Slowly Toward Desire by phlox
Beta Reader: riptey, at the very last minute. Thank you, riptey, for your generosity and good humor, and for making me feel like I'd scored an A+!
Written for eevilalice, for the 2013 Otter & Ferret Exchange.
Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
The mole making its way through darkest ground,
The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.
What does what it should do needs nothing more.
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
We come to something without knowing why.
~ Theodore Roethke, The Manifestation
She rushes back to the Great Hall from the powder room. Flushed and overheated, her heart is beating way too fast from the dancing, the attention, and the shy smile of Viktor Krum. Everything about the Yule Ball is so overwhelming that she's been swept away with it. The Entrance Hall appears deserted as she hurries across it, and she can guess why as she hears the beat of the Weird Sisters' single 'This is the Night' against the screams of fans through the walls.
Still unsteady in her heels, her head is down, eyeing the polished wood warily as she approaches the carved oak doors. A shiny pair of black loafers attached to someone in dark blue dress robes enters her field of vision and moves toward the entrance. She takes a breath and raises her head to thank him as the door swings open before her.
All the whirling, swirling energy inside her screeches to a halt as her gaze meets a pair of grey eyes beneath a white-blond fringe.
Hermione's never liked when people say their 'heart stopped,' because it's clearly inaccurate if they're still capable enough of thought to remark upon it. But it suddenly seems an apt description for the pressure that builds in her chest and her sudden inability to breathe. Confronted with Draco Malfoy, his face neutral, his hand on the door he's holding open for her, exaggeration is the least of her worries.
To say she's surprised would be an understatement, and since she's ventured into the realm of hyperbole regarding her heart and whether or not it's still beating, she's not willing to wander any further into absurdity. She's likewise sure time doesn't stop and that it's not been minutes since their eyes met, but with her brain in high gear, she processes an hour's worth of reflection in the space of a millisecond.
Over the past three-and-a-half years, Hermione has observed Malfoy's actions to be largely consistent: he reliably acts like a bigoted prat, enjoying the attention and approval it garners from anyone who is around to see said prattish behavior. But she has noticed that he rarely directs his venom at her personally, seeming concerned more particularly with Ron and Harry. If she has nothing to say to him, he will ignore her completely. Once she does engage his attention, he'll lob 'Mudbloods' at her until he's blue in the face, but only if she makes him take notice. Even when she was hit with Densaugeo a few months ago, it was by accident, the spell not intended for her.
She wonders if he avoids attacking her directly in deference to her as a woman, or if his ideas of sex and gender simply refuse to see her as a threat. Both implications rather annoy her feminist sensibilities, but now she thinks she might be onto something. She's seen Malfoy make way for female Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws before. It seems like an automatic action, a reflex for him to treat girls with respect and gentility, hypocritical though it may be, depending on the individual.
Like this, now.
The thought brings Hermione back to this gesture from Malfoy. She takes a breath; oxygen makes everything clearer, and she sees the ordinariness of the situation for what it is. He's just reacting instinctually, and it is no grand statement on her blood status or sides or enemies or friendship or the magic of the evening.
Looking into his face, devoid of the usual enmity, she quashes her disappointment and decides to respond in kind, thanking him cursorily as she brushes past him. A faint blush stains his cheeks, and she wonders if he is as overwhelmed by the energy of the evening as she.
As she spots Krum waiting in the distance, she shakes her head, sure now that Malfoy must have thought she was someone else.
In their fifth year, Hermione launches an investigation of sorts into Draco Malfoy.
At first, she's just doing her duty for Dumbledore's Army, keeping tabs on him as a key member of the Inquisitorial Squad. As a Prefect, she can come and go with more freedom than other students, though Malfoy's increased power from Umbridge makes it dicey. But as she follows and observes him, she starts to realize that he wields that power inconsistently.
A third-year boy who is in the wrong corridor at the wrong time will get waved away, regardless of house, if no one's there to see. Ginny crossing his path when other Slytherins are around is likely to lose House Points for Gryffindor. Of course, Harry and Ron get full-tilt Malfoy-wrath, no matter the circumstances.
Now that he has gotten as much power from Umbridge as he's going to get, it surprises Hermione that he doesn't indiscriminately make use of it whenever possible. Given what she's always assumed of Malfoy, this represents such an anomaly as to warrant further fact-gathering, and something drives her to keep after him. It's the same feeling she gets when she's researching some obscure or ancient piece of magic, a certainty that a great secret is about to be revealed.
After dinner, Marauder's Map in hand, she rushes up to the seventh floor from the Great Hall, where she's found the little pair of feet marked 'Draco Malfoy' in the Transfiguration Corridor. She folds the map happily, knowing she'll observe some good student-Malfoy interaction in such a busy area. Her pulse quickens when she catches sight of the back of his blond head in the distance as he's walking down the hall.
She heads after him, but Malfoy's legs are longer than hers, and it's easy for him to outstrip her, even at full speed. He rounds a corner, and she's lost him for a moment. In the next hallway, she sees just a flash of his hair against the cold stone wall, and he's gone. On the next, the ripple of his cloak as he makes another turn.
The chase continues, with him rarely in her sights as he ambles ahead. He's always around the next corner, disappearing into the shadows cast by the torches.
Hermione doesn't even think of slowing her pace, heedless of where they're headed. Rushing after him up a short staircase, she suddenly finds herself in a deserted hallway. Just to be sure, she keeps walking but pulls out the Map. Eyes roving wildly, she finds the pair of feet marked 'Hermione Granger' first. Her stomach drops when she sees the name 'Draco Malfoy.'
It's directly behind her.
She stops abruptly, starts to turn around, and then turns back forward with a jerk. Stumbling awkwardly, she keeps walking, foolishly hoping to get away. Stowing the map with shaking hands, she hears the angry hiss at her back.
She stops, consciously relaxes her shoulders, and spins on her heel. "Malfoy," she says, as though surprised to find him there.
He's standing directly beneath a wall-mounted torch, and the fire's reflection is dancing on his face, tight with his best menacing expression. His wand is drawn and pointed at her, and he uses it to punctuate his accusation.
"You've been following me," he says.
Then, something positively unprecedented happens; Hermione's brain screeches to a halt, though it takes a moment for her mouth to notice. She's just opening it to respond, and she only grasps the gravity of the situation when nothing comes out. She gapes at him for a second, trying to come up with an excuse – any excuse – but her emergency back-up brain doesn't seem to be kicking in. The only thing she can come up with is the truth, which her mouth decides upon before her mind can talk her out of it.
"Yes, I have," she says on a quick exhale.
The effect on Malfoy's expression is immediate, and the menace disappears. He shakes his head and says, "What?"
There's nothing for it now, so she just goes with it. "I said 'yes,' Malfoy. I have been following you." She crosses her arms to keep her hands from fidgeting and breathes through the pounding of her heart. She's sure she's going to be dragged to the Headmistress's office. She'll be lucky to get out of this with only a week's detention.
Malfoy's wand arm drops, and the way his face falls in shock is nearly comical. Hermione's rather surprised herself by his reaction, but it makes her feel more in control. The small part of her not concerned with self-preservation realizes she's never been confronted with Malfoy by himself before; this is new data for her investigation. The larger part of her is well aware that she's in the midst of a fight she's not likely to win.
"I don't know why you're so surprised," she says, faking confidence, "since you apparently suspected that's what I was doing anyway."
Malfoy's eyebrows screw up and he sputters, "I'm not surprised I'm right, Granger, I'm surprised that you— That you're admitting to it."
Hermione abruptly realizes just where they are standing. In her haste to catch up with him, she's followed him to the corner opposite the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy. They're standing right next to the Room of Requirement.
"Wait. What are you doing up here?" she blurts.
"Pardon me?" he says, thrown by her change in tone.
"Are you on your way to spy on us?" she asks, gesturing with her head toward the Room behind her.
His face goes bright red, and it's not his best look. "I'm not spying on you, Granger."
"You are! That's where you were going, to watch for—"
"It's not spying, it's official business under Educational Decree number sixty-eigh—"
He cuts off when she bursts out laughing. She tries to get it under control, but the affronted look on his face just makes her laugh harder.
"What?!" he yells.
"I just—" she starts, out of breath, struggling to get her laughter under control. "I'm following you and you're just…" The giggling takes her over again.
Malfoy isn't appreciating the joke. "Yes. That's because you lot are up to something and Umbridge—" He cuts off again, because her laughter has suddenly raised in pitch. "What?! "
"We're not going to be there tonight," she says, gasping between bursts. "I was following you, and you were just on your way to sit and wait all evening for no one to show."
She's well aware that she should not have told him this. She's just confirmed that they're assembling in a student club, in direct violation of Educational Decree Number Sixty-Eight. But Hermione is suddenly a bit exhausted by D.A. and the Inquisitorial Squad and this ridiculous game of hide-and-seek with no 'it.' She suspects that Malfoy recognizes the absurdity of it as well. Though still annoyed, his face has returned to its natural color, and he stands waiting for her laughter to run out without saying a word, his arms folded across his chest.
Calmer, she says, "Malfoy. You're always watching us. And we're always watching you. It went on before Umbridge and it's likely to go on without her."
At least, Hermione hopes there's a Hogwarts without Umbridge. Strangely, Malfoy doesn't argue the point, and she wonders how he really feels about the Headmistress.
"So… there you are," she says, making a gesture as though the matter were settled.
His eyes narrow, as if the solution to the puzzle of her is written across her face. It's nicer like this, his face; calculating, speculating, investigating, and a little off-balance. She hasn't been this close to him for a while, and he seems to have grown taller. His shoulders are broader, and she watches as his chest puffs up and he releases a long breath. There's more filling up his uniform than she rememb—
"Ten points from Gryffindor, Granger," Malfoy says carefully, testing, but confidence straightens his spine as he continues. "For interfering with the business of a member of the Inquisitorial Squad."
Hermione eyes him evenly. Her mum always says that you can't change anyone else. All you can do is change your reaction to them. However, she's found that when she starts reacting differently to a person, the way that person relates to her usually changes as well.
"Of course. I'll be seeing you tomorrow, then, Malfoy," she says simply, straightening up as she walks past him and back down the hallway whence she came.
She's dodged a bullet and she knows it. What she doesn't know is where to place this moment amidst the bits and pieces collected from her study of Draco Malfoy. But as she walks away, she feels a dizzying satisfaction as though she's discovered new land.
She's so annoyed when she finds him there that she stomps to the nearest table and huffs throughout the study period. Seeing him there the next day, she does the same, but she gets no studying done, spending much of the time glaring resentfully in his direction. By the third day, she's positively livid.
It's the part of the Library with the most natural light, and it's the most remote corner, where she studies for hours without being interrupted by anybody. It also happens to be the warmest, due to two skylights set into the roof of the alcove; on even the cloudiest day, they seem to draw every ounce of heat and light from the sun to spread languidly across the old wood of the table and chairs.
Hermione loves this corner. It's hers. It's been hers since she discovered it second year, and she's not going to relinquish it to Malfoy, much less a Malfoy who is asleep.
So, the next day, she walks right up to the table and swings her book bag onto it so that it lands with a satisfying thunk. Malfoy doesn't even startle from his usual position on the floor next to the table, curled into the junction of two bookcases. He's sitting up on his side, his left shoulder leaning heavily into the second shelf, and his head resting against Jinxes for the Jinxed and Spellman's Syllabary. His breathing is heavy and even, which she can see very well from her chair above and facing him. She could sit on the other side of the table, but this is where she always sits. This is her chair.
Resolving to ignore him the best she can, Hermione gets on with her Advanced Potions essay, thinking yet again how much more agreeable a teacher Slughorn is than Snape. Only a few times does her gaze drift over to him, amazed at how still and quiet he is in sleep, neither tossing and turning nor snoring. She does think he's going to have a terrific crick in his neck, but she doesn't stick around to see. She's gone and on her way to her next class before he wakes.
It's the same the next day and the next, and then weeks pass without her giving a second thought to the fact that she's sharing a warm alcove every day with a slumbering Draco Malfoy.
Her curiosity gets the better of her, as her eyes are drawn again and again to his still form. He's always in the same position, and he never stirs. It figures that he slumbers through their free period every day, because it hasn't looked like he's been sleeping at night all year long. This close, she can see the pale blond of his lashes in stark relief against the purple smudges beneath his eyes. He returned for sixth year a half a foot taller and with those dark circles a permanent feature of his face. Hermione has noticed that he's been much quieter this year, both in class and out, and she suspects his performance in most subjects is not what it was.
Each afternoon, a shaft of sunlight slowly inches its way up his leg to his torso, curls around his shoulder, and at last blazes across his face. The blond of his hair and eyelashes brighten impossibly against his pale skin, and the dust dances around him in the sunbeam like fairies with his every exhale.
Hermione is disappointed on the days when the sun's journey is swallowed up by the clouds.
On a sunny day in late April, working on her Defense Against the Dark Arts essay for Snape and nervous about her choice of subject, she's so absorbed that she writes steadily from the moment she sits down. When she hears someone call her name, she holds up a hand to forestall them until she finishes her sentence. Her name is repeated, and it isn't until she raises her head that she registers it's coming from Malfoy.
A Malfoy who is wide awake, turned toward her with legs outstretched, and blinking up from his place on the floor.
"Granger," he says a third time as Hermione blinks back, noting that the shaft of sunlight is stretching across his chest.
"Yes. Hello," she says, clearing her throat and shaking herself out of it. She makes a mental note of how her books and parchment are too spread out across the table to make a graceful or quick exit. That is, if she even wanted to; this is her place, after all. Boldly, but not unkindly, she says, "Sleep well?"
His mouth twists into something ironic that is not quite a smile. She notes with interest that he doesn't appear surprised by her presence at all.
"What are you working on?" he asks. He has to clear his throat as well, his voice rough.
"Snape's essay, of course." She rolls her eyes, feeling like he'll understand the level of stress that implies. "It's on the Bandon Banshee. He'll hate it," she adds in a rush, though it's a strangely personal thing to say.
He nods as he looks out toward the rest of the Library, and she can tell he's formulating something else. She twirls her quill nervously, waiting. Taking a deep breath, he begins to speak.
"Can I ask if— There are Muggle wars, right?" He looks back at her. "I mean, there's a history of it, isn't there? Muggle armies fighting and killing each other."
"Well, erm… yes," Hermione says, not sure why she feels guilty and unhappy to have to admit it. She raises her eyebrows expectantly.
He continues, "Countries organize and fight other countries, don't they?"
Hermione thinks that sounds rather too much like the World Cup, but she nods. "Well, sometimes, but there are revolutions and civil wars where countrymen have fought each other for various reasons."
"Yes, but... there was some big war – between countries – and Britain was involved. Not long ago, wasn't there?"
"The Second World War, yes," she says, puffing up with the responsibility of sharing whatever information he's seeking. "There were two this century. The second ended in 1945."
His eyebrows shoot up. "World Wars? You mean—"
She quickly explains about allies and Axis Powers and the British bulldog spirit. She talks of keeping calm and carrying on and the immeasurable cost of a generation of lives. She glosses over many things, but he listens attentively and seriously.
"Do you know any Germans?" he asks finally when she stops for breath.
She has a feeling where he's going with this. "Well, no. But that's not the point," she says. "When there are matters of unwarranted aggression and innocent lives… Besides, it's been decades, and the Germans are our allies now."
It's not the first time Hermione's seen the parallel with what's going on in the wizarding world. She thinks of the hypnotizing power of charismatic leaders, of scapegoats and of the frenzy of a wounded people elevated to power over others, but she can't quite find the words to share it with Malfoy.
Because she also thinks of her grandpa, who still likes to say that "the only good German is a dead German," and she thinks the parallel might not light the way to peace and understanding after all.
Malfoy has been inching toward a point, though, and he makes it now. "I don't know any Muggles," he says quietly, his eyes unwavering on hers.
"You know Muggle-borns," she says, because she can't help but say it. The fire ignites in her belly and warms her, reminding her that there are sides, and he's not on hers.
"But people don't pick sides. They're just born to whichever… country, and that decides it. A British Muggle cares more about British lives than German, don't they?" The question is rhetorical, but he asks it without apology.
She doesn't respond, because she knows this. She's known this about Malfoy, that underneath it all, it's about family, about where he belongs, about what he is and has grown to believe.
At that, the discussion is over. She returns to her work without comment, and Malfoy resumes his nap, because what is there to say? But though they never speak again in their time in the Library, in the coming months, this conversation is never far from her mind.
She thinks of it when Harry tells her about what happened on the Astronomy Tower. She thinks of it when Malfoy refuses to identify Harry but grudgingly admits to finger her to the Snatchers at Malfoy Manor. And when he does everything he can to just survive the Battle of Hogwarts, without raising arms against them, she thinks of this conversation and the warm alcove they shared every day in peace.
Every time Hermione recalls it, she is surprised anew that it was so important to Malfoy that they speak of these things, that she should hear the words from him.
At her first sight of him, Hermione's progress falters, and she nearly walks head-first into a pillar.
While heading to class, running late and at full steam, she rounds the corner and is temporarily blinded by the sunlight bursting around the turrets and walls, setting the damp flagstones afire. She has no time to slow her brisk walk and take it in, so she carries on. But a side-glance, then a double-take and yet a triple-take reveals him unmistakably.
Draco Malfoy is standing in the centre of the castle courtyard, in the middle of the day, when he is supposed to be in Eighth-year Transfiguration. He's standing stock-still, his head tipped up, arms hanging loosely at his sides, taking in an afternoon sun shower as though the damp is nothing to the glory of the sun.
His eyelids heavy, he takes a great, shuddering breath, exhales and swallows. His Adam's apple bobs and the muscles of his neck strain as he leans back farther, lifting his face in supplication to the sun and the mist. The rain is light enough that it beads on his hair and clings like drops of dew to the wool of his cloak.
He is disarming, wet and gleaming in the crisp sunlight.
Hermione is startled to see him here, like this, but she's sure there must be a reason, and she decides it's necessary for her to watch him (strictly for information-gathering purposes) to find what it is. Belatedly realizing she shouldn't be out in the open, she ducks behind the corner pillar that edges the castle courtyard.
That he's here at all is enough to pique her interest, because even skipping one class could imperil what was surely a hard-won parole agreement that keeps him from the same fate in Azkaban as a half-dozen other Junior Death Eaters. And Malfoy must know how tenuous his position is, because he's haunted the edges of Hogwarts and the backs of classes like a ghost since his return in September. Instead of constantly seeking attention like a flower turning ever toward the sun, he hangs his head so far down as to be nearly invisible.
She only cut through the corridor bordering the courtyard as a shortcut to class. She's late due to the maddeningly twisted problems of a third-year girl, who seems incapable of picking a class to drop from her packed schedule. (And no, the girl doesn't remind her of anyone; Hermione had much more capacity to keep things in perspective at that age.)
The Head Girl has more freedom to move around Hogwarts, especially during classes; she's needed by the student body at all times of the day or night. But Malfoy has no such carte blanche, and what the hell is he doing, anyway? He's going to get— Well, he is in trouble, isn't he, because she's going to at least have to take House points from him for this.
Being so bright and blinding but dressed in such dark and drab colors, Malfoy is nearly as incongruous himself as the water beating inexplicably down from the sunny sky. She watches as the glistening raindrops grow under the steady onslaught, gather, and soak into the hair at last, rolling down to drip heavily onto the lapel of his cloak.
"Miss Granger!" squeals a voice from behind her.
Hermione jumps and whips around to see little Miss Overachieving Third-Year beaming at her.
"I can't seem to find my Charms textbook, and I think I might have left it with you. I know I had it when we were speaking, because when you were talking about using the study period for another class, I remembered that I have an essay to write for Charms, and I thought of asking you about what you thought of my take on Wingardium Leviosa and if you'd suggest…"
She rattles on and on, and Hermione resists the urge to shush her. What she cannot resist is the need to check if the noise has disturbed Malfoy's reverie, and she completely ignores the implication that she even cares. Hermione lets the third-year carry on, knowing the girl doesn't really need anyone's attention to do so, and slowly turns, peeking her head just enough around the pillar to see, blushing at her subterfuge.
She needn't have bothered with stealth; Malfoy is looking straight at her. His face is devoid of tension as though the rain has washed it clean, and she simply holds his gaze for a moment, startled at the utterly foreign expression of contentment she finds there.
Then his look turns conspiratorial, one eyebrow raised slightly, the side of his mouth curled into a half smile. He flicks his eyes skyward for a second then back to hers, sharing his wonderment at the sun and the rain and the madness of their coexistence. He lifts a hand to brush back the hair hanging in his face, and the last of the trembling drops of rain soak in to deepen the blond to burnished gold.
He opens his mouth to say something, and Hermione's breath catches from a sudden clenching in her chest.
"Malfoy, get to class," she says.
The tension and the damp and the echo of the stone courtyard make it sound far harsher than she intends.
He swallows thickly, and Hermione's eyes are again drawn to the movement of his throat. When she looks back up, his face has changed, a tension electrifying it, until the expression is again as familiar as Malfoy himself. Without a word, he leaves quickly, retrieving his satchel from behind one of the pillars, brushing by her as he walks off in the direction of the Transfiguration classroom.
She won't subtract House points; she's quite sure now that he hasn't been up to anything, so there's nothing wrong with her giving him a bit of latitude. It's more generous than he would be to her, she well remembers. He is being kept on a short leash, and she probably has a duty to let the Headmistress know if he strays even the slightest bit out of line. But she feels confident that the Head Girl is free to follow the spirit of the rules if not always to the letter. Yes, she tells herself, she can feel good about how she's handled it.
But as she turns back to the third-year's unabated monologue, Hermione's stomach twists.
It's the same kind of sickened remorse she felt when, as a child, she tried to catch a ladybug to keep, only to find that in her excitement, she'd crushed it in her chubby fist.
His appointments are regular enough that it has become a way to mark time: every other month, like clockwork, always the second Thursday. In fact, the sight of him in Meeting Room Three, across the metal conference table from one of the Senior Aurors, frequently reminds her that it's payday. She even once hears Ron remark, "Malfoy again? It must be June."
It hasn't been easy to get here, though. She isn't even sure where here is, but it's somewhere new.
At first, there was something wildly poetic about Harry, Ron, and Hermione as Junior Aurors and Malfoy as the former Death Eater appearing for his scheduled probation check-ins. As he shuffled through the office and by their cubicles, the difference in who they were and what they'd become couldn't have been more stark. But since Hermione had learned some things about how to make change happen around her, she greeted him each time. Just a simple 'hey' as he passed was enough to eventually bring all of them to a point where Harry and even Ron would acknowledge him each time with at least a grudging nod.
It's the kind of interaction that is positively ordinary on the surface, but 'ordinary' can sometimes be an extraordinary accomplishment. Hermione is proud of them. All four of them.
The routine is broken after four years, in the month of July, when Hermione walks by Meeting Room Two to see Harry sitting across the table from Malfoy. She thinks at first that taking over the probation meetings must be the start of some new responsibility for her friend, but then she notes with a start that it's Tuesday. It takes Harry glaring and Malfoy turning in his chair to see her gawking face through the window for her to snap out of her shock and walk away.
When she finds Harry later to ask him what it was about, he shrugs and says, "Possibly nothing. I'll let you know."
Hermione is not at all satisfied with that answer, but she waits for further developments. When Malfoy appears the following two Mondays in a row, Hermione knows something is up. Her mind spins with exciting scenarios of Malfoy as informant, asking for protection against some shadowy threat. She thinks of Dark artifacts and distant relatives, and the intrigue occupies her thoughts for days. When she sees him meeting with Harry, Auror Samson, and Head Auror Nelson for the second time in a week (on a Friday, no less) she cannot bear not knowing for a moment longer.
She doesn't have a chance to demand information though, because the three Aurors leave the meeting room and immediately call a full staff meeting, right there in the middle of the office.
Nelson announces that Draco Malfoy is joining the Auror Squad. Yes, that Draco Malfoy, and no, he's not interested in anyone's opinion on the matter. Everyone will have to be content to trust his impeccable judgment as always, and to make themselves completely available for the welcoming and training of the new recruit. Understood?
There are some grumblings, but it's mostly met with stunned silence. Harry glances at Hermione, and the look of simple confidence in the raise of his brow makes her feel a strange mixture of relief and excitement. She tries to go back to work afterward, but she winds up fiddling at her desk, turning every five minutes to try to catch a glimpse of Malfoy or Harry, so she can discuss it and dispel a little bit of this energy. Trying to talk about it with Ron when he returns to his desk yields nothing satisfactory; he's a mixture of sullen and resigned. With annoyance, she realizes Harry must have leaked the possibility of this happening to Ron long before today.
When she's sent out to check on a call from Hogsmeade about the sighting of a wizard the witness is just sure is Gellert Grindelwald, she has to concentrate on her breathing to keep from stomping out the door in frustration. The little old lady who owns the candle shop sees dead Dark Wizards at a rate of two a month, and it was not Hermione's turn in the rotation to field this one.
The day is eaten up, so she's not back at the Ministry office until the following Monday, which she's heard from Ginny is to be Malfoy's first day. She doesn't really know what she's so excited about, except for the always enticing prospect of newness and possibility.
But at the weekly meeting in the conference room, the presence of the new Auror does little to revolutionize what is mind-numbing routine. That is, until the very end, where everything happens so fast her head can't catch up enough to process it.
"Finally, I'm reassigning Potter to work with Samson on the Mulcibers, so who's got the most time to help with Junior Auror Malfoy's training?" asks Head Auror Nelson, his piercing look rounding the table. "Each of you get a summary of your casework to me by the end of the day so I can decide who is most available to take him on."
The Aurors nod and make the usual gestures to convey that the directive was heard, noted, and would be as ordered. Nelson gathers up his notes and makes to end the meeting.
"Well, I don't know if my input counts for anything," Malfoy interjects. His tone is tentative, and his head is down, watching the pattern he's drawing on the table with his thumb. "But if there's going to be someone directing my every move, it might as well be Granger. I'm used to her watching me." He glances over to Hermione's startled face, the slightest note of mischief in his eyes and his tone as he says, "Besides, I think she likes it."
The Monday morning meeting is not generally the place for irony, so there is a split second of shocked silence at the boldness of the new guy. It breaks with an explosion of guffaws when Nelson smirks lightly and says he'll take it under advisement.
Hermione's stunned look moves to Harry, who seems to be getting something especially meaningful from the remark as though he's privy to some inside joke. Ron's not laughing, but neither is he scowling; he's glancing back and forth between Hermione and Malfoy as though trying to work something out. Glancing back to Malfoy, she finds his eyes fixed on hers. His expression is less of a challenge than a promise.
She wishes mightily for a textbook and a month of revision to study this wholly new specimen.
Hermione is unsurprised to find that Malfoy makes a great partner.
That much is clear by the time they finish his orientation and move quickly to her caseload, which he contributes to as the perfect counterpoint to the voice inside her head. He's snarky when she gets excited about research, is sometimes contrarian for its own sake, and he's most definitely not a morning person. But he suits her, and over the course of the next year, the higher-ups assign them together more often than not. It doesn't even ruffle her feathers when she hears Ron mutter something that sounds like saves two other people.
But for all his incisive thinking and deductive reasoning, Hermione finds herself most looking forward to when she's assigned to work with him on simple surveillance. It can be mind-numbing work – if work is what you would call sitting, sometimes for hours at a time, watching a door or a window or a wall. That sort of thing is best done in the company of someone who is interesting to talk to but not intrusive, and the nicest thing about Malfoy is his capacity to sit in silence. Hermione struggles enough with her own need to fill the air with chatter, and after spending her teens and early twenties babbling breathlessly at every lull, she's learning to retreat into her own thoughts in the right company.
And she's had plenty of time for that by their seventh straight day of watching an apothecary in Knockturn Alley. To get a clear view of the entrance to the shop, they're crammed into the narrow stairwell of an abandoned building opposite. Huddled on a landing, there's just enough room for them to sit cross-legged facing each other, leaning against the wall, their heads turned to see out the grimy window to the street below. They switch sides periodically, so that the one who has been looking left can experience the relief of craning their neck to the right for a while instead.
But they don't both have to be watching at the same time, and they've worked out a rhythm to ensure at least one set of eyes is always on the lookout. When Hermione rolls her head to work out the crick that has inevitably formed, Malfoy instinctually looks up from the notes he's been writing in order to take up the watch. In conversation, they switch off being able to actually look at their partner's face as they speak. Malfoy's been unusually quiet this week, though, which is disappointing. Hermione has had to make a point of bringing magazines to fill the time they usually spend talking about anything and everything.
But reading in the weak light afforded through the window suits her fine on this cloudy day. She's brought a favorite of hers today, Magic Britain, a social justice journal with a liberal bent. Finishing this month's five-page article about the new epidemic of alcoholism in house-elves, she sets the magazine aside with a sigh as she resumes surveillance through the window.
She feels very keenly sometimes the ways in which her former self would disapprove of her current priorities. The energy she used to have for causes and campaigns shames her now that her time is taken up so utterly by work. Knowing it's a part of growing up and accepting responsibility doesn't help the ache she feels for all that she hasn't accomplished, and it doesn't make her miss that part of herself any less.
Lost in her thoughts, feeling rather maudlin all of a sudden in this dim, dank stairwell, she doesn't register Malfoy speaking until he's finished. She turns to look, finding him watching her, his expression tight.
Flicking her eyes back to the shop door below, she says, "Sorry, Malfoy. What did you say?"
It takes him a moment to respond. "I wanted to say— I mean, I said… I'm sorry." His voice is low and rough from little use.
Hermione takes a deep breath and lets it out in a huff. "I— Thank you, Malfoy. I figured out long ago that they didn't want to be liberated, and I gave it up willingly, but—"
Wait, what? She turns abruptly mid-sentence to see his brows furrow just as he turns mechanically to take up the watch out the window. The same confusion marks her brow as her brain churns furiously. Has she been talking about the article aloud? Suddenly, she can't recall, and in a fit of paranoia, she wonders if he's been using Legilimency on her and her private thoughts. Does he know Legilimency?
"What are you talking about, Malfoy?" The suspicious turn of her thoughts makes her blurt this accusingly as she tries to read the side of his face.
"What are you talking about, Granger?" he says, his breath clouding the glass.
"House-elves," she says, and abruptly realizes she's an idiot. He'd have to maintain eye-contact with her for Legilimency. That is, if he had some burning need to invade her thoughts on the magazine she was reading instead of just waiting for her to bore him silly sharing it with him. This train of thought here is precisely what happens when Hermione is alone with her thoughts for too long.
He glances back to look at her, disbelief edging his expression, and she's relieved to turn away to observe the little man of no note entering the apothecary below.
Feeling his gaze burning her cheek, she says, "What are you talking about, then?" She keeps her gaze fixed on the view through the dirty glass as she tries to get rid of the blush on her cheeks through sheer force of will.
He clears his throat, but his voice is still rough when he speaks on the wave of the big breath he draws for strength. "I was saying… I've been trying to speak with you, to come up with a time to bring it up, but there just isn't anything close to an appropriate time for this. So, what I've been meaning to say, for a while now, is that I'm sorry," he says, his exhale following in a rush.
Hermione turns to look at him, and for the moment their eyes meet and hold, she sees a rawness there she doesn't recognize. He breaks contact and jerks his head toward the window. She studies a patch of golden stubble on his jaw that he seems to have missed shaving this morning, staring at it until the muscle under it twitches as he clenches— Wait, what?
"Sorry for what, Malfoy?"
Malfoy takes another bracing breath, releasing it entirely as he turns to her. He holds her gaze as he opens and closes his mouth a few times, the syllables of proposed and discarded answers lost as he struggles for the words. He tries to gesture in a back and forth motion between the two of them before rejecting that as well.
With a decisive shake of his head, he lowers his chin and says levelly, "Everything."
Oh. That. Hermione holds her breath, not sure if he's going to do or say anything else, until she reflexively turns back to check out the window. She's better able to think facing the greyness of the day than the grey of his eyes. In only a few moments of reflection, she comes to the conclusion that there's nothing really eloquent to say in response.
What does one say at the passing of six or seven years of enmity and bigotry? How does one put an end to hurt, and anger, and scorn in a way that will give it purpose?
"Okay," she says breathily. Then, as almost an afterthought, she says, "Thank you."
He's still and quiet across from her, and she gives him a quick sideways glance just to be sure he's still breathing. What she sees gives her pause, and she turns to him with concern. Malfoy's face is like a mask, a purposely neutral barrier braced for whatever is to come.
"Malfoy?" she says quietly, because she doesn't like the wall that's suddenly between them.
As she watches, his eyes rove her face, searching, calculating, reading her. She's not sure what he's looking for, but she sees the very moment he finds it.
His face visibly relaxes, and he speaks as he turns toward the street below. "I didn't expect you to make it so easy on me."
"Oh, well…" she says, taken aback, "I do appreciate it. The gesture."
"Doesn't really fix anything though, does it?" he asks tightly, turning to face her.
She shrugs as she turns to watch two children running down the street chasing a barking Crup. "Depends on what you mean by 'fixing.' Nothing can ever be undone, and… well, nothing really should be. But words do count for something."
"Not as much as action," he says firmly, and he means it as the last word on the subject.
Hermione misses her shot at a full look at his face, because he's turning toward the window as she's turning to him. But she can see, even in profile, the stiff resolve in the set of his jaw and the tension in his shoulders.
In a flash, this last year finally makes sense. Malfoy has joined the Aurors with an agenda. Nothing to do with ambition, but it is something deeply personal. She can now see the dark need behind the requests he's made for the riskier assignments, the drive that's gotten him through training and certifications in record time, the push to do and go and see and become as though there were hounds at his heels.
The history of the MLE is littered with people who joined the Aurors with ghosts to exorcize. There is a memorial wall in the atrium, with the names of witches and wizards carved into cold stone who signed-up on a head of steam with something to prove. She would never have pegged Malfoy as the reckless and doomed type; that's just never been the Slytherin mold.
Her eyes take him in, head to toe, bright against the gloom of the stairwell and the world outside. She's struck with the need to memorize every inch of him, the urgent feeling welling up in her that he is only passing through here, that they will never be these same people again.
Hermione walks back from her tenth trip to the cafeteria, her stomach empty, her last meal a distant memory. It's the longest distance possible from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement's offices and back, and a satisfying occupation for her buzzing nerves. In the final hours of two weeks of negotiation, following five months of a constant pendulum swing from resignation to despair, there is nothing left for her to do but wait.
Walking toward the MLE break room, she hears the voices of a group of her colleagues, bold in matter but spoken in hushed tones. She stops just before the door.
"Bugger, he isn't coming cheap, is he? Just who decided he was worth two of them?"
"I'm surprised he's still alive."
"Hell, that sort can survive anything if there's something in it for them. They've always got an angle on everything."
"Why is he still alive? That's the question, innit? I bet this was planned all along to infiltr—"
"We don't know anything yet," interrupts the calm, clear voice of newly appointed Head Auror Potter, prompting a chorus of throat-clearing from the peanut-gallery. "Everything will be clear soon enough, and then we'll have answers. And then you'll have whatever answers we choose to share with you. Understood?" The voices mumble their apologies like sullen teenagers.
Hermione turns on her heel, resolving on the spot to take her eleventh turn to the cafeteria and back. The guilt gnaws at her again, for every one of those voices from the break room is only repeating the voice in her own head.
She doesn't know why he's still alive. She's hoped and prayed (as much as Hermione prays for anything) for five solid months, but there have always been more than just odds against his return; it's basically a matter of policy.
When an agent is captured undercover – especially in another country, as Malfoy was – they should expect to be cut loose. The department has mechanisms and fail-safes in place to minimize the damage of a compromised Auror by changing code words, moving safe houses, and pulling any other at-risk operatives from the field as soon as humanly possible. But the captured agent is expected to hold out, to endure whatever befalls them for as long as possible, and then they should assume they are given up for lost.
And he had been.
Malfoy had gone missing while on assignment in Bulgaria. He was sent there to investigate a Wizard Supremacy Order that was trying to make inroads into Britain's magical population. After all, there were thousands of in-betweeners from the last war, who had thought Voldemort and his ideas weren't so bad, but who did nothing other than cheer from the sidelines and hedge their bets. This organization had designs on just these type of people now; enough of them together could take back Europe from the Muggles, and they were trying it, one country at a time. The roots of the Order could be found throughout Eastern Europe and had made it to the highest levels of government in many countries.
Naturally, Malfoy and his Dark Mark, faded to light purple though it was, made a great prospect to the Wizard Supremacists, so he was a natural choice to try to infiltrate them.
He's been missing, presumed compromised and captured, for months, and that has been that, until they arrested two members of the Bulgarian group, who mentioned the white-haired Englishman being kept in a cellar. Those two just happen to be the Head of the Bulgarian order's nephews, and it seems that family ties are strong. A deal has been struck, and the trade is scheduled for an hour and forty-five minutes from now.
Hermione walks her twelfth through seventeenth circuits between the cafeteria and department until the wait dwindles to thirty-seven minutes. She doodles interlocking geometric shapes at her desk on the file folder for a case she doesn't recall being assigned until it is twelve minutes. She only has to pace in front of Harry's office for seven minutes before he gets so impatient he leaves with her for the Portkey five minutes ahead of schedule.
They arrive in Germany with the two Bulgarian brothers, the country chosen as an approximation of a halfway point between the countries. The site itself is a crumbling, abandoned warehouse, and Hermione wonders if they purposely tried to find the most degenerate place possible for such a dark deal.
Of all the time she's waited, these last minutes tick away the most excruciatingly slowly, as she tries to keep up her end of the conversation with a representative of the German Magical Government who is very friendly and eager to be of use. Hermione thinks, rather hysterically, that she'll have to tell Malfoy she has now met a German. What she's to say of the fact, she does not know.
At precisely the appointed time, a short man, slight of build with a heavy beard, appears with a tall, bald, broad-shouldered man. Between them, blindfolded, is the figure of what appears to be Draco Malfoy.
His blindfold is removed, and it's clear he has no idea what's happening until he sees Harry and Hermione in the dim light. Harry walks to the halfway point with the brothers, and the bald man comes forward with Malfoy walking unsteadily beside him. A tense moment later, the exchange is made, and Malfoy and Harry return to Hermione, the German official, and the Portkey home.
It's clear Malfoy hasn't eaten, slept, shaved or bathed regularly for a while. He's easily two stone lighter, and his jumper and trousers hang off his form. He seems to have lost his shoes, and his hands are filthy. Hermione says his name and nods at him awkwardly because she doesn't think anything else is appropriate. He smiles a curiously bright smile back, his eyes alert. Harry resets the Portkey and they each instinctively grab one of Malfoy's arms to steady him as they feel the sharp pull behind their navels.
Things happen fast once they're back at the Ministry. It's early evening, so the majority of the building is deserted, but the MLE offices are a flurry of action. Everyone greets Malfoy amiably, and Ron goes out of his way to approach him to shake his hand. A strangely frivolous small-talk commences as he stands around waiting to be taken to his debriefing. Hermione goes shakily back to her desk, the break of the tension of waiting warring with the anxious excitement of his return. She shuffles papers around on her desk and opens and shuts drawers and file cabinets to keep herself from staring at him.
When she allows herself one glance, she finds him looking at her. He holds her gaze for only a beat, then winks and turns back to the ordinary conversation he's having with Auror Samson. Hermione is so taken aback, she forgets to act busy until Malfoy is escorted out to Meeting Room One. As he's leaving, she hears him cheerfully ask one of his escorts if he could trouble them for a Pumpkin Pasty.
He'll be questioned by Harry and five other senior Aurors and allowed to make his own statement of the facts as he chooses to present them. Veritaserum will then be used, and questioning will continue for as long as the Head Auror deems appropriate. Following that, the Ministry's Legilimens will be called to search through Malfoy's thoughts and memories, looking for any irregularities, holes, or cover-ups. The entirety of the process will be carried out without breaks and for as long as it takes.
Protocol dictates that he be treated as suspicious, and the procedure is meant to be rigorous to keep him off-balance. They don't know why he's been kept alive, other than as the valuable trade he's proven to be. They don't know what information he's surrendered, what he's promised his captors, how deeply the Stockholm Syndrome might have taken hold under what was surely months of torture and deprivation. They hadn't suffered any security breaches that they know of in the time he was gone, but that doesn't signify anything.
They don't know what they've brought back. They can control a damaged Auror, angry over being abandoned and confused over his loyalties. A broken Auror is a different story. Those beyond repair are dismissed and forgotten, their sacrifice and service never to be immortalized in marble.
Hermione doesn't know who has come back, and she hasn't quite reconciled who she hopes he will be. The kindest, most empathetic part of her believes it doesn't matter, and that she'll be friends with him in whatever capacity, whether he's still an Auror or not. She does know, however, the answer to her colleagues' earlier question as to why he was deemed valuable enough to be exchanged for two of the enemy. The decision was left to the Head Auror, and Harry had said of it simply, "I owe his mother that much."
Hermione will never remember what she does to kill the time during Malfoy's debriefing, but going home is out of the question. She haunts the halls through the night, ignoring the whispers and speculations of 'traitor' and 'spy' that pollute the air like smoke.
She's spinning in her chair at nearly eleven the next morning when the Ministry Legilimens passes, and she bids him an excited goodbye. She chews on her thumbnail until she sees one of the senior Aurors come from the hallway leading to the Meeting Rooms, his entire face contorted in a mighty yawn.
Jumping up from her cubicle, she rushes down the hallway, only to find all the Meeting Rooms empty. Doubling-back to Harry's office yields the same result. Wandering back and forth through the corridors and offices turns up only the usual daily business. Worried she might have missed Malfoy somehow on his way out, she starts the MLE-to-cafeteria walk, slowly, looking down hallways and in storage cupboards on the way. Only as an afterthought, she checks the patio on the first floor (though the term 'patio' for this space is overly kind) and it's there she finds him.
The patio is a five-by-five-meter shaft way formed at the junction of the two buildings that make up the Ministry of Magic with its two neighboring ones. Originally, the space was probably created for storage or waste disposal or something, but through the years it's just been left open for no purpose. The concrete square is bordered on each side by seven to twelve stories of brick wall, and where benches and potted plants could have easily been utilized to make this a pleasant open-air break area, it remains stark and cheerless.
Malfoy is standing in the centre of it, in profile to Hermione's view from the door. Perfectly still, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, his head is tipped up toward what little brightness beats down from the square of sky visible above the high brick walls. The bones of his shoulders jut through his jumper, and in this light, she can see just how threadbare his clothes are. Someone has given him shoes, so it's in trainers that he stands amidst the cigarette butts and plastic wrappers littering the space. His hair is five months' growth longer than she's ever seen it, but it gives him a sort of roguish look. He must have been allowed to shave every now and then, because there's only about two weeks of beard painting his jaw golden blond.
As she watches, his head tips back farther, and she follows the movement of his Adam's apple as he swallows and the muscles around it strain. His eyes slide closed as he lifts his face to what little bit of sun makes its way down to him through the clouds. He raises both hands to his head, raking his fingers through his hair like he's rinsing himself off in the shower.
As his hands fall back to his sides, she sees that those painfully thin shoulders are utterly devoid of tension. His every inhale and exhale comes without effort or strain. She's studying his fingers, lightly curled toward the palm of his veined hand, when he turns to her.
"Do you think the weather will hold?" he says, his voice surprisingly strong and clear.
She looks up at him blankly, confused by the question.
He looks skyward, one eye screwed shut against the brightness, then angles his gaze back to hers. "The sun. Is it here to stay, or is there rain coming?"
Hermione has no idea about the weather report. She shrugs. "Well, you know… it's London."
She didn't mean it to be funny, but Malfoy laughs. When he keeps on laughing, a little too hard and way too long, Hermione takes in the jutting cheekbones and dark circles, the exhausted slump of his shoulders, and the arms hugging his sunken chest, and her brain switches to high alert.
"Malfoy? Why don't you come inside now. We can get you settled and… some food…"
He stops laughing, but the smile remains. "I'm fine, Granger. I feel great. I feel…"
He trails off, shaking his head lightly. She thinks he's forgotten he was speaking when he turns back and tips his face back to the sun. He pulls one long, slow breath in and lets it out equally slowly. He stands so still, she isn't sure he remembers she's there.
Then he finishes, softly. "I feel clean."
Hermione has to tear herself away, but she leaves him to his solitude, having learned her lesson long ago about intruding on a person's hard-won peace. She walks slowly back to the MLE offices, feeling the heavy weight of days of sleeplessness and anxiety and the drugging power of relief calling her home to her bed.
In the coming days, a hush falls over the department as news spreads. The results of the debriefing are conclusive. Through five months of captivity and torment, Malfoy remained the Ministry's man in every way. He surrendered nothing.
Just when Hermione is certain she's finished being surprised by Draco Malfoy, he blows every bit of revision and research away like it's dust.
It's the end of a very long day of moving into her new flat, and as a result of some ill-timed boasting about physical prowess, coupled with two outright challenges and the loss of an unrelated bet, Malfoy is the one tasked with helping her with the manual labor. And it is mostly manual labor; they have to keep the magically floating boxes to a minimum in Muggle London. She got her bed and the larger pieces of furniture in there earlier with shrinking spells, but it would be suspicious if there weren't a day's worth of trudging up and down stairs with boxes for the benefit of her new neighbors.
Malfoy does indeed have an impressive amount of upper-body strength, is positively predictable in his inability to ignore challenges, and has taken the lost wager in stride. They're getting the last box from the pavement into the walk-up when it happens.
He's carrying the final box, so she climbs the stairs ahead of him and holds open the door. She's talking about something, but she loses her train of thought as he approaches. The late afternoon sun is behind him, his hair bursting with light in the breeze, and she has a tendency of forgetting what she's talking about whenever his hair falls in his eyes. The features of his face are shrouded, so she can't quite read him as he holds still, looking at her.
Abruptly indicating the box in his arms, he says, "Here, hold this for a second."
It's smallish and not too heavy, so it's apparently one of the few not containing books. As she takes it from him, adjusting the bulk in her arms, she feels him brush against her as he moves in close. She raises her head just as his hands come to either side of her face, gently smoothing back the wisps of her hair escaping her ponytail with his fingertips, thumbs stroking her cheeks.
He cannot be serious.
She's hot, she's tired, and she's in desperate need of a shower. He's had months and months and months of opportunity, of her doing everything but flinging herself bodily at him just to see what the hell he would do, and he picks this inexplicable, nothing moment to finally confirm what she's suspected but never quite trusted.
Hermione maintains her disbelief beyond the point where his lips meet hers, gently, maddeningly tentative. She can't do much about it though, because she's holding a bloody box, and she's pretty sure that's exactly his plan, the bastard.
She opens her mouth on a breath and presses back, taking the corner of his upper lip firmly between her own. He makes a quick, satisfied sound just before ripping himself away. For a moment, he just blinks at her as though nothing happened. Then with a slight smile, he relieves her of the box and walks through the door and up the stairs to her flat. Hermione shakes her head in disbelief and follows.
"Malfoy. Malfoy!" she calls after him, hot on his heels up the three flights. She doesn't catch up with him until she enters her flat, and it takes a second for her to locate him in the kitchen. "Malfoy," she says from the doorway.
"What?" he says, walking out of the kitchen wiping his hands.
"What was that?" she blurts.
"What was what?" he says, with really convincing innocence. She almost loses her indignation.
"That," she says incredulously, pointing through the doorway in the direction of the front door to the building. "The… box."
His eyes light up with mischief. "The box, Granger? That's what you want to talk about?"
She very nearly stomps her foot. "Why would you just do that and then just— And you— And I—" She tops this speech off with a high-pitched squeal of frustration, her hands clenched into tight fists.
To his credit, he doesn't laugh at her. He's looking at her with delighted amusement, but there's a seriousness to it that, even in this state, she appreciates.
"Well, Granger, the box was because I didn't expect you to make it so easy on me."
Did he just say— "Easy? You're saying I'm—"
"No," he says firmly, and he shakes his head with a laugh as he moves swiftly toward her. "Merlin, Granger, no one would ever say that."
And then he's kissing her. Fully, all-consuming, exactly the way she wants to be kissed. Reaching behind her, he closes the door, then walks her backward to press her against it and he's molded to her and all eagerness. It's the perfect kiss, and she's sorry she doubted him because it is the perfect moment, and he tastes perfect. He's all warm from the sun and the exercise, but his mouth is cool, and he's got a day or two of beard, and it's both softness and roughness and he's everything she wants.
And his arms are wrapped so tightly around her, and Holy Mother of God… she wants to lick every ounce of salt from his skin. She tips her head abruptly to connect her mouth to his neck at last, her tongue teasing his Adam's apple, her teeth finally meeting the muscles she's studied for so many years. He chuckles wickedly, and with a shot of paranoia, Hermione wonders if he's known what he does to her all along.
She's surprised that he's not more take-charge. He isn't passive, but he seems to wait for her to make any move that takes this to the next level. He waits, watches, and matches her at every step. Once there though, he doesn't back down. In years of imaginings, she's always thought he would be dominating and fully in control of the speed and the direction.
Hermione decides then and there to stop thinking she has any idea whatsoever of what to expect from Draco Malfoy. She hasn't a clue.
She wants under his shirt, she wants to get closer. But the closer she gets and the more skin she seeks, he matches her. She runs her hands up his damp back. He pulls up her shirt. She toys with the buttons of his trousers, slipping her fingers down the front. He reaches for the elastic of her ponytail.
Oh, God… she's a mess. She's a stinky, sticky mess, and she needs a shower. She resolves to just keep everything where it is. Kissing. Kissing is nice, it's a step forward. It's enough for now.
Four inroads under his clothes (and one impulsive grab for his arse) followed by retreats when he answers in kind, and she stops.
He stops, but holds her close. His face is pressed to her neck, mouth under her jaw. He's still, waiting.
Finally, she says sheepishly, "I need a shower."
He licks behind her earlobe, and she shudders, thinking that maybe he likes the salt too. "Okay," he says, but stays where he is, his arms holding her firmly.
"Okay," he repeats, and he turns them around, so that he's facing the direction of the bedroom, inside of which is the loo.
He pulls back from her neck and looks her in the eye. His gaze is steady, unassuming, unhurried. His hands move to her hips as he takes a couple of steps forward, pushing her to walk backward with him in the direction of the shower. He stops them after a few steps and studies her face.
"Okay?" he asks, his eyes flicking rapidly back and forth, reading hers.
She takes a shaky breath and nods. "Okay."
As Malfoy dips his head to resume his exploration of her neck, they slowly walk together toward the shower. As they reach the threshold to her room, he pauses to look into her eyes. When she takes a step backward, pulling him to cross it and keep them going, he kisses her deeply.
The fierceness of his kiss makes her grip his shoulders to stay upright as he moves them ever onward. At the door to the toilet, he stops again. Releasing his arms from around her, he braces his hands against the doorframe and waits for her reaction.
She's not about to turn back now though, so she walks in. He follows and they face each other for a heavy moment on the fluffy shower mat that is one of the first things she always unpacks.
With stiff fingers, she fumbles awkwardly to pull her shirt over her head. Once that's off, she pauses. She's not very eager to remove anything that would come next.
Malfoy, watching avidly, nods and springs to action. He pulls off his shirt, then immediately begins on his belt, then his shoes, and the buttons to his trousers. He glances at her throughout, checking. He concentrates on the rest as soon as he becomes sure of her fervent interest.
When he's down to his pants, he steps around her and turns on the water. His back to her, he tests it and lets it heat up as he takes off his socks, then finally his pants. With only a glance back at her, he steps in the shower.
With just a glimpse of all of him, his skin, and the muscle underneath sliding against bone, Hermione is pulling at her clothes, eager to follow. She's soon stripped and joining him under the warm spray. Close to him, the water shrouding her, she doesn't feel exposed at all.
His arms wrap around her, hands brushing down her back and sides underneath the water. He holds her as they are washed clean. The salt, the dirt, and the remnants of the past fall easily from them and rush in a swirl down the drain.
Like before, he waits for her hands to grow bold against the slipperiness of his skin before he responds in kind. It's a convenient way, she finds, to ask for what she wants. And she wants all of him. She wants him all over her.
He washes her hair gently and she laughs at his utter uselessness against her tangles. She scrubs his back with a soapy sponge. Kneeling before her, he washes her feet. As an excuse to study his fingers, she takes far too much care cleaning his fingernails with a brush.
Pulling his hand from hers, he touches her cheek with reverence. His eyes dive into hers with such tenderness that she's overcome with emotion. She'll drown in them, in this, if she doesn't find mooring.
She wraps her arms around his waist and buries her face into the crook of his neck. A tension enters him as he holds himself and them very still for minutes. Then, he pulls back and gives her a lingering kiss on the mouth before reaching behind her to turn off the shower.
He gets out first and grabs a towel to wrap around his waist. Handing one to her, he averts his eyes as she steps out and wraps it about herself. He leans against the counter, arms crossed, watching her. Drops of water fall from the ends of his hair, dripping heavily on his shoulders. She thinks to give him a towel to dry it, but she only has the three unpacked, and her hair always takes at least one all on its own.
Standing back from him now, able to catch her breath, she thinks of all the times he's confused her. All the questions for which there were no answers, all the times she just wanted to stop everything and understand. He's here, ready for her to know, and he offers a future of the unexpected.
She walks to the door of the loo and at the threshold, she looks back at him. "Help me find the sheets?" she asks, and she does a good job of keeping her eyes steady on his as she flicks her head in a gesture toward the bedroom.
A slight note of surprise lights his face as he follows.
Boxes are strewn everywhere, and she hadn't had much time for labeling, so it takes a dozen tries before they find a box with any linens. What they find don't match. They make the bed between them.
She starts to giggle when she realizes their 'disrobing' is actually 'de-toweling,' and she doesn't know why she thinks that's funny, but it releases most of the tension that shakes her bones every time she looks at him. But then he's smiling too, and she can't laugh around the feeling of her heart swelling at the sight as he crawls over her.
He's so slow, and careful, and thorough, and she is almost uncomfortable with the intensity. He demands her attention with every caress and lick. He won't allow her to hide. She always finds comfort in the closeness of an embrace; the burrow into the crook of a neck that gives both shelter and succor.
But he won't allow it. He stops periodically and coaxes her attention from wherever she's gone in her head, in her fantasies, in her memories. He wants all of her, present, here with him. She instinctually tries to hold on to the moment, to retreat, to think. She wants to examine it.
He wants her to feel it.
Wrapping her arms around his shoulders, she angles her nose to his neck and breathes him in. The soap is hers, but the scent is wholly different than on her. It has mixed with Malfoy and made a new substance. With a breath of a laugh, she thinks: the element Draco.
Mined through darkest ground, forged in a crucible of his own mistakes, and cooled by forgiveness and redemption, he's everything he's spent years becoming. He's all she wants to know.
Lost in these thoughts of him as he enters her, her breath catches in a sharp gasp. Her head presses back hard into the pillow, eyes shut tight.
He doesn't move. Propped on his elbows, his hands smooth back the damp curls from her face. Kissing her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, he asks one last time. He calls her back to him.
"Hermione," he whispers. "Hermione, look at me."
She takes a deep breath and opens her eyes.
*The End *