As the party endured late into the night, Hermione and her friends utilized the open bar to their hearts' content. Some more than others, she noted, as she watched Millicent and her boyfriend take center stage on the dance floor, eager to show off what little body coordination and a generous ingestion of liquor eventually amounted to.
Weddings are always a strange place to be, and Hermione realized this quickly. Bill and Fleur's wedding had been pregnant with nervous energy and trepidation, masked with the happiness they wanted to feel, but couldn't completely – and that had been different. Happiness, let alone weddings, had always been met with open yet cautious arms during the war. You took it when you had the chance, but always understood that it could be just as easily taken away. There was no such thing as owning happiness back then, only borrowing.
But now here they were, post-war, guests to a wedding that marked real change. There was that profound symbolism to it, but it was also still just a wedding. Hermione had seen some of Pansy's friends fighting with their boyfriends, or having wild sex in the bathroom, or some waiting to be asked to dance with a smile fake enough to be plastic. With weddings there was always such a mixed cauldron of emotions, different to each person and where they happened to be in their life. For her, she found herself still pondering this as she stood there with her cold beer, watching Ginny and Malfoy from across the way.
Bitterly, she wondered what they could possibly have in common, besides their alma mater – and being beautiful, of course. Never in a million years would she have thought Ginny would ever look like she belonged with Malfoy, but the moment she saw it, it all just clicked in the most unfair way. She had her gorgeous strawberry hair and her alabaster, porcelain skin; that kind of elegant beauty that was hard to miss. Not to mention she walked gracefully in four-inch heels like she'd been born with them on. She'd never hated her for that before. Why should she start now?
Harry appeared next to her, putting down his drink. He knew exactly what she was looking at. "Are you just going to stand here and plan an intervention or are you going to dance with me?"
She felt her face flush, but set her beer down next to his. He smiled and grabbed her hand, leading them to a spot on the dance floor.
Dean, who had been busy dancing with Pansy, saw them and gave them an approving wink.
"What, can't a guy dance with the most beautiful girl at a wedding?" he said to her, giving her a spin. "Platonically speaking, of course."
She whirled right back into his arms, Ginny and Malfoy slowly blurring out of her mind. "Only if you mean it."
"You'd hurt me if I didn't. Do I really have a choice not saying things I don't mean?"
Hermione couldn't help it. She smiled, and Harry knew he had her. From over her shoulder, she knew he was looking at the same thing.
"Are you over her, Harry?" she asked him quietly, carefully watching his face.
"I never know what people mean when they ask that," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, are people asking me if I still think about her? Of course I do. Or if I still love her? Of course I do. But do I still want to be with her? Not especially."
When Harry said things like this, Hermione couldn't help but love him. She loved Ron, too, but her love for Harry was like the way you loved an old childhood memory – a kind of love that warms you instantly, that made you feel better no matter what.
"Does it bother you, then? Seeing her with Malfoy?"
"Seeing anyone with Malfoy will always bother me," he said, spinning her again. When she came back, like a satellite coming down to earth, he was smiling. "He's vile."
After Harry, Ron unattached himself from a pretty former Ravenclaw to ask for a dance with her. After that, Hermione went to get another drink. Malfoy and Ginny were still talking. She wondered if they were ever going to dance. She could tell from the way Ginny was gently shaking her right foot and glancing out at all the dancing people that she was hoping he would ask her.
Hermione picked up her drink and stood up, walking away from the crowd. She could see that the garden had been decorated with more twinkling fairy lights. A few people were there, coming and going. There was a couple in the corner that had taken to passionately making out. She couldn't help but think that perhaps weddings were just a more grown-up version of the dances they used to have at school, with the whole holy matrimony part just thrown in.
The music became fainter as she went further into the gardens. They had a few antique cages of tropical birds, beautiful and asleep.
She spent some time there, settling on a nice bench and finishing her beer. The breeze was soothing here. She had begun to feel claustrophobic and lightheaded with all of the moving bodies around her. She nudged off her heels and enjoyed her temporary solitude.
It was a few minutes later that she saw him turn the corner, and she felt her muscles stiffen. She purposely plugged up her mouth with her beer and took one big gulp as he approached her. She silently wondered what had happened to Ginny. She optimistically hoped that Ginny had only just regained her sense and sent him packing.
"Don't you find it tiring?" she said to him, as he stood above her. "Walking around, looking so smug all the time? Or is your face just permanently stuck that way?"
"Strange," he drawled. "Your friend Weasley doesn't seem to find it so appalling. Don't tell me you haven't noticed."
She sent him a withering glare, but didn't say a word about it.
"At the wedding. Why weren't you clapping?"
"Malfoys," he said seriously, "don't clap."
"So you're not unhappy for Pansy then. You just want to look unhappy, so you don't ruin your reputation of being unhappy by looking happy. Even just a little." She sarcastically smiled. "How do you possibly get up in the morning, Malfoy? Your life is obviously fraught with impossible expectations."
"As a matter of fact, I get up in the morning just fine. Just like how I assume you do, knowing two-thirds of the world has better hair than you do."
She shook her head, laughing. "I think you're getting a little soft, Malfoy. Out of all the traits that you could have slapped me in the face with, you chose something as fluffy as hair."
For a brief second she saw strawberry hair. Shiny strawberry hair, beautifully carried away by the wind. She actually liked her hair, thank you very much. It had been unruly and beastly in her adolescent years, that much was true, but as she got older it had softened. While it wasn't spectacular, it wasn't so terrible, either. It just was. Coffee with cream brown, intolerant of humidity, wavy and thick, absorbent to things like cigarette smoke and snow. It was hair. Just hair.
"We have the whole night to go through your character flaws," he drawled. "I'm only getting started."
She smiled to herself. "Not if I hex you first."
"Oh, I'm shaking in my boots," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You're far too self-righteous for that. You'd be shamed from the wizarding world."
"Or," Hermione said, flicking his arrogant, upturned little nose, "exalted."
She hated that nose. She hated the way it was so perfectly proportional to his face, the way it looked good from any angle, and the way he looked down on her so easily from it. She also hated the way he used to dig it into the crook of her neck when they had sex, or the way she used to sometimes catch him smelling her hair. Her hair, that he so adamantly believed to be so terrible. She wished she could say all of these things to him, but she knew she shouldn't. It was petty, and it was old news. And she was over it.
He looked at her, annoyed. She relished that look. She wished she could bottle it up and wear it around her neck, as a reminder to herself of how some things never changed. "You're drunk," he observed. He said this with a confusing mix of both satisfaction and annoyance.
"Not drunk," she corrected him, with as much Head Girl tonality as she could muster. "Just buzzed."
He sat down next to her, then, and she had to suppress the urge to scoot away, as if they were in grade school and he had cooties. She tried to figure out what the mature, adult way of saying "Go away, I hate you" was, but her brain seemed to be working at half-power. Instead she was just quiet, wondering what it was that Malfoy wanted from her.
The simple – and familiar – feel of his body next to hers threatened to pull her under, but she resisted. Oh, how she resisted.
"Still the same, aren't we, Granger?"
She knew what he was asking, or at least – she thought she knew what he was asking. It was a question she could have taken a million different ways but she knew well enough to only take it one way. It was the obvious direction. All signs pointed there.
"Of course," she said, her throat a little dry. She jutted out her chin, semi-defiantly. "Why wouldn't we be?"
And then the moment ended. Even if she never knew when the moment started, she always knew when it ended. The end was always the part that was hardest to miss – like the bubble popped and the real world, loud and clamorous, swooped in again and claimed her.
He stood up, giving her a snotty look. "Isn't that job at the Ministry paying you enough for a pedicure? Your toenails are beastly."
"While I'm quite sure my new salary can afford me a pedicure," she said, glaring at him, "all the money in the world could never make you any less of an asshole." She cleared her throat. "Clearly."
He smirked at her, adjusting his dress robes. "While I may be an asshole, at least I still have my charm."
"I hope you choke on your own bile, Malfoy," she said, but he had already begun to walk away. She thought that as she grew older into a respectable, more mature adult she wouldn't have to fight the urge to hurl a hex at the back of his head so much. Now she realized with startling clarity that it had been a tall order to ask from her future self.
"Have fun drinking by yourself, Granger," he called out to her behind his shoulder. "It'll be good practice for the rest of your sad, spinster life."
Hermione cursed at his back, but only leaned back against the bench as he disappeared around the corner. When she turned her head, she could see that one of the birds had woken up and was leering at her.
"Stop looking at me like that, Bird," she said. "Like you're better than me. You're not. Try going to school with him for seven years and see how you like it."
The bird squawked at her, before cocking its head the other way. It hid its face back into its wing, and Hermione stood herself up to make her way back to the party. Hopefully it was on the same path back to her sanity.
When she got there, she could clearly see Malfoy and Ginny out on the dance floor. Ginny was smiling and laughing as if he was the least repulsive man on earth – as if he was actually a genuinely decent human being.
She felt something warm brush up beside her.
"Let me guess. You want to shove him into a woodchipper. Slowly."
Smiling, she turned to Harry beside her and took a seat. "That would be incredibly correct – if I gave a rat's ass about Malfoy." When Harry gave her an unconvinced look, she explained, "I just worry about her judgment, that's all."
"You're not the only one. Ron's not too happy about it, either."
"Well, is he going to say anything to her?"
"Probably. I mean, Ron can say all he likes, but he knows she's a grown girl. When it comes down to it, Ginny does what she wants, and he knows that." He paused. "There isn't anything he can say that she hasn't already considered."
She said nothing. She watched them for a second more before tearing her eyes away, instead watching Dean and Pansy. They were still on the dance floor, having the time of their life. They were in love, and they were having fun. In a way, it was almost as painfully intimate to witness – even though there they were, surrounded by dozens of people – as what she had heard in the bathroom with Pansy and her mum. Sometimes happiness could be just as personal as pain, maybe even more so.
"Some people make it seem like moving on is so easy," she said quietly, as Dean twirled Pansy. She landed right back in his arms, like two magnets, her bright red lips agape in laughter. He gave her a kiss on the forehead before they separated again, dancing. "Like it requires no work."
"Hard or easy," Harry said, "it doesn't matter. It's simple. You move on or you get left behind." He picked up another slice of cake from a server passing by. "Sometimes you even get married. Funny, isn't it?"
She leaned her head on his shoulder, suddenly exhausted. She closed her eyes to block out the flash of blond she could see in the corner of her eye. "Hilarious."
When the party ended, they walked toward the carriages that were supposed to take them back. Hermione had sobered up a little by then, walking alongside Harry and Ron, trying not to glance behind her at Ginny and Malfoy, who had lingered behind. An hour ago they had bid the happy newlyweds off on their new blissful life together and their honeymoon in Morocco.
"I would never do this to Dean, but I would've loved it if someone'd gotten really drunk and picked a fight with Malfoy. Just to get one hit in. Just one," Ron was saying, before Ginny had finally caught up with them.
Ron stared at her. "Really, Gin?" he grunted.
"Oh, don't patronize me, Ron," Ginny said. "I'm a grown woman. I can make my own decisions about who I date, thank you."
"Date? Who said anything about date?"
Ginny rolled her eyes. "If you hate it, stay out of my business."
"Gladly," he said. "Just the thought alone makes me want to puke."
"Grow up, will you?"
Ron was silent for a second, his orange brow wrinkled in thought, and Hermione almost believed he had dropped it. If she had been eleven, she would have gladly jumped into the conversation, talking about how Ron should mind his own business, and sticking with Ginny in matters of womanhood solidarity. But she was more mature now, with more tact, and she knew to stay out of it. She glanced at Harry, who was simply looking ahead, also determined not to get involved. But inside, she wondered if it was just as much of a touchy subject for him, too, and he just cared too much to show it.
"I just thought you were better than that, that's all," he said.
"Better than what?" Ginny's voice was sharp.
"I mean, Harry I could understand. He's actually a swell guy, on top of the whole champion of the wizarding world stuff. But Malfoy?"
"We're not at Hogwarts anymore, Ron. Nobody even goes by those stupid rules anymore."
"It's not about Hogwarts," Ron said heatedly. "His prattishness goes beyond Hogwarts, Gin. Did you forget he's made our life a living hell?"
They argued until the carriages arrived. Harry took one with Ron and Hermione took the next with Ginny, who was only too glad to be separated from her judgmental brother.
Ginny climbed into the carriage with a heaving sigh. "Can you believe him? How can anybody be so narrow-minded?" she fumed.
Hermione bit back the urge to defend Ron, to say that he wasn't being narrow-minded, he was telling the truth. Instead she closed her eyes and stayed quiet, praying for the carriage ride to be short, wanting the night to be over already. The image of Malfoy and Ginny, talking closely throughout the night, flashed in her mind and she tried desperately to rub it away.
"Hermione," Ginny said, her voice low. "You don't agree with him, do you? With Ron, about Draco?"
Yes, she thought. Yes, I agree with Ron. And I almost never agree with Ron.
But instead she said, "No. No, I don't. You should do what you want, Ginny. A lot's changed since then."
She said this because she knew it was what Ginny wanted to hear – and she couldn't blame her, either. It was what she would have said and believed if she was really as mature and grown-up as she wished she was, flippant and indifferent to past matters like Malfoy. If she was, she would have said farewell to that tightly wound feeling she felt in her gut every time he walked into a room or someone mentioned his name. This was something she hadn't felt in so long – that is, until today.
Or she would have forgiven him. For everything. Except the problem was that maybe she didn't want to. And he had never really asked.
Ginny seemed satisfied with this, being so shallowly smitten with the idea of her and Malfoy, because she ate it up without further question. "You're right. Thanks, Hermione. You're totally right." She was smiling, shaking her head. "Ron can be such an idiot," she said, gently and with sisterly affection, leaning her head back against the cushion.
Hermione went home that night, tossing off her shoes and crawling into bed. She curled up into herself, and in her last moments of consciousness before falling asleep, she thought: You, Hermione Granger, are a big fake.