Hermione was beginning to feel a bit nervous, now that Platke was showing her true face. She did her very best to seem cool and brazen, though. 'Do feel free to start your evil monologue,' she said. I'm holding my breath as to why you were doing this at all.' At least if Platke was talking, she had a shot at getting out her wand and incapacitating her.
Platke sighed. 'What? So your hero can come here and save the day? Do you think I'm stupid?'
Hermione shook her head. 'No one is coming in the next five minutes.' Or the next ten or thirty or sixty minutes, either, but Platke didn't need to know that.
Platke smirked at that and gave Hermione a haughty once-over. 'It's killing you, isn't it?'
'Definitely.' Hermione's fingertips grazed her wand. So close.
Platke shrugged. 'I suppose you won't tell anybody.' Her lips curled into a sneer. 'My mother is, as it turns out, not a Muggle-born. I learnt that at my father's death bed. My father had an affair. His wife, however, refused to let him go and threatened to take everything he owned from him if he tried. Most of his wealth had started with her, you see. And apparently her father was some kind of famous Muggle solicitor and she had him look into our laws and make threats. Then I happened with the witch he actually loved, and since my father's wife couldn't have children, she forced him to take me from my mother - which was quite easy, considering that she was from an old but poor family and couldn't afford to defend herself.'
'Your father sounds like a paragon.'
'My father was nothing but a captive in his own home. His bitch of a wife kept using Muggle ways to confuse and threaten him to stay with her. Besides, my birth mother soon enough died - alone - and then he saw no point in leaving any more.'
'So... because your step-mother is manipulative, all Muggle-born have to die?' Hermione was honestly a little disappointed that there hadn't been a better story behind it.
Platke's eyes got a dangerous gleam and she smiled with chilly satisfaction. 'Was manipulative, Granger. Was. But nobody needs to know that, do they? After all, her daughter, the Hit Wizard, has always claimed to speak to her twice a week.'
'You're disgusting,' Hermione said, wrinkling her nose and feeling her stomach rebel at the other woman's dark happiness. 'How can you even begin to justify yourself?'
'You're the one who does not belong here!' Platke hissed. 'You with your cars and telephones and other Muggle things. You think it's a coincidence that your technology doesn't work around magic? It's because you don't mesh! I see you visiting your parents and looking at their television set and what have you. You don't belong with us. Stay away from our wizards!'
Hermione's fingers closed around her wand. 'What if I don't want to?'
'You think anyone cares what you want?' Platke sneered, turning her otherwise fairly handsome face ugly. 'None of you ever give up your own world, instead you just contaminate ours. It's despicable!'
'As opposed to murdering innocent people.'
Platke snorted. 'None of you are innocent. You're all just opportunistic whores.'
Hermione raised an eyebrow. 'Don't hold back now.'
Again, a positively chilling smile spread across Platke's features. 'I won't. Avada-'
'Expelliarmus! Stupefy!' Hermione had squeezed her eyes shut and just yanked her wand out and shouted the spells whilst hoping for the best and dreading the worst. A while later, however, she slowly opened one eye to peek out and found that, no, she wasn't dead, and Platke was standing there, frozen with that hateful smile in place.
Hermione shuddered. That was one mean witch right there. She must be seriously ill as well to honestly believe that her story justified anyone die. 'Your father could just have left her,' she told the frozen witch as she, picked her wand up and pocketed it, just in case. 'If money was all that kept him there, then he was nothing but shallow and greedy. And telling you those things... You know, I wouldn't be surprised if his wife was your mother, but your father was simply hateful enough to turn her daughter against her as the last thing he did!' Then she turned on her heel and left the house.
She'd better contact Harry right away so he could take her away and find out what happened to his people. Hopefully they weren't too hurt.
It was over. The Wizengamot hearing had gone without a hitch the day before and now Draco was living the life of the bachelor. Or something.
'I can't believe how fast you found a new place to live,' Pansy said.
Draco shrugged. He'd had to fill his time with something. 'It's amazing how quickly people will work for you if you pay them enough,' he said.
Pansy waltzed over to one of his more comfortable armchairs and sat down. 'Did you speak to Granger?'
'But wasn't the hearing yesterday?'
'Yes. We're no longer married.' He sat down on the sofa opposite her.
The truth was that he'd wanted to speak to Granger, but she'd been surrounded by friends every single second she'd been near him and he hadn't been able to find it in himself to intrude. Why bother? She hadn't seemed interested in speaking to him. If anything, she'd only seemed eager to get everything over with. He'd even hesitated to sign his name, looking at her for any hint that he shouldn't, but he hadn't found any, so he'd complied.
'That went fast,' Pansy commented. 'Nothing like divorce proceedings. They take ages.'
Draco looked up. 'You changed your mind about getting a divorce?'
She shrugged lightly, looking away. 'He requested it. His girlfriend is pregnant, it would seem, and he wishes to marry her. I suppose that we should simply let him go. He'll never care about us again, and I can't keep watching my son's little heart break.'
'Want me to kick his arse?'
She snorted. 'Funny as that image might be, what would that achieve? No, let him have his new family. I merely hope for the sake of his new child that it will have strong magic.'
'What will you do now, then?' he asked, feeling bad that he was relieved to talk about someone else's problems.
'I don't know. I considered moving to the Muggle world with my son if it proves too difficult to stay here,' she said.
'You don't know the first thing about Muggles, Pansy. How would you survive there?'
She shrugged again. 'I'll figure it out. Don't worry about me.'
Don't worry about her? How could he not worry about her? 'And yet you'd refuse to marry me and make it easier on yourself to stay. Suddenly my ego is smarting much worse.'
She laughed. 'I can't keep relying on men, Draco. Besides, you don't want me any more than I want you.'
'I know.' He sighed deeply. 'But wouldn't it be nice if we did want each other?'
'No use thinking about that. I'm more interested in what you're going to do now.'
'What about Granger?'
'Are you going to ask her out?'
He raised an eyebrow. 'You're seriously suggesting I ask my ex-wife out?'
'I don't think she's technically your ex-wife when the marriage was annulled.'
He didn't care. He wasn't sure why, but he'd somehow decided to hang on to this reminder that they'd been married. 'I still can't ask her out.'
'Because I already asked her to be married to me and she said no!'
'Maybe she said no because you'd never asked her out.'
'We went out both before and after the wedding.'
'But then you weren't going out because you wanted to, only to keep up some front. Seriously, Draco. What are you afraid of?'
'I'm not afraid.' He stared at his hands. No, he wasn't afraid. He was terrified.
'Don't lie to me.'
'So what if I began liking her a little bit?' he said without looking up. 'Have you forgotten who she is?'
'We aren't children any longer, Draco. It doesn't matter who she is, or what she is. And you forget how well I know you. You don't just like her a little bit and you're afraid that she won't want you.'
He didn't like this conversation at all. 'I don't want that kind of relationship anyway,' he said. 'I want a nice, calm arranged marriage where I can relax and not constantly have to feel... like... like that.'
'That's because you're a coward.'
He shot to his feet and began pacing. 'So what if I'm a coward? I've been in love before and I don't like it. I don't like me when it happens! You remember how pathetic I was with you? I didn't get less pathetic over the years! And I already asked her if she'd mind staying married to me and she made it clear that she would, so I refuse to pursue it any further!'
Pansy was watching him with her cheek on her fist, looking exceptionally bored again. 'Oh, Draco, you moron,' she sighed. 'Have you really grown so vain that you can't pursue a witch you want any more?'
'If you'll recall, it's never worked for me anyway.'
'Sure it has. I might not have taken you back, but I forgave you and became your friend, all because you didn't hide behind your pride. And I'm quite sure I actually would've taken you back if I hadn't already fallen in love with someone else.'
He stopped pacing and stared at her. 'Really?'
'If you hadn't grovelled, then we wouldn't be here today.'
'But I don't want to be friends with her.'
'That's not my point, Draco. My point is that something good did come out of it.'
'I'm tired, Pansy! I don't care to keep going through all that.'
'You're a whinger is what you are! You think it's easier for any of us? There are no guarantees. I thought you'd realise that when your fiancée left you.'
He narrowed his eyes at her. Such dedication to his love life all of a sudden. 'You just want me to go out with Granger so she'll dedicate more time to the squib cause.'
She grinned. 'Right you are!'
He shook his head. He'd made his move and been rebuffed. He wasn't about to stalk her and be obnoxious about it.
In her chair, Pansy sighed. 'Oh, Draco, Draco, Draco... What am I going to do with you?'
Hermione hesitated outside the home that had been referred to her as a "cottage". She must have the definition of that word wrong, because last she checked, cottages weren't four times the size of her town house.
She was procrastinating.
She reminded herself that she was here on official business and briskly walked up to the front door and knocked. It was best to get this over with, after all, so she could get home and stare at the spot Platke had occupied until she'd conquered the irrational fear that Platke would pop up through the floor and attack her again.
That should take a while.
She knocked on the door again and finally heard some shuffling behind it.
She braced herself to see Malfoy, but was caught quite off-guard to see Pansy Parkinson open the door.
'Yes?' Parkinson said after Hermione had stared for a few moments.
'I'm-I'm sorry,' Hermione finally got out. 'I was under the impression that... Malfoy lived here now?' He was living with Pansy Parkinson? So shortly after he'd proposed that Hermione and he stay married?
But then again, why not? She'd said no.
'He does,' Parkinson said before raising her voice to call out, 'Draco! Funny enough, it's for you!'
'Couldn't you just take a message?' Hermione heard him irritably replying before he appeared in the door next to Pansy.
Oh. This was oddly embarrassing. She was intruding.
'This is a bad time,' she said, backing up. 'I'll just... I'll have Harry come by later instead. It wasn't important.' She was babbling, but of all the places she didn't want to be...
'Don't mind me,' Parkinson said, looking oddly like she was having fun. 'I was leaving now. I have to pick up my boy.' She turned and gave Malfoy a peck on the cheek and then strolled off, humming to herself.
The silence after she was gone was deafening.
'So,' Malfoy finally said, clearing his throat. 'You needed to see me?'
'Um, yeah. Sorry. I went by the manor first, but they said to find you here and I hadn't thought... I mean, I just thought I'd get it over with...' She wanted to stop babbling, but she couldn't seem to make it happen.
'You spoke to my mother?' he asked. 'So sorry you had to do that.'
'Actually, no. I spoke to your father. He was quite polite when he gave me this address. I didn't know that... that I'd be interrupting.'
'Ah. Still.' She looked down, mentally scolding herself for getting a lump in her throat simply from facing reality.
'But what did you need?' he prodded again.
She realised this was the second time he asked and she made an effort to pull herself together. 'Sorry. I just thought I'd tell you in person that Platke sought me out yesterday and-'
He looked alarmed. 'But you're ok, right?'
She shook her head. 'I'm fine.'
'Then why are you shaking your head?'
Because she was confused and upset and didn't want to be here, that was why! 'I just wanted to tell you that we caught her and that's why your protection has been called off!'
'Ah. Thank you.'
She nodded and turned on her heel, only to remember something. She stopped up and carefully slid her hand into her pocket to dig out the engagement ring. Harry had returned everything else that belonged to Malfoy, but for some reason he'd forgotten this. She took a deep breath and turned back, holding it out to Malfoy. 'Oh, and Harry forgot to give you this.'
Malfoy merely looked at it. 'I was under the impression you liked that ring.'
Hermione shrugged, going for careless. 'So?'
'So, I have no use for it. You can keep it.'
She shook her head. 'No, I can't.'
'Why? Because it's from me?'
'No, because it's not for me. It's Parkinson's.'
'She doesn't want it either.'
'I'm sorry about that, but... please take it back.' She thrust it more firmly at him.
He finally, reluctantly did. 'This thing must be cursed. It keeps coming back to me.'
Hermione wasn't sure what to reply to that. If the ring hadn't been given to someone else first, she would definitely have kept it, but as it was, she could barely stand to look at it. 'I'm sure that just means you shouldn't use it again,' she said.
He snorted a laugh. 'True, I guess.'
Topic exhausted, Hermione nodded and once more turned and began walking away.
'You weren't right, you know,' he said behind her.
She stopped up but didn't turn back around. 'Right about what?'
'Pansy and me.'
Hermione felt like he'd just punched her in the stomach. Why did he have to go there?
'You're just friends,' she said. 'You told me. But you don't really have to bother.'
'You say that, yet I saw you reach a conclusion before.'
'Does it matter?'
'I guess not,' he said. 'Not if you're determined that it doesn't.'
Another topic exhausted, she took another few steps away, but then she whirled around and stalked up to Malfoy, who was leaning against his door frame, looking annoyingly arrogant. 'You don't get to say things like that!' she hissed.
'Why don't you come inside?' he said, stepping to the side.
'Why?' she eyed him suspiciously.
'Because I think we need to talk, and I'd prefer to not give my neighbours things to gossip about just yet, so please...'
Annoyed that he was suddenly being all reasonable, she strode past him, hearing him close the door behind her.
'Don't put this all on me!' she said, turning back to face him as he followed her into his sitting room.
'It is all on you,' he said. 'You're the one with the irrational jealousy.'
Her jaw dropped open. 'Jealousy!' she sputtered. 'Exactly how conceited are you?'
'It's not conceited when it's true.'
'Like I care who you're sleeping with! If anything, I'm just surprised she'll have you!' She attempted to storm out, too angry and humiliated to stay any longer, but he easily blocked the door.
'Then why so upset?' he asked.
Because he'd obviously figured her out and he was using it to mock her! 'Because you're an arse,' she replied, horrified to hear that her voice was choked.
'I am an arse,' he quietly said, 'but then why not just say that?'
She shrugged. 'It's not your problem.'
'What the hell is that supposed to mean?'
'It means, if it's not her, then it'll be someone else. So best to just forget about it.'
'I know it's hard to trust me. Believe me. But... all I want is for you to try.'
He looked so earnest. Obviously he didn't quite understand her dilemma.
She laughed, feeling a little crazy. No, of course he didn't understand. 'You idiot.'
'Ok...' he said, looking at her oddly.
'I don't have problems trusting you,' she said, feeling a little bitter. 'I have problems remembering what you're like!'
'Oh,' he said, his voice softening. 'I see. And it's very important to remember that?'
'Yes! If I don't...' Her voice trailed off as she couldn't put all the bad things that would happen if she didn't into words.
'If you don't, then you won't see it coming when I betray you,' he quietly supplied. 'And then it'll hurt and you'll blame yourself because you should've known better.'
'But it was one mistake,' he said, sounding like he was the one tormented. 'One mistake many years ago. Is it really going to cost me you as well?'
She shook her head, telling her idiotic pounding heart to ignore the implications of what he'd said. 'You said you'd done it again!'
'I did. But only to get caught because I hated myself and couldn't allow myself to be happy. I've worked on that! I took a break and... well, got over it.'
'How does one take a break from something like that?' she asked.
He flushed a little. 'I stopped going out with witches. It's been years since I've... seen anyone.'
'Oh.' She wasn't quite sure how to take that. 'So you and me... is like a rebound from that?'
'I don't even know how to answer that, Granger.'
'How about with the truth?'
He shook his head. 'No. I think I've bared myself more than enough, considering that I don't even know where I stand with you.'
'Where you stand with me?' Her heart was pounding again, and she felt some of that extra blood flooding into her cheeks.
'Yes. Do I have anything to gain, Granger, or are you merely playing with me to soothe your own ego?'
She bit her lip and looked down at her own hands, frowning as she realised she could do with a new manicure. Her frown deepened as she chastised herself for thinking of such inconsequential matters at a time like this and tried to figure out whether it was because she suddenly genuinely cared that her nails weren't at a perfectly even length, or whether it was because her mind was procrastinating from the original question.
Malfoy sighed and sat down. 'I'm going to have to ask you to leave,' he said.
She blinked and stared at him in surprise.
'Leave!' he repeated forcefully enough to hurt her feelings. 'Now! It's not a difficult request, is it? Stop staring at me like that!'
She certainly hadn't expected to be thrown out. 'Why are you being so mean?' she asked in a small voice.
'Why am I-? What did you expect from me? You're the one using my feelings as an ego boost!'
He would admit to having feelings for her? That helped take the sting out of his words. 'I'm not.'
'Then why can't you answer a simple question?'
'Because it's not that simple a question.' She looked away, trying to find something else to focus on to minimise the gut-wrenching feeling of having to come clean. She didn't find anything suitable, though, and instead had to resort to taking a deep breath and looking straight at him. 'I intend to... that is... I plan on... I decided to stay a virgin until... you know. So, I guess, if that's what you meant, then no. I can't... won't... sleep with you, sorry.'
He stared at her for the longest time and she began squirming uncomfortably under his gaze. Any moment now he would throw her out again, she was sure. And this time, she would leave.
'You think I was talking about sex?' he finally asked, his voice not betraying any emotion.
'Weren't you?' she asked. 'I mean, don't get me wrong, I understand. You already had your fill of that whole waiting thing and all that. I just... I didn't want to lead you on by saying there was something and then... not...' Her vision was becoming a little blurry. Being honest hurt, but she owed it to herself.
'Let's say I wasn't talking about sex,' he said. 'Then what?'
She looked at him in confusion.
'Would there be something for me to gain?' he clarified.
Did he have to be quite so ruthless? She steeled herself and then forced herself to say, 'I'd go out with you.'
Again, he looked at her for a few moments, but then he sighed and said, 'No thanks.'
The words pierced her chest, rendering her almost unable to breathe. Never had she felt so humiliated in her entire life. Pride, however, kept her from voicing that and channelling it all into anger for the time being. Who did he think he was?
'I hope you had fun with that,' she said in her most chilly voice, her fingers itching to reach for her wand.
He shot her a surprised look. 'Fun? What part of that was "fun"?'
For her, not a single part. To her own great chagrin, she felt traitorous tears gathering in her eyes in spite of herself. And unfortunately, they weren't even tears of anger. 'I hope you rot!' she flung out, before she all but ran for the door.
She'd made it almost to the front door, before she felt his fingers closing around her arm, yanking her back towards him and turning her around. She tried to pull it free, but his fingers only tightened more painfully, so she attempted to stomp on his foot.
'Stop it,' he hissed, shaking her a bit. 'Don't you get it, Granger? I can't go out with you like that! I thought that maybe I could, but... I can't.'
'Then you should've said so!' She fought some more.
'I did say so, didn't I? Don't you think that I'd go along with it and pet your pride if I could?' He rested his forehead against hers, ignoring that she was struggling so hard she bumped her head against his. 'I wish I could, so badly. Please... don't be angry.'
The tears were now trailing down her face and there was nothing she could do to stop them. She couldn't even wipe them away, the way he held onto her arms. It wasn't fair that he should force her to cry in front of him after having forced her to admit she wanted to go out with him. If he didn't want her... why had he pretended he did? And why was he acting as if she wasn't the one hurt? 'Let me go,' she choked.
'In a moment,' he muttered. 'I'm not going to hurt you, just stand still for one moment, ok?'
She stood still because she had very little choice, but she was very wary about what he intended to do. Once he was satisfied that she was standing still, he hesitantly let go of her arms and then he...
... hugged her?
Hermione could make neither head nor tail of this development, but at this point she was so tired and unhappy and confused that she barely even cared.
'I love you,' he whispered, making her tense up. Was he purposefully mocking her? 'No, don't respond,' he continued. 'I only... wanted you to know.'
'Is this some kind of sick joke?' she asked, pushing him away. He went without resistance and she finally got a chance to wipe at her cheeks.
He shook his head, looking fairly subdued. 'I know it's a bit much, but... maybe then you'll understand...'
'Understand what?' she asked, shaking her head. 'You rejected me!'
He slowly nodded. 'Didn't you say that's why you couldn't be with Weasley?' he asked. 'I thought you of all people would understand that.'
'That I appreciate that you'd go out with me, I really do. But I'd actually hoped... for more.'
He stared at her. 'No! Do I really have to spell it all out to you? I'd hoped you'd be in love with me! Like I said, it's not like I don't appreciate...'
'Oh, you idiot,' she said, slapping her palm against her forehead and allowing her knees to give way, making her sit down right in the middle of his hallway.
He stared a little uncertainly down at her. 'Are you all right?' he hesitantly asked.
'No, I'm not all right,' she replied, slowly shaking her head for emphasis.
'Can I get you anything?'
'Yes, please. I'd like a cure for being in love with a moron!'
He opened his mouth and then snapped it shut again. 'You'd better not be talking about Weasley.'
'No, that would be the better option right now.'
He grabbed her arms - gentler this time - and hauled her to her feet. 'Then why didn't you say so!'
'No, you didn't!'
'It's not my fault that you don't know how to pick up on subtlety!'
'I asked if I could gain anything. All you had to do was say love!'
'But how was I supposed to know you might want it?' she asked.
He shook his head in disbelief. 'Why wouldn't I want it?'
'You said you didn't. You said you hated being in love. You said you wanted some kind of calm, arranged, loveless marriage.'
He closed his eyes on a groan. 'I'm sorry. But now you see why I said that. We haven't been at it for more than a few minutes and... look at us. That's what relationships with me are like. I don't blame you if you decide you'd rather walk out that door.'
'Silly...' she said, reaching up and patting his cheek a little harder than she had to. 'I'll simply try to remember that you have your foot permanently lodged in your mouth. There's just one thing I should probably tell you before we continue.'
'What?' He looked wary.
'Well, I ran into "the harridan" the other day, and she was so unhappy that our wedding had been fake that I promised her that if I was ever to really get married, I'd hire her for it.'
His eyes flew open and he stared at her. 'Don't take this the wrong way,' he then said, 'but in that case, I can never marry you.'
'Don't take this the wrong way,' she replied, 'but in that case, you're never having sex again.'
He winced. 'Maybe we should just get it over with, then?'
She snorted a laugh. 'Not on your life! I don't just randomly marry people all the time, you know. One wedding per year is by far enough for me.'
'Do I at least get a kiss?' he asked.
She was about to deliver a quip when she realised that this time he wasn't really joking. All amusement was gone from his face and instead he merely looked hopeful. Without thinking, she wet her lips, making his eyes darken slightly as he watched her. It made her feel oddly powerful. She carefully stepped closer to him and placed her hands on his shoulders, whilst he mutely continued to watch her, and then she reached up, almost but not quite meeting his lips with her own. It didn't take many seconds before his lips found hers and she could feel how much she'd missed him as every fiber of her being just wanted to reach out to him and pull him closer and not let go. She put her arms around his neck and held on tightly, letting her lips and tongue caress his over and over again.
Finally, he pulled free. 'Merlin, Granger,' he murmured, breathing more heavily.
With a thoughtful pursing of her lips, Hermione innocently said, 'Not that it really matters or anything, but how long do you reckon it is until the first of January?'
Author's Note: This is the end. I hope you enjoyed yourself. :) If you're curious about what the other RC fics (and arts!) might be, go to Hawthorn & Vine and find the Reverse Challenge tag. Until next time.