The next day began uneventfully. Draco was not at breakfast, so Hermione and Lucius ate together in peace; he did some work in his office, and she did further research on the history of wizard-elf relations, hoping to find either some precedent for what she hoped to accomplish or some concrete evidence that elves were self-sufficient before Wizarding interference. They reunited for tea, and then Lucius informed her that he had agreed to accompany the Minister to dinner with some potential financiers. He also delivered the news that Draco would be vacating the manor sometime that evening, and Hermione did not attempt to hide her delight, knowing that were she to try, she would not succeed.
After she ate dinner, using Lucius' absence as an opportunity to converse with Fern, Hermione returned to the study for more reading, though this time she selected a book of her fiancé's recommendation, a work of classic literature she was surprised to learn she had never heard of. She was perhaps two chapters in when the sound of Draco's footsteps drew her attention, and a moment later he passed by the door to the study, slowing to a pause when he saw her. He eyed her appraisingly, though his gaze was, blissfully, lacking any evidence of impure thoughts. Instead, he appeared to be deciding whether or not to speak to her. "The remodel is finished," he told her, his ever-present arrogance making even that simple statement almost unbearably irritating. "I'm going back to my flat now."
Hermione adopted an over-the-top expression of mock disappointment and double-dipped her voice in the same. "Okay," she said, then dismissed him with a harsh "Bye!" and returned to her book.
A single beat passed, and then he spoke again. "What's your problem?" he asked, having the nerve to actually sound affronted.
Her jaw dropped and her gaze returned to him out of sheer shock. "My problem?" she repeated, over-enunciating the word in her disbelief.
"Yeah," he maintained, stepping into the study. "I get that we had our issues in school, but we were kids," he said. "Since then I haven't done anything but try to pursue you, to make you my wife." He said it as though she should have been grateful for his attention.
Hermione was becoming so angry she couldn't stay seated. Without deciding to, she slowly stood from her chair, her book slipping from her lap onto the cushion. "Pursue me?" she repeated him again, her voice surprisingly quiet given how loud her emotions were. "Pursue me? If that's your idea of pursuing a girl, Malfoy, it's no wonder you're still single."
"Oh, come off it," he scoffed. "I may have come on a little strong, but it was nothing to get your knickers in a wad over. You know," he accused, "if you had given in, you would have been glad you did."
"You," she began, her voice soft and yet vibrating with an energy that threatened an imminent explosion, "have got… to be… kidding me." She had taken a few slow, threatening steps toward him. "I'll say it slowly, so the words have time to hammer through your thick fucking skull and worm their way into your teeny, tiny brain: I never wanted you to touch me; I never wanted to be your wife; and never, at any point in the ten years I've known you, have I ever - ever - wanted to sleep with you. Why is it so difficult for you to understand," she continued, still advancing on him, "that someone might not want you? Have you wanted to shag every female you've ever seen? Of course you haven't!" Her voice was rising in volume, and he began to retreat from her wrath. "So why would you expect every female to want to shag you?"
He seemed to be taken aback by that question. "Well," he started, befuddled, "I'm—"
"You're what?" she challenged ferociously. "You're rich? You're handsome? You're a dick, Draco Malfoy!" She had now reached the height of her fury, and there could have been no stopping her. "You've never treated me as an equal; you've barely treated me as a human!" She had now forced his back to the wall. "And you think I want your hands on me?"
He genuinely appeared as though he had never considered that before. In truth, he most likely hadn't.
"And my friends!" she continued, her outrage, if it were possible, growing even more. "Your abuses of me were bad enough, but then you actually set out to hurt me, to get back at me for not wanting you, and in the process you hurt two people who had nothing to do with it. Did you even think about their child?" she demanded. "His family could have been torn apart before he was even born, and you don't care. I-can't-fathom you!" she shouted in utter exasperation. "It's like nothing matters!" As soon as she said it, it clicked. Understanding began to trickle over her. "That's it, isn't it?" she asked, surprise lowering her voice by several decibels. "You can't let anything matter. If you let anything matter, you have to let everything matter."
The color drained from his face.
She blinked, astounded, and backed away a few steps. "You haven't even begun to deal with what happened to you, have you?"
"Stop," he warned her, holding up a hand.
"Draco," she persisted.
She was struck silent by the pure anguish in his voice.
He turned away, but his face crumpled before he could completely hide it from her. His hunched shoulders shook gently in between quiet gasps.
Hermione was assaulted by a sharp pang of empathy, and then an ugly, hot wave of confusion and bitterness. "Damn it," she half-spat, half-sighed under her breath. Nothing could ever excuse his actions, but now she had to confront what a devastatingly damaged person he was: not simply a selfish, entitled asshole, but a traumatized young man trying to pretend that nothing had consequences because he couldn't face the fallout of what he had done, and what had been done to him.
Her feet propelled her forward again in spite of her desire to maintain distance. When she reached him, she forced herself to place a hand on his trembling shoulder.
"Damn it," she whispered again.
"I'm sorry," he moaned desperately. "Granger, I'm sorry."
She opened her mouth to reply, but her tongue wouldn't form words. She couldn't possibly say, "It's alright," because it wasn't. After a long moment, she abandoned any attempt at speech and settled for gently patting his upper back. Part of her detested that she was offering comfort to him, but it was outmatched by the part of her that knew how vital it was that he receive it.
"Don't tell my father," he said, hastily wiping his eyes.
"I won't," she promised woodenly. "But I think you should."
He scoffed. "Not in a hundred years." He straightened, so she dropped her hand.
"He's the only one who'll understand," she pressed him gently. "He's made peace with himself, he's forged ahead with his life. He can help you, and if he knows you're struggling, he'll want to."
Draco shook his head. "You don't understand," he told her, though he neglected to face her. "You think you know him, but you don't. I've lived with him all my life. He doesn't care."
It made Hermione inexplicably sad that Lucius' own son could perceive a version of him so different than the one she'd come to know. "He's trying to be better," she maintained. "Let him try with you." He didn't answer. "You need someone to guide you through this, Draco, but it can't be me. I just…" she trailed off, shaking her head vehemently. "I can't."
He sniffed very quietly. "I know."
At around half past eight, Hermione was slowly pacing back and forth in the study, anxiously awaiting Lucius' return home and yet completely at a loss as to how she was going to explain his son's predicament to him in a way that would ensure he understood the gravity of it. The Malfoy men were constantly at odds with one another, it seemed, and while Hermione believed she at least partially understood why, it was something else entirely to wade through years and years of familial issues and discord with the very people entrenched in it.
She heard the front door swing open and she immediately ceased pacing. It clicked shut, and her heart rate increased by a fair amount. He and Fern exchanged a few words, and his footsteps approached. I guess I'll just wing it, then.
He stepped into the study, halted at the sight of her standing (unusual, as she was normally sitting with a book in her hands), and cocked his head slightly to the side. "Hello," he greeted her as he drew nearer, his expression one of mild amusement. "What are you doing?"
"You need to talk to Draco," she blurted out.
His face darkened. "What has he done?" he demanded, his voice rumbling dangerously.
"Nothing, nothing!" she hastened to assure him. "It's not that. He's…" She thought for a moment about how to describe what she had just discovered. "He's deeply struggling with what happened during the war."
A curtain fell over his eyes; he had a wall built specifically for this topic. "The war was hard on all of us," he said with finality, as though the matter was closed. He walked past her to the bar to make their usual drinks.
But Hermione wasn't going to let it go. "Yes, and the difference is," she continued, coming over to her chair and sitting on the very edge of it, "you and I and just about everyone else have found a way to soldier on. He hasn't dealt with any of it."
Lucius did not answer her.
She continued despite this. "He has spent the last five years in epic denial. He hasn't faced it, hasn't thought about it. That's why he still acts like a teenager; he's retreated to his pre-war frame of mind because he's not equipped to cope with anything that happened during it. He's stuck."
He placed her glass on the table between them, sat down, and still didn't speak.
"Lucius, he needs you," she insisted.
"He's never needed me," Lucius argued. "He's always made that perfectly clear."
Hermione sighed heavily. "You told me that you spent as much time away from home as possible," she reminded him, "to escape your unhappy marriage, correct?"
He stiffened, and she could almost see the defensiveness rise up around him.
"Hear me out," she requested before he had a chance to respond. "I'm not faulting you. I'm just saying, that was a choice you made, and it had consequences you couldn't foresee. He felt abandoned. So he constructed this 'I don't need you' bravado as a method of denying his own feelings and of keeping you at arm's length. That would have been unfortunate enough on its own, but now he's drowning and you're probably the only one who can reach him."
Lucius took several deep breaths through his nose, putting forth a great deal of effort to listen to what she said instead of dismissing her theory as wrong simply because he wanted it to be so. His index and middle fingers tapped rapidly on the arm of his chair. "How do you know all this?" he finally asked, his voice light but his words coming out clipped.
"I understand people," she said. "Something we have in common, remember? You'd see all this too," she assured him, "if you weren't so close to it."
His eyes softened by a trace amount; his wall had a crack in it.
She watched him carefully, trying to pick up a signal from him with her empathy antenna. "You feel rejected by him, too, don't you?" she asked him tenderly. "He pushed you away, and it hurt. So now you're both trapped in an endless cycle of preemptively rejecting the other before he has a chance to reject you."
His eyes fell away from her.
Hermione rose from her chair, tentatively approached him, and knelt on the floor by his side. She placed her hand on his, and he cleared his throat.
"I know," she began softly, "this will be really, really hard… but you're the parent. You have to be the one to break the cycle."
He slowly nodded, sighed heavily, and rubbed a hand over his face. "You're right," he conceded. "I'll ask him over tomorrow."
Hermione pursed her lips. "Or tonight," she suggested.
Lucius set his gaze on her, already looking mentally exhausted simply by the idea of having this conversation with his son. "What?"
"Rip the Band-Aid off," Hermione said with confidence.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. "What?" he said again.
"Get it over and done with," she clarified.
"Hermione…" he began.
"If not now, when?" she asked.
"Tomorrow," he answered easily.
She looked expectantly up at him, blinking.
He sighed. "Or tonight." He rose from his chair, penned a quick note, and called for Fern to send it by owl. When he returned to his chair, he practically fell into it.
Hermione stood from the floor, walked behind him, and began rubbing his shoulders.
He inhaled deeply at her touch and groaned as she began to work the tension from him.
"I think he'll be receptive," she said. "I discerned rather a lot about his feelings today."
"So," he said, dropping his head into his chest so she could move up to his neck, "the two of you have reconciled?"
Se pressed her lips together and shook her head. "Nope," she replied definitively, although her voice was almost comedic in its high pitch. "But," she clarified, having returned to her normal tone, "we got about as close to it as we can, I think."
"Well, that's something," he commented drily, taking a large swig of his brandy.
About an hour later, the front door swung open again, and Hermione experienced a very similar sensation to the last time she had heard it, only this time it was accompanied by a small dose of nausea. She suspected that indifference was the best she could hope for with regards to how she might feel about Draco in the future, but as of this moment, she still felt antipathy.
A moment later, he strode into the room. "You summoned me?" he addressed his father sardonically.
Lucius took a breath. "Yes," he confirmed through an exhale, and stood to meet his son. "There is something I'd like to discuss with you."
"Well, what is it?" Draco prompted curtly. "I have plans."
Lucius' jaw tightened, but he kept his cool. When he spoke again, his voice was still as calm as it had been before. "Draco, we've never talked about what happened during the war."
Draco's eyes darted to Hermione and remained there, though when he spoke it was to his father. "She shouldn't have told you."
Lucius let a beat pass before replying. "She was trying to help."
"Well, she needn't have bothered," Draco countered somewhat harshly, only looking at Lucius when he could be certain his face was without expression. "There's nothing to say, is there?"
Once again, instead of responding instantly, Lucius took a moment to keep control of his emotions and consider what to say. "There is," he contradicted. "There is much to say. I could speak volumes on my own experiences, and I was a grown man when I had them. You were only a teenager."
"I was man enough for those things to be laid at my feet, wasn't I?" Draco argued hotly.
Hermione could see Lucius beginning to get agitated, on the verge of slipping back into his old patterns. "I don't intend to be condescending-"
"Must be a natural gift, then," Draco interjected with venom.
Hermione watched Lucius carefully and saw him about to snap. "Stop," she said, before he said something he'd regret. She turned to Draco. "He's trying to meet you halfway," she told him quietly, though her tone was forceful. "Throw him a fucking bone, will you?" Then she spoke to the pair of them. "Do you know what'll happen if you don't sort this out?"
The two men remained still and silent, waiting for her answer.
"Nothing," she told them with finality, and let them feel the emptiness of that thought for several moments.
Lucius gazed at his son, his every muscle rigid, as though trying to contain something churning inside him.
Draco shoved his hands in his pockets and looked anywhere but at his father.
At last, Lucius tried again. "Do you know," he began slowly, "the moment I knew I had to change?" he asked his son. The awkwardness he felt was apparent in every syllable, but at least he had taken a step.
Draco's eyes shifted, landing on the bookcase. He appeared to be reading the titles. "I assume it was when your side lost," he replied, keeping his voice free of any detectable emotion.
"Actually, at the time, it appeared as though we had won," he said. "When we - the Death Eaters - returned to Hogwarts, and we all thought Potter was dead."
His son's eyes shifted to him, brows furrowed in consternation.
"Your mother and I called you over to us. I held my arm out to you. And you went straight to your mother and walked right past me."
Draco's expression betrayed him; he knew exactly what his father was talking about.
"I was so relieved to find you alive," Lucius continued, his eyes involuntarily closing. "I swore then that I would protect you in all the ways that I failed to before. But you wanted nothing to do with me. I don't blame you for it," he hurried on. "But I'm a proud man. You rejected me, and I had to save face. I don't suppose you know what that's like?" He said the last part as impartially as he could, not wanting to imply either that Draco could not possibly understand, or that he obviously must.
Draco spent several moments absorbing everything his father had said, but didn't speak. Drawing as little attention to herself as possible, Hermione stepped lightly out of the room. Just after she had closed the doors to the study, she heard Draco softly say, "Yeah. I know what that's like."