Hello darlings. I meant to have this ready for New Year's Eve but you can guess how that went... Super successful! I wasn't even sure I was going to publish today but hearing about David Bowie's passing has made me kind of weepy, and I thought this would be a nice way to do something other than wallow in my own tears. I know we're all of varying ages but that man was a beacon for the weird kids and the queer kids and the misfits and everyone in between. So, if you've ever felt like the odd one out, I give you some fresh Dramione to soothe your soul. And if you go listen to some Bowie after this, just know I'm doing the same, yeah? (As for the story itself, I wrote it because a. why does NYE always suck so badly? and b. GOD I MISS WRITING. I hope you like it.) xo Angie
It was a painfully drab New Year's Eve. Even the rain was ambivalent, misting itself lazily over the darkened streets while revelers shouted drunkenly from bars and restaurants. There was no snow to set the mood this year, no good cheer to speak of. It was the sort of evening where everyone should have just stayed indoors, but the masses, ever determined to unwind, had decided they might as well try to drink away a stale end to the season.
Down an otherwise empty street in South Kensington, Hermione Granger stumbled out of the Ministry of Magic's annual New Year's Eve party, swore loudly, wiped her eyes, raised her chin, and walked swiftly away from the raucous gathering.
She looked about as dreadful as she felt. Her face was blotchy and wet, her hair had escaped from her careful bun and was drooping into her eyes. Marching herself across the road, she ended up in a damp, dreary park, bookended by a bus stop on one end and a memorial plaque on the other. Choosing the bus stop, she sat down heavily on the bench and tried not to panic. Tears escaped down her cheeks and dripped messily off her chin. She wiped at her face with the back of her hand, making a despairing noise when she saw that she'd managed to ruin most of her mascara in the process. Giving up, she rested her forehead against her bare knees and sobbed.
Gods, she was a fool.
This was not how she had imagined her year would end. She and Ron were not supposed to be arguing this much, snapping at each other at their flat, bickering on their breaks at work, and to top it off, getting into a screaming row at the biggest work event of the year. It was bad enough that they were fighting at all, but in front of people? In front of colleagues? Merlin, the gossip that must be spreading through the party now... She felt nauseous thinking about it. There was already enough pressure being the coupled part of the Golden Trio, but pretending life was a permanent fairy tale had worn her down terribly.
Right from the start, it was a failure of an evening. Against her better judgement, she'd had much too much to drink, a bad habit that came with the nerves she always got leading up to big functions. Ron had also gotten drunk, uproariously so, guffawing his way through the evening at an increasingly fevered pitch. Hermione was already feeling raw from weeks of tense treatment, and seeing Ron like this, glowing happily in front of a crowd of admirers, broke her last nerve.
The resulting row was appalling. She felt humiliated to have let it happen at all, especially in such a public manner. When did she become like this? This unhappy, bitter creature? Was she so unable to let them both have a nice evening off?
She exhaled damply on her knees and then folded her arms on her lap, cradling her head into the fabric of her coat. He wasn't even coming out to find her. Perhaps that was her answer. Should she just go back to the flat? Pack up and leave? Were they this hopeless? Her delicate gold dress was getting more ruined by the minute - she could feel the rain seeping through to her skin. Her cheap heels were done for.
The sound of footsteps cut into her thoughts, starting from far away, and getting closer with each step. They were too measured and calm to be Ron, no shuffle or stomp that would have signaled his distinctive gait. Hermione kept her head down, buried in her arms, too ashamed to look up. She didn't want anyone to see her this way, stranger or not. They would pass eventually. Rain trickled coldly down the back of her neck.
But the footsteps stopped in front of her, and Hermione could see expensive patent leather dress shoes through the curtain of her damp hair.
Now this particular question didn't make sense. It didn't make sense because the person whose voice it belonged to, unless she had completely lost her mind, was someone who legitimately didn't care if she was alright. There were years of proof to that effect, years of precedent. Hermione looked up in confusion.
A very dapper, slightly damp Draco Malfoy was looking back at her, clad in full dress robes. He looked no more sour than usual, and had adopted his customary expression of general displeasure with the universe. Draco was a lawyer at the Ministry, like her, but they worked in vastly different fields. He spent his days cozying up to foreign magical governing bodies and sweet talking anyone of importance. She spent hers fighting for the rights of magical creatures nobody had even heard of. Their paths rarely crossed, except at functions like this.
"Granger?" he asked again, his inflection rising at the end of her name as though she were the one being strange.
The question had completely thrown her for a loop. Granted, she was far from sober, but she still couldn't reason out an explanation for Draco Malfoy inquiring as to her well-being. They didn't have the kind of relationship that allowed for casual chit chat.
"I'm... I'm sorry?" she stammered.
"I was checking that you were alright," he said, tightly. Hermione did a quick mental scan of everything she had eaten that evening. Was anything drugged? Was she having some sort of vision? Draco Malfoy - at least, the Draco Malfoy she knew - would never follow her out of a party in unpleasant weather unless it was to push her into a puddle.
"So are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Are you alright! Merlin Granger. You're not making this easy." He scowled and pulled out a cigarette, with hasty, angry movements, not lighting it, but letting his fingers fidget over the thing instead. She couldn't tell if he was nervous or annoyed.
Hermione stared at him, uncomprehending.
Draco looked down at his feet and let out a small grunt, biting on the inside of his cheek. "I... Noticed you had a difficult evening."
"Ah, so you saw the row," Hermione mumbled. That made more sense. He had come to twist the knife.
"Yes," he said. "It was hard to avoid, actually."
Hermione laughed, dryly, and Draco hurried to correct himself. "That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean then, Malfoy?"
"I meant," he looked around, seeming distinctly less composed now, and Hermione was amazed to see him ruffled, wondering what on earth could have caused it, "I meant that this is a puerile holiday, and I think rows are a natural reaction to the farce we are expected to maintain in order for our colleagues to have an excuse to drink themselves into the gutter once a year. Someone always causes a scene. Unfortunately that responsibility fell to you this evening."
He cleared his throat and jammed the cigarette in his mouth, lighting it with a muffled incantation and a snap of his fingers. "I don't think you should feel badly, Granger."
Hermione's eyebrows disappeared into her hairline, but she tried to recover quickly. "Easy for you to say," she said, wiping at her already-smeared eyes. "People will eat me alive for this. The only thing better than seeing a War hero succeed is - "
"Seeing them fail?" he smirked. "Oh, I know how cruel people can be."
"I suppose that's true."
They stayed very still for a moment, unsure what was supposed to come next. Hermione couldn't process the reality of their conversation, so she focused on the feeling of the rain water slowly soaking through her dress. The damp was nearing her waist now. It was extremely uncomfortable, but at least it made more sense than her current predicament.
"Are you Apparating home then?" he asked, taking a deep pull from the cigarette and tapping the ash on the ground.
She shook her head. "Not really sober enough. I'd probably splinch myself."
"I see," he said, and then paused. "Would you like me to side-along?"
Hermione goggled at him, her mind grinding to a halt. Side-along? Side-along? Like... Accompany her home?
Just to be... Nice?
Hermione felt her vision blur for a moment. Something was terribly wrong here. Something was off in the cosmos, or someone spiked her drink, or, or, or, or perhaps she'd finally had that mental breakdown Ron always hinted at. Yes. That was it. She'd simply gone insane.
"What?" she heard herself squawk.
Suddenly, Ron's voice echoed through the night, calling her name with a slight slur. He sounded frantic, his loud, heavy footsteps rebounding off the buildings.
"Ah," said Draco, drawing himself up again, the tension returning to his frame. Hermione hadn't even realized he had relaxed until just now. "It appears your knight in shining armour has arrived. Safe travels, Granger."
With a nod, he walked away, his long legs carrying him out of the park faster than Hermione could probably run. She opened her mouth and then snapped it shut again. Should she call out to him? Ask if he was serious? Demand to know the catch? But then she saw Ron in the distance, ambling towards her, contrition on his face. Draco had disappeared in a puff of cigarette smoke.
Well. Perhaps she wasn't going to be packing her bags tonight, then. Not knowing what else to do, Hermione stood up, grimacing at the wet cling of her dress against her thighs. A drying charm, a cup of tea, and an evening away from the entire staff of the Ministry was in order. She and Ron would talk about it, they would forgive each other, and they would remind each other of why they fell in love in the first place.
It was really the only thing that made sense. Wasn't it?
Later that night, when she was deep in sleep, Hermione dreamed of the way Draco's mouth formed the words "puerile holiday," and woke up in a prickly sweat.
She didn't tell a soul, but her cheeks heated up whenever she thought about it.
Fat snowflakes drifted through the air, blanketing the city. Everything was clean and white, the snow still too fresh to have picked up the salt and mud underneath. It was a New Year's Eve out of a movie scene, an idea so different from reality it was almost comical.
Hermione drew a stick figure in the snow and frowned. She wasn't drunk this time, just tired. Tired and fed up and very close to ruining her makeup again. A warming charm kept her relatively comfortable where she sat, a different bench outside a different party from the year prior, but not that different a situation.
They hadn't fought in public this time, but they had been fighting for the entire month leading up to Christmas and restarted again as soon as the presents were put away. Hermione wasn't stupid - she knew things shouldn't be this rotten all the time. When they had gotten engaged over the summer, she'd hoped that the elation would last long enough to finally break this habit of theirs, this tendency to prod each other's wounds. They had a week of peace before things went back to normal.
The thing was, she genuinely didn't know how to proceed. They loved each other, unquestionably. But did they like each other anymore? What happened to the camaraderie they had at Hogwarts, the adventures they had, the bonds they had formed? It felt as though they were weak imitations of their former selves.
More importantly: should she marry someone she couldn't even get along with?
The slight crunch of snow and a whiff of cigarette smoke told her she was no longer alone. Hermione stilled.
As dapper as ever, and still looking unimpressed with the world, Draco Malfoy sat down beside her, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
Hermione had puzzled over that conversation from a year ago more times than she could count, and eventually wrote it off as a hallucination. Draco hadn't sought her out at work once, and in fact, the rare time they shared a lift he stood as far away as possible and avoided eye contact, radiating discontent. Either he was too embarrassed to admit he had attempted to be thoughtful, or she had imagined the whole thing.
But now, for the second New Years in a row, her misanthropic colleague was checking on her. She hadn't imagined it at all.
How bloody strange.
"I wish you wouldn't," she said.
Draco startled, turning towards her. A flash of hurt reflected in his eyes, and he started to lean away, getting ready to stand.
"No no," she said, realizing her mistake, "Not that. I meant I wish you wouldn't smoke."
He relaxed, settling back down, and tapped the cigarette's ash into the snow.
"It's just a habit."
"A vile habit," she snorted. "And a Muggle one at that."
"Not all Muggle things are bad, Granger," he smirked. "I'll bet you never expected to hear me say that."
She tried to hide her smile. Apparently her nemesis had grown a sense of humour. "I'd be curious to know what changed your mind."
"Muggles are masters of self-sabotage. Even more so than wizards and witches. They ruin themselves with a ferocity that is unmatched in magical society. It's fascinating."
"And that appeals to you?"
He shrugged. "It's familiar."
Both of them sat in silence for a while, neither sure how to continue the conversation. They didn't do this - this talking thing. They had done it exactly once before and it was as strange now as it was then. Hermione had no idea how to keep it going without making a misstep, but for some reason, she wanted to try.
"I have a question for you," she said eventually.
Draco nodded at her, crossing his ankle over his knee. "Go ahead."
"Do you think you can love someone without actually... Wanting to be with them?"
He raised his eyebrows, cigarette dangling precariously from his lips. Hermione tore her eyes away when she realized she was staring.
"I would say so," he said.
She make a noncommittal humming sound.
"Questioning your future, Granger? Congratulations on your engagement, by the way."
She blushed, suddenly ashamed of asking something so obvious. Gods, of course he knew exactly what she was talking about. It was suicide to be this open with someone like Draco, the Ministry's professional social butterfly. He knew everyone that mattered, greased wheels everywhere he went, made things happen or stopped things from happening, depending on his whim. She had no business being so unguarded with him. A tiny flutter of panic erupted behind her ribs.
"I'm not going to tell anyone, Granger," he sighed, as if he knew what she was thinking, and the panic vanished, replaced with surprise. "Is it that bad?"
She nodded slowly, looking around guiltily before speaking. "He's not happy. I know he's not happy. I've just realized I may not actually be able to change that."
"But you want him to be. Happy, that is."
"Of course. He deserves good things. He's lovely, really. Kind. Funny. Just not with me. Not anymore." She sunk her fingers deeper into the snow, letting it sting until her skin went numb. "I don't know if... If he actually likes his life. He hates his job, you know. Followed Harry into being an Auror and didn't end up taking to it. Reminds him too much of the War."
He frowned at her. "Why doesn't he change jobs?"
"He's not actually that confident. Terrible at networking, even worse at selling himself. Always sees himself as a sidekick to Harry, but it's just not true. He's a really hard worker."
"Hmm." Draco pursed his lips, staring out at the snow. "Not a nice situation."
"And meanwhile, you end up feeling like this all the time," he said, gesturing vaguely at her, presumably pointing to the fact that she was miserable and alone yet again.
She shrugged. She'd felt this way for years, really. Being a public figure didn't suit her in the least. She thought perhaps her job, hidden away in obscurity, would help her feel normal. Silly idea.
Draco was gazing out at the courtyard, ruminating on something.
"Sickle for your thoughts?" Hermione asked, briefly marveling at the strangeness of their situation. Perhaps it was just one of those things. On New Year's Eve, Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy were allowed to be friends.
"I think," he said, butting out his cigarette, "that growing up in the public eye made us decide on our futures before we were ready. We became adults before we were actually adults. And so, we end up with situations like this... We're finally realizing who we are, and it doesn't fit the mould we made years earlier." Draco paused a moment. "It's rubbish. Especially having to sort it out with everyone watching."
Hermione stared at her feet, too surprised by his candor to respond right away. Besides, she felt vaguely like crying. She hadn't spoken to anyone about this, not even Harry, and here she was getting meaningful advice from Draco Malfoy, of all people.
"But people can change for the better too," he mumbled, finally. "It's part of growing up. Or so I'm told."
The silence only lasted for a second, and then Draco jammed his hand in his pocket and fished out a new cigarette, fingers fussing with it as he raised it to his lips.
"I wish you wouldn't," Hermione whispered.
His hand froze, and he exhaled sharply, creating a cloud in the cold air.
"I could quit," he said, and turned to look her straight in the eye.
His expression cut right into her, revealing more than he probably intended, sending a jolt of something hot right down her spine. He was objectively beautiful, something she'd always known in the abstract, but had dismissed because of his atrocious personality. This conversation was making her wonder if she'd made a rather large mistake. If Draco could be like this, thoughtful and intelligent, funny and sarcastic... Well. That changed things. That meant he was beautiful, point blank. And he was staring at her with something that looked remarkably like desire.
This didn't feel like a conversation about smoking, or even about Ron. This felt bigger, somehow.
"Is that an offer?" she asked.
"Maybe it is," he replied.
They had leaned in at some point, much too close for colleagues having a chat, and Draco's eyes had dropped slightly, focusing on her lips.
Hermione wondered what would happen if she just shut her eyes. Would he close the gap? Did she want him to?
Her voice came out in a whisper, barely audible. "What... Exactly are you offering?"
Suddenly, she heard her name being called in the darkness, and the bubble around them popped. It must be Ron, realizing she had left the party again, coming to make amends. She heard Draco curse under his breath.
"That's my cue, Granger," Draco said, standing suddenly and stuffing the unlit cigarette back in his pocket. "I'm sorry for your troubles. I hope your evening improves. Happy New Year." He was off as quickly as he came, legs taking him across the snowy square with little effort. He didn't look back, shoulders hunched and defensive. Hermione was left looking at the space where he had just been sitting, blinking in shock.
Ron found her a moment later, and Hermione could swear he squinted in the direction of Draco's exit before he took her hand and brought her inside.
"Was that Malfoy talking to you the other night?" Ron asked the following weekend, making himself a large sandwich out of the leftovers in their fridge.
Hermione's hand froze over the page she was about to turn, suddenly hit by a wave of absolute terror. She didn't want Ron to know. It was a non-event, it meant nothing, but she didn't want Ron to know. It was her non-event. She hadn't even decided how she felt about it yet.
All she knew is that when she thought about how close they had been sitting, her heart rabbited inside her chest and her mouth went dry.
"He's been really strange lately at work," Ron continued, pressing a handful of olives into his creation. "Like, good strange."
Hermione looked over, puzzled. "What do you mean? I didn't know you ever worked together."
"We don't, not usually," Ron said, levitating his sandwich over to the table. "Just see him at meetings and stuff when his work involves Aurors. But this week, he came by our department and offered me a job doing security over at the international sports unit."
"What?!" Hermione on her feet before she knew it. "But that's a job you've always wanted. How could you not tell me?"
"You weren't talking to me at the time," Ron said sharply, and then looking immediately apologetic. "And it's Malfoy. He's a snake. I wanted to make sure he wasn't taking me for a ride. Seemed a bit too good to be true."
Hermione bit her tongue hard, conceding the point.
"But I've checked out his offer since... Asked around a bit. It actually seems legit." He smiled at her, a sunny, happy look she hadn't seen in years. "I'm thinking of saying yes. I wouldn't actually have to work with him either, which makes it more appealing."
"That's amazing Ron," Hermione said. "I'm so happy for you." And she was, genuinely, but she was also perplexed. What was Draco doing? He didn't even like Ron. Why was he offering him a plum position that other Aurors would give their eye teeth for?
"Yeah, can't quite believe it myself. I'll tell him I'm interested first thing Monday."
Hermione found herself nodding along, walking dazedly though the flat while Ron chatted about what the new job would entail.
"So what did he want?" Ron asked, looking at her curiously. She was standing in the kitchen now, unsure how she had ended up there. "Malfoy. That was him New Year's Eve, wasn't it? Was he bothering you?"
Telling the truth didn't feel like an option, since she didn't actually understand what had happened between them. She shook her head and began filling the kettle for tea, turning her back to Ron so as not to give herself away. "Bit weird. He wanted to know if I had any cigarettes."
Ron chuckled. "Fat chance," he said, taking a heaping bite out of his sandwich. "Bet you gave him a piece of your mind."
Hermione nodded. She had, sort of. Felt like he took a piece of something else too, though.
"So much is going to change now, 'Mione," Ron said around a mouthful of food. "Just you wait."
Apparently she would have to wait, because Draco was avoiding her like the Living Death.
Hermione had decided to be the brave one and seek him out at work. This whole business with Ron had her completely wound up. What was he doing? Not to mention their unusual exchange the other night. And the way he had looked down at her lips. And the way they had both leaned in. Gods, there went her heart again, fluttering away like a damn bird.
And yet, it seemed conversation was not in the cards.
The first time she marched to his office, he had just left for lunch. The second time, he was traveling for work. The third, he was in a very important meeting, could they take a message? The fourth, he had just stepped out, what a shame she had missed him. Hermione scowled and left, her heart sinking. She knew when she wasn't wanted.
But it hurt. Was she supposed to wait an entire year to initiate conversation? That was completely unreasonable! Or worse... Had she misread him?
Instead of going back to her desk, she sought out a rarely-used loo, locked herself in, and had a very quiet meltdown.
So she had imagined it. Fine. There was no... Tension. No interest on his part. Fine. Why would he be interested in her to begin with? What a silly thought, Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy. This thing with Ron was just a nice gesture. Draco was trying to be less of an arse, that was all. He was helping her out in the best way he knew how.
And it's not like she was hoping for anything to happen between them anyway.
Hermione felt her lower lip tremble. "Damn," she groaned, and now she was crying on top of everything.
Merlin, she couldn't even lie to herself. She had actually let herself hope. She'd let herself imagine the possibility. Because that look Draco gave her? It was more of a declaration of intent than anything Ron had ever given her. Just thinking about it made her pulse rattle against her skin.
"I could quit." For you.
But the unspoken part never happened, and it would never happen, because he never meant it that way. It was just what her heart wanted to hear. She'd romanticized a brief conversation with a beautiful man because she was pathetically lonely. Blast, now that was sad.
Hermione gulped in air, slowly getting her breathing back to normal.
Good. Okay. Right.
It was better like this. If she was this upset after two awkward conversations, she probably wouldn't have been able to handle anything more. Draco was an emotional vortex, and she wouldn't have had a hope in hell of keeping her footing.
Hermione dried her face, washed her hands, and squared her shoulders. Enough of this nonsense. She was Hermione Granger. She was a War hero, she was the brightest witch of her age, and she could bloody well survive without Draco Malfoy confusing the life out of her once a year.
She walked confidently back to her desk, worked straight through dinner, and ignored the fact that she felt worse than ever.
It was a pattern she would repeat for most of the year.
The thumping of the bass was headache-inducing, and the disco lights weren't helping things either. A miserable Hermione stood in the corner of the room and surveyed the party, nursing her punch. It was unlike any other time she'd attended a Ministry New Year's party. For one, she showed up alone.
She and Ron had limped along for most of the year, deciding halfheartedly on wedding dates and then changing their minds, making up excuses to friends that probably hadn't fooled anyone. Harry had eventually come to see her, telling her that he loved them both even if things weren't working out. She had cried for weeks, embarrassed by the whole thing, dreading what they would have to do. Ron loved his new job, spending more and more time at work, positively glowing from it. If anything, it made them both realize that their relationship wasn't helping anything. It was only making things worse.
At first, he moved into the spare room. They talked about it like it was temporary, but they both knew it wasn't.
Finally, a month ago, they moved into separate flats. Somehow the Prophet got wind of it, and her very private nightmare went public. Hermione took a few weeks leave from work, unable to stomach the whispering at the office.
It would get better someday, she knew. They were still smarting from the mess of it all, but at least there was no fighting now. The flat was quiet though, too quiet, and her appetite had died a quiet death. Everything was unappealing and bland. It was as though her life was in greyscale - it was unrecognizable to her. She couldn't imagine how it must look to everyone else.
All of which made her appearance at the New Year's Eve party more surprising. Hermione knew she shouldn't have come; she certainly hated these things enough, even with a date. But it seemed prudent to show her face, make sure people knew she hadn't run off with a Saudi prince or whatever the latest rumour was. Ron had wisely stayed home. Harry was being mauled by sycophants, as was the custom for any large Ministry event.
She finished her drink and looked sadly at the empty glass. Without a drink, she looked even more awkward hiding in the corner. People were stealing glances. Maybe they had been all along.
Hermione felt her cheeks heating up. Merlin, this was embarrassing. Naturally, the one person she was hoping to see was a no-show. Even after she'd come to terms with Draco's lack of interest, she still fussed over her outfit and wrestled her hair into passable curls, hoping they would get to talk again. What the hell had she expected?
"Pathetic," she chided herself.
Swallowing around the lump in her throat, Hermione set down her glass and made her way toward the coat room. It wasn't quite midnight yet - she still had time to sneak out before everyone started snogging. Harry would understand. Seamus Finnigan - by some sort of miracle - chose that moment to explode a fancy table centrepiece, and the crowd's attention was drawn away from her quiet escape. Ducking into the coat room, Hermione began searching for her navy wool jacket. It had to be here somewhere. She was almost free.
The door creaked open, and the clicking of very sharp stilettos rebounded against the walls.
Not recognizing the voice, Hermione turned around, prepared to give an extremely curt answer to the person trying to sabotage her exit. Except the person standing behind her was Pansy Parkinson.
Pansy had not spoken a word to Hermione since their Hogwarts days, despite working for the Wizengamot and not being terribly far away from Hermione's own office. They simply had nothing in common.
Well, almost nothing in common. Pansy was one of Draco's oldest friends. Hermione, on the other hand, was allowed to be his friend one evening per year.
Hermione couldn't help but frown. "Yes," she said, returning to her search. "I'm leaving. The sooner the better."
"Awful party, isn't it."
Hermione chuckled humourlessly. "They're all awful. I'd do best to remember it next time."
She could feel Pansy smirking behind her back. Redoubling her efforts, she glared at the coat rack, determined to leave in the next thirty seconds, jacket or not.
"Looking for this?"
Hermione's head snapped back in Pansy's direction. She was holding her navy coat, still with that infuriating smirk and that arched brow, every inch of her looking perfectly in place.
Although Hermione was tempted to stomp over and take the thing by force, something niggled at the back of her mind.
"What are you playing at, Pansy?"
Pansy shrugged, feigning innocence. "Just helping you find your coat."
"I would have left by now if you hadn't been 'helping' me. What's actually going on?"
Pansy sighed and then pouted, tossing the jacket into Hermione's open hands.
"Do you want to know where he is or not?"
Hermione concealed her shock as best she could. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"Please don't play dumb. It's unbecoming."
"Please don't play games," Hermione snapped. "I lost most of my patience during the War and I'm not about to portion some out for you."
Now Pansy smiled, delighted, her whole face beaming. "Sweet Morgana, you do have a backbone. I wondered what he saw in you!"
"He's across town, roped into some dreadful party that his mother planned. She's been trying to marry him off for years, did you know?"
Hermione closed her mouth and then opened it, feeling stupid. "I did not."
"Oh yes. And he's given her the runaround as you would expect. But she finally caught on, and he wasn't able to get out of it this time. There's a whole lineup of girls she wants him to meet. Pureblood cutthroats, of course." Like a predator, Pansy smiled showing all her teeth.
Hermione's stomach plummeted, and she felt her shoulders slump. So things were even more hopeless than she realized. While she had been skulking in a corner, he was off getting engaged. Good lord, what a perfect end to a terrible year. Emotionally drained, she slowly pulled on her jacket and tugged at the pins holding her hair in place, letting it fall messily around her shoulders. The triumphant look on Pansy's face was putting a bad taste in Hermione's mouth, but she was too exhausted to get offended.
Pansy was right - Hermione had certainly lost this one.
"Well, thanks for letting me know," she said, hopefully mimicking a smile. "Happy New Year." She turned, ducked out of the coat room, and left the building. It was starting to snow. Maybe she could get home before it got worse. If she could choke down the whisky from the cupboard, there might actually be a chance of sleep tonight.
She only made it a few paces before she heard Pansy's stilettos clicking after her.
"Oh dear, you do have it bad!" called Pansy.
Hermione kept walking. Yes, she supposed she did, despite her best efforts. No sense talking about it to someone like Pansy Parkinson. If Pansy was looking for a fight, she'd have to get it elsewhere.
"Didn't you ever wonder, Hermione?"
Hermione sighed, and then stopped, but didn't bother turning around.
"Wonder what, Pansy?"
Pansy slipped in front of her, resting both hands on Hermione's shoulders, a gesture so gentle Hermione actually took a step back. "What are you -"
"Didn't you ever wonder why he chose New Year's Eve to approach you?"
She nodded, mutely, extremely unsure of where this conversation was going.
"What other evening puts you both in the same place and ends with a kiss?"
Hermione stared at Pansy. "But -"
"What other evening allowed him to initiate casual conversation without getting Weasley's back up? What other evening gives you both a chance to blame it on the drinks and the occasion if it doesn't work out? Hermione, you and Weasley had been on the rocks for years. Think about it. If he was interested, if he wanted to know whether or not there was a chance in hell, when else would he be able to gauge your reaction?"
"My reaction to what?"
"To Draco being himself."
Hermione felt a prickling around her eyes and swallowed heavily, refusing to cry around someone as mercurial as Pansy Parkinson. Her traitorous voice wobbled and gave her away. "But he wouldn't even let me talk to him at work! I tried... I... I wanted to see him again. He just kept avoiding me."
Pansy rolled her eyes and smiled at Hermione, a real smile. "Well. He's not really as brave as you, is he? Probably thought you were coming to tell him off."
"That's Draco," Pansy sighed. "I'm sorry to say that he doesn't always express himself very well. Strategy, he can do. He's a Slytherin after all. He's good at planning. But bravery? That's really more your thing." And then, inexplicably, Pansy pressed a kiss to Hermione's cheek, pulling back with a wink. "Go ahead and get yourself home, Hermione. Just... Don't walk too quickly." She squeezed Hermione's shoulders, turned on her precarious heels, and walked back to the party.
For her part, Hermione didn't walk quickly. She didn't walk at all. She stood frozen in place while her mind filtered through everything Pansy had said.
If he wanted to know whether or not there was a chance in hell...
Did Draco really plan the longest come-on in history because he figured that otherwise she wouldn't give him the time of day? Hermione tried to imagine what would happen if Draco had shown up at her office one day being, well, nice. She probably would have hexed him. But approaching her at an annual party when her guard was down... It did make a little more sense. Work events didn't fit into a neat category. That was almost the point of having them. People crossed lines they wouldn't normally cross.
The last thing she wanted to do was give herself hope... But...
It... Seemed possible. Plausible even. Who else would concoct a plan that was 99% strategy with 1% follow-up? Merlin, it was Slytherin planning right down to the letter. It could be stamped with MINIMAL RISK in big red type.
She didn't want to hope, but there it was anyway, a tendril rooting in her chest.
It still left her on the hook for this evening, though. If Draco was across town getting shown off by his mother, Hermione couldn't really justify staying at this infernal party a moment longer. Turning away from the thumping bass, she began the long walk home. It wasn't terribly cold, and she needed the time to clear her head anyway. There was quite a lot to think about.
Just as she was about to turn the corner, the very distinctive sound of someone Apparating echoed out of a nearby alley. Hermione stopped and squinted in the darkness.
Draco came running out. He didn't see her at all, turning immediately toward the Ministry party and sprinting down the sidewalk, dress robes billowing behind him.
"Malfoy!" she yelled, a dumb grin breaking over her face. She almost wanted to laugh. If Draco's strength was strategizing, maybe it was time to bring her skill set to the table. As Pansy had pointed out, bravery was her department.
He glanced over his shoulder and came to an abrupt stop, turning back at a jog. "Granger? What... Where are you going?"
"I was leaving, of course."
"Not enjoying yourself?" he asked, panting as he reached her. He looked both distinguished and sweaty. She found she rather liked it.
"Well, I couldn't find you," Hermione shrugged happily. "You're usually the only highlight at those things anyway."
Draco looked momentarily taken aback by the compliment, but adapted quickly. "Ah yes," he smirked. "I knew you had a soft spot for the cryptic grouch."
"Oh yes," she said with a serious expression. "Like a tonic for the soul."
His smirk flickered into a genuine smile, and he seemed quite content to just stand in the gathering storm with her.
"Right," Draco said, remembering himself. "Are you walking home?"
"Would you mind if I walked with you?"
Hermione imagined that his mother was probably losing her mind right now, likely having discovered her son's escape, foiling all her plans for the evening.
"I'd like that."
Draco offered his arm, and Hermione took it, trying not to smile too widely and failing. She couldn't help it. This was the happiest she'd felt in years.
"So where were you?" she asked.
"Oh, at a family event," he said, tucking her hand comfortably in the crook of his elbow. "I thought I could talk my way out of it, but I wasn't able to. Bloody boring as hell."
The snow was getting worse, but Hermione wasn't bothered. Let it hail for all she cared.
"I'm glad you came back when you did," she said. "Since you only let me talk to you once a year, I was disappointed to think I missed it."
He had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Look, I'm sorry about -"
She shrugged, enjoying the heat of his body against her side. "It's fine. I think I understand."
"Okay, I might not understand, but I forgive you anyway. I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate what you did for Ron."
Draco cleared his throat and mumbled something under his breath.
He sighed. "Come on, Granger. It was for you, not for Weasley."
"Ah," Hermione said. "I had hoped so."
"Did you really?" She could hear the smile in his voice.
"I did. I appreciate it anyway. He's still important to me, even if we're not together anymore." She felt a bit nervous now, knowing how obvious she was being. She might as well wave a flag. Very interested, have been for a while, thanks!
"I heard about the break-up," he said. "Are you... Alright?"
"It's been a really hard year, to be honest."
"I owe you an apology, Granger," he said, his voice a bit gruff. "I should have been there for you. Like a real friend would. I know you've been unhappy."
She shrugged again. Yes, actually, it would have been nice to have him there during the worst of it, but if she tried to say so now she would cry and she probably wouldn't stop.
"It'll get better," she said.
"I'm sure it will," he replied, and they turned onto a particularly picturesque street, blanketed in snow. "This isn't a bad way to start the year though, is it? New beginnings?"
Hermione smiled up at him, and then frowned, stopping abruptly. "Wait... Shouldn't you have a cigarette hanging out of your mouth?"
Draco looked down at her, his eyes betraying his nerves.
"I quit a year ago today, Granger," he said, his voice low. "I meant what I offered. I think you'll find that I always mean what I offer you."
Hermione made a quick decision, slid her hand behind Draco's neck, stretched up onto her toes, and pulled his lips against hers. She felt him inhale sharply, and he responded immediately, sighing into her mouth as his arms tightened around her shoulders. His nose was cold against her cheek, but his mouth was fantastically warm as it opened to her, moving almost desperately against hers. Adrenaline rocketed through them both, and when they pulled apart, they were breathing heavily.
"But it's not midnight yet," he said.
"I'm not kissing you for the occasion," she said, exasperated. "I'm kissing you because I want to."
"Very good," he panted, and then caught her in a firm kiss again, nearly lifting her off the ground he was holding her so tightly. Hermione let herself be held, feeling the shell of loneliness cracking and splintering off her as they swayed. They kissed for ages, not wanting to stop, letting their toes go numb as the minutes slid by. Snow continued to fall, covering them both in a thin layer of white.
Draco eventually pulled back and rested his forehead against hers.
"I didn't know if you would want this."
"You didn't let me tell you."
He grinned apologetically, cupping her cheeks with his hands. "I'll get better at the whole talking thing."
"Oh good. I was hoping we could start practicing now, since it's cold out here and there's hot tea at my flat."
"Is that an offer?"
"Maybe it is."
He frowned slightly, tracing her chin with his finger. "And you want to spend the evening... Talking?"
She smacked him on the arm. "Unless you'd prefer that I gag you."
"I'm intrigued," he chuckled, and then yelped ducking away from her hands until he managed to grab one in his own. "Come on, Granger! We have a new year to begin!"
They did not spend the evening talking, as their mouths were otherwise occupied.
Hermione woke up under the warmth of her duvet, coupled with the sweltering heat of a naked Draco Malfoy wrapped around her. He slept much like she would imagine an octopus would sleep, a discovery which brought her no end of delight.
"Oi, cephalopod, I need the loo," she whispered in his ear.
"Too many words," he groaned, tightening his grip.
She reflected on how long it had been since she felt this cherished, and decided she could hold it for a while. Draco began to snore.
The made breakfast together, an oddly domestic scene that continued throughout the morning as they read the papers and drank several pots of tea. Hermione's flat, which had lately been a depressing and lonely place, was immediately transformed into a warm, welcoming haven.
The dreamlike mood was broken quite abruptly by the arrival of an owl at the window, one Hermione didn't recognize, but could make a fair guess at its origins because of its sleek black feathers and impeccable breeding. It tapped angrily at the glass with its beak. Gods, even the owls of Malfoy Manor looked arrogant.
"I was wondering when this would happen," Draco frowned, taking the letter from the owl's foot and shooing him away. "She's getting started early."
"Your mother?" Hermione asked.
He hummed in the affirmative, reading the note as he walked back toward her, plopping down by her side and stretching an arm over her shoulders. He yawned, closed the letter, and tossed it onto the side table.
"So... Are you engaged?" she asked, her stomach dropping a bit.
He chuckled, tightening both arms around her and kissing the top of her head. "Someone's been talking to Pansy."
Hermione shrugged, feeling a touch defensive. Having just begun things with Draco, she didn't particularly like the idea of losing him to some Pureblood heiress. She quite liked him where he was.
"As much as my mother would like to believe she has that sort of power over me, she is not at liberty to engage me to someone."
"And in fact, her letter is a response to one I sent her late last night."
Hermione looked up at him, face screwed up in confusion. "When last night?"
"After you fell asleep," he murmured in her ear, trailing his fingers over her thigh. "You were a bit worn out. I didn't want to wake you."
She fought to keep her focus, not completely succeeding. "Right. And what... Oh! And what did you write?"
"I told her I was with you," he whispered into her ear, "And I said if she had a problem with that, she was welcome to take away my inheritance."
Draco chuckled and set about kissing his way up her neck.
"Don't worry, Granger. My mother has been telling me to get serious about someone for years. I'm just doing what she asked of me."
"But... But what did she say?"
Draco sighed and reached behind him, plucking the letter from the table. He held it open to her. In beautiful black script, there was one word.
"There. No need to worry. May I continue?" He scooped her up in an impressive embrace and ignored her shrieks, carrying her to the bedroom.
"Wait! Do you mean to tell me that your mother has no problem with... This?"
"Apparently not, but it wouldn't matter if she did."
Draco dropped her on the bed and crawled in after her, catching her lips in a long kiss. When he pulled back, he was grinning, happiness radiating out of him.
"Come on, Granger. I've got to learn this bravery thing somehow."