Bad Self Portraits
Disclaimer: Nope, still don't own anything you recognize! Title borrowed from the very awesome Lake Street Dive.
Hermione looked up from the scathing owl she had been in the middle of writing to see Malfoy standing in front of her desk, his hands in his pockets. How a man could still look elegant while engaging in such hapless body language, she didn't know. It probably had to do with his annoyingly perfect posture.
She sat up a little straighter in her chair. "Well what?"
"It's almost three o'clock on a Friday afternoon."
Hermione glanced at the clock. "Did I miss a meeting?"
Malfoy sat down in front of her desk. He grabbed the snitch paperweight Harry had sent her as a congratulations on her promotion six months ago, tossing it between his hands.
"Did you forget about your parents' 30th anniversary dinner tomorrow night?"
Hermione blinked at him, and then looked at her calendar. There it was, circled several times over with a thick black marker.
She sighed. "Momentarily, yes. But thank you for the reminder." She stared at him, then, the gears in her mind slowly starting to turn. She spoke slowly, quietly. "Are you free?"
He raised one silver eyebrow. "Free when?"
Hermione swore under her breath. Typical Malfoy to make this as humiliating as possible. "Tomorrow night. From seven thirty to ten pm."
He snorted. "I'm insulted that you think any portion of my weekend would be unoccupied on such short notice."
Hermione reached over and snatched her paperweight back, placing it back where it had been on her desk. "If you've just come over to taunt me, I have better things to do than dodge the glare coming off of your hair gel."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "It's a pomade, Granger. And I happen to know it's shine-free. It also," he said, standing up, "happens to smell like Peruvian apples."
Hermione called out to him, watching him walk away. "See you at seven thirty then!"
She sighed and went back to her owl, refreshing her ink. As soon as he was out of the door, she went back to slouching.
It was hard to explain what she and Malfoy were. This was what half-occupied her thoughts as she rummaged through her closet, trying to find something acceptable to wear to her parents' anniversary party. She wanted something pretty and elegant, but not too dramatic or showy. This seemed to be a tall order, however, as she kept tossing aside identical-looking work robes. She grabbed a few dresses and tried to tell just by examining them with her eyes if they still fit her. They were easily from years ago.
Malfoy wouldn't need an introduction to her parents. He knew them - though not closely. He had helped her restore their memories after the war. Her parents still frequently asked about him - the strange pale man who now had played an unforgettable part of their lives. He had been but an accessory to her that day, but something in the tone of her mum's voice sometimes made her wonder if perhaps, in their minds, he had taken on a larger life of his own. Perhaps it was a good thing to bring him tonight, then. Perhaps her mum would get to know him a little more and see that he was no one to wonder about.
They were friends. Or not. Something like? But not exactly. She still considered Harry, Ron and Ginny her closest friends. But no matter how much she tried, she couldn't quite place Malfoy in their ranks. Maybe it was her pride. Or just his personality. He could be such a self-righteous snot sometimes.
After she had torn through the last of her sad wardrobe, Hermione decided to get help.
A receiving line of dresses floated alluringly in front of Hermione. She pulled off her shapeless sweater, getting ready to try them on.
"I was wondering when you'd ever ask me for any help," Ginny mused aloud, pouring two cups of tea. "With all of your help with the wedding, I was wondering when I'd ever get to pay you back. I was getting quite hopeless, actually."
Hermione grabbed the first dress and made her way into the bathroom. She unzipped her trousers, pulling them down. "I really do appreciate you letting me borrow a dress, Ginny. I meant to go and look for one, but time got away from me."
"Time does have a way of doing that when you're working all the time," Ginny laughed. "I'm glad to help, Hermione. Now come out and let's have a look."
Hermione stepped out. It was a silky, knee-length dress with thin straps and a cinched waist. Ginny came around and muttered an adjustment spell to make the dress fit a little better.
"Pretty, but I think we can do better. I think the red dress will look great on you."
Hermione grabbed the red dress and went back into the bathroom to change.
"So who are you bringing to the party?" Ginny asked.
"Malfoy." Hermione determinedly shimmied into the next dress.
"Malfoy," Ginny repeated, from outside of the door.
"He happened to be free."
"Free? On a Saturday night? Doesn't he have an exotic cigar-smoking, diamond-trading, sex orgy to host?"
Hermione rolled her eyes, zipping up the dress and smoothing it out. "No, Gin. I'm afraid those are every other weekend." She stepped out of the loo into the living room, revealing dress number two.
Ginny set down her cup of tea, her eyes wide. "Bingo."
Hermione finally looked in the full-length mirror. It was an off the shoulder dress that showed off her décolletage and hit a few inches above the knee. It was a deep, crimson red, which brought out the olive hue in her skin.
"I look... quite pretty," Hermione said, blinking at her reflection. It'd been an embarrassingly long time since she'd seen herself in a dress. Having to purge corrupt workers and rebuild the Ministry, postwar, hadn't exactly allowed for many fancy parties to wear dresses to.
"More than pretty," Ginny grinned devilishly. "Very shaggable. I bet even Malfoy would agree."
She wrinkled her nose. "I'd prefer not to continue down that train of thought."
Ginny cackled. "Why not? Come on, Hermione. It's just us here. Tell me you haven't thought of it. You're bringing him tonight, to your parents' party, as your date-"
"We made it quite clear it wasn't an actual date-"
"Malfoy doesn't keep his weekend open for just anyone."
"There's no way you could possibly know that. For all we know, he could spend most of his nights at home, reading Tolstoy, in fuzzy socks."
"Any living soul with a Witch Weekly subscription knows Malfoy is quite busy on his weekends. And weeknights."
Ah yes. The conga line of pretty girls Malfoy had leading up to his bed. Hermione tried not to think too much about that.
"Which only further proves my point. He and I... he would never-"
"Never what?" Ginny said, raising her eyebrows at her.
"All right. I would never."
Hermione had gone down that road before. She and Ron hadn't worked out, ultimately. The war had changed them as people, and it had been unrealistic to think they could go back to what they could have had. The war had killed many people, and many things. Hermione and Ron's potential relationship had been one of them.
Not as to say Hermione hadn't ever thought of Malfoy that way. She did. Quite a lot. More than she would ever admit out loud, due to reasons - her dignity, first and foremost. Working with him at the Ministry didn't help. They'd grown close in ways she'd never dreamed, but there was still also... space. Space to wonder. Space for distance. Space for reinforcement. That was most important.
Ginny crossed her arms, her pretty face scrunched up in thought. "And why is that?"
"Because I know myself," Hermione said, simply. "And I know him. I like what we have, whatever it is. Civility. Sometimes."
Sure, they still argued until they turned blue in the face. Sure, they were both highly competitive. Sure, Hermione had a tendency of barging into his office when things in the department appeared to be going off the rails. And sure, only Malfoy seemed to have the very distinct superpower of being able to talk her down.
Her friend handed her a cup of tea. "Sure you do, Hermione." Ginny began to gather up the rest of her floating dresses, chuckling to herself. "That's the dress. I'm absolutely positive. And let's have this conversation again after you wear that to your parents' party, shall we?"
At promptly seven-thirty, Malfoy appeared in her living room. She heard the faint pop from where she was, in her bedroom. She pursed her lips, her fingers clumsily stumbling over the backing of her earring.
"You are aware it's illegal to take files from the Ministry to bring home," she heard him say. He had spotted her stack of papers next to her couch. "Even if it is to work some more."
Hermione glanced at the other stack of files next to her bed. Most nights she had the tendency of falling asleep catching up on the incomplete cases that had been forgotten about during the war. She quickly muttered a spell, and it slid underneath her bed, out of sight.
She took one last look at herself and headed into the living room.
Malfoy was sitting down, browsing through her Ministry files. He looked up when he heard her footsteps. His fingers froze on the page.
"Ready?" She only caught his eyes for a second. Her heart had started to pound uncomfortably in her chest. She didn't know what would happen if she held his gaze any longer than that. Permanent coronary damage, possibly.
He put down the file, standing up. He cleared his throat. "Don't think I won't report you for those files."
He held his arm out to her, and she took it, still avoiding his eyes. She could smell his aftershave, and she resisted the sudden urge to close her eyes and inhale.
With a Crack! they were gone.
Whatever mystery Hermione had hoped to vanquish about Malfoy by bringing him to the party was only amplified once he walked into her parents' house. Her hopes had been too high, she realized, as she watched every woman's gaze become hyperfocused on every detail of him. His hair, his eyes, his face, his build, his perfectly tailored clothes. His damned perfect posture.
"Darling! How nice of you to bring Draco," her mum said, kissing her on the cheek. She cast a long glance in his direction. Ah, her mum was also a little bit in love with him. Yes, this was a very bad idea after all. "Draco, it's very nice to see you again."
"We've been trying to get Hermione to bring you 'round more often," her dad said, unhelpfully, as he pulled him in for a firm handshake.
"Have you?" Malfoy said, one eyebrow inching up. There was a sudden glint in his eye that didn't bode well for Hermione. "Well, we've both been very busy, but things appear to be slowing down soon. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of each other once that happens."
"Let's get a drink," Hermione quickly suggested, cutting in. Her parents moved on to greet the newer arrivals and she pulled Draco to the bar.
"Funny, I don't recall you mentioning that your parents have been asking you to bring me 'round," Malfoy smirked.
"My poor parents are getting old and senile. I suspect I'll have to put them in a home soon so that it can be properly taken care of."
He poured himself a glass of scotch. "Would it be so absurd to you, Granger?"
Hermione was trying to decide between wine, vodka, or tequila. What could numb her with little effort without convincing her to take off her clothes?
"Would what be?"
"That decent people like your Muggle parents would want to get to know me."
Hermione laughed. "Oh, you? You, the former villain of my life and sanity?"
She looked up at him, smiling at her from just slightly above the rim of his glass of scotch. That look... their proximity... triggered funny sensations in her. And warning bells.
"Forever. Until the end of time. Always." She poured herself some wine because it was the closest bottle to her and she needed the distraction of pouring something.
After more introductions, they made their way to her parents' backyard. It was spacious and set up with little twinkle lights along with a few tables and chairs. People filtered in and out around them, speaking excitedly in jovial tones. Hermione was on her third drink. Malfoy was on his second.
"Look at that," Hermione observed dryly. "You've been in the Muggle world for about an hour and a half now and you still haven't broken out in hives."
"They're called delayed allergic reactions," he quipped, taking another sip of scotch.
"Everyone's wondering about you. Who is this strange, posh man Hermione's brought? I've been telling people that you're so pale because you've been locked in a cellar for most of your life and that you'd only felt the sun on your skin for the first time on your eighteenth birthday." Hermione set down her wineglass. "Unfortunately even that bizarre of a back story doesn't seem to thwart the lusty gazes of many of the women here. Or men."
"I think you're wrong," he said dismissively. "I don't think it's me they're wondering about. It's you."
"Me?" she scoffed. "I've known these people my whole life."
Malfoy shook his head. "You have the misfortune of seeing everything from your own stilted perspective. You'll never get to see how other people see you."
Hermione stared at him. Suddenly, everything around them felt fuzzy. The cacophony spilling over from the house now sounded like it was miles away. "Maybe I don't want to. Perhaps I'm just fine with my own 'stilted perspective.'"
There was something in Malfoy's demeanor and his voice that made her take note - made every buzzing inch of her lean closely, attentive. Thanks to her third glass of wine, her thoughts were uninhibited, able to run free in any direction they chose. Her third glass of wine noticed how devastatingly handsome he was, especially when he looked at her this way. How many women before her had adored him in precisely this respect? Loads. More than she could count. More than she wanted to know. Knowing that she might fall into the ranks of the many women who actually relished having Malfoy's attention on them... made her want to punch herself in the face.
There were moments with Malfoy that felt genuine, that sparked like two rocks hitting each other in precisely the right way. This was what tripped her up. These were what made her wonder, what left her with lingering questions. But she wondered if this was normal - if this was a common feeling Malfoy left, like some kind of hangover slash residue of his presence and rare, undivided attention. Hermione knew all about fool's gold. She didn't want to risk her own vulnerability for something that only sparkled from a distance but had no substance up close.
This is why civility was good. They might flirt, or toe the line, but this was simple. On the surface. They needn't acknowledge what was lurking underneath, because it would never ever see the light of day.
"And why is that?" he said. "Are you scared of what you might see?"
"What could I possibly be scared of? I've got a good job, friends, family, a nice life."
He snorted. "You forgot about your horrid cat."
"My lovely, horrid cat who detests you," Hermione grinned. Whenever she was feeling confused about Malfoy, Crookshanks' blatant hostility towards him served as a great reminder.
"You'd get shagged more if you got rid of the cat," he told her. "And don't say you're okay with it because it would officially make this conversation too sad."
"I realize this may be a foreign concept to you," she said, "but I actually value substance over a one night stand."
"Only someone who owns a cat would say something like that."
She rolled her eyes. "Please do us a favor and die a slow, painful death, Malfoy."
See? This was easy. Never mind that she sometimes drifted to sleep at night wondering how it would feel to kiss him, to get her hands tangled up in his hair, or to feel the solid strength of his body pressed up against hers. That kind of harmless wonder - she could easily live with that for the rest of her life.
She looked towards the sliding door to see her Aunt Belinda's head peeking out. "Your parents are making an announcement! You'd best get in here now!"
They left their drinks on the table and made their way inside, squeezing past the cluster of warm bodies congregated in their living room. In one strange moment, she almost reached out for Malfoy's hand as they made their way through – but caught herself just in time.
Her parents were in the front. Her father cleared her throat, and the chatter died down.
"Our sincerest thanks to everyone who came to celebrate with us tonight," her father started. "Thirty years of marriage is a long time, and you've supported us through it. Most of you we've known our whole lives, and you've seen our little Hermione grow up into a wonderful woman. Others we've met in other parts of our lives, but consider you family just as well. Tonight has been so full of love and warmth and we appreciate you all very much."
He paused. A sudden look on his face - hesitance - startled Hermione. A bad feeling suddenly planted itself at the base of her stomach.
Her mother, patting her father on the arm, spoke up instead. "This is a bit difficult for us, and we realize it's a bit unorthodox to do this at an event like this, but we wanted to tell you all at once, and in person. This seemed to be the most... efficient way."
Hermione felt a spike of fear now - her pulse had jumped to her throat. The temperature in the room rose exponentially. What was happening? What could her parents possibly be about to announce next?
Suddenly, she felt something warm and firm clasp around her hand. She didn't have to look down to see who it was.
"Theo and I..." her mother started. "We're getting a divorce."
Hermione sat at her parents' dining room table. It'd been a good half hour since everyone had left, all in shock of her parents' announcement. Hermione was still trying to shake off the uncomfortable silence that had greeted them after they had publicized their pending divorce. It must've only lasted a few seconds, but for Hermione it had felt like a decade.
A steaming cup of tea was set down in front of her. Her mum took the seat next to her dad. Their faces were like mirror images of each other - equally apologetic.
Malfoy was gone, of course. Hermione had shoved him out with the rest of the crowd. She'd barely had enough presence of mind to hear him offer to stay.
"We are terribly sorry we didn't tell you first, darling. We've tried to invite you for tea to the house the past few weeks, but you've been so busy."
Hermione groaned, covering her face. She'd thought her parents just wanted to "catch up" - pry innocently into her life over tea like all well-meaning parents. Never would she have suspected they wanted to tell her they were ending their thirty year marriage and also thinking of announcing it to their friends and family at a party celebrating their anniversary.
It all seemed so deranged. Efficient, yes. But oh so deranged.
"And we wanted everyone we cared about to hear it from us," her father added. "Straight from the horse's mouth."
"Never mind about tonight," Hermione said. "Are you really getting a divorce?"
"Yes," her mum said. "The paperwork's been signed. It just needs to go through the proper channels and then, poof! Divorce."
She stared at her parents, in awe of their calm - and even jolly - demeanor. Was she dreaming? Had she been drugged?
"Are you... I'm just not understanding. Do you hate each other now? Is that why you're doing it?"
"Of course we don't hate each other, darling. Quite the opposite, really. Your father and I will always love each other. We've been married thirty years, after all. We've both just decided that it's time to part ways. You're an adult now, a proper one - you don't need us to be together."
"Well, is there someone else?"
Her parents looked at each other. "Not really, no."
"So," said Hermione, "let me get this straight: you're just deciding to get a divorce. Even though you're not in love with anyone else. And you still love each other. After thirty happy years of marriage."
"Very happy years of marriage," her mum added.
A soft whine erupted from Hermione's throat. "Really not helping, Mum."
"The truth is, Hermione - we've decided that it's time to explore other avenues in our lives. As separate people. Your mum wants to go to Paris and live there. I want to go fishing. In the middle of arguing about which one we ought to do together, we realized - we don't have to choose. Your mum and I love each other dearly, but after a lot of consideration, we realized how comfortable we are with the idea of... not being married to each other any longer."
Hermione struggled with the amicable terms her parents had come to over their divorce. It wasn't that Hermione believed her parents should be married forever, it was just that she had assumed they would be married forever. In all of the time she had known them - her whole life - they had seemed like a perfectly decent married couple. For one, her parents actually liked each other, as people - in addition to loving each other. They were considerate and tender. They kissed each other goodbye, even if they were just running to the store to get eggs.
And now that was ending. Not even in some overly dramatic, agonizing way - there was no yelling, no crying, no intimidating threats of a later-realized mistake. She didn't even know things could end this way. So quietly.
It felt surreal.
"You're not unhappy with us, are you?" her mum asked, reaching out to hold her hand. "Or hurt?"
How could she be? Her parents obviously were not hurting, or grieved. As a matter of fact, she wasn't sure if she could feel anything else right now besides confusion.
"I'm not unhappy with you," she said, but it felt hollow in her mouth as she said it. "I think I just need to... acclimate to the news."
"We're here for you if you need anything, darling."
Hermione almost laughed. How perverse was this? Her parents were getting divorced and they were the ones offering her comfort.
"I think I'm going to leave now," Hermione said, stiffly getting up. Ginny's dress was wrinkled. Hermione, suddenly, didn't feel quite so pretty in it anymore, and she was sorry to do that to this dress.
"Good night, my sweet daughter," her dad said, kissing her on the head. "Sorry for the mess. Do tell Draco it was good to see him, will you? He seemed quite keen on coming 'round."
She hugged her parents goodbye and then looked around their dark, silent kitchen. Their kitchen - in their house. Their house, which had bore witness to her parents' thirty years of marriage, and now had to see it end.
"What's going to happen to the house?" Hermione called out to her parents.
She heard their footsteps pause on the stairs.
"Dunno yet," said her dad. "If your mum doesn't want it, we'll sell it, I reckon."
When Hermione Apparated home, she was surprised to see someone waiting for her. She felt a flip in her chest when she realized who it was, and had a brief flashback to earlier in the night - when his hand had clasped around hers, right before her parents had been about to make their announcement. Had he done that on purpose? Or had he also felt the rising dread and acted on reflex, as if to say - 'Don't do anything bonkers, not while I have to be seen with you'?
And now here he was, laying down on her couch, halfway through her Ministry files. He'd made himself a cup of tea, as well. In her favorite mug.
"I didn't invite you in," Hermione frowned, seeing him. "You're trespassing."
"Once someone's invited in, they're always welcome."
"That's only for vampires."
He set down the file he was in the middle of reading, getting a good look at her. "You look like hell."
"Please go away," Hermione sighed. "I'm currently mentally incapable of throwing back any of your quips on how utterly fucked up tonight was."
"That's all right," he smirked. "I wrote them all down earlier so I wouldn't be tempted to say them to you."
She collapsed on her armchair, scowling at him. "Why are you here?"
"We've got that meeting with the new contractors on Monday. I wanted to make sure you didn't stick your head in the oven before we could get them to sign the papers."
Hermione laughed. Not a normal laugh, by any means - it sounded manic. She felt so drained, she was sure she was on the brink of deliria.
"Cheer up, Granger. Couples get divorced all the time. Let's not pretend the institution of marriage is all it's cracked up to be. It's against human nature to promise yourself to someone for the rest of your life. For one, the human lifespan has increased, and the miracles of modern grooming has revealed more people to become potential mates."
"I know you're trying to comfort me, but all you're making me want to do is punch you in the nose. Besides, it's not the divorce that throws me... it's my parents. They're not in love with anyone else. They still love each other, in fact. The past thirty years have been the happiest of their lives. But now, all of a sudden, they want to be... separate. Live in separate houses, and live separate lives."
How did that even happen, Hermione wondered. How could two people decide that so cleanly?
"Your parents getting divorced after thirty years isn't abnormal," Malfoy assured her. "It was just a matter of time."
It was moments like these that reaffirmed Hermione's hunch that things could never work out with Malfoy. It wasn't even that she believed in the fairytale ending – she wasn't naïve – but she didn't think she could ever be with someone who was so... unabashedly cynical.
Still. He had come here and waited for her, hadn't he?
"I locked your cat in the loo, by the way."
"Good night, Malfoy," she said, giving him a pointed look and getting to her feet. "I'm sure you were able to leech enough joy from having to witness the worst night of my life."
He stood up, walking over to her. She could see orange cat hair all over the dark fabric of his blazer.
"I know that some parts of tonight were pretty horrid," he told her. His gaze was steady, reassuring. It had depth to it, like it had layers. "But is it possible that perhaps not all of it was so terrible?"
"Good job on getting them to agree to our terms," Malfoy said, coming up beside her as they walked away from the meeting room.
"It's amazing what a stern look and a thinly veiled threat will get you," she replied. She told herself that she should feel happy. Accomplished. This contractor had been a pain in their arse for a few months now, and this marked the beginning of a legal agreement to play nice with each other.
Suddenly, Hermione felt him grab her arm as he pulled them into an empty conference room. He closed the door behind him.
"Oy! You can ask nicely!" Hermione grumbled.
He didn't let go of her arm. His face was awfully close to hers, and his eyebrows were furrowed together in a look of concern. This she noticed. "Listen," he said, before pausing. "Are you all right?"
Hermione blinked at him. "Is this genuine concern or is this the beginning of a strange psychological experiment where you convince me you're actually capable of the full spectrum of human emotion?"
A look of annoyance quickly replaced whatever had been there in the first place. "I'll take that as a resounding yes."
He stepped back, and Hermione felt a pang of guilt.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I'm just… doing quite well focusing on work. I'd like to keep it that way for a few days, at least."
"Fine," he said, nodding. "Back to work it is, then." He opened the door and left her there, alone.
She stood there for a minute or two, comprehending what had just happened. She could still smell his cologne in the air. Spicy and musky and crisp. Her own personalized scent of torture.
Today, Hermione Granger was fulfilling her role as a good daughter by helping her father look for a new bachelor flat in London.
"Shouldn't we wait until the papers have gone through?" Hermione asked, leaning against the doorway as he searched through his study for the listings he'd printed out.
"Flats in London get snatched up quickly, you know that, darling," he said. He finally found it underneath a stack of old bills. "Especially the ones that fit in the very limited budget of a retired dentist. I'd rather not take any chances." He slipped the paper in his pocket and smiled up at her. "Ready?"
Hermione said goodbye to her mum and got into her father's car. It was misting outside already, which meant that it would be pouring in the city by the time they arrived.
"So," Hermione said, leaning in to adjust the heater. "Why London?"
Her dad chuckled. "I lived there when I was a lad. I met your mum there, at The Bear and Cross."
"So for nostalgia, then. Not because it's the hub for meeting young professionals and buzzing nightlife."
"I'll never be bored, which certainly doesn't hurt."
Hermione had no idea what that meant. She imagined him at the pub, surrounded by young people in their hip, tight-fitting clothes, trying to catch the eye of a woman wearing too much eyeliner and a see-through blouse. It was enough to make her cringe.
"Are you... planning to date?"
"Sure, down the road," he said, casually. He glanced at her. "Whenever I'm ready."
Hermione nodded, silently trying to coax herself into acceptance. This was real. For a brief time, the few days after the party, she'd been half convinced that perhaps it was all talk. That maybe they'd change their minds. But now it was getting realer and realer. Her dad was actively looking for a place to live in London. Her mum was looking into renting a villa in Paris with some girlfriends.
So quickly, her parents suddenly felt like strangers to her. Had she just not been paying attention? What else could she have missed?
"Enough about me," her dad said. "How about you? How's work? Are you dating anyone? What about that Draco?"
She turned her head to stare out of the window at the gray, rain-streaked landscape. "Work is just fine. And I'm not dating Draco, Dad."
"Well, why not? He's a handsome bloke. Perfectly mannered. The talk of the party, really - until, well."
"We're just friends."
"Are you?" her father mused aloud. "I was watching the two of you a little bit that night. You look at him differently."
"Differently?" she scoffed, perhaps a little too passionately. "As opposed to what?"
"The way you look at Harry and Ron. With those two, there's respect and friendly affection. With Draco, it's different. A bit more... murky."
"Malfoy and I have a... complicated history. We didn't get along in school."
"But you get along now."
"We work together," she said, for emphasis. "And as for getting along - that varies on a day-to-day basis."
"But you brought him to our party." He glanced at her again, an impish smile on his face. "That must mean something."
Hermione scowled. What was the matter with people - trying to create layers and depth to something that didn't have any? They were trying to complicate something that was so very simple. The whole reason she brought Malfoy to the party was because of the very simple relationship she had with him.
"You are within your own right to speculate whatever tickles your fancy, Dad," she said. "But we're just friends."
Her dad laughed. "If you mean it, then I believe you, darling."
The first listing they checked out was on the eighth floor of a brick building with an out of order elevator. They trudged up the stairs, sopping wet, until they finally reached the apartment. It was a studio apartment with a window facing nothing but the backside of another building and a loo that would feel claustrophobic to even the smallest person on the continent.
They didn't have much luck with the second, except that the loo was slightly bigger and could almost fit a full adult male.
Afterwards, they crossed the street to have lunch at The Bear and Cross.
"I can't believe this is still here," her dad said as they took a seat in one of the booths. Hermione's stomach was growling. Had she known about the flights of stairs she'd have to tackle today, she would have at least had breakfast. "It doesn't look much different, either. Although, everyone's certainly... younger."
Hermione looked around. It was still early, so business wasn't booming, but there was a considerable crowd. Most were her age, or in their early to mid thirties. One of the men waiting at the bar and wearing a baseball hat grinned at her.
They each ordered hot food and a beer. Shouts came from one corner of the pub from some kind of televised sporting match.
"So," Hermione said, popping a chip in her mouth. "You met Mum here."
"Right over there," he said, nodding to a space between the bar and the door. "Right next to the loo. It'd been a packed night - always is on Fridays, especially with the university so close by. My rugby team had just lost a match - nothing new, we hardly ever won - and came here to, well, celebrate our failure. You should know I'd been dating someone else at the time, a French Literature major. And then I saw your mum. She was here with a few friends - obviously forced to come, judging from the scowl on her face. She wore these big glasses that only intensified the misery in her eyes. I found her fascinating."
"Fascinating? I hope that wasn't what you led with when you talked to her."
He shook his head. "It wasn't that she wasn't a looker. She was. It was just that there was something else, too. Something more."
"And you can tell that from looking at someone?"
"Well, you can have a hunch, can't you? Then I went over and talked to her. Smart as a whip. Almost wouldn't give me the time of day."
Hermione had seen photos of her parents at university. Her dad had been very jocklike, despite the fact that he was on his rugby team for four years and almost never won a match. Her mum looked more the part of a sullen intellectual, which usually wouldn't add up - but that changed when they were together. She'd never seen a picture of them together when they weren't laughing, or touching each other in some way. Even now.
It almost hurt to think about. Hermione looked at her dad's face, as if expecting to see some kind of semblance of pain, but instead he was just smiling affectionately at the memory.
That must be how closure feels, she thought to herself. When it didn't hurt to think about something anymore.
"I know this isn't easy for you, Hermione," her dad said. "I know coming along to look for flats with me isn't the best way to spend your Saturday. I want you to know that your mum and I... we're okay. Really. We are. And this doesn't mean we won't be a family anymore. You and your mum will always be my family."
Hermione nodded, trying to swallow the stone lodged in her throat. Why did some reassurances always still feel like goodbyes?
"This isn't the end," he said, softly.
Except that it was, Hermione thought to herself. It was the end of what used to be.
The last two listings were an improvement, and actually promising. One of the agents gave them his business card, and her dad gingerly tucked it away. They drove back home with her dad in high spirits. He was going to see if there were any other potential listings he missed, but he felt good about this one, and said he might put an application in by next week.
Hermione stayed for dinner. Her dad filled in her mum all about their day, including details about the different places they checked out. He asked her mum about the villa in Paris, and the preparations she and her girlfriends were making. It was all so casual and friendly - sitting there, in between it all, made Hermione lose her appetite.
She Apparated home and found herself staring at her kitchen sink, trying to digest her day. Then she went to her desk and quickly scribbled an owl, sending it off. Ten minutes later, she received a reply. She made sure Crookshanks had enough water and food before she Apparated over.
She'd been to his manor a few times, although usually never this late. She was surprised to have gotten a reply so quickly, but she figured this meant he'd been in his study, working.
His house elf opened the door and directed her to his study.
Just as she suspected, he was behind his desk, drinking a glass of scotch.
"I didn't think you'd respond," she said, sitting down. He was still wearing a collared shirt and trousers. Did he even own pajamas? Hermione paused that train of thought. Did he sleep in the nude? "According to the Witch Weekly gossip column, your weekend evenings are usually occupied by sex orgies."
He smirked at her. "They really should hire a fact checker. Those are every other weekends." He closed his folder. "Plus, I don't normally get late night visits from you, so I suspected this was some kind of emergency."
Hermione suddenly felt uncomfortable. It wasn't an emergency, not really. She had just wanted someone to talk to. No, not someone. Malfoy. Someone who could insult her back to feeling sane, and annoy her enough to make her believe she was emotionally equipped to handle the world.
Plus, they hadn't seen each other since that awkward moment they'd had in the empty conference room. She'd felt so embarrassed about it that she thought it might be good to give him some space.
"It's not an emergency," she said. She bit her lip. "Do you want me to leave?"
He regarded her seriously, as if trying to see into her brain. "Do you want to leave?"
"Not really, no." It surprised her to discover how much she meant this.
He got up and poured her a drink. Scotch. All he had around here was scotch. He handed it to her, their fingers brushing against each other's from the exchange. She felt the little hairs on the back of her neck rise.
"I took my dad flat-hunting today in London," she said, after downing half her drink. "We had lunch at the pub where he met my mum. The Bear and Cross."
It sounded stupid to say out loud. She realized it now. Everywhere around the world, tragedies and atrocities were happening. Cities were being bombed. People were being held as political prisoners for voicing a critical opinion about their government. People didn't have clean water to drink. And here she was, emotionally bereft over... the idea of her dad moving out of her childhood home.
She laughed at herself, covering her face with her hands. "Merlin, I sound like an idiot."
"You're a lot of things, Granger," he said, amused. "But you're not an idiot."
"Oh, I think I've been veering quite deep into idiot territory these past few weeks."
"You're acclimating. It's normal," he drawled. "Or so I've heard."
"I should be happy for my parents. They seem to be happy. But I can't help but feel... protective of what we had, as a family. It feels like what we had wasn't real - except I know it was. I know that endings don't change everything that happened up until then. But what I know isn't translating into how I feel."
She hadn't told anyone this, or even anything similar to this. Not Ginny. Not Harry. Not Ron. Why did it feel okay to do around Malfoy, whom she knew she wasn't as close to? Perhaps he felt safe. He was far enough from the situation (despite his literal proximity during the actual night it happened) that he could be objective. He would set her straight.
"I know I'll get there, eventually," she said, hoarsely. "But it's oddly difficult, right now."
"Change is always hard, Granger. It means living in a chronic state of discomfort for however long it takes for us to get used to it. It's a process," he said. "But there is light at the end of the tunnel. One day you'll wake up and it won't be the first thing that pops into your head."
Hermione looked up, absorbing his words. He was standing there, just looking at her. His expression was unreadable, and it made her nervous, and made the room feel too small and hot at the same time.
"I'm sorry for that day, in the conference room," she said, looking away. She stared at the rows of old books behind his desk – her eyes tracing the delicate gold lettering on their spines. She wondered how many of those books he'd read. Had he read them all? "Sometimes it's hard to tell, with you and me."
"Hard to tell what?"
She licked her lips, pausing in thought. "What's just snark and what's... real."
"Real," he repeated. "This is real, isn't it?" he said. "Right now. You coming here to tell me about your mum and dad."
"Yes," she said.
"And what about at your parents' party? Did any of that feel real?"
Hermione swallowed hard, pressing her palms together on her lap. "Some parts."
She wasn't sure. No - she wasn't sure she wanted to say them out loud, in case she was wrong. She still wasn't quite convinced he'd actually reached out and held her hand. It felt like such a chaotic moment in time that maybe she'd dreamt it up, as a coping mechanism. As a distraction.
"I don't know," she said, hesitantly. "Why?"
He set down his glass on his mahogany desk. It was empty now. "Because I'm trying to figure this out, Granger. I'm not sure either, what's real and what's not. You took me to your parents' party. Now you're here, talking to me. Not Potter. Not Weasley. I used to think I was quite low on the ladder of important people in your life, so I tried not to think much of it. But it's been... bloody difficult, not to think of it."
Hermione stared at him. She was quite sure there was something in her chest that was on fire. Just heat, heat simmering everywhere on her body. What was he saying to her? What did he want?
She could barely get the words out. "Think of what, exactly?"
His mercurial eyes were dark. Serious. "How you feel about me."
Something inside her reeled. His words felt like a chest-punch. A sudden, thick wave of panic covered her thoughts. Was this it? The end? Was this the part where he let her down gently - telling her that it was best they kept their relationship professional?
She'd made a mistake bringing him to the party that night. An even bigger mistake coming here. A deep, perverse lapse in judgment.
She stood up. So quickly that blood rushed to her head and made her feel dizzy. "I think I should go."
She exited his study and made a beeline for the entrance of his manor, nearly running down the stairs. She heard his footsteps behind her. He had longer legs - surely he would catch up to her. She noted this with both dread and certainty.
He grabbed her arm, turning her around. "Granger, wait."
"I thought we were good!" she blurted, all flushed and frazzled. "You and I. Civil, sometimes. But simple. And friends, sort of."
His eyebrows furrowed. "You don't even know what to call us."
"Colleagues," she said, trying again, but the word came out weak and halfhearted.
There was a glint of victory in his eyes. "I don't see you giving a late night visit to Ernie MacMillan to tell him about your parents' divorce."
"That's different," she said. "He never turns in his reports on time."
"Why are you so bloody afraid to be honest with me?" he asked, firmly.
"Because it'll change things, and things are already changing too much." There. That was her being honest. "What do you want from me, Malfoy?"
"I want to know I'm not mad," he said, and for one, shocking, blissful moment, she saw his cool facade crack. "That you feel it, too. Whatever this is – this insufferable, maddening, shitstorm of confusion. You and I are too smart to acknowledge it. We're too proud. But I need to know-" his voice cracked, closing his eyes. Just for a second, and then they were back on hers again. Pleading. "I need to know I'm not mad."
Hermione was stunned. She hadn't expected this part. She'd always thought the attraction had been one-sided - sure, there'd been times when she'd felt his eyes on her, but she wasn't the type to assume. Plus... it made no sense. She'd seen the pictures of his dates in Witch Weekly. That was what had kept her strong, and kept her from blurring the lines on the few occasions she'd seriously considered it while in a slightly inebriated state - the knowledge that nothing could ever happen between them.
Her heart felt cramped in her chest, as if it had grown too large, too fast. "You're not mad," she whispered, softly.
A flash of hope rippled across his face.
"But it won't work," she said, pulling away. "We're too different, you and I." For a moment, she almost wasn't sure if she was talking to him, or simply trying to convince herself.
He scowled at her. "Different? Since when does that matter?"
"Since always," she argued. "You forget that I know you, Malfoy. I read Witch Weekly, too - despite the mind numbing trash that it is," she muttered. "I know your habits. I won't open myself up to be hurt – not even -" she said, her voice wavering, "-not even by you."
He was shaking his head, a determined scowl setting on his lips. "It's different with you, Granger."
"It's always different with someone until it isn't," she insisted. She thought about her mum and dad. How they used to say they knew they were the one because it was just different. But that part ends, she knows now. Everything ends.
"So this is what you want, then," he growled. "Brightest Witch of Her Age, Hermione Granger's brilliant plan: to abstain from our feelings. To deny ourselves what we actually want."
"What I want," she said, "is for things not to change. Not with you. Anyone but you."
"Too late," he said. His face was livid - something she hadn't seen in a long time. "You can show yourself out."
He walked away from her, slamming the door to his study. As instructed, Hermione numbly showed herself out.
The facts were these:
1. After thirty happy years of marriage, Hermione's parents were getting divorced.
2. In her adamant insistence that nothing change with Malfoy, things did, in fact, change with Malfoy.
It was lucky for her that they were no longer obligated to see each other much now that the contractors had signed the papers. Now their roles were just to track and help with implementation, as well as crunch the numbers. They could very well do all of this through owl, or so she hoped.
Still, they still had their high level meetings, in which she had to sit there and actively try not to stare at him, all the while silently hemorrhaging on the inside. It was strange how much space a person could take up in your life, much of which one could only realize after they had already ripped themselves out of your orbit. Also strange was how much she could miss him. But perhaps this shouldn't have surprised her. Her feelings towards Malfoy had always swung towards the extremes - extremely annoyed, extremely unnerved, extremely... something.
But after a week of stewing in how torturous this all was, she decided to be the adult that she was and engage in a dialogue with him. Why not? The worst he could do was tell her he never wanted to see her again. How was this different from the hostility she'd had to put up from him during school?
She knocked on his door. He looked up from the document he was reading. His passive expression soured immediately.
"Can we talk?"
He set down his file, and she closed the door behind her.
"Has an issue come up with the contractors?"
"No," she said. She wrung her hands underneath his desk, where he couldn't see. "The contractors are fine. For now, anyway. Kingsley's still reviewing all of the agreements but I don't expect there'll be any amendments."
"Good. Anything else?"
Hermione knew he didn't want to talk about it, but she'd faced more frightening resistance before. A band of Death Eaters, for one. "I want us to be friends."
He stared at her, his eyes narrowing. "Friends," he repeated.
"Like how we were, before. Can't we just forget that night ever happened?"
"You mean that night when we admitted we had feelings for each other but you rejected me because you thought I wouldn't treat you with honor and respect?" He raised one eyebrow at her. "Is that the night you are referring to?"
Hermione flinched. "I didn't say that you wouldn't treat me with-"
"You didn't need to. I didn't get to where I am in the Ministry by failing to read between the lines, Granger."
"So that's it, then?" she said, her voice rising. "It's all or nothing? Either we become something more or we're nothing?"
"Not nothing," Malfoy said, simply. "We're colleagues, remember?"
Hermione felt a hollow thud in her chest at his words. Colleagues. Damn it. Why did it sound so much colder when he said it?
"Leave the door open on your way out," he said, turning back to his papers. "I have a meeting with the new Aurors from DAA at two o'clock."
Hermione was surrounded by boxes. Empty boxes, boxes that were half-filled, boxes for donation. Her parents had begun to separate their belongings - items with the pink post-its were her mum's, items with the green post-its were her dad's, and items with the yellow post-its were items to be sold or donated. There were also a few orange stickies - these were the items they hadn't decided on yet.
Her father had landed the flat in London, so she had agreed to come and help him pack. She came around with a box, packing away his books and his college sweatshirts. Her mum was helping pack up his clothes. Her dad was still putting stickies on everything he'd missed in the first round. When her mum decided it was too quiet, she put on one of their favorite folk records from the 1960s, letting it play twice through as they packed.
Packing was usually therapeutic to Hermione, but today it made her feel distracted, sullen, and anxious all at once. Seeing her parents' belongings divided up made her emotional, even though she didn't dare show it. Her mum had asked her if she could sort out the items in her own room too, if Hermione had the time.
Her mum made them sandwiches for lunch. They ran out of boxes, so Hermione drove over to the store to grab a dozen more. When she walked through the door, her mum and dad were hunched together, in near tears laughing over an old photograph. It had been taken on their honeymoon in Maui. They didn't care to explain the backstory that was so hilarious to Hermione, and Hermione couldn't bring herself to ask.
She stayed for supper and they began putting all of the items to be sold at the garage sale in the living room. Old records, Hermione's encyclopedias, old clothes she'd outgrown, dusty stuffed animals. Piles of belongings. In they went – in boxes and trash bags.
When her exhaustion finally caught up to her, she slipped out to the backyard to take a break. After a few minutes, she heard the soft groan of the sliding door as her mum stepped out and joined her.
"Are you all right, darling?" she asked. "You've been quieter than normal today."
"I've got a lot on my mind, I suppose." She'd been in a weird emotional funk these last few weeks. She didn't know how much of that she could blame on Malfoy. She didn't know how much of that she could blame on her parents.
"If you're uncomfortable helping us with all of this, your father and I completely understand."
Hermione shook her head. "It's not that, Mum. I'm glad to help."
They sat in silence for a little while. Hermione had spent a lot of time in this backyard, stargazing. She'd miss it when it was gone.
"You know, if you want this house..." her mum said. "Your father and I would be glad to give it to you. You'll be getting married soon, having a family..."
"I don't know," Hermione said, quickly. "I mean, I don't know if I'll be doing that... here."
Her mum blinked, as if not understanding. "Here. You mean... here, in the world without magic."
"I'm open to it, but I work in the Wizarding World, Mum."
"Well, you could work here."
Hermione laughed. "I don't think my experience would exactly translate on my resume."
"Your Uncle Ed still owns his dental practice. I'm sure he'd have no problem finding you a nice, cushy job there."
She looked at her mum, feeling a resounding pang in her heart of... sadness. She couldn't explain why, except that it was the first time she'd realized what it was her parents hoped for her. Not as to say they didn't love the magical part of her - they'd always supported her in no matter what she did, but she was starting to realize that perhaps they thought she'd get it out of her system and then come back. Be a Muggle. Have a Muggle family. Work in the lucrative Granger family practice of dentistry.
For a second she wondered what Malfoy would say if she'd told him that - that eventually she would give up magic and come back to the Muggle world. She imagined he'd call her an idiot. He'd go on an annoyed spiel about her wasting her talents and knowledge. Then he'd insult Muggles, inevitably.
She cringed. She reminded herself that she really had to stop thinking about him.
"I appreciate it, Mum," she said. "I'll think about it."
"Good. Your father and I worry about you, you know. Living over there, working so hard, having been what you went through at school... We know you've got plenty of friends there. Harry and Ron are perfectly sweet fellows. But when you brought Draco to the party, we'd hoped... Well."
Hermione laughed, small tears stinging her eyes. Oh, how it seemed everyone had hoped.
"That's sweet of you, Mum, but Draco and I... we're not friends anymore."
"Why ever not?"
"Just..." She struggled to find the words. "Complications."
Her mum looked at her, thoughtfully. "There'll always be complications, my darling. It's a symptom of our complex nature as human beings - our ability to conjure up a vast array of reasons not to do something. There'll always be reasons not to risk it, not to be vulnerable. Nothing in life will ever be simple, because we do our best to muddy things up. It's basic self-preservation, I think."
She sighed, wrapping an arm around Hermione, hugging their heads together, close. Hermione leaned in, as if her mum was about to divulge an ancient, powerful secret to her.
"But I like to think we find the things worth being brave for. Not everything works out in the end - I know you know that, dear. Especially with everything happening between your father and I." She felt pressure on her hand - her mum's hand, warm and soft and lived in, grasping hers. "But that doesn't mean they're not worth doing."
"It looks like it's going to be a beautiful day for a wedding!"
Hermione squinted up at the sky. Heavy, gray clouds had lingered in the sky for most of the week, prompting Ginny to conjure a backup plan in case the weather decided not to behave. But alas, the universe showed up in her favor - a pleasant, baby blue sky greeted them, barely a cloud in sight. The sun was warm and welcome on her skin. It was going to be a beautiful day for a wedding, indeed.
Hermione walked into the Burrow, her arms occupied by bridesmaids' dresses from Madam Toussaint's. The Burrow was bustling with preparations - cakes being frosted, things being arranged, the gargantuan tent being raised outside. It was hectic but jolly - something she'd come to associate with the Burrow from all of the time she'd spent there in the past. Hermione said hello to Molly, Arthur and the rest of the Weasleys before heading up the stairs to Ginny's room.
Ginny was sitting down, dressed in a silk robe, with Luna doing her hair. The sunlight was streaming in from the window, making Ginny's hair glow like firelight.
Hermione hung up the dresses in the corner, smoothing them out. They were beautiful – the color of champagne – and shimmered just ever so faintly in the light.
"You can't believe how relieved I am that the sun came out," Ginny sighed, smiling. "For once, I'd love to attend a wedding that didn't end with everyone getting soaked."
"Looks like you got your wish," Hermione said. "Is there anything I can help with?"
Ginny clapped her hands joyfully. "Yes! Get dressed and get yourself prettied up!"
Hermione got dressed and helped Luna get ready as well, before assisting with getting Ginny into her wedding dress. It was a long, lace dress, hugging her impeccably at her curves. She had a short train - enough for some drama, but not enough to worry about tripping over. When they were finished, Hermione found herself getting quite emotional, seeing her friend in her wedding dress.
"You look beautiful, Ginny," Hermione whispered, her voice catching.
"You're going to be Mrs. Potter soon," Luna said, dreamily. "Are you nervous?"
"Not at all," Ginny said, her eyes shining.
Ginny asked for some privacy, so Hermione and Luna went down to help raise the tent, along with situating the tables and chairs. The place cards were set and the flowers arrived. The men disappeared to get ready, but not before Ron came to speak with her.
"Hermione!" he said, smiling. He pulled her in for a tight hug. "How are you?"
"I'm well," she said. "How about you? How is it in Romania? I've enjoyed the postcards, by the way. It's nice to see your eyebrows grew back just in time for the wedding."
Ron chuckled, self-consciously touching his face. "Lucky it was just a singe. I've seen worse." He sobered, his blue eyes and ginger hair stark against the white tent. "Listen, I heard about your parents. I'm sorry."
Hermione shook her head. "Don't be. They seem perfectly fine."
"Well, if you need anything," he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I'm leaving to go back to Romania in two weeks. I know you're busy with the Ministry and helping your parents, but it would be nice if-"
"Of course," Hermione said, observing how his cheeks began to color. "Just tell me where and when."
"Good," Ron grinned. "I'll see you later then."
Kingsley Shacklebolt officiated Harry and Ginny's wedding outside the Burrow, dressed in silver robes and a bright, wide smile. Hermione couldn't hide her tears during the ceremony. Even with everything that was happening, she felt nothing but joy for her friends. She was overcome with it, really. There was no room left to feel anything else.
They settled into the tent after the ceremony, with Hermione helping friends and family find their tables. Just as she was about to sit down, she saw Ginny waving her over.
"Everything okay?" she asked, leaning down. The food was being served and the toasts would be starting soon.
"Everything's lovely. I just - Harry just told me, I'm so sorry-"
"What is it?"
Ginny took a deep breath, her eyes scanning the crowd. "Turns out Blaise had caught the tail end of a misfired hex at their last mission, so he couldn't come. He asked Malfoy to come in his place instead. But I haven't seen him yet - so maybe he's not coming after all?"
Hermione suddenly became aware of her heart's presence in her chest, on account of the sudden force it was exerting against her ribcage. "Don't worry about it, Ginny. We're adults. We can handle ourselves."
With one last apologetic look from Ginny, she rushed back to her seat just in time for Arthur Weasley to begin his speech.
Throughout the reception, Hermione warily kept her eyes out. The toasts had finished and he hadn't arrived yet. Perhaps Ginny was right - maybe he wasn't coming after all. After all, he'd known Hermione was going to be here. Maybe that was enough of a deterrent in itself.
At that thought, she bristled. So he wouldn't come to a perfectly enjoyable event just because she was going to be there. If he could so easily be scared off, then he was petty and didn't deserve to be here.
Harry and Ginny cut the cake, and after the cake was served, they started the music. The dance floor filled quickly with couples. Hermione watched Ginny and Harry, smiling to herself. She could see how happy they were - the tent could have blown off above their heads and they wouldn't have noticed.
Hermione, lulled by the slow music, sank into her thoughts. So Malfoy wasn't going to show. That wasn't very surprising. Maybe, after the wedding, she could just show up at his manor. She could hex him into listening to what she had to say. It'd been awhile since she'd practiced her Petrificus Totalus.
"Hermione." Hermione looked up to see a hand being offered to her. "May I have this dance?"
She plastered on a smile, standing to her feet. "Of course you may, Ron."
Ron led her out into the dance floor for a slow dance. He placed his hands on her waist and she laced her fingers around the back of his neck. She realized she'd never slow danced with Ron before. Helped save the Wizarding World from tyranny, yes. But slow danced, never.
They both glanced over at Harry and Ginny dancing, towards the center of the room. The newlyweds were blissfully unaware of all of the couples around them.
"Makes you wonder, doesn't it," Ron said, smiling.
"How things might've been," he said, turning back to her. "With you and me, had things worked out."
Hermione kept her eyes on Harry and Ginny, her mind flashing back to Hogwarts. How infuriatingly smitten she'd been with Ron, not so long ago. Back then, every little thing he did either brought her great rage or euphoria. Rage when he was being cruel or just plain clueless. Euphoria when the moments of clarity over his own feelings set in – although, admittedly, those were few and far between.
Ron was chuckling softly. "Do you think we'd be married by now?"
It was hard to imagine. "I don't know," she admitted.
He nodded, thoughtful. "I've had a lot of time to think in Romania. Some nights I find myself thinking about you and me, back during the war. How… one of the parts that made surviving so appealing was that you and I could finally begin – something. But when you're in the dark, you'll find any speck of light to focus on, to get yourself through. I think that's what that was."
Hermione had also thought this same thing about her and Ron, during the war. They'd been young and afraid of dying without having loved someone.
"It was good, what we had," she said. "I wouldn't take it back for the world."
He nodded. They were quiet for a while, swaying along to the music. Hermione observed the ginger stubble on his jaw, the fading scars on his neck. Ron looked older now. Perhaps they all did.
"I sort of heard something, earlier. About you and Malfoy."
Her eyes snapped back to his face, shocked. Ron shrugged boyishly. "Earlier, I overheard Harry and Ginny angrily whispering about him coming to the wedding. Plus, Ginny's been going on about you two for ages ever since you got the job at the Ministry. At the time, we all thought she was just being… fanciful."
She blinked at him. She was surprised he knew - even more surprised that he hadn't tried to exorcise her once he found out. But perhaps exorcisms just didn't exist here in the Wizarding World.
"I believe," she said, clearing her throat, "that this is the part where you tell me I'm being an idiot."
Ron shook his head. "Hermione, you're the biggest non-idiot I know. Sure, I was surprised when I heard. Did I think you'd gone temporarily insane? Maybe. It's sort of a known fact that Malfoy could never deserve you. He could save a hundred babies from a burning building and still not deserve you. But if you like him... then there must be something in him worth liking." She could tell from his face that he was trying to refrain from grimacing. "Is there?"
Hermione thought about Malfoy during her parents' party - how he'd been, drinking and talking with her in her childhood home's backyard. The expression in his eyes after her parents' announcement, and how he'd told her, in no fewer words, that he could stay with her. Yes, he could be unforgivably rude and unfairly critical. But he also made her laugh and he challenged her and he listened and had a way of making her feel like she was seen.
"I hate to admit it," she said, softly, "but I daresay there is."
Ron nodded his head slightly, pressing his lips together. "Well, erm, does he know?"
"Yes," she said. She frowned, remembering that night. "That part didn't go so well, actually."
"Then perhaps it's time for you to clear it up, officially," he murmured, leaning in to her ear. "Because the bastard's just walked in."
Hermione froze, feeling electricity ricochet through her body. She and Ron stopped dancing, and she turned her gaze over to where his head was turned. He was right. Standing right there, having just walked in, was Draco Malfoy, in his best suit. And he was looking right at them.
And then – just as suddenly as he had walked in, he had turned around and was walking right back out of the tent.
Hermione wasn't even aware she'd pulled away from Ron until she was halfway across the dance floor, running after him.
The night sky was still and silent outside. Her voice echoed in the distance, cutting through the quiet. The tall grass whipped around her bare legs as she ran. He stopped walking, but didn't turn around.
"I didn't think you were coming," she said, slightly panting, when she reached him.
"I wasn't," he said, tersely. The moon above them was large and full, its light making the shadows stark against the angles of his face. He looked almost ethereal, even with that maddening scowl on his face. "But I'm glad I made it just in time to see your tender reunion with Weasley."
Hermione shook her head. "Ron and I - we were talking about you."
"Oh sod off, Granger," he snapped. "I wasn't born yesterday."
"It's true," she insisted.
"Care to share which of the many topics he brought up for discussion? My sparkling personality? Our amicable history back at school? The wonderful professional relationship between our fathers at the Ministry? Or perhaps the friendship bracelets we braided for each other during the war—"
"You're being an idiot," Hermione interjected, annoyed. "And frankly – it's a very tragic time you've chosen to be an idiot. Harry and Ginny have just gotten married, we're standing out here on a beautiful night – I'm wearing this dress, for goodness's sakes," she said. "And you – you're here, even though I didn't think you'd be." She let out a shallow breath, trying to ease the dull ache in her chest. "Forget about Ron. Why did you come tonight?"
She watched that tiny, powerful muscle in his jaw clench. Oh, the things she could do to that muscle.
When he spoke, it sounded like an exhale. "I wanted to see you."
Hermione's heart flung itself against the wall of her chest. She could feel her hope rising, and she wasn't sure if that was a good thing – not yet. "But what you said—"
"I know what I said," he said, abruptly. He paused, as if trying to gather the words. "I miss you. There. Are you happy? Is that what you wanted to hear? That, despite every ounce of self-control and ridiculous masculine posturing, I came because – I missed the hell out of you, and I knew I had to see you."
She stared at him, holding her breath. "Why me? In every single issue of Witch Weekly, you're there with some new flavor of the month—"
He scowled. "Enough about sodding Witch Weekly, will you?"
"But it's not untrue, is it?" she insisted. "That's who you are, Malfoy. That's what you do. You take a girl home, and you have fun, and then it's over. Onto the next one." She shook her head knowingly. "I've seen you. Not once do you lose momentum."
For once, he actually looked a little bit pained. "You want to know why?" he growled, his eyes burning with feeling. She'd almost forgotten how he had this uncanny ability to rest his entire existence in his stare. How powerful it felt, that something so simple as the way someone looked at you could cut you open.
"Because – they're not you. And the truth is, I never thought I could have you, or that you would ever let your guard down enough to have feelings for me. So I funneled my energy elsewhere. And then, that night, when you came to the manor…" he stopped then, as if at a loss for words.
Hermione stared at him, feeling as if this was a dream. "This – you and me – it just, it doesn't make sense."
"Of course nothing about this makes sense," he said. "Is that supposed to make me want it less?"
At that, Hermione almost felt her knees buckle. Yes, she wanted to say, it should. But when had they ever done what they should have? It was the curse of the human condition. They would hardly be the last.
"What I feel for you," she started, nervously. "It… terrifies me. Sounds silly, doesn't it? I've stared the Dark Lord in the face, and I've been tortured by Death Eaters, but with you – it's like every single cell in my body knows you, and wants you. But I can't… be one of them, Malfoy. I can't be just another girl you'll have on your arm for a week or two. I won't risk what we have for that, no matter how much it is I like you."
Hermione found herself startled by the sound of his laughter. He had actually thrown his head back and laughed in her face. She could count the number of times he'd done this around her on one hand. Malfoy was not one to be easily amused.
"I should find it offensive you think so little of me," he said, sobering, "but now I think I find it almost charming." The laughter faded from his expression. "Give me a little credit here, Granger. The minute I decided on you, I knew what I was getting myself into. If I was going to be frightened away by any aspect of being with you, I sure as hell wouldn't be here now. Now it's your turn. You have to decide if that's good enough for you."
She hadn't realized he'd closed the space in between them until his body was just inches from hers. Hermione didn't know how she had enough self-control not to kiss him, right then and there. She'd wanted to kiss him for months. Longer than that, even. Right now, it even felt as if she'd wanted to kiss him since the beginning of time. More than that, she wanted to reach out and touch his face. Run her fingers through his dumb, perfect hair. It felt surreal - to know that she could actually be close enough, and for once, not have to refrain from touching him.
Her feelings rushed over her like a tide. It felt exhilarating and discombobulating, all at the same time.
She heard her mum's voice in her head, weaving through her thoughts. We find the things worth being brave for. Who would have ever thought that Malfoy would end up being that thing for her?
"Frightened away?" she smirked. "As I recall, you were always up for a challenge."
"Granger, I'm going to kiss you now," he murmured, his lean, strong body flush against hers. "Will you at least give me a warning before you hex me?"
She nodded silently, and he kissed her, finally. So deeply and thoroughly Hermione had to make sure her head was still connected to her body when they finally pulled apart – their faces, at least. His hands were anchored to her waist, his body heat burning through the silk of her dress. She couldn't believe how sublimely delicious it felt, being held by Malfoy. If she weren't so high off her own supply of snog-induced serotonin, she might have even felt tempted to slap herself for it.
She had an inkling she'd be feeling a lot of that during these next few months.
A few weeks later
Hermione watched as Malfoy balanced heavy boxes in his arms, neatly setting them down with athletic precision in her father's new kitchen, before getting back up and walking back out to the car. She was putting away her dad's plates and cups in his cupboards, a silly grin on her face.
"It's nice to see you two have finally come to your senses," her father called out from the living room, where he was attempting to straighten out the couch. "If you'd waited any longer, we'd all have turned into dust, and there'd be no one around to tell you 'I told you so.'"
Her mother loudly tsked as she came out from the loo. "Don't listen to him, darling. We're just happy you're happy. Doesn't seem to hurt, either, that he's got the strength of an ox and the looks of a Greek god," she sighed.
Hermione laughed, putting away the last of the utensils. "Thanks, Mum. I'm just going to go see if he needs any help." Hermione walked out of the flat and down the stairs, where Malfoy was still unloading the boxes from her dad's trunk. She took a moment to silently observe him from behind, appreciating the way his t-shirt clung so devotedly to the muscles in his back.
He glanced up at her. "If you keep looking at me like that, Granger, your father may come out to find his Muggle vehicle otherwise occupied."
He set the boxes down and grabbed her around her waist. There was a smudge of soot on his cheek.
"We're far too old to have sex in a car," she said.
"Careful now, that sounded awfully like a challenge."
"Everything sounds like a challenge to you," Hermione mumbled, as he leaned down and pressed his lips against hers. This was no ordinary, chaste parking lot kiss. Then again, Draco Malfoy, Hermione was discovering, was no ordinary, chaste parking lot kisser. Every time he kissed her, it felt like he was trying to scramble the thoughts out of her brain and out onto the horizon. Which - she would never admit this - he usually did. (Witch Weekly had always somehow failed to mention this.)
"You didn't have to come, you know," she said, when they pulled back. "My father likes to pretend he's more incapable than he actually is. We would have gotten on just fine with the boxes."
"Haven't you heard? My Saturdays have freed up recently since I've informed everyone I can no longer host their biweekly sex orgies."
"You poor thing. Life's dealt you a cruel hand, indeed."
"Cruel? Hardly. Now I can have sex orgies with the one person I actually want to be in a sex orgy with. I'm finding monogamous intimacy not quite as painful as the other men in the locker room make it out to be."
"And they say romance is dead."
Hermione and Draco both turned their heads to see her father standing just a few steps away. Hermione's eyes widened immediately, recalling what their topic of conversation had been.
"Mr. Granger-" Malfoy had already started, his neck starting to turn a faint shade of pink.
"Don't," said Mr. Granger, shaking his head. He walked past them, grabbing one of the boxes Malfoy had unloaded from the trunk. "Sex orgies," he mumbled. "Probably a conversation you don't want to have in your father's new flat's parking lot, darling. The neighbors might talk. Just for the future."
Mr. Granger gave them both a knowing look, before heading back to his flat to continue unpacking.
Malfoy grabbed her again, pulling her in close, muffling his laughter with her hair.