Boundless as the Dark

Part IV.

Saying her farewells to the men at her table, Hermione pulled on her cloak and carefully wrapped her blue scarf around her throat. "You know--" Draco began, smiling deviously.

"I know," she snapped, interrupting him. "Goodbye, Exie, dear," she said and bent down to kiss her godson on the cheek. "Be good."

He rolled his eyes. "It's just Xavier now," he mumbled. "Since I'm in Hogwarts now, I decided that Exie sounded like a baby name and I needed to sound more grown up since I'm a Second Year." She ruffled his hair and told him firmly that, to her at least, he would always be 'ickle Exie.' He tried his best to look surly, fixing his hair, but it just wasn't happening.

"I'll see all of you at Christmas, then," she said. "Two o'clock. Remember." She looked at Draco because she knew Ron would never remember the time. He was good at other things but trivial facts quite escaped him. The blond nodded and shooed her out of the café, but not without another attempt at a crack on her scarf. "It's not that bad!" she insisted on her way into the snowblind that was Hogsmeade. The school had just let out for the holiday break and Draco and Ron had invited her into town to have some chocolate and brioche at the Drowning Mermaid just off High Street, an invitation at which she jumped.

She agreed and got ready to leave, only to find that it was a veritable blizzard outside. Draco and Ron, who lived in a comfortable London suburb, couldn't have known how inclement the weather was, but she knew that it was too late to renege. And anyway, she didn't feel like it. Snow was one of her favorite things. It seemed like a lifetime ago since she'd first seen Hogsmeade frosted with snow and she was eager to get out and see it before it was destroyed in the chaos of Christmas Eve, when all the Wizarding folk of northern Great Britain would converge upon the town for last-minute bits and pieces for their celebrations the next day. Christmas Eve was Hermione's least favorite day of the year, spanning back to being a child sitting squashed between her mother and grandmother at Mass at midnight listening to service in Greek. Her grandmother always smelled strongly of ouzo and Hermione had retained an intense disliking for licorice ever since.

She ducked into the bookshop and had a quick conversation about a book she'd ordered with the clerk, Samantha, but it wasn't in yet. As she was unwinding her scarf, she made her way toward the back of the store where there was a small selection of Muggle fiction. A broad-shouldered, dark-haired man and his tall, dark-haired daughter were already there, apparently arguing over the book the girl was holding.

"No, Dad," she said in a typical teenager's exasperated tone, the tone reserved for when her parents don't understand, "I actually have to read it for class."

He disagreed. "I was in Muggle Studies, Elle, and I know we didn't read that in Third Year. Maybe at the NEWT level. But not at thirteen. I'm not buying it."

"Daaa-ad," the girl whined, stamping her foot on the ground and holding the book as though she would hit him on the arm with it. He turned to the side and gave her an 'I'm not amused' look, arms crossed over his chest.

"I could just write to your teacher, Elle. That would resolve all of this right now." The girl's eyes grew large and he knew that he had her. "That's what I thought. Now pick out what you're actually supposed to read and go wait up front. I'm still looking for that book Draco recommended."

The girl glowered and pulled a much thinner volume by one of the Brontë sisters from the second shelf, heading for the front. The man moved down the row a little, toward the end of the alphabet and Hermione took up the girl's vacated spot at the beginning.

"Fancy seeing you here," she said to him, smiling but keeping her eyes on the spines of the books.

He started and glanced around, spotting her and returning her smile. "Fancy that," he agreed. He reached out a hand to her which she shook. "How have you been of late, Ms. Granger?"

"Oh, the same as ever. I'm getting over a little bout of flu but nothing much." She grimaced at the mistruth and he caught it, along with the fact her cheeks were noticeably more hollow than he remembered. "How have you been?"

He shrugged and reshelved the offending book Noël had tried to con him into buying. "Been busy at the Ministry, among other things. I had to do Pansy's funeral myself last year but not a lot since."

"Yeah, I meant to go to that but I had tr-- something came up I couldn't avoid." She thumbed the pages of a yellowed Dan Brown novel.

"Draco said you were there in spirit."

Ron had been with her at the hospital that morning, playing concerned best friend. He had seemed awkward in what had always been Harry's role where she was concerned. But Harry was off somewhere in Asia and hadn't been heard from since before Exie-- Xavier was born. But that was done with now, wasn't it?

"I suppose," she said, smiling. "I didn't know Pansy all that well, though, so I would have felt out of place being there anyway." She put the book back and pulled out a thick one by Eliot. "How is Noël?"

"Tall," he said, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder. "I know I'm not exactly tall myself, and Pansy was your size, so I don't know where she gets it. Must be good nutrition or something. Anyway, would you like to have coffee later? I was thinking that we ought to take advantage of this meeting like we didn't the last few times. You look like you need a non-Malfoy, non-Weasley friend and I know I do." He laughed and, even at thirty-six looked as nervous as she imagined Exie might talking to a pretty Seventh Year. She was his age and she felt so much older.

She nodded and put back the Eliot. "I think that would be lovely. I'll have to go home and feed my dog, but I can meet you back at the Drowning Mermaid in an hour."

"That would work. I have to go home and feed the child and set her to doing some menial labor around the house." He straightened his own scarf, a nice oatmeal-colored cable knit, the ends of which barely touched his navel. Must be nice.

"I'll see you in an hour, then," she said.

She didn't buy anything, which may have been the first time in her entire life to go into a book shop and not buy a single book. Samantha, the clerk, waved good-bye to her and said something about the book being in by next Tuesday, which seemed like an awfully long way off from a Friday, especially since Hermione had ordered it on the sixth and it was only coming in from a shop in Ulster.

The snow had tapered off a little since she'd entered the store. Now it was just pretty instead of driving and dangerous. She wound her scarf back around her face and trudged down High Street to the Floo hub. Her home was near the Cornish city of West Curry in a small town with one post office and a small pub named after a walrus.

Her dog, a three-legged puff ball that barely reached her knees, was her most devoted companion. Spritzer was some sort of Pekingese mix, the breeder said, born of a champion mother and "some dumb mutt." She wondered if she had played her cards differently earlier in life, she could be the champion mother and the strange dog her own child. At this point in her life, Hermione was left to wonder if maybe that wouldn't have been a bad thing.

Spritzer was immediately underfoot as she stepped out of the fire, brushing off ashes, yapping at her cheerfully as small dogs are wont to do. "Yes, darling," she said, squatting to rub the dog's nose. "It's chow time."

She unwound the choking scarf and left it draped over the back of her sofa, covered by the camel-colored cloak that she shed second. The house was really too warm.

Her kitchen was small and quaint, painted yellow and white with stainless appliances. There was a scrubbed butcher block table against the wall with the window to her back lawn, inundated with unopened post and a horrible stack of medical books, both Muggle and Wizarding. The chairs arranged around it didn't match perfectly but it added to the room's charm.

She got down a glass and filled it with water, drinking half of it and then setting the glass on the counter next to the sink. Then she opened the pantry cupboard next to the refrigerator to find some dog food, brand name Bow Wow Chow. Spritzer watched her avidly from his place on one of the butcher table's assorted chairs. She used her wand to open the tin and, feeling suddenly ill, she levitated it over to Spritzer's dish by the back door and let it pour out by way of gravity.

She patted the dog on his head as he crouched greedily over the bowl and then went upstairs to change into more presentable clothes. Draco had rather rudely popped by her place at eleven forty-five and ordered her be at the café at half past noon, and she had dressed accordingly: in a hurry. She realized as she was yanking it over her head that she had put her sweater on backwards. It was a lovely sweater, the exact color of grape jelly and luxuriously cable knit in a cashmere blend. Her chinos were creased and possibly coffee-stained on the knee. Her socks didn't match, and her undershirt had a peculiar, very bright yellow spot just above her navel.

She was brushing her teeth when she walked past the clock in her bedroom, saw the time, and immediately spit her toothpaste all over her bedspread. She had left Hogsmeade at three-fifty, agreeing on a return in an hour. And, somehow, she had managed to waste nearly an hour and a half...

She rinsed inhumanly fast, pulled her cloak back on and said bollocks to the hated scarf, leaving it strewn across the sofa as she grabbed a handful of Floo powder and shouted "Drowning Mermaid!" when the flames turned green.

Blaise Zabini was standing to the side of the fireplace when she stepped out, coughing and brushing soot off of herself for the umpteenth time that day. She hated Apparition, but the ashes got old after a while. He looked older than she remembered, but it had been six years since she'd got a good look at him, and he was still disgustingly handsome. Not nearly as tan as she remembered; in fact, he looked almost wan. And he was wearing an incredible balsam green Oxford she could just imagine watching him shuck away. And a tie. Had he been wearing that earlier that day? She looked down at herself, at her simple jeans and old Weasley sweater, and grinned.

"It seems that we're both fully dressed," she said.

He blinked and then looked at his own clothes and grinned. "This must be the first time since we were wearing Hogwarts robes. Oh, and excellent greeting," he added, smirking.

Feeling eighteen again, she stuck her tongue out at him.

"I've got a table already," he said. "I was just over there waiting for you."

"That's sweet," she said, giving him a small, almost bashful smile, at which he rolled his eyes and led her to the other side of the café. He'd picked a table in front of the picture window overlooking the whole of Hogsmeade, as the terrain elevated as one neared the abandoned turnstile. She could just see it, covered in snow and nearly hidden, and she smiled at the memories more than half of her lifetime away.

He sat down across from her, steepled his fingers, looked at her intensely. "Care to tell me what's wrong with you?" he said. It was a demand but spoken more softly, or perhaps the smoothness of his voice just precluded the harshness that might have been apparent in, say, Draco's voice.

She closed her eyes. She didn't want to talk about it. She knew she couldn't lie but she couldn't tell any kind of truth if there wasn't any truth to tell. Finally she decided that flippancy was the way to go, no matter how transparent he might find it. "Nothing major," she said, trying desperately to sound offhand. She found herself trying to be offhand quite a lot. She hoped that with practice one day she might become proficient at it, but a part of her knew she wouldn't.

He looked at her and if she'd been a poet she would have called it piercing. But she only worked with words superficially; she was a scientist and she knew more about the chemicals rolling around in his head and his eyes than the nuances of emotions he was emitting. "That's not true," he said simply. "Draco and Ron were talking about something once when Elle and I were over at their place. It would have been rude of me to ask after someone I've only seen five times since we left Hogwarts, but it's been clawing at me, believe me."

"Four," she said softly.

He blinked again. "What?"

"Four," she repeated, her voice thin. "We've only met four times since Hogwarts."

He smiled. He opened his mouth to reply but a waitress approached to take their orders. "You must try their eggnog," he said, turning back to Hermione. "It's quite remarkable."

Hermione shook her head. "I don't much care for eggnog," she replied.

"I refuse to accept that," he said, and the statement rang with a tinny sort of irony to Hermione, as if there was more he was refusing to accept than her dislike for eggnog. "She'll have one, too, although I'll have a bit more rum in mine. Thank you." The waitress, a pretty girl no more than twenty with strawberry blonde hair, nodded and retreated to the bar.

"That was awfully autocratic of you," Hermione said disapprovingly. "I'll have you know that I don't like eggnog at all."

"Autocratic?" he said, starting to laugh. "Did you just call me autocratic?"

She rolled her eyes. "Would you prefer despotic, then?"

He frowned. "I'm not either. I don't-- Eh, fuck it."

The waitress brought back the eggnogs. Blaise immediately drank about a third of his and then pointed at hers, glaring. "Drink it," he ordered, trying his best to look every bit the despot. She just rolled her eyes again and tapped her fingernail on the tabletop. Her fingers seemed very thin. "Please?" He batted his eyelashes at her and in that moment, he decided that he was going to do anything to get her to drink it. Including employ Draco-level tactics of annoyance. Not that she knew anything about his decisions. She had turned her head to look out the window at the snow.

He took a smaller sip and then a deep breath and began. "You're still at NeuroBrew, aren't you?" The question was rhetorical and she knew it. She looked at him and absently traced the rim of her glass with a fingertip. "You see, that's my point. Most of our year at Hogwarts has been doing basically the same thing since we left school. Draco's still languishing in his own wealth. You've been brewing drugs. Potter's been cavorting off in South America for fifteen years. Corner's been an Unspeakable since I can remember--"

"Michael Corner was killed a few years ago, Blaise," she said as gently as she could, trying to be unobtrusive into his steadily-building fervor.

"Oh-- well. Fine, but he's been dead for a while, and that's consistent." He took a gulp of his eggnog and she assumed it was meant to be seen as punctuation, which was amusing because he surely had more of it on his face than he got in his mouth.

"I'm not sure that counts," she said in a voice choked from trying not to laugh.

"This is everything we wanted, isn't it? This is us Having It All," he said suddenly, somewhat harshly. She started to snigger, losing the battle with biting her lip to keep it bottled up. Apparently, the urge to laugh at him was stronger than she was. "What?" he snapped finally, giving her a look like she was soft in the head.

She only laughed harder. "You've got-- you have a bit of eggnog. Right there." She reached across the table to wipe the spot from his cheek, just missing his lips. He froze, staring at her with a completely different expression from the second before. Her eyes were on her napkin, which she used to get rid of the eggnog for herself, but she glanced up under the pressure of his gaze.

"Palpable," he said. Then he grinned nervously. "I've always wondered what one of those palpable moments felt like."

She raised her eyebrows. "Well, this might be it," she said. "Pay attention. Don't miss anything. You might regret it." He cocked his head and looked at her with consideration. She flushed and admitted, "I've always wanted to say that. It seems like something the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a novel might say."

"Your sarcasm is better than Draco's-- palpable" --his grin became quite fiendish-- "kind, I think."

"Do you want to go shopping?" she asked suddenly. He frowned but gave her the signal to elaborate. "I know it's random to ask, but I have to buy a few last-minute things. I just don't want to end this yet, because I know I won't meet you again until, say, Noël's leaving ceremony at Hogwarts, and at this point that's the last thing I need. So, er, please?"

He smiled and stood. "Very well, but only if you drink your eggnog."

"But I hate eggnog!" she whined.

"Fine. Just one sip," he compromised. "But I'm sure you'll love it so much you drink the rest."

She lifted the glass, looking up at him the whole way. "I'm sure I won't," she said at the last moment. While he was right, the eggnog was very good, she still wasn't sold. It seemed like simply uncommonly good eggnog. Perhaps if it had been chocolate.

His face was stretched out into a rather manic look of pleased expectation. "What do you think? I was right, wasn't I?"

She rolled her eyes and set the glass down. "I remain stoically unmoved, Zabini."

He winced theatrically. "It's back to the surname, is it?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "Up with you, then. We've got shopping to do, haven't we?"

"Yes, I believe we have."

She immediately wished she'd brought that old ugly scarf when they stepped outside. Especially since the wind chose that moment to pick up, apparently just to blow her hair into a gargantuan ball of fuzz. She felt perfectly justified in complaining about it the whole way to Gladrags, too. As soon as they stepped inside the clothier's, she had her wand out and was spelling her mass of hair into a vaguely manageable knot, the end of which she tucked under the collar of her cloak. When she was finished, she shot Blaise a grin and moved toward the back of the store, explaining over her shoulder that she had to buy Exie something for Twelfth Night that she could send to Hogwarts to embarrass him in front of his roommates. "It's only right," she explained. "And anyway, Ron did it last year."

"You could send him a box of chocolates and a truly heartfelt note from mummy, gushing about how much you love him."

She rolled her eyes. "I might have given birth to the boy, but Draco's his Mummy and you know it." That was logic he couldn't argue with. She picked up a pair of underwear with garish dots on it, considered for a moment, and set it back down. "I've said enough times to them; I think Draco's got more estrogen than I have." Blaise snorted and held up a pair of socks with hearts and lips on them. She shook her head. "Too Valentine's-y." He held up a pair with boats and mermaids. She cocked an eyebrow and remained silent.

"I've got a teenage daughter who's never been a tomboy," he defended. "I don't know anything about shopping for a boy."

She gave him a pointed look. "What did you get for Exie, then?"

"A box of illicit potion-making supplies," he said, looking quite proud of himself. "Enough to make Snape's head turn 'round on its neck a few times and then explode."

"Good messy fun," she deadpanned, moving on into the robes section.

"Why don't you get him something from Honeydukes? Or better yet, Zonko's?"

She arched her left eyebrow and waved her hand dismissively. "Chocolate is so impersonal, though."

"Chocolate is heartfelt. I sent it to my last girlfriend all the time... admittedly, that was four years ago, but still." He gave her a boyish grin. "Anyway, we aren't getting anywhere. It's just about twilight and I know the perfect place to watch." Hermione held out her hand and he dragged her cheerfully back out into the snow.

Blaise's perfect place to watch the sky fall down to night turned out to be in the middle of Longbottom Garden at the opposite edge of town. By the time they reached the destined bench, the sky was painted with all the affection and colors of an insect's wing, and Hermione found herself quite spellbound. The trees and plants of the garden were beaten down by frost and snow, and the bare black branches complimented the colors of the sky well, framing it. He cleared away snow and sat, leaning back and snuggling down into his cloak until only his eyes and hair showed. The silvery line of the ancient scar at his hairline dully reflected the twilight. She stood for several minutes, watching as the sky darkened as he watched her. She didn't even seem to notice the cold for some time. It lit up her cheeks with red and her lips were obscured by a cloud every time she exhaled.

Finally, she shivered and he grabbed her hand to pull her down onto the bench beside him, pulling her close. At first she resisted. She had resisted quite a lot of warmth the past few months. Ron, who knew more than Draco but only what she would tell him, told her she was going about it all wrong. He and his sister, who was busy with her two daughters with Seamus Finnigan but still concerned, frequently told her that she was missing something by staying distant. She hosted holiday dinners to compensate but, as Ginny pointed out, a turkey only fills the void until everyone goes home.

She ran through every bit of her life she could think of as she sat there, eventually giving in and resting her cheek against the plane of flesh above the cleft of his armpit. The trolls and Elves and giants of her early Hogwarts years blending into the curses and snows of the later ones, images of all the faces she had known. She thought about all the beautiful words she'd read over the years and all of the potions she had worked to develop. There were flashes of sound-- pulsing dance beats through walls, children's songs, Rhapsody in Blue. There was Draco in gray dress robes next to Ron in blue, and the last memory she had of Harry Potter, receding into the mist in search of whatever it was he never could find. In the end she could only consider what might be wrong with her, wonder why it seemed so elusive.

It wasn't until it was complete darkness that she realized that she felt more than fine for the first time in a year, sitting there in the cold with Blaise Zabini. Eighteen years had managed to quell some of the girlish jig her stomach had done when she would see him in the corridors in school. She shifted to examine his profile. The scar was fainter with time but would never disappear. His hair was too long for his age and the bend at the bridge of his nose belied another brush with violence years earlier. The years between the present moment and the last time she had met him had weathered away his old beauty, or perhaps it was just the dark that softened it up a bit.

In that moment she felt as boundless as the dark itself, sitting there with his arm around her. It started to snow again. Her eyes drifted closed and for the first time in years she felt well enough to sleep.

"This was the best party of all, wasn't it?" he whispered into her hair. "Wasn't it, though?"