2

Draco has an audience of riveted Muggles. The women look at him in awe and fascination, dazzled by his good looks and charm, while the men look at him with a mix of both suspicion and respect. Respect because he is a wealthy businessman (the rare kind that doesn't love to talk about it, all day long) (at which Hermione clearly rolls her eyes at, because "business man"? In what world did that equal to a boy born with a heaping trust fund?) and suspicion because why have they never heard of him before? If he's such good friends with their dear little Hermione, at least, why have they only heard of him now? But nevertheless he looks like a nice enough chap, nicer still if they could set up the bar already.

Draco knows how to behave, and Granger watches him like a hawk, attentive for any opportunity to come swooping in and banish him from her beloved Muggle life. He takes a little bit of everything on his plate, compliments everybody's cooking ("Marsha, are these candied pecans in here? How delightful!"), and tells all of the authoritative males what they want to hear. Except the part where they ask him what House he's from, and he glances at Granger, who looks at him with an arched brow, to which he says, "Slytherin," and they all nod, pretending to remember exactly what that means. He's glad they don't, though. He's glad it seems like a million years ago, insignificant enough to comfortably forget.

He is in awe of how comfortable her Muggle relatives are with the fact that Granger is a witch. Where are the Muggles that were hellbent on burning so-called "witches" that he had heard so much about? Maybe their neighbors? But in this house there is no hostility, not even a bit of awkwardness, as if her magical abilities were as normal as young Annie's horse-riding lessons in the country for the summer. He admires their acceptance, and is secretly glad her Muggle family is nothing like the antagonistic public Granger faced in the magical world. Him formerly included.

He sits amongst the Muggles as they chatter and eat. They are incredibly cheery and he realizes he loves this immediately. He used to think that Muggles were happy because they were idiots, but now he looks at Uncle Homer, whose wife has just been diagnosed with cancer, laughing at some self-deprecating joke, and he knows better. He looks at Granger, too, sitting across from him, laughing along with her family, and he thinks, What a bloody nice place to be, surrounded by laughing, happy people that genuinely get on with each other, and how rare an occasion this is for someone like him.

"So, Draco," her Uncle Ned says to him, from across the table, "what's the real truth between you and our little Hermit Crab? Nobody buys this whole 'just friends' rubbish."

Granger freezes, her glass up to her lips, and suddenly everybody's eyes are squarely on the both of them. He only has a little bit of time to relish their affectionate nickname for her ("Hermit crab," how priceless! He would never let her live that one down) before he has to answer.

"Well, the honest truth is," he says, "we used to have a bit of history. But now we're just friends, exactly like how it's been said." And then he smiles.

Uncle Ned snorts. "If Hermy's kept you a secret, I wonder what else she's been hiding from us."

"It didn't last very long at all," she says calmly.

"So why didn't it?" asks Aunt Marsha, and the shuffling stops. Again, all eyes are on them. Draco is thinking, Merlin, this family is honest. No wonder Granger is so aggressive and direct.

"Oh, you must tell us," goads her Aunt Irene. "Hermione is such a secretive girl, this is the first time she's ever brought a real man with her! Besides Harry and Ron, of course."

He is attacked by a mixed pairing of emotions. Glad that they considered him a "real man" and also incredibly jealous that Granger had brought Potter and Weasley to her family functions – and for this emotion, he could bring up no clear logic as to why. Because it wasn't exactly a surprise, was it?

"I just didn't deserve her at the time, is all," he says, trying to maintain his charm despite a very honest confession. Her family chortles but he can feel her shocked gaze pinned on him, like a dead insect pinned on an exhibition board, from directly across the table.

"Well of course you didn't," says her Uncle Ned. "Hard to believe anyone could possibly deserve our little Hermy. She's the prized jewel in our family, you know. No offense, Leroy."

Leroy is her slacker cousin, three years older than her, who works at an electronics store and likes to go to raves in his spare time. His oily little head barely bobs up. "None taken, Uncle Ned."

As they moved on to another topic – Granger's cousin Ben's new fiancé, who is apparently French and generally disliked – Draco meets her eyes and mouths, 'Our little Hermy' and she rolls her eyes at his immaturity. She feels her face start to burn and chugs down her juice, wishing they'd bring out the liquor already, or perhaps not, because already she feels herself dizzyingly getting pulled back down into her old school memories, her mind fogging over with a warm mist of both nostalgia and youthful stupidity.

There was no denying that they'd had an intense kind of tryst – the kind she felt flustered thinking about, snogging in secret corners at school, lying about their whereabouts and agendas to sneak a shag or maybe two, sending each other heavy-lidded looks, covert pats underneath the table, et cetera. It was physical as much as it was emotional; at least it had been, for her. Draco Malfoy was foul and full of himself and if only the world was really that simple, that a person could only be all bad, not at all complicated but so one-dimensional like you grow up believing about ill-meaning people. If that had been true, her last year at school would have been guilt-free, considerably less exciting, and her life generally untainted with the wanton longing for somebody who had hurt her when she most believed life could finally be good, if not at least pleasantly ironic. If only Draco Malfoy really was how he had painted himself out to be, she could have avoided this whole mess in the first place, and she would be having an uncontroversial dinner with her family on New Year's Eve.

At this thought she feels herself get a little sick, so she excuses herself. In the bathroom she washes her face, watching her flushed face dripping into the faucet, her eyes alert yet dazed. 'This is insane,' she thinks to herself, patting her face dry with a towel. 'Complete madness.'

She feels as if she is on some hidden camera show, that any minute now they would be exposing the ridicule and silliness that was her ex-boyfriend (or ex-whatever) dropping in on her so unexpectedly, having a meal with her very Muggle family, listening to talks about scandals at their firms and what kind of new dental equipment they had just ordered, eating things like tamales and burnt quiche and even helping himself to seconds.

People had always told her that life had a very particular sense of humor and now she could honestly say that perhaps she is just one of those people in the audience feigning a chuckle but was ultimately, completely lost, waiting to sneak out during the loo break.

As the day progresses, the women slowly emerge from the kitchen and the liquor cabinet is unlocked, set out on the counter for indulgence, right next to the finger food. Hermione can't count how many glasses she's had as she's standing guard over Malfoy, who seems to be enjoying every insufferable bit of attention he's getting. She keeps watching him, expecting for him to make a mistake, to say something patronizing and cruel, but he hasn't yet, and that's what's so unbelievable. He appears to be getting on with everyone, even her Uncle Ned, who really only likes the dog, Franklin, and she really believes she's stumbled into another dimension.

She retreats into the kitchen as she overhears them talking about scotch.

Her Aunt Peach and Aunt Marsha are drinking as they prep even more food. They giddily smile at her.

"Ah, there's the woman of the hour!" one of them giggles.

"We were just discussing it and we've decided that Draco is a very agreeable man—"

"Handsome, too, and fit – God, have you seen how tight his—"

"Yet you've been hovering over him like a Headmistress on her most ill-behaving student—"

"And those hands! Such lovely, big hands—"

"You clearly aren't as taken with him as we are," her Aunt Marsha finishes, as Aunt Peach sprinkles some powdered sugar over the mini-pies, still grinning.

"What a shame, too," Aunt Peach remarks. "Oh if but I was only your age, Hermione, I would just sweep him up and never let him go!"

She leans back on the counter, drinking some more. Natural that Draco has won over everybody but her, her family matriarchs raving about his hands and insinuating a slightly inappropriate crush. What else could she do but fill up her cup?

"What really happened, Hermione? Back at school."

She lowers her glass and ponders for a minute. What does one say to these questions? More specifically, what does one say to these questions that won't reveal too much about the flaws in their relationship, and/or either persons within said relationship? Or her bitterness, at that. Or the hurt that pathetically outlasted the duration of the relationship itself.

"We were young," she says, settling for a cliché and vagueness. "We didn't really know what we were doing."

Again her woozy mind flashes back to the intense hours they spent snogging each other, sending coded letters, the way he would breathe against her bare, moist neck and how it would tingle. But then the darker memories began to drift up, as if proof of the murky underneath – the arguments, the underlying question of allegiance, the mystery behind his true intentions that thrilled yet repulsed her. She believed that their explosive relationship had been an outcome from the tension of the war, a need for an outlet – a need for some kind of normalcy at their age, which just happened to coincide with raging hormones. Unlucky for her, she just happened to choose Malfoy, and he had happened to choose her right back.

"But it's not all that surprising, isn't it?" Ron had said to her, upon finding out, his voice laden with both bitterness and irony. "I mean, look at you. You don't do anything halfway. I don't think you can, to be honest, and that's your own burden to bear."

What was worse was that Ron hadn't been angry with her, nor had he blamed her. He pitied her.

Aunt Marsha tsks at her, giving her a side-look. "I think you knew what you were doing, all right, but you were young and that's what you do when you're young. You fall in love with everybody and get your heart broken by everybody until you've decided you've had enough and you decide to grow up into a jaded adult."

Aunt Peach guffaws. "Oh for God's sake, Marsh, don't go on one of your depressing spiels on Hermione here, she's just a girl. She's not jaded, are you, dear?" Except her aunts are no longer listening, because something in the oven has started smoking, and they quickly put down their wine glasses and slip on oven mitts, cursing under their breaths, and Hermione slips out the door.

ooo

Granger's infamous Uncle Ned has got him cornered and try as he might to charm his way out of the conversation – fifteen whole minutes on the history of scotch, how riveting – Uncle Ned has succeeded in following him around like his shadow, except even his shadow wasn't as diligent. Even Granger, his silent prison guard, has disappeared into the kitchen, leaving him to fend for himself.

Past Uncle Ned he occasionally catches the eyes of the other Grangers, only to give him a pitying look or sometimes a barely-hidden chuckle, not once moving to free him. Is this a test? To see how long he could withstand Ned blabbing on about scotch and fermentation? And where were the women? He is sure any of them would have been glad to steal him away, but now it seems as if they had all disappeared, and now they are all just men, men who like to laugh at other men's suffering, all alone in this room.

At least Ned does not need him to be an active participant of the conversation (not really a conversation, as a conversation would require two voices being heard), aside from the occasional "Oh really?" and "How excellent" and "Such a shame", and so his mind begins to wander, inevitably trailing back to their days at Hogwarts. Eventful, always, and insufferable, always – but then there was that bit of time in their last year when things got bizarre, but in a good way, in that I-didn't-know-Granger-was-such-a-righteous-snogger-and-oh-bollocks-her-hair-smells-like-vanilla-and-honey sort of direction. That point in his life seems like a blur now, like an erotic, passionate yet confused blur. Try as they might to have a merely physical relationship, untouched by outside forces or naïve adolescent dreams of Love, it was impossible. All they wanted was innocent sex, and God, they were so young at the time, they thought – they were sure – they could get it without things getting too messy. Though a ridiculous notion now, it just seemed easy at the time, compared to everything else.

He doesn't remember much about that night now, and he can't exactly say he wishes he does. All he remembers is that it ended – he ended it – with his feelings all curled up into a ball inside himself. He remembers getting wasted – God, did he get wasted – because that was the logical thing to do, wasn't it, when you knew you had to do something painful? Like cutting off your own arm, or something along those lines. Liquid courage, they called it, a sad substitute for people who didn't have the real thing.

Each day that passes he finds himself reflecting more and more on that night, along with his 21st birthday, when he could have spoken up or just done something different than stand around and act nonchalant and cool like an idiot, silently yearning like a nine-year-old boy in front of the latest Quidditch broom in the shop window. The scary part was how good he was at it. At acting so indifferent, so cruel towards Granger, the one girl he ever really wanted to wake up to in the morning, at how disgusting his habits were of feeling but never quite being brave enough to act.

And then that one fateful night he stumbled into that woman's shop, half-drunk, only able to sit half as long enough for his fortune to be read, which was that on New Year's day, he, Draco Malfoy, at only 22 years old, would die, really die, because he had found nothing left to live for.


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