Warnings: one character abuses alcohol; brief, mild violence
"Don't. Say. A. Word," Ron whispered harshly as he sat down. He had just come into potions class, ignoring Slughorn's pointed silence at his late appearance.
Oh, there were a lot of words that Hermione wanted to say. Things like, why did you have to ruin our first Valentine's Day as a couple? Who blacked your eye this time? Or, maybe, are you still drunk from last night, or merely hung over? But she kept her silence. She knew that when Ron was in this state, even an innocent 'Good morning' could set him off.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The way they had finally come together as boyfriend and girlfriend was something out of the movies-the big kiss in the heat of battle, signaling that there would be a happy ever-after. Ron and Hermione had started planning their life together, and figuring out how to make those plans come to fruition. Both had returned to Hogwarts to complete their educations, and also to work part-time to build up a nest egg. Hagrid was away on a year-long honeymoon with Olympe, and Ron took over his groundskeeping duties, while Hermione taught Muggle studies.
As adults and war-veterans, they had more freedom than most students; Ron was actually staying in Hagrid's hut, and the two of them could visit Hogsmeade as often as they wanted. It was the perfect set-up for two people who were madly in love. There was a worm in the apple, though, a snake in the garden, and it's name was firewhiskey.
At least four nights a week, George Flooed in from London, and he and Ron got drunk. Hermione understood that they were still hurting from losing Fred, she really did, but she knew that the drinking wasn't helping a bit. George was a happy drunk, at least, but alcohol made Ron belligerent and mean.
The night before, Hermione had hoped for a romantic Valentine's dinner for just the two of them, possibly leading to their... first time. But George had shown up and started buying rounds of drinks. When Hermione didn't drink hers, Ron downed them for her. Ron's blood-shot eyes had frightened her. "Please, slow down , Ron," she had begged.
"You're not my wife yet," he had slurred loudly, "You can't tell me what to do. Merlin, woman, why can't you ever just have a good time?" George had laughed like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard and slapped the top of the table. Humiliated, Hermione had left the pub and gone back to Hogwarts, crying herself to sleep behind the curtains of her dorm bed.
This morning, Ron had the nerve to tell her not to speak.
When Slughorn told the class to open their textbooks, Hermione slammed hers down on the table, taking a grim sort of pleasure from the way Ron winced.
Studying at Hogwarts could be difficult for Hermione. She was a bit of a celebrity, and was frequently interrupted by awestruck first years. So, on week days, she liked to head to the new coffee house/bakery in Hogsmeade. It was much better than Madam Puddifoot's for homework. In the back room, there were comfy couches, coffee tables, footstools, armchairs, a roaring fireplace. The other patrons were as intent on their reading and writing as Hermione was, and there no irritating couples cooing over one another. And there were cream puffs.
Malfoy poked his head out of the kitchen when the bell over the door jingled. "Cream puff and black coffee?" he asked, already heading for the pastry case. His cook's whites were as immaculate as ever.
"Of course." Hermione counted out the exact number of Knutes necessary.
It had seemed strange at first, seeing her old enemy working in a bakery, even if he owned it. They had both been a bit awkward, adjusting to a change in the way they related to each other. All animosity between them was gone, leaving... nothing. A void. They had attended school with each other for six years and were perfect strangers, really. For the past five months, he was the bakery owner and she was his customer; it was as if he had never called her a mudblood, and she had never punched him. Growing up led to changes that were once unimaginable, Hermione had discovered.
Malfoy put the cream puff on a small plate and gave Hermione a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin; he remembered her habit of eating pastries with silverware. As he poured her coffee he asked, "How is everything going at Hogwarts these day?" He was good at polite chitchat.
"Pretty well, I'd say. I hear Slughorn has been trying to get you to come back."
"My school days are over." There was a beat. "What is it?"
Hermione hadn't meant to be caught staring at him. "Why a bakery?" she asked. "I would have thought you'd get into something that involved potion-making. You were always so good at it."
Malfoy smiled. "Baking and potion-making are very similar. Just one tiny, little mistake can lead to complete and utter disaster."
Laughing, Hermione said, "I guess I hadn't seen it that way before."
"The back room is all yours, Granger." He gestured at the laden cloth bag that was bumping her hip. "It looks like you've got a lot to do."
"I've got papers to grade for the Muggle studies, and three feet to write for Slughorn about why it's impossible to raise people from the dead with potions."
"Because dead people can't swallow?"
"That seems the obvious answer, doesn't it?" Hermione picked up her order and strolled to the back room, where she spread her things out on a wide, low coffee table that was just close enough to the fire. She sipped her coffee, knowing that around the time it started to get low, Malfoy would come by with a pot to refill it. Propping her feet up on a stool, she pulled out a handful of Muggle Studies essays and started to read.
"If all you're going to do is nag, we might as well break things off right now," Ron said harshly. "It's just some stupid, made-up holiday. Enough about bloody Valentine's Day, already." He was sitting on Hagrid's gigantic bed, being stared at reproachfully by Fang. Even the dog could see that Ron's behavior was becoming increasingly unacceptable; why was it so impossible for Ron himself to understand?
"I don't want to break up with you, Ron. I just want you to stop being so self-destructive." Hermione was perched on a footstool in front of the fireplace, nursing a mug a hot chocolate. "Just numbing yourself won't help."
"You don't know what it's like. There's no way you can know what it's like. You're an only child. You've never lost family. And until you do, you have no right to judge me."
"Ron," Hermione sighed. "I'm not judging you. I'm trying to save you."
"Save me? You've been hanging around with Harry too much." Ron reached out to the bedside table and grabbed a tumbler that was half-full of firewhiskey. Hermione watched the glass go to Ron's lips. Her mug splattered chocolate all over the stone floor as she shot up off the stool and to the bed, slapping the tumbler right out of Ron's hand. Glass shattered against a wall. Fang yipped and hid under the bed. "What is your problem, woman?"
Rage boiled in Hermione's guts. She hated, hated, hated being called 'woman'. It made her feel like Ron couldn't be bothered to remember her name. The rage rose up into her throat when Ron just started drinking straight from the bottle. She had to leave before the rage came out of her mouth and made her say something she would regret.
Out in the chill of the mid-February night, Hermione walked in her own path, working out her frustrations by stamping the snow down. It would be easier if it was another woman; one couldn't hex firewhiskey. And a woman wouldn't cause the changes that Hermione was seeing in Ron. She was beginning to feel like he was a stranger, someone she no longer knew. It was a strange and painful thing, watching someone so close get further and further away. Some nights, she dreamed that she stood on a lake-side dock and watched Ron's face fade away as he sank deeper and deeper; Hermione waited for him to hit the bottom, but he never did.
Hermione let out a disappointed cluck when she saw that the tray that usually held cream puffs was empty. "I should have gotten in sooner," she said to the middle-aged woman that Malfoy had recently hired.
Malfoy came out of the kitchen, reached below the counter, and brought out a plate. "Voila!"
"You saved that for me?"
Malfoy grinned. "I had a feeling you'd be in, and I like to keep my regulars happy. Oh, the coffee is brewing right now. I'll bring it back when it's ready."
This made Hermione smile. He had actually thought of her when she wasn't there. She had been thinking that she and Malfoy were nothing to one another, but, in fact, they were, well, cordial acquaintances. The miracles that the passing of time could perform.
Hermione claimed her usual spot front of the fireplace. For once, she didn't have any work to do, so she took a trashy Muggle magazine out of her bag and settled back for some mindless entertainment. The bakery was quiet; most people would be heading home for dinner about now.
" 'Is He Mr. Right or Just Mr. Right Now'?' " Hermione jumped when Malfoy spoke, momentarily confused by the impertinent question until she realized that he was just reading aloud the title of the quiz that she was taking. "Is that assigned reading for a new class at Hogwarts?"
"I'm rather embarrassed that you caught me reading this."
"Let me see." Malfoy set Hermione's coffee down in front of her, sat beside her on the couch, and grabbed the copy of Cosmopolitan out of her hands. "Merlin. Muggle women really read some scandalous things. Perhaps what my mother has always said about them is right."
"I may regret this, but what does your mother say about Muggle women?"
"They're all tarts. Every last one of them."
"No, she does not really say that! Does she?" Hermione was laughing. "Well, I suppose with magazines like that in the world, it would be easy to come to that... misapprehension." The jingle of the bell over the front door could be heard faintly in the back room. "Oh, I suppose you have to go now."
"I think Magda's got it all under control. I couldn't possibly tear myself away from this. It's fascinating. 'Fifty Ways to Drive Him Wild'. This is beyond scandalous." Hermione, remembering the rather... detailed nature of that article, blushed and tried to pry the magazine out of Malfoy's hands.
"What the bloody hell is going on here?"
Surprised, Hermione looked up and let go of the magazine. "What are you doing here, Ron? You don't like this place."
Ron was swaying on his feet and his eyes were blood-shot. His face was rapidly turning purple. "Caught you, didn't I?"
Frowning, Hermione asked, "Caught me doing what?"
"I-I knew there was a reason you always came here. I knew you were up to something."
"Ron, you're drunk, and it's not even six o' clock. Go home." Hermione couldn't suppress a feeling of disgust as she looked at him, which was immediately followed by guilt.
"But cheating on me with Malfoy? Really? Why didn't you just spend Valentine's Day with him?"
"Stop it." Hermione was losing control. She jumped up from the couch. "I hate it when you drink! It-it makes you... stupid," she shouted.
Ron stared at Hermione with a bug-eyed expression for a moment, and then he said it. The worst possible name a man could ever call a woman. It hit Hermione like a physical blow. Tears sprang into her eyes.
Bam. Malfoy's right fist hit Ron right on the chin, rocking him backwards and knocking him to the floor. "Get the hell out of my place, and don't you ever come back, Weasley!" Hermione hadn't even seen him stand up. He towered over Ron, hands on hips, his white cook's hat making him look even taller than he actually was. "How dare you waltz in here and call one of my customers a foul name? You should be ashamed of yourself." Ron scrambled backwards, and Malfoy followed. Ron was finally able to get to his knees, and then back on his feet, and he took off out of the back room. Hermione heard the front door open and slam shut, the bell jingling wildly.
"Sorry," Hermione and Malfoy said to each other simultaneously.
"Are you going to be all right?" Malfoy asked.
Hermione was blinking tears away. "I think so."
"He's not like he used to be, is he?"
Slumping back down on the couch, exhausted now that the adrenaline was starting to leave her system, Hermione said, "I don't know him any more."
Malfoy sat beside her and toyed with his apron flap. "People can change. A lot. My friends from school... I can't really relate to them any more. They're all, well, like Ron, I think. Drinking and partying all the time, trying to forget the past. But I know it doesn't work. If it did, they wouldn't have to keep doing it."
Hermione looked sideways at Malfoy, noticing the way his eyes were focused down on the floor. "You're not like you used to be, either, Malfoy."
"Merlin, I hope not." The bell over the door jingled, and there was the sound of many footsteps. People coming in for coffee before attending a performance at the Hogsmeade Playhouse, most likely. "It sounds like a rush is starting. I'd better help Magda." Watching Malfoy's tall, white-clad figure disappear into the front of the bakery, Hermione considered how people changed. If a person became someone that one no longer knew, it could be terrible, like it was with Ron. But it could also be a good thing, she was learning.
When it was time to head back to Hogwarts, Hermione waved goodbye to Malfoy, and he waved back with a smile. No, he was no longer the arrogant boy that she knew from school. Hermione had a feeling that she was going to get the know the new, grown-up Draco Malfoy quite well.