Disclaimer: All characters and canon situations are the sole property of J.K. Rowling.
Notes: This was written for the invitational community dramione_advent on LJ, where I was nominated along with 24 other authors to create an advent calendar of gifts! It was a great time, and the calendar is full of dramione authors worth reading (and me, not sure how I got in there :P), so I'd recommend looking it up if you're into Christmas cheer. My assigned prompt was "holly."
Side to Side
Officer Marx was acting so polite that it was profoundly irritating, but the DMLE was one of the few departments where they actually liked Draco. He'd done them a few favours in the past, and they probably felt bad about having to question him on Christmas Day. They knew he didn't want to be there, and he felt no guilt at all for lying to Marx's face.
"No," he said. "I don't know where she is. Why would I? I don't even know her at all."
It started on Christmas Eve with something that felt almost like an omen, but Hermione didn't believe in omens. Most things happened randomly and without reason, and the unease she felt had nothing to do with the blood on her left arm that was staining her dress.
There had been a wreath made of hard metal, pressed in the shape of holly berries and leaves, and one of the silver tips had cut into her shoulder. It was so quick and sharp that all she could do was suck in her breath as the blood ran down her skin. Her dress was the colour of champagne, and it was truly a shame. It was ruined not ten minutes past walking in the door.
"We're under orders to question any party guest who might have relevant information about Hermione Granger, Mr. Malfoy, such as those who were seated at the same table. It's merely a formality. On behalf of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, I'd like to extend my sincerest apologies for any inconvenience."
There were so many words in there, he thought. So many words to convey such little meaning. "Not at all," he said, using only three.
"Our records show that you had a 'plus-one.' Did you bring a date?"
Marx ruffled his papers, showing discomfort. "It says you did, sir."
"I had planned to, but then I didn't."
"I see," he said. "Did you notice Miss Granger at all as she entered or departed from the premises?"
Lying again, he said: "No."
Hermione was alone that evening. Her friends had intentionally scheduled their vacations to include this particular day—specifically so that they could miss this event—but Hermione was not in the habit of taking vacations. Since Harry and Ron weren't coming, she'd have to go to the stage two extra times to accept awards on their behalf in addition to her own.
She would have to do this, now, wearing a blood-stained gown. She could have cleaned it herself under normal circumstances, but wands were no longer permitted inside the banquet hall in light of certain occurrences at the Summer Solstice Celebration. She knew the Ministry Events Committee was relieved that Harry and Ron weren't there, no matter how important they were and no matter how many awards they had won. Many of the hexes had been theirs, and Draco Malfoy had cast the rest. The final spell was courtesy of Ginny Weasley, to end the fight—she tore the velvet drapes down off the windows and threw them over the crowd, pinning everyone to the floor in their fanciest dress-robes, including the Minister of Magic himself.
It was probably the most embarrassing moment of Hermione's life to date.
Officer Marx turned to another page in his document and lifted his spectacles to read more closely.
Draco cleared his throat. "Can I go?"
"Once again, Mr. Malfoy, I'd like to offer my sincerest apologies, but I'm afraid I must confirm a few facts with you first. You see, multiple other guests have informed me that they saw you carry on several interactions with Miss Hermione Granger during the party proceedings."
Hermione used a lot of words, too, but it wasn't the same. She probably would have hated Marx just as much as Draco did because he was so very full of bureaucratic bullshit. "I don't recall," he said. "We were seated at the same table. Perhaps I asked her to pass the salt." He filled his voice with as much cruel sarcasm as he could muster.
"Well, that's just it, sir," said Marx, still sucking up to the man whose family money had paid to refurnish his office. "I certainly don't mean to accuse you of deliberately withholding any information, but you just told me that you didn't notice Miss Granger's entrance at all. Didn't you notice when she sat down—" he paused and checked his paper—"directly beside you, immediately to your right?"
"No more than I noticed the colour of the tablecloth."
"What colour was the tablecloth?"
"I don't remember. That was the point."
The first thing she did after sitting down was bleed on Draco Malfoy. It should have been incredibly awkward, but he hardly reacted at all.
He looked at her straight-on with cold eyes, touched the wet spot on his black suit, and looked at his fingers. "Do you know who made the seating chart for tonight?" he asked.
"No," she said.
"I'm going to have them fired. I'm going to find out who it was and fire them."
"How do you know it wasn't your boss?" She picked up another napkin and dabbed self-consciously at her shoulder.
"Maybe I'll just fire you," he said. His tone was cool and natural, verging almost on polite.
"We both know you can't do that," she said, as a matter of fact.
"Is that so?"
"Yes. This wouldn't be the first time you've tried."
He made a noise that could have been a laugh or a cough, or a laugh disguised as a cough. She couldn't tell for sure. "You're right, and that time I meant it."
She lifted a hand to her lips to hide a smile.
"Let's just continue down the list, if you don't mind, in chronological order," said Officer Marx. Draco did mind, absolutely, but there was nothing he could do to prevent it. The worst problem with such bureaucratic formalities was their naked insincerity. "Is it true that Miss Susan Bones was seated to your left?"
"Yes." He had a prior engagement that afternoon, and he would have preferred not to be late.
"Did you carry on any kind of conversation with Miss Bones?"
Marx nodded. "She has provided similar testimony. However, she did report a great deal of conversation between you and Miss Granger."
"Why would I want to talk to Hermione Granger?"
Marx was visibly uncomfortable again. He readjusted his spectacles and tapped his quill on the table a few times. "I don't know, sir, but Miss Bones remembers clearly that you did."
"Does she remember what we said?"
"No. She said that the majority of this conversation was carried on in hushed tones."
That was true, and it wasn't because Draco had a personal fondness for whispering. "I don't remember, either. We were sitting next to each other. We must have spoken, I suppose."
"But you did not speak to Miss Bones, on your other side."
"Maybe I did, and she doesn't recall," he said. "I'll tell you what I do remember—she was so drunk that she mistakenly drank from my goblet on more than one occasion."
Marx nodded and made a note on his document.
The problem wasn't as bad as it had seemed at the time. The stain on her dress was relatively small and only on one side, and she could conceal it if she held her left arm in just the right place. The stain on Draco was invisible against the black fabric of his suit.
In her mind, however, it built and built until they may as well have been sitting together, shoulder to shoulder, in a tub of her blood. She felt as though she might faint.
"Are you all right, Miss Granger?" asked an elderly wizard to her right. She couldn't remember his name. "You've gone pale."
"I'm fine," she said, with a tight-lipped smile.
"She's afraid," Draco said, by way of explanation, except that his voice was too low to be heard by anyone except her. "She's afraid of sitting so close to me."
She turned to him and shook her head. "I most certainly am not. I already know exactly what you're capable of."
"And I know what fear looks like. You're drowning in it." He smiled as though he'd been joking and took a drink of his wine.
She picked at the holly berries beside her plate, wrapped as decoration around her napkin holder. "These are poisonous, you know," she commented, mostly to change the subject. "Twenty berries constitute a lethal dose."
"Was that a threat? If I get up from this table, will you squeeze twenty holly berries into my wine?"
"No, they taste bitter. You'd notice."
"Not in this tragic excuse for alcohol. You could probably get away with it, if that's how you want to kill me, but I have a feeling you're already planning something far more extravagant."
She punctured a berry with her nail, and the juice dripped onto the tablecloth. "I am planning no such thing."
"Did you partake in alcoholic beverages as well, Mr. Malfoy?"
"How many, would you estimate?"
"More than five, less than fifty."
"That's a rather broad range, sir. Could you narrow it down any further?"
Draco's chicken was overcooked, and the beef was too rare for her liking. They switched plates without really thinking about it, without so much as a word, and she found the chicken tolerable enough. He liked his steak practically still alive, which she found disgusting. She was beginning to feel rather drunk, and a man with a long white beard stepped up to the podium and began to speak.
"Do you know who that is?" Draco asked, stabbing his fork at the front of the hall.
"No," she said. "Does it matter?"
"Not at all, but I think he's spoken at the last three functions. If he's important enough to do that, shouldn't one of us know his name?"
"Maybe that's why they keep choosing him. No one knows who he is, so no one bothers to listen, and so they don't have to worry about writing a good speech." After three glasses of wine, it took effort to keep from laughing at her own joke. Draco was right about the quality of the beverages, but she didn't mind anymore. Alcohol was alcohol, as long as she could still make it up to the stage.
"They should just let me do it. Do you know what I'd say?"
She shook her head. "I don't want to hear your idea of a holiday welcome speech."
"I'd say: 'First of all, I'm sorry that you have to be here. I don't want to be here, either.'" The laughter was already building in her chest, and she tucked her chin to hide it as best she could. "'But before we all start racing each other to the bottom of our goblets—and, yes, there will be a fine prize in store for the winner—'" She couldn't help it. She actually snorted. "'I'd like to start the evening out with a little game. I'd like everyone to turn to the randomly-assigned witch or wizard seated to his or her left and reveal his or her deepest personal secret.'"
Her laughter dried up. "That's a terrible game. Everyone would leave."
"Hm," he said, as though realising something for the first time. "I suppose I'm the person to your left. If you had to tell me your deepest secret, what would you say?"
He was smiling so wickedly that she couldn't look at him anymore. "You know, I love this fellow," she said, indicating the bearded man at the podium. "He's the best speaker I've ever heard."
If Draco responded, she didn't hear it. The speech was over, and the hall filled with applause.
"Why am I being questioned about Hermione Granger, exactly?" Draco already knew what had happened, of course, but he couldn't see why it was such a big deal. An investigation seemed extreme.
"Are you concerned for Miss Granger's welfare, sir?" Marx had a look in his eyes like he was getting somewhere, and Draco began to inspect his nails.
"She isn't in any trouble," Marx said. "We just need to find her, and no one seems to know where she is. She hasn't returned to her flat since the banquet."
"Why are you in such a rush to find her?"
"Her wand was improperly checked out mid-way through the event, and we need to ensure that she was the one to retrieve it," he said. "Also, she never received her award."
It was so funny that Draco began to laugh and did not stop until he was presented with a glass of cold water.
"I don't know why I bothered asking," he said. He was leaning over her shoulder now. "I already know all your secrets."
"You don't know me at all," she said. She could smell the alcohol on his breath, and she wondered which of them was closer to drunk.
"I wish you'd stop playing dumb. It's... inconvenient."
"That must be hard on you," she said. "I know you're used to people bending over backwards to make themselves into whatever you suddenly decide they should be." Her voice was harder now, and she broke another holly berry between her fingers.
"Oh, really? I'm not always wrong, you know. You're so used to being right that you're violently offended by the very idea that somebody else could possibly come up with some useful advice. Surely, no one but you could ever know what's best—"
"And you can't stand the idea that some things won't ever be perfect. You're supposed to be a grown-up, but you can't imagine that every second of your life won't always be 'the best,' and people aren't always the best versions of themselves, and even if they are, the fact that you probably don't deserve them has yet to cross your mind." Her jaw hurt from grinding her back teeth together as she fought to keep her voice down. She hated Christmas in that moment more than she ever thought she could.
He turned his head away. "You'd better start paying attention, or you'll miss your cue. Potter's up first, if I recall correctly."
"You're right," she said stubbornly. "He is."
"I don't have to worry about that, of course. I could take an Unforgivable for the Minister himself, and they wouldn't let me within ten feet of that podium." He paused for a long time, and she wasn't sure what to say. "Maybe I deserve that," he continued at last, "but I didn't deserve…"
Another long pause, and she had to speak this time. "What?"
"No, what were you going to say?"
"Didn't I tell you to pay attention? They just called Potter's name."
He was right. The hall was silent as all eyes searched for a man who wasn't there. They didn't know it, but they were looking for her, and she stood up so quickly and awkwardly that she almost tripped on the hem of her gown. She didn't remember to hide the blood stain until she was already at the stage, and it seemed pointless to start then.
"Is it true that Miss Granger was injured that evening?"
"I hadn't noticed. It's possible, I suppose."
"Do you have any idea how her injury occurred?"
"I don't even know what it was."
"Other guests have informed me that she was bleeding profusely from the left shoulder."
"Well, I didn't do it."
"No one is accusing you, sir."
On the stage she froze. The lights were much too bright, and the end of the night felt lifetimes away, and she would have given anything to be anywhere else. Someone coughed into the silence, and then the rustling began. She was making the whole room uncomfortable because she was supposed to be Harry Potter but wasn't. At the very least, she was supposed to be talking, but instead she stood stock-still and gripped the wooden podium with one hand, white-knuckled, and Harry's award in the other.
Public speaking was the ninth circle of Hell. Also, nothing could make a person feel drunk quite like standing up for the first time after four drinks sitting down.
"I," she began at least. That was good. It was a word. "I'm here to accept this award on behalf of Harry Potter. I, Hermione Granger, that is. He's a close friend of mine. And he's sorry he couldn't make it tonight. But, er, thank you."
They clapped for her, and she bowed her head and walked carefully and deliberately back to her chair. By the great mercy of God, she did not fall or break a heel or start bleeding again. The wound on her arm had long since dried out.
When she sat back down and set Harry's plaque where her plate used to be, she could hear Draco laughing quietly into his fist.
"Insightful speech, Granger. Did you write that yourself?"
It wasn't funny. She didn't know why she was smiling.
Marx was reading from his paper again, like he had the memory of a goldfish or something. Like he couldn't remember even one sentence at a time without the words right in front of his face.
"We know that Miss Granger was present to receive Mr. Potter's award and then later Mr. Weasley's, the latter of which was presented at approximately nine-thirty yesterday evening. Her wand was removed from the check-in sometime between nine o'clock and ten-thirty." He set his papers down, looking weary. "Mr. Malfoy, do you have any idea when she left? All we need to know is the whereabouts of her wand—if she removed it herself or if it should be reported stolen. Miss Granger will be reported missing herself if she does not arrive to work on Monday, and you'll need to return for more questioning if you can't help us sort this out sooner."
"She'll be there."
"How do you know?"
"When's the last time she took a day off?"
The speech she gave in Ron's place wasn't any better. It wasn't as choppy, though, since she'd had time to plan it out a few extra minutes in advance. She had come to a decision, however: she was not going back up on that stage. They could owl her the award, for all she cared. It was meaningless anyway.
"Are you excited to get yours?" he asked in her ear. "I bet you are."
"No," she said.
"Maybe not, then. Maybe they've put your name on so many stupid plaques that you don't even care anymore. You're probably used to it by now."
She'd never get used to it, really. "I don't want it, all right? You can have it, if you're so desperate."
"I want one with my name, but my name is too scary to set in stone."
"It's not as great as you think. They don't care at all what I've actually done this year. They could give me an award for removing no less than one hundred house-elves from abusive homes, or for making the diricawl illegal to hunt, or anything else, but they don't care about any of that."
"What's it for, then?"
She turned to smile at him, full of acid. "It's a memorial to past service. I get one every year, and it exists to remind me that the only reason I have a job at all is because of what I did six years ago, and they wish every day that they could fire me, but they can't. How's that for a secret? Half the people in this room can't stand me."
"That's not a secret," he said. His tone was mocking, but it wasn't directed at her. "Like how it's no secret that three-quarters of them are completely incompetent wankers who wouldn't notice if you replaced their wand with a Blast-Ended Skrewt. They can't stand me, either."
"Maybe that's why they sat us next to each other. Maybe this table's rigged to explode."
"It's possible, but here's my question: can you stand me?"
She blinked at him. He was still smiling. "That ship has sailed," she muttered at last.
"I can stand you."
She bit her lip hard. "It's a good thing Harry and Ron aren't here, or we'd have a repeat of last time."
"They started that."
"You all looked like children."
"I always thought it was funny how nobody ever found out why we were fighting or how easily it all could have been avoided."
"Right, if you'd have kept your mouth shut."
"No, if you'd have told them in advance." She caught his eyes again and felt an odd rush of guilt. "But that's not what I'm talking about here. All I'm trying to say is that I can stand you. All I'm doing is stating a fact, since I know you like those."
They stared at each other for far too long, and he was looking at her just like he'd done before everything went wrong. His eyes were deep and calm and searching, and she was looking at him like she'd never seen him before.
It was almost her turn. Any minute, they'd call her name and ruin everything again, and her gut made the decision without bothering to ask her brain. "I'm leaving," she said.
"What about your award?"
"I already told you I don't want it." She touched his sleeve where her blood was dry, and he watched her. "I'm leaving right now, and you can either come with me or not."
"This is not a joke, Mr. Malfoy. The Ministry Events Committee is liable for any damage to Miss Granger's wand, and all we have to do is make certain that it is in her possession."
"And I'm telling you that I don't know anything about Hermione Granger or her wand."
Marx turned another page and sighed heavily. "Our records show that you didn't retrieve your own wand until this morning. Did you have any particular reason for waiting?"
"I forgot it."
"You forgot your wand, sir?"
"I had other things on my mind."
She left Harry and Ron's awards on the table, and they snuck out of the hall like a couple of giddy teenagers. They tip-toed to the door, only to break into a full and free run as soon as it closed behind them. It felt like the first day of summer.
She reached behind her, and he took her hand and followed her to the wand check. No one was at the counter, and she was feeling so dangerous that she did something she never thought she'd do again: she stole from the Ministry. Technically, the wand was hers anyway, but that didn't stop Draco from calling her a dirty thief as she hiked up her gown and jumped over the counter and searched through the numbered boxes until she found it. She tucked her wand into the pocket of her dress.
"Do you want yours?" she called.
"Of course," he said. "But hurry up." He glanced around nervously; for all his bad-boy posturing, he was nowhere near as good as she was at breaking the rules.
"Hm," she muttered. "I can't find it." She wasn't even looking.
"Well, try harder!"
"Are you sure you brought it with you?" she asked, like an innocent question. Even from where she stood, she could feel his patience begin to snap. Finally, he broke, and she got to see Draco Malfoy vault over the wand check counter in his best suit and land without a hint of grace.
"You're just making us stay here longer," he said. "Is that what you want?"
He moved toward her in the darkness, and it was just like old times. She savoured it, for it was true that if she was really willing to give this another shot, this would be one of the last times they'd get to sneak around together. They'd have to act like adults this time around. As he approached her, the electricity bounced off him and made her quake, and the adrenaline and alcohol coursed through her veins.
"That depends," she said. "What do you want?"
"Miss Bones has told me that she did not notice immediately when you or Miss Granger left the table, but that when Miss Granger was called to receive her award, you had both already left. Do you recall whether or not Miss Granger was still at the table when you excused yourself?"
"No. I didn't look."
"Mr. Malfoy, she was sitting directly beside you."
"I was in a hurry."
"I told you, I had other things on my mind that night."
He was very close now, and he reached out with one hand and grabbed her chin with more force than necessary. She thought he would kiss her, but instead he lingered centimetres away and spoke. "I still want to hear your deep, dark secret."
"I thought you already knew it."
"I want to hear it anyway." He licked his lips, and the muscles clenched in his cheeks. His other hand moved to wrap around her waist, and she felt the same as she had on the stage. She was frozen. Stock-still. "Tell me you want me back."
It took her a moment to find her voice. "Why should I? All you said is you could stand me, which isn't exactly the most romantic thing I've ever heard."
"Have I ever been romantic?"
His breath came out in a hiss, and his eyes were so intense she couldn't look away. If it weren't for his hands, her knees might've buckled. "But I can stand you, Granger. I really fucking can."
"Fine," she said. Her voice sounded foreign. "If that's the best you can do, then fine. I wish I didn't, but I want you back."
He kissed her. She raked her hands over his back and through his hair, and his whole body pressed against hers in the sort of perfect harmony that had absolutely no business existing between the two of them. It had never made any sense at all, but it kept coming back so defiantly.
Marx sighed again and rubbed his forehead. He shuffled his papers one last time and then set them down in a neat stack on the table. "I don't have time for this, Mr. Malfoy. If you will not cooperate, then you may leave, but I find your lack of compassion for your colleague personally disconcerting."
"Fortunately, compassion is not a requirement in my department."
"That will be enough. Good day, sir."
Marx's annoyance was clear, but Draco didn't particularly care, seeing as he still had other things on his mind.
He came home twenty minutes after she'd expected him, and she knew they must have given him a hard time. She found the whole situation rather humourous, but she fully intended to sort it out on Monday. Until then, she had given herself the lovely Christmas gift of wasting the time of people who deserved it.
He tried to kiss her when he walked in, but she didn't let him. "It's a shame we won't be working together anymore."
"After you fire yourself, I mean." She'd also had time to send a few owls that morning, and she did have a few friends still at the Ministry. Only half of them despised her. "I found out who was responsible for the seating arrangements, and that this particular individual in fact volunteered for the job."
He raised his eyebrows. "It worked, didn't it?"
She could admit, just this once, that he had been right.