Author's Note: Okay, I have some good news! I'm about halfway through the next chapter, so the gap between updates should be slightly more reasonable. Although, of course, now I've said that...
My many thanks to pagan for betaing this for me despite having a manic real life.
Turning of the Tide
The party was in full swing before Draco got a moment to himself and he quickly made his escape onto the balcony outside the ballroom, which his mother had lit up with floating candles and multi-coloured balls of light. It was incredibly pretty but didn't match his mood.
The older he got, the more he hated his birthday and the massive production it had become. It made him acutely aware that his life had spun out of control and how unhappy he was with it all. Once, a room full of sycophants singing his praises and showering him with presents had been all he had wanted, but he had married one, and he intimately knew how empty all of it was. With a child of his own on the way, he realised he wanted more, but wasn't sure how to achieve it.
"This is where you've got to," Hermione said, as she joined him where he stood overlooking the formal gardens. Dusk was deepening into a dark gloom that matched his mood perfectly and he didn't respond.
"I think that went pretty well, considering," she continued, ignoring his lack of a response.
"No one said anything bad to you, did they?" Draco asked, suddenly worried about what she could have been subjected to. He had sat his friends down before the party proper had begun and had threatened to hex them all if they so much as made Hermione uncomfortable.
"Nothing more than the usual banter I would expect."
He wasn't really sure what that meant. Did she mean that in a general sense, or in a Slytherin sense? If she meant it in a general sense, then that really wasn't a problem. Despite what others thought about them, Draco and his friends did have a sense of humour, and it wasn't always cruel. But what if Hermione had meant in a Slytherin sense? That could only mean slurs and taunts being thrown at her. But surely she would not put up with that? He couldn't imagine her cheerfully going about her business if that was the case.
Draco had been surprised to see Hermione fully embrace the party. There had been no anxious hugging of the wall; she had breezed in, the life and soul of the place, ignoring the whispers and stares that had first greeted her. He had been stunned to see her out on the dance floor, first with Adrian, and then Theo, and Blaise. It looked as if she had been charming them too, if the smiles and laughter as they danced had been anything to go by. Theo had even come by afterwards to slap him on the back and congratulate him on his luck. That didn't exactly sound as if she had undergone anything awful.
He decided not to probe any further. It was not as if Hermione was the shy and retiring type. He was pretty sure that if any of his friends had been unpleasant, then he would have heard all about it from her, and she wouldn't have minced her words.
Hermione turned her back to the gardens, leaning against the balustrade that lined the balcony. "So, why are you out here on your own?"
Draco shrugged his shoulders. "Not really in the mood. I hate these things."
She raised an eyebrow at that. "I would have thought this was precisely the kind of thing you went in for."
"Once upon a time it was. Now I see it for all it is: a lot of fake people pretending to care that I'm a year older."
She tutted. "That's quite a pessimistic outlook you have going on." She swatted an imaginary fly away as he opened his mouth to argue. "You have a good bunch of friends in there. They care about you, and they are genuinely worried about you."
Draco snorted. "Worried about me. Right!"
Her brows drew together in disapproval. "She did a real number on you, didn't she?"
"What? Who are you talking about?"
"Astoria. She's managed to turn you into this cynical human being who automatically dismisses everyone."
Draco turned away. He was not going to listen to this, especially not from her. He didn't want to talk about Astoria; he was pretty sure he didn't want to talk about his ex-wife ever again. He certainly didn't want to talk about the effect that she had had on his personality. The last time he had unburdened his emotions to a woman it had seen him married to her, and look how that had turned out.
Hermione put her arm on his, stopping his attempt to walk away. "Don't do that, Draco. Don't run and hide because you don't want to have an uncomfortable conversation."
Running his hands through his hair agitatedly, he spun to face her once more. "I can't do this. I'm not like you, bursting with confidence and self-esteem and happy to talk about whatever to whomever. This is too much; it's too personal, and I'm not ready to go there."
Hermione's hands settled on her hips, the stance familiar to Draco as one he had seen several times at Hogwarts when she had been exasperated with her friends. "You think this is easy for me? That I can just waltz into your home, to your party, with your friends and act like us, this pregnancy, everything that has happened over the last 12 or so weeks, is nothing? I don't think you even realise, Draco Malfoy, the effort it took for me to approach your friends and be that friendly. It wasn't that long ago that they were calling me a Mudblood and sneering down their noses at me."
Shame flooded through him and he hung his head, staring at the patio slabs, unable to meet her eyes. He hadn't meant to imply that. He wasn't that insensitive.
"Sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm just… not good with the talking stuff. I thought you would've realised that after yesterday," he said, rubbing his neck and avoiding her gaze.
What was it about this woman that managed to get under his skin? He had spent years developing a control that he was proud of. No one had penetrated the barrier he had placed around himself unless he allowed it, but here she was, and in less than two days she had managed to get an emotional outburst from him. Twice.
A light floral fragrance had him lifting his head and he found himself staring into her eyes. She had taken his distraction to move much closer to him than she had ever stood.
"Draco, it's okay to let go. You don't have to be this uber-controlled person all the time. It isn't natural."
Her breath stirred against his cheek and he found himself swaying towards her before he caught himself and rocked back on his heels.
"I don't know any other way to be," he admitted.
Smiling softly, Hermione reached up and cupped his cheek. "Then it's time you learnt. This baby cannot have an emotional icicle for a father."
The warmth in her face was breath-taking and he realised that this was what inspired such loyalty towards her from her friends. This loving, caring, empathetic woman took the blows life gave her and got straight back up again. She didn't give a damn about what the world thought about her, but if she cared for you, then she would fight by your side until the bitter end. He suddenly realised that he wouldn't mind having her by his side.
Reaching up, he took her hand off his cheek, bringing it back down to their sides, but instead of letting go as he might once have done, he intertwined his fingers with hers. "I think I'd like that. Do you reckon you could teach me?"
She squeezed his hand. "I know I can."
Hermione had resisted all attempts to get her to return to the ballroom when Narcissa had found her and Draco outside. Draco's mother had herded him back in to blow out his cake candles with a wink and a conspiratorial smile to Hermione. Hermione had laughed as he'd whined that he wasn't a baby who needed, or even wanted candles on his cake, enjoying the playful relationship Draco had with his mother.
A hand stole to her stomach as she wondered about what would be in store for her and her child. She hoped they would have the same dynamic that Draco and Narcissa had, as strange as that sounded. It might not be overtly evident, but the Malfoys were an extremely loving family. She gave a wry smile as she thought back to the early weeks of her pregnancy and how scared she had been at the prospect of having a baby that would have the Malfoys as family.
She found that she was beginning to care about Draco as well. Gone were the fear and the bitter hatred towards him that had been left over from the war. She had seen past that and knew that Draco was just as vulnerable as she was—in some cases, more so. He was desperately unhappy and lonely and longing for a family. Knowing this about Draco made him a lot more endearing, the prickly shell that he projected onto the world becoming more understandable, and she related to his desire of wanting a family to call his own—she wanted the exact same thing, despite being very close to her friends.
The sound of a cane clacking on slabs made her turn her head, and she couldn't help raising her eyebrows as she saw Lucius coming towards her.
"Ah, there you are Miss Granger. My wife told me I would find you out here."
"You were looking for me?" she asked, surprised.
"Your friends, Mr Potter and Mr Weasley, were looking for you. I said I would track you down."
The thought of Harry and Ron approaching Lucius Malfoy to ask where she could be amused her no end, and she couldn't help the small laugh that escaped her lips.
"Is there something funny, Miss Granger?"
"Please, call me Hermione. Miss Granger makes me feel incredibly old," she said, ignoring his question.
"As you wish, Hermione," he said, and she was happy to note that he didn't push her to answer his query.
Now that he knew where she was, Hermione fully expected Lucius to leave or request that she come back inside and seek her friends, but instead he stood, resting his hands on the patio wall.
"Narcissa has done such wonders with the gardens," he remarked casually.
"Yes, as hard as it is to imagine, but when she married me the gardens were in a dreadful state. No one had cared about them for generations."
"I would have thought that there would have been a team of gardeners to do that."
Lucius turned and smiled at her. "Oh, you misunderstand me. They weren't unkempt, just unimaginative. Yew trees and knot gardens with immaculate shrubberies but no flair or style or even that many varieties of flowers. Narcissa has a passion for flowers, you see, and the first thing she did as my wife was to change the planting schedule and introduce a riot of colour and fragrance. It caused the Head Gardener to resign."
Hermione gave a little laugh at the image of a stuffy gardener wilting in outrage under the demands of Narcissa that there be more flowers in a garden. Lucius looked down at her, warmth in his eyes and pleasant smile on his face. It was something she had never imagined to see him direct at her, and it made her wonder just how the Malfoy patriarch viewed her.
"Change is good and sometimes it is necessary," he said with heavy meaning in his tone.
Eyebrows drawn together, Hermione studied him intently. Was he implying what she thought he was?
A slightly mocking smile grew on his lips. Oh, it wasn't hateful, more amused, and she stared at it in fascination. "Oh yes, Hermione, I mean exactly what you think I mean. You are good for Draco, good for this family."
"Are you just saying that because you want me to reconsider your plan?" she blurted out without thinking.
"Surprisingly enough, no. I genuinely believe you are, as difficult as it might be for you to imagine."
"But I'm Muggle-born. I doubt you relish the thought of a half-blood child."
"That's one of things I admire about you, Hermione. There is no pussy footing around. You get straight to the point. I think it's a sign of my age. Gone are the days when I enjoyed mental games. Or maybe it's my illness. I now find I don't have the time or the patience for them."
There was nothing she could say to that and so she remained silent, waiting for him to elaborate on what he meant. He sighed and leaned back against the balustrade, placing his cane carefully upright so it wouldn't fall over before crossing one ankle over the other. "I won't insult your intelligence by pretending that a half-blood grandchild was ever on my list of desirable things, but life has a funny way of turning what you think you want, or what you think is for the best, upside down and showing you that actually it's for the worst. Take Astoria for example. I thought that if I kept the marriage together, refused to support Draco when he came to me to discuss a divorce, that I would see a child born, one that would carry on the Malfoy legacy and pureblooded to boot. How wrong was that assumption? But at least it led us to the situation we find ourselves in."
"Are you really trying to tell me that you think the mix-up at the Clinic was a good thing?"
"Precisely. And that's what I meant about life showing me where I am wrong. You are everything Astoria should have been. You have opened Draco up, helped him come out from behind that wall he has erected, and I find that this is far more important to me than the thought of the Malfoy family no longer being purebloods."
Hermione couldn't help the sceptical look that she knew crossed her face. It just seemed a little too easy. This was Lucius Malfoy, the man who had been one of Lord Voldemort's most ardent supporters. For him to suddenly declare that the blood of his grandchild was of no importance was a little hard to swallow.
"Forgive me if I find that a little too convenient, Lucius."
"I wouldn't expect it any other way, Hermione. I doubt I would believe me either if I were standing in your shoes. There is bad blood between this family and you and there is no point trying to pretend otherwise, but it doesn't always have to be that way. Maybe it is my illness that has forced me to recognise this."
"If you will excuse my bluntness, just how ill are you?"
Sorrow grew in his eyes and he said, "I'm dying. My team of Healers can find no cure and I am growing weaker by the day."
She hadn't expected it, but a pang of sadness resounded in her heart. This proud man, who had done so much to harm her and her friends, was going out with a whimper and it felt wrong somehow. "Is there nothing they can try?"
"Oh, they are trying things all the time. I'm St. Mungo's very own guinea pig, but none of it is working. I have been exposed to too much experimental magic and most of it incredibly damaging. I have come to view it as payback for my sins."
"But you'll be there for the birth of the baby, won't you?" She wished she could've kicked herself the moment she said those words. It sounded like such a childish, selfish thing to say to someone who had a potentially terminal disease. It was also ridiculous to assume that he would know one way or another.
"I very much hope to be," he said. "But if I'm not, then I am selfish enough to ask you for some things."
"Like what?" she asked, her stomach churning from the direction this conversation was taking.
"Give Draco a chance. A real chance, not just because you are having this baby together, but because something could grow between the pair of you. I see it in the way that he looks at you, but he's confused and doesn't want to trust his feelings again, not after Astoria, which is why I'm having this conversation with you rather than him."
"I thought I was already giving him a chance by actually being here and not taking him to court for full custody of the child. It feels very much as if I am."
"You are, but I am hoping I could push you a little further. I didn't develop my plan to push the pair of you together out of the kindness of my heart. At the time I was trying to think of a way to keep this baby in the family for more than the occasional weekend visit would allow, and I thought that trying to manipulate you both into a faux relationship would bring me the desired result. However, I wasn't prepared for just how stubborn you would be in resisting it, or in fighting public perceptions of you. I don't know why really, as you always were stubborn," he said the last sentence with a small chuckle.
"I'm glad that hasn't passed you by."
Lucius shot her an amused glance. "But that doesn't mean I was wrong."
"Hang on a minute—" Hermione interrupted, a scowl on her face but Lucius raised his hand, cutting off her objection.
"I didn't mean about the whole manipulation scheme, but the potential that you and Draco have. It's there and it's real. I've seen it this evening and so have others. Do you know the amount of people who come and ribbed me about the whole media storm? They cannot understand why you and Draco are persisting with the fiction that you aren't an item. The story about the pregnancy this morning along with some of the lingering looks you have both exchanged, not to mention you both disappearing for quite a while, seem to have put paid to any lingering doubts as to the veracity of your story."
Hermione huffed, placing her hands on her hips. "But my story is true! We haven't had some sordid affair!"
"And if there was no chemistry between you, I think more people would believe that. But did you know that Draco's eyes hardly left you once you walked into the ballroom? He knew at all moments where you were and aligned his body so that he could see you. And are you aware that he sat his friends down just before the party started and threatened them with physical harm were they to say anything rude or obnoxious to you?"
She stared at him in shock. Surely he was exaggerating? This had to be nothing more than a ploy to get his way.
"I see the doubt inside you, Hermione, but I am not lying. I am telling you this because I know Draco never will, even if he realised what it meant."
"But… but surely there is nothing there?"
"Oh, I don't think he's in love you—not yet anyway. But the potential is there and what you have to ask yourself, Hermione, is whether you are brave enough to snatch at the chance?"
"Who said anything about me liking him? Or even wanting to start anything with him?"
The look he shot her was insultingly patronising. "Maybe you want to pretend to believe that, but if you felt nothing for him, then you wouldn't be here tonight."
She puffed out her cheeks, irritated by his insinuation. "We made an agreement to try to become friends for the sake of the baby."
He shook his head, the smirk he wore making her more than want to punch him. "People with your history don't try to become friends. You skirt around each other warily, at best acknowledging each other's existence."
"That's not true. Pansy Parkinson and I have made an effort to be friendly."
"And are you trying to tell me that you would have done so if you didn't have Draco in common?"
She opened her mouth to retort but had nothing to come back with, and she frowned as she thought on his words. With a significant look at her, he straightened up, grasped his cane once more and walked back into the party, leaving her staring somewhat sightlessly out over the Manor's gardens.
Just where did this leave her?