A cleanse – that's what it feels like. Emptying her system of additives and addictions, starting at square one. Not that magic is really comparable to caffeine or processed sugar, but it refreshes her to go back to basics, resets her priorities, like spending a month eating only the produce of a summer garden while knowing one will return to pasta soon enough. This is why Hermione spends a magic-free month among Muggles every year, and so long as this is the effect, she has no plans to curb the habit.
This summer she has chosen a sleepy fishing village on a picturesque stretch of the eastern coast. Hermione-five-years-ago would have been horrified to know that Hermione-today would go willingly into a bed & breakfast, but there is something soothing and utterly British Muggle about settling in to someone else's life for a month. She even appreciates the fact that the floral curtains, wallpaper, and duvet are a matching pattern – not her style, but impressive in and of itself. She is learning to forgive her past self for old mistakes and misconceptions.
The proprietor, an energetic woman with a snow-white pixie cut, welcomes her with, "Aren't you the pretty one! And much younger than we usually get," and Hermione finds herself bustled inside for tea, complete with crustless cucumber sandwiches and cream scones with lemon curd.
There are a few others at the table, a older couple from Ireland who have been there for two weeks already, a middle-aged headmistress from the Netherlands, the neighbor next door, and an elderly local pair who turn out to be siblings of the proprietor and tell Hermione where they live in town as though she knows their reference points. Everyone spends the next hour happily interrogating her without a single reference to the Golden Trio. She answers their questions good-naturedly; such is the fate of the newcomer. She will be a novelty for a few days before blending in to the ebb and flow of the summer visitors. In towns this small it is impossible to get lost in the shuffle. Part of the odd appeal of the cleanse is that she has to be actively without magic—no opportunities to go on autopilot and make excuses for sneaking a spell. In a place like this, with everyone in everyone else's business, she'd be caught in half a moment.
After a while they drift back into local gossip. The proprietor's neighbor says, "We have a handsome new acquisition down at the docks."
Hermione expects them to be talking about a new boat, so she is charmed to realize they are, in fact, with open admiration and curiosity, discussing a man.
"Don't even bother, Lu; he's half your age."
The proprietor's sister days, "I expect he's a murderer; he looks like one."
The proprietor rolls her eyes at Hermione.
"He looks at me the way I imagine a murderer would look at me," the sister tells Hermione. Hermione privately thinks that if the proprietor's sister asked him half as many questions as she has asked Hermione, she can understand why he might.
They ask Hermione if she has been to the harbor yet and she says no, she came straight from the train. "How about a tour?" suggests the proprietor's brother.
The entire group decides they could use an airing, so it is thirty minutes before they are all ready to leave. They stroll down the sidewalk like a line of geese; all of them speak over each other, calling Hermione's attention to a particularly adorable rose-covered cottage or a stand where she might buy local honey.
The docks are busy: it is the end of the fishing day and all the ships have come in. The briny, fishy smell of sea and cargo combined fills her nose. The air is full of screaming seagulls, all anxious for an effortless supper. The fishermen stand dockside and shipside and shout at each other. The proprietor's brother points out the town's best fish and chips stand.
A man in a grubby white shirt bends over to pick up a crate, and Hermione briefly admires the display of back muscles that show through the fabric. He straightens and turns, and—
They both turn white as a sheet.
The sea wind whips his hair into his eyes. He stands in front of her, gripping the crate, staring in shock.
She has forgotten the docks, forgotten her companions, forgotten everything around her. Her heart is pounding at double speed. Him.
She opens her mouth—
He turns away, striding down the dock without a backward glance.
The proprietor takes Hermione by the elbow and says, "Oh, did you see him? That was the man we were talking about, there, carrying the crate. That's Si!"
Hermione stares at herself in the mirror and orders herself to breathe.
That accomplished, her nervous energy sinks to her legs and sets her pacing the bedroom.
She briefly considers sending an owl to Harry, but telling Harry that Draco is here is as good as summoning him, and the last thing she wants is for Harry to show up and start muddying the waters. She will tell him when she returns home, assuredly. He has been worried about his friend, despite a series of vague postcards from different parts of Europe assuring him that Draco is alive. Not well, perhaps, but alive.
He looks well enough now. Tired, yes, and far from happy to see her, but strong and hale, like a weatherbeaten sailor of old, as one must become when laboring daily on the open water. Thin scruff on his face from going days without shaving and a new tattoo above his collarbone – these details she had managed to take in before he spun away.
She has forgotten the effect his face has on her when she hasn't seen it in a while. He is all sharp angles, cheekbones that could cut glass, handsome in a way that makes her whole body ache. Him. Here.
She sinks to the floor next to the bed and buries her face in her arms. To think, this time last year she had been wholly unaware of what was waiting at summer's close. Their first truly friendly conversation had only just happened before she went on holiday. Everything had started as summer ended, though it hadn't taken long to escalate. All in hardly more than a season! It amazes her still, how much they managed to fit into those months: discovery to jubilation to heartbreak; soaring to the mountain peak and plunging into the ocean depths.
Then, she had never given much thought to the consequences of a Muggle-born marrying into wizarding aristocracy. Andromeda Tonks had tried to warn her but Hermione had dismissed her advice, thinking that things were different now; the war had been fought and won and was over. The subject was null and void. Draco had long since ceased to care about bloodlines. She had never cared at all, or so she had believed.
It was different, though, when her adversaries were not teenage miscreants. Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy may have changed their tune when it came to Death Eaters, but neither wanted a Muggle-born daughter-in-law. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Draco loved both his parents and his fiancee, so they were frequently thrown into each other's company.
From the Malfoys and their ilk Hermione learned there were ways to cause pain that had never occurred to her. A poisonous phrase coated in sugar, that must be swallowed as a compliment, along with her dignity; unbelievably scornful 'slips of the tongue' with an insincere apology immediately following; open laughter at her friends, her beliefs, her intelligence; blatant dismissal of her plans or choices in favor of their own; this was their revenge for her presumptuousness in daring to sully the noble bloodline of the House of Black.
In smaller doses, such things might have been borne—hadn't she survived her schooldays?—but they were relentless. Instead of taking the high road she grew angry and took offense, realizing too late that she was only giving them what they wanted. She knows now that the greatest retaliation would have been simply to be happy together, the rest of the world be cursed.
Too late for that, now, and whose fault is it? Only hers.
Who cared what a bunch of bigoted old purebloods thought? was Draco's way of thinking, but oh, she had cared, and had wanted him to care too. To her mind, he was willingly blind to their snubs and sins. It hurt her, and she punished him.
She had withdrawn. She had blamed him for their continued prejudice, and every time he failed to wage war against the subtlest jab toward her she turned it into a battleground between the two of them. And finally, finally, the penultimate row, when she had told him she wouldn't live among his kind, much less raise children among them, that no man who truly loved her would let her suffer as she had, and thank God she learned he was a coward before vowing to honor and cherish him for the rest of her life.
'His kind'! The memory makes her ill. His kind are the Lupins, the Potters, the Weasleys. Their kind.
She had thrown his ring in his face and told him she never wanted to see him again. He had turned grey—she can still summon up that image exactly, without any help from magic—and very slowly bent to pick it up. It had flashed white in the light before vanishing into the darkness of his pocket.
It took a matter of days for her to realize that she had never been so wrong in all her life, and by then he had disappeared.
It would be best if she left. She knows this. She has an honest conversation with herself (she is learning to always be honest with herself) and admits that it would be best if she left immediately, best if she forgot she ever saw him. She is honest about all of it, including the fact that she knows all along that she is going to stay.
It isn't because of him. She'd rather not see him at all (honestly). Any encounter is bound to be awkward and extremely painful on both sides. She is well aware there is no repairing what she broke. Perhaps someday she will have the courage to beg forgiveness. For now, she has no desire to intrude on his life; he has made it clear he wants only distance between them, as much as can be managed.
Despite him, she wants to stay.
For one thing, she lost her heart to the town months ago, just from photographs. Now that she is here she loves it even more. It's like a place out of a movie, where neighbor lives alongside neighbor in flower-strewn pastel-painted cottages and the only cloud on the horizon is a pillowy white one, hung there for the aesthetic. She has been set on this place for months now, and despite the fact that part of its appeal was the opportunity to briefly abandon her troubles—troubles that have just become very present—she wants very much to enjoy it for its own sake. She has done enough research to know that there is far more to see than the docks. There are hills and climbing paths and quaint little shops and tearooms and galleries of local artists and a few neighboring towns.
Then there's that other part. She has been buoyed forward for months by the knowledge that this month is waiting for her. She needs it desperately. The fact that the heart-and-mind troubles she intended to work through have just become tangible does nothing to disperse them. Having encountered him again, she will think about him wherever she is (honesty: she already thinks about him wherever she is) so what difference will it make if she relocates? Here or anywhere, she'll be struggling with the same things, and here at least she knows she loves the place.
The third factor—which would be no argument at all if she were determined to leave, and which isn't really an argument to stay, but helps to settle her decision—is that the room is paid for, no refunds.
One mercy is that she is spared further embarrassment. She won't have to explain to him why she is here. Gossip will have made its way through the village by now, detailing everything about the new guests, and he'll have heard there is a young woman here for a few weeks, though gossip must have left out her name. He knows she does this every summer, will have put two and two together. He won't think she's chased him down.
She avoids the docks as though dementors reside there. She visits the quaint little shops and art galleries. She takes walks along the rocky shore. She has leisurely lunches on patios looking out over the ocean, and if her eyes stray away from her book to the water more often than not, it is only to be sure the horizon is clear of returning trawlers.
In this way she manages to avoid him for three days.
According to the b&b proprietor, the fishermen leave early in the morning and are usually back to sell in the market by mid-afternoon. Hermione, satisfied with her sleuthing, starts to turn away, only to be begged of a favor: if she means to go to the harbor today, will she bring back filets for supper? She has already told the proprietor her plans to spend the afternoon aimlessly wandering through town, so she cannot refuse.
"Perhaps you'll see Si." The proprietor smiles at her meaningfully, as any good Cupid is wont to do.
Si, Si, Si. All she seems to hear about is Draco. He is the town's unsolved mystery: no one knows where he's from or how long he'll stay. When pressed on either topic, he'll say it doesn't matter. This, combined with his handsome face and form, is more than enough material for tireless speculation over a tragic, murderous, heartbroken, jail-dodging past.
Hermione dons sunglasses and a sunhat and approaches the pier with caution, hoping against hope that she will be lost in the market crowd. There are at least eight fishing booths busy selling their wares, as well as the other farm stalls who set up when the fishermen arrive. She won't be able to dodge him if they run into each other: she doesn't know what his trawler looks like.
A grizzled old seaman hails her. She walks forward with relief, only to nearly trip over her feet when Draco straightens from where he is bent over a stack of coolers behind the table.
"Si will help you," says the old man, clapping his assistant on the shoulder before vanishing behind a tarp.
"Four, please," she manages.
"Plaice, cod, or bass?" His words are cool and his face is blank. He doesn't ask why she is buying fish, she who has never bought fresh fish in her life.
"Oh, I – I don't know."
He doesn't help her, just looks at her and waits.
He wears a thick fisherman's sweater. The sun has bleached his hair nearly white. This close she can see that the tattoo is a small triangle. He looks at her as a stranger would – as though he has never said things that made her feel like she had turned into golden light, as though he has never made her skin burn with his caresses, as though he has never told her that his heart resided inside her body.
She's been hated by him before, but this—
"Cod, I suppose."
He wraps her purchases and she watches without another word passing between them.
It's only what she deserves. She broke his heart and her own, and there is nothing to do but grit her teeth and plunge forward into a life without him.
He hands her the parcels and she hands him exact change.
He nods, his eyes already on the person behind her.
The town is the size of a dime and she is living there for four weeks; it is inevitable that she sees him again, though no other encounters require conversation.
He is ahead of her in line at the bakery; she keeps her eyes on her book. She sees him in the drugstore and lingers in women's goods until she sees his white-blond hair moving toward the checkout. They pass on opposite sides of the street and don't make eye contact.
She cannot help but be proud of him. He left home without any Muggle money whatsoever. Whatever he has built for himself here, be it ever so humble, is owed to his diligence and skill.
It is easy to stay busy. She explores the neighboring towns. She joins the other guests at trivia night. She reads all the books she has been saving for this break. She hikes the coastal cliffs. She labors with her hands instead of magic. She doesn't think about anything or anyone at all.
Her third week there, the town has their annual summer festival. All the farm stalls and craft stalls and restaurant stalls haul their goods out and fill the park at the center of town. They hang strings of flags and there is a live band playing jazz classics. Hermione gets a sunburn and buys trinkets for friends back home and eats five oranges in an afternoon.
The b&b guests claim a table and they all have supper together. The sunlight fades and the strands of lights crisscrossing the air above their heads turn on. There will be fireworks later.
The fishermen are bartenders for the night. They have a brightly-lit tent in the middle of the square where they are serving local brews and standard cocktails. She stands in line and watches them. Draco is in a good mood: he's joking and shouting to the others. His eyes are bright and his gestures animated. There are four registers; by the time it is her turn, he is the man on the other side of the table, as hoped.
"What'll you have?" he says, and he still speaks to her as a stranger might but at least there is an expression on his face.
She orders a whiskey and Coke. She forgets to specify diet, always her preference, not realizing her error until she sees him making it – with diet. While she's waiting for him to count out her change she decides this is the sign she has been waiting for.
Under the cover of the surrounding noise, she says, "Can we talk?"
His eyes graze over her face. Stranger's eyes. "Sorry, no time. Brendan! Come right up and tell a man what you're drinking."
Hermione goes back to the table and makes sure that she is sitting with her back to the bar tent. She eases back into the ever-lively conversation that the proprietor has a gift for conducting. She laughs at jokes and anecdotes until her stomach hurts. She downs her drink in less than five minutes. She doesn't go back up to the bar tent for the rest of the night, sending her order through whoever is getting up for their next round.
As the stalls are closing in preparation for the fireworks and the crowd is shifting to get a better view, a flash of white-blond appears in the corner of her eye. He doesn't look away when her eyes meet his.
To her surprise, he approaches the table. The b&b crowd watch him eagerly.
Face devoid of expression, he says, "You dropped this."
It is a sugar hexes wrapper from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, the last one Fred ever gave her. It must have fallen out of her coin purse when she paid. Anyone else would have thought it was rubbish and tossed it.
She has scarcely managed to thank him before he is turning on his heel and disappearing. The proprietor and a couple from Norway immediately begin a hushed conversation about what that might have been all about. Hermione ignores their pointed looks.
She watches but barely registers the fireworks show. Her hand is closed tightly around the wrapper for the duration. All she wants in the world right now is a certain pair of warm arms wrapped around her. His chest breathing against hers. His soft exclamations of wonder in her ear over the colors exploding in the sky.
She thinks of his flat voice. His flat eyes. His expressionless face. No time.
She can't wait to leave.
The month comes to a close. Hermione packs her suitcase and sets aside anything she will need prior to her departure in the morning. She eats a last supper with the proprietor and a tableful of locals and guests. They all swap email addresses and she has reason to expect some of them really will keep their promises to send her any photographs they've taken of her. The night is windy; the moon is covered in clouds. A storm is rolling in, but is a few miles off yet. She decides to take one last ramble along the shore. She needs to say farewell to the last year of her life.
She has forgotten how quickly coastal storms move. It is upon her before she is ten minutes out. She is soaked in a matter of seconds.
Rain comes down in torrents, making it difficult to see. She is worried that she'll miss the head of the path if she goes back. Best to find shelter. The next time lightning cracks open the sky, she spies a little sea shanty a bit further up the beach. She heads toward it.
To her relief, the door isn't locked.
To her horror, she finds herself facing an astonished Draco Malfoy.
"I'm sorry – I didn't know you were in here." She stumbles backward to leave the way she came.
"Don't be daft," he grates. "The storm." He takes her by the elbow and pulls her back from the door. Her eyes fix on the place where his hand touches her arm; his eyes follow her gaze. He lets go quickly.
"Stay here until it blows over," he says, crossing the room to a wooden chest. "I promise not to talk to you." He fetches a towel and brings it to her, moving away again as soon as it is in her hands. Her thanks is barely audible.
She dries her face and hands and what she can of her hair. Her clothes are wet but it can't be helped. She is startled to be handed a woolen fisherman's sweater without having to ask; she shrugs it on, discreetly eyeing him as he walks away again. The sleeves fall to her fingertips.
There is no electricity, only a little kerosene stove to give heat and light. The shack is just one room: there is a bed in the corner and a rickety table with a pair of chairs beside a window. She seats herself gingerly in one of the chairs.
The only sounds are the storm howling outside, the rain driving hard against the glass, the small noises of his labors. The place is cold: the kerosene stove does little to compensate for the many drafts. There are no curtains on the windows, no pictures on the weathered gray walls, no comforts anywhere. Just wood and cold and fishing supplies.
Hermione stares out into the night. The shack's occupant sits across the room on the corner of the bed, mending nets. His wand rests near him at the edge of the stove, the tip of it giving off a small yellow light. His hair falls in his eyes; he has to brush it away every minute or so. She sees him do this twice, and the second time he catches her; from that point on her eyes remain fixed on the glass, though there is nothing to see but the dark blur of water.
Perhaps ten minutes pass; they feel like hours in an environment such as this. The wind screams against the wooden walls and shakes the windowpanes. Thunder crashes.
"You haven't told anyone," he says.
She considers her answer. "They love the mystery of you. I didn't have the heart to destroy it."
"I thought you were traveling the continent." She looks at him sideways.
He twists a length of rope. "I was. Circled down to Africa. Came back to England a month or so ago."
"What are you doing here, Draco? Fishing boats, and – and not a soul who knows your real name."
"What does it look like?" He briefly lifts his eyes from his nets to rest them on her, his face hard as stone. "Forgetting."
"There are easier ways," she says, voice low.
"I have too many fond memories of Hogwarts tied up in memories of you to simply discard you altogether. This suffices."
She turns her face back to the window.
The storm rages, the water strikes the window, the fisherman mends his nets. His guest sits still as though petrified. Time ticks on.
Hermione is crying, silently and steadily, tears streaming down her face to collect on her chin like raindrops. She cannot raise her hand to wipe them away or he will see. The storm masks the sound of her shallow, shuddering breaths. She sits there, misery curling around her like thick seaweed, wishing from that bottom of her heart that her life might end then and there.
Forgetting, he said, but from the look of things she is long forgotten. She declared things finished between them and he took her at her word. He has starved her out of his heart—ruthlessly and efficiently, with hard labor and distance and anger—but she has let him linger. She has not forced herself to face it yet, but now it is here, the harsh truth demanding acknowledgement, that for the sake of her foolish pride she has ruined her life, and now she must drink the bitter dregs. Her life stretches before her, long and empty.
To be near him like this becomes more unbearable with every minute. The storm must stop soon – must, otherwise she will take flight regardless, willing to be chilled and soaked if it means the end of this agony. She has to get out of here before the wail building in her chest escapes out her throat.
"What's the matter?" Draco says sharply.
Her head jerks around. He is staring at her, his hands paused in their work, a flash of lightning turning him ghostly for a split second.
She cannot speak.
"Hermione?" He half rises.
She tells him, "If I had a time-turner I would go back and cut out my own tongue before I could say what I did," and cannot suppress a sob.
He is across the room in a moment. The next, he is pulling her up against him, his mouth is on hers, and suddenly all the world is warm.
He is saying something – that he still loves her, never stopped, life has been torture. She sinks against him, not yet able to completely stop crying, though she can feel him smiling against her mouth. His hands are on both sides of her face, cupping her jaw. All the familiar things about him that have faded from the forefront of her memory come rushing back: the scent of him, the feel of him, the taste of him. He oscillates between hugging her tightly to his chest and kissing her, his mouth insistent against hers, his lips pressing a pattern to her cheek and forehead. She wraps her arms around him and has no intention of ever letting go.
The storm might rage as long as it likes; in a little one-room shack by the sea, the sun has risen, full and bright.
The b&b crowd wave them off with wide smiles and calls for well-wishes. Hermione blows them a kiss through the window and Draco, still known as Si to all those assembled, waves at them over her head.
They considered leaving the mystery of Si's sudden disappearance unsolved but decided to gift the others with a happy ending. In the capable hands of the locals, the tale will take on its own flavor. She is certain to be blended back into his history. They will never know how right they are.
The train starts to pull away from the platform. She settles into her seat beside him and links her fingers through his. Tied round the fourth finger of her left hand is a carefully braided loop of fishing wire and net cord. He got rid of her diamond before leaving the country; they have decided it is for the best. Neither of them want the memories attached to that ring. Her holiday has been a cleanse in more ways than she could have dreamed.
He leans over to kiss her. Her eyes drop closed and for a few moments all she knows is his mouth, firm and perfect and faintly mint-flavored. As the train picks up speed he sits back and smiles at her. His expression is warm and affectionate, his eyes once again those of a man who knows her better than anyone in the world. He has scarcely let go of her since the shanty.
They have both made their apologies and given their forgiveness. Any anger is dead, dried out and blown away. The love remains, rock-solid and golden. They are both still in a haze of wonder at their good fortune. She can feel the ways they are knit closer, the way a broken chain is stronger where reinforced. They have a rough plan for how to deal with the pureblood crowd, though Draco doubts his parents will continue to stoke that fire: they have learned their lesson, he says, and won't risk doing anything that might drive him away.
The storm has blown through and left nothing but a brilliant blue sky. Sunshine falls generously down on waving green fields. The train rushes past yellow gorse and over old stone bridges.
Draco says, "I'll never complain about rainy weather again."
It will be a few hours before they are home. Hermione is half-tempted to continue in his theme and go off-road, exploring the world together until they feel the need to wander back to London. The impulse roosts in her mind before flitting away. Someday, perhaps. For now, they have loved ones to see and a future to begin.
She settles her head on his shoulder and listens to the stories of his travels as the countryside passes by.