It was 4pm on Friday and she was exactly where she wanted to be.
He was late; that was okay. She never minded when he was late. She smiled and swung her legs under the bench where she sat. She thought about how it started.
It was two years ago. The War was – going. The days blurred together. She felt like she carried her friends, that without her they would forget to do simple things like brush their hair (not that it did any good in Harry's case), or put on a shirt. They called her Little Molly. The Order did. She took care of everyone, applied band-aids when necessary, and carried hot cups of tea to those in need.
One day, everything, the weight of the War, the responsibilities she had in the Order, in addition to being Little Molly, crashed over her. She left Grimmauld Place after a particularly hairy meeting and just wandered the streets of London. Oddly, the meeting ended just before 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. She let herself be moved by the sea of people moving through the Muggle streets, completely unaware of the other world around them.
Not surprisingly, the crowd made its way to a major hub of the mass transit system, King's Cross Station. She'd been there many times, usually to pass through an invisible barrier between platforms nine and ten. But today she was following the river of people and found herself in the central lobby of the station. She was in awe; it was incredible. People flowed all around her, like an eddy. She found an empty bench toward the corner, and sat down to watch.
"You're late," she said with a smirk when he settled into the seat beside her. It was what they always did.
He smiled at her. "But I brought presents."
"The usual, of course. Chewy Runts for you, and plain M&Ms for me."
She giggled as he handed her the bag of Runts. And he always watched as she opened the bag, fished out a banana, and popped it into her mouth with a relish. She would smile and slowly chew the banana, savoring the flavor. Then she would practically inhale the rest of the bag. His M&Ms lasted the entire customary three hours.
"So how was your week?" she asked, popping three apples and a cherry into her mouth.
She nodded. "Did you bring drinks?"
"Of course," he scoffed. He pulled a bottle of water and a bottle of Coke Light out of some magical pocket in his robe, and handed her the Coke. Which she grabbed from him and opened – fizz. She smiled again as she took her first sip of the weekend.
"Your tardiness is forgiven."
"I thank you, m'lady."
She started going there every Friday, from four to seven. It was peaceful and relaxing to watch the people who were unaware that every day she risked her life to save them from something they would likely never know about. They moved as if they were assured of tomorrow, as if they were assured of a safe train ride. Something about it alarmed and enthralled her. They were so confident. Was that good or bad? Should they know that their very lives were in danger? Or should they be permitted to rush madly from work to the gym or home or some silly thing that really wouldn't mean the end of the world if they were late?
Then suddenly, their perfect little rebellion was shaken to the core. Molly was killed, in a bizarre battle between the Light and the Dark. The good guys came out on top, but they were all broken. The whole Order was broken. And Little Molly spent three weeks mopping up the pieces. Trying to set things right, to keep things moving, to keep their efforts alive. All seven Weasley children turned into living, breathing, zombies. She had to make sure they remembered to eat, and breathe, and sleep. Otherwise, she feared they would step into traffic unawares.
Harry was no better. He'd lost the woman who had effectively been his mother since he was eleven. He just joined the Weasleys in their zombie walks and moans and wouldn't eat or sleep or breathe either.
So for three weeks, she forced them to keep living, and at the end of three weeks, she was done. She wasn't sure why she insisted on keeping things running – why it was so important to keep washing the sheets, or dusting the mantle, or scrubbing the pots after dinner. But it helped her stay alive too. Because if there was one person the Order couldn't afford to lose, it was Molly Weasley.
"What about them?" he said, pointing.
She reached out and pulled his arm down. "Hey! Don't point! That's rude. And besides, we don't want to draw attention to ourselves."
He shook his head dismissively and looked at her pointedly. "Well?"
"Nah, too – crisp."
"You're too picky."
She rolled her eyes. "You're picking up on this now?"
He sniffed and sipped from his water bottle. "No, I've always known. I'm just reminded of the fact. Every Friday."
She huffed. "Well, you're still here, aren't you. Can't be that bad."
He grinned. "No, we manage, somehow, to make a good selection. We're a good team that way, aren't we?"
That Friday, that third Friday, she returned to King's Cross for the first time since Molly's death. She stared bleakly at her usual bench, all the way across the giant room, torn between going there and not. Going there would mean she was moving on with her life. But going there meant she could move on with her life. Slowly she dragged her feet through the station toward it and when she reached it, sat down roughly. She let her bag fall on the ground at her feet, and she stared at a point somewhere in front of her eyes, but not actually on anything.
She felt numb. And she felt empty. And full. And she hadn't shed one single tear yet. She'd been so busy making sure the others had tissues, had hot tea, had a shoulder to cry on, that she hadn't taken the time to cry herself. Because she had no shoulder. Everyone in the Order who stayed at Grimmauld Place needed her for that. The others, the harder, seasoned members, took their grief elsewhere. Onto the battle field. Many Death Eaters met their maker courtesy of the wrath caused by her death.
She couldn't wait for that elusive shoulder. She knew there was no one. No one to hold her as she'd held so many. They forgot that she loved Molly too, that she needed to cry too. She put her small hands to her forehead and started crying. She cried so hard she rocked in her seat. She didn't care about the strange looks she got, the looks of pity and concern, even a few looks of fear. Maybe she had the crazy.
And he was there. She didn't know it, but he'd followed her from Grimmauld Place one Friday, one from before the world turned upside down, and he'd been there every Friday since, waiting for her. He knew she would come.
"Okay, okay, him," she said, indicating an old man in an old trench coat and hat.
He scrunched his nose in disapproval. "Him? Why him?"
She kicked her legs. "Maybe he's waiting for someone. Looks like it, doesn't it? A long lost love, perhaps?"
"Why are you always into long lost loves, war-torn families, and bosom buddies? Why can't it be dashing young gents off to woo gaggles of women?"
She pushed his arm – a Dark arm – playfully. "Why are you always into violence and mayhem?"
He cocked his head, adopting a thoughtful pose. "Hmm… let me think why I might be prone to contrive violent and untoward rendezvous."
"I think he's the one. Look, he's just standing there." They watched the old man stand perfectly still for a few minutes.
"I don't think – " he started at last.
"Ooh, look!" They both watched as an old woman approached the man. They regarded each other timidly for a moment, then spoke a few words. Suddenly they were locked in an embrace, and the man even picked the woman off her feet and spun her round. She laughed delightfully and swatted at him to put her down. When he finally did, he picked up her small bag and they walked toward the madly rushing river to join the people heading for the exit.
"Them," she said, firmly.
And he knew he wouldn't be able to argue. "Fine," he said. "But I pick next time."
He let her cry herself out because he knew she needed it. Because it was more than just Molly. It was everything. They looked to her for all the answers, for all their own strength. She had devoted herself to the cause and nearly lost herself for it. He couldn't let her lose herself; he wouldn't.
She looked a mess. Her eyes were red and puffy, her cheeks wet, her nose running. And she had conjured no tissues for herself. Her hair stuck to her face and she didn't bother to move it. Finally, her tears failed. She drug the back of her hand across her face and he walked toward her then. He held out a monogrammed handkerchief. She didn't look up as she accepted it; it was soaked in moments, and she held it up to him. He took it, charmed it dry, and returned it. Then she noticed the pale grey "M" and dropped it.
He picked it up and cleaned it again, and gave it back to her. He sat down beside her. She blew her nose and crumpled the material in her hand. He didn't say a word. And she started crying again. He put his arms around her and pulled her close to him and she cried longer and harder. But this time, she wasn't alone. She had a shoulder after all. And when she was finally done, she used the handkerchief once more and looked at him.
"Thanks," she whispered hoarsely, her voice raw from crying.
He nodded and squeezed her hand in support. She gathered her things and left him sitting there without a single look back.
"His name is Klaus Shtrudel."
He snorted; she glared at him. "Shtrudel?"
"Fine, you think of a better name."
"Fine. Klaus Von Arhn."
"Fine. Klaus Von Arhn. He is a former school teacher, math teacher, and he taught at a small school in the country. He grew up on a small farm and worked with his hands until someone taught him to read. Your turn."
"Her name is Clara Horton. She grew up in the same town as Klaus, but when they were younger, she fancied the most desirable man in the town – not Klaus. He was handsome, charming, witty – hey, sounds a lot like me."
"You wish," she said, jabbing his side.
"Ow! Merlin, woman, must you beat me?"
"Must you interrupt with your stupid comments about yourself all the time?"
"What, I like myself. It's healthy. You should try it."
She glared at him. "The other man's name was Fako, and yes, the similarity to your name is purely coincidental. And he may have been all those things, but he also knew it. And so he had an overgrown ego to match his overgrown head."
"Hey, now, we're not supposed to make this personal."
"I'm not. I'm just drawing inspiration from an assortment of people I've known in my life. It's a conglomeration, I assure you; not a portrait."
"But of course," he said sarcastically. "Klaus had a secret fascination with trains. He loved to watch them roll past his parent's farm. The tracks ran right through their property, and every day he would ride out to watch one train or another fly past. Sometimes he'd watch from afar, and it looked like the train was barely moving. Other times, he'd watch up close, so close he could feel the wind from the speeding locomotive."
He waited, but when she didn't speak, he looked at her. She was frowning up at him.
"What?" he said.
"Nothing. That was nice." She shook her head. "Sometimes you surprise me is all."
"Oh. Well, it's your turn."
She wasn't all that surprised to find herself staring at her bench one week later, but she was surprised when he sat down next to her again. This time he didn't offer her a handkerchief, he handed her a book.
"You left this at the meeting," he said.
She accepted it; 'Little Women'. "Thank you," she said quietly. They sat together that day, all afternoon, watching people zoom past. Neither spoke another word until she stood. "Well, see you 'round."
He watched her walk away, and noticed that she appeared to have just a little more bounce to her step this week than the last. And that made him smile.
"Clara loved to read. She read everything and anything she could put her hands on. She would often pack a small lunch and set off through her parent's property with a book tucked under her arm. She sometimes went to the stream that bordered their neighbor's land. Sometimes she went to the big, old tree just perfect for climbing and sitting for hours. She might act out a scene from the book, playing all the parts in their turn. But she was never the heroine; never the pretty one; never the one who anyone wanted."
He looked at her. She was looking at her hands folded in her lap. He wanted to ask her about the big tree, but held back. That was an unspoken rule about these adventures they shared. No questions.
"A small party was to be thrown for a couple in town who were getting married. It was Clara's very best friend, Maribelle."
She gave him a strange look when he said the name.
"What? It's a nice name."
"Yeah, maybe in the 1900s."
"Well, we're not talking much later than that, right? 30s?"
"Yeah, okay. Still. Maribelle?"
"Well, 'belle' means beauty, so there's that."
"Just go on. That wasn't enough to count."
"I know, you interrupted me."
Without ever agreeing to it, without ever discussing it, they met there every week at four o'clock on Friday. At first, it was a comfort to simply sit quietly. For her, he was a shoulder to cry on when she needed it. For him, he was giving her the strength to push on to another seemingly endless week of fighting.
Then they started talking. Light stuff at first, things that had nothing to do with Real Life. She started following Quidditch – loosely – and he started reading Hogwarts: A History. When those topics ran their course, she read his favorite book – 'Crime and Punishment', and he studied the history of house elves.
Next the moved on to debating issues that had always stood between them. The importance of blood, between people, and in Wizarding society; the rights of house elves, and do they really want to be slaves or do they just not know any better? The good and the bad about the Hogwarts house system; were 'inferior' races really inferior? He allowed her to speak, and she allowed him to offer his views. It was a neutral medium, which for them was remarkable. They both acknowledged it and admitted it.
It took about eight months to move to the heavy stuff, most of which resided on his side of the conversation. Why had he taken the Mark? Why didn't he kill Dumbledore? What happened after he left? What made him turn? He asked her questions too; why did she fight for the Light? Why was she so loyal to Harry and Ron? Would she give her life for them, and why? What about for the Order and its cause?
"So Maribelle was getting married to, let's call him, Perry." She snorted; he ignored her and continued. "Clara was happy for her friend, but wished Fako would notice her. So she wore her most lovely dress for the wedding, and did her hair up with flowers. She thought surely he would notice her then."
"And he did. Because even though she wasn't really beautiful, she had a quality about her that set her apart from the other girls. He asked her to dance, and she accepted. They moved together gracefully; Fako had been raised in aristocratic circles and knew such social skills as dancing and eating from the outer fork in."
He laughed. "Very funny. Okay. Klaus was there too, and he couldn't take his eyes off Clara. She was beautiful, despite what she thought of herself." He felt her shift in her seat. "And he watched with a sinking heart as Clara and Fako danced together. They seemed to be meant to dance together. She looked so happy; it nearly broke his heart."
"He was going to leave the party early, but someone bumped into him; it was Don, the town funny guy. He had an easy manner and a quick humor. He loved to laugh. Don had a sister, Minny, who hadn't been asked to dance once all evening. He asked Klaus to dance with Minny, and he reluctantly agreed."
"Minny accepted shyly, and he led her awkwardly onto the dance floor. He, unlike Fako did not grow up in an upper-class home, but a simple one. He made a good effort, though, and Minny was soon laughing with him at his blunders. Their happy outbursts soon attracted the attentions of Clara and Fako."
"Why do you always say his name like that?"
He rolled his eyes. "Hmm. I wonder."
She giggled. "What? He's the stud of the story."
He sighed. "But he never gets the girl. You never let him get the girl. It's always someone else. Someone better." He almost sounded bitter in the end.
"Don't take it personally, it's just in fun. His character is easy to poke at."
He scowled now. "Right. Not personal. That's me you know. That you poke at."
"Hey, I'm sorry, I did not mean it like that. I just meant someone, well, like you, who grew up, you know like you did. Not you, I know you, and you're not like that."
"Anymore. Go on, say it, I know it's what you said inside your head. I'm not like that anymore."
She recoiled as if he'd slapped her with his hand and not just words. "Draco, I never meant it like that, you know that."
"Yeah, well, maybe it gets a little old."
Once all the big stuff, and most of the small stuff, was out of the way, they didn't know what to do. There was no need for small talk, as they saw each other nearly every day anyway. They'd breeze through, 'so, read any good books lately?' and 'did you see the look on Fred's face when…?' and then there wasn't much to say.
Their lives were entirely about the War, and fighting it, and winning it. There wasn't much else, except now, they had Friday afternoons too. And the last thing they wanted to talk about was the War, and Death Eaters, and Voldemort, and Plans. They both cherished their time as a reprieve from the oppression they faced every day.
Then one day he asked her a new question. "Why do you come here? I knew you came here before that day I came to you, because, well, you forget books a lot, and I followed you to return one, and you led me here. I watched you sitting here for a while, and didn't want to disturb you, so I left. Why here?"
She looked into the thronging mass of people. "It's soothing. I come here to watch normal people going to and from their normal jobs. Living normal lives, having normal problems, like what to have for dinner. Because mine, ours, is so not normal. It makes me remember what I'm fighting for. To be normal again."
He thought it was a really good answer. Then she asked him the same question. "Like I said, I came once to return a book. And you looked so peaceful, sitting there. Then Molly died, and you didn't come back for a few weeks. That worried me. I guess I needed a little normal too. So I came here to wait for you to come back, and then I could be on my way. But you were crying, and I couldn't leave you there alone. And, I guess, I've just stayed, since then."
"Clara noticed Klaus laughing with Minny, and took a misstep, causing Fako to step on her foot. She cried out in pain, and the entire room looked at her. Fako picked her up and carried her to a chair, but Klaus pushed him out of the way. He took her foot carefully, delicately, into his hands and examined her offended toes."
He set his jaw. "Her foot was fine, if a little red. She smiled up at him warmly, thanking him for helping relieve the pain. He knew he'd done nothing, really, but accepted the thanks with a stuttered reply. She noticed that even though he wasn't devastatingly handsome, like Fako, he had a kindness in his eyes that warmed her."
"He offered to escort her home, and she accepted. They fell madly in love, and part only once a year when she returns home to visit her dear friend Minny and her devastatingly handsome husband, Fako. The end."
He sighed. "Thank goodness."
"Well? Fako ends up with Minny in this one."
"You just put that in because I made a fuss over it. Usually he ends up in a ditch, or in prison, or some such fate."
"Yes, but like I said earlier, it's the character that's fun to poke at."
She sighed. "Why are we arguing about this?"
"I don't know. I – I want a new story next time. Okay?"
She was relieved that he'd mentioned a next time. "Okay. We'll have violence and pilfering if you want."
"I don't want violence and pilfering."
"Fine, no violence. No pilfering."
"Maybe one of the two."
"As you wish."
They were silent. It was nearly six o'clock.
"Do we have time for another?" she asked, hopeful.
"No, I don't think so. In any case, I'm not up for one."
She was disappointed. She barely saw him anymore, and she found herself counting the minutes until Friday at four o'clock. And now it wasn't even six, and he was going to leave early. She sighed. "Well, I had fun."
"Are you leaving?" he asked.
Then the War ended. Harry won, to the surprise of many, but not all. In the flurry of activity following Voldemort's defeat, they missed a few weeks at King's Cross. Once he was there and she wasn't, and vise-versa. Once neither were there.
In the aftermath, Death Eaters were imprisoned, heroes named, and medals awarded. One Death Eater was pardoned. And the Weasleys finally buried their mother. They knew she wouldn't want to be left alone until the struggle came to an end.
Molly's funeral was the first time he'd really been friendly to her outside of the train station. He stood near her, protectively, and no one noticed. Perhaps that was why he did it, because everyone was too distraught to pay attention to such details as the Pureblood comforting the Mudblood; as he put his arm around her and pulled her to him while she cried, just like he had that first day. And he'd walked her home after it was all said and done, and put her to bed. Like a friend. And she'd thanked him, and blubbered, and borrowed his handkerchief again. He told her to keep it, and left her to sleep.
They weren't sure what to say. He was still in a foul mood, and she was still wary of his foul mood. Anything she might say could set him off; he was still so temperamental. She allowed her eyes to search the crowds, until they landed on a harried looking woman pulling two young children behind her. She almost suggested them to him, but he was looking away when she turned toward him. So she didn't.
Instead, she said, "Draco, what do you think people see when they look at us?"
He looked at her. And smirked. "Why?"
She shrugged. "I don't know, just thinking. What might someone say if they were us, looking at us? You know, what kind of story would they write?"
"They would say, 'my, that man is the most good-looking man I've ever seen in my life! And she must count her lucky stars every night that she can gaze adoringly into his eternal eyes.'"
She made gagging noises. "Ugh, whatever. I have never gazed adoringly into your eyes."
"Fine. What do you think they would say?"
She sat up straighter in her seat. "Something like, 'My, what a smart-looking witch. I bet she wishes she had someone intelligent sitting with her, who could carry on a meaningful conversation instead of talking about his good looks all the time. Which, by the way, are hardly devastating.'"
He snuffed. "And what does a smart-looking witch look like, anyway?"
"Not smart as in smart-smart, but smart; sharp; put-together."
"Oh, then they must have been looking at another bench."
She punched him hard on his shoulder.
Six weeks after Voldemort's defeat, they found themselves sitting together again, on the same bench. Only now they'd talked about everything, they'd shared everything. Their hopes, regrets, passing fancies and lifelong dreams. So what was there left to do? Because they didn't want to give up their time together. It meant a lot to both of them. They meant a lot to each other which surprised them both when they realized it.
What was left to do, indeed. They started picking out people they saw and making up stories about them. He was a little hesitant at first, as it called him to do something he didn't normally do, which he was therefore not excellent at, and which he therefore did not want to do. But she was so enthusiastic, and seemed to have so much fun on her own, that eventually he joined her. And never looked back.
It had started out with brief summaries of their lives, past, present and future. Snapshots. Would that couple last? Would she cheat on him? Would that woman ever find her birth-mother? (Her kind of story) Would he ever take revenge on his wife's killer? (His kind of story) Then it moved to choosing one or two people to fill the entire three hours and creating a life story behind him or her or them.
They took turns, each able to take the story in a new direction. And there were rules; no take-backs. Once something was said, it was said. And anything in the stories was off-limits. Like that big tree earlier; he couldn't ask her about it. She could tell him, but he couldn't ask. They made up rules to suit them as they fancied, and generally had a great time together.
"Would you like to know what they don't know they see, Hermione?" he asked quietly.
"Sure," she said, not knowing where he was going.
Because, see, he'd decided it was time.
"They see a guy who's been wanting to ask out a girl for about six months, but hasn't yet because he doesn't want to ruin what they have."
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes and saw her smiling to herself. His heart was pounding in his chest and he was willing her to just say something to end his agony.
"What are you doing after seven?" she said, looking him boldly in the eye.
He grinned. "Something with you."
It was four o'clock on Friday and they were exactly where they wanted to be.