Hello beauties! Merry Christmas! Here's a not-so-little one shot for you. I've wanted to write this forever and I'm so happy I was able to get it finished! This isn't an overly-fluffy Christmas fic - it's a tiny bit freaky, but ends all pretty, I swear. I hope you are having a safe and happy holiday wherever you are (we are a multi-faith household so we've got festive shrimp curry, a menorah and a tree all in the same room). Love to you and yours. xo
It was raining again. What a nuisance. Hermione sighed as she looked out the window, furious wind shaking the glass against the frame. Everything was grey, bathing in the eerie muted light that comes with late autumn. People were rushing around, eager to get their errands finished as quickly as possible.
All the better to be inside.
The weather was a marked contrast from the warmth and comfort of her shop. Bookstores were welcoming to begin with, but Hermione felt that despite her obvious bias, hers was especially wonderful. It was a haven from the elements. You could lose yourself for hours in here, soothed by the comfort of the written word, lulled by the smell of books. The glow of the fireplace filled the whole space with warm, flickering light. There were cozy wingback chairs for reading, and a battered sofa for the book club to use. It was the perfect respite from the storm.
In fact, since she was lucky enough to live directly upstairs from the little store, it was rare that she needed to step outside at all. Everything she needed was here. Her tea, her regular customers, and Crookshanks, of course. It was criminal how fortunate she was.
She spared one last glance at the horrible weather and then got up to put the kettle on. Rainy days were perfect for catching up on tasks. Perhaps she could re-alphabetize the history section.
Humming to herself as she dropped the tea bag into her mug, Hermione put the storm out of her mind, and went to work.
A new day came, but the rain did not so much as slow down. Was it a dry summer? She couldn't remember. Perhaps Mother Nature was catching up now that the seasons had changed. It was practically a gale out there.
Hermione crinkled her nose as the thunder rolled overhead. She'd never liked thunder. She didn't like the way you could feel it in your bones.
Distraction would be easy today, though. She had gotten a huge order of books in that very morning. Crookshanks was napping on the largest of the boxes, stretched out like a king, waking occasionally to blink at her.
The shop had been busy, despite the weather, and Hermione was happy to stay indoors, methodically placing price tags on the back right corner of every book. She knew her attention to detail was a little neurotic, but she was proud of what she had built here. There were immaculately organized sections and books on every topic under the sun. Really, opening this place had been the best decision she'd ever made.
A customer stepped up to the cash with a book in hand, and Hermione rang it in cheerfully.
"Feels like it's been raining forever out there," she said, tearing off the receipt.
"I think it actually has," chuckled the man as he buttoned up his cloak. "Don't know what it would take for us to see a little sun. Take care, miss."
Hermione waved at the man as he left, and then turned back to her pile of new books, carefully smoothing a new price tag onto each one.
It rained all the next week. Hermione shrugged to herself and stayed indoors, paying the local grocer to deliver food straight to the shop. It was just easier that way.
The door to Lutra Books slammed open, and Hermione jumped at the unexpected noise. Someone stumbled inside, dripping water everywhere and swearing like a sailor. Honestly, did nobody believe in manners anymore?
"Can I help you?" she called out, slightly annoyed at being distracted from a particularly moving passage in the book she had been reading. "You're dripping on the floor."
"Obviously I'm dripping on the bloody floor!" the person snapped, sounding very put out. "It's raining like a fucking - "
The words died out as the person looked up. Hermione stifled a small gasp.
"Granger?" Draco was staring openly, lips parted in disbelief, hair sticking up in all directions as the rain trickled in small rivulets down his neck. He took a step forward, and then, appearing to think the better of it, stepped back again.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, slowly, as if he were trying not to frighten a small child.
"It's my shop," Hermione replied with annoyance. "And since I am my only employee, I stay here from open until close." She frowned at him, taking in his antsy features. He looked downright spooked. That made very little sense to her. He was the one in her space.
"Are you quite alright? You're behaving strangely, even for you."
Noticing his stance, Draco seemed to force himself to relax, still looking unsure. He glanced around the shop.
"You say this place is yours?"
"You... You own it?"
She rolled her eyes. "It would follow, don't you think? Since it is mine?"
Draco shot her a familiar look of disdain, and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Excuse me for being surprised to see you here," he mumbled.
"Why would you be surprised?" she asked. "I've had this place for ages."
A funny look crossed his face, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. "I just didn't know you had a bookstore," he replied. "Fits, though."
Hermione shrugged, already finished with the conversation. She refused to let an oddly jumpy Draco Malfoy ruin her day. They hadn't seen each other since the War, and she hadn't missed his presence in the least. Besides, they hadn't exactly been fighting on the same side, and he'd gotten thrown in jail, of course, as soon as Voldemort fell.
Still, at least she could attempt to be charitable. He was a customer, after all.
"Look, there's a fireplace if you need to warm up, and I'm sure you'll find every section organized perfectly, so do feel free to look around. Let me know if you need help, but otherwise, I'll be getting back to my book."
Having done her part, Hermione smiled stiffly, looked back down at the open page, and aggressively ignored her visitor. He walked around for a while, glancing at the shelves, from what she could see in her periphery. When she finally heard him leave, she breathed a sigh of relief.
"Strange," she said to herself. "I could have sworn he was still serving a sentence in Azkaban." Odd that it didn't occur to her sooner. She'd have to find a delicate way to ask him if he ever came back.
Draco didn't come back that week, and Hermione put him out of her mind. It was to be expected that she'd run into unpleasant people occasionally. There was really nothing she could do about it. Besides, the War was a long time ago, and surprisingly enough, Draco wasn't entirely awful to her when they spoke. Perhaps he had grown up a bit while he was behind bars. Miracles happen.
Several days later, Hermione looked up to the sound of the front door opening and saw a familiar shock of white-blond hair. Draco looked a little less awkward this time, and nodded his greeting to her.
She put her book aside. "I was beginning to wonder if you would come back."
"Were you?" he said, visibly surprised.
"Well, you didn't buy anything last time, so you clearly didn't find what you were looking for."
"Ah," he said, glancing around the space "Well, I didn't know what I wanted, to be honest. Was just sort of... Wandering. Didn't expect to find a shop. I was just trying to get out of the weather."
Hermione raised an eyebrow at her visitor. He'd already said far more than she expected. Was this supposed to be a proper conversation, then? In that case, she knew exactly what to suggest.
"Well, since you're back, you could always browse the potions section. I just got a shipment of very interesting new editions." She remembered that Draco was particularly interested in potions back in school. Not that she was going to go out of her way to help him… She just happened to have some fascinating new books on the topic. It was a good sales practice to help customers find what they liked, that's all.
"Um, sure," he said, looking surprised again. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Back right corner," she called out as he wandered off in the wrong direction.
Some time later, when Hermione was nursing a fresh cup of tea, Draco walked up to her front counter and began poking at the snow globe she kept there for her spare invoices.
She arched an eyebrow at him. You are behaving like a bored child, she wanted to say. Instead, she said, "Find anything?"
He shrugged. "The books are good, but they're not quite what I wanted."
Hermione frowned. No to potions, then. "Well, feel free to keep browsing," she said. "Sometimes it's nice not to have something specific in mind. I could personally spend years perusing bookshelves."
Draco nodded and cleared his throat. "How long did you say you'd owned this place for?"
"But... More specifically?"
Hermione chewed on the inside of her cheek, thinking. "I can't remember the exact date, but it's been quite a while. How come?"
"Oh, I just don't remember hearing about it, that's all," he said, quickly. "I'll bet it was front page news for a while."
"It was, actually. But it might have happened while you were... Well... While you were..."
"Rotting in Azkaban?" he smirked. "Likely, yes. That's probably why I didn't know."
"Sorry," she said, suddenly feeling badly. "I actually thought you were still in there. I'm sure you don't want to be reminded of it."
"No, it's quite alright. I just got out, actually. The day before I saw you last."
"Ah," she said, pleased that her memory hadn't failed her completely. "Well, it must feel nice to be free again."
"It does. It certainly does. Having access to a shower is a bonus." She laughed, and he grinned at her. "It's just... Everything's changed, you know? Six years is a long time. Hard to get your bearings."
"I can imagine. I'm sure the weather doesn't help, either. It's been raining forever."
Another strange look crossed his face, as though he were trying to work something out. "Granger... When was the last time the weather was nice?"
"Oh, Merlin, I'm not even sure," she laughed. "Feels like it's never been sunny."
The afternoon passed quietly, with Draco meandering around the store and Hermione sneaking glances at him occasionally. It was funny, seeing him like this. Almost relaxed, not trying to impress anyone. Completely different from the hostile boy she knew years ago. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself.
Eventually he left, nodding to her with a smile, before he disappeared into the storm.
"Do you ever go outside?"
Hermione looked up from her stock list with surprise. "Hi Malfoy. I didn't hear you come in. Of course I go outside, don't be ridiculous."
"Is it a far walk for you to get home?"
Frowning, Hermione put down her clipboard. "No, seeing as how I live upstairs, it takes about ten seconds. Is there a reason you're asking these strange questions?"
He shrugged, rocking back on his heels. "Just curious. I've never seen you leave this place, is all."
"Why would you? You're only here during business hours. I can't exactly leave my shop during the day."
"Fair enough," he grinned, turning away and beginning to walk towards the fireplace.
"Besides, I hardly want to go outside in that awful weather."
Draco stopped walking, and turned around slowly, eyes flitting over her face. "The weather has been awful for a long time, you said."
"It has," Hermione replied, starting to feel a little uneasy at his inquiries.
"And you're not sure when the last nice day was."
"I don't think anyone here could tell you that. We've all had to deal with the same weather, you know."
"Of course," he said, abruptly. "Of course."
Hermione sniffed in annoyance, and went back to her list. If he was going to be weird with her, he could do it on his own time. She had plenty to do without his distractions.
"Granger, you have a Muggle literary fiction section."
"Naturally," she replied, reluctantly pulled her eyes from the page she was reading. He'd been back just about every day this week. How was he only noticing the section now? "Muggle fiction is wonderful. Anyone can enjoy it, even witches and wizards."
Draco snorted in disbelief. "In my house, if you so much as breathed the words 'Muggle literary fiction' you'd get tossed in the dungeons for a day or two."
"That's awful," she tutted. "And I'm sure that as an adult you can now make those choices for yourself."
"Are you actually suggesting that I read a Muggle book?" he laughed.
"You do spend an awful lot of time here. What's the point if not to expand your reading repertoire?"
Draco gave her a sour look.
"Oh stop with that," she said. "Here, try this one. I think you'd identify with the message."
He took the proffered book from her hand, and read the title.
"All Families Are Psychotic?"
"It's an excellent book," she said, trying very hard to keep a straight face. It was hard to do. He looked so hilariously offended. "Witty writing."
"My family is not psychotic," he spluttered.
"It's not about your family, Malfoy. It's about a fictional family. It's really quite clever."
"Clever?" he whined. "It's Muggle. How clever can it be?"
She glared, bristling.
"Come on," he grimaced. "Don't give me that look. I hate that look. Merlin, Granger. Do I have to?"
"You don't have to do anything... But you should. I think you'd enjoy it."
"I can't think of a single thing that could convince me to read this," he complained.
"Nothing? I'll bet I could find something."
A spark lit in Draco's eyes, and he cocked his eyebrow at her suggestively.
"A fresh perspective, obviously!" she clarified, slightly flustered at his response. Draco was immediately crestfallen.
"And perhaps a cup of tea."
"You're offering me tea and a fresh perspective?" He looked dubious.
"Don't tell me you're not tempted."
He huffed in annoyance. "I can't believe I'm even having this conversation."
"Malfoy, just read it."
"Granger... " he whined.
Turning on his heel, Draco stomped off to the couch, swirling his robe angrily for maximum dramatic effect.
He started reading the book, of course.
The next day, Draco planted himself beside Hermione in the Charms section where she was dusting and refused to move. "Are you telling me that I'm supposed to believe Muggles can reach the stars?"
Hermione blinked at him. Right, the book. It talked at length about astronauts. "Do you really not know about space travel?"
"How the bleeding fuck would I know about - "
"Watch your tongue, I'm only asking. Muggles can do a lot of fascinating things, you know. And yes, Muggles can reach the stars. They've even walked on the moon."
"I don't believe it."
"Well that certainly makes things easier for me," she sighed.
"What do you mean?"
"Your next book will be about space travel. Hurry up and finish this one so I can get you started on something new."
Draco rolled his eyes but didn't complain. Nor did he complain about the next ten books she gave him.
"I want to read more about electricity and other Muggle inventions," he said one day, somehow managing to sound petulant.
"How are you able to turn a sentence like that into a complaint? I swear you have a gift for whining that remains unrivaled. I'll make an order, Malfoy. Relax."
"It'll take forever to come in!"
Hermione snorted. "It will take about an hour. Stop being so impatient."
She could feel him looking at her, trying to suss her out. "Granger... How is it possible for your orders to come in so fast?"
She shrugged. She'd never really thought about it before. She needed something, and it showed up. That was how things worked here.
"Book suppliers must like me," she smiled.
"How could they not?" he said over his shoulder as he sauntered off.
Hermione narrowed her eyes. It was impossible to tell when he was being serious, but every now and then she could swear he was complimenting her.
The rain continued. Hermione wracked her brain to remember the last time she saw sunshine beaming through her little windows and drew a blank.
It perplexed her enough that she decided not to think on it anymore.
The shop started to change, quietly, carefully.
It was no longer a place where Hermione sat and watched the crowds move in and out, an island of her own behind the cash. It was now a place where she sat and watched one person in particular, a person who was happy to converse with her, who shared a pot of tea more often than not. Whenever she looked up, Draco was a fixture of bright hair curled up and reading by the firelight. It was oddly comforting.
"You're staring," he said one evening, not even looking up from his book.
Hermione blushed and looked away. She couldn't even deny it. She'd been trying to sneak looks every now and then, but obviously she wasn't quite cautious enough. It was hardly her fault that he had grown into his pointy features. Now he looked properly grown up.
"Sorry," she mumbled.
Draco shrugged and flipped the page. "I got used to it weeks ago, Granger."
She proceeded to hide herself in the storage room for half an hour until she was sure she wouldn't combust from embarrassment.
Later, when she was locking up the shop, she decided not to let embarrassment get the better of her. So she appreciated his looks; big deal. They were both adults. He was the incorrigible flirt here, if memory served. Certainly not her.
Besides, if he truly hated her shy appreciation, he wouldn't look so damn pleased with himself all the time. Cocky bastard.
"Do you think it will stop in time for Christmas?" Draco asked one day, looking out at the rain.
"Hmmm?" she replied, lost in her book.
"The rain. It'll be Christmas soon. Not very festive weather, wouldn't you say?"
She looked out at the downpour. "You know, I'd forgotten that Christmas was coming."
"How could you forget? Would have thought you'd have all sorts of plans. Parents? Friends? Adoring public?"
"Tea's ready," she said quickly, ducking into the back room. If he noticed her dodging the question, he didn't mention it, but she could feel his eyes on her back as she fussed with the water.
"What's this?" Draco sneered, turning the book over in his hands.
"Pride and Prejudice," she said, making a fresh pot of tea. "It's a romance."
"Bollocks to that. Give me something interesting."
"It is interesting! It's my favourite book!"
"Ugh," he sighed. "Fine. I'll read your pansy romance novel."
"Shut it," she replied, primly. "It's a lovely book. I think you'll like it."
"You always say that!"
"Have I been wrong so far?"
Draco growled and stalked away. Hermione felt herself grinning. It was so easy to rile him up.
Besides, she suspected he would actually enjoy the read. He would just never admit it out loud.
It was a Tuesday, it was noon, and Draco wasn't here. Draco was always here.
Hermione spent most of the day glancing nervously at the door, making pot after pot of tea, hoping she would have someone to share it with. Customers came in and out, but none of them were familiar.
She fell asleep on the book club couch with Crookshanks at her feet, storm raging outside.
Hermione awoke in the morning with a terrible neck cramp, and fumbled her way through her first morning sales.
Before long, the tiny bell at the front door chimed. Draco walked in, shaking the water off his shoulders.
"Where on earth were you?" Hermione demanded, crowding into his space before he'd even had a chance to remove his jacket. "I was worried."
"Were you?" he smirked, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. "I apologize for worrying you. I had family business to attend to."
"Oh," Hermione said, feeling a blush creep up her neck. "Sorry... It's just, you come every day and I just thought - "
"It's fine," he said, squeezing her shoulder and stepping around her. "I should have mentioned." His eyes floated up to her little front counter where he saw several pots of tea leftover from yesterday. "Having a party?"
Her cheeks burned. "I was just cleaning those up. Is everything alright with your family?"
He cleared his throat, and Hermione would have had to be blind not to see the tension radiating off him. "My father's in hospital. Has been for a while, actually, but he doesn't appear to be getting better."
"Oh, Malfoy, I'm so sorry. I had no idea. Is there nothing they can do?"
He sighed. "Maybe. I don't think they want to spend much more time on him, to be honest. Death Eater and all."
Hermione looked affronted. "Criminal or not, he is entitled to the same care as everyone else! Surely his Healers know that."
"Maybe," Draco shrugged, sitting down heavily on the weathered couch. Gone was his usual comfortable sprawl - he looked uneasy and strained. Hermione wondered what else he wasn't telling her. It was clearly weighing on him.
"Granger... I need to ask you something."
Hermione tensed, bracing herself for whatever he was going to say.
"Do Potter and Weasley ever come to see you here?"
It was the last thing she was expecting to hear. Hermione's hand slipped on the tea pot she was cleaning and it fell to the ground with a crash. "Damn," she murmured, kneeling down to pick up the shards and waving Draco away when he came to help.
"Go sit. I'm clumsy today. Didn't sleep well, that's all." She took her time cleaning up the pieces, finally turning to face him when she knew she couldn't stall it any longer. She fidgeted, trying to stop the sudden tremor that wracked her hands.
"They don't come here," she said, under her breath.
"They don't come here. Harry's extremely busy with his work, and Ron... Ron has other things going on. I'm sure they'll come see the shop eventually."
"You mean they've never even been here? Ever?"
"They're busy," she snapped. "They've got a lot going on. The last thing they need is me bothering them about it."
"But they're your best friends," Draco protested. "And Weasley's your boyfriend."
"He most certainly is not!"
"Wait... What? Since when?" Draco said, looking increasingly confused.
"Just before I bought the shop. He, um, he broke up with me. It's... It's fine. Honestly. It wasn't working for him and I was hardly going to make him stay."
Draco frowned, setting his jaw tightly. "I see. I didn't realize. And do any of your other friends come and see you here?"
"No," she said, sharply. Why was he asking her all these unpleasant questions? The conversation was making her feel queasy. "Look, it's really not an issue. I have enough customers to stay in business and I'm really quite happy here."
"I think that's the problem, Granger." He said it so quietly she almost missed it, but there was no mistaking the words.
"What do you mean? What problem?"
He sighed and looked up at her. "Are you so happy that you never want to leave?"
"I said," Draco repeated, looking like he didn't particularly want to be asking her any of this, "Are you so happy that you never want to leave?"
She shrunk back. "What exactly are you getting at?"
He ran his hands through his hair agitatedly before standing up. "Come with me," he said, holding out his hand. "Come step outside the front door with me."
"Are you joking?" she said, staring at his hand. "Why would I go outside? The weather is terrible."
"It's just a bit of rain," he said, stretching his hand toward hers. "It won't hurt you."
"Absolutely not," she said, retreating behind the safety of her front counter. "I'm not going out there. You can't make me."
"Granger, you need to leave this place."
"I don't need to do anything!" she said, horrified at the feeling of tears springing to her eyes. This was so humiliating. "Why are you pushing this?"
"Because it's unhealthy!" he said. "What about your life outside of the shop?"
"I don't have a life outside of this shop!"
"Does that not strike you as a problem? You're a war hero, Granger. Everyone loves you. Does it not seem strange to you that I'm your only customer?"
"Are you mental?" she scoffed. "I have customers all the time. I sell actual books, you know. My regulars even run a book club here every Thursday."
"Who are your regulars? Name them."
"Tell me their names. Describe them to me. Can you remember a single face?"
"I don't need to tell you anything," she stammered, backing away, panic mounting. "And to think I was worried about you. It was really too good to be true, wasn't it, how you were suddenly able to be civil with me. Was it all an act, these past few weeks? Was it some sort of ploy to bring my guard down?"
"To get me to feel comfortable around you so you could hurt me, perhaps? Well bravo, you win. Mission accomplished."
"Granger," he said, trying to placate her. "Look, I'm sorry, I really didn't want to bring this up, but there are people who love you out there. They want to see you."
"Let them come here!" she said, pacing around the tiny space.
"What if they can't get in?"
She stopped, turning slowly towards him. Draco was pale as a sheet, watching her warily. He looked very nervous.
"What do you mean, 'can't get in'?"
"What if..." he licked his lips, choosing his words. "What if they don't know how to get here?"
"That's impossible," she said, shaking her head. "Nobody else has a problem."
"Nobody else is really just me, Granger."
"Stop saying that. I have other customers, and you have completely lost your mind."
"I think you should leave."
Draco's face fell. "Please, please don't make me go. Don't shut me out."
"Leave," she growled, pointing at the door. "Go upset someone else."
He smiled sadly. "I have no one else, Granger."
Something panged in her chest, but she pushed it away. "Draco, I'm asking you for the last time. Please leave."
"Hermione, listen to me..."
"I've heard enough. It's been nice getting to know you." She noticed that Draco's feet were dragging him towards the door, but his upper body was trying to reach for her. Strange magic. Her head was spinning.
"Hermione, don't do this!"
"Goodbye Draco," she said. The little bell sounded. The door slammed shut.
She was alone once more.
Outside, a sudden blizzard began to rage.
Draco didn't return.
She had the occasional customer, but when she tried to focus on their faces, they were all blurred. It scared her so much she eventually stopped trying. Fewer and fewer people came in. The snow piled up outside, growing taller by the day. It was almost always dark outside. She read every book she could find, each page feeling like a slice of self-preservation.
One morning, she looked at Crookshanks and realized that he must be very old by now. Much too old for a cat, even if he was part Kneazle. He purred at her, seemingly unbothered by his impossible existence, and she wiped her tears on her sleeve before scratching him behind the ear.
The candles flickered. Out of the quiet, there was a knock at the front door.
Hermione nearly fell over herself to wrench open the handle, and was promptly knocked back by the force of the wind.
"Easy there," said Draco, looking half frozen, but still smiling as he helped her upright.
"You came back!" she sobbed, clutching at his frosty cloak and pressing her face against his chest, dignity be damned. He felt real. She could see the snowflakes on his sleeve, she could feel his heart beating against her cheek, he was real, he was real, he was real.
"Shhhh, Granger. It's alright."
"Nothing is alright," she mumbled into his jumper. "Everything is falling apart."
"It really is," he said, in awe. She knew he was looking at the shop. The shelves were slowly emptying themselves out. There was dust on everything. Since he had left, the little store had aged itself by years.
"I don't know what to do," she whispered.
"I think I might," he said. "I have a suggestion. An offer, really."
"Offer?" She looked up at him, still sporting a gentle smile even though his cheeks were wind burned. His arms were tight around her shoulders, and she shivered against him.
"I'd like to take you out. For coffee, or tea, or dinner... Whatever you'd like really. You can even take me to a Muggle place if you'd like."
"You're asking me... You're asking me out? On a date?"
"Yes," he said, quietly. "Should have done so ages ago. I've wasted a lot of time, Granger, time that wasn't mine to begin with."
"What do you mean?"
He looked sad, now, and reached up to move a curl out of her eyes. "My father passed away." She gasped, but he shook his head. "No, that's not even the worst of it. I'm being sent back to Azkaban. His failing health was the only reason I was allowed out so early. They won't keep me around much longer, I'm afraid."
"I suppose it is," Draco sighed. "He was suffering, you know. He never wanted such a drawn-out end to things. Always assumed he'd go out in battle... Never thought he was human enough to succumb to disease. Still, I don't know how my mother will fare with my being sent away again." He looked down at her and smiled, and she could see the grief in his face. "I'd very much like to take you out before I'm locked up again. I've still got a lot of time to serve. I know that's a big request, and you can say no, of course. It's just... It would give me something nice to remember."
Hermione chewed on her lower lip, thinking. What was she to do? Draco needed her. Draco liked her. Draco wanted to take her out while he still had the option. The idea was far from repulsive. The idea was actually quite appealing. But...
"I'd have to leave this place," she said, finally understanding the catch.
"Can I think about it?"
"Of course," he said. "Just don't take too long, or I worry I may not see you again." He paused, thinking, and then pressed a quick kiss to her temple. Reluctantly, he let go. "I can't stay. People are waiting for me. It took a lot of convincing to come back today, let me tell you."
"Right," she said, wiping her blotchy cheeks. "I understand."
"I hope to see you soon," he said, shooting her a sparkling grin before turning back towards the door. "I really do."
Hermione hesitated, trying to decide how to respond. She looked at her little shop, at Crookshanks, at the weak fire in the grate. How much of it was real? Could she give it up and walk into that storm? What if she never made it home?
She frowned, making up her mind. She was a Gryffindor. She could bloody well do this.
"You'll see me," she said, finally looking up.
But she was all alone.
Leaving the shop was exactly the nightmare she thought it would be.
Once the door of the little bookstore shut behind her, Hermione was sucked into a howling blizzard, blinded by the swirling white. The force of the wind nearly knocked her down, so she dropped to her knees, clawing her way towards what she fervently hoped was a light far off in the distance. Every now and then she would blink, and the light had shifted, making her scramble not to slip back down into the world she was leaving behind. She could not fail. There was a reason she could not fail. An important reason.
What was it again?
The further she got from her shop, the less she remembered. At first, the shelves were clear in her memory. Draco's silhouette was there, reading by the fire. Crookshanks was purring at her feet.
But it all became fuzzy as she dragged herself away. The configuration of the shop was scrambled. The colour of Draco's hair was all wrong. Crookshanks looked like an otter with cat's eyes. Time was contorting itself. Hermione dragged herself onward, too frightened to do anything else.
Exhaustion began to set in, but she kept moving, realizing with a sinking certainty that stopping would probably mean her death. She couldn't feel her hands. Her knees were raw from the combination of crawling and stumbling, and she was sure they were bleeding. A dangerous numbness was spreading across her face.
What was the word?
By the end of it, she stopped trying to remember where she had come from and just focused on the feeling in her chest. There was a warmth there, a sense of fullness that made her keep going. That must be the reason she was in this strange place. The feeling was getting stronger... She had to be close.
A beeping could be heard in the distance, and Hermione squinted, hoping she could see some sort of clue in the heavy mist. She steadied herself and started to run. The beeping grew louder. It reminded her of something - an old memory of her grandfather's heart monitor when he was brought into the hospital.
She wanted to call out, but found that she had no voice.
"Hermione?" said a voice she hadn't heard in ages. Her stomach jumped. Harry. That was Harry! Why couldn't she see him?
"Ron! Ron, get back here! She's waking up!"
Hermione floundered in the fog until her foot slipped, and she stopped abruptly. Good Lord, she was on the edge of a cliff. One more step and she would have walked right off it.
"Hermione!" said Ron's voice. "Are you there? We're right here, love. Come back to us."
I'm trying, she thought frantically. Where are you?
"Call the Healer back," said Harry. "Quickly. She's almost there."
Hermione dangled her foot over the ledge and wondered. What was she supposed to do? How could she reach her friends? The bookstore no longer existed to her - it lived in a world she had left behind. She was on the edge of a precipice. How had she gotten here?
That feeling, though. It hadn't gone away. It was stronger than ever, rattling away in her chest. She peered over the cliff, and felt her heart nearly leap out of her body.
That decided it.
Hermione took a deep breath, and then jumped.
When she opened her eyes, Harry and Ron were standing over her, crying and smiling and talking faster than she could follow.
She'd made it home.
Recovering from a coma was not at all like she had seen in films. It was slow, so slow, like dragging a bag of bricks around in the dirt. Her speech didn't come back right away, and when it did, it was frustratingly limited at first.
"Drained," she said one day, surprising everyone in the room. Her Healers smiled and congratulated her, but she was puzzled. Why had her brain picked that word, of all others, to break her silence? There was a funny feeling in her chest, like a balloon inflating, and an anxiety that she was forgetting something important.
Harry and Ron remained glued to her bedside, regaling her with stories to cheer her up as she got better, and occasionally shedding light on what had happened to her.
"Drunk driver," Ron grimaced.
"You've been under for six months," said Harry.
"We thought you were never going to wake up," Ron murmured. "We were starting to lose hope."
"We tried everything," said Harry, gravely.
Hermione smiled at them, squeezing their hands lovingly. She was glad to be here, despite the slow recovery. They had clearly had a nightmare of a time when she was injured - they both looked so much older than she remembered. Harry had a couple of premature grey hairs at his temple, and Ron looked tired nearly all the time. It was sad to consider, but this was the most time she'd spent with them in years. Before the accident, Harry was so wrapped up in his Auror work that she was lucky to see him once a month at the Weasley's for dinner. After she and Ron broke up, she stopped seeing both of them altogether.
It had been so lonely.
Occasionally, Harry and Ron asked her if she remembered anything from her time "asleep," as they put it. There was never anything she could tell them. It was six months of blank space, she repeated. Six months of nothing.
She decided not to tell them that she also remembered a feeling of extreme comfort. Of love. And that sometimes, she wished she could get that feeling back.
The main Healer who was assigned to her was extremely kind, bringing Hermione piles of newspapers to try and catch up on the things she had missed. Imogen DeSouza was younger than most of the other Healers at St Mungo's, and was clearly a very bright woman, happy to talk at length with Hermione about pretty much anything while she did her check-ups. Hermione knew she would miss their conversations when she was finally well enough to leave the hospital.
It was during one of those visits that Hermione noticed something strange. Healer DeSouza had brought in a few copies of the Daily Prophet for Hermione to read, and she glanced pile, half listening to her Healer chatting about her recovery.
"You'll be able to go home by the end of the week, if this continues," she was saying. "Just in time for Christmas. Your levels are finally looking normal, which is a huge relief when you consider the damage done by that car - "
But Hermione had stopped paying attention. The lead story on the Prophet's front page had captivated her. Gravestone of Death Eater Lucius Malfoy Vandalized, read the title.
"Imogen," she interrupted. "What do you know about this?"
Her Healer frowned, scanning the page. "Not much. Lucius made a lot of enemies, even when he was here. Still, desecrating a grave is a low move."
"Lucius Malfoy was here?"
She nodded. "He was being treated for cancer. Aggressive, unfortunately. He only died a couple of weeks ago."
The anxious feeling was back. Hermione knew she was missing something.
"Was he allowed visitors?"
Imogen paused, her hand frozen over the vial of medicine. Her hand dropped slowly, and she turned to face Hermione, a look of seriousness on her face.
"Why do you ask?"
"Just curious," she said, not entirely sure how to broach the issue. Harry and Ron had never mentioned the Malfoys to her, but maybe there was a reason for it. Maybe there was something they didn't want her to know. But why would that be?
"His wife was here every day," said Imogen.
"Ah. That makes sense." Well, perhaps it was nothing then.
There was a pause, and Imogen glanced toward the door, checking that nobody was there.
"As was his son."
Hermione rested her hands on her lap, trying not to look as overwhelmed as she felt. Her heart was racing.
"But isn't he in Azkaban?"
"Yes," said Imogen, glancing at the door again. "He was given special permission to stay here in the hospital during his father's decline."
"Why would anyone grant that?" Hermione asked. "If he's a convicted Death Eater, they're hardly going to give him special treatment just because his father is ill."
"Certain... Arrangements were made." Imogen's voice dropped to a whisper. "Exceptional circumstances."
"But what sort of - "
They were interrupted by the arrival of Hermione's parents, and Hermione greeted them with forced cheer as she watched Imogen slip away. She wanted to scream at the timing of it all. There was clearly something going on. Imogen was visibly uncomfortable with her questions, and Hermione felt a sudden blind urgency to find out what she wasn't saying.
The Malfoys were the key to this. They had to be.
Hermione awoke with a start in the middle of the night, positive she had heard a noise. The hospital was quiet though... Just the muted hum of the dim lights in the hallway, and the dripping of a tap somewhere in the distance. Outside her window, snow had begun to fall, lit by the moon.
But what had woken her up? She'd been having strange dreams - something about a bookshop. Disoriented, she felt around on her bedside table for the lamp.
Her hand landed on a stack of papers. Hermione distinctly remembered leaving her bedside empty before she went to sleep.
A spark of nervous excitement fluttered in her stomach.
Carefully, she pulled the papers under the blankets, deciding to forgo the lamp. Taking out her wand, she ducked under and whispered "lumos!"
Her breath caught in her throat.
Legilimency and the Unconscious, said the academic article on the top of the pile.
Using Legilimency for Coma Patients, said the second one, followed by several pages of warnings never to attempt to enter the mind of an unconscious person without very specific training.
The Art of War, said the third article, a long think piece that seemed to have been published by the Prophet right after the end of the War. Hermione frantically began to scan the text, wondering how it tied in with the other two. Her eyes caught a line of highlighted words.
Draco Malfoy, only son of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy and heir of the Malfoy estate, was trained in advanced Legilimency during the second Great Wizarding War. After the Final Battle, he was rumoured to be one of the only surviving Legilimens trained with these highly-guarded techniques. He is currently serving a sentence in Azkaban for his crimes.
"Oh my God," said Hermione. The memories began to rush back. Lutra Books. Crookshanks. Draco.
She hadn't just woken up by chance - she had come back for him. She would still be trapped in her mind if he hadn't intervened. Christ, she had been ready to stay there forever. No more friends, no more family... Just a lonely shop in a hidden world.
The warm feeling in her chest made considerably more sense now. Despite the odds, she had grown fond of Draco. Terribly fond. And as far as she knew, her feelings were returned.
But what had happened? Harry and Ron clearly hadn't meant for her to find out, and now Draco was back behind bars. There was so much to uncover in a very short amount of time.
What was the date today? The 20th of December?
Merlin's beard, she had a lot of work to do.
Azkaban was hell on earth.
It smelled of rot, like disintegrating fabric and filth, like sweat and blood. Draco could never quite get used to the stench, but it was worse now that he'd had a reprieve. Nothing like leaving a place and finally getting used to clean air only to be thrown back into the fetid pit that was the prison.
He knew it would be like this, coming back. It didn't make it any easier. Months ago, when he got the unexpected offer from the Ministry, he realized getting a taste of freedom would make it even harder to return. He accepted anyway, of course. Getting to see his father before he died was reason enough. The mission, though, was undeniably interesting.
At first, it was a simple exchange of favours. Draco was told only the basics: he would attempt to penetrate the mind of someone in a coma, someone of importance to the Ministry. He knew the technique, of course. It was tricky, as was any magic relating to the mind, but the challenge sounded worthwhile. Besides, it was going to get him out of jail for a while. It had been so long since he was allowed to perform magic. He was itching to feel like a proper wizard again.
Then it all went to pot. When he discovered that his clients were none other than Harry fucking Potter and his useless sidekick, he was livid. Working for the Ministry was bad enough, but the imbecilic duo? Could he do it? Gods, he hated them, and he knew they felt exactly the same in return. Besides, if anyone from Azkaban heard what he was doing, he'd be strung up by his tongue.
It was when he found out the identity of the patient that he decided he really couldn't refuse. He was much too intrigued to say no.
"Keep in mind, Malfoy," spat Weasley during their extremely tense (and heavily supervised) first meeting, "That if you hurt her in any way... If you do any messing about in her head, I will tear you from limb to limb with my fucking teeth."
"Noted," Draco had snapped, all too aware of the three senior Aurors monitoring his every breath. Mess around in Hermione Granger's damaged brain? That would be a death wish. No, despite their concerns, he was really just focused on the job. It was much harder than it sounded, entering someone's mind when they weren't awake. People often shut down when they were unconscious, unwilling to let anyone inside. And it was Hermione Granger, to boot. She'd probably get one whiff of him and kick him out on his arse. This entire experiment could be for nothing.
Except she let him in. He still didn't understand why. When he first sat down next to her hospital bed, looking at her pale, rumpled features, he steeled himself for an evening of disappointment. Who knew what was going on in there? She'd already been like that for months. What if she was determined to stay that way?
Indeed, her mind was a thunderstorm, and Draco wandered aimlessly for what seemed like hours, wondering if perhaps her brain was more damaged than anyone realized. Shadowed buildings occasionally crossed his path, but they had no entrances that he could see, and all the lights were out. It was a ghost town. He was drenched and cold, wondering if he would ever find a trace of the person he used to know. He couldn't give up, though. He had people to report to.
Where would Hermione Granger hide in a storm?
When he finally found Lutra Books, he couldn't believe his eyes. Trust her to have built herself a little paradise inside her mind. She seemed quite content, having equipped herself with just about everything she needed. Even her deceased cat had made a reappearance. Draco almost had to laugh until he realized what it meant.
She'd made it so that she never had to leave. She was injured, and on some level, her mind had decided to protect itself at all costs.
Of course, her idiot friends didn't understand.
"Why can't you just tell her to wake up?" asked Ron, angrily.
"Because it would send her into shock and she would probably die, idiot," Draco replied, weary from the inane questioning. "She has to come back willingly. I assume you don't want a corpse in that hospital bed."
"Shut up!" Ron growled. "Don't speak about her that way!"
"Then stop making stupid suggestions! Believe it or not, I actually know what I'm doing, Weasley. If I don't take my time with this, Granger isn't coming back at all."
"But why wouldn't she want to leave the store?" Harry asked, almost to himself. "Doesn't she miss her old life? Doesn't she miss us?"
Draco didn't have an answer for that. He had no idea what Hermione's life had been like prior to the accident. Presumably she was still with Weasley. Presumably she was still an insufferable bookworm who was loved by bloody everyone.
He couldn't deny that she seemed extremely lonely, though.
And of course, he had to go and make everything worse. Not only because his hand was eventually forced and he had to try and pressure her to leave, but for another reason all together.
He had to go and bloody fall for her. Her stupid pots of tea and her stupid kindness and her wicked sense of humour. It seemed almost cruel, realizing how well-suited they were when he didn't have a chance in hell.
Draco sighed, brought out of his reminiscing by another gust of cold air rattling his cell, reminding him of exactly where he was. He had to go and fall for a woman who was completely unattainable. A Gryffindor. A War hero. An Order member. A Muggleborn.
He, on the other hand, was very much awake. There was no escaping what he was - a criminal. A coward. The grief-ridden son of a Pureblood fanatic. An utter failure.
Besides, even if she did wake up, it's not like she was going to remember a damn thing anyway.
"Pathetic," he muttered to himself, and burrowed into his ratty blanket.
Christmas in the prison was about as cheerful as it was any other day of the year. They ate runny porridge for breakfast and then were given a single biscuit for dessert. Perhaps that was the administration's idea of being festive.
Draco finished his meagre meal and stood up to leave, figuring he'd be happier in his cell than down here with the great unwashed. A guard stopped him on his way to the door.
"Malfoy, you're wanted in the health care wing," grunted the oaf.
"I'm not sick," he said. The health care wing was more likely to give you an infection than fix you up, in his experience.
"It wasn't a suggestion," replied the guard.
Draco sighed, and was escorted up through the dark and drafty halls, dragged roughly by the arm by another guard about twice his size.
For some reason, they stopped at a private loo just down the hall from the nurse's office.
"In," said the guard. "Shower and change."
Not wanting to argue about the possibility of scrubbing himself clean, Draco shuffled in and almost sobbed with relief when actual warm water poured out of the pipes. He soaped up his hair and washed every inch of his body, wondering what this was all about. Clean prison clothes sat on a chair in the corner, and he put them on, more confused than ever. He spent ten minutes brushing his teeth, savouring every second. Who knew when it would happen again.
The guard didn't take his arm this time, opting to walk next to him as they headed towards a hallway of nondescript rooms.
"Care to tell me what I'm walking into?" Draco asked.
"You have a visitor," said the guard.
"Someone I have to shower for?"
The guard cleared his throat, uncomfortably. "Miss said it was part of the terms. Said you'd be happier for it."
Draco stopped walking, heart in his throat. "Miss who?"
The guard smacked him upside the head and told him to keep walking.
Draco winced, touching his head, and wondered if he dared to hope.
The guard opened one of the doors and motioned for Draco to go in ahead of him.
"You'll be unsupervised," grunted the guard.
"What, not scared for the safety of my visitor?" Draco smirked. "I'm a scary Death Eater, after all."
"Miss can take care of herself. You have ten minutes."
Unsure how to respond, Draco nodded, and stepped inside the small room.
Hermione Granger sat on one side of a plain, wooden table. She smiled nervously at him. "Merry Christmas," she said.
Draco found he had no words left in his mouth.
"Please, Draco. Sit down." She gestured to the empty chair in front of her.
He sat, still not daring to speak.
He saw her hands trembling slightly and took heart in the fact that she was clearly nervous as well.
Still, he didn't understand what she was doing here.
"Did you think I'd forgotten you?" she asked, quietly.
The tide of emotion that hit him caught him completely by surprise. He swallowed around the lump in his throat and nodded.
"How could I?" she smiled. "I thought we had become quite close."
He took a shaky breath. "We had... Of course. It's just. It's. It's rare for coma patients - "
" - to remember what happened during their coma, yes. It almost didn't come back to me, but I knew I was missing something. Something important." Her hand shook slightly, and Draco looked at it, wondering if he should cover it with his own. He wanted to. Desperately.
"I know we had made a deal, you and I," she said. "You were going to take me out, but it seems I missed my window of opportunity."
Draco chuckled and shook his head. "Granger, I would never hold you to that. I seriously doubt you still want to go on a date with someone like me."
"Really?" she said, innocently. "Because I distinctly remember coming out of a coma for this. Does that not prove that I want it?"
He stared at her, not bothering to disguise his shock.
"You... You can't really want me, Granger. I have absolutely nothing to offer you."
"Oh, I don't know. Your taste in books is decent."
He gaped at her.
"And you do look rather fetching in firelight."
This startled a laugh out of him. "Hermione Granger!"
"What?" she smiled. "It's the simple truth."
He sobered up quickly. "Hermione, there is nothing simple about this. You know the things I've done. You... You know what I am. What I was. And besides, I'm stuck here indefinitely."
She took a deep breath and nodded. "I realize that. But I've been reviewing your case and I believe you've been given a very raw deal. Given how young you were when the majority of your crimes occurred, I've requested a review on the length of your sentence. Your behaviour has been exceptional, and you've shown remorse for your actions, which is far more than I can say for some of your colleagues. I want you to serve another six months, not a day longer."
"But... But that would cut four years off my sentence."
"Quite," she said. "You've served more than enough already. Your sentence was disproportionately long, and I intend to have that remedied. I've also suggested you be retrained upon your release - whatever field of work interests you. Your father's companies were all dismantled, as you know, but I'm sure there's something you could find for work. Perhaps opening a small business? All above board, of course."
Draco blinked at her. "Are you serious right now?"
"Granger..." he fidgeted. It sounded amazing, of course, but she was wasting her time. He wasn't worth this. He had followed a Dark wizard into a vicious war because he was too cowardly to do anything else. People had died because of him. Hermione Granger had no business dirtying her hands by trying to help Draco Malfoy.
"I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I don't know if this is such a good idea." He laughed dryly, looking down at the table. "I'm not a hero, Granger. I have a long history of disappointing people."
Hermione sighed. "Look. I realize we never got on, you and I. I'm not completely naive, and I remember our school years with vivid clarity. I was pedantic and you were a bully."
"No, no, listen. Despite all that, the person I got to know over the past couple of months was very different from the person I expected to find. You are not the boy you used to be, Draco. You've grown up. I'm not going to claim that either of us are perfect, but if you are anything like I suspect, you deserve a second chance. I'm in a unique position to offer you that."
"You work with the Department of Magical Law, don't you," he said, finally putting it together.
"I do. And I'd like to help, if you'll let me. If it wasn't for you, I'd still be in that coma. I refuse to let that pass without doing my part, regardless of how poorly you think of yourself."
"Jesus," he breathed. "This could really happen?"
She smiled. "It really could."
Draco reached out tentatively, at first just touching the tips of his fingers to hers, and then finally covering her hand fully. It felt incredible, being able to touch her like this. She took a sharp breath and turned her palm, clasping his fingers with hers.
He found himself chuckling, suddenly giddy. "How on earth did you figure it all out? Barely anybody knew, you realize. Weasley and Potter threatened me under pain of death to keep it quiet. Didn't want anyone to know what they had convinced the Ministry to do."
"I can imagine," she huffed. "Thought they were protecting me, I suppose. I had a bit of help to get the big picture, and pieced the details together afterwards. They weren't pleased to hear about my plans to come see you. They had no idea what to make of my memories, either."
"Gods, I would have paid to see the looks on their faces."
She gave him a sad smile. "I love them very much, but they don't always get things quite right. They have their own lives, and they need to let me have mine too. This is important to me. It will take them some time to get used to my decision, but they will get there eventually."
"I honestly thought you were still with Weasley, you know. It's one of the reasons I didn't proposition you sooner."
"I'm starting to realize he probably wanted you to think that. He... Well. He gets jealous."
Draco laughed. "I guess he's not completely stupid. Bit hard for me to hide the fact that I was completely mad about you. I'm sure he noticed what was going on." Then he shut his mouth, realizing that perhaps he hadn't meant to make that particular confession in a creepy visiting room at a wizard prison.
She just smiled at him, and squeezed his hand tighter.
He smiled back, feeling lightheaded with relief. "Just think of how fantastic our date is going to be if I have six months to plan it."
"You're ridiculous," she laughed. "Let me work on your sentence. We will have that date, I promise."
There was a knock at the door, signalling the end of their session. They both stood up, hurriedly, but their hands remained clasped tight. Draco had a sudden feeling of panic - how long until he got to see her again? The guard cleared his throat on the other side of the door. He was going to open it any second, Draco knew.
"Granger," he murmured, leaning in closely. As if by silent understanding, she tilted her head up and caught his lips in a quick kiss. It must have lasted only seconds, but Draco felt a pleasant jolt in his stomach, and stifled a whimper when she pulled away.
She pecked him once more, grinning at him before schooling her face into a serious expression.
"Malfoy," she nodded. "I'll be back next week to discuss your case. Merry Christmas." With a tiny smile, she let go of his hand and left the room.
Draco floated back to his cell. He could ignore the filth, the grime, the leering prisoners, the terrible food, the soul-crushing loneliness that lived in the walls of this building.
He had a date to plan, a life to leave behind, and a new one to start. And beyond that, he quite liked Hermione's suggestion to open up a small business.
Perhaps a bookstore would work.