we have something important to discuss."
Madam simpered (part of the act). "I can see that she is, Draco. I've never seen you like this. Will you be wanting a private room then?"
He chuckled. "No, this will be her first visit here and she's fascinated with the idea of your spell. I just want your permission to cast Muffliato and Silencio charms so that no one can hear us and we won't be disturbed by others' chatter. I know you usually forbid any other magic in here."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but not even for you can I break that rule. However," she added, seeing his look of disappointment, "I'll create a booth for the two of you and sound proof it myself." The dining booth with red leather cushioning and wrought iron trim to match the surrounding tables, appeared against the outside wall. "Will that be satisfactory? I located it surrounded by other tables, since you said she's intrigued by my little place, yes?"
He laughed again. "Yes, and I should warn you that she's very clever and determined to leave here with the names of couples she's observed."
She joined in his mirth. "Everyone thinks they can beat Madam Puddifoot, but none do. I'm looking forward to seeing the young woman who has made the cool, detached Master Malfoy rather...enthusiastic."
His grin emphasized the heart shape of his face.
Madam smiled in return and placed one of her plump hands on his shoulder as she rose. She was a sucker for love and romance, particularly in the young. So, as the brightest witch of her age, she'd chosen to dedicate herself to fostering it through her establishment, rather than pursuing the myriad of other opportunities available to her. She brushed some of her wispy, newly-dyed pinkish-auburn hair from her dark brown face. "Claim your spot before someone else gets it. I have to set the stage," she said, winking at one of her favorite young patrons.
The place was filled by the time Hermione arrived. Madam was inspired to create a backdrop for her current reddish pink look. Small tables abounded, seemingly gathered around the booth where Draco sat, looking very much like a king on his throne among his subjects.
Hermione nodded to Luna Lovegood, sitting with a couple of girls that Hermione recognized from Ravenclaw, before Draco met her at the door and wrapped his arms around her.
There was a decided lull in conversation and Hermione knew, without seeing, that there were several people gaping at the spectacle of the evil little cockroach and Mudblood embracing.
She allowed him to lead her to the booth and he ordered hot chocolate for them.
"Have you missed me?" he asked, displaying his brilliant smile. He hadn't been able to sneak out again since that first day.
"Yes," she answered, sliding close to him. She was aware of the continued gawking from some of the other tables, though she couldn't hear them. "And I've been dying to know more."
"Alright," he said with a sigh, scooting away a little so he could see more of her and better gauge her reactions, "satisfy your curiosity."
She cleared her throat and put her elbow on the table to support her chin as she watched him. "That was very...dark...magic, wasn't it? That's to say, I'm very appreciative, of course, but aren't there usually repercussions to performing such a spell? And where did you learn it?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "That's what we were learning at school last year. I haven't suffered anything for it that would prevent me from gladly doing it again. No one will ever hurt you again while I'm near."
She eyed him curiously for making such a confident declaration about something that was really up to fate.
Their hot chocolates magically appeared on the table, just before the first rain of Madam's enchanted confetti. Draco nervously toyed with his mug as he explained, "The protection wasn't only for that day. As long as I'm close enough to you, I'll always take the brunt of any pain you might feel."
Her eyes, nearly the same maple color as her hair, grew large and round with surprise. "Draco, why would you do that?"
He managed a sheepish smile. "You're a natural rebel. You'll always be in the midst of trouble and someone might want to hurt you again. I want to shield you."
"I think you're exaggerating," she said. "I've barely been touched since that day at your house."
He stared at her to make her understand. "That, in spite of being in a battle that reduced a one-thousand year-old castle to building blocks and that killed many, including a number of your friends."
"Do you mean you...but you left with your parents."
He sighed heavily. He hated revealing this much of himself, even to her, but knew it was necessary. "I wouldn't have humiliated them any more than Voldemort already had by refusing to go with them. And it wasn't our fight. I had no interest in being a part of his army or Potter's. But I refused to go far. I stayed close enough that I could still take your blows for you."
She looked down in confusion. "I don't understand why you didn't tell me before, or tell my family when they were castigating you."
Draco snorted. "Do you really think it would have made any difference to them? I still let Bella do what she wanted, and I could add mutilation of a defenseless creature and vampirism on top of it. Oh, yes, a fine suitor for their princess."
"But why didn't you tell me?" she asked, reaching out to place her hand on his, clenched into a tight fist on the table, as it was when this subject had come up during his first meeting with her parents.
Much like that night, he turned his head away as he answered, "Because I still let her do it. I didn't stand up to anyone, like Potter did, or even Weasley when he rushed in to save you. No, I was underhanded out of necessity, since I was too timid to do anything in the open."
Hermione watched the vein in his neck pulse, advertising his disgust with himself. She raised the sleeve of her blouse, viewing her scar. Mu was visible, but nothing after that. She'd wondered why the rest of the despised word hadn't festered as much as the first two letters and had healed completely, leaving no trace of injury.
She held it out to Draco. "Show me your arm," she requested.
He looked at her and rolled up the sleeve of his sweater. dblood was marked on him permanently, still angry and red after all these months, with the skin puckering around it. She touched it with a tentative finger and felt sudden tension in his limb, though he allowed no other expression of pain.
"Sometimes it takes a snake," she said softly, resting her arm against his. "If you had stood up to them at that moment, you would have likely been in the cellar too, bellowing as helplessly as Ron."
He studied her face as she continued. "You were ruthless and terrible and it allowed you to save my life, then and later in the battle. You are my hero."
She raised her hand to touch his face and he felt absolution, a great burden lifted from him. He grasped her hand and kissed its palm, then the heel of her hand, then her wrist. He looked down at her, his grey eyes like heated steel. She flushed and turned to look at the other couples.
"Why can't we hear anything? Is that part of the magic of the room?"
Draco caught Madam's eye and touched a finger to his ear, their pre-arranged signal for her to lift the privacy charms.
Hermione gasped. "Is that Neville and Romilda Vane?"
"Ah, yes," Draco said lazily, regaining his swagger, "the other Chosen One. He had such cache after decapitating Nagini, that he was already considered a prize. Now he's also pumped up a bit and is generally viewed as quite dashing."
Did you get that, ladies? Hermione silently asked her quartet of witches, who weren't going anywhere until she'd made some definite decision about the blond man next to her.
"Yes, dear," answered Clothilde, "Romilda and Dashing Neville."
Hermione smirked. This was going to work. It was internal and not magical, so there was no way that Madam could thwart it. She had no intention of using the information, she just wanted to "beat the house," in effect.
She looked around again. "Oh, look. It's Cho and Seamus. I always knew they'd make a nice pair."
"Cho and Seamus, got it," said Jean.
Draco grinned at her. "Well, being here together will allow them to test the waters, get used to each other in comfortable surroundings, around people they know, without having to commit, because no one will remember that they were here, snogging unabashedly."
"We will," promised Finola.
"It's really extraordinary," Hermione said, "quite a gift to new couples. They seem to have accepted us as well."
"Hmm," Draco said, moving closer and snaking his arms around her, "I don't think we've really challenged their sensibilities yet. Let's set tongues wagging, including our own."
She would have normally resisted such familiarity in public, but something about this place... She responded to his kiss, nipping his lips when they came up for air. She took a drink of her rapidly cooling cocoa and commented on a couple of other unexpected pairings, as another timed shower of confetti exploded about the room.
Can you still remember them? Hermione asked as Draco nuzzled the side of her face.
"Of course," answered Hester. "Nevilda, Chomus, McLagginson..."
"Have you gotten over your fascination with this place yet?" asked Draco. "Again, you're turning something fun into work. Why don't you concentrate less on the other couples," he said, rubbing her leg under the table, "and more on us."
"I thought you respected my boundaries," Hermione said, as his hand inched slowly up her thigh, his fingers teasing in an inward direction.
He nibbled the back of her neck, "Of course I respect them, but it's Valentine's Day. You have to expect me to push them a little."
"Hester thinks you're pushing a little too much," she said, uncontrollably leaning against him, rather than away from him. They had communicated by owl over the last few days and she'd told him about her visiting ancestors.
He snickered. "Hester's a bit prim for me. What does Finola have to say?"
"Oh, she thinks I should crawl on top of you," Hermione said, her breathing becoming more labored as Draco continued his sweet assault on her reserves.
"I love Finola," he said, placing increasingly insistent kisses over her neck and shoulders.
His tone softened as he held Hermione's face in his hands."Jean, you're the most like her. You understand her and know how I feel. Make sure she knows too." His kissing stopped and he hypnotized her with his stare and voice. "Help me convince her that I love her."
She silently returned the stare and bit her lip. "But..." she started to say.
Before she could sensibly argue, he took her mouth in a kiss that made everyone in the enchanted tearoom turn and stare. She was lightheaded and euphoric and began to return his ardor, nearly lying in his arms.
"Clothilde has registered her opinion, if you'd like to hear," she said teasingly.
"Sure," he said with an elaborate roll of his eyes, "take a poll for everything."
She swatted his arm and sat up. "She says, 'He's a beautiful young man, Hermione. He only wants to make you happy and we know he does.' " She put her arms around his neck and pulled his head down. "I think perhaps we can leave the two of you alone now..."
"Hermione," came the deep, heartbroken voice from the front of the table.
She looked toward the sound and gulped, absorbing the pain she saw in the familiar blue eyes and lightly-freckled face. "Ron..."