There was a flurry of things that ran through Hermione's mind right then.
Snippets of the biting cold cutting her cheeks, and remembering that further snowfall was forecast tonight.
The lazy realization of an itch behind her ear and an incessant, loose curl that kept coming over her eyes which she wanted so desperately to tuck back into her bonnet.
His words repeating in her mind, lacing themselves in a tangle of memories—small, insignificant moments in the past months, insignificant and yet so vital to that exact instance—and making sense of them as a whole—their fifth assignment, together, hunched over paperwork in a dingy filing room, sharing the poor light of a magic candle, so much like the ones that hovered in the Great Hall; then a random moment of curious electricity when his fingers brushed hers; his willingness to walk her over to her exit Floo point despite his air of chagrin; and that look he kept giving her, which baffled her to no end when she noticed, that look that looked so much like the one right now-
To which Hermione spluttered out, "Stop looking at me like that!"
And it didn't help that he was still holding her, underneath the lamp post, on a chilly street—had an onlooker seen them, they would probably have appeared almost...involved. His breath fanned out against hers, and he was still awfully close, and she wondered if he could feel just how much he'd undone her tonight.
And Merlin, really, why wasn't he letting her go?
"Will you relax, Granger?" he said, chuckling slightly, and she could feel the rich rumble of his voice against her, as his hands ran up and down her arms as if to soothe her. She watched the air come out in foggy wisps as he breathed, as they spiralled and faded away. "I should be the nervous one; I just told you all—well—that." And in the glow of the light, he almost looked flustered.
"You—you can't be serious. "
"I am, Granger," he said, "I mean every word of it. You were so insistent earlier as to know the reason for tonight's events. Would you like for me to say it again? "
She didn't know if she wanted to, but Merlin help her, before she could even refuse—
A kiss on the forehead.
A kiss in between her brows.
A kiss on the bridge of her nose.
"You." A kiss on the lips, again.
And again, and then, "You infuriating witch."
Her mind swirled.
And he rambled on. "Merlin, you may have been the most brilliant witch in our generation, but you're really horribly blind and clueless, aren't you?" He scowled. "You're practically the only person who can stand me in the Ministry! Of course I like you.
"You bloody irritate me on most days, Granger, but I wouldn't want anyone else to sit in front of me five days a week. You tap your bloody quill tens of thousands of times that it drives me crazy, and always finish the sugar cubes in the pantry before I get to make my own cup of coffee. You leave those sticky parchment notes everywhere on your desk with those cheery, annoying quotes that you think are inspirational and now you do it all over my desk too because you think I'll like them. And you—"
He looked away just then, and Hermione noticed the slight flush in his cheeks. "When Weasel comes by to visit, you always look painfully giddy and just bloody—beautiful with the way your eyes stupidly light up and you smile. And you would think that you would have learned your lesson back in school when that oaf made you cry!"
He was still scowling when he finished. She couldn't help it; she was staring at him stupidly, her heart a-flutter, at a loss of words. When had he noticed all those things? And how did she not notice him noticing?
And of course he brought up Ron, because of course she was seeing Ron. It wasn't a committed relationship—not yet, anyway, she thought (even now, their non-relationship was exactly that: a non-committal, of waiting, of never really knowing where they stood and what it was exactly that they wanted from each other after school. They were and weren't together.) and yet—
"I like Ron."
He scoffed at that. "Of course you do, but you don't love him, Granger. I know it's taken this announcement of my bloody betrothal and your endless thirst to get to the bottom of things to finally send my feelings—" and he cringed at his use of the word—"out into the universe, and now that I have, I'm making things right. And even if you're emotionally incapacitated to see that at the moment because of your bloody infatuation with him that you've had since we were in school, you won't end up with Weasley."
He was confident, almost, as if he'd see to it himself that things wouldn't eventually pan out that way.
"And you think I'll change my mind, do you?"
"Naturally. You'll come to your senses."
"And you think you'll change my mind?"
He released her waist; his hand found her hand, his fingers weaving through hers in a tentative clasp. "I would like to." He gazed at her then, in the way that he would before he would lean in closer. "Granger, I—"
And if anything had happened then, Hermione was certain that she would have let him do whatever he was intending to do at that very moment.
But as fate would have it, it was at that second that Harry and Ron rounded the corner several feet away, their voices and the sound of their steps carried towards them by the slight breeze. Hermione's eyes widened, and she stepped away, but—hang it all, she thought—Malfoy was still holding her hand, refusing to let go. He knew exactly who were coming towards them, and yet—
Where was all his newly found bravery coming from? She wondered. Was this some sort of drunken bravery?
"Let go, Malfoy," she hissed, tugging at her hand helplessly. "Do you have a death wish or something of the sort? If Ron sees you holding my hand, he's going to kill you, you know!"
He only shrugged. "I think I can take the Weasel." And then, cheekily, "But ah, we're getting somewhere—worried for me, Granger?"
She tugged again. "Let go, or so help me, I will-"
That was Ron.
And her hand was free, and she breathed in relief, but Malfoy was still standing a bit too close for comfort. Hermione noticed, and by the expression on Ron's face, he had too, and he was scowling ever so deeply at the sight of Malfoy by the time he and Harry had closed in upon the pair. He hadn't grown to tolerate the blond; Harry had, amazingly, but Ron hadn't liked it one bit that Malfoy worked with her ever since he started. Somewhere in Hermione's mind, she wondered briefly if Ron had an inkling of Malfoy's fancy.
"Hi, Harry, Ron!" she said a bit too quickly, pasting a wide smile on her face. Her heart was racing. "A bit too late, aren't you?"
"What are you doing with Malfoy?" Harry hadn't even bothered to say hello back. He looked curiously at their odd pairing at such an odd hour, slightly frowning in confusion. Meanwhile, Ron eyed Malfoy disdainfully, a look of distrust in his blue eyes.
Before she could reply, though, Malfoy had already spoken up, snapping, "Oh, for the love of Merlin, quit looking at me like you just caught me about to kidnap her. If you must know, Weasel, I was walking her back to the Disapparation Point—took you and Potter long enough to get here; Granger was just about to go home. Weren't you, Granger?"
His gray eyes were upon her. They were bright and teasing, but she was the only one who could tell. He'd looked at her for too long tonight, after all.
"Yes, yes, I was." She looked up at him, then to her two friends, and said, "But thanks, Malfoy, I think you can go back now." She swallowed, her nerves hardly still, because she could see the slight curve of his lips—he wore a small smirk, the infuriating git. "Good evening."
He smirked even further, and as he turned away, cloak billowing, he then said, "See you, Granger."
And then he was gone. Harry apologized for their being late, and Ron called Malfoy a ferret (he could never see Malfoy and not call him that at least once—a force of habit, if she ever saw one) and complained about George making him stick around the shop for far too long tonight.
As they walked towards the Hog's Head—the Three Broomsticks was abandoned after finding out the Ferret would probably still be there—Ron slipped her hand into his while Harry told them about his visit to the Dursleys that day. They ambled their way across the snow-laden streets, and she felt the familiar callouses on his fingers, the slight sweat in his palms.
Oddly enough, though, it didn't feel the same.
"-and then I told that old fart to shove his wand up his arse! Can you believe it? I—Hermione? Are you quite alright?"
Hermione looked up from her plate where, for the past few minutes, she'd been pushing her broccoli around and poking it absent-mindedly as Ginny rambled on about work. Weasley blue eyes peered back at her with mild curiosity as she remembered where she was at this exact moment, after having spent the last few minutes lost in thought.
Today was a Saturday evening—the third of the month, in fact: a date wherein she, Ginny and Luna had established a tradition of sorts to have dinner—a girl's night out, if you will—and catch up. Ginny was typically out for the rest of the days due to her Harpies training and quality time with Harry, while Luna was out of London tending to The Quibbler and searching for new species of nargles (last time, it had been Blibbering Humdingers, but she'd found out the last one in England sadly migrated to Hungary). Her closest girl friends, then, were all but far away or unavailable most of the time, leaving Hermione in London. On most third Saturdays, Ginny rambled on about her long distance relationship with Harry and Quidditch (the latter, Hermione thought, was something she really didn't care for); on some third Saturdays, Luna lovingly mentioned her new beau, Rolf, and their plans of taking a year-long trip to the Andes to search for an exotic subspecies of Heliopaths.
On other third Saturdays, Hermione gushed about her progress with elf rights, complained about her on-again-off-again thing with Ron, or asked about Rolf, or told Ginny to visit more often, or really just talked a lot about anything under the sun, from non-existent magical creatures to the boredom that was Quidditch. But today, she'd been distracted, quiet even, and Ginny finally noticed in between her story of an old pervert stalking the Harpies Beaters and their main course that something was not right.
"Yes, Ginny, I'm alright," she replied, flashing her a quick smile. "What makes you think I'm not?"
But her friend wasn't buying it. She eyed her suspiciously. "You've been awfully quiet this whole time. Are you sure you're feeling well?" She glanced at Luna. "Don't you think she's a bit out of it tonight?"
Luna gave Hermione a look, her gray eyes dreamy, and smiled. "Yes, she is, but I think it's because of all those holly fairies flying about her hair. They're in season now, and Hermione's hair looks perfect for nesting. They've been particularly around her hair at least several times a year since sixth year."
Hermione rolled her eyes, but Ginny ignored her and pressed on. "Did my stupid brother do anything again? Are you two finally officially together? Or is he just being an insensitive git for the nth time? You really should just move on and forget my idiot brother, Hermione. You know, other mermen in the sea and all that—"
Hermione scowled and resumed poking her broccoli. For once it wasn't about Ron, and her cheeks coloured slightly at the fact that her current dilemma was because of someone else. Someone Else, who had decided to muddle her life by telling her he fancied her. Fancied her!
What did it even mean, that word? What, in the context of Draco Malfoy, did the word 'fancy' connote?
It was a week ago that he'd kissed her and he'd told her of his fancying her, all under a bloody street light on a cold evening, which for some annoying reason, all seemed so romantic when she recounted it in her head.
It was simple: he had put a dent on the normalcy of her life, from the minute he had joined her department at work and had, months later, become such a welcome twat in her everyday routine that a day wasn't complete without him in it, to the week before when he'd basically bulldozed over all that and made that huge gesture of reckless confidence and told her those things.
She wasn't quite used to confessions. She'd barely received any in the last few years, and even Ron hadn't ever told her straight out what she meant to him. A tiny part of her almost expected that he would never own up to his feelings anyway; an almost-fact, which she didn't like thinking of.
But here he was, of all people, straightforward as confessions could go, even reaching far deep into their past and admitting he'd felt the same way, at one point, before. And he still did, now.
It was then that Ginny suddenly leaned in towards the center of the table, her eyes suddenly bright as they swept towards the entrance of the restaurant. "Oooooh, look who just entered! It's that girl they say is marrying Draco Malfoy!"
Hermione's fork stabbed into the broccoli with a decisive clink as the silverware hit the bottom of her plate. Her heart skipped a beat, and she didn't dare turn around. "What? How do you know about that?"
"Why, it's the latest string of gossip flying about! I heard it from mum who heard it from Andromeda, who, you know, must have heard it from Narcissa Malfoy," Ginny whispered, her eyes still trained on the girl. "Oooooh, she does look familiar, now that I see her! She was a year below me, I think, Slytherin—"
Even Luna was looking at the girl in interest now. "Yes, Astoria Greengrass, sister of Daphne Greengrass—your year, isn't that right, Hermione?"
Greengrass. The name rang a bell. Of course Hermione knew Daphne, but she'd never thought that girl had a sister; then again, she'd had more words exchanged with Pansy Parkinson, and barely noticed Daphne or any of the other Slytherin girls in her year. Again, Draco Malfoy's fault—without fail the one Slytherin who'd needed all the attention focused on him for the six years they'd been in school together.
"The betrothal is supposedly much quicker this time; normally, that old sort of upper-class Pureblood family would have given at least six months before the actual wedding." Ginny chimed. "I heard they were also considering Mandy Brocklehurst for Malfoy, but she's been caught up recently in a scandal with this Ministry chap in Paris."
"She's quite pretty, isn't she? Definitely much prettier than Daphne," Luna said. "Dainty, even."
"Is Malfoy with her now?" It was all Hermione could think to ask about, and she still didn't turn around to have a look. What if Malfoy was there?
"No, I don't think so."
She breathed a sigh of relief, then craning her neck to have a look at this girl. And when she saw her, she gasped slightly.
Astoria was beautiful.
Slender and dainty, just like Ginny described her to be, her light hair falling gently around her shoulders. Her dress robes floated about her figure; her mouth curved in a smile as she laughed at something the maître d' was saying. Daphne, Hermione remembered, was pretty, but Astoria was prettier indeed—lovely, even, and absolutely perfect for one Draco Malfoy.
What, then, in Merlin's underpants was he doing telling her he fancied her when there was that vision of a witch all set and ready to marry him?
"Oh, but he isn't her type at all," Luna quipped. She tsk'ed a few times and took a spoonful of potatoes.
"What do you mean?" Ginny asked.
"I hear Malfoy's got a thing for bookish brunettes."
Hermione's knife clinked again against the plate.
"Where on earth did you hear that?" Ginny laughed out loud, turning her head back to her friend. "That's rather specific!"
"Why, he told me when I ran into him in the Ministry once. We were riding the lift together, and he'd mentioned it," Luna replied off-handedly.
"How in the world did you even get to that topic?"
"Oh, I don't remember," she said, listlessly, "Only that I think Hermione's name came up."
"Ha!" Ginny laughed even harder, and Hermione took a gulp of her water and didn't dare look anywhere else but at Luna. "That killed me, Luna, it did," Ginny said, "For a minute there I thought you were implying Malfoy's taken a liking to our Hermione here!" She patted Hermione on the arm, and chuckled, turning back to stare at Astoria's robes.
"But, Hermione." Luna's gray eyes were twinkling. "There's also the fact that holly fairies are supposedly able to encourage romance. Did you know?"
No, Hermione thought, shaking her head as she snuck a look back at the beautiful Greengrass girl and yet again felt baffled at things unfurling, she didn't know that at all.
It was the next working day that she finally got to see him. She was stacking reports on her table, shuffling papers and sending them whizzing by in the air by way of the Department network when he sauntered in, narrowly missing a particularly thick report that was just about to exit the room just as he was about to enter. He gave her a long look as he fell into his chair, and her eyes flitted down to the stack she was holding, hoping that she looked too busy to care that he was staring. Had things been normal, they would have exchanged cordial good mornings and she would probably have asked how his weekend had gone.
But then there was that thing that had happened weeks prior, and her heart thumped.
It didn't help that his desk was right across hers, and that they were only divided by a short partition that hardly gave either of them much privacy. It only covered half his face, and Hermione had only to look up from what she was doing to see gray eyes piercing through hers meaningfully, daring her to say something.
Odd, she thought, how she realized that he'd had that same look on his face many times in the past and it was only now that she'd fathomed the gravity of his gaze. Her cheeks reddened at the thought.
Just then a deep voice called from their department head's office, and a hand shot out of the door and gestured for them to come in. Hermione sighed, stood up and walked in, Malfoy trailing behind her.
Hibbings was a big man who reminded Hermione quite a lot of Hagrid—seemingly wild and rough on the edges, but ultimately a good man who had an even bigger heart that simply adored beasts and magical creatures. She liked him enough, but when he let out the reason as to why they'd been called into his office, she decided that he hated her. That, and the fates were cooking quite a bit of a plot of late.
"A week?" Hermione spluttered most ungraciously.
"Yes," Hibbings nodded, sipping from his cup of tea. "There's been a spot of bother up north in a small town in the Highlands recently. Folks have been complaining about a possible Quintaped in the area, even if it's preposterous, really, considering they only live on the Isle of Drear, but ah, well, let's just say you're to go there to assuage their fears."
"But, sir—surely just one of us can go, and it'll probably just take a day or two at most—" Because the thought of spending that long a time together unnerved Hermione just a bit, especially after recent events. She would have none of it, if she could help it. She didn't dare look at Malfoy who was surprisingly quiet beside her; she knew he hated fieldwork, but here he was, not complaining loudly about it for the first time, when a simple trek to Bath that barely took half a day was something he had exploded about countless times before. A week! A week!
"Nonsense, Quintapeds are XXXXX category, Granger! I can't have just one of you go—and besides, seeing as you're already in the area, I supposed you could travel a bit further down afterwards and take care of the recent problem with the Merfolk at Lossiemouth and Dornoch—Pattinson was supposed to handle it, but his dear old mum's at St. Mungo's. You understand. So!" He clapped his hands. "It's quite a lot to handle, but you two make such a good pair anyway—"
For the life of her, she stiffened at Hibbings' comment—that bit about them being a good pair? She knew what exactly he meant, but it now connoted so many other things she dared think of.
"—and with the two of you handling these things I have nothing to worry about! Isn't that right, Malfoy?"
Malfoy gave a small smirk and simply nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Tut, tut, Miss Granger," and Hibbings wagged a finger at her, standing up and making his way round his desk with his cup of tea. "Come, now. Afraid of a possible Quintaped, are we? No, no, I have faith in Malfoy that he'll take care of you. Won't you, boy?"
Malfoy's smirk grew a tad wider. "Of course, sir."
"That's that, then. Go on, go on. Leave tomorrow morning, yes? Accommodations have been made, you know how these things go—"
And before Hermione could get another word in, they'd been shuffled out of his office and the door was closed and Malfoy was standing beside her, arms crossed, his smirk still playing upon his lips.
Author's Note: Happy New Year! I thought about abandoning this story, but I couldn't not finish it. Massive block, this one. Most if not all magical creatures mentioned here are from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Cheers!