"Did you decide whether you want to help me yet?"
Hermione flinched at the impatient request. She really shouldn't keep postponing the inevitable and she'd put it off for days now. But he was looking annoyed. Perhaps she should wait until he was in a good mood….
She fiddled with some scrolls on her desk.
"It's not really that big a decision!" he exploded. "What do you have to lose? I'll sign a bloody contract if that's what it takes! Why are you like this? I told you, if we find her and she says no, I will respect it! You don't have to protect her!"
But she did. She really, really did. Who else would?
"Why don't you want me to have what you have with your Weasley?" he asked.
"Stop mentioning him!"
She hadn't meant to say that, and certainly not say it quite so forcefully, but when the words were out, they were kind of hard to ignore.
He just looked at her, and she realised there was no going back. "I...I'm not with Ron anymore."
His eyes softened with something that looked an awful lot like understanding. She looked away, hating this. He was much easier to deal with when he was just being an annoying prat.
"When?" he asked.
Well, there lay the rub. "About ten months," she heard herself say in a dead voice.
The understanding was replaced by confusion and he frowned, obviously trying to work this out.
She sighed, feeling rather defeated. "I didn't tell you because you would have made my life a living hell and you know it. You would have made a million digs about my inability to hold onto him and I just... It was none of your business."
"But now it is?"
She was feeling so tired. She just wanted this to be over. "It doesn't ring a bell?" she asked.
He opened his mouth as if to answer, but then just frowned again and shook his head.
"I guess not. But you've been right all along. I take this crummy job too seriously and I never knew to appreciate what else I had. Finally, Ron, who you'd think was the Thickest Skull of Our Age had it with my lack of attention to our relationship and he left. I haven't seen him since the breakup."
Malfoy didn't answer.
"And it doesn't sound familiar at all? You haven't heard that story before?"
He still didn't reply, but she noticed that his jaw was clenched and there was a sudden stillness to him.
"I didn't go as a hag," she quietly said. "I mean, I meant to. You were right about that. But that meddling shopkeeper wouldn't let me. He had this other costume, a nymph with green eyes and shimmering skin..."
When she looked at his eyes, she wished she hadn't. Ice-cold fury. But he still didn't speak.
She blinked rapidly a few times. This really hurt more than it should. She had known and it was not like it mattered that much to her. She would do fine without this job and she had known that it hadn't been real, so it wasn't like she'd hoped for anything. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just couldn't—"
"This is where you tell me that I misunderstood what you just said," he interrupted.
"Well, that depends on your understanding," Hermione said in a very low voice.
"You did not just tell me that...that..." He seemed at a loss for words. "And you knew. All this time you've been sitting there, knowing that all I wanted was to find her and... With one word you could have let me know! You could have saved me a whole lot of time, trouble and agony and let me know why she wasn't interested, but instead you chose to let me completely humiliate myself!"
Hermione winced. "I know, but I swear I didn't think you'd keep looking. I thought—"
"And that's not even the worst of it!" he continued, ignoring her weak defence. "For weeks I've been wondering what's wrong with me that even after what I told her she would hate me enough to not even give me a chance or at least tell me to my face why she didn't want to see me again. Do you know what that's like? How it feels? And then it was you!"
The loathing in his last words cut deep. Very deep. She realised she had hoped against hope that he wouldn't actually hate her for this. But he clearly did. "Please...I didn't mean to—"
He took a step back, cutting her words off. "But you did. I never want to lay my eyes on you ever again."
She opened her mouth, wanting to somehow say something to make it better, but he was gone. He had left, not even bothering to get his cloak.
Hermione realised that at some point she had gotten up from her chair and she slowly sunk down again, feeling terribly lost.
Malfoy didn't show up for work the next day. Or the next. Or the day after that. In fact, he didn't seem inclined to make any move to show up again at all.
And Hermione didn't receive word that she was fired. She wasn't sure whether that was a good thing.
She tried to cover for Malfoy's absence as best as she could. After all, he didn't have long to stay here and there was no reason for him to get any more punishment because of...well, her.
In fact, she felt like he'd had enough punishment. What was the meaning of forcing him out to do meaningless work when he had just been a kid trying to not get himself or his parents killed during the war? If they were going to punish anyone that tried to not get killed during those years, it would be a long list indeed.
Not that it really mattered what she thought. The Wizengamot thought otherwise and their opinions were what mattered.
It didn't mean she had to enforce their views, though.
Aurors, however, did.
It was a bit of a surprise when Harry one day dropped by her office. Harry never dropped by her office. Especially not since she'd begun sulking. His approach to that would be to let her sulk in peace and then continue where they'd left off once she was done.
So why was he here?
"What's Malfoy up to?" he asked.
Oh. That was why. "Um, he's out. Want to leave a message?" It was sort of lame to try and fool an Auror. Especially when he was Harry and was pretty good at reading her. That didn't mean she couldn't try, though.
"You're covering for him?" Harry looked both puzzled and amused at the same time. "You don't have to. He sent us an owl. We were informed that he had stopped coming in due to irreconcilable differences in the office—with you—and he would accept any consequences that did not involve, eh, you."
From the last hesitation, Hermione got the feeling that Malfoy hadn't exactly referred to her by name. That was just grand. She could only imagine his colourful vocabulary. "Well, there you have it," she said with a shrug, feigning indifference. "I told you so from the beginning."
"Don't give me that. You worked together just fine for almost a year. What happened?"
"We never worked together just fine," she argued. "Nobody just bothered to actually pay any attention. I told you it wouldn't work."
Harry shrugged. "It would save me a whole lot of really boring paperwork if you could settle those differences for just a couple of weeks, though. He's almost done here."
"You won't even talk to him?"
He won't even talk to me! "I don't think there would be any point. Why don't you talk to him?"
"Yeah, he's always reacted really well to me. And, besides, I'm not the one with the differences here. I'm the one with the paperwork."
"What am I supposed to tell him?"
"Just tell him that if he saves me the paperwork, I'll pretend he never stayed away or sent that owl and he'll be a free man in less than a month. Otherwise, he'll give me a giant headache and—no, wait, don't tell him that, it might tempt him to stay away. Just tell him he'll risk a new trial, for violating the terms of the last one, and getting a new punishment. Whatever you two are fighting about it really can't be worth it."
"You really hate paperwork, huh?"
"I really do."
For the hundredth time, Hermione stared at the piece of parchment Harry had given her. This really couldn't be right. There had to be some mistake.
But, looking on the bright side, if he wasn't here, she wouldn't have to look him in the eye again.
Tentatively, she raised her hand and knocked on the door.
A few seconds went by and then the door was yanked open, making her almost jump out of her skin.
It was him. She couldn't believe he was actually living here. At The Leaky Cauldron. Didn't he have a mansion? And even if he didn't want to live there, didn't he have enough galleons to buy another three mansions if he felt like it? Or, at the very least, rent a room at somewhere a little more, well, savoury.
He looked as if he was going to slam the door in her face, and she realised she had to say something quick to prevent it from happening. She opened her mouth to speak.
"Oy, whelp! She stays, it's extra!"
Hermione blinked and looked to the stairs where the unappealing barman was eyeing them. Malfoy sneered and suddenly she was pulled in and the door slammed behind her.
"What do you want?"
"It's about work—"
"Write your own review. I don't care. I don't work there anymore."
She blinked at his curtness. "Well, Harry came to the office and—"
"Potter sent you here? So you don't even want me there. That's just grand. You can tell him you failed."
She shook her head. "You'd really rather get a new sentence than work along me for a few more weeks?"
She folded her arms across her chest. "Well, that's stupid."
He shrugged. "Well, apparently, I just am stupid. Anything else?"
"Just come back and do the remainder of your time. You don't even have to talk to me or anything. You have your own office."
"Why do you care so much what happens?"
"Because it's stupid!"
He didn't reply but just gazed at her rather haughtily.
"Look, you hate me. Fine. But that's no reason to just...cut off your nose to spite your face," she tried to reason.
"Hate you," he echoed.
She winced. "Yeah, I got that. Thanks."
"Now you're the one being bloody stupid."
Wait, this didn't make any sense anymore. Her eyebrows drew together. "You lost me."
"Can't lose what you never had. You think I really want to be around you every day?"
"No, but we covered that... You don't have to talk to me. Or even see me, really." Hermione's confusion was growing.
"God, you really don't know, do you?" He sighed. His anger seemed to have given way to resignation. "I can't be around you because it's humiliating."
"I never meant to humiliate you," she quietly said. She really did wish she could undo everything that made him feel like she had meant to ridicule him. She just never thought he would be that serious about 'Lethe'. Now she was just...deeply sorry that he had to be so disappointed.
"No." He paused. "I know. But let me ask you...how many Muggle girls do you think I knew when I was a kid?"
"Oh." Hermione's cheeks reddened as she remembered his confessions. "I hadn't actually thought about that."
"No. Neither had I for a long time. Life happened, things moved on. But then I found that not nearly as much as I thought had changed. It didn't matter, though. Things were as they were and you had your Weasley, which was the way I thought it was supposed to be...and then I met Lethe."
Hermione's blush deepened. So he'd managed to have two separate crushes on her? The thought was oddly warming. She wasn't just flattered, she was...glad.
"I finally thought there was someone for me. Someone I could have. Every time she seemed to reject me, I thought that maybe she was just scared, maybe I could change her mind, and then...she was you. Again."
The disappointment in his voice stung. Obviously, he wasn't happy about having fancied her. Well, she shouldn't be either. "I never rejected you when we were kids!" she objected.
"Sure you did. You just didn't even notice that you did it. And then you were irrevocably taken, or so I thought. But it really didn't make a difference what I thought, did it? As Lethe, even before you knew who I was, you ran in the opposite direction."
Why did he have to sound like everything was her fault? It wasn't her doing that he seemed to want to not want her so badly that he found it an actual relief to find some other girl. "It wasn't real," she insisted. "She doesn't even exist!"
He sighed, looking defeated. "Then how come it was you again? What are the odds that I will see you wearing some other face in a sea of hundreds of faces and get the same feeling if it's not real?"
She didn't know what to answer to that. Was he confessing to having real feelings for her or for a fantasy creature?
He closed his eyes. "You have no idea how much I wish it hadn't been you. How I wish I could feel this way for another witch. How happy it made me for a time to think that I could. And how much I can't be around you anymore, because you were Lethe, you are not with Weasley, and there's still nothing I can do."
There was a brief silence as she still couldn't quite figure out what to say or what to do. She didn't want to make a fool out of herself, but she didn't want to completely mess this up either.
"Please leave," he quietly said.
He was kicking her out. She should leave. This was stupid anyway... "No," she replied.
"I'm not coming back."
"Yes, you are." She raised her chin and stared at him stubbornly, hoping to high heavens that she wasn't making a complete fool of herself.
"Haven't you been listening? Or do you just enjoy that whole tortured soul bit?" he asked, sounding weary. Of her.
"You're stupid." She had to fight her own wince.
"My, thank you!" he said sarcastically. "You sure know how to make a bloke feel special."
"You rejected me!" There it was. The most important issue of all. If he said 'of course I did, you little twit,' she would quite possibly have to go drink a vial of really strong poison.
"I did not!" His surprise and indignation actually indicated that he was telling the truth and she took a second to thank any higher power that was listening for this. She didn't particularly fancy drinking poison.
"I told you who I was and you said you never wanted to see me again!" she then continued, determined to have this out.
"Well, yes, but—"
"You looked at me as if I was something disgusting that just crawled out from under a rock!" She didn't plan on letting him deny his part in this whole ordeal.
"I was upset!"
He was upset? She scowled. "And how was I supposed to ever know that you liked me when all you ever did was call my hair frizzy—"
"It is frizzy."
"—and tell me my robes were horrible and ugly—"
"They are extremely horrible." He was actually smiling at that, the git.
"—and bury me in work—"
"Didn't want for you to have to spend too much time with Weasley."
She glared at him. "—while mocking me for my dedication to work—"
"You need to lighten up and have some more fun."
"—and always giving me a hard time about something or other!"
"Don't pretend my opinion ever mattered to you."
"How can you claim you liked me when all you ever did was point out everything that was wrong with me?" Or more to the point: how could he like her and still think she was so...undesirable. She couldn't ask that, though.
"Because those things are shallow and have nothing to do with what makes you you...and you look quite adorable when you're annoyed," he softly said.
She scowled at him again, definitely feeling some of that annoyance now. He was such a pillock sometimes. Maybe if he hadn't been like that, they wouldn't have to be here, like this, now.
"And because if I were nice to you, then you might notice what lay beneath. And you would pity me but never want me back. Besides, I thought I was pretty much over it. I truly had accepted the way of things. When I met Lethe, I thought that it was really over and I was so relieved..."
"But it wasn't," she dully said. Did he really have to refer to her as if she were a nasty cold?
"No. Apparently I can't seem to help it."
"So, what are you going to do about it?"
He looked away. "Stay away. Leave you alone. That's what you asked me to do, after all. I told you that I would respect her—your—wishes and I plan to. I just wanted to see if there really wasn't a shot."
Was there? Did he even want there to be? From the expression on his face, she thought he did. But why didn't he try, then? Why did he withdraw as soon as he found out it was her that had been 'Lethe'? And as much as he claimed he'd had a crush on her before, he had never made any obvious moves on her.
Was she really that unapproachable?
She supposed she'd better take matters into her own hands.
"That sounds like a lousy plan," she announced.
He snorted with something that wasn't quite amusement. "You have a better one?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do: Exposure."
He frowned at that. "What?"
Served him well to be confused. "We'll have to expose you to me every day."
"That hasn't worked so far."
"Well, then we'll have to intensify it. Expose you to me for more hours a day. Perhaps in more ways than one." She looked around, eyeing the furniture of the rented room. "Is this really where you live?"
"It's convenient. And what are you talking about?" His confusion was becoming more pronounced, but she thought she saw something akin to hope in his eyes.
"Really?" she said, feigning distraction. "I mean, the room is sort of ok, but that barman downstairs...I think I saw him spit on a glass."
Good. He was anxious. "We expose you to me until you get sick of being around me," she explained with the patience of a long-suffering mentor.
He shook his head, his eyes never leaving her face. "That's not a very good plan," he slowly said.
She raised one haughty eyebrow at him. "Oh, yeah? Why not?"
His lip twitched very slightly. He was catching on. "It's not going to happen. I'm not going to get sick of you."
"Well," she murmured, frowning a little. "There's always that risk, of course. But maybe we just have to take it."
"Are you..." He hesitated. "Are you saying you do want to date me?"
Her eyes widened innocently. "I'd never dare suggest such a thing."
He came closer and took her hand. "You said it wasn't real. You hid your identity from me. You lied about having a fiancé for almost a year. You sent that note telling me to stay away. You rejected me too. How was I supposed to think that would ever change?"
She bit her lip and looked up at him a bit sheepishly. Ok, the peacock had a point. "Maybe we should stop doing that."
He nodded, relief suddenly flooding his features. "Please do." Hesitantly, as if fearing another rejection, he drew her closer.
Hermione suddenly frowned, making him stop and look at her inquisitively. "Hey, are you still buying me a house?" she asked.
He gave her a both pained and amused look. "I'm sure there's a point to this that I'm not seeing."
"Isn't there always?" No reason to go easy on him just because she had decided she fancied him.
He shot her an exasperated glance. "So, you're wanting a house from me, huh?"
"I'm wanting something from you. But we need the house."
"What is it, then?"
"You'll find out. Of course, you would be welcome to visit me any time you like in my new house."
"How very considerate of you." Now there was the perfect amount of dry. She'd learn that eventually.
"Yes, I thought so," she replied. "We obviously can't spend too much time around here because of the noise."
"You can barely hear what happens downstairs."
"Yeah...not that noise."
He blinked, obviously not quite following. "And what's wrong with your place?"
"Same noise, a lot less forgiving neighbours."
His eyes gleamed. "Now, I know what kind of noise I would like to make..."
"There's that," she conceded. "That's definitely some of what I will want from you. But there's also the inevitable fighting."
He shook his head. "No. I'm not going to fight with you."
"Of course you are," she said very matter-of-factly. He could be so naive. "Often, too."
"You are right now." She smirked at making her point.
He scowled. "This is not a fight, it's a heated discussion."
"Fine, we'll have heated discussions." And he could prefer to be called a pheasant, but that didn't mean he wasn't still a peacock.
"Can they end in another kind of noise?" he asked hopefully.
Now there was an idea she wasn't wholly against. "Well, that depends."
She smirked again. "My performance review, naturally."
"Just exactly what kind of performance do you want reviewed?" Oh, she had to learn to hit that exact amount of dry and soon.
"Hey, there have to be some perks from sleeping with my boss," she muttered, closing the distance between them and looking up at him from under her eyelashes with a suggestive little smile.
He grinned down at her. "This is going to be fun."
I hope you enjoyed this little diversion. :) It was certainly different to have to fulfill a prompt, but sometimes it's fun to step outside of your own little box, no? Until next time. ;)
An author's note added much later: There has been a little confusion on this matter, so I just want to clarify something. I know Hermione is not a Muggle, but rather a Muggle-born witch. Hermione knows that. In spite of past learnings from his family (Muggle-born wizards and witches are merely impostors who've got hold of wands, remember?) I'm even fairly certain that Draco knows that too. But 1) he may not really bother to distinguish much between Muggle and Muggle-born all the time and, more importantly, 2) he might have attempted to disguise the identity of his crush by referring to her as a Muggle. "How many Muggles do you think I knew as a kid?" is really a good question, not because he didn't know any other Muggle-born witches (although his exposure was probably limited) but because Lucius and Narcissa hardly would have allowed him to run around with true Muggles.