Thomas, Meredith and Hermione Granger were the first to arrive at the Leaky Cauldron after the graduation ceremony, for the day's other momentous occasion.
Hermione looked around anxiously at the unusually full inn, with a large number of her fellow graduates there with their families.
All of her confidence from earlier in the week and during her commencement address abandoned her, as she realized what a large audience there would be for the potentially disastrous meeting of her trio with Draco and his parents.
But that could be partly because she'd only had a moment with him, before they were pulled apart by well-wishers and glad handlers and people eager to show them off, though not together.
"I'll be there soon," Draco had promised, as his Slytherin classmates had led him away to the family seating for their House, and Professor McGonagall had beckoned for her.
She thought of him longingly, eyeing the public room as if seeing it for the first time. That huge fireplace on the wall behind them could really use a good scrubbing, and the long tables and benches that filled the space seemed to have the sooty, smoky look that Scourgify could only minimize, not eliminate.
Hermione tapped her foot nervously on the rough wood plank floor as her eyes scanned the upper level until she spotted the large, round table in front of a sunny window, excluded from the other diners—perfect.
She hurried to the staircase before someone else could claim it, with her parents following her. Just as she was about to mount the first step, she saw coming up from the cellar—dusty, amber-colored bottles in hand—Arthur and Molly Weasley.
"Arthur," boomed her father, shaking hands with his only friend in the wizarding world, "it's good to see you again."
The red-haired head of the largest magical family in England smiled pleasantly. "Hello, Thomas, Meredith...Hermione. That was quite a speech you gave. You must be very proud," he concluded the greeting with his eyes on Hermione's mother.
She beamed. "Of course, but no more than the two of you, with Ginny being Captain of the team that won this year's Quidditch Cup."
"Yes, thank you," said Molly, placing her plump, freckled hand on Meredith's. "And we're very pleased with how well Ron has done outside of school with his Auror training, and Harry too, of course."
Thomas nodded with a grin. "I've missed hearing about the exploits of those two. But, what can we do..." he stated with a shrug.
Molly glanced at the seemingly-unattached Hermione and her eyes sparked with intrigue, as she imagined a romantic reunion with her youngest son. "Well, we just came to get some wine for our celebration at the Burrow. We'd love to have you—"
"Sorry we're late," Draco said suddenly, appearing at Hermione's side and kissing her cheek. "Father was waylaid by a Ministry official."
"Weasley," Lucius oozed out the name as he oozed out a smarmy grin. "Fancy seeing you here. Surely the Leaky Cauldron isn't large enough to accommodate your army, or perhaps you and your wife are seeking refuge from them."
Arthur's eyes came together in a frown, as he put his arm around Molly to guide her away from the new arrivals. "Actually, we were just returning to the army. Goodbye, Thomas, Meredith."
"Goodbye, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley," said Hermione in a small, shaky voice. "It was so nice to see you again."
Molly suddenly wrapped her arms over the girl's shoulders, as if she could save a favorite lamb from slaughter.
"You take care of yourself," Arthur said, standing next to his wife and penetrating Ron's blue eyes into Hermione's brain. He subtly tilted his head to her parents, as if to add, "...and them."
Hermione answered with a small nod and stood quietly as the adults dispersed—Arthur and Molly exiting, and her parents following Malfoy's lead up the stairs.
She felt warm, beloved arms sneak around her. "Is this still all the circle you need?" Draco asked in the melt-inducing half whisper.
She sighed and momentarily indulged herself by leaning against him. Even after all these months, it's still such a heady feeling, she said to herself the phrase that always came to mind when she was in his embrace.
"My beauty," he said, nuzzling the side of her head. "I got so excited watching you on stage, it's a good thing I'm wearing my robe."
She laughed self-consciously, pressing against him. "It's not completely masking your excitement."
"That's our secret. Now move," he whispered, coaxing her up the narrow, creaking stairs. "Is this a good time to remind you that I love you?"
"Yes," she answered in a much more confident tone.
"Aannd..." he prompted with mock impatience.
She giggled as they approached the table. "I love you, you handsome devil." They grinned and took the remaining chairs, sitting across from each other, with Hermione's parents on her right side and Draco's parents to his right.
"Now, for formal introductions," he said, assuming the role of host. "Doctors Thomas and Meredith Granger, these are my parents, Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy. Mother and Father, the lovely young woman to your right is Hermione Jean Granger, Hogwarts' first Muggle-born valedictorian," he concluded proudly.
The parents nodded to each other and Hermione turned to her left. "Thank you for agreeing to lunch. Draco and I thought it important that we all try to establish some common ground, if we want to further our relationship."
"And just how much further do you intend to carry it?" Lucius asked, leaning back imperiously.
Draco gave him a tense look and said through clenched teeth, "I've told you how much she means to me," while Thomas laid his hand on Hermione's.
"Common ground, eh? Well, be prepared, honey, because some of that ground is going to be a little shaky."
"Dad, please," Hermione said softly.
Narcissa twisted her hands in her lap, dreading what he might say, but unable to stop him without drawing attention to herself.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, but it has to be done," he said, turning to Lucius. "So, Malfoy, do you and your friends enjoy terrorizing young people?"
"Thomas!" interjected Meredith, while Narcissa caught her breath, then dropped her eyes when Thomas's gaze shifted to her.
Malfoy sat quietly, studying the other man, before speaking. "Are you referring to a particular incident, or are you asking if I generally like terrorizing children?"
Draco gave him a withering, half-lidded look. "Really, Father." He addressed himself to the couple on his left. "You can't understand without knowing what it was like living under You Know Who's thumb. Even while he was gone, he had...associates...who ensured that his former followers still adhered to his plans, which meant doing everything possible to bring him back to power."
"...Six graduate plates," he said to the server that appeared before them and disappeared just as quickly.
The Malfoys shifted uncomfortably as Draco continued his explanation to the Grangers, now concentrating on their daughter seated across from him. "You've probably wondered why we Slytherins weren't more sympathetic to Potter's plight, having a death sentence over him since he was a baby. It's because we've lived under the same threat; it's how our families were kept in line."
Hermione's eyes seemed to match the walnut table in color, shape and size, as she gaped at Draco.
Cissy closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The pain she'd endured for nearly twenty years, the constant worry for her adored son, was finally being aired. Thomas dared another glance at the gorgeous, tragic face.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Hermione asked in a strained, breathy voice.
Draco shrugged. "For the same reason I never used magic on you. I wanted your feelings for me to be real, not influenced by compassion or any force other than our interest in each other." A sad smile twitched on his lips. "And even though I've wished for you for years, I suppose it's lucky I didn't find you sooner. I wouldn't have wanted you to be...ammunition...that they could use against me."
"Oh...Draco," she intoned, with new insight into her boyfriend.
Meredith witnessed the current of passion passing between her daughter and the young man sitting next to her, much more strong now than the first time she eyed them across a table in a restaurant. She shook her head, as if coming back to her senses. "If that's the case, why doesn't everyone know?"
"It's obvious, isn't it?" Cissy responded in a chilly tone. "Minister Shacklebolt didn't want to create an all-purpose defense for Death Eaters and their children. It's a very limited amnesty that depends on the truth remaining secret."
Draco's white, toothy smile now gave extra light to the room. "In the last few months I've come to realize how...restricted I've always been, conscious of saying and doing the prescribed things. For the first time in my life, I can be myself. A large part of that is you," he said, reaching his hand across the table for Hermione's, "but there's also the simple relief from fear."
"Oh, don't be so dramatic, Draco," Lucius interrupted, brushing his hand over his shoulder, as if the sunbeam that rested there could be swept away. "Yes, we've had our anxieties, but we mustn't magnify them. We are Malfoys. Success during times of adversity is our hallmark."
Thomas harrumphed. "I can see why you would want to minimize the impact, Malfoy. After all, it's your actions that put your family in such a situation."
"Not necessarily, Thom—Dr. Granger," Cissy stated. She held Lucius's hand as she elaborated. "My husband's leanings might have made him susceptible to...Voldemort's influence, but it's very possible that if not, the Dark Lord would have used Lucius's concern for Draco and me to coerce his cooperation, because we had something that he needed—our wealth and standing among Purebloods."
Meredith looked at the beautiful, rich woman and suddenly felt very lucky to be neither. "I can see where it's been very hard for you."
Cissy responded with a tight nod. "It's part of the reason I had no other children. Having Draco under such a curse was terrible, but the thought of bringing another son or daughter into the world under such circumstances..."
She lowered her head with a sniffle and Lucius placed a consoling hand on her back. Thomas and Meredith clasped each others' hands. Their only children stared at each other, sharing understanding of isolation and exclusivity and being accustomed to having what they wanted, including each other.
"Ah," said Lucius as the food arrived, "let's eat, shall we?"
Over the clink of silver on china, Lucius spoke to Thomas, a smirk appearing on his face. "By the way, Granger, I've been doing some research into your field, particularly...what was that word...orthodontics? And so, if you might answer for me, what are your views on torturing children?"
Hermione snickered behind her napkin. Dinner conversation with this group would never be boring. She caught a silvery twinkle in Draco's eyes as he grinned at her.
Seeing the dear Weasleys before, she thought of their overly-full dinner table, where the talk was loud and raucous, though seldom challenging. This, she realized, was a much better fit for her.
From his end, Draco surveyed the group, imagined all of the uncomfortable topics that might have arisen, enjoyed the sound of Hermione's laugh at some exchange between their fathers, and sighed in relief.