Draco Malfoy was having a bad day. Not that all of his days weren't routinely within the spectrum of unenjoyable, but what had started out on a normal level of disagreeableness quickly degraded into full-fledged lousiness.
He knew he was behind on his paperwork. Even with magical means, it somehow seemed a never-ending task to correctly fill out the lengthy forms and reports and file them with the appropriate departments. The red tape of the Ministry's bureaucracy never failed to bring out his well-known sneer of disgust. To then have to spend several hours of his morning listening to the self-important drone of one of the Minister's pets on the importance of "timely fulfilling responsibilities" only served to make his wand-fingers twitch to cast an obnoxious (but not illegal, and certainly not Dark) spell on the sanctimonious twit.
After finally extricating himself from the unwanted and interminable lecture, he unfortunately ended up in a department meeting for Aurors where he had to listen to one of Potter's ("Potter.") famous spontaneous pep talks designed to motivate the masses and inspire them to higher levels of efficiency. Because it's not enough to save the entire Wizarding world once, he must needs do it over and over again. And like chumps, they all ate it up. Every time.
Draco was a good Auror. A fantastic one, in fact, if the truth be known. But after several years of going through his partners like a particularly bad box of Every Flavor Beans, he found himself the only Auror approved to operate solo and as such, ended up with some of the trickiest assignments for a single person, and of course, had to handle all of the resultant paperwork entirely by himself.
At one point he'd hired a secretary to do the work for him, and she was quite good at her job, as well as being rather easy on the eyes. But Potter forced him to get rid of her, stating that if he wanted someone to do paperwork with that badly, he could jolly well manage to keep a partner for more than a week.
So no secretary. Loads of paperwork. Having to listen to Potter and pretend he was excited for another year of thankless risk-taking. And then, AND THEN, the Minister of Magic, thinking (correctly, actually) that Draco was planning on skipping out on yet another Ministry Ball, had the gall to stop him in the halls and inform him in no uncertain tones that his presence would be required that evening.
And to top it all off, he even implied that Draco needed to take extra care to dress appropriately. Just remembering the unwarranted comment had Draco's lip lifting in a sneer. As if a Malfoy ever needed to be told to dress appropriately for any occasion, let alone a ball.
He twitched the sleeves of his black dress robes—made of the most expensive unicorn silk and tailored perfectly to fit to his form in the most flattering of ways—as he reached for the glass of Firewhiskey. He pointedly avoided looking at the well-dressed couple that had just entered the room, knowing that as always, all eyes were drawn to watch them approach.
They were the Wizarding World's Golden Couple (confusing when you consider they are both also part of the Golden Trio, but once you go gold, apparently there's not much better you can compare to), war heroes gracing the cover of every magazine because of their storybook romance, begun in the innocence of childhood, tested in the fire of warfare, and now basking in the glow of happily ever after.
Draco snorted at his glass of firewhiskey, still refusing to look their direction.
She was the reason this day had just dropped into the bowels of Bad Day hell. He tried to avoid seeing her whenever possible. Not to where he'd cut her in the hallways, but to where if he knew she was walking down the hall, he might just casually take a different route or find another errand he had to run in a different area that would prevent them from crossing paths.
When he had first joined the Auror program, after his exile and probationary period, he was not greeted warmly. There were many who still believed he was working for the Dark Side, and even those who didn't, were unable to forgive his actions (or sometimes lack thereof) in the war. There were few who wanted to be his partner, and even fewer who wanted to be his friend.
Draco Malfoy had never had any real friends (minions really don't count), so he didn't feel the lack too much.
But then She had begun talking to him.
Hermione Granger, war heroine, brightest witch of the age, and apparently a trendsetter. When coming to visit Ron Weasley for lunch, or on routine daily errands in the Ministry, she often casually made it a point to stop by Draco's desk. At first her off-hand remarks and greetings were met with stony silence.
Frankly, it was the best Draco could do, since the first things to come to his mind were both unkind, and illegal in the current government. And though he no longer believed in the words with the fervor of his youth (sometimes he wondered if he ever truly believed them, actually), he knew that saying them aloud would undo all of the hard work he had gone through to make himself accepted in present Wizarding society.
But Granger, probably because she was the brightest witch of the age, found a couple of topics that couldn't help but pull out a response from him, and before long he found himself having conversations with at least one of the Golden Trio. Usually on academic topics that had interested them both in school, politics, the benefits and consequences of borderline grey spells (this after a particularly lengthy investigation into Draco's use of one of those same spells, an investigation of which he was acquitted with honor, by the way). She never talked about their less than amicable past, and she never talked to him as if he was still connected with it. He found the lack of bitterness refreshing. He found her company refreshing.
It wasn't surprising when he soon found himself engaging in the occasional conversation with both Potter and Weasley. Mostly Potter, who went out of his way to preach about the new Wizarding society having room for all witches and wizards, regardless of birth (which somehow backwardly applied to Draco also), and so probably felt a duty to converse with him. Weasley was not much for words, and was content to glare at him, a feeling which Draco shared but never showed, because unlike the ill-bred Weasel he at least attempted to show respect for the company he was in by not glowering at people in public.
A lesson hard learned, really, when you consider his history. Glowering does not make you friends. Or win you wars.
It had been on the heels of another awful day, actually, when he had come face to face with the terrible truth that now haunted him on evenings like this one, with a Firewhiskey in his hand, and somewhere behind him a beaming Hermione Granger on the arm of a doting Ron Weasley.
He'd just spent the day sorting out the awful mess left behind by his most recent ex-partner, alternately cursing in rage and kicking his wastebasket. He was ready to go home, and was literally just about to gather his things and exit when Granger walked in. She took one look at his desk, the empty chair opposite his, and his scowl, and her expression broke into a commiserating smile.
"That bad?" and she'd looked a little amused as she said it.
To this day he didn't know what made him do it, but his mouth opened, and he let loose a descriptive stream of frustration and anger as if they were truly friends. He supposed that's what she'd been intending all along, but he had never considered any of them as more than casual work acquaintances. Until that moment, it seemed.
He would never forget, could never forget, that moment when she'd stepped to him and touched his arm—a gesture so casual she must frequently use it when comforting others, but not with him, never before with him. When she looked up at him, her expression so sincere, he was momentarily lost in the depths of those warm, chocolate eyes. He felt something foreign in the vicinity of the heart that no one believed he still had. It was warm and bright and powerful, and later, when he could finally put a word to it, he would think of it as a yearning.
All he knew at the time was that the touch on his arm seemed to sear his skin, and the smell of her hair closer than it had ever been caused his stomach to flutter, and his muscles to tense, and his breath to clog up in his throat.
He almost missed what she said, so caught up in the overwhelming sensations of her presence.
"You need an equal, Malfoy. I'm sorry to say you might never find it in the department as it is. Sometimes when you outshine others, you have to work alone to do your best work. Others will just slow you down." And then she'd smiled at him, grinning like they shared a joke, and against his will, without any thought, actually, he smiled back down at her.
He didn't know it at the time, but that was actually the last partner he'd rage over. He refused all later offers and assignments to partners, insisting on working alone, until Potter finally approved it.
But that night he'd gone home to his "flat" in Wizarding London (if you could call the mansion-sized apartment loft a flat), and the thought struck him that he'd had a good day that day. Confused, since he distinctly remembered having an awful day, he thought back to why he could possibly feel rather light and happy.
When it hit him, he actually dropped the bottle of Firewhiskey onto the kitchen tiles, the sinking, tearing sensation in the vicinity of that same heart no one believed he had making the room seem claustrophobic all of a sudden. When he could breathe again, he cursed fluidly for several minutes. He didn't even bother with cleaning up the mess of Firewhiskey on the floor, he simply grabbed another bottle and spent the next several hours in a state of inebriation that still couldn't eradicate the feel of her hand on his arm.
For several weeks, he thought he could just ignore it, or at least pretend like it didn't exist. He had the same short conversations with Granger when she would swing by the Aurors' offices, and he didn't change any part of his routine. But then he noticed himself waiting for her to stop by, and then watching her as she left. He felt absurd streaks of triumph if he could get her to laugh, sometimes even going so far as to tease her a tiny bit.
And then one day she walked towards his desk, a big smile on her face, and that yearning that he felt whenever she smiled at him, grew so strong and wrapped around him so tight, it threatened to choke him. His fingers twitched with the effort of keeping him from reaching out. His stomach was so twisted into knots, he didn't even trust himself to speak. She didn't notice because she was excited about the promotion she'd just been told she would be receiving. She felt that finally all of her hard work was being recognized, and in her excitement and nervousness she never noticed Draco's hands clamped on the arms of his chair, his eyes dark with the desire to be the one with the right to scoop her up in a hug, and then plant an enthusiastic kiss on her smiling mouth—the way Ron Weasley did when he came up to congratulate her on the news.
Somehow, and he'd never figured out how, he managed a smile, and a "Congratulations, you deserve it" before she was whisked away to raucous cheering.
And when everyone had left, Draco remained seated in his chair. He dropped his head onto his desk, and cursed again. Not loudly. Not expansively. But quietly, and with feeling.
That was over a year ago. And in that time, Draco had been very careful to treat her with the utmost courtesy during those times that he was forced into her company. Being assigned his own office meant he rarely had to see her traipsing casually through the Aurors' floor. He might go days or even weeks without seeing those cinnamon curls, and he would begin to delude himself into believing that it didn't matter anymore, and it was just a ridiculous notion he'd taken into his head one drunk night.
But then he would see her in the hall, or at a meeting, and his heart would beat so hard he was sure she could hear it, and he wanted to run before she looked up and read his feelings in his eyes. He could never have her. And he could never, ever, ever let on to anyone that he wanted her. There was no forgiveness large enough for the sin of Death Eater Draco Malfoy coveting Golden Girl Hermione Granger, future wife of the beloved Ron Weasley. The only sin bigger would be coveting Harry Potter's wife, Ginny Weasley-Potter, a possibility that thankfully was as remote as him marrying a house-elf.
As he sourly repeated his mantra that Death Eaters did not desire Mudbloods (silently, of course, where no one could hear the self-loathing), he downed his glass of Firewhiskey, knowing that being unable to avoid the Ball meant he would be facing Hermione Granger at least once this night. Because if he knew her, and he liked to think that he certainly knew her better than that joke of a fiancé, she would make it a point to come up to him.
He briefly thought about changing locations throughout the night, making it hard to pin him down, but quickly gave up the idea, knowing that if Granger wanted to find him, she would.
It was halfway through the night, and Draco was all the way towards drunk, when he felt a tap on his shoulder, and she sat down on the chair beside him.