A/N: I first starting writing this some two years ago, and over time, I've built on it, adding a scene here and there. Perhaps it's the disjointed effort placed into this one shot that makes it work for me. I finished what I felt was the last scene last week, and here it is for you. My first ever D/Hr.
Disclaimer: I own nothing of the Harry Potter universe.
"Did you get my message?" she asks, fingers twined in the spiral of a phone cord.
"Of course," comes the reply, the male voice timbered with an incomprehensible emotion.
"And?" The cord stretches as she crosses her kitchen to a magnet covered fridge.
"Your ideas hold some merit," he admits after a time, the sound of a car horn blares during the pause. "However, it's still too broad. The board can't agree to administer anything so theoretical."
"I see." Disappointment forces the milk carton back from her lips and into its place on the fridge's first shelf. "So they decided against me?"
"Quick as ever Granger," he remarks, his trademark dryness finally showing itself. "I was beginning to think that I would have to spell it out."
"Yes, well, it's important, my research. I don't have time to hedge words with you," she snaps and then regrets her quick temper. "Forget it. I'll try again next year. It won't hurt anything to have another year to test things out."
"In a year then," he says, something of a promise lingering in his tone.
"In a year," she agrees. The phone settles back into its handle with a barely audible click.
The grocery aisle is empty of its usual shoppers. Even the stockers are missing from their typical posts toward the middle where the display pyramid of chicken broth stands precariously. Her cart nears the broth, hesitant to brush so close to something so unstable. The cart's guider has recently come into a hefty pay raise and decided to celebrate with a fully stocked refrigerator. She frowns and considers the merits of broccoli cheddar versus split pea.
"Of course you would choose something green," observes a familiar tenor.
She straightens. "It's just soup. Most soups contain vegetables, and a good many vegetables are green. Perhaps if you had paid a bit more attention in Herbology. . ."
Hands raise in mock surrender. "I was simply pointing out that you have a fondness for green that carries often into your choices. Soups aside, of course."
She fixes him with a frown. "Why are you in a Muggle grocery store in the middle of June?"
He shrugs and pushes one of the base broth cans closer to its center. The pyramid shifts and then stabilizes. "The place was busy in October, and I've only just now noticed my calendar."
She says nothing and decides to ignore him. She spent most of her years in school ignoring him, so the decision is a natural one. He fills her silence easily enough.
"Congratulations on your grant. I see that the board finally approved."
She grabs the split pea and moves on. He continues. "Your brief caused a bit of a stir in the Ministry last month. Seems that the whole imports division has undergone a cleansing. Over half of them got the sack."
Her preoccupation with tomato sauce choices momentarily loses its interest. "Sacked? Were people fired?"
He pretends to study the nutrition facts on a can of corn. "Only about thirty or so. Only a handful had been there over twenty years. I wouldn't worry about it."
"But the point wasn't to have them fired!" she protests, guilty concern plain on her simple features. "It was only to reform the practices, not completely do away with them!"
"Ironic isn't it?" he states cheerfully. "Your original premise was too broad to serve any real practical purpose. But then, voila! You added people to your little arithmantic formulas, and there arrived usefulness. Of course, the former was nicer on your moral sensibilities, wasn't it? The only things being hurt there were the future prices of faerie wings and scrimshandered rosaries. Such is the path to economics. . ."
She stares at him, wondering at his over-simplicity, his coarseness, and the finely groomed finger nails he now regards thoughtfully. "You really don't care about anything but yourself, do you?"
She doesn't wait for an answer. "I shouldn't be surprised though. You never gave me a reason to think otherwise, so why should anything be different now? Why should you have changed?"
His lips apply an easy smirk to their curves. "This is what I like best about you, Granger: your need to over-dramatize the mundane. You're right: I don't care about those people in the imports department; if they had been doing their jobs properly- efficiently- then they would have stayed like the other half. It's not my fault that they were incompetent."
"That's not the point." She angrily snatches down a can of tomato paste, barely glancing at the price which shows it a good pound more than its competitor. "The point is that they are people with needs, who now don't have a job because of me. It's natural that I should be bothered."
He shrugs. "What's natural is that a person be rewarded for whatever work he produces. If the work is worthless, then kick him to the curb. That's true practicality, and that's what your formula guarantees: practicality."
She throws down another can of tomato paste into her cart, making it a grand total of six cans now. Frustrated, she throws yet another. "Just go away. All I wanted was to buy my groceries. Can't you leave me alone?"
The pained truthfulness in her voice stretches his smirk into an unreadable frown. He shrugs again and makes a wave of appeasement. "Whatever you want, Granger. Although," he adds as he walks past her, "you may want to reconsider that many cans of tomato paste."
He rounds the corner and leaves her to her half filled cart.
She pauses near the fountain, her eyes counting the coins that line its foundation. She considers adding one of her own. She received the final word that morning; due to current budgeting pressures and the like, she was now without a job. The thought of leaving that behind her does not produce any pain, emotional or otherwise. She kneels on the edge of the fountain, balancing dangerously on her knees. The rough concrete will tear a run in her panty hose; already her hair is pulling free from its plait. She doesn't care.
She sees him before he reaches her, and she greets him without any proper greeting, convinced that she knows the reason for his approach.
"Save your gloating for someone else. I'm not in the mood."
He presents her with an oddly kind smile. "I was going to say that it's nice to have company."
She rears back, surprised, and nearly lands in the fountain's water. It is his hand that holds her safely. She pulls free. "What does that mean?"
He laughs and digs into his suit pocket before offering a pink slip of paper for her perusal. "At least you got it face to face. I got it by memo."
"But why? You didn't do anything wrong- you're practically a lackey!" She blushes instantly, not having intended the crudeness. "That is to say, you're appreciated there."
He turns, gaze following the flight of a pigeon over head. "I was the one who pushed through your report. People lost jobs, and old money still buys favor, even in these times."
She edges off from the fountain, unsure of how to reply. He is suddenly unfamiliar to her; the school boy she knew was spineless and greedy, self-serving and conceited. She braces from the memory, her mind feeling that somehow she has done him a wrong with her thoughts. Suddenly, she latches onto an idea.
"Malfoy, here." She pushes a coin into his hand and points to the fountain's unremarkable water. "A new start deserves a proper entrance, right?"
He stares at his palm, and she nervously steps back, again, quailing at the lack of familiarity. Once more, she acts on impulse and digs out another coin from her purse. She tosses it lightly into the water, and poses, hands in prayer, for a brief moment. "There, see? A quick wish, sort of an informal blessing."
His toss is made far more gracefully. The water welcomes its newest donation.
"What did you wish for?" She cannot hide her curiosity, his expression afterward strikes her so strangely.
His smile for her now does the same, and she stops mid-step.
"It's a secret."
The decorations are of type. Green, red, gold, and silver, and for the more culturally aware, a token blue. Slush layers the sidewalk, the milky snow not having the energy to plump itself into actual flakes. She waits beneath the street light, cheeks puffing, and breath trailing towards a dimming horizon. A second date, and she is nervous. He spoke nicely to her on the first, his brown hair charmingly curled and blue eyes warm. He made her laugh, and she thinks now that it's nice to have that again.
She peaks at her wrist, the time shows he's late. Almost an hour late, but her cell is resting on her nightstand, forgotten there in her hurried haste to dress and primp. The damp air has undone the forty minutes spent straightening her hair, and already she is chilled through and through. She refuses to admit the obvious, and aggravated, she swipes at her eyes, refusing the growing wetness there.
She turns, face brightening, and then frowns; it's not him. "Oh, it's you."
"Great to see you, too," he replies, his lips twisting in humor.
Her frown deepens. "Go away. I'm waiting for someone."
He looks curious, like a puppy given a new toy. "Really? Well, now I'm interested. Granger dates; I'd forgotten you were a girl."
Her mouth falls open, and purposely, she ignores the urge to check her watch again. "Prat."
"And then you remind me of why that's easy to forget." He leans against her lamp post, arms crossing nonchalantly.
"I said 'go away.' You'll frighten him off," she blusters, her stupid, stupid eyes continuing with their wallowing. He ignores her still and so she tries politeness. "Please, Malfoy."
Her seldom worn heels nearly break as her elbow is seized forcefully and her body is dragged along with it. Within forty seconds, her coat has been removed, her scarf tucked away, and a menu arrives into her slowly thawing hands. She blinks at him, unable to balance the annoyance and creeping relief.
"Come on, then. Don't you know that girls are supposed to be the ones doing the standing-up?" He manages to only smirk with his words, and she hides behind the menu.
"Is that for me or for the fellow who left you in the cold for an hour?" He plucks the menu out from her hands and stalls any objections by summoning the waitress.
Placidly, she accepts his dominance, and after two generous sips of the nameless red wine poured for her, she picks the conversation back up. "How'd you know it was for an hour?"
"I have a wristwatch- see?" He pulls back his sleeve displaying the mentioned accessory.
Her lips quirk, her amusement bubbling forward against her stern directives otherwise. "Been following me around then, have you?"
He only smiles in that pleasant, polite, ever so unreadable way of his. His shoulders follow suit with an exaggerated shrug. She drinks again from her glass, her stomach having reached a satisfactory level of warmth.
"Find a new job yet?"
His expression fades. "Thanks to you, no."
Her confusion causes him to elaborate. "Seems whenever a potential employer follows up on my curriculum vitae, they somehow hear your name, and then it's a stop. Hermione Granger, star wonder and over-achiever, has most effectively managed to ruin my chances of financial independence."
She tries to disguise her guilt with another gulp from her wine glass, and beyond the café window, the street suddenly fills with couples. She is reminded of her earlier purpose: to watch the Christmas tree lighting. "Sorry 'bout that."
He regards his napkin with an interest not worth its appearance. "Well, there could be worse things than not working at the Ministry."
The waitress returns, her tray covered in to-go containers and insulated styrofoams. He pulls her from her seat with far more ease than before, and once again she finds herself scarfed and coated. In one hand is the cocoa and in the other, steaming chestnuts. He has her outside again, and involuntarily, her lips part in pleasure as the tree beckons.
The lights are struck, and then gently enough that she blames it on fancy, his hand brushes her cheek. "Happy Christmas, Granger. Don't stay out too late; it's a cold night."
She hears the crack of his disapparation distantly. She can't explain away the flush in her cheeks to the cold, nor the warmth in her chest to the cocoa. She bites into a chestnut and blows the tree a tender kiss. "Happy Christmas to you, too. . . Draco."
She loathes the spring holidays. Pastel decorations and sickly sweet confections; the dentists' daughter loves her sugar but dislikes the prattle. The airport is agog in spring festivities, and she exits from the tarmac thankful that a uniform hotel is her final destination. A conference on arithmantic economics, and she's been invited to lead a table forum. Hair disheveled, clothes wrinkled, and cheeks splotched- she enters the main lobby with good cheer intact.
That is, until she reaches the sixth floor, room 1603, and sees her neighbor, room 1605's occupant. He follows in after her, obligingly ignoring the luggage she has carting behind her. She frowns at him as he settles comfortably on her bed, television remote already in hand. She thanks, briefly, the few gods who were kind enough to let the sound remain muted.
"Why are you here?" she asks eight minutes later, six of which were spent in industriously ignoring his presence.
"Your presentation," he says, his attention on the cola commercial.
She summons a pillow out from under his head and smiles widely at his annoyance. "Liar."
The television is discarded. He turns to her, chin propped in a slender palm. "I'm to be presenting your counterpoint."
"Liar," she repeats, her wand emphasizing her disbelief.
"I volunteered for it the moment I learned you were invited here. I figured the arithmantic society folk would go wild over a debate. Excited?" He doesn't wait for her to respond. "I am."
Her hands flex twice in preparation for their growing inclination to engage in bodily harm. "You know, I really thought that once school was finished with, the wizarding world would be large enough that I could go without ever having to see or talk to you again. These meetings are hinging on the improbable."
A slight inclination of his chin and he frowns. "We're hardly school children anymore."
His eyes linger, considering, on her own long enough to induce her knees to straighten and her feet to pace. "I wanted this to be something uncomplicated," she admits to the wallpaper. "I want to have a few hours of plain, unemotional academic conversation with those like minded. I don't want to have to engage in this-" her hand pauses mid-gesture, and she turns to fully express her thoughts, "this. It makes me tired, Malfoy."
"I find it fun." His words echo with overly enunciated cheer.
"Don't you understand that I don't like you?" Her words land wearily and the wallpaper sympathizes briefly with her plight. "I didn't like you in school, and I thought those feelings were fairly well reciprocated."
His extended silence and unflinching smile force her gaze to retreat first. Exhausted by the transatlantic flight and her stomach bundled in nerves from anticipation, she surrenders her body to an arm chair. Wizarding Britain was small enough that occasional encounters could be expected and rationalized away. Neighboring hotel rooms some three thousand miles away in a Muggle city housing millions-it bordered on the planned.
"Have you eaten?" he asks, and she shakes her head silently. He lifts the bedside telephone and speaks briefly, his eyes watching the scrolling television guide, the blocks coded in a standard colors. He finally settles on an animated film, and when the room service arrives twenty minutes later, the trays filled with delicious aromas, she loads a plate of her own and then joins him on the bed.
When she wakes in the morning, he is still there, his stomach having served as her pillow the night through.
She watches the water with something similar to nostalgia. The dark lake marks seven years of her life, and yet she's never spent a summer on its shores. She pads, barefoot, to its edge and closes her eyes. She is sixteen again, in her sixth year, when she first tried out being in love, discovered grief, and learned what it meant to change. It was the year she began to change herself, into someone quieter, less needy- into someone who didn't have to hide in bathrooms to cry.
Her eyes open and the water reaches to her finger tips, the damp thick and stagnant against her skin. She remembers her last year at this place, a year interrupted by war. Strange that in such a short amount of time, she should have forgotten what it meant to check over her shoulder- what it felt like to suspect every shadow of murderous intent. She no longer categorizes everyone she meets as 'for' or 'against.' People are now simply. . .people.
"Granger, don't go too deep. The merfolk don't like strangers."
She turns her head, already recognizing the smooth tenor voice. "I'm not a stranger."
"It's just a precaution; they're not terribly friendly." His expression is hidden by the cloud shadow overhead.
"You ever consider that maybe they're just not friendly with you?" Still, though, she returns back to the shore, the tips of her shorts stained dark from the water. He holds out her sandals with a pleasant smile.
"Are you here for the dinner?" he asks.
"Dinner?" She shakes her head. "I just felt like coming by."
The wind strikes, and she watches him, curious with his hesitance. There's an edge of difference in his appearance, a smudge of the sloppy: his shirt untucked and his hair uncombed. She notices a stain near his collar, an iconic reddish smear. She turns her gaze back to the grass underfoot.
"Then, Granger, won't you join me?"
"Can't, sorry. I have a date in Hogsmeade tonight. My morning appointment was canceled, so I came in a little early. I really need to go now, anyway, and change my-"
"Hey." His hand sits warm on her wrist, the callouses from years of flying rough against her skin. "What were you thinking about, just now, when you were in the water?"
"I don't see how that's your business, Malfoy. Now, if you'll please let go of me, I'll be on my-"
He interrupts her again. "I could never read you. Not when we were in school and not now. It used to drive me crazy that I could dig into just about anyone, but you, there was always something more important running on in your head. Whenever I'm around you, Granger, I'm always wondering what it is you're thinking."
Her eyes find the red blot on his collar again, no longer able to pretend interest in the weed filled path crunching beneath her shoes. She affects a smile and gives a slight shake of her head. "You could have tried asking, you know."
"And we see how successful doing that is."
"Well maybe if you were a little more pleasant about it-"
He grabs her other wrist, circling her around and smiles, his expression amused. "I can't remember when last I wasn't pleasant with you."
"And maybe if you stopped interrupting me all the time- geez, Malfoy, why are you so intent on us becoming bosom buddies of late?" She inhales and behind the faint traces of cologne, there's the dusky musk of sweat and more. "Just let go."
"Why're you angry, Granger?"
"I'm not." But she is, and she doesn't know the reason why. She blames the pique on his presence and years of fouled memories from his nearness and manners. He stays silent, continuing with his stare. "I was remembering our last years here at Hogwarts. I was remembering the kind of girl I used to be- the kind of people we all used to be. Nothing terribly exciting."
The grip loosens until only his fingertips graze her skin. "Skip the date, Granger. Come have dinner with me instead."
The pain in her bottom lips comes from an age-old habit. Her teeth, sharp and unflinching, remind her of herself, and she answers with a short jerk.
"You should change your shirt before tonight." This time, she interrupts, her words tinged with a feeling she refuses to consider. "You wouldn't want people misunderstanding."
Eucalyptus trees, their bark peeling and their leaves curling, line the street in stalwart pairs. The sign outside her parents' home- her childhood home- broadcasts the lot pricing and a realtor's number. She stands on the sidewalk, alone, and her frown deepens in her unhappiness. This is not the way it was supposed to happen; not at all. Statistics and yearly doctor visits had promised years more of their existence. Hadn't she been teased just earlier that month about needing to provide a grandchild? Hadn't there been talks just a week earlier about a surprise birthday party for her father?
It is not fair.
She should not have to be there, standing in front of her parents' emptied home, the heavy black wool of her funeral dress sticky on her skin. She should be in her apartment, finishing her latest contract. She should be be visiting the Burrow and spoiling her godchild. She should be anywhere but here, in this current present.
And he should be no where near her.
"You need to go away, Malfoy. Now is not the time." She hates the break in her voice, just as she hates the dry burning in her eyes. She has not cried. Not yet.
"There's nothing you could have done, Granger."
And this, this is why she dislikes him. This is why even now, these many years since removed from their time at school, she can't stand his presence. She could never bluff him with her heady knowledge. She could never cow him down through intelligent intimidation. "Don't talk to me like you know me."
"But I do know you. I know that while everyone else has taken down their wards, you doubled the strength on your parents' home. I know that while the rest of us threw out our dark magic detectors and hex-traps, you transfigured half of your parents' library into them."
She hates his arrogance, she hates his pleasant speech. He tricks her so easily into trusting him, into wanting to trust him. She hates that she cannot, for once, blame him and his family and every other dark wizard, Death Eater, and Riddle supporter alive or dead. Her parents are dead because-
Her nails dig into her palm, the pain kinder and more gentle than the indiscriminate ache in her chest.
"You couldn't have protected them from this. There was no way for you to have predicted-"
She laughs and she knows it's a frightening sound. "I could have, though. Maybe if I had just paid a bit more attention to the tea leaves left in my cup that morning. I remember walking past a pair of black dogs on my way to the grocer's that day as well. Really now, I should have realized something was coming."
"Since when did you start holding any credence in divination? The girl I remember recognized it for what it was- unreliable silliness."
"Yeah, well as you've said before: we're not students anymore. We've grown up now and changed, and now- now I've managed the great feat of outliving my parents." She feels the dampness welling in her eyes. She rubs angrily at them, tired of their continued weakness. "Oh god, Malfoy, please just leave me be. Not today. I just can't- not today."
"I read the report last night. It was a car accident. The brakes locked up, the car hydroplaned into the intersection, and the end result was something no one could have stopped or changed. Your parents died in an instant. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing at-"
She enjoys the crack her palm makes against his smooth cheek, and she smiles grimly as he stares at her, his expression wiped clean from that irritating politeness. The jolt of pain strums up through her elbow as she slaps him a second time. "You have no right to be here and pitying me. What do you know-"
Her cheek stings once brilliantly and then goes numb but for the slight warmth of his still pressed hand against her skin. "You're right, what do I know about mourning the death of my parents? My dad's rotting away in Azkaban and last I heard, barely living. My mother's an alcoholic and has not left her bedroom once in the past six years. So you're right, my parents are alive. I know nothing about what you're feeling. But. . ." His fingers flex against her cheek, sticky with the remnants of her tears. "I do know about guilt, and Hermione Granger, you don't deserve to feel that. Not you."
The first sob breaks from her throat in a choking gasp that she desperately tries to stop. Another tears through, and then another, until she's deaf in the cacophony of her pain and regret. Her knees buckle and she falls into a solid warmth that closes in on her back, wrapping her in a soothing heaviness. The ache sits deeply, caught in her lungs, but for the first time since that awful day when she learned of her parents' death, she can feel something else as well.
She clutches him and cries still.
He is drunk, and she cannot remember if she's ever seen him in that state before. She leads him away from the noise and light of the ball and deposits him, silk dress robes and all, on a patch of clover in the gardens. He lays unmoving as she arranges herself more carefully beside him, wrapping the dark blue satin of her gown warmly around her legs. The late summer night air strikes with bursts of autumn promises, and she shivers.
"What's wrong?" she asks, her fingers lacing through the clover.
"I hate these things." A flyaway patch of his blond hair flutters briefly in the breeze.
"Then why bother coming?" She knows the answer, though. It's the same reason why she comes.
He shifts, the silk rustling in staccato. "I need to be reminded."
"You were just a kid, Malfoy. And then with how you were afterward- no one blames you anymore."
"Yeah, well, they should." The alcohol produces an unhappy edge to his smooth tones. "Being a kid doesn't work as an excuse, and anything I did afterward was because it was the only way to save my neck."
"You did something good all the same. That's all that matters."
He drags himself up, careening heavily into her bare shoulders. She smells the liquor on his breath as he leans into her neck. "You don't have to rationalize my actions, Granger."
Annoyed, she pushes him off of her. "I'm not rationalizing anything. I don't even like you, so why would I be trying to justify anything?"
"You keep repeating that every time we meet. I thought Gryffindors were all about honesty and such."
She parts her lips to answer and then pauses. She knows that this fluttering feeling near her breast is not that of dislike. She knows that since that last meeting, since that hour spent grieving in his arms, she cannot claim to think of him unkindly. "I suppose you could say we are friends, of sorts, now."
The silence drags, not uncomfortably, and her fingers tear through the chilled clover, baring a patch from the downy softness. The sound of his breathing strangely reassures her. She starts to rise, after a moment. "I'm going to go see if there's a stash of Sober-Up hidden about. Wait a bi-"
She stumbles backwards as her hand is pulled ground-wards. He yanks her smoothly down to his level, her body half sprawled over his. The impact knocks her senseless briefly, and she blinks at him in confusion. He smiles and pulls free the comb holding her hair up. "Comfortable?" he asks.
She attempts rising, her vision blinded by a tumble of thick hair; his hand rests firmly against her back. "Not really," she puffs at him.
He laughs and she cannot help but smile as well, thankful for the shelter of her hair. "I might be drunk, too."
"Nice excuse. Because, Merlin knows, you couldn't be enjoying yourself just because, right?" His fingers are warm butter against her skin, and unconsciously, she sighs into it. "Tell me something true. Tell me what you think when you think of me."
"I-" She doesn't think of childhood any longer. She does not think of those early years of hateful words and ignorant lines. She thinks of his smile and warm hands; she remembers that expression of grieving pain, silent in its agony, that struck his face that morning after, when he came upon the dead bodies of his once friends and only just recently enemies. She remembers how he wept then, and her heart turns, undulates in a frenzied pattern from beneath her chest.
"I-" She is wordless. "That is, I-"
He laughs, and she opens her eyes and sees him as he is now, silly and flat on the clover. "I might be the first to inspire inarticulateness from the famed Granger lips."
"Not the first," she rejoinders more from habit than actual feeling. His hand disappears from her back and then returns, to push clear the hair she's hiding behind. Her eyes rest level with his throat, a pale patch of untouched skin, and blaming drunkenness, her lips press there in a soft, flutter of minutiae.
Through lashes thick and clouded, she watches his eyes close briefly, his jaw clench, and beneath her lips, his skin flares a deep red. "Let me be the last then, Hermione-"
He interrupts his words with belated action, and quicker than she grants him credit in, she is on her back, the clover a chilled whisper on her skin. He stares down at her, his lips unsmiling, and she feels the question he asks, the permission he seeks. It is she who moves first; it is her neck that cranes upwards, her hands greedy in their motions.
He kisses her, the taste cautious and thrilled, and she does not blame alcohol or happenstance. She blames herself and for this, she doesn't mind. She's been waiting for this touch; she's been waiting-
"Hermione. . .Hermione, say my name." He speaks and the words flutter against her lips, tiny touches that she longs to deepen. "Open your eyes, Hermione and say my name."
The clover slides beneath her palms, and she slips back to the ground, the space spreading between them. "Draco," she breaths, feeling the desire to laugh as he smiles, that flush on his throat traveling to his cheeks. "Your name is Draco and I'm-"
"Hermione Granger! You're my date; how dare you leave me to these wolves- where are you hiding?"
The spell- and that is what she reasons it to be hours later, refusing to grant it a definition otherwise- breaks. She scrambles out from beneath him, straightens her dress, and does not pause to glance behind. She steps past the wall of ivy and fastens a smile as her date approaches. His easy grin and honest features light up at the sight of her, and the flash of regret that pulses through her stomach- this, she tries to ignore.
"Hey there, you. Where'd you dash off to?"
Her lips ache. "I was helping a friend who drank too much."
Her date nods, moving to take her arm, and then pauses, reaching for her hair.
"What?" she asks, unable to still her trembling.
He peers down at his fingers, expression concentrated. "Eh, it's just clover. . .it's all caught in your hair."
She watches as the clover falls, its three leaves crushed and wilted. She refuses to think of the man left a few feet away, hidden behind a wall of green and leaves. She refuses to think of him, and yet, her mouth still speaks.
"I think we should break up."
The park lies empty in its twilight shadow; the swingset bereft and sullen since the departure of its earlier riders. She sits carefully on one, absently wiping off its rubber seat with the edge of her sweater. The gray sky attempts some color, but the sunset flickers too weakly, and her sigh mirrors its efforts.
She tells herself that, minutes later, that such meetings could never have been mere happenstance.
"I tell you Granger, I never took you for a tease."
His hands hide themselves from her view, and she can't seem to raise her eyes to his face. "We were drunk."
"No, I was drunk. You were quite lucid. Nice try, though, blaming it on the alcohol. Typical I suppose. Who'd believe the straight arrow, Hermione Granger, would take a trip down the dark side and test the kissing abilities of her childhood hate? Guess you got your thrills then."
The swing's chains rattle, the sound a brittle cackle against her ears. Her gaze rests on her shoes, encased in their faded sneakers, the edges of her white socks peaking from above them. His shoes smack of leather and large bankrolls. She wonders if his new job pays well, or if the shoes are leftovers from his entitled youth.
"You know that's not true-"
"I know nothing at all." The chains cry out as they're seized forward, her gaze forced upwards by his too close presence. He stoops over her, his features painfully near. "Despite how you act, you really haven't changed at all since school."
His words stir an anger in her breast, and she rears up from the swing, not caring that even when at her full height, he is taller still. "Don't act like you know me, Malfoy. We're not friends, we're not comrades- we're just two people who once went to school together. And even then, that's hardly a relationship!"
Unwillingly, she lifts her eyes. His gaze meets hers quietly, a hesitant tremor balanced at the edge of a great abyss. She quails against the knowledge there; she quails and wilts, and she knows that these meetings were never happenstance, never coincidence. How long has he been following after her? When did he first start this business of caring?
And when had she started caring back?
"I'm not a liar."
"Then you're a coward," he responds.
"I'm not a-" His touch halts her voice. The skin burns and yearns where his fingers lay, a gentle press against her cheek. She leans into the contact, wanting it firmer and intractable. He cups her other cheek, pulling her flush, his breath a warm breeze on her lips.
"You're a liar and a coward, but I don't care. To everyone else you're Hermione Granger, Gryffindor hero and prize. You're brave and pure, kind and principled." The words land like lashed insults, cut from the brittle contours of his too familiar voice. "But I don't care; they can have her. The one I want is the one here, the snapping, teasing, vulnerable liar and coward. The one who can cry and feel, who can argue and hit. I want that one, because she's real and not some storybook paper cut-out.
"I want you."
The taste is new, and yet known, like a recurring dream or childhood memory. Comforting, familiar, a billowing embrace to things tried and true- his lips and touch are things she knows. A demanding gentleness pushes her closer, her arms wrapping themselves securely behind his neck, her fingers entwining themselves resolutely in the soft down of his hair. No excuses this time, no blaming the moment or environment- no intoxicating clover to stifle her senses and no satin dress to hide behind. There is only the gray haze of a dwindling day, a muted sunset, and the coarseness of her wool sweater.
There is only him.
She sighs into his lips, and his smile, felt behind her closed eyes, echoes the soft sound.
"I'm not going to pretend it's accidental anymore; you can't keep running away," he tells her, his tone infused with his typical arrogance.
"Okay." She does not contradict him.
"You're not allowed to act like this didn't happen, or that you didn't want it to," he tells her, and she nods her head, inhaling the thready heat of his scent.
"I'm taking you home now- to my home," he tells her, the slight pause in his words- the hesitant lack of confidence- warms her. "You're not allowed to disagree."
She lifts her head from his chest; she won't disagree. "Okay."
His face turns from hers briefly, the handsome features attempting to hide the swell of happiness caused by her easy reply. "Good," he says and then kisses her again. "Now say my name."