A/N: Howdy, everyone. Long time…I have not forgotten Series of Unfortunate Events. I am 75 percent of the way done with the last chapter, which is about 25 percent more finished than I was two months ago. Now that this is posted, I will be trying to finish that last chapter. Shooting for an end of April update. More likely it will be in May.
Also, I just got an awesome Harry Potter beta. Thank you, likethegaiaphage, for putting up with multiple readings of chapters and my slowness in updating/writing. You are spectacular!
Hope you all enjoy this. =D
Hermione's Bad Day
Hermione pushed her glasses up her face, so she could dash her forearm across her eyes. Her nose scrunched up, like it always did when she tried to stifle her tears. With a groan, she threw her head back against her sofa cushions, only to hit it on the hard plastic of her remote control. How fitting, she thought, laughing to herself bitterly.
It had been an awful day. Scratch that. It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The kind of day where you spend hours preparing for an interview for the job of a lifetime only to have coffee spilt in your hair and on your suit just as you are called into the office. The kind of day where you cannot answer any of the interview questions even though you prepared perfectly lovely answers for each inquiry, because your mind cannot stop fixating on the ugly stain on your blouse or the way your sticky hair clings to the back of your neck. The kind of day where your slight crush—the one you've shared passing glances and tentative smiles with in the Ministry corridors for the past year, but are too chicken to actually start a non-work related conversation with—is present for the interview and witnesses you fail in a incandescent blaze of glory.
Yes, it had been that kind of day, and Hermione knew firsthand how wretched such a day felt because each and every one of those things had happened to her.
Not willing to be around when her interview fiasco made its way through the Ministry Gossip Grapevine, Hermione beat a hasty retreat to her flat. Sending a quick owl to Ginny to cancel their Friday night plans, she stripped off her clothes and jumped into the shower. Not even bothering with fixing her hair, she let it air dry. On a day such as this, she could not be bothered that her hair now resembled a bouquet of Puffskeins. Replacing her contacts with a pair of glasses, she tugged on her most comfortable pyjamas and Kneazle slippers, then tripped over her too-long pyjama pants into her living room and plopped down on the floor in front of her couch. For the last half hour, she had stared at the darkened television screen, imagining all the answers she should have given in the interview while Crookshanks batted at the excess material on her pajama pants.
Hermione cringed, reliving the way her crush had looked at her when she could no longer avoid eye contact. Unable to stop herself, she searched him out just before she walked out the door. His eyebrows had knit in confusion. Or had it been disgust? Hermione didn't know him well enough to tell. One thing she knew for certain, though; her life in England was over. By the time she returned to the office on Monday, everyone would have heard of her failure. She didn't think she'd be able to endure the knowing, pitying, and gleeful stares of her Ministry coworkers. Not after she had been designated by the Daily Prophet as the smart one of the Golden Trio, her generation's rising star. Well, that settled it. There's was nothing left but to move to Australia. After all, her parents still lived there. Surely they wouldn't object to her taking up space in one of their guestrooms.
In the middle of mentally packing her favorite books in her suitcase, the doorbell chimed. With a groan, she pushed herself from the floor, sending Crookshanks scattering. Hoisting up one of her blankets, she wrapped it around her like a shield. She would need all the protection possible to deal with Ginny, who had probably come to force her to endure Girls' Night Out in the mistaken notion that it would make her feel better. Well, at least Ginny cared. Hermione shuffled to her front door and swung it open, ready to fall into her best friend's arms.
Only those arms weren't Ginny's. Being a Quidditch player, Ginny's arms were a tad muscular, but not as large as the arms into which Hermione almost threw herself. At the last second she pulled back, stunned to find her crush standing on her stoop, dressed in slacks and a nicely fitting sweater. A gentle breeze played with his hair, causing the blond fringe to dip adorably into his eyes. With an impatient hand he brushed it away.
'Malfoy,' she breathed just above a whisper, dropping her blanket.
'I didn't know you wore glasses.'
With those magic words, her brain finally caught up with reality. And what a terrible reality it was. Puffskein hair. Ratty pyjamas. Kneazle slippers. Oh, Merlin! She literally looked like a wild animal from head to toe.
Hermione's fingers shot to her glasses, touching them self-consciously as she stared at her Kneazle slippers. 'I read. A lot. Obviously. It, uh…the reading—um, finally caught up to me. I usually wear contacts, but…' she trailed off, trying not to grimace at the halting gait of her speech and her inability to finish sentences. But to admit her eyes were too irritated from all her crying to wear the contacts would bring more attention to her uselessness.
'I like them,' Malfoy said.
'Really?' she asked, startled. Granted, her interactions with Malfoy since he started working at the Ministry, limited though they were, had always been pleasant. The occasional shared smile across the cafeteria. A 'hello' or 'how are you?' as they passed each other in the Ministry halls. Polite chit chat during those rare times when they were tasked to work together. But those inconsequential nothings, while enough to keep her up nights thinking about him, were not enough to make her forget that the majority of their acquaintance consisted of bickering and insults. She had honestly expected him to come to her flat and gloat over her horrid interview skills.
'I always associate you with books. This just adds to the mental image,' Malfoy said, tapping his finger against his temple.
Unsure of how to interpret those comments, her lips pursed, somewhere between a smile and a frown. Was he including the rest of her outfit in that mental image?
'Thanks,' she mumbled, looking at the floor.
'So…' Malfoy raised something from behind his back. The plastic bag rustled in the wind, but she could still make out the words in red-print: Chang's Dragon House.
Hermione stared dumbfounded at the bag of Chinese food. Fearing that if she reached for it, Malfoy would pull it back and laugh in her face, Hermione searched for some other reason he would dangle the food in front of her. Was this some kind of joke? She stuck her head out of the door and looked around, like a turtle's head coming out of its shell. But George Weasley was not around the corner, giggling like a little school girl.
She had been silent for too long. Malfoy thrust the food at her. 'Just take it, already.' The harshness in his voice worked over her already fraught nerves. Unable to avoid eye contact any longer, she peered up at him through her lenses. His cheeks looked unusually pink, and he ran his free hand through his hair, tugging at the ends. So unlike the confident, winsome Malfoy she had built all her girlish fantasies around for the past year. She blinked, but not long enough to miss the way his jaw clenched. 'Please.'
Hermione wordlessly took the food. The tendrils of aroma from the food infiltrated her nose, reminding her that she hadn't eaten anything since breakfast.
Draco shifted his weight to his other foot, stealing a glance over his shoulder. 'I should probably be leav—'
'No, don't go! I mean…' Hermione twisted her hands in her oversized t-shirt. Bugger! Where were her manners? More importantly, where was her dignity? Why didn't she just tackle him and drag him into her cave?
The corner of Draco's mouth twitched, displaying the familiar smirk that she found so attractive. Only it didn't cause the usual butterflies in her stomach, since its appearance followed so closely on the heels of her idiocy.
'Yes?' Malfoy asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
Deep breath. She could do this! Swallowing the knot that had suddenly appeared in her throat, Hermione mumbled, 'Would you like to join me for dinner?'
Malfoy bent over to pick up her discarded blanket. 'Thought you'd never ask.' To be honest, neither did she.
Hermione stepped aside, ushering him in with a wave of her arm. 'Welcome to Chez Granger,' she said, then cackled nervously.
Calm down, Hermione. Don't want to seem too eager.
'May I take your coat?' she asked, pleased at how cool and collected she sounded.
Malfoy shrugged the article of clothing off his shoulders and exchanged it for the Chinese food she was holding. As she hung the coat up in the closet, she discretely took a sniff. Soap. And was that her favorite of all citrus scents? Indeed, the hint of grapefruit was unmistakable.
'Do you want to eat in the kitchen?' Hermione inquired, turning away from the inviting smells.
Malfoy pointed to another place. 'Actually, why not over there?'
She followed the line of his pale finger. Sure enough, it led straight to the nest of blankets and pillows which she'd created for the express purpose of dying in. 'Are you sure?' she asked.
'Very. I've never seen anything so comfortable in my life.' He smirked again. Her eyes started to twitch, and before she knew it, she exploded. 'Are you mocking me? Is that why you're here? To gloat over how unprofessional and ill-prepared I was today? To witness my emotional meltdown?' she asked, her voice becoming shriller with every word.
'Are you daft? I just brought you dinner,' he said sharply, shaking his head and dropping the bag of food on the coffee table in front of her sofa. Tossing the blanket into her nest, he began to walk away. 'I don't need this. Have fun, Granger. Good night.'
Hermione's nose scrunched up again, and her eyes stung with an all too familiar moisture. As Malfoy went to the closet to retrieve his coat, Hermione tried to keep her sniffling to a bare minimum. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing he hurt her. Especially when she may have overreacted. Turning around so she couldn't see him leave Hermione waited to hear the door close behind him.
'Granger, you're not going to cry are you?' a voice quietly asked from over her shoulder.
She vehemently shook her head, but the tears trickling down her face told a contrary story. He stepped around her. A blurry Malfoy raised his hands in a gesture of goodwill and cautiously hedged toward her. Gods, she knew she looked like a wild animal, but had it gotten so bad that he had to treat her like one?
'Hermione, I'm sorry for raising my voice at you,' Malfoy said softly.
She did not answer. His dragon-hide shoes stopped just short of her Kneazle slippers, and she felt the warmth radiate through his clothes. Her body listed slightly forward, betraying Hermione's need for human comfort. Crush or not, she just wanted to crawl into his arms—any pair of arms—and be held. But she and Malfoy didn't have that kind of relationship. And thanks to her, they probably never would.
'Granger, please look at me.'
She sniffled. 'Why are you here?'
He didn't immediately answer, so she snuck a glance at him through her tear-dropped lashes. His brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed, giving her the impression he was still upset with her, but when he spoke, gentleness still pervaded his voice. 'When you left today, you didn't seem your usual overly-cheerful, House-Elf-liberating self…I thought you could use the company.' Malfoy laughed derisively. 'It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I'm not so sure.'
So…Malfoy pitied her. A slight improvement over hatred, but not the irresistible attraction and tender affection her heart yearned for.
Yearned? How pathetic. Just like me.
A strong arm wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her from her pity party. Malfoy guided her to her nest. 'Why don't you sit down, and I'll go get us some plates.'
Hermione nodded her head, pulling her blanket around herself. Closing her eyes, she tried to compose herself before Malfoy returned. The loud cracking of cabinet doors being slammed closed and pots falling onto the floor put an end to her attempts.
'Do you need some help?' she wearily asked, already moving to extricate herself from her blankets.
'I got it!' Malfoy answered. Another pot clattered to the floor, and Malfoy cursed.
'Are you sure?'
'Suit yourself,' Hermione muttered under her breath, settling further into her hovel.
About five minutes later, Malfoy came out of the kitchen, levitating a stack of plates, silverware, and glasses. The bottle of Firewhiskey he held in his hand, though how Malfoy found it escaped her. She kept it hidden deep in her pantry for…well, for days such as this.
Taking off his jacket, Malfoy knelt by the coffee table and pulled out tiny box after tiny box of Chinese food from the plastic bag. By the time he was finished, there were at least twenty containers on the table. With a swish of his wand and the proper incantation, they enlarged to their usual size. 'I didn't know what you liked, so I got a little bit of everything,' he explained as he arranged the boxes. She watched, fascinated as he divided the containers by appetizers, soups, entrees, and desserts. Then the entrees were further subdivided by meat, and while Hermione was not entirely sure, she assumed, color. Upon finishing he asked, 'What do you want?'
'I like Kung Pao Chicken and Beef and Broccoli. And egg-fried rice.' Oh, what the hell. Today had been rather awful. Why not comfort herself with food? 'Also, could I have a wonton? And possibly a spring roll?'
'You can have anything you like.'
He collected all her requests and set them on her plate, careful that no food item intermixed with the other. Then he poured her some Firewhiskey.
He must have sensed her gaze, because he looked up and grinned. 'This is something I'd normally have my House Elf do, but I didn't want to upset you further, so I left him at home.'
Hermione gave him a weak smile, not quite ready to join him in his mirth. 'How thoughtful of you.'
Placing her dinner down on the table in front of her, Malfoy meticulously gathered his selected items on his plate and sat down beside her. He gestured with his head towards the television. 'So, what were you watching?'
'You mean to tell me you've been here since the interview ended, staring at a blank screen?'
'Pretty much.' She glared at him defiantly. 'Go ahead, Malfoy, laugh. I know you've been dying to do it.'
Malfoy's lips thinned, and Hermione braced herself for his departure. Why couldn't she keep her mouth shut?
'Granger, by my count that's the second time you've accused me of having a go at you since I've crossed your threshold. You're beginning to make me think that you want me to make fun of you.'
'Can you blame me? The longest conversations we've had were at Hogwarts, and those weren't exactly heart-to-hearts.'
'Heh. No. They weren't,' he agreed, somewhat amused.
Hermione pushed the fried rice with her fork around the plate. 'I guess since we fought all the time it's difficult for me to accept us actually getting along.' There! It was now out in the open for him to do with what he would.
'Like Pavlov's Dogs,' Malfoy said knowingly.
In all her imaginings of how Malfoy would respond to her statement, she never thought she'd hear that. In fact, had she heard that?
'Some man named Pavlov would ring a bell before he fed his dogs. Eventually the dogs began to associate the ringing of the bell with being fed, and they would salivate whenever they heard a bell, even if no food were served. They call it a 'conditional reflex,' and you, Granger, have one for me.'
Yes, she had a conditional reflex. The instant she saw even the hint of flaxen hair, her face warmed, her heart raced, and her palms sweated. An unfortunate side effect that made outings with Luna interesting. But Malfoy couldn't possibly know her body's response to the very suggestion of the idea of his presence. Because if he did, Hermione would have to kill herself. But on the bright side, she had the perfect pillow/blanket hybrid nest in which to do it.
'I do?' Hermione asked, feigning ignorance as she demolished her wonton into itty bitty pieces. The repetitive action distracted her from the panic threatening to overtake her.
'Definitely,' Malfoy replied. 'Every time you see me, you immediately tense up, expecting that I'll hurl an insult at you. Or worse.'
Hermione sighed in relief. Her secret was still safe. 'I do not!' she belatedly protested.
'Well, not anymore, but only because I've been conditioning you another way.'
That was news to her. 'Do tell.'
'Haven't you noticed that for the past year I haven't said one insulting thing to you?'
Of course she knew that! Ever since he'd been employed by the Department of International Magical Cooperation, she'd asked that on a daily basis. They worked with different bodies within the department—she with the International Magical Office of Law, and he with the International Magical Trading Standards Body—but being on the same floor, they passed each other at least twice a day. Her curiosity about Malfoy's kindness inflamed her inexplicable physical attraction to him, which had since turned into an obsession with her former classmate and his beautiful moonbeam hair.
'Yes, I've noticed,' Hermione admitted.
'Furthermore, if I haven't had the time to greet you or inquire after your health, I've always made a point to smile at you when we see each other.'
'And have you found success with your experiment?'
'You tell me, Granger. Do you salivate every time you see me?'
Hermione laughed, trying to cover up her blush. 'Ha, ha, very funny, Malfoy.'
He winked at her. 'I know.'
Hermione reached for her Firewhiskey and took a sip. She let the alcohol rest underneath her tongue, feeling the liquid slowly work through her system. Swallowing, she set down her glass and turned to him. 'Was there anything else you did to 'condition' me?'
'If you clued in to my experiment, you would have pitched a fit about how I was treating you like a dog, so no. I limited myself to smiles and greetings because anything else would have been too blatant.'
Hermione gave him a smile of her own. 'And telling me outright what you've been up to doesn't fall under your definition of blatant?'
'A very astute observation, Miss Granger. Yes, the revelation of my experiment could be considered blatant, but it was necessary for the next stage of my plan.'
'And what is the next stage?'
Malfoy stroked his chin with his index finger. 'Initially, it was to be a constant barrage of compliments to counterbalance all the horrible things I've ever said to you.'
Hermione's lip curled. 'I hate flattery.'
'I know. You are terrible at accepting praise. So that's why I decided that the next stage would actually be conversation. But in order to have any kind of meaningful discussion with you, I had to first gain your trust. You'll be glad to know I've just accomplished that by sharing something important of mine—my covert operation—with you. Now it's your turn to reciprocate by sharing a secret with me.' He leaned in closer, lowered his voice. 'Your deepest, darkest, most secret secret.'
Ha! Not bloody likely. If Malfoy wanted that particular secret, he'd have to pry it from her cold, dead hands. Hermione reached again for her Firewhiskey. 'A brilliant plan, Malfoy.'
He raised his glass, clinked it against hers. 'A toast. To my brilliance and your forthrightness.' Hermione rolled her eyes, but downed the rest of her Firewhiskey, shuddering as its heat coursed through her blood.
'Now where is my secret?' Malfoy prompted.
'You already know my deepest, darkest, most secret secret.'
'Yes.' Hermione tapped the frame of her glasses. 'See.' Hermione, now slightly tipsy, giggled at her pun.
Malfoy raised an eyebrow at her, clearly not impressed. 'Your glasses? That is neither deep nor dark, and as you are wearing them in broad daylight, it doesn't even qualify as a secret. Try again.'
Hermione shook her head, reaching for her glass of Firewhiskey and realizing it was empty. Malfoy poured her another.
'Where's the trust, Granger? Haven't things been better between us? You haven't had to slap, scold, or hex me. And I haven't heard you call me a ferret in ages.'
'Only because you haven't given me sufficient reason.'
'Admit it, Granger. I've been nothing but a consummate gentleman towards you.'
'Should I give you an O for Outsanding?' Hermione asked, trying not to smile. She couldn't remember the last time she'd bantered with anyone like this. Her fingertips tingled and the hairs on her arms stood on end. Probably because this felt like a practice duel, which had always been one of her favorite activities. None of the danger, but all the opportunity to show off.
'No need to patronize. A simple acknowledgement will suffice.'
'Alright. Draco Malfoy, here it is. Over the past year you seem to have blossomed into a better, more gentle you.'
Malfoy choked on the sip of Firewhiskey he'd imbibed. 'Blossomed? You make me sound like a pre-pubescent girl.'
'It would explain your beautiful hair.'
Except it didn't. At all.
'You think my hair is beautiful?'
'I, er…' Hermione reached for her Firewhiskey again and drank deeply.
Malfoy touched the body part in question, smirking. 'You know, I was thinking of growing it out.'
What a terrible idea! In fact, it was so vile, she started gagging on her drink. When she'd recovered somewhat, she managed to cough out, 'Whatever makes you happy.'
'Granger, you are as transparent as an Invisibility Cloak. Just say you don't want me to grow my hair out.'
'It's your hair. I don't care what you do with it!'
'Alright, we'll settle the issue of my hair later. Now I want you to admit that you are impressed by the extent of my Muggle knowledge.'
Hermione shook her head. 'Sorry, Malfoy. Most wizards already know of Pavlov's Dogs, so your extent of Muggle knowledge isn't impressive at all.'
'You're lying. But no matter. Tell me, have most wizards braved an encounter with the entire Muggle population to purchase Chinese food for you?'
Hermione stifled her smile at his admission. It made her feel special inside, like someone had put a shiny gold star on her forehead. 'A restaurant full of muggles hardly qualifies as the entire Muggle population,' she lectured.
Malfoy shuddered. 'Could have fooled me. There was this one woman—' Malfoy grimaced, choking the handle of his fork in agitation. 'Graceless cow. And she wasn't the only one. You would not believe how many people bumped into me.'
She could believe it. If Hermione could make it look like an accident, she would have stumbled into Malfoy countless times.
'I see you are speechless,' Malfoy observed. 'Though why you should find my dedication and sacrifice for your well-being surprising is beyond me.'
Unable to stop herself, Hermione reached over and patted him on the head like a puppy. 'What a good boy you are. And if this isn't enough to soothe your ego, I'm sure I can find a fortune cookie. Think of it as a doggie treat. Better yet, a ferret treat.'
Rather than looking ruffled or put out by her condescension, Draco inclined his head towards her, eyes crinkling at the corners. 'Now there's the spirited Granger of my youth.'
His comment, while kindly meant, was like a splash of cold water in the face. She had temporarily forgotten her horrible day, lost in the wonders of Pavlov's Dogs, but now her disappoint came back in full force. 'Usually I'm very spirited,' she said glumly. 'You just caught me on a bad day.'
Malfoy put his plate down and cradled his glass of Firewhiskey in both hands. 'I'm sorry you had a bad day.'
Hermione shrugged, trying to appear controlled though her emotions were pulling her apart in more ways than an Acromantula had legs.
'Not your fault,' she murmured.
A warm hand covered her knee, and after staring at it for a moment, Hermione shifted her gaze to the hand's owner. She shyly met his eyes. Or she would have, if they weren't so fixed on her mouth.
Did he want to kiss her? The thought made her heart throb, as it always did when she thought of kissing him. But it had never been after eating kung pao chicken, which had garlic in it. Oh gods, did her breath smell? She couldn't kiss him with bad breath! Or maybe he hadn't been wanting to kiss her at all. Maybe she had food in her teeth.
Shutting her mouth, she turned her head aside. 'Now where are those ferret treats?' she asked, pretending to look for the fortune cookies. Now that he couldn't see her face, she ran her tongue over her teeth and her hand over her mouth. Seemed morsel-free to her. So, maybe he had wanted to kiss her. But by breaking their eye contact, she'd also broken the moment. All that was left was to find the fortune cookies. Hermione's hand had just settled upon it when Malfoy's grasping fingers stole it from her. 'Nuh uh, Granger. That's for dessert.'
Malfoy set the cookies down on his other side, out of sight.
They sat in silence for a few minutes as they ate more of their dinner. Finally, Malfoy spoke up. 'So, about this bad day of yours…' Hermione's shoulders tensed as Malfoy paused. 'What happened?'
Hermione groaned, setting her plate on the table. 'Do we have to talk about it?'
She couldn't be sure, but his cheeks looked slightly pink. 'I thought it might help you.'
'Does reliving your worst day over and over help you?
As soon as the question escaped her lips, she regretted it. Yes, comparatively speaking, her day was horrible, but it was nowhere near as bleak as some nights she'd passed five years ago. In fact, if her younger-self saw her responding in such a childish manner to what really amounted to a minor blip in the grand scheme of things, she would have slapped her over the head and told her to get on with it. But enough time and healing had elapsed that she could now call this one of the worst days of her life. Apparently, Malfoy was still not able to compartmentalize his past, and she questioned whether he would ever be able to. Even now, his fingers ran over his left forearm, along the gaping mouth of his Dark Mark. His tattoo wasn't exactly the result of too much Firewhiskey, like Neville's Mimnulus Mimbletonia, which Ginny had (rightly) pointed out resembled a bunch of male organs stacked on top of each other. Neville, of course, had it promptly removed, but even if Draco could erase his Dark Mark, the imprint of what it stood for would still haunt him. Which, in a way, made his attempts to make her feel better over something so trivial all the more heroic.
He must have caught her looking because he yanked down his sleeve. 'You're right. It was a stupid idea.'
'No, it wasn't.'
Draco grunted, shifting his position. 'I don't need you to coddle me.'
Hermione searched for a way to bring the conversation back to something less painful for him. The only thing she could think of was to turn the topic back to her. Hoping it would work, Hermione joked, 'Well, that's good, because you ought to be coddling me. After all, you were there. Can you believe how much of a fool I made of myself?'
Malfoy raised a brow, clearly not fooled by her ploy, but to her relief he played along. 'It wasn't your best moment, but I'd hardly call you a fool.'
'Why were you there, anyway?' she asked. The question had been bothering her all day.
'I'm considering another position, and I asked to shadow Evander MacGregor to see if I would like the work. And as he is the director of Human Resources, that work involves interviewing.'
But the Human Resources office was on Level One, which meant…'You're leaving?' Good thing she was sitting down, because it felt as if someone had punched her in the gut. Until now, she hadn't realized how much she looked forward to those few seconds where they'd cross paths or take the elevator together. Now they would be gone. Forever.
'Don't look so sad, Granger. I'll still see you around.'
Realizing she was frowning, Hermione forced a smile. But it wouldn't be the same, Hermione said to herself.
'I haven't made my mind up yet. And even if I did, there's no guarantee I'd actually get the job.'
'If you like, we could eat together at the cafeteria,' he added.
Some consolation! There was never any room at Malfoy's lunch table.
Malfoy must have seen her consternation, because he asked, 'What's wrong with eating with me?'
'Oh nothing. But when would be a good time to eat with you? When you're sitting next to Sharon? Or Heather? Or that girl from the sixth floor whose name I can never remember? Lizzi? Liza? Lizbeta? Or every other witch under the age of thirty?'
Well, every witch under thirty except her. Not that she was bitter about it or anything.
Malfoy had the decency to appear embarrassed. 'Feel free to join me. Especially when I'm stuck with one of them.'
Hermione shook her head. 'I'm not going to ask anyone to make way for me. Besides I'd rather not join your harem.'
'Harem?' Malfoy laughed. 'Is that what you think they are? More like wardens. I have tried books, work files, anything to project that I am busy, and they still sit next to me.'
'Poor Malfoy. It must be so hard having young, attractive witches constantly throwing themselves at you?'
'It is when none of them are the young and attractive witch I have in mind.'
Hermione looked up from her food sharply. Was he insinuating what she thought he was? Nah. Young? Yes. But attractive? She had probably never looked uglier in her life. Overlooking her stint as Millicent's cat, of course.
'You could always move,' Hermione suggested. 'Just stand up and walk over to another table with the witch or wizard of your choosing.'
What a wonderful idea. Now why hadn't he done that?
'That would be rude.'
Hermione snorted. 'Never stopped you before.'
'Yes,' Malfoy groused. 'But then my "harem" would grumble and complain about how horrible I am. And while you are a very special person, Granger, you aren't the only one I'm trying to convince I've turned a new leaf.'
'So you're trying to give the entire Ministry a conditioned reflex?'
Malfoy took a bite of his Chinese food and nodded as he chewed. When he swallowed, he answered, 'I wasn't always the… nicest guy and unfortunately my reputation has proceeded me. I'm trying to change that.'
'Well,' Hermione said, 'I suppose lunching with your harem is a good a place as any to start.'
'That's it, Granger. From here on out, you are my designated protector. I'm sitting next to you on Monday, and you are to send them all away.'
'What if I don't want to be your protector?' Hermione said, somewhat miffed.
'Oh, you will. Otherwise, I will have to abandon the cafeteria for my office, which means I will have to force my house elf to serve me. You wouldn't want that, would you?'
No, because what else would she do for during lunch besides pretend to read as she ogled him?
'Though I'm warning you now, Granger, the harem will not be happy. And they can be extremely vicious.'
Hermione concentrated once again on smashing her food into bits. 'Oh, I know. I've heard them gossip in the bathrooms.' Hermione's shoulders slumped. 'And now I'll be the topic of their conversation.'
'That's what I said. Wait, are you thinking of the interview again?'
Malfoy expelled an exasperated huff. 'How are they going to know what happened? I'm not going to tell. You won't tell. And the other three people in that room won't either. Why are you so worried?'
'Because Sharon Vernus had the interview after mine. She was already in the waiting room when the coffee was spilt on me, and she saw me exiting, nearly in tears. Plus she hates me.'
Hermione kicked at the pillow at her feet. 'Bet that stupid tart got the job.'
Then she thought, hang on a second. Since Malfoy was shadowing the director of human resources, he would actually know the answer to this. 'It was her, wasn't it?' Hermione asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
Malfoy shifted, avoiding eye contact. 'Granger, you know I'm not at liberty to tell you that.'
'Can you at least tell me how she did?'
'She did…about what you would expect.'
'Thanks, Malfoy.' She pushed her plate away from her, not hungry anymore.
'Granger, don't pout.'
Hermione turned on Malfoy, her eyes full of ire. Malfoy backpedaled, raising his hands to appease her.
'I'm not in a position where I can flout the rules. Besides, weren't you always nagging me at Hogwarts about how evil I was. And now when I try to be good, you guilt me into being bad. Don't you want me to do the right thing?'
'Yes,' she whined. 'Just not right now.'
'Ah, I see you are still afflicted by that terrible Gryffindor hypocrisy.'
Hermione stuck out her tongue.
Malfoy pushed his hair out of his face, gave her a teasing grin. 'Besides, would it really matter if you didn't get this job? You aren't unemployed. Your immediate supervisors think you're perfect, and you get to help all sorts of wizards and witches. I know you aren't in this for the pay, but you make a decent living. Why is this so important? There are other departments with job openings. Your time will come.'
'I know, I know. It's just…this was the next step in my plan. And I'm tired of working for people I'm more talented than and within the strictures of someone else's arbitrary parameters. As my own boss, I could accomplish so much more.'
'Life doesn't always go to plan. But you're still young. There's plenty of time to accomplish your goals.'
Hermione's heart sank, and her chest tightened, making it impossible for her to speak.
'Are you listening, Granger?'
Malfoy sighed in exasperation, then grabbed her hand. He had her attention now.
'You can't let a job define you. And certainly not a bloody job interview. You're so much more than a twenty-minute question and answer session, and if the people who interviewed you can't see that, they're morons and you'd be miserable working for their lazy, uninspired arses anyway. Now stop moping and eat the rest of your dinner.'
Hermione promptly covered her head with a blanket.
'Why are you crying?' Draco demanded, aggrieved. 'I was being nice.'
She shook her head, but stopped after he wrapped an arm around her and drew her to his side, blanket and all. At first she resisted, but quickly gave up and rested her head on his shoulder. 'I know you were.' Hermione nudged him with her knee. 'Aw, Malfoy, that was really sweet of you to say,' she said, her voice cracking towards the end. He squeezed her shoulder, but said nothing.
'Don't worry,' Hermione assured him, trying to make light of her current sappiness. 'I won't reveal how nice you are to a single soul. Your secret's safe with me.'
The blanket slipped off her head, pulled down by the wizard whose face was now inches from her own. 'Now you know two of my secrets and haven't even shared one of yours. Is that really fair?'
'I…' Hermione stuttered, dazed by his closeness. She blinked, tried to clear her thoughts. He definitely wanted to kiss her. She was sure of it! Closing her eyes, she waited on pins and needles. This was it! The moment she'd fantasized about for ages. His mouth, so capable of cutting and sharp remarks, moving over hers, gentle as a summer breeze. The idea thrilled her, causing her heart to pick up pace. And she was right. His lips were soft and gentle, for the brief millisecond he applied them to her forehead.
Hermione's eyes snapped open only to find him standing up, wiping his hands on his trousers. 'I should be going. I'm supposed to meet Blaise for a pick-up match of Quidditch.'
But he was just about to kiss her. On the mouth! How could he be going? Without thinking, Hermione grabbed his hand. 'Do you really have to go?' Her eyes roved over her apartment, looking for some excuse to keep him with her. 'We could watch Pride and Prejudice. Or Emma. Or Moulin Rouge. Or…' Dammit! Why did her DVD collection consist of nothing but musicals and Jane Austen movie adaptations? No self-respecting male would stick around for those, as Harry and Ron always made sure to point out to her every time they had a movie night.
Malfoy looked about as thrilled by her movie suggestions as she was. But wait a second! 'I have James Bond!' she shouted triumphantly, running over and grabbing it from the shelf.
Malfoy took it from her and turned it over in his hands, examining the cover. 'This doesn't seem like your kind of movie.'
'It's not,' Hermione admitted. 'Harry got to choose what we watched the last time we had a movie night, and he left it here. It has lots of explosions and violence.' What else did guys like in their movies? Oh, yes. 'And scantily clad women.'
'I know. I've seen it.'
Hermione wilted like a spring flower in the summer's heat. As she sank to the floor, it became clear: Malfoy's departure was inevitable, and she was powerless to stop it. 'I see,' she mumbled. 'Well, thanks for bringing me dinner. Tell Blaise I said "hi".'
But to her shock and inward elation, Malfoy sat back down beside her. 'I have another suggestion.'
Draco reached for something on the floor next to him, then held it up for her inspection—the bag of fortune cookies. 'Time for dessert.'
Digging in the bag, he pulled out one of the fortune cookies and handed it to her. Hermione broke it, making sure to catch all the crumbs before they hit the carpet. When she noticed Malfoy did not do the same, she asked, 'Aren't you going to have any?'
'You were the one with the bad day. They're for you.'
'Fair point,' she said, popping the pieces into her mouth as she read the scrap of paper inside. She laughed and instantly regretted it as a piece of the cookie tried to make its home in her windpipe.
Hermione shot up straight as Malfoy began rubbing her back. 'Must have been pretty amusing to risk your life over it. What does it say?'
Her throat felt scratchy, like Crookshanks had used it to sharpen his claws. Still not having recovered her voice, she handed him the message, trying not to cough again as their fingers brushed.
'You will achieve all your desires and pleasures today,' Malfoy recited. 'What's so funny about that?'
Hermione took another sip of Firewhiskey, hoping to lessen the rawness in her throat. 'Considering I lost my dream job today, this fortune is ludicrous.'
'You never know, Granger. The day is still young.'
'Well, unless someone shows up in the—' she paused, looking at her clock—'next six hours and offers me that job, then I'm calling bullshit.'
Malfoy raised a light brow. 'Language, Granger.'
'Sorry. Too much Firewhiskey.'
'And why do you keep fixating on this job. Isn't there anything else you want?'
Hmm, come to think of it… A boyfriend about 6'1", with alabaster skin as smooth as clotted cream, a frame that was not inordinately muscled but defined enough to make her wonder what he looked like without his shirt on, eyes as gray as the clouds that stormed while the sun still shone, and hair that reminded her so much of moonbeams that if she were to run her fingers through it, they would be coated with silvery dust. A boyfriend who looked an awful lot like the wizard sitting directly to her right.
'The message said I would achieve all my desires and pleasures,' Hermione pointed out. 'That would include my job.'
Malfoy shook his head. 'So pedantic. And picky.'
'Whatever, Granger. Here's another. Try not to kill yourself this time.'
Heeding his advice, Hermione waited until she had calmly ground her cookie into mush before she peeked at the fortune. It was as ridiculous as the first, possibly more so. Her face contorted into a sneer. 'I think this one is actually for you,' she said flatly. Without even asking permission, Draco grabbed the slip of paper from her fingers.
'"The one you love is closer than you think." What makes you say this is mine?' Malfoy asked.
'I haven't had a date in three years,' she grumbled, then ducked her head in embarrassment. Great, now Malfoy knew she was a leper.
'Sounds like you've hit a dry spell. But cheer up! Don't forget what the first fortune cookie said.'
'Hmph. I'll believe it when I see it,' Hermione griped, stuffing a bite of fried rice into her mouth.
'In any case, I think you're right about this being my fortune.' Malfoy grinned, depositing the message into his pocket, completely oblivious to the way Hermione's face sank in disappointment. So the kiss on the forehead had been intentional. That shouldn't have been so upsetting or painful. And yet, she had hoped Malfoy's dinnertime visit had meant…well, something. Apparently he had another girl in mind. One of the wenches from his cafeteria harem, no matter how much he denied it.
Malfoy dug around again in the bag of cookies, carefully selecting another. 'Since that one was for me, you should have another.'
Hermione held up her hand, sick of cookies and their stupid fortunes. 'I've had my fill, thanks.'
Malfoy shook the bag of cookies near her face. 'Aren't you the least bit curious to see what your future holds?'
Now that Malfoy had all but declared his interest for another witch, no. And she already knew her future: Australia.
'Malfoy, I refuse to let my life be determined by the words of a dessert. I can't conceive of a stupider way to predict the future.'
Malfoy chuckled, which only raised her hackles further. 'Considering your feelings on divination, that's a harsh condemnation indeed.'
'You remember my opinion of divination?'
'I remember everything. Now come on, Granger.' Malfoy waved the golden morsel under her nose. 'Take it.'
'Fine!' The instant she grasped it, she crushed it in her hand, crumbs be damned. Digging through the detritus, she located the message and read it aloud. '"What you desire is right in front of you." Well that's specific. "Right in front of me," it says.' Hermione stared at the table in front of her. 'It must mean my Chinese food. Or do you think the cookie was referring to my television?' she asked with false confusion. She turned her head in the other direction. 'No, wait, now the collection of CDs is right in front of me.' Tilting her head a fraction of an inch, she hypothesized, 'Or maybe the dessert meant the poster above my CD collection.' Lastly, she settled a withering glance on her guest. 'Oh, Malfoy, do you think I'll ever know?'
'I thought you would have figured it out by now, but I overestimated your intelligence.' Malfoy shrugged as Hermione digested the insult, and to Hermione's disbelief he fished out another cookie. Just as she was about to cut him with a scathing retort, he stuck it in her mouth, rendering her incapable of speech. 'Last one. Better make it count.'
'Hey!' she spluttered, outraged at his attempt to quiet her. 'I'm not going to read it,' she huffed indignantly.
'Read it, and you'll never have to read another.'
She warily stared down the cookie, now resting on the floor between them. 'I'm not sure that I trust you.'
The levity that had marked their dessert conversation till now vanished in the face of Malfoy's silence. Hermione had meant it as a simple, even flippant, statement, but it seemed to have struck a chord in her dinner companion and caused her to tense. A movement by her side drew her attention, and she watched Malfoy close his fist around the cookie and hold out his hand to her. 'I suppose that I'll just have to prove myself to you.'
A nervous kind of energy seemed to spark between them. Wordlessly, Hermione held out her own hand, unable to ignore the shock of electricity that traveled up her arm when Malfoy pressed the cookie into her palm.
Fingers trembling, Hermione nearly fumbled the cookie. Taking a deep breath, she broke open the cookie that now seemed to contain the most vital piece of information in the world. Gently extracting the white slip of paper, she turned it over and scanned the red lettering, her mouth moving silently as she read the words in her head.
Alright, perhaps not right in front of you but directly to your right. Are you always this pedantic?
What? There was only one thing directly to her right. Or rather, one person.
Draco leaned in, his voice low. 'What does it say, Hermione?'
She shook her head, unsure if she should show it to him. This could be the practical joke she had been waiting for.
'Hermione,' he prompted again.
Of course, when she least expected it, that was when he kissed her. The kiss was brief, chaste; she didn't even have enough time to close her eyes, and yet she felt it all the way to her toes.
Malfoy pulled back, staring at her through his white-blond fringe. 'Do I need to apologize for anything?'
Malfoy's already pale face became ashen.
'You shouldn't have stopped,' she clarified.
The colour quickly seeped back into his face, and his lips twisted as his fingers found their way to her cheek. 'That was very naughty of you, Granger.'
'I know,' she giggled.
'I must be rubbing off on you.'
'Not nearly as much as I'd like.'
This time when Malfoy kissed her, his lips lingered long enough for her to learn the shape of them. She loved them at once. Soft, plump. Like a new, favorite pillow. Just when she parted her lips to discover more of him, he drew back.
'Never play tricks on a Slytherin, Hermione. You'll lose every time.' Draco dropped his forehead against hers, leaving him in perfect position to steal tiny kisses from her willing mouth. Though never long enough to satisfy Hermione.
'Draco,' she whined. It wasn't fair! His punishment did not fit the crime.
'Fine. I was going to tell you how long I've been waiting to do that, but since you just want a mindless snog…' Draco slowly leaned in, his eyes alight with mischief.
Curses! He'd appealed to her biggest weakness—her incessant need for knowledge. 'Wait! I want to know how long you've liked me.'
'That's not what I offered to tell you.'
But that meant, 'You liked me, but didn't want to kiss me?' She supposed it was possible, but did not see how a grown man like Malfoy could desire a woman in such a courtly way, even at the beginning of his infatuation. Perhaps his pureblood upbringing accounted for that.
Draco shook his head, and the smile on his face grew even larger. 'Try the other way around.'
Hermione's stomach twisted inside her, and she practically bounced on the floor. 'Really? Then tell me when you started liking me and when you first wanted to kiss me.'
Draco patted her affectionately on the knee. Leaning back, he rested his head on the sofa cushion. Hermione did likewise, turning her neck so she could admire, er, look at him as he spoke. 'Well, the first time I probably wanted to kiss you was sometime in third or fourth year.'
'You don't remember? You just told me you remember everything,' she said, incredulous. She certainly remembered when she started wanting to kiss him. The date coincided with Malfoy's one week anniversary of working at the Ministry. She'd turned a corner then ran smack into him, falling flat on her rear and scattering the files she had been holding all across the floor. Fully expecting him to insult her as he walked on by, he'd shocked her by kneeling down to help her retrieve the files. And then there was the amused smile he'd given her. It did wonders for his face and mouth, which theretofore she'd only seen in a sneer of disapproval or boredom. Such a handsome face and what pretty, pink lips…And then she'd dropped her files again. This time Malfoy did not content himself with a cheeky grin. 'Perhaps I should perform a sticking charm for your fingers,' he offered. Hermione shook her head, not daring to meet his gaze and scurried as quickly as she could into the safety of her office. Then she'd whipped out her diary and freaked out within the confines of its pages.
'No, I don't remember, because I never let the idea fully form,' Malfoy explained. 'My parents would have killed me for even entertaining such thoughts toward you, and I was too stupid to think for myself.' Malfoy gave her an apologetic glance. 'But the first time I actually admitted to myself that I wanted to kiss you and decided to find a way to do it, that I remember clearly.'
'Well, when was it?' Hermione demanded, breath bated.
'When I saw you pretending to read in the Cafeteria my first day at the Ministry, when all you were really doing was checking me out.'
Hermione didn't even try to deny it, though it had been curiosity more than physical interest that had driven her to spy. 'That was over a year ago. Why have you waited so long to even talk to me?'
'Pavlov's Dogs, remember? For all I knew, you still hated me, and I did not want to be rejected.'
'You just said I checked you out your first day of work.' Yes, curiosity had been the main reason for her interest, but physical attraction had been there too. Malfoy was a beautiful man, and there were too few of those in the Ministry.
'Well, it is possible to be attracted to someone even though you think you loathe them.' Malfoy's lips curved into a wry grin. 'That pretty much sums up how I felt towards you those last two years of school. Possibly four. '
'What do you think, Granger?'
'I don't know! That's why I asked,' she said, tartly.
'A wizard does not show up at a witch's flat with dinner from a Muggle restaurant, go through the hassle of learning a complex enchantment to covertly alter fortune cookie messages, fight through near-debilitating anxiety while he begs her to read said messages, patiently wait for her to overcome her insecurities and figure out the meaning of his notes, and then manage to satisfy himself with chaste kisses when all he really wants to do is lay her out beneath him and snog her senseless, unless he has a deep and abiding attachment to that witch.'
She stared at him, wide-eyed as an owl's.
'What I'm trying to say, Granger, is that I wish to make you my proper girlfriend.' He took her hand. 'Now it's your turn to speak.'
'I accept,' she said primly.
'That's what I said, isn't it?'
Malfoy burst out in laughter and pulled her into his lap. His arms wrapped around her, and Hermione snuggled into his warmth, tucking her head under his chin. A perfect fit. 'Leave it to you to sound bossy and condescending after I've poured out my cold and calculating heart to you.'
Apparently that didn't bother him at all, because he reached for her hair, causing Hermione to flinch.
'What's wrong now?'
'Of all the times for you to ask me to be your girlfriend, why does it have to be when I look disgusting? You had ample opportunity to do so when we ran into each other in the work elevators or in the hallways when my hair wasn't frizzy, my eyes weren't swollen, and I actually had makeup on.'
Malfoy continued to stroke her hair, ignoring her list of insecurities. 'I like the way you look.'
'You're just saying that so I'll kiss you again.'
'I'm going to kiss you regardless, so I don't need to flatter you. It's my prerogative as your boyfriend. That being said, since about third or fourth year, I've always liked the way you look. But especially today.'
'I look like crap.'
'Hermione, stop fishing for compliments.'
'I'm not!' she said, outraged. 'I'm making an objective judgment.'
'Whatever. How many other people have seen you like this?'
'No one! My ideas of fashion may not be as evolved as yours, but I don't make a habit of going out in public looking like a homeless person either.'
'Precisely why I like this so much. I am one of the select few who has seen you out of your Hogwarts uniform and work clothes. You're always attired so primly in your pencil skirts and button-down blouses.' He moved his hand to the spot just above her knee, right where the hems of her skirts always ended. 'Which I like as well.'
'I'm surprised you noticed.' Malfoy's harem always bedecked themselves in ensembles that far outshone anything she owned in her closet. 'Ron did, but only to tell me I dressed like a younger version of Madam Pince.'
'Well, Weasley is an arse, and his opinions on what you wear are inconsequential.'
'Why is that?'
'He's not your boyfriend.'
'Aren't we proprietary?'
Malfoy frowned. 'Does that offend you?'
'Not really. Ron's entire wardrobe consists of nothing but Quidditch jerseys, so he's the last person from whom I'd take fashion advice. Actually,' Hermione said, lifting her head from his shoulder, 'I like your possessiveness. It makes me feel powerful.'
'In that case, I claim this forehead as mine.' Malfoy pressed his lips against her hairline. 'And this cheek. And this nose. And this chin.' He lifted her glasses an inch from the bridge of her nose. 'And this spot between your eyebrows.' Hermione tried not to giggle as Malfoy continued to stake his claim on the various features of her person. Hermione raised her mouth, strongly hinting at the next place she'd allow Malfoy to gain ownership. His lips hovered over hers, and her stomach fluttered as she waited for him to, as he so aptly put it 'lay her out beneath him and snog her senseless.' Yes, please.
'Granger, in the interest of beginning our relationship on the right foot, can I tell you something else?
She nodded, only half paying attention. She was too busy playing with his hair. Which reminded her. 'Please don't grow your hair out. I like it this way.'
He gave a brief nod. 'I will defer to your opinion.'
'Since I'm your girlfriend?'
'Since you're my girlfriend. Plus,' Malfoy frowned, 'I'd rather not look like my father. But speaking of parents…I've been dropping the odd hint to my parents that there is a Muggleborn witch whom I hope to introduce to them soon.'
Hermione blinked. This could not be good. She liked Draco, but wasn't too keen on his parents. And she was quite certain the feeling was mutual.
'My parents are better now,' Draco added, seeing her concern. 'Still a bit snobby, but their prejudice is no longer based on blood.'
'You don't sound too excited. Not that I blame you. But in their defense, they have done nothing to discourage my interests. I actually think they've figured out that it's you.'
Hermione chewed her inner cheek. Was she ready to bring parents into this?
'You needn't meet them right away,' Malfoy continued, coming as close as she'd ever seen him to babbling. 'I forgot that we've only been dating for about five minutes. It just seems longer, since I've been thinking of this moment for so long. And I wanted to show you I am serious about this.'
Good to know.
Malfoy kissed her on the temple. 'You worry me when you get quiet. What are you thinking?'
Hermione groaned. 'My mother is going to go berserk when she hears I have a boyfriend. She's been trying to set me up on dates ever since…ever since I dated Ron.'
Draco tensed at the sound of her ex-boyfriend's name.
'I only dated him for two weeks, and that was three years ago. We're just friends,' she assured him.
Draco nodded, though Hermione could see Ron would be a touchy subject. She would just have to give Draco ample reassurances.
'And your father?' Draco asked. 'How do you think he'll react?'
'My dad…wants me to be happy.' And housed in a convent or a very high tower with no doors or windows, but that was neither here nor there.
'That's an evasion, not an answer.'
'Malfoy, you are missing the point. My dad is happy if I am happy, and I am happy because of you, you beautiful, infuriating ferret.'
Draco's face lit up with joy, and he celebrated Hermione's statement by removing her glasses. 'I'm taking these off because I don't want them to break,' Malfoy explained. 'Don't overthink it.'
Hermione's lips parted in a smile, parted even further at Draco's insistence. His mouth moved slowly, languidly, causing her to shake all over. Her hands fell from his hair to his sweater, fisting the soft material as she tried not to fall over. Not that it mattered, since Malfoy seemed intent on her ending up on the floor. His arms wrapped around her and gently lowered her. She stared up at him, her hair fanned out against the backdrop of her death nest like the tail feathers of Malfoy's proudest albino peacock. Hmm, she'd have to come up with a better name for her death nest. Love Bowl? Snog Hole? Portal of Erised? Oh, who cared! Hermione threw her arms around Malfoy's neck, practically pulling him atop her. His body enfolded her as warmly and intimately as a blanket. The chaste kisses gave way to not-so-chaste kisses, and very soon Hermione started invoking the name of every witch and wizard she could think of, because Draco and his mouth were nothing short of magical.
'Merlin, Hermione, think you have enough Chinese—Oh-my-Godric?
At the sound of a voice that was neither hers nor Draco's, Hermione opened her eyes. Draco either did not hear the intruder or had chosen to ignore the visitor. Or at least that's what Hermione gathered, since his mouth was still assiduously attending to her neck.
Hermione turned her head, only to find Ginny standing at in the entryway looking utterly flabbergasted. But Ginny seemed to recover herself much more quickly than Hermione and Draco, if her barrage of noise was any indication.
'Is this why you canceled our Girls' Night Out? Malfoy,' Ginny shrieked. 'Draco Malfoy! But what about your Ministry crush? You've been talking about that guy forever. Just last week you told me you might be in love, and now I find you on the floor getting a love bite from Malfoy …' Ginny collapsed into a chair as Hermione covered her bruise with her hand. 'I'm so confused,' Ginny mumbled dazedly.
The floor creaked as Draco stood up. He held out his hand to Hermione, then gave her back her glasses.
'Allow me to clear up the confusion. Weasley, I am the Ministry Crush,' Draco said.
'No way. Hermione is practically in love with this guy, and I know for a fact that she loathes you.'
Hermione blushed, wishing she could hide behind her blanket. 'Ginny! It's Draco.' Hermione laced her fingers through his, eyes imploring him. 'It's you.'
'The Fifth Floor Adonis…is Malfoy?' Ginny asked, disbelievingly. 'And when did you start calling him Draco?'
'Oh Merlin.' Hermione stamped her foot, looking to the ceiling for relief from this humiliation. 'Yes, Malfoy is the Fifth Floor Adonis. Thanks, Gin. I had hoped to get to know him a little better before scaring him off.'
'Seems to me you already know him pretty well,' Ginny said, gesturing towards the blankets and pillows which were now scattered all across the floor.
'Shut up, Ginny!' Hermione gritted out through clenched teeth. Turning back to Malfoy, she muttered, 'Well, uh, now you know my most secret secret. I've been obsessing over you for a year.'
The fingers grasping her own squeezed tightly, and she looked up into the smiling face of Draco Malfoy. 'I quite like the ring of Fifth Floor Adonis. I think we've found my new nickname.'
'But Fifth Floor Ferret has the benefit of alliteration,' Hermione dutifully informed him.
Ginny groaned and both Draco and Hermione turned to see her roll her eyes at them. 'Well, I can see I'm a third wheel. I'll leave you two lovebirds to discuss your new nicknames for one another.'
'Actually,' Draco interrupted before Ginny could leave, 'much as I hate to leave you alone with a Weasley, I need to go. I told Blaise I'd meet him about thirty minutes ago, but you distracted me.'
'Why did you tell Blaise you would meet him if you already knew you'd be here?' Ginny asked.
'My, you're nosy, Weasley! If you must know, it was a precaution, to keep me from doing something foolish. I hadn't intended on asking Hermione out—'
'You're dating!' Ginny interrupted loudly. 'Holy Helga, I thought you two were just making out.'
'As I was saying,' Malfoy continued, pointedly ignoring Ginny, 'I hadn't intended on asking you out until much later. This was just the first of what would be many attempts to get you accustomed to being around me with food. You know, Pavlov's Dogs.'
'What is he talking about, Hermione? Who is Pavlov? And you don't like dogs.'
Hermione waved at Ginny dismissively. 'I'll explain later.' Turning to Malfoy, she smacked him on the arm. 'So the next step wasn't open conversation?'
'Got me there.'
'You sneaky, little ferret,' she said, smacking him again, but not very hard because she couldn't stop laughing.
'Well, you lied too.' Mimicking Hermione's voice, Draco mocked, "Most wizards already know of Pavlov's Dogs." So either Weasley is extremely ignorant, or you are a lying; probably both. I suppose it doesn't really matter. Since you threw yourself at me, I think I can safely end the experiment.'
Hermione stood on her tiptoes, staring him down from below, since he was quite a bit taller than her. 'I only threw myself at you after you threw yourself at me.'
Malfoy's hands went around her waist, hanging low on her hips. 'I'd rather not fight on our first night as a couple. Are you free tomorrow to continue this argument over lunch?'
Hermione nodded, suddenly shyly. Ginny and her intent brown eyes were watching the both of them like a seeker closing in on a Snitch. No wonder Hermione wasn't a big fan of the sport.
'Good. And now, I really should take my leave.' Malfoy lowered his head and was just about to kiss her, when he turned away and glared in the direction of the doorway. 'Do you mind? Or is your love life so pathetic you have to live vicariously through ours?'
Ginny folded her arms across her chest. 'I don't mind at all. Proceed at your leisure.'
'Ginny, please,' Hermione said. 'We'll only be a second.'
'Fine. I'll just have some dinner while you two go at it like crups in heat.'
Sounded good to Hermione. She led Malfoy to the door, hoping to place some much needed distance between them and her far too observant friend. It was only a slight improvement, but an improvement nonetheless. With Ginny preoccupied with helping herself to the Chinese food, Draco and Hermione could help themselves to each other. Somewhere in the middle of the couple's third serving, the sound of Crookshanks hacking up a furball broke through the glorious haze. With a groan, Hermione pulled away, searching for her poor cat/kneazle. But when she located her fluffy ball of fuzz, he placidly stared at her as he continued to lick himself. However, her other friend with ginger hair wasn't faring quite so well. When she finished gagging, she said, 'That was to remind you that I'm still here, because it seemed to me you both forgot.'
'Just as well,' Malfoy said smoothly, though he looked about ready to throttle Ginny. 'I need to go. Blaise is no fun to be around when he is cranky, and he despises tardiness.'
Hermione tried to hide her disappointment at Malfoy's leaving, not wanting to seem too attached to her new boyfriend or for Ginny to accuse her of not wanting to spend time with her.
'I'll stop by at noon tomorrow to pick you up?'
'OK,' Hermione sighed.
'Good evening, Weasley,' Malfoy called into the other room.
'Night. And thanks for the Chinese,' Ginny shouted back.
Taking Hermione's hand in his, he pressed a kiss to her palm. 'Hope you're feeling better.'
Hermione blushed. 'Much better, thanks.'
'Alright, see you tomorrow.' When he released her hand, she realized it was no longer empty. And it wasn't a figure of speech or the imaginings of a twitter-pated fool. Malfoy had given her another fortune cookie. So much for never having to read another, though Hermione no longer minded.
'You'll like this one, I promise.'
And then he left. Hermione meandered back to the living room, clutching her cookie as she sat down next to Ginny, who, though diligently making her way through a pile of orange chicken, took a brief respite to inform Hermione, 'Malfoy got hot.'
'I know,' Hermione answered. 'He's also intelligent, funny, and sweet.'
'I'll take your word for it,' Ginny said. After she'd swallowed another bite of food, she said, 'So is he the reason you canceled on me?'
'No. I owled you before he showed up.'
'So those rumors about you scalding a Ministry secretary by spilling coffee on her and accidentally flashing your interview panel were actually true?'
'What? That wasn't what happened. I didn't spill the coffee on anyone, it was spilled-You know what, never mind. It's not important.' And really it wasn't. Her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day didn't seem quite so dreadful anymore. In fact, it was quickly becoming a distant memory, fading in importance to the feel of Malfoy's soft lips, comforting hands, and fuzzy affections.
Ginny snorted. 'You never give up on anything, least of all when it deals with your professional reputation. Which means you must have it bad for Malfoy,' she practically singed as she danced about the room. 'Just wait until Harry and Ron hear about this. They are going to have a fit. Make sure to tell them when I'm there. Better yet, let them walk in on you and Malfoy making out!'
Well, they would have to find out somehow. Might as well break the news in a way that involved kissing her boyfriend.
'Earth to Hermione,' Ginny said, waving her hand in front of her face. 'Where did you go? Oh, never mind. Just hand me the remote.'
While Ginny fiddled around with the buttons of the muggle device she hadn't quite conquered, Hermione broke open her last fortune cookie, and when she read the message, her face nearly split in two from smiling.
You got the job…but you didn't hear that from me.
'Ah, ha! There it is!' Ginny shouted victoriously as image and sound burst across the formerly blank screen. 'And look, Doctor Who is going to be on in a few minutes.'
Ginny hunkered down into the couch and turned towards Hermione. 'You're OK, right? Your owl worried me. I pretty much expected to find you in the foetal position under a hundred blankets and pillows. Instead, I find you under Draco Malfoy. Imagine my surprise.'
Hermione laughed, throwing a pillow at her saucy friend. 'Stop that! You make it sound so devious.'
'So, good day?'
Hermione clutched another pillow as she thought about the last hour. A new relationship with Draco and the attainment of her dream job. And now some Dr. Who.
'Actually, it's been a great day. The best day ever, in fact. Now pass me some more egg fried rice.'
P.S. Reviews are like shiny gold stars on my forehead. =D