Hermione's head hurt. More than usual. She'd struck it hard against her desk in the Displaced Wizards Office when she'd taken an abrupt, unexpected, and supremely brief nap. She was sure she was getting a bruise.
It was all Draco's fault.
The night before she'd tossed him a pillow and let him make his way as best he could in the miniature sitting room. Lying in her own bed, she heard him attempt to settle into her lone seat—a rather uneasy easy chair, with pointy inner springs that resisted all charms and insisted on becoming pointy outer springs. She could have told him that wasn't going to work.
She didn't, though, and instead spent a few moments listening to him curse and squirm around the painful coils, before she cast a Silencing Charm. He would eventually wind up on the rug, she knew. It was really the only choice.
She thought about him lying there in the dark. Her apartment was so small he wasn't more than a few feet away, even though they were in separate rooms. At the moment, she would have been breathtakingly glad of a bedroom door, and she'd wondered briefly about the feasibility of a Construction Spell. She could hear him breathing despite the Silencing Charm.
No. That was in her imagination as was, clearly, the shiver that went through her body, leaving gooseflesh.
This was ridiculous. She grabbed her wand and whispered, "Protego." That ought to do it. If Draco got any funny ideas during the night, he'd run smack into a magical barrier.
That should've been enough to enable her to sleep. Why wasn't it?
Just when she'd thought she'd never fall asleep again, she must have, because she was suddenly awakened by an angry male voice.
"Bloody Merlin's tit!" the voice roared.
She had a moment of blinding panic, followed by a moment of blinding rage. She quickly undid the barrier spell and jumped into the sitting room. "Lumos."
Draco was sprawled on the floor against the wall, where he'd been knocked back by the shield. He clutched his nose with both hands.
"That's it, Malfoy—"
He cut her off with a wail of pain. "You broke my nose!"
"What do you think you—"
"I was trying to get to your toilet, you daft bint. Your virtue is perfectly safe with me. Ooowwww," he moaned again.
Hermione felt instantly flooded with guilt, which was a completely ridiculous reaction as Draco deserved everything he got. She cast a quick healing spell anyway.
Draco slowly removed his hands from his face and probed his nose carefully with his index fingers. He glared up at her.
"Would you be so kind as to allow me to use your facilities now?"
She stepped aside from the doorway, giving him an unobstructed path. It was completely unfair that she should be mortified nearly to death in her own flat in the middle of the night.
"Thank you." And that was an easy expression to recognize—the Draco Death Glare. "And perhaps you might see your way clear to a blanket, if that isn't too much to ask."
They hadn't said a word to each other the rest of the night. Hermione didn't sleep again.
She was paying for it today. She'd even been snappy with a young French couple who hadn't done anything worse than have their lives turned upside-down by Voldemort.
After all they'd been through, the couple was still so obviously in love, so supportive and devoted, that Hermione wanted to scratch their eyes out, or at least knock off their ridiculous berets. Recognizing her own sleep-deprivation, she had managed to restrain these impulses to the occasional scowl. She did not want to see happy couples in love. Not after dealing with Ron and Lavender. And Draco, her mind added.
Draco? Where had that thought come from? She really needed a nap.
She wasn't fated to get one. Remus had come round just after she'd assigned her French couple to a council house near Covent Garden. He'd taken her to lunch, then spent the rest of the afternoon talking at her about the Department of Recovery. "Putting her in the picture," he'd called it, and when had Remus become a bureaucrat?
When she finally trudged home two hours late, she wanted nothing but a hot bath and uninterrupted peaceful oblivion, but she knew she'd have Draco to deal with. He had promised faithfully to be gone by the time she returned home from work, but Hermione had an idea what the faithful promises of Draco Malfoy were worth when weighed against the opportunity to torment her.
No, he'd still be there, smug and insufferable as ever. If only life as a Muggle could teach him some humility. But that was as likely as a Chizpurfle changing its spots. Well, she'd just have to kick him out, firmly this time.
"Alohomora. " she said to her door, and walked inside.
She'd planned out what to say to him. It wasn't a bad speech—resolute, but not unsympathetic—and full of helpful advice like the need to stand on one's own two feet.
But it needed an audience, and Hermione found to her great surprise that Draco was not there. Unable to believe he'd actually left, Hermione walked the two strides to her bedroom. Draco was not there either. A quick glance showed the loo was empty.
Hermione sat down hard on her bed and considered this. Draco was gone. Now she wouldn't be able to give her speech. And it was a good speech. And that was the only reason she was disappointed.
"Ooowww," came a wail from somewhere near her kitchen. Her stomach jumped with something she didn't want to examine too closely, but which felt an awful lot like relief. And while, yes, the prospect of a Malfoy in pain was enough to brighten anyone's day, she had better make sure he had not cut off a hand with a kitchen knife.
She put on her firmest face and strode to the kitchen. Draco was backed into a corner glaring malevolently at the Muggle-style gas stove she'd had specially installed when she moved into the flat.
"It burned me," he said in a voice filled with such outraged shock that she had to laugh.
He turned the glare on her. "I asked it very nicely to make me dinner, and then I spun its knobby things, and it burned me."
Hermione watched him suck at his finger, and then rip it from his mouth with another moan of pain. Draco, she recited in her mind, The Muggle world is not so bad. There are places you can go that will help you get on your feet. The time will pass.
"You can stay here with me," she said. He looked up quickly. "For a few days. Until you can get settled somewhere."
And there was the unadorned Draco Smile. So rare it was almost painful to look at.
"And you'll have to learn a few things." He was staring at his finger now, watching the burn redden. She sighed. "Beginning with how to feed yourself, I suppose."
"So the Weasel is getting married." He looked thoughtful.
"This is the fruit and vegetable aisle," she said with a general wave. She handed him a bunch of grapes and pointedly watched until he placed it in the shopping trolley.
"And to that thing he had stuck to his face all sixth year. Well, well." He shook his head, managing to sound amazingly like her mirror.
"Broccoli," she said.
"I think not." He returned it to the counter. "Of course you're far better off."
"I shouldn't have told you." Why had she told him?
"Probably not." He looked around. "Where's the pumpkin juice?"
"Still in the pumpkin."
He picked one up and regarded it speculatively. He placed it to one ear and shook it, frowning. Hermione sighed and grabbed it out of his hands, adding it to the trolley.
"Weasley is a moron."
"Draco. Shopping. Pay attention so you'll be able to do it on your own." She deliberated, then put in some lettuce. Perhaps Draco could learn to make a salad without injuring himself or her kitchen.
"Moron," he said. "Goes without saying, of course. Though saying it's rather fun. Weasley is a mor-on." He savored the last word, letting it spill slowly from his lips.
"Choosing that ridiculous piece of fluff when he could've had you."
"He couldn't have had me," she replied evenly, trying not to feel pleased.
"No?" And she did not notice the light that came into his face.
"No," she answered. "Come on. Now it's time to learn how to pay."
The next evening she showed him the tube. She let him pick their destination, and was surprised by his choice of Whitechapel until he told her that Jack the Ripper had actually been a mad wizard named Ryder Chinceworthy who was rumored to be a Malfoy cousin.
"Ah," she said.
The day after that she moved into her own office in the renovated section of the Ministry of Magic. She had the sign-maker charm "Hermione Granger" on the door in gold-leaf, but changed it to mother-of-pearl after he'd left. She experimented with emerald slivers, and sapphire, but in the end settled for black paint.
When she got home, she discovered that Draco had apparently spent the day experimenting with Muggle toiletries and then let the tub overflow, leaving lime green bubble bath scum everywhere, and completely ruining the carpet. She decided it was time to acquaint him with Muggle-style cleaning.
"A mop?" he asked, fingering it distastefully.
"Yes," she said and left him to it.
To his credit, she only heard him attempt Scourgify three times.
The next night she told him she had to go out and left him a London Times conveniently opened to the Employment Section.
"I'm meant to be fixing you right now." Hermione frowned. She hadn't wanted to say that.
"I didn't think I was broken," replied Harry, taking another swig of his firewhisky.
"That's what I told Ginny!" Hermione stared at her own empty glass. Harry refilled it. Harry was nice. He wasn't broken.
"Ginny?" he asked, frowning.
Ginny. What was that about Ginny? Oh yes. Ginny wanted her to fix Harry. Ginny had Owled her twice at the Ministry, as a matter of fact, and had threatened to make the next one a Howler. Ginny was not nice.
"Howler," she told Harry, who nodded as if he understood.
She'd arrived at the Leaky Cauldron to find Harry downstairs among people. Good, she'd thought, until she realized that he was downstairs at the bar, and what he was doing among people was drinking. Still, he'd smiled at her happily and seemed genuinely glad to see her.
She was there to fix him, or at least see him so Ginny would leave her alone. But he'd insisted that if she was going to stay with him, she would have to let him buy her a drink. Then another.
That had seemed like a bad idea at the time, she remembered vaguely. Why was that again?
"Whoops." The glass nearly slipped from her fingers
"Whoops," Harry said.
Thinking gave her a pain right between her eyes and made the room spin a little, so she gave up. Harry was smiling, really smiling, and she was having the most fun she'd had in months. The first fun she'd had in months. Harry was a genius. She should tell him.
"You're very smart," she said.
"No, that's you."
"No, honestly, Harry. You don't give yourself enough credit."
And he smiled again, and anything that made Harry happy these days had to be a good idea.
The bartender had closed the bar, and made them go upstairs, but that was okay because Harry still had the bottle of firewhisky, and he was still smiling.
Harry's hotel suite wasn't so bad, really. The sofa was big and fluffy, and you could put your feet up on it and lean back and watch Harry's happy face in the almost-dark.
"Remus gave me a door with my name on it," she said. "Did anyone ever give you a door with your name on it?"
"No," he said. "Do you have it with you?"
"It's a door, Harry. It's at the Ministry. He wants me to be his assistant."
"I don't want to be."
"It's hardly ever about what you i want /i , Hermione."
He hadn't stopped smiling, and he poured her another drink. But she suddenly knew he wasn't feeling happy, or better. Not at all.
"Harry," she said.
She bit her lip. "Nothing."
She should have talked about the Ministry or Quidditch or just been quiet. But she felt reckless and unable to stop, like someone else was speaking.
She touched his hand. "Wouldn't you like to talk to me?"
"We are talking." He was still smiling, but there was a brittle warning in his voice.
"Please, Hermione. Drop it." His hand was in a fist on the sofa, and she could see tiny drops of sweat on his forehead.
Then he met her eyes and all at once the smile was gone completely. He looked suddenly younger, and stricken, and she couldn't bear to see the anguish in his face.
She scooted forward and wrapped her arms around him. "Please, Harry, I know you'll feel better if you talk about it."
Did she know that? But she felt helpless and disconnected. She would've done anything, tried anything, to get rid of that haunted look on his face.
"What do you want to know?" he asked in a dull voice that didn't sound like his.
This had been a very bad idea. "Nothing." She tried to back away. He held her in the embrace, gripping her tightly. "Whatever you want to tell me," she said.
"About Voldemort. About what happened at Hogwarts."
"Yes," she whispered. He was crushing her. She felt tears prick her eyes.
"Why should I tell you?"
"Don't then, Harry." He was hurting her, and she could feel tears on her cheeks, but they weren't from the pain. "Don't tell me anything you don't want to."
"I was the Horcrux."
And he wasn't holding her any more. She felt cold, and empty, and she was hearing things.
"No," she said.
"Yes." He gave a short laugh. "I was the last Horcrux."
"No, Harry. The snake—"
"It was never the snake." He smiled terribly. She was suddenly made of frost. "It was always me. My whole life, since I was a baby, I had a piece of Voldemort's soul inside of me."
"No, Harry." But she knew it was true.
"Yes. He murdered my parents, and then he used me. I kept him alive all this time."
She reached a hand to him. He rose, backing to the wall. He wasn't looking at her any more, and she didn't know if that was better or worse.
"It hurt when I killed him. Something in me died too."
"He was inside of me, Hermione. He laughed when he died. What do you think of that?" Harry laughed again; it was the worst sound she'd ever heard.
She went to him, grasped his hands. "It doesn't matter. He's gone now."
"You don't know that." His voice was bitter now, and shaking.
"Voldemort's gone. His soul is gone."
"He used me."
"Yes. And now he's gone."
"He was inside me and he died. Does that mean I died?"
"Harry, Harry." She put her arms around him again and let her tears spill on his face. She was talking, but she couldn't feel herself doing it, murmuring, "He's gone, he's gone," over and over.
"Hermione." His voice was ice. "Leave."
She pulled away. He wouldn't meet her eyes. She felt hollow and unreal.
"Go," he said. "Don't come back."
"I don't want you here. I don't want to see you."
He walked into the bedroom. He didn't look at her again. After a moment, she went.
Her head was full of Billywigs. They were skating on her brain.
She tried to sit up, decided it was a bad idea, and sank back into her pillow.
Oh, for—Couldn't Draco go five minutes as a Muggle without injuring himself?
She slowly opened her eyes. They seemed to work all right. The light was searing, but it was still a good first step.
She heard a crash and staggered out of her bedroom. The Billywigs had changed to jump rope now, and were surprisingly heavy. Pound, pound, pound.
The kitchen was a disaster. Draco had been attempting scrambled eggs, apparently, or perhaps dry cereal, who could tell? Broken eggshells littered her counter. Egg innards were smeared everywhere; a few had even made it into a bowl.
He was standing in the midst of the chaos, clutching one hand. How had this so quickly become such a familiar scene? She sighed.
In his other hand he still held one of her biggest, sharpest knives. Sweet Merlin. Had he been making eggs with a knife?
She really did not want to hear the story, but he must have noticed her astonished look, because he made his I-Do-Not-Have-To-Explain-Myself-To-You-But-Clearly-This-Is-All-Your-Fault face and pointed with the knife to a mostly-intact egg. "Well, how else are you supposed to open those things?"
He'd cut his thumb, she noticed. She supposed she should be grateful he hadn't slit a wrist.
"Draco." She rolled her eyes. The Billywigs took that as their cue to switch to tennis and ping around her skull. "Put down the knife."
She went to the loo to fetch a plaster, and took the time while she was there to brush her teeth and try to rid her mouth of the feeling that something had died in it. Let Draco bleed for a minute.
"I'm hungry," he called from the kitchen. "And I'm injured."
She'd been rinsing, but suddenly another round with the toothbrush seemed like a good idea.
"Granger," his voice came again. "I am bleeding to death."
She sighed and went back to the kitchen. Feeling incapable of speech, she grabbed his wrist and stuck his hand under the cold tap, ignoring his moans of pain. Baby.
She stuck the plaster on his thumb and smoothed it down. He was standing very close to her, and there was really no reason to keep holding his hand. She should let it go and step back. She would in a minute.
He stared down at the plaster. "What's this?"
"That's the way Muggles do it," she answered, stepping back finally.
He poked at it dubiously. "Primitive."
She stared at the mess and considered making him clean it. But that would mean showing him how and listening to him complain. With the state her head was in, she couldn't face the idea and did a quick Cleaning Charm instead.
Draco looked around wistfully. "Can't even feel the magic anymore." His eyes settled on her.
She looked down at herself and flushed. She'd Apparated straight to her bedroom last night and managed to undress herself, barely. She'd pulled on the nearest thing, a short t-shirt as it happened, and had fallen asleep instantly—or passed out, if you wanted to look at it that way.
She still had on last night's smeared makeup, and the shirt gave quite a good view of her pink knickers. Draco was not one to pass up an opportunity to humiliate her. She waited.
But the expected Leer of Superiority did not come. Instead she got Disapproving Sneer. "Big night?" he asked.
Harry. She'd been so busy feeling ill that she'd nearly forgotten. A cold lump settled in her stomach. How could she have been so stupid? Well, he'd forgive her. He had to. He just needed some time. She no longer cared if Draco saw her in her underwear.
"How is Potter?" And there was the leer. Up and down her body, with a lick of his lips for good measure. "Impressing the girls with his heroism?"
"Something like that," she replied quietly.
She was going to be late for the Ministry. She had to pretend to care for Remus's sake. No, for Remus's sake she had to actually care. Her stomach felt queasy.
She walked to her bedroom, surprised to find Draco following her.
"I don't want to—"
"You got an Owl last night," he said, tossing her a parchment.
It fluttered to the floor behind her, which meant she would have to turn around and bend over to get it. Had he done that on purpose? Probably not; he hadn't shown himself to be terribly coordinated these last few days.
He rolled his eyes at her hesitation. "Oxford needs your answer in three days."
"You read it?"
"You can't be surprised."
She opened her wardrobe. "I have to get dressed now."
"Why haven't you told them you're going?"
"Because I'm not."
"Nonsense. Of course you are. St. Brigid's was made for your type."
If she'd had the energy, she'd have wondered if that was an insult.
"Now isn't the time to think of ourselves. I don't expect you to understand that."
"Now is the perfect time to think of ourselves. You let the werewolf drag you along on his do-gooder mission of doom, you won't be fit to help anyone soon."
"The wizarding world—"
"Go to Oxford. Invent new magic. Figure out how to stop the next Voldemort. That's how you help the wizarding world."
"Remus needs me."
"Lupin's in love with his guilt. No reason to let him pull you under too." He ran a hand through his hair. "I bet you wanted to go to Oxford before you knew what Hogwarts was. "
It was completely unfair that Draco Malfoy, of all people, was the person who could see through her. If she ever met the Gods of Irony, she would give them a stern talking-to.
"Tell me this. Do you want to go to St. Brigid's?"
No, she was itching to say. But she looked into his eyes and her mouth refused to form the word. "Yes," she said. "Terribly, but—"
"No buts." There was a strange look in his eyes. It didn't fit in her catalog of Draco expressions.
"You don't understand."
"You? I understand you perfectly."
He took a half-step forward. She wasn't sure if she should get ready for a kiss or a slap.
Then he stopped.
"And I understand I'm hungry. You were so busy playing house with Potter last night—never thought that meant I wouldn't get dinner, did you? I'm famished." He plucked at his shirt. "Skin and bones, that's what I am."
"Oh for—You're going to have to learn to feed yourself, Draco."
He looked genuinely surprised. "Why? I've got you."
If only she had a door to slam.
She was beginning to get an idea of how things would be at the Ministry. Meetings all morning—Remus making sure her opinion was heard when Shacklebolt and the others would just as soon she stayed silent. Cases in the afternoon. She would be seeing the VIPs now—magical ambassadors, foreign princesses.
Around noon, Ginny Floo'd her desperately demanding to know what she had done to Harry—he'd checked out of the Leaky Cauldron.
Hermione felt her stomach drop to the floor, but she was slightly cheered to learn upon inquiries that the Leaky Cauldron expected him back in a week. She felt even better when her new position allowed her to tell the reception-witch she would not be accepting any more Floos from Ginny Weasley.
When the reception-witch Inter-office Owled her to ask if she could put Ron Weasley through, she gritted her teeth and decided she might as well face him. He asked her to dinner rather haltingly, and she was going to turn him down until she realized that that would mean Draco would have to fend for himself. Draco needed to be taught a lesson; there was only a slight chance of his actually starving.
Dinner had gone well. They'd discussed Harry, of course. She didn't tell him what Harry had said to her, and he didn't press, but it was good to hear his unshakeable faith that Harry would be like his old self again. He just needed time.
He'd told her about his apprenticeship at the Daily Prophet—just Conjuring tea for the reporters for now but he had hopes of landing the Quidditch beat in time.
He'd been politely curious about the Ministry, and he'd agreed that it was a far more important thing to do than St. Brigid's—the last thing Hermione needed was more school.
They'd managed to avoid the subject of Lavender entirely, and by the time he'd asked her to take a walk in the wizarding corner of Hyde Park, things were beginning to seem almost normal between them.
The moon was full and the city lights weren't visible from the path. Hermione began to relax for the first time all day. Harry would be all right, and she was doing the honorable thing in choosing the Ministry over university, and Draco was stupid. She was so sure of the last that she let Ron put his arm around her shoulders as they walked. They were the oldest of friends, there couldn't possibly be any objection, and it felt good.
It felt wonderful, actually. His arm was warm and solidly heavy in just the right way. When he looked down at her, she smiled.
And suddenly they weren't walking any more, and he was pulling her closer and kissing her hair and her forehead, and she'd been playing with fire. She couldn't even pretend she hadn't known.
"Hermione," Ron was saying, "Hermione." His lips were hot against her ear and the side of her neck. His hands were moving on her back.
She could just let it happen. It would be so easy. Would be something they'd been building to for years
"What about Lavender?" she asked.
She felt him wince. "It's always been you, Hermione. I've been so stupid."
He kissed her chin, her cheek, her mouth. She allowed it for a moment.
"I've always known we'd be together someday." He pulled her closer. "I don't know what I was waiting for."
"But now you're ready?"
"Yes," he murmured into her lips.
"Ron." She pulled her head back. "I haven't been waiting for you."
He leaned forward to recapture her lips. She gently shrugged off his embrace.
"Was I meant to just be here when you were finally ready?"
"Well... yeah." He looked staggered. "I mean, no. It's not like—"
"If you wanted me, you should have said something long ago."
"No. You don't understand." His face was puzzled. "I love you, Hermione. I'll break it off with Lavender. It'll be okay."
"Ron, I'm sorry." And she really was, suddenly. He'd been counting on her, she realized. "Do what you like about Lavender. But I'm not an option."
"When did we start all this? Fourth year? Fifth? Can't we just forget about it? Can't we be friends the way we used to be?"
She desperately wanted one thing to be steady. One thing she could hold on to—could keep the way it had been before the war.
"Please, Ron," she said quietly. "I miss you. Can't we go back?"
His face was a mask of hurt confusion. She wondered what he'd been seeing when he'd looked at her, all these years.
"No, Hermione," he said finally. "I don't think we can."
"Harry's in Hogsmeade," Remus said from the door.
He stepped all the way into her office. "I suspect he's gone to see the ruins of Hogwarts."
"What?" she asked. "How do you know?"
He smiled. "The Ministry has access to rather advanced locator magic. Ginny Weasley asked me to find him. She says you haven't been returning her Floos."
"Oh," she said. "No."
"She was rather insistent that you should go talk to him."
Does she want me to drive him completely round the bend? "Did you tell her where he was?"
"No. But if you'd like, I could perhaps need a report on the progress of Hogwarts' reconstruction? It could require a personal visit."
"Harry needs some time on his own."
"All right," he said. "Though I don't like the idea of Harry poking around the rubble by himself reliving bad memories. Or good ones, for that matter. Sure you won't go? You might do him some good."
He doesn't need me. If he's at Hogwarts, he's gone to see Dumbledore.
She thought of telling Remus this, but instead just said, "No."
So instead of seeing Harry at Hogwarts, it was war orphans and a new orphanage Kingsley was dedicating.
There were so many children, dark and fair, tall and short. She saw Harry's haunted eyes in each one.
Kingsley stayed twenty minutes—time enough for pictures—and Remus perhaps an hour, and she had to leave with him because there was a meeting with the Turkish ambassador that could not be missed. And she sat there all afternoon while they negotiated—something, and didn't hear a word.
It was still light out when she went to Oxford.
"Dr. Jackson, I'm sorry, I can't accept your generous offer."
It was on her lips; she'd practiced saying it three times, and she could run through it without a hitch. But when she put one hand up, ready to knock on Dr. Jackson's office door, she suddenly couldn't breathe.
Her stupid body actually started shaking and she was sure she'd gone pale. She had to get out of there before a concerned don could come be helpful all over her.
She stumbled out to the quadrangle and dropped on a bench. Deep breaths, here in the open air. Breathe in, breathe out. She felt clammy and fuzzy-headed, and she'd been through a war, damn it, and had always kept her cool. She refused to lose her mind at Oxford.
That was better. She could get some air in her lungs now, and when she looked at her hand, the shaking was barely noticeable. If she could just sit here for a minute, she'd be able to move again. She wanted to check her face in the little mirror she kept in her bag, but didn't dare. It was supposed to be non-magical, but she didn't trust the mirror at her flat not to have corrupted it somehow.
St. Brigid's was so beautiful. The grass here was brilliantly green, even though non-magical Oxford's lawns were beginning to dull in the autumn chill. The ancient walls—magically-infused limestone, A Brief History of St. Brigid's had informed her—glowed orange in the last of the fading sun. There were few people around, since the term hadn't started yet, and it was so easy to want this. So easy to close her eyes and see herself walking these paths.
She felt her heart lurch and her breathing speed, and she opened her eyes, hating herself and feeling ridiculous all at the same time. None of this was too much for her. Hermione Granger had faced a Basilisk as a child and fought a war as a teenager. She was the practical one. The one people turned to when they needed something. She could be depended upon.
She couldn't lose control now. And why would she? Because Remus—and by extension her world—needed her at the Ministry? And Ron needed her to be something she never had been? And Harry—well, she wished she knew what Harry needed.
And Draco. Draco needed her for everything, seemingly.
She was perfectly capable of handling herself. She always had been. If everyone wanted something from her—well, that was nothing new. If her heart was beating fast, and her insides had a horrible empty feeling—it was nothing she had to give in to. It would go away in time.
She Apparated a few streets from her flat so she would have time to think on her walk home. The hollow feeling was still with her.
She hadn't been able to give Dr. Jackson her answer, but she was able to control herself now, and she would Owl him from the flat.
She didn't know what to do about Ron or Harry yet—or if she could do anything. Perhaps they had all changed too much. Perhaps the trio was over.
But Draco, she knew what to do there. He'd have to move out, there was nothing else for it. She felt a surprising twist in her stomach at the thought. She'd grown used to having him around. In a way she even enjoyed it. But she couldn't do everything for him. He had to stand on his own—there were too many other people she had to take care of. Including herself, she supposed.
Even now he was probably making a shambles of her kitchen with no edible results. Or maybe he was just standing in the middle of her sitting room, arms folded, waiting for her to feed him.
She'd reached her building. Up the stairs and in her door, and then she'd have to tell him. The hollow feeling had spread all the way to her fingertips now, but that couldn't be helped.
"Alohomora," she whispered and walked in.
Her kitchen was in the same state she'd left it that morning, which meant that Draco had not even attempted food, and would no doubt start complaining of hunger pangs any moment.
Her muscles had tensed, she realized, waiting for it, but he was lounging in the easy chair reading a newspaper, and barely looked up.
"Draco," she said, and it was somehow the thing she wanted to say least in the world.
He looked up sharply. And that was definitely concern she saw flash across his face before he replaced it with a carefully neutral expression.
"Ah, yes," he said. "Have you been turning down Oxford then?"
"No," she said. His face broke into a genuine smile, and she didn't have the heart to add, Not yet.
He got up and moved to her, but she took a step back.
"Draco. I have to tell you something." You have to leave. Soon. Tonight, maybe.
She could say this to him. She'd been coward enough for one day already. She took a breath.
Well, perhaps she could tell him over dinner. After all, he had to eat, and he'd never be able to manage it on his own.
She was exhausted. The second to the last thing she felt like doing was cooking, but the very last thing was telling him he had to leave, so it seemed a fair compromise.
And why couldn't he take care of himself? It was so stupid. Yes, he'd never had to lift a finger for himself, but the world can change, and he'd been in a war, too. Six billion people in the world were Muggles, and most of them managed all right. Why was he so ridiculous over food and cleaning and work and money and any of the other thousand little decisions Muggles had to make each day? Why couldn't he even try? Why was he making her kick him out—which was somehow ridiculously, absurdly, impossibly filling her with hollowness?
Everybody else needed so much from her. She wanted so much for him to be different than the others. She hadn't realized how much until now.
"I had a big day, too," he said.
"Did you?" She could barely stand any more, she was so insubstantially hollow.
"Yes," he said. "I learned how to use the telephone."
Well, that was more than some wizards managed, she supposed.
"I better make dinner." She dreaded going into her kitchen. It felt too much like a last meal.
There was a banging at the door. Hermione jumped. She never had visitors.
"And," Draco said, "I learned how to order pizza."
She'd seen the Draco Pride face before, of course, but this was the first time she'd seen it without any malice at all.
He opened the door and paid the delivery boy. Paid! With the right denominations of Muggle money, like he'd been doing it his whole life. And took the pizza and closed the door.
He turned back to her, brandishing the box. She felt frozen. His smile faded at the look on her face.
"I knew you were going to have a hard day." His expression was confused. "So I thought I could do something for you. Hermione?"
It was as if all her blood started suddenly rushing through her body. She felt her entire body tremble.
"Hermione?" He was alarmed now.
She couldn't speak. He dropped the box on the floor and was at her side in two strides. He took her in his arms. She burst into tears.
"Hermione. Sweetheart." There was no mistaking the panic in his voice. "Hermione, love, what is it? It's all right. It's just pizza," he said desperately.
She gave a great hiccup of a coughing laugh, which made him clutch agitatedly at her shoulders. She couldn't stop sobbing. Draco drew her closer, and said, "Sweetheart," over and over in an urgent voice. And then he was pressing hot kisses everywhere he could reach. His lips were wet with her tears.
Her self-control had been an illusion, apparently, because it was all gone now. Everything she hadn't let herself feel for months was coming out through her tears. She was powerless to stop it.
After a moment she stopped trying to control her trembling sobs. It hadn't been any use, anyway. She couldn't form words, couldn't tell Draco what was wrong, and more importantly, what wasn't.
But she could move her mouth so that his searching lips met hers. And she could kiss him deeply, even as the tears never stopped flowing down her face.
He returned the kiss eagerly, pulling her even closer and letting his hands touch everywhere they could. And she still couldn't speak to tell him she was all right, she was just having some sort of time-delayed emotional crisis, but that it felt good. So she put every bit of reassurance she had into her kiss. He seemed to understand.
The hollow feeling had finally gone away. Replaced by a sense of—not fullness, but somehow wholeness. She felt real in a way she hadn't since before the war and was staggered by the revelation. She'd have to tell Draco when she could speak again.
Later. She'd tell him later. He licked her neck. Now they had more important things to do.
"Weasley did what?" Draco started to struggle up off the picnic blanket. "I'll kill him."
"Relax." Hermione pushed him gently back down. "I'm only trying to explain why Ron and Lavender aren't engaged anymore."
"But she's still dating him?" He reached into the basket, evidently deciding to take a chicken leg instead of getting upset.
She nodded. He shook his head in wonder. "Dating Weasley. Woman's a saint. Or an idiot. Possibly both."
She would never tell him, but privately she couldn't help agreeing. She thought back to the dinner she'd had with Ron, Lavender, and Harry the night before at Harry's new Hogsmeade cottage.
Ron had been strained at first, but he was speaking to her and even joking. Lavender had asked Hermione about her plans and made several insightful comments, which Ron seemed to actually listen to. He's finally given up on me, Hermione realized. They all had to be better for that.
Harry was proud of his little house and spoke enthusiastically about the repairs he intended to make. She watched him carefully all night, until he grew annoyed at her attentiveness, and never once did she see his hands shake. They stayed late into the night, talking and laughing, and halfway through the evening, it suddenly occurred to Hermione that the war was over, that this was life.
She'd wanted to take Draco to Harry's dinner party, but he'd rolled his eyes and announced that he would have to refuse, thank Merlin, because he was working. He'd enjoyed her expression of gape-mouthed shock until she kissed the smug smile off his face and then told her he'd found work in a SoHo art gallery where the management was sure his aristocratic air and good looks would be an invaluable asset in selling overpriced paintings to Muggles with too much money.
Hermione allowed herself to lean back for a moment with her hands off the blanket, feeling the warmth of the quadrangle lawn. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the sun on her face, and breathed in the smell of the grass. She opened her eyes to see other undergraduates taking advantage of an unusually warm fall day to do the same thing—the quadrangle seemed to be full of students. They were reading or picnicking—a few were even catching and releasing a Snitch, though none of them with Harry's style. She saw Dr. Jackson across the square and happily returned his wave before she reached out for the heavy book that lay at her side.
Draco leaned in for a kiss. She pushed him away, gestured to the book now open on her lap, Modern Advanced Arithmantic Derivations. "You know I only agreed to this if you'd let me study."
"Your classes don't even begin until this afternoon. What could you possibly have to study?"
She just looked at him. He laughed. "Fine. I give up."
He lay back on the grass and studied the sky. "I wonder how the werewolf is getting along without you. The Ministry doesn't seem to have crumbled."
"Fine, yes, Draco," she said without looking up from her book. "You are the smartest most intelligent wizard in the history of wizardkind, and I shall never again question your advice. Happy?"
The way he said "Yes" made her look up from her book. She smiled down at him fondly. "Of course, Remus does still need an assistant. I suppose you could always-—"
He pulled one wrist, and she found herself sprawled on top of him. He took advantage of his position to kiss her thoroughly.
"Draco," she said when she could gather her breath, "I am actually at my university now. I'd like to maintain some decorum."
"Do a Concealment Spell," he whispered into her ear.
She laughed. "St. Brigid's has had a thousand years of undergraduates. They're warded against that."
"Well then," he said smiling and pulling her into another kiss. "I guess you'll just have to suffer the embarrassment."
A/N: Winner of First Runner Up at Hot Summer Nights DMHGficexchange, originally for Shiv5468 who requested: Post-defeat of Voldemort, everyone is trying to get their lives back in order. Hermione is working for the Ministry and Draco needs her help.
St. Brigid is the patron saint of scholars. She was possibly originally a Celtic pagan goddess of fire whose manifestations included song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge, before early Christians adapted her legend for their use. Alternately she was an Irish princess who converted to Christianity in 468. Thanks to kendas for naming the college!
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