Chapter 1: Juliet Is the Sun...
Granger, I need to speak with you about Jenkins...
It took little more than a minute flick of my wand to incinerate that memo. A second one followed on its heels. I sighed. I will never get home tonight.
I am more than three floors away from you, and, as sure as I am of my own name, you incinerated my first memo the millisecond you recognized my handwriting. My secretary wrote this, so now I know that you'll have at least read to this point. About Jenkins...
I coughed into my hand as the second memo scattered ash around my office.
A third memo fluttered in through the doorway.
Third time's a charm, Granger. Jenkins is...
The third memo went the way of the first two, and now my desk and bookshelves were covered in ash, necessitating a dusting charm. As if I had time to dust my office. I hated dusting charms. Bastard.
MALFOY, STOP HARASSING ME WITH YOUR POINTLESS, STUPID MEMOS, WHOSE SOLE PURPOSE IS TO ASSIST YOU IN YOUR PATHETIC SCHEMES TO BECOME THE NEXT MINISTER OF MAGIC.
That should do the trick. I sent the Howler on its merry way.
Yesterday had been yet another long day; Ron was asleep when I arrived home. Today would be no better. Ron was still in bed when I left. I put bread in the toaster, more butter in the butter dish, jam on the table, and filled the kettle with fresh water. Guilty for being so late the night before, I even set the table with a cloth napkin and his favourite cup. Hopeless, really. He'd ignore everything, and meet Harry at the McDonald's down the block from the Ministry to eat something called an Egg McMuffin. He brought me a sample one morning on his way to the office. When I spat it out on the floor, he assured me that they were right tasty, when they were warm. God, Americans. I try to keep an open mind, but what can you say about a society whose idea of a cultural icon is Bart Simpson. A cartoon of which Ron is inordinately fond.
Flooing into work, I stood in front of the lift, mentally cataloguing what I had to finish that day, come hell or high water. Just as the doors opened, I let out an enormous yawn. Mouth agape, I faced an elevator full of wizards and witches, with Draco Malfoy standing right in front.
"Late night, Granger? Weasley keeping you up until all hours? Didn't know Aurors were such randy devils." This was said with his trademark smirk.
Snapping my jaw shut, I glared at him. "I'll wait for the next lift, thanks. You're full up."
"Nonsense, nonsense," he cooed. "There's plenty of room. Squish up, people. The faster Granger can get to her desk, the faster she can save the world."
The more polite occupants coughed into their hands to camouflage their snickers; the nasty little bitch from accounting, the one who always questioned my receipts, let out a high-pitched giggle. Probably wants to get into Malfoy's pants, no doubt, and thinks that laughing at his jokes will get her an expensive lunch, with an afternoon shag as dessert. His long-standing marriage to Pansy Parkinson notwithstanding, Malfoy's reputation as the most complete hound ever to grace the Ministry dogged him no matter how many promotions he got. I was probably the only woman in the entire building he hadn't tried to seduce. To know him, was to loathe him.
"You're early this morning, Malfoy. You usually don't toddle in here until around ten. Photo opportunity waiting?"
That got a few snickers of my own in; the bitch from accounting glared at me. I imagine a bad week for him is when Malfoy and/or his wife only appeared in The Daily Prophet every other day.
My recent promotion to Undersecretary of Muggle-Wizard Relations meant we were working side by side, as he was Undersecretary for the Department for Wizarding Law. The majority of laws in the wizarding world centred around protecting Muggles from wizards and wizards from Muggles. Both jobs were a natural springboard to the Assistant Minister of Magic. We found ourselves rivals once again, much to my utter disgust. The mutual antipathy toward each other forged in our Hogwarts days had not diminished one iota. I kept my contact with him to a minimum. The penultimate opportunist, Malfoy deduced early on in the war that the older Harry got, the more powerful he became. At a certain point, Voldemort's demise was inevitable. Malfoy's switch to our side had nothing to do with a belated attack of morals, and everything to do with winning. While many people ate up that claptrap Malfoy fed them about his father forcing him to take the Dark Mark, those in the Order never trusted him, and never would trust him.
At every stop, as people filed out in twos and threes, I resolutely worked my way to the back of the lift to avoid more of Malfoy's snarky comments. If it wasn't my husband he saw fit to ridicule, it was me. A rigorous teeth brushing and flossing, (once the daughter of dentists, always the daughter of dentists), a swipe over my face with a damp washcloth, and comb through my ever recalcitrant hair completed my toilette for the morning. Make-up. Manicures. Haircuts. It just seemed like too much bloody trouble. All that fussing. There was so little time to get done what I wanted to get done; it seemed almost immoral to spend thirty minutes a day primping in front of a mirror.
Because Malfoy couldn't best me intellectually, he sneered at my haphazard grooming. He took what I viewed as strength of character and turned it into a character flaw. In one recent meeting, I'd wrapped my hair into an unruly knot on the top of my head and wedged my wand into it to keep it in place. A few minutes later a note was shoved across the table. He'd written in his elaborate script, "You look a fright, Granger," and, as if there was any doubt, he then transformed my quill into a comb. Storming into the bathroom to splash cold water on my heated cheeks, I saw myself in the mirror and I did look a fright. Only last week, he'd caught my eye in a meeting, flicked his eyes down to my tortured cuticles, brought a perfectly manicured hand up to his mouth in a manufactured yawn, and then dropped a nail file in my lap on his way out the door.
I wish I could say that I cared less about his petty digs regarding my appearance, but it wasn't true. He made me feel frumpy. From the top of my now greying mop, to the soles of my serviceable ballet flats. A glance at my nails clipped down to the nail beds or my recently shorn bangs, and a tiny smirk would appear. A comment on how I couldn't be arsed to pay even the most remote lip service to my femininity. That smirk would make me start cataloguing exactly how long it'd been since I'd had a real haircut. When was the last time I bought new robes? When I'd put on lipstick. When I'd changed my earrings. Horribly self-conscious, I'd realize that my bras didn't have a soupcon of lace. That my underwear would have been given benediction by a Carmelite nun. Without even trying, he always managed to make me feel like the wedding ring was merely a prop to hide the spinster underneath. Today was typical, the knife thrust that went in twice. That crack about Ron, when he knew exactly the kind of hours I was working, with the tacit tag line, "Who'd fuck her?"
I couldn't even say it was personal. He watched everyone. An unrepentant gossip, he knew who was shagging whom, who was going to be promoted, who wasn't. If you'd had a fight with your boyfriend the night before, he knew and had a rose sent to your desk. If you were a bloke, he took you out for a drink after work. He noticed everything. Your weaknesses. Your strengths. And if you happened to be in his way in his rapacious climb up the ladder, he determined exactly how to make your strengths a weakness. All this had the added effect that since he was watching you, you ended up watching him, if only in self-preservation.
Time had been exceptionally kind to him. He'd grown into the pointy chin, and abandoning Quidditch for racquet ball had kept him as lean as he'd been as a teenager. I'd been in enough meetings with him to know that twice-weekly manicures must have been de rigueur; his nails always buffed and shaped to showcase those elegant hands to their utmost advantage. (That I took nail clippers to my nails only when they started to snag on my clothes doesn't even bear mentioning.) Weekly haircuts, no doubt. (When my fringe got too irritating, I hacked at it with the kitchen shears.) Even I knew that such tousled nonchalance cost Galleons to maintain. He'd gone completely grey in the last year, banishing all traces of the fair-haired boy he'd been. I wouldn't have put it past him to have glamoured it to make him seem older, but every chance I got I waved my wand near his head muttering a sneaky Finite Incantatum to no avail.
He'd learned that a lazy smile was worth a lot more currency than a sneer. To use a Muggle expression, You get more flies with honey. Malfoy naturally put his own spin on that: You get more flies with money AND honey. Not that he wasn't a sarcastic arse ninety percent of the time, but another thing he learned was that you could continue to say horrible, nasty things about people if you turned it into a joke.
Ron and I were frequently the butt of his jokes.
As if I needed another thing to hate him for.
The lift wound its way into the bowels of the Ministry and emptied out until it was just the two of us.
"You've missed your floor, Malfoy." I stabbed the button for the fourth floor as a reminder. I was housed down on the seventh floor, a gloomy sign of just exactly how important Muggle relations were viewed in the general scheme of things.
"On my way to see you, actually."
As there was no one else around, I took the liberty of exploding. "Oh for the love of-- Malfoy, give Jenkins a rest. He's in sports. How important is that? Plus, he's as stupid as he is short."
Oh my God, did I say that? I must be really exhausted. Ignoring Malfoy's amused snigger, I picked up my pace, hoping to reach my office door, open it lickety-split, and then slam it in his face.
He was too fast for me, however, and slipping in right behind me, slid into the chair in front of my desk, and then spelled silencing charms and warded the room against possible intruders.
I raised an eyebrow. Surely, Jenkins didn't warrant such drastic measures.
Malfoy ignored me and merely asked, "Coffee?"
I'd had so much coffee yesterday that the very thought of it made my stomach ache. I shook my head.
"Tea, then." He snapped his fingers. Two antique Spode cups, saucers, matching teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl appeared on the desk in front of me. Usually occupying a vaunted place in Malfoy's office, this set probably cost more than my house.
"I apologize for that remark in the lift. Can't disappoint people can we? They expect us to snipe at each other. I say, give them a show. Shall I pour?" he asked demurely. "You like it quite strong, don't you? So do I," and he sloshed a wee bit into the bottom of a cup to check its colour.
For one quarter of a second I was touched both by the apology and then by offer of tea. Fortunately, I came to my senses. Who is sitting across from you, Hermione Granger? Opportunistic Death Eater scum extraordinaire, Draco Malfoy.
"What do you want?" I snapped, mindful that my calendar was already chock full for the day and did not include faffing about with Draco Malfoy for an hour. At this rate, I'd be sure to miss dinner yet again. Which would make it five for five this week. "If this is about Jenkins, take your priceless tea set and leave."
"Splash of milk, one level teaspoon sugar?" he mock queried. It was clear by the tone in his voice he knew exactly how I took my tea. Such intimate knowledge of my habits made me certain it was only a matter of time. Classic Malfoy ops. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer. His knowing exactly how I took my tea was a harbinger of doom. Clearly, he'd decided that we'd gang up on Jenkins to take him out of the running for Assistant Minister; Jenkins didn't stand a chance against the two of us, then Malfoy would proceed to squash me like a bug.
"No Jenkins on the agenda this morning." He took his tea black, I noticed. "It's...more of a personal matter."
I sighed. "What's he done now? How many Muggles do we need to Obliviate this time? Half of greater London? Sorry. I've called in all the chits I can in regard to your son. He's just going to take it on the chin this time."
A grimace was not quite hiding behind the edge of the teacup.
"Somehow, I think not."
I took a sip of my tea. Damn it, perfect. Just the way I liked it. Something Ron hadn't mastered after twenty years of marriage, and the person I loathed most in the world gets it right first tick.
"I think not." He put special emphasis on the "t" and set down his teacup. "Mind if I smoke?"
"Would it matter if I said yes?"
"Don't be silly, Granger." A wave of his hand, and a pack of Players appeared. He'd never have destroyed the lines of his custom-made robes with the unseemly bulge of a pack of fags. He lit it with the tip of his wand. Pointless to argue. I transformed a paperweight into an ashtray and shoved it across the desk toward him. The corners of his mouth turned up in victory before taking a rather long and deep drag on his cigarette.
"Several photographers caught Dom waltzing absolutely stark bollocks naked in the fountain in front of Buckingham Palace."
"Do have the courtesy to not blow that foul smoke in my face. I don't see what the problem is. He does that sort of stupid nonsense all the time. Since you own The Daily Prophet--"
"What makes you think I own the Prophet, Granger?" He began blowing smoke rings.
"Because it should be renamed The Daily Pansy, as you and your wife appear in it almost daily. If you're going to use the one and only wizarding paper as your personal house organ, have the bloody sense not to overdo it."
"If I did own the Prophet,"--I rolled my eyes and looked at my watch; I was supposed to get that report to the Minister by one today--"I'd have no problem ensuring such revealing photographs would never see the light of day. Alas, Dom chose to pick a remarkably public place for his latest escapade. There are several Muggle newspapers, however, that need... How shall I put this? Need to forget this happened."
A completely unforeseen part of my new job description entailed hauling Dominico Malfoy's arse out of the ashes. It was getting old. He purposely antagonized his father by pulling these sorts of stunts in Muggle London. The fact that he was Draco Malfoy's son and his performance as a junior Auror were the only two things stopping said ashy arse from being fired. A testament to Harry's fair nature, he loathed the son but acknowledged Dom's brilliance as an Auror. Harry would appear in my office no less than twice a month, rant and rave about what a worthless piece of Malfoy shit the child was, like father and son, and, by the way, he saved my life in a raid last week, and could you please Obliviate all and sundry per his latest prank.
What was unusual--in fact, it had never happened before--was that Malfoy pere was asking for my help.
"It's always been Harry begging for favours on his behalf. What gives?" I asked. And what's it worth? I added privately. I suppressed my mounting glee. I had Malfoy on the ropes. For once.
The ever-present cigarette--Merlin, how many of those did he go through a day?--was brought up to his mouth, and he dragged on the end, almost in a caress, before letting the smoke curl out of his mouth in a lazy "s." The most pathetic bid for time I've ever seen and extremely uncharacteristic. And Malfoy's free hand was clutching his knee, knuckles white.
"He came to me. Asked me for my help." He stubbed out his unfinished cigarette and lit another.
"And?" I pushed.
"He doesn't ever ask for my help. Ever," he snapped. "He hasn't spoken a civil word to me since his first year at Hogwarts."
Parts of Hogwarts were still being repaired when Dominico Malfoy went off to school. Horrible probably doesn't adequately describe being the grandson of Lucius Malfoy, and, despite Draco Malfoy's effort to save his privileged hide by spying for the Order, there were plenty of people who remembered which side of the war he initially pledged his allegiance. And while the Dark Mark had faded with Voldemort's death, no money on the face of this earth could charm the tattoo off his arm.
Malfoy waved the cigarette back and forth, scattering ash everywhere. "Do you know how nice it was to see my son without a sneer or smirk on his face? He's usually an arrogant little prick who never says anything to me without being sarcastic or outright nasty."
"Now you know what it was like to go to school with you. Pot, kettle," I smirked.
He stubbed out the freshly lit cigarette and brought his hands together as if he were in prayer.
"Granger, I know you think I'm an utter bastard. I know that you think I'm still a Death Eater shitbag--"
"Actually, opportunistic Death Eater scum if you must know.
That should have gotten a glare but didn't.
"This might be my only chance with him. He came to me. To ask for my help. I have no intention of buggering this up. And if you want to hear begging, fine. I'll beg."
Said in his usual sarcastic snarl, like he'd sooner beg from me than light his robes on fire, I nearly told him to fuck off and get out of my office. And then I saw his eyes. Not narrowed in amusement at someone else's expense, or angry, or scornful, or the typical disdain. Somehow less grey, more silver.
We sat staring at each other, me tossing my wand back and forth between my hands, a stupid habit I have when unsure of myself, him, lighting yet another cigarette and pulling sharply on the end of his fag like it was his last.
He hates being beholden to anyone. This will blow up in your face, I said to myself. He will never forgive you for being in your power for even one bloody minute. I knew this to be true. Then there were his eyes. His voice might have been its usual snotty drawl, but his eyes were begging. Fucking hell!
The worst of it was that he knew my innate sense of decency wouldn't turn him down. He wouldn't have even bothered with the elevator ride if he wasn't sure of my help.
"I know I am going to regret this. Use this against me and I will castrate you. One last time. Which papers?"
"Why do you keep this soft side of you hidden from the rest of the world? Is it only me that sees the true you?" He poured me more tea. "Do you have any brandy in your desk? The papers are a worry but not the least of our worries."
"As if I keep fifths of booze in my desk drawer. If I did, I wouldn't be doctoring up my tea at," I looked at my watch, "eight o'clock in the morning."
"You might this morning. I told you that one day you'd regret winning that skirmish on wards prohibiting conjuring alcohol in the Ministry. Dom's dancing partner?"
Time stopped. Because Draco Malfoy didn't come begging to me for favours just because Dominico Malfoy decided to get publicly naked with some nameless Muggle or witch.
"Who?" I managed to squeak out.
"Lily Potter." He nearly whispered it.
"Hell. Has she gone mad? With that worthless bugger? Right. I'll make a few phone calls. Maxwell is tops at this sort of thing. I'll put her on it. And while I'm doing that--"
"Granger, you're not getting it!" he snapped at me. "This situation is a little more serious than waving a wand at a few Muggle newspaper editors."
Conjuring up a handkerchief, he brought it up to his forehead to wipe sweat off his brow. I stared at him. In Malfoy-ese, this was equivalent to detonating an atomic bomb. As a schoolboy he was so easy to taunt into a spitting rage. The war changed him completely. Out on raids with members of the Order, you could always count on Malfoy to clamp a firm lid on the hysteria that threatened every mission. I'd only seen him lose it once during the war, and that was when his father was killed. Since then, he'd been all cool, collected snark twenty-four seven.
"There's more," he said dully.
"More?" I repeated.
"The photographs I saw showed them waltzing in the fountain, two very lovely tattoos emblazoned over both their arses. Dom later confirmed it. Black and white photographs, of course, but I know a marriage tattoo when I see it."
Oh dear God. It was one thing to forgive Dom Malfoy for getting drunk and freeing all the animals in the London Zoo--what a mess Obliviating all those children who had watched a lion hunt down a zebra in their schoolyard. Or for deciding that all fire hydrants in the entire city should be charmed chartreuse. Or to send up Glamours in the sky so that Muggles thought aliens were landing. It was quite a different matter to marry Harry Potter's daughter and celebrate said nuptials by dancing naked in St. James' Park.
"You see why I need your help." This wasn't a question, but a statement of fact, and I bloody well agreed with him.
He nodded. "Most definitely on her third martini by now."
"I assume the She-Potter is getting the good news as we speak." He saw the look on my face. "Sorry. Ginny's getting the good news."
"Don't be thick. Not yet, obviously, since my son and I are still alive. Whatever you think of my father, he didn't raise an idiot. Give me some credit, Granger. Do you think I'd purposefully enrage the most powerful wizard in England? I am equally horrified at the prospect of this liaison, but since I wasn't raised by wolves--the same can't be said for Potter--I am managing to keep my rage at bay. The most important thing is to keep this quiet until cooler heads divulge our newly minted status as in-laws. Which is where you come in. Knowing what a Muggle whore Potter is, he probably subscribes to a Muggle paper. Do you really want him to discover that we are in-laws over his morning coffee?"
If I'd kept booze stashed in my desk, I'd no doubt be guzzling straight from the bottle right about now.
Thank Merlin, Malfoy at least acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. He didn't pass it off as some aristo dalliance to sweep under the rug. The granddaughter of James and Lily Potter did not frolic stark naked in fountains with the grandson of the most notorious Death Eater next to Voldemort. And she certainly didn't marry him.
"Can we get it annulled before Harry finds out?" A nasty rumbling threatened to tear apart my stomach lining. During the war, this was a damn accurate barometer of looming disaster.
Malfoy shook his head. "Afraid not. Dom claims they're in love, whatever in the hell that means, and..." he hesitated.
The words "She's pregnant" were no sooner out of my mouth than the wards around my office disintegrated and the very door vanished to shouts of, "Malfoy, I'm gonna fucking kill that son of yours. Fucking tear him limb from limb--"
Now it was Malfoy's turn to look at his watch. "I see Potter's on time for once."
Chapter 2: Don't Mind If I Do
One month, three fist fights, six Howlers, and one bitch-slap fest later later: early summer, Hogwarts, 12:30 am.
The music from the band followed me out the door as I made a beeline for the rose garden, where I could collapse in peace. A somewhat secluded stone bench to the far side of the garden sat tucked away behind a gazebo, second only to the Astronomy Tower as the preferred snogging spot when we'd been students.
Harry had insisted that the wedding ceremony be held at Hogwarts when the moon was at its utmost ebb so Remus could attend without any aches or pains. Hunkering in the shadow of the castle, the garden was as black as pitch; it was like trying to walk through ink. At seventeen, I could have navigated this blindfolded. At forty-one, it was an obvious case of use it or lose it.
Ten minutes later, I'd reached the general vicinity of the bench, but at the cost of a heel from a brand-new pair of dress shoes (lost somewhere near the rhododendrons) and two bloody knees. Taking small steps so as not to smack my already throbbing knees into stone, I hunted for the bench. A voice said, "I'll share if you will, Granger. I'll even move over so you won't have to perch on the end, afraid you'll catch some loathsome disease."
The red butt of a cigarette glared for a brief second. Damn.
"Here," he said. A hand groped at my hip and then pulled on my robe to guide me to the bench. I hesitated a little, fixed my eye on the red dot, approximated where I thought my arse should go, and hoped it actually met the bench. My knees hurt, and I needed to fix my shoe.
"How did you know it was me, Malfoy?"
"It was either a herd of rampaging elephants, trampling the garden to dust in their wake, or you trying to navigate through the garden in the dark. You have a rather distinctive thud to your walk."
Count to ten, Hermione. Reparo your shoe, healing charm to your knees, curse him with a quick Jelly-legs Jinx if you're feeling generous, a long, tortured Bat-Bogey Hex if not (the Bat-Bogey Hex a clear favorite), and then you can leave.
"Which one is he telling now?"
"I beg your pardon? And, by the way, sod off," I replied absentmindedly, searching for my wand and then realized, belatedly, I had no wand.
"You know. Which story? The chess match in the bowels of Hogwarts or the one where he and Harry fought off three hundred and forty-six Death Eaters with only one wand between them? That's my personal favorite. The number of Death Eaters grows with each telling. By the time he's fifty, it will be four thousand and three Death Eaters brandishing machetes, wands, and portable rocket launchers."
"Fuck off, Malfoy," I snapped. Of course, that was exactly why I'd fled the room; the days were long gone when I could pretend to listen in sycophantic rapture to Ron regale the crowds with his increasingly fantastical war stories.
"What? Be grateful he's only a crashing bore. You could be married to my wife. Who, in a pathetic attempt to make me jealous, is chatting up a seventh-year Hufflepuff moonlighting as a bartender. Has the woman no shame? As if I give a flying fuck, but consorting with Hufflepuffs?"
"You are insufferable. Pansy should get an Order of Merlin for being married to you for twenty years. You should be caged and put in a zoo so that children with long sticks with extremely sharp ends can poke you." I wish I had a long sharp stick. I'd jab him with relish. "What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be hobnobbing with your guests?"
"Oh, I don't think so." I sighed. It was too much to think he'd take the hint. "Potter is the man of the hour. Most of the guests are in paroxysms of joy that I've wandered off somewhere, hoping against hope I've been eaten by the giant squid," he commented, all too accurately. "Not that I think you'd be planning such a sad demise on my behalf."
"Hardly. Not sufficiently painful by half. Would you please shut up?"
"Hardly," he mocked. "I have a rather large bone to pick with you. Not a single compliment has passed your lips,"--which would have elicited a short snort and a frosty "when hell freezes over," if he'd given me half a chance--"regarding my picture perfect behavior this evening. I'm mortally wounded, Granger; I want you to know. Several people are going to be most disappointed on Monday morning. I checked the book last night; the odds were fifty to one that either Potter or myself would be dead before the 'I dos.' Odds mostly on me. Which is damn insulting. But, amazingly, Potter and I have survived this horrendous ordeal without killing each other. Color me surprised. A bloody miracle, really. I have no intention of returning to the reception just yet. It would be a shame to muck it up now."
His hand found mine and he used the other to wrap it around a frosty bottle of something. I jumped. I hadn't even known how warm I was until the cold damp from the bottleneck soothed the palm of my hand. "Drink?" The cigarette bobbed up and down in his mouth.
He kept his hand on the bottle, and raised it with mine as he slowly brought it up to my mouth. I rarely drank. It seemed like Ron drank enough for the both of us these days. Nights out, one of us needed to navigate home, and over time it tacitly fell on my ever-increasingly sober shoulders.
"Oh, go on, Granger. Even you wouldn't be so completely boring and predictable as to refuse to drink champagne at the wedding of your best-friend's daughter. Surprise me, why don't you," he cooed.
God, I hated him. He knew exactly what buttons to push. I yanked on the bottle, trying to wrench it away from him, but he anticipated me and held on tight. Oh. This was particularly nice champagne. Dry, tart, like a first kiss. Just the way I liked it. I shoved it toward him, and then grabbed it back again for another sip, ignoring his throaty chuckle.
We passed the bottle back and forth in this odd manner for several minutes, Malfoy cupping the bottom in his palm, me holding the bottleneck. Despite his ever-disgusting presence, the refreshing lure of the cold champagne--Merlin, it was warm tonight--was more compelling than a stumble back to the castle and the prospect of listening to Ron relate the story of finding the fifth Horcrux.
I said to myself, You are sitting alone, on a bench in the peace of the rose garden. A bottle of rather fine champagne has magically appeared. You are not sharing a bench or a bottle of champagne with wizarding England's premier moral degenerate, who doesn't even have the decency to keep his vile opinions of his vile wife to his vile self. A few swigs later, and it wasn't much of an effort anymore. The tension of the day dissipated with every swallow.
It was a miracle no one had been hurt.
The only thing the Potters and Malfoys agreed upon was that the marriage ceremony performed by the tattoo artist, although legally binding, was completely unacceptable as wedding ceremonies went, and that a proper wedding was in order. Unfortunately, it was the only aspect of the wedding they agreed on. The weeks leading up to the wedding were punctuated by fist fights, Howlers, and a cat fight between Ginny and Pansy in Madame Malkin's over a robe that both of them coveted. The nadir was the brawl to top all brawls at the rehearsal dinner, with Harry and Malfoy casting hexes at each other over the ice sculpture, a shockingly poor rendering of the Sorting Hat. As the evening progressed, it began to melt under the heat from the lights and became rather phallic looking. Which Malfoy pointed out, in his own special way: "Feeling inadequate, Potter?" Which caused Harry to shout back, "At least I can keep my dick where it belongs, unlike that bastard son of yours." Which in turn caused Malfoy to cast the first, but not last, hex. Which caused Molly to Stupefy the entire room in her zeal to stop the fight.
Remus, the only person Harry and Malfoy both respected, finally demanded that if the wedding wasn't going to be a total blood bath, all wands were to be confiscated upon arrival at the wedding. Wands would be returned at departure. Only when Lily threw the bouquet and the couple headed off to Venice for a two-week-long honeymoon did I finally allow myself to relax.
What a beautiful evening. I couldn't hear the music from here, just the soft lapping of the water as it nudged the lake front. The lights from the Great Hall haloed into the dark night, making the castle look, well, magical. The nauseating smell of cigarette smoke obliterated any possible scent from the night-blooming roses...
"Malfoy, I know for a fact that there are several varieties of night-blooming roses surrounding this bench. It would be nice to smell them as opposed to eau de tar and carcinogen."
With a cough that sounded remarkably like a laugh, he ground out the cigarette.
"Your wish is my command, fair Granger."
"Stop it," I growled and hoisted the bottle up for another sip. "Must say it's uncharacteristically mature of you."
"Mature? Must rectify that immediately. How so?" and he pulled the bottle toward him.
"I am going snap off your leg and beat you to a bloody pulp with it if you don't stop it. With Harry. Staying out here, out of the way. Not that I think he'd have the wherewithal to even land one punch."
"Agreed. He was well on his way to being pretty well stinking when I left. How drunk was he the last time you saw him?"
"Hammered. Completely hammered." Harry wasn't so much dancing as holding Ginny in his arms and swaying, oblivious to the music, telling her over and over again in a loud voice how much he loved her. Still after all these years.
"I'll wait for another hour. By that time he should be insensible. As much as I enjoy our little tussles--the world isn't right on its axis if Potter and I don't tear into each other like lions on the Savannah at least twice a year--tonight is not the night. Looks bad for the future Assistant Minister of Magic to be throttling his arch rival cum in-law at his son's wedding."
"Thank God. I'd actually thought that for a moment you were considering someone else for a change. Now my world's right on its axis."
I pulled for the bottle.
"Sorry," he said and turned away. "This one's dead. But... Damn it all to hell, I know I brought at least three... Of course, could have thought it was... Lumos. Ah hah!" In the glow from his wand, I could see him holding another bottle of champagne in the air, waving it triumphantly as if it were a flag.
"You bastard," I yelled. "You brought a spare wand. What if--"
"Shhhh," he admonished, and flapped his arms frantically. "Don't want to bring everyone and their brother out here, do you?"
"Stop that ridiculous arm-waving," I hissed in a loud whisper. "You nearly clubbed me with that damn champagne bottle."
"Well, you stop with that ridiculous shouting," he demanded. "And you can take that attitude and shove it up your ever stiff and swotty ass. Are you absolutely mad? The man's Head Auror. You and Lupin might have conveniently forgotten that Potter is a fucking genius at casting wandless spells, but yours truly did not. I fought next to that absolute wanker for two years and personally saw him shatter both of Dolohov's arms by lifting an eyebrow. Granted, Potter's usual choice of weapon as far as I am concerned is his grubby paws. Why he is so intent on throttling me to death is a mystery. Odd little kink of his. Think he's a pouf? Will do anything to get his hands on me? Or do you suppose it some sort of Muggle thing, this compulsion to kill people with his bare hands as opposed to eviscerating them with his wand? Silly me. He likes to do that too."
"To know you is to throttle you, Malfoy. Let's leave it," I sighed, silently conceding the point about the wand. As much as I hated to admit it, I really couldn't blame him. Better not to dredge up that old history, because as much as I love Harry, I couldn't possibly defend him when he'd used that spell unwittingly on Malfoy and nearly killed him. "Do something useful. Open that bottle. And do it quietly. Without words. Like for the next hour. Of course he's not a pouf. That should be obvious."
"The children? That means nothing," he snorted, dismissing my comment. "I wish I had a Galleon for every time Baxter-White propositioned me, I'd be twice as rich, and the man has five children."
"Baxter-White is gay?" I was shocked.
"A newsflash to him. Not the rest of us. Here's my wand; give me some light. Having trouble opening this bottle."
"Hello? Is there a wizard in the house? There are spells for that, Malfoy. And I don't believe you. He acts so, well, brazenly macho. You're wrong." I trained the light on the bottle. "I wish I had a Galleon every time he's groped me. I'd be rich. At every party that over-sexed troll grabs my arse."
"With his wife and half the room watching. Sadly, it's not a commentary on how delectable your arse is, Granger. If you'd actually called his bluff and dragged him behind the curtains for a fast and dirty shag, he'd run for Wales. Am positive he only does his wife from behind. Can't imagine how else she keeps getting pregnant. This fucking cork will not come out. Come on, you cunt, come on," he grunted.
"May we dispense with the obscene commentary?" I begged.
"It's part of the ritual, Granger. Struggling with recalcitrant champagne corks accompanied by ribald commentary."
"Oh, please." Now it was my turn to snort.
If you weren't," he grunted yet again, continuing to struggle with the cork, "so goddamn naïve, you'd know that sad little homophobic shirt-lifters like Baxter-White, who is as bent as a thirteen-knut Galleon, by the way, act like over-sexed trolls to convince everyone and themselves that they aren't bent. The second part of that equation is that champagne tastes better if you swear at it while you open it sans magic. Magic does something to the bubbles. Ah, she's coming."
I tried to understand how a happy-handed, posturing jerk like Baxter-White and his pathetic need to hide his homosexuality from all and sundry, including himself, related to swearing and champagne bubbles. Usually, unfortunately, I never have any problem following Malfoy's train of thought. How much had I actually swilled down in the last thirty minutes? Clearly, too much.
"Malfoy, this doesn't make sense--"
"Hush! Nearly, nearly... Ready?" With one hand, he grabbed me by the front of my robe and pulled us face to face, and with the other he brought the bottle up between us and thumbed the cork. "Now!" he shouted.
The cork flew out into the night, and the champagne fizzled over in a glorious rush. The two of us fought for the champagne as it burst from the bottle, elbowing each other in the ribs with vicious jabs, trying to catch the last of the spray.
"You win, Granger," he gave in, laughing, his low baritone full and, Merlin, Malfoy sounded happy. It was a real laugh. Not the usual amused "hmmm," from a single nostril, but an honest-to-God belly laugh. Had I ever heard Malfoy laugh before? Then there was a thud, a "Fucking hell!" that sounded like it was coming from the direction of the ground, and then a, "Oh, no harm done, champagne's all right. Granger, give me a hand. Fallen on my arse, I'm afraid."
"Malfoy, are you pissed?" I began walking around and swotting the air, trying to find his head.
"Absolutely stinking drunk off my nut, to be honest. No lectures, thank you very much."
My left foot connected with something rather solid.
"Oomph! Fuck me, Granger! You just kicked me in the balls! Not on! Fortunately for you I am so fucking pissed, I can't feel a thing."
"You have the wand," I reminded him. "A little light and your precious bits wouldn't be an endangered species."
"Granger, do not attempt to sneer. It doesn't suit you. Your usual banshee in heat mode is so much more in character. Have I told you lately how much I adore you? And I do not have the wand. You had it last. What did you do with it?"
"Dammit," I moaned. "I must have dropped it when the champagne blew. Stop sitting there like a useless lump of shit and start looking for it."
"Help me. I'm blind drunk for fuck's sake. I'll do a Cleaning Charm on your gown," groused Malfoy.
"Can't," I mumbled. "I fell on my way out here, and both my knees are bloodied."
"Stupid Gryffindor-esque bitch. Why didn't you... We are idiots. Accio wand. Lumos."
There he sat, legs spread, propped up on his elbows, wand in one hand, champagne bottle in the other, his hair glinting in the faint, faint light of his wand. Even sprawled on the ground in a drunken tip he was grace itself. I was suddenly aware of the natural ease he'd developed as he'd grown into a man, replacing the manufactured, tight elegance he'd cultivated as a youth. With no effort, I imagined him as the blond he'd been, an almost unnatural white blond, the complete silver hiding under the half glow from the wand and my own memories.
"Granger, come here, you bint. Let me heal your knees. I heard someone utter a tortured squeal before you showed up in all your glory. Had a reckless hope that it was that Irish idiot Finnigan getting swallowed whole by the giant squid. But it was you getting attacked by the rosemary. There. Better?"
"You have an unhealthy fixation on that squid." I leaned down to feel my knees. All healed. "We should go back."
"Not yet," he insisted. "We still have half a bottle to finish. Let me remind you, I have the wand. So unless you intend on facing the herb garden unarmed, you're stuck with me."
I eyed him. "You are ridiculous. I think both of us are quite drunk enough."
"Granger! Are you drunk? Me too! Let's celebrate by having a drink and then another."
"Stuff it. I don't think you're drunk in the least," I accused. "You're putting it on. You aren't even slurring."
"Anti-slurring Charm," he confessed. "Spent Christmas of my fifth year devising that invaluable little gem. See, we Slytherins didn't waste time on worthless charms like transfiguring teacups into moles. We devised useful spells, like being able to get through Binn's lectures with half a bottle of vodka under our belts, no one the wiser. You wouldn't believe the number of tedious Ministry functions I attend completely shit-faced drunk." He gave me a look of such sheer self-congratulatory glee that I burst out laughing. I held out my hand.
"Up, you worthless idiot. And I'll have you know I was not transforming teacups into moles the Christmas of my fifth year. I was--"
"God, Granger, don't tell me. It was no doubt far beyond the capabilities of anyone in your class and probably even far beyond the most brilliant of the seventh years. Let's park ourselves on the floor of the gazebo. I'll fall off the bench."
He kept a hold of my hand as he weaved both of us toward the gazebo. I didn't say anything, but somehow his comment about my precocious behavior in school, instead of making me proud, made me ashamed. And he wasn't even trying.
He pulled me into a corner, plastered his back against the vee of the walls, and slid down, his arse hitting the ground with a soft thud. "Come here," he demanded, his hand pulling on mine. "Turn around and sit down. Squash against me."
"I will not," I sputtered.
"For fuck's sake, Granger. I'm not going to feel you up," he snorted and pulled harder. "Frankly, I am so drunk that if they told me this very minute I was the Minister of Magic, I wouldn't even get a hard on. Don't be so miss-ish. I need a pillow and something to lean against and you're it. I'll fall over otherwise," he grumbled.
Oh dear God, I was swaying too. How much had I had? Not that much. Uh. Perhaps that much. I didn't so much kneel down as collapse. He lurched over, grabbed me by the armpits, and dragged me in front of him.
"Bring your knees up," he ordered. He wrapped his arms, then his legs around me. "Now hold my arms against you. That's it." He rested his head against my shoulder and promptly fell asleep.
I sat there for a few minutes, trying to sober up so that I could steal his wand without him being any the wiser and then make my way back to the castle. We were all staying the night. He was so drunk, he'd just sleep it off in the gazebo, wake up in the morning stiff as all hell, no doubt with the headache that ate Scotland, but with both our reputations intact.
I was just about to make my move when he murmured in my ear, "May I have a cigarette?"
"No, you may not. You'd light my hair on fire."
"Too true. Granger, why do you always hide those fantastic knockers of yours behind shapeless and utterly tasteless robes?"
"What? Sod off!" I struggled to get away, but he held me fast.
"Stop acting like a virginal nun who's just been propositioned by a randy bishop. I'm not making a pass at you. I told you; those parts haven't a hope in hell of working. All my extremities are numb. Was just wondering. It's certainly not my fault you have exceptionally nice tits. Which you never display. Except on the odd occasion. I mean, you looked very fetching tonight. And don't tell me it's a matter of money; I know exactly what both of you earn. I've a slew of appropriate insults to lie quite justifiably at Weasley's feet, but regrettably being a miser isn't one of them. What's wrong with that fucking husband of yours? I would be ashamed to let you out of the house in those rags you call robes."
"First of all, get your filthy little hands off our employee files, and how predictably feudal of you, Malfoy. As if Ron has any say in what I wear," I pointed out.
"Stop fidgeting," he complained into my ear, as if I had moved. "Not a question of being feudal. Why not show off your wife? Weasley should do something. Granted, he's swimming upstream. Only you would sprint with alacrity to be first in line for the Ministry's Employee of the Month's Hideous and Atrocious Robe Award. All I am saying is you have an agenda just like the rest of us. You'd get a lot more accomplished if you tarted yourself up a little. Flashed those gorgeous tits now and again."
"When I'm Undersecretary for the Promotion of Pornography, I'll consider your advice."
That got a muffled laugh into my shoulder and then he fell asleep again, only to wake up with a start.
"You smell nice."
"You don't. You smell like a rotting pile of ash."
No response. He'd fallen asleep again. I bided my time and had actually half-eased myself out of his embrace when he woke up again.
"Not getting away just yet," he mumbled and dragged me back into his arms, needling his chin into my shoulder.
"That hurts, you wanker. You still have a pointy chin. Malfoy, come on. I need to get back," I pleaded. "Ron will wonder where I am, and I doubt you want him to find me standing in as your human pillow."
"Sod that husband of yours, I have a wand, and I will hex him if he makes a fuss. We'll leave in five minutes. Promise."
He snuggled his chin back into my shoulder, albeit it a little more gently.
"Nice wedding present. That flat," I noted, trying to keep him awake.
"Not having my grandchild brought up in some bedsit. Besides, Potter paid for the wedding. It was the least I could do. Ten more minutes."
"Wand or no wand, I'm leaving in four and a half minutes. They were absolutely lovely, weren't they, Malfoy? Malfoy?" I elbowed him.
"Ow, you bitch; that hurt. Who was lovely?"
"You have four minutes. Your son. Lily."
"Uh huh," he murmured, which sounded like it was on the verge of becoming a snore.
"Three minutes," I reminded him and nudged him again. "And the wedding party was really top notch."
"You are the most impossible woman! Why won't you let me sleep?" He stretched his legs. "I must admit Pansy really knows how to throw a good party. Expensive parties, as Potter has found out much to his dismay. Sadly, it's the only thing she does well. Even then mother always has to whisper in her ear. A tendency toward too much glitz. But, yes, it was rather nice." He yawned. "All right, up, my lovely Gryffindor. Although I can't tell you how disappointed I am I can't go in to the office on Monday and tell everyone I spent the night with Granger."
God, wouldn't that make the tongues wag? Somehow we got to our feet, Malfoy falling over four times to my three.
"You ready?" he asked. "Lumos. You know what's the best part about the wedding? My son is speaking to me again. We've actually had a total of four conversations where he hasn't called me a bastard or a traitor once. Well worth the price of having Potter as an in-law."
"I don't know what you expected. You've got that walking advertisement on your forearm." I grumbled and let loose a yawn of my own. "Of course he'd come to Hogwarts and hear the unadulterated version of the war. Not the rose-colored version you no doubt fed him as a child."
The loose and easy set of his shoulders snapped back. "Shut the fuck up, Granger. I don't need to justify myself to you or my son. I made stupid mistakes. We all did. How clean are your hands? Hmmmm?"
"Cleaner than yours," I snapped back. "Your rather tardy appearance in the Order--"
"Shut up," he demanded again, as he dropped his wand to grab my shoulders and then shook me. Hard. "Imagine if you had a child and that child was your world. Your world." He shook me again to emphasize this fact. "You're married to a woman whose idea of an intellectual challenge is whether to replace the dining room curtains with red velvet or red silk. This child loves you. He loves his mother, but he sees very early on that she's a rather vapid woman, and he turns to you always because he trusts you. You love this child more than you ever thought it possible to love another human being. And then he goes off to school and stops talking to you. Stops trusting you. Hates you. Children are the cruelest things in nature. They see things in black and white. There are no greys. You're evil. You're good. Nothing in between. He couldn't understand what it must have been like for me, who trusted the adults I'd known all my life. Believed in them. Not realizing until almost too late, until I'd been branded like a piece of cattle, that Voldemort cared nothing about the wizarding world. All he cared about was his own mortality. Try explaining that to a child and getting him to listen. To understand."
Completely sober now, he wrenched me close to him and then pushed me away and let go. I fell against the wall of the gazebo.
"I love it when people who don't have children nonchalantly toss off sentences like, 'what did you expect'? Like they are parenting experts. Comment away. By all means. You always were the most insufferable know-it-all."
"Shut up, Malfoy," I warned.
"I expected him to understand. But pardon me." There it was. Right on schedule. The Malfoy scorn, the sneer. "I should have asked for your opinion. Your lack of expertise, your very childlessness wouldn't be the slightest hindrance to instructing me on the proper and correct way tell my son about my halcyon days as a Death Eater. You could put it in a classified memo. That's your style--"
"Shut the fuck up!" I screamed.
"Listen." He jabbed a finger in my direction. "Just because you and Weasley decided not to bless this world with red-headed brats, just too busy drafting those memos, do not presume to tell me my business or my son's business. Guess that memo about having children got lost in the 'in box.' Busy week and all."
I wanted to kill him. Literally kill him. I threw myself in his direction, my hands failing, my nails desperate to catch skin and hurt and scar and maul.
"Fucking, fucking bastard." I screamed. As fast as I was, he was ready for me. He tried to grab my arms, to stop me. "Can't have, can't have..." I batted his head, grabbed an ear and twisted. He yowled in pain and wrenched his head away. Good. "Because of your evil, fucking evil aunt... No children... Cursed me." My hand raked his cheek. "Cursed--" He found one wrist and yanked it back behind me, tight, trying to stop me. Oh fuck, that hurt, that hurt so much, but I didn't stop. I wanted to hurt him. My other arm tried to grab his hair, my heels to break his shins. I wanted to shatter bones.
"Stop, it. Stop god damn it, or I'll break your arm!" he yelled, and he wrenched my arm up even tighter. The pain shot across my entire body and the utter agony of it broke my hysteria. I sagged against him, crying softly. He let go of my arm to slowly turn me around and then held me while I cried it out.
I brought one hand up to my face, another to cradle my barren abdomen, and buried myself in his shoulder, weeping for all the children Ron and I would never have.
At some point, I realized that he was stroking my head, gently, but firmly. He didn't tell me to ssssh or that it would be all right. For which I was grateful. There is nothing worse than someone trying to deny your true grief. There are some things you mourn forever. I'd thought I was past this sort of outpouring; I hadn't done it in years. But during the reception, Lily was already bringing a protective hand to her stomach, and then Dominic's hand would follow hers, and I had to fight off the nearly overwhelming urge to start sobbing and rage anew at the evil machinations of Bellatrix Lestrange.
I shuddered and he hugged me even closer.
"Yes." Her final act before Kingsley Shacklebolt killed her. "She said to me before she cast the hex, 'One less Mudblood polluting the waters,' and then aimed." And she knew that Kingsley was behind me, but instead of fending off his hex, she hexed me. Those terrifying eyes were glittering with joy that her final act would rob me forever of my children. What creates a woman who would rather that I live my life with the knowledge I could never have children at her hand as opposed to killing me?
"St. Mungo's?" His voice, scratchy and low, said he knew the answer.
"Hopeless. The Healers said it was like a wildfire had consumed my organs. Apparently they can grow bones but not a uterus."
I'd had nightmares for years after that visit to St. Mungo's. Not your normal nightmares, where everything is freakish so that even in the midst of a horrible dream you can console yourself that it is only a dream. These nightmares were a solid replaying of the Healers telling us what the curse had done to me, the hopelessness of the case, and the look on Ron's face when he realized we'd never have children. And when the four of us bought houses right next to each other, it haunted me the nights and weekends he spent over at Harry and Ginny's, playing endlessly with his nieces and nephews while I'd lie in bed curled up in a fetal position, hearing their high jinx through the open window. Eventually, I'd close the window to shut out the sounds of Ron's laughter and the squeals of the children, but I could still hear them.
"Hermione," Malfoy whispered in my ear. "I am sorry. I didn't know. I am often intentionally cruel, rarely unintentionally cruel. So sorry, so sorry." And he kissed the top of my head and crushed me in an embrace, causing me to shriek at the pressure on my sore arm.
"Oh, oh, your arm," he murmured, and with an Accio wand, we began to heal each other. My arm first, then he handed me the wand and I spelled away the bruises and scratches. When all done, we stood there for a moment looking at each other, sober and exhausted, and he brought his hand back up to my hair and brushed away tendrils that had plastered to my tear-drenched face. He spelled away the tears and with another brush of his hand to my head, asked, "Ready?"
I nodded. We walked back to the castle in silence. At the steps he said, "I'm going to have a fag, you go in," a tacit nod to the fact that my reputation would be in tatters if it appeared we were coming in together from the garden, at what I figured was roughly three a.m.
Too tired to say anything more than, "Night, Malfoy," I trudged up to the Gryffindor Tower where Ron and I were spending the night. Based on the amount of champagne he'd consumed before I left the reception, I assumed he'd be passed out. Sure enough, I heard the snores before I even entered the room. I turned him off his back over to his non-snoring side and tucked a blanket around a bare shoulder. Making my way over to the window, I could just make out the red dot of Malfoy's cigarette as it waxed and waned in the dark. After a minute, I couldn't see it anymore. I undressed and climbed into bed, curling myself up against Ron's back. With a snort, he shimmied back into me and fumbled for my arm to bring up against his chest. I listened to his breathing deepen before I whispered the apology I said in his ear every night before I went to sleep. "I'm sorry, Ron. So sorry, so sorry."
Chapter 3: Copy Me
"How were your holidays, Granger?"
There were so many things wrong with this scenario, I didn't know where to begin.
Draco Malfoy was sitting in my office, the office I had warded no fewer than sixteen times, some of the spells dating back to the thirteenth century.
Draco Malfoy was not only sitting in my office, but he was sitting at my desk. In my chair. Rifling through my In Box. Rifling through the confidential post in my In Box. A cigarette dangled out of his mouth. He'd already transformed the paperweight into an ashtray, and what had been a fresh pack of Players lay on the desk. He must have been there for some time because several butts littered the ashtray, and I could barely see him through the smoky haze. With one hand I cast a Smoke-Be-Gone Charm, and with the other I picked up the cigarette wrapper and threw it in the dustbin. Which was filled nearly to the top with my discarded post.
"Have a lie-in? You are," he looked at his watch, "three minutes late."
How did he enunciate so perfectly with that nasty fag hanging out of his mouth? The disconnect between fair and foul was only heightened by his usual grace as he turned his wrist to peer at his watch.
"I'll be sure to make it up at lunch."
Ignoring my sarcasm, he shook the memo in his hand; the parchment crackled.
"I didn't get this memo. Why didn't Parker copy me on this?"
"Don't be thick, Malfoy. It isn't a giant leap to assume that he didn't want you to see it."
He looked it over again. "Unlikely. Must have been an oversight." He frowned and placed it in one of the three neat piles on top of my desk.
Picking up yet another memo, he scanned it for two seconds, sighed, and pitched it in the dustbin. The back of my neck, which had only unraveled its maze of kinks on the ninth day of the holiday, balled back up into a tight, unforgiving knot the size of a walnut. From experience, I knew that this knot that had no bloody hope of loosening until the Christmas holidays.
I hated him. Normally I had a week's grace before that god damn knot came back. I hadn't been back at work for more than five minutes and already my neck was balled up sixteen ways to Sunday.
I slammed my briefcase on the desk. He didn't flinch one centimetre, just kept on reading. "Let's ignore for one minute the fact that you broke into my office, are rifling through my confidential post, and have pitched most of it into the rubbish. Shall we start with first things first? Do you mind if I sit down?"
He waved his hand in the general direction of the seat opposite and snapped his fingers. The antique Spode tea set made its appearance. In addition to the two cups, creamer, sugar, and silver tongs for the sugar cubes, two perfectly rolled croissants sat on matching plates, together with pats of butter, and small pots of raspberry jam, whose sweet, fruity aroma filled the office. "Be your guest. Tea's probably ready. Milk, no sugar." He added absentmindedly from behind the memo. "Help yourself to a croissant."
"I meant my own seat, you annoying prat," I barked.
He looked up and waggled a finger at me. "Ah, ah, ah. If you're not nice to me for at least one day upon your return, I won't approve your vacation request next time..."
"You do not approve my vacation requests," I sputtered.
"Not yet, but I will." He said this with so much conviction I had to remind myself this was typical Malfoy arrogance, not tidings of things to come. The idea of Malfoy as my supervisor was enough to make me contemplate throwing myself down the lift shaft. "Your mantra for the next twenty-four hours, Granger: Nice to Malfoy. Nice to Malfoy. I'd suggest saying it on your knees in total supplication, but that's probably asking too much." He picked the nearly spent fag from his mouth and stubbed it out in the ashtray. Then making a great show of standing up, he bade me sit with an elegant roll of his hand. "Your wish is my command, my lovely Hermione."
I wanted to slap him, but sat down instead.
"Malfoy, do I need to remind you for the four thousand and tenth time that those ridiculous blandishments do not endear you to me? It might work on those idiot girls in Accounting or that utter tart in the Auror Division, but it is wasted on me. In fact, your obvious insincerity only underscores my abiding hatred for you."
He tsked-tsked as he made his way to the other side of the desk. "Surely, abiding hatred is going a bit too far."
"I was sugar-coating it, actually." I reached over to grab the remaining memos out of his hand.
He deftly removed them from my reach. "I don't think so," he cooed. "Your In Box is far too fascinating." Sitting down in the chair opposite me, he smiled at me. "This chair is much more comfortable anyway. An Iron Maiden would be kinder on my arse than your chair. Of course, you have a much more padded arse than I do." He careened his head to the side as if trying to catch a glimpse of my backside. "Quite a nicely padded arse to be honest."
"My arse is none--"
"You should at the very least transfigure yourself a pillow. Something in silk with stripes? Yes, nice deep purple and gold stripes. You're partial to purple, aren't you? And perhaps a pillow for your back, hmmm?"
He scanned the next memo, narrowed his eyes, murmured, "Fucking bitch," pitched it into the rubbish bin, and began perusing the next. "You were gone two weeks, weren't you? So was I. All I had in my In Box were six requests from mailing to contribute to their Quidditch pool and four memos from Halverston asking me if the Ministry could use Malfoy Manor for their Christmas party again this year. I immediately fired off an owl reminding him of my outstanding requests for remuneration for the damage done to our parquet floors last Christmas."
"Yes, I find Halverston's lack of response pretty lax, too. You left before the Highland Fling contest. Smart woman. Pleaded headache, I believe. Those Aurors are certainly a frisky bunch. Never again tell me that Slytherins are the depraved house. Ex-Gryffindors all. Complete and total animals." He raised his eyebrows in question. "Weasley did confess all, didn't he?"
"Of course," I said with as much cool as I could muster. That furious blush every time Ron sees someone wearing a kilt was beginning to make sense.
"All those dress robes transformed into kilts." He shuddered. "Enough garish plaid to last my poor battered eyeballs a lifetime. I've always suspected one could overdo plaid, and I was very sorry to have been proven right. I really do not understand what McClure is about. Does he really have the I.Q. of a celery stalk or is he merely faking it to pull the wool over our eyes? Although to what purpose eludes me. One should really find out in the interest of science, but then you'd actually have to talk to him, and he's stupid and boring." He threw the memo into the rubbish and picked up another.
"Malfoy, the wards--"
"Wards? Of course, I had to take down the wards for the party. Took me fucking hours, and what thanks do I get? And then Pansy--she can be such a little devil--insisting that for the contest to have any credibility, the men had to spell away their briefs a la the Scots. Was a little surprised at how readily everyone agreed to that, Potter leading the charge." He balled up a memo, threw it with some force into the rubbish, and grabbed another.
"If it's the last thing I do, I'm moving heaven and earth to get that twit Carstairs fired. He's menace to the Ministry, never mind society. Think he must go commando all the time--Potter, not Carstairs--because I can't recall that he spelled away anything." He frowned and kept scanning the memo. How could he talk and read at the same time? "Must admit your Weasley has quite impressive bits. I certainly couldn't compete with him on that score. I was most disappointed to note that Potter and I seem to run neck and, well, neck in that department. Although, it's hard to tell... Ahem. I am absolutely going to stand firm on this floor issue. You wouldn't believe the damage. The high heels were especially brutal. Not that your husband was wearing high heels. As I recall, he wasn't wearing much of anything by the end of the evening." He balled up another memo and threw it away. "Oh, did I mention I had a memo from the Minister telling me I'd gotten a raise. Job well done. All that jazz."
"You got a raise?" I tried not to shriek this, but wasn't very successful. The knot convulsed in on itself and actually did a backflip. A first.
"Yes, quite a nice one. Totally unexpected, I assure you."
I gave that the snort of derision it deserved.
"Why does everyone send you all these memos?" he grumbled.
"Perhaps because I actually work." He raised one eyebrow. "Yes, work. Which you do not. You spend ninety percent of your time seducing women and the other ten percent at meetings you can't wriggle out of," I reminded him.
"Nonsense," he protested and picked up another memo. "I only spend fifty percent of my time seducing women. How much time do you spend seducing women? Does Weasley know? Hello, what's this? If I'd known you swing that way, we could have a threesome... Fucking idiot Fairchild is at it again. That bint in Accounting is into that sort of thing. Not a particular kink of mine as I prefer one on one, but once in a while... Fairchild's nuts are so going to be mine." He placed the memo in the second pile and gave it a sharp smack with the flat of his palm, as if the poor parchment deserved to be beaten for Fairchild's deviousness. "The tea, Granger," he reminded me and went back to reading my post.
He was like a wind-up toy gone berserk, with no way to stop it short of whacking it repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer. You just hoped the batteries wore down or it self-destructed. I looked at my quill and wondered if I could Transfigure it into something resembling a club and then beat him into silence.
No, the sooner he had his tea, the sooner he would leave. And frankly, I could use a cup of tea myself. Ron and I had overslept, and breakfast had been nothing but a wish and a prayer as we'd rushed out the door. I was famished and hopefully a cup of tea would assuage the hunger pangs until the rolling cart came around. I poured his tea first and then my own, pointedly ignoring the croissants. Although I might drink his tea, somehow the idea of eating his croissant seemed like crossing some sort of Rubicon. I would not, absolutely not reach for one of those croissants. Not even if I was starving. Which I was. I hadn't had any dinner last night. Wentworth in Portkey was going to get a piece of my mind. We'd ended up stumbling into a post office in Moscow, necessitating a lightning fast Obliviate on all the patrons, and then had to Apparate our arses across Europe in order to get home in time for work today. I pressed my stomach to make it stop emitting the most disgusting growling noises, because clearly it knew a delicious croissant when it smelled it, and did I mention I am very partial to raspberry jam? Bugger.
"So, you didn't answer my question. Holidays nice?" he asked from behind a memo.
"Malfoy, how did you get through my wards?" I demanded, trying to look everywhere but the direction of the tea service. And the croissants.
"That whore Harlock. How dare he?" Malfoy brandished a memo in my face. "He knew I wouldn't let him get away with his little backdoor antics. He waited until I went on holiday. Well," he tilted his chin, and gave me one of his evil little smiles. "I have news for that utter shitebag--"
"Malfoy!" I banged my cup down. "How did you get through my wards?"
"Oh, that," he sniffed and put the memo into the pile farthest from him. "Don't get your knickers in a twist. I am a Malfoy, Granger. My first word was ward. Anyway, don't bother answering my question; I can see that you had a perfectly brilliant time. You look relaxed, tan, fit. Two weeks on a Greek beach agrees with you. Imagine that husband of yours pounded you into the mattress every night."
I blushed and not for the reason Malfoy must have been thinking. Dear god, we hadn't had sex once, and the worst part about it was that I hadn't even thought about it.
Ron and I had a rather lovely sex life for many years after we got married. And then, then, I have no idea what happened. My work schedule, Ron spending most of his free time at Harry and Ginny's, which all boiled down to very little action lately, and I didn't quite know why. This was the beginning of July, and the last time we... When had it... February. Valentine's Day. Both of us were recovering from the flu, and it was more a case of "if you don't shag on Valentine's Day, you might as well owl the divorce lawyers" sort of feeling as opposed to actually wanting it. As I remember, we were both more relieved than anything when Ron had finally gotten off. I couldn't even bother to fake it decently. In between my lackluster panting, I kept thinking about stepping into a hot shower and letting the steam loosen my chest, then swilling down a glass of brandy and going to sleep for fourteen hours.
Not that I had any intention of telling Malfoy this.
"Yes, it was quite nice." I pointed at the briefcase. "I got a tremendous amount done."
He let out a sharp grunt of disgust. "My faith in Weasley's utter inadequacy as a husband has been restored. Not even fucking you silly every night compensates for this. Thank God. I'd hate to think well of him." He lit a cigarette, sucked on it, and blew the smoke out the side of his mouth with a rush. "Do you mean to tell me that he let you haul this briefcase to Greece, filled to the brim no doubt, with stupid memos from stupid people, if the current crop is any indication, which do not deserve a reply because it will only encourage them in their stupidity?" He pointed his cigarette in the direction of the dustbin. "The man might physically have the balls the size of grapefruits, but in reality--"
"Shut it," I demanded. If the "t's" had been any more clipped, I would have sprayed him with spit. "What my husband and I do on our holidays is none of your business."
In fact, I looked forward to this trip every year because it's the only time I do catch up. For fifteen years, we had rented a secluded beachfront villa in a small wizarding enclave in northern Greece with Harry, Ginny, and their children. Whatever Weasleys were interested joined us as well. It was something of a free-for-all. I'd become an expert on healing charms for sunburns--Weasleys and sun are a lethal combination; Ron is one giant freckle by the end of every holiday. And while everyone else swims and lounges, I sit on the beach, firmly protected by an anti-wind and sand charm, and I clear my desk. It's absolutely lovely. We normally go in August, but with the wedding, we decided to push it forward by several weeks and left the Monday after the ceremony.
"Only you would call clearing your desk a 'nice' holiday." This was said with a sneer and another fierce drag on his cigarette. "If your current In Box is any indication, no wonder you work seventy hours plus a week and look exhausted all the time."
"How dare you?" I hissed. "I doubt your holidays would stand up to much scrutiny. Two weeks in Milan devoted to clothes. Any more vacuous and it would be difficult to tell you and your wife apart from the mannequins."
Although I never read them, Pansy Parkinson-Malfoy's fashion column, with a minute-by-minute account of the summer fashion shows in Milan, were famous among the upper echelons of wizarding society. How anyone could devote thousand of words to gawking at anorexic models decked out in ridiculous garments that were, in reality, expensive versions of Halloween costumes remained an utter mystery. The fact that the Prophet's circulation goes up twenty percent every time her column is published depresses the shit out of me.
"Oh, let's hear it for 'productive' holidays," he said in his icy, I-hate-you-Granger voice. "As usual, the rest of us have it wrong. Silly me. I thought a holiday was when you didn't work. For the record, you are woefully misinformed. I do not spend two weeks getting fitted for clothes or attending the fashion shows. I spend one day, then I take off, leaving Pansy to rub her Armani-clad shoulders with Milan's fashionistas. First off, I visit my art dealer and attend a few art shows; fortunately, they run concurrently with the fashion shows. Believe it or not, considering what a low opinion you have of me, I spend an inordinate amount of time in museums. I visit churches. The art and architecture of Catholic churches are something of a passion of mine."
He stopped and took a deep breath.
"We are being perfectly foul to each other, and, not withstanding our usual enmity, I think it's because we're hungry. Please have a croissant. I am famished. As are you. I've been successfully ignoring the noises your stomach has been broadcasting for the last ten minutes, but this is getting ridiculous. If they get any louder, we will need to start insulting each other in sign language. Manners forbid me from eating if you do not." He handed me a plate containing a croissant and let go, so that I had to accept it or the plate would drop on the desk. "Thank you," he said in a curt tone, and began slathering his own croissant with butter and jam. I poured him another cup of tea, which he acknowledged with a nod. "After I do the Milan art circuit, I pop down to Venice, sit in St. Marco's Square for hours on end, drink iced espresso, and visit my great aunt, who has a palazzo on the canal. Dom and Lily were visiting her while I was there. They send their love."
I nodded back, and we ate in silence.
I was somewhat chastened by Malfoy's description of his holiday. Which, truth be told, was dead on the sort of holiday that I'd have booked for myself if I'd had my druthers. I'd learned to look forward to the weeks in Greece, but a part of me wondered if I brought work with me because I was so bored. I could never get Ron into a museum. His idea of art was framed Chudley Cannons posters.
Malfoy was right. As soon as we'd eaten, the tension in the room vanished. At least to the point where we could be civil to each other.
"Lily is doing well?"
"Splendid. Do you mind if I smoke?" He didn't wait for a reply, but lit up, conveniently ignoring the fact that he'd had been smoking in my room for hours. The curtains would require several cleaning charms. Damn him. "Although it'd only been a week since the wedding, her stomach had poufed out in the most adorable way. Great Aunt Delizia was quite taken with her. Dom is well too." He gave me a cautious smile. His rapprochement with his son was proceeding apace. "I... I was so jealous of them."
"Jealous?" I couldn't imagine Malfoy jealous of anyone. He seemed to have the world in the palm of his hand. Certainly, he had my In Box in the palm of his hand. Literally.
He stared off into a far corner of the office. "They're so in love. It's like a mist around them--that tangible. And carefree..." The fag rested between his fingers, untouched. "The most pressing concerns in their life are whether their respective in-laws can restrain themselves from physically attacking each other and what to name their first born child. What were your pressing concerns at that age?"
When I was nineteen and twenty the war was at its nadir. We had more people in hospital beds than able-bodied.
It must have showed on my face.
"Exactly," he said, so quietly he almost whispered it. "Do you know what I did every day when I got up, assuming I'd been to bed that night? I'd look at myself in the mirror and tell myself, 'You are not dying today, Draco Malfoy. I forbid it.' Silly, I know. Like I was commanding myself to stay alive, when really it was a half-arsed prayer. And then I would pray, really pray. Get down on my knees and beg a god I didn't believe in that that day's Fates wouldn't pit me against my own father. That I wouldn't have to kill him. I was actually grateful in some ways when Potter did it. Once I turned, I'd always assumed it was going to be me."
My morning ritual in those dark days was slightly different. While brushing my teeth I'd repeat over and over: "You will not let Harry or Ron die today."
"Harry had no choice, you know that," I said, defending Harry.
His voice hoarse, he snapped, "Yes, Granger, I know that. I was there for Christ's sake. Potter apologises whenever he gets drunk. Like I need reminding that my father was an evil bastard and that someone had to kill him."
I thought of Lily and Dom's wedding and how drunk Harry was, and whether Malfoy's hiding out in the garden was not so much a retreat from the other guests as a way of avoiding Harry's rambling apologies.
I remember the glee on Lucius Malfoy's face as he came upon me and Ron in that clearing, Ron felled by some horrible curse that caused his pores to ooze blood, me bending over him casting the counter curse, both of us at Malfoy's mercy. Although it happened so fast that none of us could react, in my memory, it's in slow motion and mostly in black and white. Like some over-stylized 1920s horror movie.
Malfoy Sr. sees us, smiles, sneers, aims his wand, and drawls, "Too easy." Harry comes crashing through the bushes from one direction, Malfoy Jr. comes crashing through the bushes from the other, both of them screaming, "No!" The signature green light and curse from Harry's wand lights the clearing, the first of only two Avada Kedavra's he will ever cast in his life.
To this day, I am not sure whether Malfoy's agonized "No" was directed at his father or at Harry.
"Yes, choice," he repeated bitterly. "Something else neither of us had much of. Do you... Do you... I wonder if things would have been..." He brought the cigarette back up to his mouth and savoured the drag. I wondered if this was a standard way for him to gather his thoughts; a ten-second window.
"Would have been?" I prompted.
He placed the cigarette back in the ashtray with great care.
"Didn't you ever wonder what our years at Hogwarts would have been like if the war hadn't been waiting for us to grow up? If we hadn't been polarised from day one into those who supported Dumbledore and those who supported Voldemort? If we'd been allowed to be the children we were. You and I might have been friends."
I stared at him.
"Come on, Granger. It's not that far-fetched. You were brilliant in Potions and Arithmancy. So was I. We actually had a lot in common."
"Oh yes," I agreed. "We both loved taunting other students by calling them Mudbloods."
I half-expected him to storm out. He didn't; he picked up the cigarette for one more leisurely puff.
"Rather horrible of me, but then I was being groomed to be my father's successor as Voldemort's key lackey, whose tolerance for mixed bloods, his own heritage notwithstanding, was limited to say the least. I'm not apologising, Granger; I am merely saying that I was a pawn like everyone else. Like the three of you were Dumbledore's pawns."
Storm out my arse, I was going to throw him out.
"We were not Dumbledore's pawns--"
"Oh please," he snapped. "Just like I wasn't my father's pawn or Voldemort's pawn. But what if the events leading up to the war hadn't brought the three of you together? Just didn't happen. They were perfectly horrible to you in the beginning, don't deny it; I was there. Together, the three of you were much stronger than any of you alone. Potter's reckless streak, your brains, Weasley's... To this day, I don't know what Weasley provided in terms of the dynamics. But in the beginning, if there hadn't been a war..." his voice trailed off.
I couldn't help but remember how beastly Ron and Harry had been to me the first few weeks of school until the incident with the troll. And the troll never would have entered the castle if Quirrell hadn't been trying to get the Sorcerer's Stone. What if there had been no troll? Ron and Harry constantly sneering at me behind my back in such loud tones that it wasn't really behind my back at all. Well, Harry not so much, just lots of eye-rolling, but Ron, well, he could be downright cruel.
"Anyway, I sat there drinking coffee in Aunt Delizia's drawing room, Lily and Dom holding hands while she regaled them with amusing anecdotes of her affair with Mussolini, and I was jealous and horribly sad and... I just wondered. Oh well." He hitched up the corners of his mouth in what was meant to be a smile. "Aunt Delizia and Pansy loathe each other; it's best if I visit by myself. Pansy's not just a little terrified of her. Afraid she might poison her. Or something along those lines." He frowned. "A possibility, I must admit. The Italian branch of the Malfoys are a rather bloodthirsty lot. Well, small wonder. Borgias originally. On the wall of her dining room there's a stunning portrait of Cesare I've coveted for years. We have the same mouth." He pursed his lips for emphasis. "Pops up in someone every third generation."
"You're related to Cesare Borgia!" I squawked. "But his father was Pope. And a Muggle." It all made too much sense.
"Yes, Granger. Well spotted about the Pope thing. Of course he wasn't a Muggle, you silly woman. The French branch was a result of that massive migration of Italian wizards who followed Catherine di Medici to France when she got married. She was a witch, too. Muggle history is always wrong. Anyway, minor Borgias married quite well-situated Malfoys, and we probably would have stayed in France if it weren't for that irritating French revolution, which prompted the Malfoys to settle in England. However, the Italian ties were maintained. Father somewhat broke with tradition by marrying my mother. Normally, the English Malfoy males marry either French or Italian pure-bloods. Anyway, the Borgias were never content with ruling just the wizarding world. They insisted on ruling the Muggle world as well. Hello, Voldemort? Some pointers here on being successful a megalomaniac. Anyway, I visit her and dote on her and take her for ices and gondola rides, and generally ingratiate myself with her."
"I imagine there's money involved? Enough to make a trip to Venice every June somewhat mandatory," I said dryly.
"Buckets of it, Granger," he drawled. "Dear Aunt Delizia is loaded. It's twice a year, by the way. I stop by on my way to Gstaad when we go skiing. I've always wanted a palazzo in Venice--"
"What every rich wizard needs. A palazzo."
"Before you sneer, you should see it. Stupendous place. More tea?" I nodded. "Right on the canal. The Italian Malfoys have always had a foot in both the Muggle and wizarding world. They weren't too happy with father's support of Voldemort and his Muggle hatred. Exquisite art in every room. It's really the art I have my beady little eyes on. I have so much money that more would be pointless--"
"Fuck off. But the art?" he sighed, inexplicably a happy sound. "And it shall all be mine." He grinned. Positively grinned. "Can't say her grandson's very happy with the way the will fell out. I have to watch my back around him. I imagine she'll relent at some point and leave him a trust, but look what happened the last time she included him in her will. Frankly, he has only himself to blame," he clucked.
"His fatal mistake?" I made a rolling motion with my hand for him to continue.
"Portkeying her to the Siberian tundra in the dead of winter, clad only in a negligee and a pair of silk mules. Idiot. Malfoys always carry a spare Portkey. More tea?"
I shook my head. Clearly, the sins of Granger family, the most egregious being the time Aunt Valerie stole the famous shrimp dip recipe from Aunt Claire and tried to pass it off as her own at the church fete, paled in comparison to Borgias poisoning their rivals and grandsons Portkeying their rich grandmothers to Russia to die of exposure.
Malfoy's repeated, "I'm a Malfoy fill-in-the-blanks" made sense now. A family whose experiences and ambitions were so out of the scope of normal that the usual rules of civilised behaviour didn't really apply. It didn't excuse them, but it certainly explained them.
"While I was visiting her, I picked up a little something for your office. Done?" He motioned toward the tea pot.
"Yes, thank you. For my office?" I narrowed my eyes.
He snapped his fingers and the teapot and its accoutrements disappeared. "You are the only thing of any beauty in this entire room. How you function in such a sterile environment is beyond me. Do you know you have the distinction of having the most utilitarian office in the entire Ministry? Hospital rooms at St. Mungo's are more inviting."
"Is that how you have your fingers in every pie? You dismantle the wards on people's offices and read their in-house memos?" I accused.
"Only in a pinch," he admitted. "Usually a few pints at the Leaky or lots of flowers suffice. I have an owl dedicated solely for florists. That's something else you could use in here. Some roses would--"
"Cover up the smell of smoke?"
"Possibly. Anyway, Aunt Delizia was more than happy to part with it. I'm not much for anything before Jackson Pollock, but this has a certain charm, and you strike me as someone who would like the Impressionists." He waved his hand at the wall to the right of me.
God knows how I missed it. I'd been so focused on him reading my mail that I was clearly blind to everything else. My mouth dropped open.
"Malfoy, it's a M- M- Monet," I stuttered. "Tell... Tell me it's a copy," I begged.
"A copy?" he snorted. "You couldn't possibly insult me more. Granted it's a minor water lilies. Early. I suspect that Auntie had an affair with him but she won't admit it. Ended badly, I think. Muggle-wizard romances are doomed from the start. Anyway, she practically begged me to take it. It's rather nice if you like that sort of thing. Come, look at the brush work; it's very fine."
I shook my head and walked to the far corner of my office to study the whole of it. The greens, blues, the brush strokes somehow miraculously creating the movement of the water. Oh, it was exquisite.
"Come, look at the brush work," he repeated in a soft voice.
I made my way over to the painting. Standing side by side, we gently traced the whorls and ridges of the painting with two fingers, vicariously imitating the arc of Monet's brush. The knot in my neck began to gradually unwind as we covered every inch of the canvass. Our fingers occasionally touched. And when he put his hand on my shoulder and returned me to the far corner of the room so that we could study it together, I didn't flinch or wrest my shoulder away from his hand. I let it rest there and found myself leaning into it as I studied the painting again, savouring the easing of the last kink in the knot as the beauty of Monet's genius worked its magic on me.
I loved it. I wanted it to stay here on my wall. And as beautiful as it was and as much as I loved it, and I did want, god did I want it, I knew I couldn't take it. Because there was always a price with Draco Malfoy, and he bargained in currency I couldn't possibly afford.
"I... I..." said to my feet.
He removed his hand.
"If you refuse it, I will be here every morning before you. I will force you to have tea with me. I will continue reading your post. Every day. If you complain, I will say you're not cooperating with me. Flying in the face of the memo the Minister put out last spring about interoffice unity. Now, you have a choice. You can keep the painting or you can suffer having breakfast with me every morning. I think the choice is clear."
"And how will you explain breaking through my wards?" I demanded.
"I won't have to break through your wards," he smiled. "I'll just stand in your hallway and wait for you to arrive. Or perhaps I'll wait for you in the lobby, and we can catch the lift together. Hmmm?"
Bloody bastard. As if I was going to let the Ministry gossips have a field day speculating as to why Draco Malfoy was waiting in the lobby for me every morning.
He continued. "To relieve you of any guilt or the idea that you have to recompense me for it, think of it as a thank you."
"Thank you for what?" The internal alarm bells began to go off.
"Helping me with Jenkins, of course. Let's chat, Granger."
Chapter 4: Made Over
"I know I'm going to regret this," he sighed.
I didn't even finish his name before he whipped out his wand and hexed me.
The bastard hexed me! In my own office! It was incomprehensible how many rules and regulations he'd just broken. There wasn't a place he could hide, a nook, a cranny, a hovel in Madagascar, ANYWHERE ON THE FACE OF THIS EARTH where I wouldn't hunt down that sorry aristocratic arse of his and hex him into the next century. My mind reeled with the myriads of curses and jinxes and hexes and, dear God, forgive me, Dark Arts I'd visit on him. I'd make him suffer. I'd make him squirm. No, hexes weren't good enough. I'd boil him in hot oil. Slowly. Relishing his screams.
"Amazing. Just amazing. Even with your mouth agape, you are truly lovely." He then had the nerve to smile. "Mind if I smoke?"
He lit up.
"It's getting to the point where I don't even need to hear your verbal assaults. I can just imagine them. Quite clearly. Well, in this case it's your own fault for not paying attention to me in the first place." He waggled his cigarette at me. "And once you stop foaming at the mouth, metaphorically speaking of course, since you can't move a single muscle, by the end of this little tête-à-tête you'll be eating crow with hard sauce. This will teach you to ignore my memos. At this point you usually snort at me. You're quite a good snorter, as snorters go. Takes a certain amount of finesse to get the snort just right. Anyway, mustn't dillydally. I'm having tea with the Minister in twenty minutes. Sort of a 'good show on the pay raise' cuppa. Now, about Jenkins." He took another deep drag.
I never really hated him. Oh no. I see that now. Not really. Not like I did now: my eyebrows crunched up in surprise, which was really beginning to hurt; my mouth open, which also was working itself up into a mighty ache; the bastard. Add to that my back, because I was leaning forward just as he cast the hex on me. All in all, if I was ever restored to mobility ever again (which, if Malfoy had one ounce of the intelligence I thought he did, he'd never be so stupid as to unhex me, because if he did, I would kill him), I'd probably have to haul myself off to St. Mungo's for a full-body healing charm.
"I was at a party fairly recently. It was sort of a gentlemen's evening if you will. Lots of Firewhiskey and shoptalk. Lots of tawdry commentary on the cleavage of various female employees. Your usual Ministry after-hours affairs. Well, you wouldn't know because you're always working, and you're female even though you do your damnedest to deny it, but ask your husband or Potter. Rather too much whiskey at this one, I'm afraid. The run on hangover potions must have been frightful. And before you ask, no, neither your husband nor Potter were there. Jenkins was, however, and one of the guests, who shall remain nameless, had the foresight to place one of these little gems in his robe pocket. I think Muggles call them fake recorders?" He held a small tape recorder, tiny enough to fit in the palm of his hand. "I just don't understand the logic of Muggles, because there's nothing fake about this." He frowned. "Don't start with me, Granger. They are inexplicable. I realize that you lived as one for years, and it's amazing that you're not in a padded cell in St. Mungo's. Took me forever to figure out how to work this thing. The sales clerk was most unhelpful. Sad to say, he's currently got a rather nasty case of mushrooms growing out of his ears. It's doubtful they'll ever find a cure. Now listen."
He pushed forward on a toggle with a perfectly manicured thumb. Suddenly, the sounds of a party in full swing filled my office. There was a lot of background noise and throaty guffaws from several people, as if we were catching the tail end of a dirty joke. Then a lazy voice, which could only have belonged to one Draco Malfoy, asked, "Jenkins, do you think the Cannons have a chance at the World Cup this year?"
Even if the question hadn't been directed at him, it was impossible to mistake Jenkins' broad Lancashire accent for anyone else. For the next ten minutes I listened to the most unspeakably racist diatribe on how the Cannons were the worst team in the league because they signed halfbreeds and Muggle-borns. How ninety percent of the team wasn't fit to sweep the stands, never mind getting on brooms. What an insult to the game it was to even let "Those fucking Mudbloods play."
"Come on, Jenkins," piped up someone who was clearly in their cups. "Potter's mother was a Muggle, and no one in their right mind wouldn't have signed him had he chosen to play. Saw him play at Hogwarts once. Always caught the Snitch. Bested you loads of times, didn't he, Malfoy?"
That got a clipped "Quite," from Malfoy. If I could have MOVED A MUSCLE I would have smirked at him.
He turned the tape recorder off.
"There's more, but you get the gist. Now, do you see? And this man is Head of Magical Games and Sports. Rather unfit for such a job, don't you agree? Yes, you do. If you could move, you'd nod your head. Or scream. Or something. Probably would involve violence. Possibly to me. Which would be most unfair as you should really direct all your vitriol and the hexes that you are itching to cast at me this very moment, don't lie, at Jenkins.
"While such pure-blood nonsense would have been applauded in triplicate at the Malfoy Manor dinner table, I really don't think it in the best interest of the Ministry. Now you and I must devise a plan to get rid of him. Best that we pow-wow about this away from here, don't you think? Meet me at the Floo station at one-thirty. We'll take a rather late lunch. Wouldn't do to have too many people see us faffing off. I'll clear your afternoon with that worthless woman you call a secretary. If you don't meet me, I shall have to come down here and drag you off. Possibly make a scene. Am rather good at scenes. Now, just to prove that I don't spend all my time seducing women, I've come up with a rather diabolical variation on the Finite Incantatem spell. I've devised a way to put a timer on it. Rather clever if I do say so myself." He grinned. "Five minutes should give me enough time to get to the Minister's office for our wee cup of congratulatory tea. Refrain from having a stroke when the hex stops. Please. I plan on taking you somewhere extremely nice for lunch. Even aside from the privacy issue, I really don't fancy eating the slop that our cafeteria serves. When I become Minister of Magic, that cafeteria is the first thing to go. See you in a bit."
And with a wave of his wand and a few muttered words, he sauntered off, only to return ten seconds later and stick his head around the doorjamb. "Silly me. Almost forgot. Someone has to save you from yourself. Ta." He smiled, aimed, and then Incendio'ed the contents of my waste bin. All those memos he'd vetted and deemed trash.
I screamed for two minutes straight from sheer frustration. Not that I actually made a sound, just vented my rage as if I could yell. Taking him at his word, I had another two minutes until I could move. I might deplore his morals, but his magical ability was nigh unassailable. If he said he'd perfected a timing delay on that spell, he had perfected a timing delay on that spell. Poised over my desk as if I was about to launch across the room, I pondered my options.
It was impossible to ignore such blatant racism, but that meant colluding with Malfoy. I did not collude as a rule, and if I was the type to collude, I would not ever consider colluding with Draco Malfoy.
The proprietary grasp he had on that tape recorder--for God's sake, fake recorder?--and the insistent harping that we bring down Jenkins together signaled that he had no intention of letting me proceed on my own, that it was to be a shared endeavor. See collusion above.
Aside from the affair with Dom and Lily, Malfoy had never asked for my help. While somewhat infamous for his maneuvering and quid pro quo style, he'd always steered fairly religiously away from me. Any favors done were only done so in a roundabout manner, like Harry asking me to save Dom's arse now and then. Except for the occasional snarky comment on my ragged cuticles or my marriage to Ron, it'd been hands off. Now I was curious. Why now?
Why in the seven hells did he need meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee??????????
I fell forward and only a palm to my desk at the last second saved my face from smashing onto my desk.
That answers that question. Yes, you can scream your ears off under a Petrificus Totalus and not suffer from a sore throat afterward.
It was curiosity and curiosity only that prompted me to meet him at the Floo station per his request.
His face lit up in a satisfied smirk when he saw me approach. It took all my willpower to restrain myself from smacksmacksmacking that evil little smile off his evil little face.
"Are you restraining yourself from giving me a what-for across the face?" he murmured.
"You have no idea," I spat out.
"Cheeky minx," he continued in that soft voice for my ears only. "Now, don't say it too loudly or your reputation will be in shreds, but we will be going to 'Hampton Square, four oh nine.'"
He brought a fingertip up to his mouth. He leaned forward and I could smell the sharp citrus of his aftershave. "Hampton Square, four oh nine," he repeated in my ear.
I grabbed a handful of Floo powder and repeated his instructions in a voice not much above a whisper. And found myself in a flat that looked like some advert for depraved living through chrome, mirrors, and black leather. Everything from the cool gray walls to glass coffee table--dear Merlin, were those actual elephant hooves holding up that table--screamed bachelor pad. I actually shivered it was so cold and impersonal.
Malfoy joined me not five seconds later.
"Is this your flat? It's absolutely revolting. Worthy of a spread in Playwizard." No sense in hiding my disgust.
"How could you tell? Six-page spread, actually. Even I was impressed," he said, brushing non-existent soot off his shoulders. "You saw the November issue then? Rather disappointed in Miss November, but some months--"
"I did not--" I sputtered.
"Yes" he interrupted. "Giving it some thought I can't imagine you and that poor excuse for a husband indulging in anything even remotely pornographic. Although why he'd be ogling other women's breasts when he has the most perfect rack in his own bed... Anyway, I said to the interior decorator, who is a Muggle by the way, 'I want something that screams seduction' and voila." He motioned with an elegant hand.
"Certainly the elephant hooves cum coffee table makes me want to spread my legs. Do you know, I didn't think it possible to despise your conquests any more than I already do, but if they are impressed by this." I rolled my eyes.
"Yes, well," he replied. "One makes do," he said in an undertone.
I narrowed my eyes. "Why am I here? I thought we were going to lunch and discussing Jenkins. If you think for one slimy moment that I have any intention--"
"Dream on, Granger," he snorted with his normal aristocratic drawl. "If I were going to seduce you, you'd know it by now. I'm rather good at it; believe me. We wouldn't be discussing decorating tips if I'd designs on getting into your knickers. Oh that scowl. You're rather put out with me, aren't you?" he said with glee.
I made for the silver inlaid box on the mantle, which I assumed contained Floo powder. Enough. The man was absolutely insufferable. Why I'd thought... I'd pick up a sandwich from the cafeteria...
He grabbed my hand. "No, my very dear Hermione, we are going to lunch like I promised. And don't bother trying to Apparate. Anti-apparition wards. Malfoys wrote the book. More or less. Rather a shady history that. In past times, they were usually cast to stop the people you were torturing from leaving before you'd killed them, but I find they are quite useful--"
I pulled away and was reaching for the box when it disappeared.
"Malfoy! You return that box!" I raised my wand.
"Jenkins," he cooed. "And that was just one night. He's usually much more circumspect, I grant you, but I've heard him spew that sort of trash several times. Just imagine. That obnoxious, racist tosser runs Sports and Game. He's an employee of the Ministry."
He was playing me like a goddamned violin, but that entire exchange on tape was particularly vile; the man should be fired. I lowered my wand and scowled at him.
"Good girl. I knew you couldn't resist," he said under his breath. "Now, we are here because I will not be seen with you in public wearing those rags. I have a reputation to uphold, not to mention that we are having lunch at a Muggle restaurant and appearing in wizarding robes would not be on, now would it? I couldn't possibly do this in the lobby of the Ministry, so take that frown off your face, woman," he said in a normal voice--well, normal for Malfoy, which meant snide and snotty as all hell. He stood back and ran his eyes up and down my body. "I can't tell anything from that sackcloth you had the misfortune to wear this morning. If I were your husband and I saw you in that sorry excuse for clothing, I'd have ripped it from your body with my bare hands. Naturally, ravaging you would have ensued, so perhaps it wouldn't have been a dead loss. Anyway, I will have to do this from memory. You have only yourself to blame if it doesn't fit. Although I am rather a god at this sort of... I think a nice shade of... Yes!"
He raised his wand and pointed it in my direction. I opened my mouth to protest, but a whoosh of air and the sudden sense of, well, fabric across my hips and cool air across my shoulders shut me up. I turned in horror at one of the twenty mirrors in the room, almost terrified to...
If I ignored the plunging neckline that exposed half of my bra, it was all, well, so understated and elegant and positively me (with the exception of the down-to-there neckline), that all I could do was stare. Malfoy had Transfigured my drab black robe into a simple linen sheath, linen so finely woven it felt like silk under my fingertips. The dress fit my hips, followed the curve of my waist, the gentle lavender of the linen the perfect complement to my eye and hair color. He'd even replaced my serviceable ballet flats with cream-colored pumps with a very restrained one-inch heel. I wriggled my toes. The leather just gave; it felt like my feet were encased in velvet socks. I could probably hike the Pyrenees in these.
I looked at my exposed bra. I looked at Malfoy.
"Well, I told you that it was hit or miss," he grumbled.
I pointed at my cleavage. "Ahem."
"Yes, all right. As much as I appreciate the current view, I really do think a boatneck as opposed to a vee neck is more your style. Shoulders like yours should be showcased. The hint of the sexual is always much arousing than the actual, something I have tried to explain to that tart in accounting--whose name escapes me--to no avail. There. Better?"
I looked again. Yes, he was right. A boatneck was much more my style.
"What to do about that mop?" he mumbled. "Yes, I think that severe chignon you managed at Dom's wedding, although a trifle frosty, suits you." A tingle of magic and my hair was upswept into a tight roll at the back of my neck.
"You don't need any make-up or stockings. That tan just screams good health. And thank goodness you wore the pearl earrings today, but then I don't think you ever take them out, do you?"
I made to say, "No," when before I knew it he was standing behind me, so close his breath warmed my cheek. He reached around to clasp the most astonishing three-stranded pearl necklace around my neck. The pearls gleamed against the delicate pastel of the dress. He placed his hands on my shoulders and then rested his chin on the back of his hand and smiled at me in the mirror. I opened my mouth to what, I don't know. Protest? Thank him? Say something, but he took a very gentle finger and put it over my parted lips.
"They were my grandmother's. Been sitting in a jewelry box for years. Just for the afternoon, hmmmm? Pearls are too plebian for Pansy. Anything that doesn't sparkle holds no interest for her. And you are the sort of woman who has no interest in glitz, I wager. Beautiful," he murmured and then ran a finger along my hairline, tucking a non-existent wisp of hair behind my ear.
Speechless, I could only duck my head and blush. Common sense told me to hand him back those pearls, Transfigure my clothes back, and march out that door. But I couldn't. This is how he does it, I realized. He pretends not to seduce you by seducing you. Not by lewd suggestions and a pinch to the arse. No, by decking you out in his grandmother's pearls and a warm hand on your shoulder and a whisper...
"There's something of a breeze today, so I think you need... Accio handkerchief." A handkerchief came flying into the room. He caught it deftly, and I was reminded for one second that he'd been nearly as good a Seeker as Harry. One quick wave of his wand and a cream-colored wrap, the same color as my shoes, appeared. He arranged it around my shoulders in that casual, nonchalant manner that French women have perfected and that no one in the rest of the world has a hope in hell of recreating.
"The restaurant is not far. Shall we walk?" he asked and guided me out the door with a firm hand on my back.
He made idle chit-chat the whole way, how a flat in Muggle London gave him a certain degree of privacy--he couldn't be Apparating back and forth from the Manor all the time, too tiring. To which I replied, "Spare me that bollocks. You have a flat in Muggle London so that you can conduct your tawdry affairs away from the prying eyes of the wizarding world."
I am sorry to say he replied, "Exactly!"
It was something of a relief to return to our scolder/scoldee relationship. That make-over, while highly insulting no matter which way you sliced it, was also supremely disconcerting. He knew that shade of lavender was particularly complimentary to my coloring. That I wore my grandmother's pearl earrings every day. He knew the breadth of my hips, the nip of my waist. There was a confidence about him about me. For all his flippant comments, the dress fit me to a tee. I blushed, thinking back to our encounter in the gazebo at Lily and Dom's wedding, and how he'd braced his hands on my waist and my hips as he leaned against me in a drunken slouch. How drunk had he been? Really. I was beginning to think not at all based on the snug but correct fit of the dress.
We insulted each other in our usual fashion for the next couple of blocks. As much as I hated to admit it, he had chosen a quite nice section of Muggle London to practice his licentious habits. The commons were a study in that profuse, overflowing style that is particularly British Muggle, billowing drifts of color and texture. With a discrete wave of his wand, Malfoy lopped off a rosebud and adorned his lapel. I cringed at the thought of our rather sad little garden, which was nothing more than a lawn and a few hedges that Ron occasionally beat into some sort of shape with a spell and a hedge trimmer. When had our lives become so sterile and everything a chore?
In short order we appeared at the front door of a small neighborhood restaurant; the elaborate gold script on the awning announced we were at Chevalier's. I have to admit I started a bit. I had expected some restaurant where what they were really serving was "chic" and the food immaterial. If the menu were any indication, this place was your typical French brasserie and would have been completely at home on some obscure side-street in Paris.
Slinging a proprietary arm around my shoulder, he interrupted my perusal of the menu and forced me across the threshold. "Now play along," he demanded.
A stern, no-nonsense French woman looked up at the sound of the door opening. Her stiff demeanor melted at the sight of Malfoy. She rubbed her hands against the white of her apron, threw her hands up in a grand Gallic gesture, raced over to him, grabbed Malfoy by the ears, and kissed him on both cheeks, one right after the other.
"Monsieur Malfoy!" she cried and began rattling off in French how it had been so long and where had he been and she and Georges had despaired of ever seeing their favorite customer again. Then in English she said, "Is this? Non, non, non. Not after all these years." A saucy smile appeared.
"Well, yes, actually," and the grip on my shoulder intensified. "A celebration is in order. Hermione, Madame Chevalier. Madame, my wife." With his free hand he grabbed my left and held it aloft. He must have done it at the flat, but I hadn't felt a thing. My plain gold wedding band and small solitaire had been replaced by an enormous confection of rubies and emeralds, encircled and entwined in the most delicate of gold filigree. It was the most beautiful ring I had ever laid my eyes on. Which did not stop me from wanting to kill him on the spot. The man was mad! I blushed as I have never blushed in my entire life. If he thought I was going to play into this farce, he had another think coming. I had no intention of... Leaning over my shoulder, he whispered against my ear lobe, "Jenkins and please".
I stiffened at his soft breath against my ear and then replayed over and over in my head Jenkins gagging out the word "Mudblood," as if it made him positively ill to even say it. I heard Madame Chevalier chuckle, "D'accord. That's why you wanted the special arrangements. Come, come," she demanded.
I turned to him and mouthed silently, "Arrangements?"
He pursed his lips together and mouthed back, "Ssshh." Loosening his fierce grip on my shoulder, he began poking me between the shoulder blades to follow her up the stairs.
How typical of Malfoy to rely on my innate sense of manners. I had no choice but to follow or make an enormous scene. He wasn't going to get off scot-free, however, and the next time he poked me, I elbowed him in the ribs with a sharp and vicious jab. "Stop that," I hissed and ignored the gigantic "Oomph" from behind me. She led us up a small staircase to a small office. A table, tucked in the corner next to several cases of wine, had been laid for lunch--for two. A bottle of Tattinger's squatted lazily in a bucket full of ice.
Malfoy, even when insulting me, always managed to do so with impeccable manners. Today was no different. Only slightly cradling his right side in deference to his now aching ribs, he pulled out my chair and bade me sit, a manufactured air of devotion on his face. Such a complete and utter skank. None of the circles of hell were hellish enough for this man.
Equally insincere, I smirked back at him.
Madame said to me in a loud conspiratorial whisper. "Finally, he brings us a woman. A real woman. Georges and I," Madame threw her hands up in the air in disgust. "You would not believe the, well, the sort of woman he'd bring in here for lunch." She cast a brief, chastising glare Malfoy's way.
"I think I can guess." I deadpanned and smiled at her, murmuring, "Disgusting sod" under my breath so that he and only he would hear me. To my utter chagrin, he picked up my hand and kissed it.
"Those days are over," he blushed and rubbed my knuckles against his cheek.
The man was a complete and utter poser! I couldn't stand it. I kicked him under the table.
God, he was good. He didn't flinch at all; his blush just deepened. And then he kicked me back.
I coughed to stifle the grunt of pain. That hurt!
"You must be starving," Madame clucked. "No menus. Georges has a special feast all planned for the bride and groom." With an expertise honed over thirty years, she opened that bottle of champagne in five seconds flat, poured us a drink, and bade us toast each other.
"To my lovely wife, Hermione," Malfoy crooned. He lifted his glass in my direction, clearly enjoying himself no end. The minute Madame Chevalier left the room, he'd be in peals of laughter. He narrowed his eyes slightly as if in warning and then leaned forward across the table. So close I could smell his toothpaste and a tart whiff of his aftershave, he brought his mouth just up to mine; any closer and we would be kissing. "Kick me again," he whispered against my lips, "and I'll break your fucking leg."
I pulled back from him, trying to hide the outrage in my face.
"To... Draco," I managed to reply and clinked his glass. I brought my lips to the edge of the glass, realizing that it was the first time in twenty-nine years that I had used his first name. I downed the entire contents.
"L'amour," Madame chuckled and left the room.
No sooner did I hear the snick of the door latch than he lazed back in his chair and, like I expected, laughed for a good two minutes. "Oh, the look on your face--" he held his sides. "Thought you were going to kill--" More laughter.
Finally, he wiped his eyes and realized I was glaring at him.
"Oh come on," he wheedled. "Wasn't that fun? Have some more champagne. You are so grumpy today."
"I am not grumpy," I said with as much vehemence as I could without out and out yelling. "You are... That was not... First of all, you... You..." and I motioned a frantic hand over the dress. "And then my... My..." I held up my left hand and shook it. "And then you and me..." and I threw up both hands in extreme frustration.
"Score one for me. That's the first time I've ever seen you more or less speechless. I like it. Now the dress. I am not even going to debate this issue. Yes, of course, you have brains, far too many some days, but you are also a most beautiful woman, and it irks me no end seeing you all jumbled and, well, ratty, when you could be, with very little effort, stunning. I blame Weasley. Of course, seeing you look like some frumpy Muggle housefrau only reinforces my abiding scorn for him as a husband, so it's sort of a win/win. But today," he filled my glass with champagne, "today I wanted to have lunch with the woman I shared champagne with the night of the wedding, not the middle-aged constipated bureaucrat whose only concession to style is a rigorous brushing of her teeth."
"I am not con--"
"Please," he said without any edge. "Let her come out to play."
"Like the carriage loads of bimbos you've brought here for lunch?"
"I admit, some of them... I will say that I've never tried to pass any of those women off as my wife. That speaks very well of you."
"Considering how you treat your wife, forgive me if I don't take that as a compliment. Speaking of wives," I held up my left hand. The rubies and emeralds winked at me.
"Oh that. Yes." Was that a blush? He raised his wand. My original wedding rings reappeared. "Forgive me. I'd sooner have that plebian ring set on my wife's hand than I'd fuck your husband. Think of it as an extension of the mise ensemble. Another family heirloom. Cesare's present to Lucrezia on her fifteenth birthday. A wee bit squicky that. Something tells me that even in the fifteenth century you did not give your sister that sort of ring. Fairly screams 'incest' in my humble opinion. We won't even mention her father. And people call me twisted."
"Because you absolutely are?"
He gave me a look.
"Comparatively speaking, no. Not that we ever discuss that particular aspect of our family tree. One reason why Auntie loathes Pansy. She had the nerve to bring it up one Christmas dinner. Silly bint. Incest is one of those verboten subjects and certainly not to be bandied about while diving into the Christmas pudding. At least it's a forbidden subject in my family, I don't know about yours. Earned Auntie's undying hatred for eternity. Anyway, historical and moral implications aside, I thought it quite appropriate for you and I. Rubies for the Gryffindor, emeralds for the Slytherin, married in a tangle of gold filigree. It suits us, doesn't it?" Not waiting for an answer he went on. "And the marriage farce? I couldn't come up with a suitable explanation for requesting a spot away from the other guests other than to request some privacy to fete and toast," he raised his glass to me, "my wife."
He shut off my inevitable sputters by reaching into his jacket pocket and holding up the tape recorder. "We can now listen to this in private."
The rest of tape contained even more offensive language, if possible, although it was merely variations on a theme: an overwhelming hatred of Mudbloods.
"Is he always this vile?" I pushed away my plate, my appetite lost.
Malfoy picked up my fork and speared a piece of asparagus. "One more bite. Georges' feelings will be hurt."
I shook my head, too upset and angry to eat.
"Drink up, then, and wash the taste of Jenkins out of your mouth," he advised and finished off my asparagus while I sipped champagne, letting its chill calm me down. "To answer your question. Of course not. He's racist, not stupid. Which is why he has managed to climb the Ministry hierarchy so quickly. I must admit that he was quite primed that evening. The gentleman giving the party had somewhat manipulated the guest list--"
"You invited nothing but pure-bloods?" I interrupted.
He pushed his plate away. "I never said it was my party, now did I? Let's just say that the guest list was rather exclusive."
"Do not insult me," I demanded. "It certainly explains why Ron and Harry weren't invited. Seeing as Ron is married to one of those revolting Mudbloods, and Harry's mother was one. Mustn't put a damper on the festivities by inviting the wrong sort. I imagine a jolly time was had by all. You probably ran out of tape. Probably went on until all hours because insulting Muggle-borns--"
"Granger, stop it," he demanded. "Did you hear me say one word, one bloody word about Mudbloods?"
I stopped. No I had not. But that didn't mean...
"You have in the past," I reminded him. "I wish I had a Galleon--"
"Shut it. I was fifteen. You will not tar me with that brush. May I remind you that at that age you were breaking every rule in the book and slapping people. Clearly, I have matured and you have not. You are still physically abusing people when you're frustrated. That elbow to the ribs and that nasty kick to my shin? Not appreciated, Madam. I think it rather unfair to be held accountable for events that occurred over twenty-five years ago. Now this is a start," he held up the tape recorder. "But I think it wise if we investigate this a little further. What one says in one's cups is easily dismissed, and clearly Jenkins is three sheets to the wind here. Any more drunk and we'd be gagging on the fumes. You will need to interview players and other owners, and I will make discreet inquiries of Ministry types. That way we shall present a complete picture of inappropriate behavior to Minister. It needs to be air tight."
I didn't disagree with anything he said, but...
"Why me? Why you and me? Why the Muggle technology?"
"If it had been me wearing that fake recorder, I would have used Muggle technology because it would be the last sort of device someone might expect me to use. Spells, Pensieves, charms, yes. Muggle technology? No."
I couldn't argue with him on that score, and it only underscored how truly diabolical he was.
"If it had been me and my party, which is still very much open to debate," he added.
I took another sip of champagne, because if I didn't I was going to smack him. "And you need my help why?"
His eyebrows met his hairline in surprise. "Because you are the poster girl for all that is Muggle-born whatever." He waved his hand in the air in a vague manner. "I have absolutely no credibility on this matter. Can you imagine the snorts of disbelief if I went into the Minister's office and presented this? They'd think it was just a backdoor attempt to thwart Jenkins' ambitions."
"Which it is."
"Possibly. Be that as it may, or may not, considering my father and his voluminous commentary on the subject, I'd be laughed out of the room. But with you by my side, no one would dare question me and my motives."
"So to recap," I began. "Despite ample evidence that Jenkins is a racist toad, because of your reputation as a pure-blood cretin, you have a snowball's chance in hell of dislodging him from his current position as Head of Magical Games and Sports; a position that gives him sizable exposure and is a natural jumping off point for the position that you--and I--covet: Assistant Minister of Magic. In order to give your underhanded machinations some credibility, you seek my involvement because I am of unquestionable integrity. Being Muggle-born and likely to be suitably horrified and outraged by Jenkins' manifest pattern of racist and discriminatory behavior, I will set aside the extreme hatred and scorn that I harbor toward you and assist you in this because Jenkins is an utter boil on the backside of the Ministry and isn't fit to be mopping the floors, never mind being the head of a department and certainly not Assistant Minister of Magic."
"In a nutshell," he beamed at me.
"I loathe you."
"You do?" he mocked.
"You knew that the minute I heard that tape that I would not allow this man to continue in his position, and that I'd have no choice but to help you."
"None, I'm afraid." He filled my glass with the last of the champagne.
How fortuitous. I threw it in his face.
Chapter 5: Knife's Edge
He followed suit and soaked my face with his champagne. At which point, Mrs. Chevalier walked in bearing a tray of desserts. She took one look at our bedraggled hair and wet faces, and beamed at us. "L'amour," she said with a fond sigh and left the dessert tray on the desk. "I will leave you two love birds alone," she whispered, her French accent extremely pronounced. She exited the room humming La Vie en Rose.
It was too much. Both of us began laughing like mad. I laughed so hard my sides ached for the rest of the afternoon. I couldn't remember the last time I'd laughed with such complete abandonment.
"We... We'll have to wait until... Oh, Merlin, Granger, you do look a sight," he chortled. "Champagne becomes you. Oh, you're soaking."
I couldn't stop giggling. He looked ridiculous. That normally hair-perfect coif of his lay in droopy strands against his forehead and ears, the ends dripping on the shoulders of his Savile Row jacket, his cheeks shiny from champagne and, given how much he was guffawing, tears of laughter. I forgave him for once. If I looked as half as wet... It was so ridiculous. Only the French would interpret champagne glasses at five paces as an act of foreplay.
"Here." He began to daub my face with his napkin. "We shall cast a Drying Charm after we've left. But for now, close your eyes," he ordered.
I might have been a child he was so gentle. Barely touching the linen to my eyes, he mopped my forehead, my cheeks, and, finally, grabbed my chin and gave it a little shake. "Minx," he muttered.
When he'd done a quick, cursory swipe of his own face, he turned toward me. "What? I know I don't have egg on my face."
I shook my head. "Nothing, Malfoy. We should go." I made to stand up.
"Granger," he said and grabbed my wrist. "We're on about Jenkins, aren't we?"
I pulled away and got up from the table. "Yes, you worthless sod, we are. Hide that smirk, or I will change my mind."
The next four weeks were completely punishing. We got the green light from the Minister to conduct our investigation, but we had to sandwich it in between our other duties, which meant that I was working a seventy-five-hour week and Malfoy a thirty-hour week. And the bastard had the nerve to complain about that.
"These hours are getting ridiculous," he pouted.
Once a week, on Friday afternoons at three, we'd rendezvous at his horrible flat for a late two-hour lunch and compare notes. A cursory exploration of his kitchen at our first meeting was a study in debauchery. The kitchen cabinets yielded acres of glassware and booze, but nary a plate or a bowl. He didn't even have a teapot. If I were an alcoholic, I'd be in ecstasy. I could have a martini, scotch, cognac, champagne, or, dear God, absinthe. In the appropriate glass. His refrigerator was completely stocked. With white wine, champagne, vodka, gin, and vermouth. Actual food was limited to five jars of olives. For the martinis. The sum total of his kitchen drawers yielded a pate knife, an oyster shucker, seven corkscrews, and one spoon.
I held up the spoon. "And pray what is this for? Spoon feeding yourself alcohol? I don't even want to know what perverse and disgusting thing you must do with that oyster shucker."
He pasted on that martyred expression I've never seen him use with anyone but me.
"Why do you always think the worst of me? I use the spoon for dolloping caviar on toasts, and the oyster shucker, believe it or not, I use for shucking oysters. I've gotten quite adept at wielding that thing." He picked it up, imitated a vicious twist, and threw it back in the drawer. "Are you partial to oysters, Granger? I'm rather fond of them."
I ignored the question, even though there is really nothing nicer than fresh oysters with a splash of Worcestershire sauce. "Why don't you just use magic?"
"Oh, I entertain the occasional Muggle, so one can't exactly whip out one's wand no matter how inconvenient."
"Into each life, a little rain must fall. Now that you've plowed your way through the tarts at the Ministry, you're reduced to seducing Muggle shop girls?"
"Something like that. Now what do you fancy?" He leaned into the refrigerator, and when he turned around to face me, he had a bottle of Boodles in one hand and a bottle of Chopin in the other.
"A vodka or gin martini? I'm a gin man myself, but you strike me as the sort of woman who prefers vodka. A small flaw in your otherwise perfect personality. Bugger, we have to add the unfortunate Weasley and Potter effect, so lord knows what in the hell you drink. Those two invented execrable taste. Yesterday's batch of just distilled Firewhiskey is today's chaser."
He stopped talking and gave a noticeable shudder. "I just had a horrible thought. You're not one of those misguided wretches who prefer their booze doctored to the nines? Please tell me you're not of the Long Island Iced Tea persuasion? That I couldn't possibly endure. It would, I'm afraid, completely put the kibosh on this overriding passion I'm developing for you. Stop it in its tracks."
Despite the bottle he was holding, he fluttered his eyelids closed, manufactured an exaggerated pout, and brought his hand up to his head as if to ward off the vapours. Would that he had broken his nose with that bottle of gin indulging in these immature theatrics. When I didn't say anything he opened one eye.
I looked at him.
He dropped the act and grimaced. "How am I going to convince you of my love for you if you refuse to take me seriously? You have that Malfoy-is-a-ridiculous-twit-and-if-I-could-get-away-without-twenty-years-in-Azbakan-I'd-kill-him-this-instant look. The one that says you are not amused at all."
I knew him well enough to know that he was about to go on some verbal tear. The man was a motor mouth. How in the hell did Pansy put up with this night and day?
"Do please shut up," I demanded, the "please" only a matter of habit.
"Can't." His mouth twitched up in an insincere smile. "You make me ridiculously nervous, especially when you're shooting these pointed, disapproving visual daggers my way. Anyway, now that I have your attention, I've catalogued them, you know. There are no less than ten. The worst being the deep disgust on your face when you are two seconds away from vilifying me as Death Eater scum; the more benign one being when you think I'm being annoying and childish, but you still are amused. This is somewhere in the middle. You are not amused, but you are not mortally offended. All in all, not bad as far as your looks go, but still rather ego deflating." He returned the bottles to the refrigerator and slammed the door shut with a dramatic flourish and a sigh, and leaned back. "What does amuse you, Granger? Inquiring minds want to know."
He brushed back an errant hair from my forehead, and then stood there, lolling against the refrigerator in his impeccable suit with nothing out of place; ridiculing me with these unbearably offensive references to this alleged passion for me, when in reality, we both knew he scorned my every molecule. I wanted to smack him. No one on the face of this planet had the ability to enrage me as much as this man. And it was with no great pride that my forty-one-year-old self was itching to regress to my thirteen-year-old self and haul off and belt him.
I took a deep breath.
"I would find lunch quite amusing right about now, since I missed elevenses interviewing that pervert Carstairs, who apparently has nothing intelligent thing to say on the subject of Jenkins, but still managed to take forty minutes of my precious time while indulging his kink for dowdy brunettes. I wish I had a Galleon for every time he pawed my knee. My bank account would rival yours. Ergo, I have had nothing to eat since six this morning, and I come here to find that the only edible items in your refrigerator are martini olives. Therefore--"
The doorbell rang.
"Ah," was all he said, and with a frown, he whipped around me to the intercom near the front door. In rapid French he bade whoever had rung the doorbell to come up. Five minutes later, the dining room table was set for two, with a complete hot meal courtesy of the Chevaliers, right down to the pats of butter for the sliced baguette and oversized spoons for the French onion soup. The slip of a fiver into a palm, an enthusiastic "Merci, Monsieur," to Malfoy, and the waiter was gone. Lunch was served.
Malfoy held out my chair and I sat down. We ate in silence.
It wasn't until he poured me a cup of coffee from a thermos that he said, in a quiet voice, "Surely, I'm not that much of a troll that you'd think I'd serve you gin for lunch? It was a joke. Why are you so angry at me?"
"I know it was a joke, and I don't know," I snapped, stirring sugar into my coffee with such force that if my cup had shattered. I wouldn't have been surprised.
He filled his own cup, no milk, and sat back in his chair, apparently waiting for some explanation.
"I was working until midnight last night trying to finish up the material for our meeting today. By the time I got home, I missed my window and tossed and turned all night. I've had about three seconds of sleep total. My secretary called in sick, and I had to finish off the meeting notes for that department head meeting we had last week. Billingsly sent me six owls in the space of thirty minutes, asking me where they were, and--"
"You should have told him to fuck off. They aren't due for review to the other department heads until Monday. He only did that because he was the secretary for the last meeting and his were three days late."
"I know that, Malfoy, but you know how I am. And I had to prepare the agenda for the Magical Quality Assurance Training Retreat next month, and it's not like I could put that off, considering the Minister personally requested that I organize it. And then to cap an utterly shit morning, that total waste of space Carstairs slobbered all over me, trying to sneak peeks at my breasts, and Ron is leaving for two weeks tomorrow for some international Auror boondoggle in New York that he and Harry are attending, and I promised him we'd have dinner with his parents tonight, and I don't know how I'm going to get out of the office by six what with..."
I stopped talking--just stopped--because, for one thing, even I knew I was sounding not a little manic, and for another, Malfoy was stroking my head in the most unbelievably gentle fashion. I found myself leaning into it and trying desperately not to cry.
What I couldn't, and wouldn't, tell Malfoy was that when I got in last night, Ron was already asleep. Naturally, why would he be awake--it was nearly 12:30. Like the proper wife I was, I had Firecalled him earlier and told him I'd be late. He wasn't at home, but at Harry's house, their youngest on his knee. Ginny's "We'll feed him, Hermione," and his, "Thanks, Gin. All set, yeah? Don't be real late," settled the matter.
Nevertheless, he would be none too pleased to see how late I actually was. Over the years, I'd perfected the art of slipping into bed without making a single sound. Unfortunately, despite being so tired even my fingernails were yawning, I lay there with my fists clenched. The adrenaline was now pumping through me, my internal clock thinking that since I'd so cavalierly ignored its overt hints an hour ago, I must not want to sleep. I tossed and turned in frustration as my mind went spinning in six different directions, so much so that I woke Ron up.
"Bloody hell, Hermione, would you take some Dreamless Sleep? You've turned over sixteen times in the past five minutes. I counted."
"Sorry, sorry," I apologised. "Just this Jenkins business has me all wound up. You all set to head off on Saturday?" I asked in an attempt to deflect the inevitable confrontation over the hours I was working.
"Yeah, can't wait." He added, as if I didn't know this, "I love the States."
Even though half asleep, he couldn't contain his excitement. If Fred hadn't died in the war, Ron would have been after me to emigrate, assuming he could get Harry and Ginny to join us there. Many wizards did emigrate after the war. In the months following the final battle, it was impossible to go anywhere and not confront the spectre of those who had died. Plus, the informal tenor of the United States suited Ron: the emphasis on sports, the more casual approach to dress, the easy come and go of American culture. I would have hated it, of course; I don't have any time for the American wizarding community. Their complete lack of help during the last war with Voldemort left me with an admittedly unreasonable scorn of all things American. But I didn't have to worry about it. It took Molly a good ten years to come to terms with Fred's death, and not even Ron, who can be as obtuse as they come, would have threatened her hard fought mental equilibrium by moving four thousand miles away, Portkey or Floo network notwithstanding.
I lay there wondering if half a dose of Dreamless Sleep would put me out but not make me groggy in the morning when Ron said in a quiet voice, "Hermione, why haven't you asked me about Jenkins?"
Although this was top secret, I had to justify why I was working such hellish hours, and told Ron the bare minimum, about how the Minister had asked Malfoy and me to conduct an investigation of Jenkins. That rumours had been floating around regarding him being a racist clod--completely inappropriate for any head of department and doubly so for a department that was international in nature--and our task was to suss out whether these were just rumours or actual facts. I had not mentioned lunch at Chevaliers, because I honestly didn't think I could explain why we were eating in a Muggle restaurant without going into the whole wearing French couture/marriage farce, nor the baptism by champagne.
The word was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. Because of course I should have talked to Ron. Ron, who'd run the Ministry's Quidditch league for the last fifteen years. Who met regularly with Jenkins to chat about horribly boring sports miscellany that I could care less about, but seemed to be Ron's real love. He'd only become an Auror because he truly couldn't envision not being by Harry's side. Ever. He was a competent enough Auror, not first-rate by long shot, and he'd be the first to admit it. But running the Ministry Quidditch league? That tendency to dig his heels in, to get bent out of shape, didn't exist when he put on his league captain's hat. I asked him once if he'd ever considered leaving the Ministry, try for some low-level job in management for the Cannons, and work his way up. His response was a curt, "No, as long as Harry needs me, I'll stay where I am, thank you."
Twenty-two years later, he was still by Harry's side, but I wondered how happy he was.
"I see that git all the time, you know," he ground out, clearly furious at me, and I didn't blame him. When had I stopped taking him seriously, ignoring him, not even considering him? He made to turn over.
"Please." I placed an arm on his shoulder to stop him from turning over. "Ron, have you heard him make comments about..." I paused,"Mudbloods?"
He resisted for a minute but gave in. I could tell he was still angry. His shoulder muscles remained taut under my hand, but his voice sounded normal enough.
"Yeah, but not when he thought I was around. Be bloody stupid, wouldn't he, with my wife and best friend being born to Muggles. He's got a thing about it, no mistake, but he's real smart. He only shoots his mouth off in front of those who he thinks agree with him. Like Malfoy. Who does agree with him, but knows that's not the way the wind blows these days, what with Harry the head of the Auror Division and you so high up in the Ministry. So he keeps his aristocratic trap shut. You know, the only reason that devious bastard Malfoy is angling to boot Jenkins out is because he's so popular. Jenkins is always ready to buy a few rounds. Really generous with the Galleons, he is. That goes a long way with lots of the lads, so they ignore the odd comment. And he watches himself around Harry. Never slips up. But around the others and in the locker room?"
I could feel Ron shrug.
"Should be a piece of cake," Ron continued. "He hates the French and the Japanese, too, but I doubt that's going to get him sacked. Plus, I might think he's some sort of pillock on a personal level, but he's real good at what he does. The Ministry will need to replace him with someone who knows the sport and the teams, or you're going to have a right cock-up on your hands when you give him the boot."
I was wondering how I could take this further when he brought a hand up to my cheek.
"Hermione, Malfoy sees himself as Minister one day. He's only doing this to get rid of the competition. You'll probably be next."
Oh dear, sweet Ron. Watching out for me. I gave his hand a kiss, which was entirely too chaste, but I was so exhausted I didn't want him to get other ideas.
"Yes, I know," I admitted. "But he's got me between a rock and a hard spot. Jenkins needs to be booted out, and I can't do it without him."
"Fucking Malfoy," he muttered. "Anyway, you should interview Blandings and Mason over in Magical Games and Sports. They've worked with him for years and those two had Muggle grandmothers. Not that that bastard Jenkins knows that."
I wasn't sure whether I was insulted or relieved when he didn't follow up that kiss with anything else but a yawn.
"Thanks, Ron. I will. Now tell me again about your itinerary. New York first, then on to Chicago, then California?"
I let him talk non-stop for the next twenty minutes about his trip, and by the end he wasn't angry anymore, just sleepy. He'd scooted into the curve of my arm, snuggling up next to me, and rattled off all the cities they were to visit, which I already knew verbatim. He dropped off in mid-sentence about the beaches in California and what was that marvellous sunscreen charm?
When I could hear his gentle snores and made my usual apology, I snuggled up against his back to hold him and tried not to cry, because I was so tired and I was so ashamed at myself for treating him like some house-elf.
None of which was Malfoy's business, so all I said was, "I'm exhausted. Sorry," and pulled my head away from his hand. He immediately dropped it to pick up his coffee cup. "This was a lovely lunch, thank you. And not that it's germane, but I absolutely loathe this flat."
For some odd reason that got a hearty laugh.
"I'll change it. I love being rich. Something resolutely English with a hint of French, I'd wager. Hmmm?" he asked and then didn't bother to wait for my reply. "As wonderful as the lunch has been, having you glare at me over your soup for the last thirty minutes, we now must move on to the more mundane, and, alas, more pertinent part of the afternoon. We need to finish by five so let's get a move on. I have tickets to the opera this evening, and you have to go home and take a nap before your dinner at the Weasley compound. Now, here's what I've discovered in the past week." He unfurled a four-foot length of parchment.
I blinked and then blinked again.
"Not bothering to hide your shock, I see. Do you think I do nothing all day? Don't bother to answer that because we both know you think that is exactly what I do all day. Nothing. I'm sure your notes will be twice as long as mine, though not as succinct, because knowing you, you're doing your level best to be fair about all this. And it would be pointless to point out that it is not about fairness; it is about nailing that bastard's hide to the wall. But I wouldn't expect anything less from you. One thing before I forget. You must interview Blandings and Mason. They both have Muggle grandmothers. They won't give me the time of day; Blandings lost a brother in the war and Mason despises me on principle, but they will talk to you, no doubt. More coffee?"
Chapter 6: Papercut
After last week's disastrous lunch--where I saw fit to lash out at Malfoy because I was disgusted with myself--I made a silent vow to be on my best behaviour before I Flooed to his flat. Cool, professional, I wouldn't let him needle me or goad me. We would collaborate like the two senior Ministry colleagues that we were and not bring our personal enmity or private problems into the process.
Naturally, the second lunch was nothing more than a fight from start to finish.
On my way to the Floo station, I ran into Carstairs. Refusing to meet my eye, he mumbled a hello and then scuttled off. It was impossible miss the gigantic growth in the middle of his forehead despite his attempts at hiding his face. Approximately the size of a golf ball, his neck was most likely killing him with just the sheer energy it took to keep his neck upright.
The Chevaliers had done their usual magic. The weather had turned the previous weekend, and clouds of damp mist battered against the windows. The pot au feu couldn't have been more perfect; I wish I could have enjoyed it. As it was, we railed at each other with every bite, finishing off each verbal joust with a swig of the rich burgundy that accompanied the meal. The wine was superb, but it only exacerbated the situation.
"Why didn't you just carve an 'L' for lecher into Carstairs' forehead and be done with it?" I stabbed at a carrot.
"What makes you think that I had anything to do with his little disfigurement?" he replied, cool and detached, like the out and out little liar he was.
I pointed my fork at him. "I can fight my own battles, thank you very much. Those ridiculous evasions might work with others, but they don't work with me. Did you or did you not curse Carstairs for his trollish behaviour toward me last week?"
"I think it suits him. That way you don't notice that he was born without a chin. I certainly thought about it, but whether I did anything about it is open for debate."
"We are debating," I growled out, "and now the debate is over." I pushed away my plate and took a large gulp of wine.
"Done already?" Noting that I was swilling back the wine, he raised his glass and said, "This is quite lovely. I must lay down a few cases myself."
"Have I told you lately how absolutely impossible you are? Fine. Have it your way. I was searching for a family heirloom to present to Lily and Dom when Malfoy junior pops out and happened to unearth this lovely book of curses that my parents gave me for my tenth birthday. Strolling through the hallway earlier this week, I espied Carstairs. Saw that chin just begging--or, rather, I searched for a chin and was sorely disappointed, but what's that old Muggle phrase? When God closes a door, he opens a window--there was his forehead and voilà." His wand appeared out of nowhere and he gave it a little flourish. "It will go away." He paused for several seconds. "Eventually."
I wanted to grab his wand, break it into tiny little pieces, force feed them to him, and hope the splinters catch on their way down that ferrety little throat.
"There are protocols, Malfoy. If we all went around hexing people we didn't like..." I paused to flare my nostrils, "the halls of the Ministry would be shimmying from all that spent magic. I have lodged a complaint with the proper authorities and--"
He dropped his chin to his chest and groaned, like he couldn't possibly believe what he was hearing.
"You have been working in the Ministry for far too many years. You actually believe those protocols work? They are worth about as much as the parchment they are written on, and exist so that mindless bureaucrats can pat themselves on the back and say they are doing something to actively combat sexual harassment in the workplace," he mocked in falsetto. "Nonsense. Utter shit. The person in charge of HR is his great aunt. He's been feeling up women for years--"
It was now time to push his half-finished plate away.
"Not that you would know this, being a female and based on our previous discussions, you swing only one way, so the feeling-up of women is a subject--perhaps the only subject--on which you are not an expert. Fortunately, I am. There really is an art to feeling up a woman and you don't do it unless someone wants you to. Utter bad form. He gives us wantons a bad name."
"You are vile."
That got me a smile.
"Compliments will get you much farther than you would ever imagine. Basically, his aunt will warn him to keep his hands to himself, ask him if he wants another lump of sugar in his tea, and, by the way, Uncle Alfred is going deaf. That will be the sum of it. Nothing says, 'Keep your grubby paws to yourself, you disgusting wanker,' like a boil the circumference of a Galleon. Do you know, Granger, it never ceases to amaze me that you've been a Ministry employee all these years, and yet sometimes it's like you just walked in the door. You just don't get how the Ministry works."
"Oh my God," I spat out. "Says the man who never works. Ever!"
That got to him, because his face got that Hogwarts-era pinch to it.
"Really? Never is quite definitive. So sorry to prove you wrong. Accio parchment."
A fat roll of parchment flew into his hand. Given the appearance of yet another enormous catalogue detailing Jenkins' inappropriate behaviour, I suspected that Malfoy had spent the last week fronting for hundreds of pints and numerous boxes of cigars. I said as much. "How many rounds and cigars did that warrant?"
"Biscuit?" he snapped. "Don't shake your head, they are delicious. You're not eating since that worthless husband of yours left on his stupid trip, and you could use a pound or two. Your arse is disappearing. A tragedy of national importance as far as I am concerned. Yes, it's not so much my bank account taking quite a hit that bothers me, but to be virtually incarcerated in a room full of men smoking cigars and not be able to even sneak a little puff without backsliding..." He threw his wand down on the table.
Where to begin?
"First of all, Ron is not worthless. Second of all, you smoke like a chimney, so why--"
Then I realised. Last Friday, no smoking. This Friday, no smoking.
"I believe I've already commented on how impossible you are. I am that insignificant, am I? Haven't you noticed I quit? Not a single fag in three weeks. I have to admit it's getting better. The first two weeks were horrendous. I was a right bear. Pansy threatened to drown me, and my mother threatened to haul me over her knee and wail the tar out of me if I didn't stop being so disagreeable. Interesting phrase that. Wail the tar out of someone. As if one had tar inside to wail out. Anyway, it's getting better. Now I only want one every seven minutes as opposed to every two minutes."
"Good on you," I said rather primly. "It was a disgusting habit. Did it finally dawn on you that smoking those revolting things was the height of stupidity?"
"No, actually." He pushed the plate of biscuits my way. "Please eat. You are not one of those women who are at their best when too slim. In fact, all women look better with a few pounds on them. Why oh why do women think men want to fuck sticks? I consider myself fairly mainstream in that regard, and, personally, my hands are much happier when I've got something to grab, as opposed to grabbing and ending up with a bone under my palm. Most disappointing. It's impossible to fondle a rib, as I've discovered. Anyway, the pleasure I derived from smoking always outweighed any other consideration. During the war it was, why not light up another since I'm going to die; after the war it was, why not light up another since I've survived."
"That is totally illogical," I snapped.
"Pleasure is not logical. It is simply pleasure." He toasted me, finished the wine he had, and poured himself another hefty glass.
"So if lighting up those cancer sticks and the high you derive from inhaling all those toxins is so pleasurable, why quit?"
"You find it offensive. I wish to please you."
His face had softened, the pinch beginning to recede, but this was said with his normal snide.
My little vow to be professional was very much beginning to rankle.
"You quit because I find it offensive?"
"Because you wish to please me?"
He nodded again.
I held up a hand. He was evil. Absolutely evil. After years of hating me, insulting me at every opportunity, he'd found an even more diabolical way of getting to me. With these horrible lies about how beautiful I was and how much he desired me and how intelligent I was and how he wanted to please me. All bollocks.
"May I make this clear for the record? I have no interest in what the completely debauched modern man wants in his ideal fuck, and I don't give a rat's arse why you quit. But the one thing I know is that it had nothing to do with me. Given how vain you are, you probably saw a wrinkle in the mirror one morning and went into hysterics. I never want to hear you say another word about how beautiful, how intelligent, how smashing, how riveting, how lovely I am. Ever. It's all lies, knowing what you really think. You've made that crystal clear over the years. All your false gushings are nothing more than a gigantic sneer masquerading as compliments."
We sat there for a minute: I stared at the plate of madeleines he'd pushed in my direction.
Finally, he said in a low voice, "You still don't take me seriously at all, do you? I have no credibility with you." He didn't wait for me to reply. "For the record, the last time I went into hysterics was when your Potter killed my father. An event that certainly justifies them, as opposed to waking up and seeing one's forty-one-year-old face getting a little worn. I have noted your disdain for anything even remotely approaching a compliment. I thought that since your husband is perfectly content to let you go on your holidays and work your arse off, that compliments, genuine compliments, might be few and far between. I see that I was mistaken. He obviously showers you with them, as mine are worthless. Now that we completely understand each other, let's compare notes so that you can Floo out of here as soon as possible. Think positive thoughts, Granger. You only have to suffer my presence for another week, four hours maximum, and then we are done."
I looked up, expecting the patented Malfoy contempt on his face, but what I saw was hurt and anger and something else I couldn't define. Without knowing why, I felt ashamed. I reached out for his hand and he pulled away.
"Here." He placed his parchment in my hand. "What have you accomplished this week?"
For the next hour, we compared notes and compiled arguments for our presentation to the Minister. My arguments were bullets points cataloguing the ethical implications of keeping Jenkins in the Ministry. Malfoy's arguments were nothing more than a laundry list of how this might negatively affect the Ministry--ergo, the Minister--in the next election should someone publicly call Jenkins on his racism. Ethics and spin. I had no delusions about which would be more valuable to the Minister, but at this point even I recognised that you took your victories when you could. Fortunately, this was one instance where the ethics and the spin were working hand in hand; a rare thing.
We spoke in clipped, neutral tones, and no listener would have suspected that we had known each other for thirty years. A half an hour into this, Malfoy shouted, "Accio fags!" and a pack of Players jumped out of a drawer in the kitchen and smacked into the palm of his hand. An Incendio and he lit that nasty thing with the end of his wand.
The first deep drag and puff of smoke was followed by a grimace and a jut of his chin, challenging me to say something. I ignored him. I really couldn't get out of there fast enough, and if it hadn't been for Jenkins' wife and children, we might have escaped without the final blow-up.
"I think that covers it. I'll see you next week." He moved to pull out my chair.
He sat down and lit another cigarette. Was his hand shaking?
"Do I need to remind you it is opera season? I need to go home, shower, change into dress robes, eat something, and be at the opera house by eight." He cast a Tempus. "You have three and one-half minutes."
That was the old Malfoy--brusque, demanding, arrogant--and it was something of a shock to realise that there was an "old Malfoy."
"Did you read the transcript of the interview with Mrs Jenkins?"
"Constance? Yes, of course, I did. Dear thing. Thick as two planks. Couldn't even get into Hogwarts. I think she went to some third-rate school in the United States. Makes Millicent Bulstrode look like a genius."
I had borrowed Harry's Invisibility Cloak and accompanied the Ministry employee who interviewed her, pretending to be conducting a routine census on Ministry employees. The woman was so trusting and, well, clueless that any question he asked, she answered. She echoed Jenkins' tasteless remarks, but always followed it up with a, "Well, I don't know much about Quidditch. Busy with the children, you know." As if racism and Quidditch were somehow intertwined. Then we had to listen to her brag about her children and how her eldest was finishing up at Hogwarts and how her youngest was just learning to talk--a little slow in that department but he made up for it by having the sunniest disposition--and would Mr Walker like a cup of tea?
A nicer, more idiotic woman was never born. As Walker asked her more pointless questions, I tiptoed around the room and then through the house, nearly reeling from all this spent magic. A few silent diagnostic spells and I concluded that someone in this house was a thrower of lamps. A heaver of chairs. A smasher of mirrors.
The Jenkins might have been pure-bloods, but they weren't aristocrats like the Malfoys; more middle class like Ron's family, albeit with a few more Galleons in Gringotts. The house was large, squatting on several acres, but the furniture was a good number of years past new. Given the amount of times the dining room chairs had been repaired, I suspected that there was no point in buying new furniture.
"If he loses his job, she'll bear the brunt of it. Malfoy, I can't say he beats her, but the house reeked of Reparo spells. Nearly all the furniture had been magic'd back together at some point. I can't stand the thought that he'll take it out on her. Or the children," I finished with a whisper.
He didn't look surprised. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Jenkins' drunken ramblings about Mudbloods were probably accompanied by equally tasteless comments about "having to knock some sense into the wife." He stabbed out his cigarette. "A little late in the day to give this up now."
"I'm not asking you to give this up," I protested. "He definitely should be sacked, but you own the Prophet. Can you hire him? A job where his racism doesn't affect people. The sort of position where he's not in charge of people."
"I don't own the Prophet, Granger. Am rather tired of reminding you of that fact." He reduced the package of cigarettes to the size of a stamp and slipped them in his pocket. Apparently, we were done.
I lost it completely. Because that gentle, stupid woman was going to get the pummelling of her life if that wife-beating, racist thug didn't have another option. And the children...
"God damn you to hell, Draco Malfoy!" Spitting mad, it was all I could do not to grab that empty wine bottle and klonk him over the head with it. "Someone with the name 'Malfoy' owns that paper. It might not be you, but it's your wife, it's your mother, or it's some sort of shell corporation that you own and profit from. I am asking you if it is possible to hire this worthless sod so that his wife doesn't get her face broken or his children thrown against walls. Is that too much to ask? What is the point of having power if you don't use it for good?"
He stood up and marched to fireplace, his fists clenched so tightly that it looked like it was agony to unfurl one to grab some Floo powder.
"Have you considered that he's raising a bunch of brats with the same limited, ugly ideas that he has? That his silly wife probably echoes his nightly diatribes of how the Mudbloods are ruining professional Quidditch. Believe me, I've heard them. I could probably recite them verbatim. His children will be reciting them as well, and their children will continue this, on and on. I'm surprised at you, Granger."
"Oh? Not as surprised as I am. I should think you of all people would be last person to condemn the children for the sins of their father."
His face turned a deathly white, and with a shout of "Malfoy Manor", he was gone.
I brooded all weekend. For the first time in ages, I didn't bring work home. Despite the foul weather, I did some gardening, gave my kitchen a thorough clean. I listened for a good hour to Ron's rambling Firecall about how wonderful New Orleans was and how we had to take a vacation there someday. I went shopping with Ginny and bought nothing. I had Sunday dinner with my parents. None of it dispelled the knot in the back of my neck, which made me wince every time I turned my head.
When in the hell had I started to distinguish the "old" Malfoy from the "new" Malfoy? What a horrifying thought. Yet that we were on new, untested ground, I couldn't deny. In between all that blather about his great aunt's love affairs and poisonings and perusing museums in Venice and the giving of a Monet and eating lunch and throwing champagne at each other and sharing lunch in a flat decorated with the sole purpose of seducing women, we'd crossed a line. But what line?
Three months ago, someone would have mentioned Malfoy's name and I would have said, "Worthless sod," and not given him another moment's thought. Now? I'd still say, "Worthless sod," but it wouldn't end there.
I'd spent all weekend wondering why I would even care about hurting his feelings. Because although he played his cards close to his vest, there wasn't any doubt in my mind that I had wounded him and badly. Instead of being chuffed with myself, I was completely ashamed. I never should have made that comment about his father, no matter how true it was, nor should I have commented on the status of the Prophet; it was really none of my business. But the sight of a doll peeping out from under a chair, its leg missing, my nose still twitching from the smell of all those Reparos...
First thing Monday morning I took the lift to Malfoy's office. It was early, a little after seven, and none of the secretarial staff were there. I certainly didn't him expect him to be in yet. There was a tacit understanding that no department head meeting should be scheduled for any earlier than ten or Malfoy wouldn't attend. I would leave a little note tacked to his door, apologising for my remarks.
The location of Malfoy's office, two floors closer to the Minister, was a dead giveaway that one of us was being groomed to be the next Assistant Minister of Magic, and it wasn't me. Yet, I firmly believed that at some point, the powers that be would see how hard I was working and how dedicated I was, and how Malfoy was nothing more than a power-hungry dilettante.
I must have tripped the wards when I made to spell my note to the glass on his door, because I heard a muffled, "Come in."
I paused, the palm of my hand sticky. It slipped a bit trying to grip the knob.
"Whoever you are, I don't have time for any shit this early in the morning!" he shouted thought the door. "I'm in a rotten mood, and the wards won't stop chiming if you don't move your arse. Now move. Open that fucking door or step away from it."
I stepped in. Not only was his office in prime real estate Ministry wise, it was four times the size of mine and much more opulent. Modern art covered every available patch of wall, and the furniture was most definitely not standard Ministry issue, no doubt culled from the spare rooms at Malfoy Manor. The French antiques should have clashed with the abstract art and vice versa, but it didn't. The outré art relieved the antiques of their inherent stodginess, and the antiques gave the art some gravitas. All that modern art was a bit overwhelming for my taste, but it suited him. I couldn't help but give a quick thought to his comments about how austere my office was.
The room was obscured by smoke; he must have been at it for quite some time, lighting one after the other. Seeing who it was, he immediately cast a Smoke-Be-Gone Charm, and stabbed out his current cigarette.
"You look like you got about as much sleep this weekend as I did," I said as I made my way across the room. He gave a slight nod to indicate that he heard me, acknowledging the bags under my eyes and his. "I'm sorry," and I handed him my apology.
He huffed a little laugh and then handed me his apology.
"Was just getting up to put this on your desk."
I unfurled it.
I apologise for my appalling behaviour on Friday. My father is a touchy subject at the best of times. I find it impossible to even mention him without having some sort of reaction, often negative. That he has been dead for over twenty years seems not to matter one whit. At the very least, a gentleman escorts his guest out the door; I was a complete boor. Again, I apologise.
We both looked up at the same time. The level of grovelling was nearly equal in both our notes.
"Apology accepted." I smiled.
"Apology accepted." He smiled back.
"Have you had breakfast?"
"No, I didn't have time. I wanted to get here--"
"Before I did," he finished for me.
A snap of fingers and the Sevres teapot and accoutrements appeared, nestled among a dinner platter piled high with croissants and pain au chocolate.
"Will you pour?" he asked, as if we were some old English couple on holiday in France, determined to keep up the remnants of some faded notion of empire by having tea with our croissants, and yet secretly overjoyed to be free of that ubiquitous oatmeal.
Despite the apologies, the atmosphere remained horribly strained. Our knives hit our plates with too much force. The slush of the tea going into our teacups seemed much too loud.
"I do not compliment you to humiliate you. I mean every word."
All I could say to that was, "Oh," and stir my tea with renewed vigour.
We had another couple of minutes of this horrible awkward silence, when I said, "Malfoy?"
"Look, I know that this is how you've operated probably all your life, but I can't stand these evasions. I mean, what do you have to lose by admitting that in a fit of chivalry--misguided, unfortunately--you hexed Carstairs? And before you trot out all your usual boilerplate about me being an insufferable Gryffindor, I see red when you evade and dance around the simplest questions. I can't"--dear God, I was actually going to say this with a straight face--"trust you when you are constantly..." I let out a gigantic huff and banged my cup down on the saucer. "Are so political. With everything."
He cocked his head, his mouth pursed. I wasn't quite sure whether he was annoyed or amused.
"I am a politician, Hermione," he noted.
"Not with me. You don't need to be with me, damn it!"
He straightened up, and his hand went to his pocket to pull out a cigarette. I knew him well enough to know this was nothing more than a bid for time.
"Don't. Please." I reached across and stilled his hand.
It shocked me, how warm his hand was. I half expected it to be icy to the touch, a physical manifestation of his hard, ambitious heart.
War has a way of breaking or making people. Look at Neville. Malfoy wasn't any different. The war had stripped him of all that brattiness that had been his hallmark while at Hogwarts, replacing it with a sort of steel that was, frankly, enviable. Aside from his grief at his father's death, nothing rattled him; the early greying of his hair had contributed to that mystique.
I involuntarily closed my fingers around his and remembered that day in my office when we had traced Monet's brush strokes with our forefingers. Mesmerised, I watched as he lifted my hand up to his mouth and gave it a brief kiss before bringing both our hands to desk and then letting go.
I snatched my hand back and grabbed my empty tea cup.
"Sorry," we mumbled together. I stared at my hands.
There was another minute of extreme awkwardness before he coughed and then said, "I think I might have something for Jenkins."
That brought me up to face him again.
"That was a direct hit regarding my father and me. And Pansy owns the Prophet. With her own money, in her own name, I might add. So I wasn't really lying."
I snorted at him. "Is that what this is about? Not really lying?"
He grinned at me, teeth and everything, and then said in his usual drawl, "Slytherin."
And then he sneezed.
Chapter 7: To the Bone
To this day, he denies it. Over the years, I have tried to trick him into admitting that he had cursed himself so that I would be responsible for the presentation. Because it is so his leitmotif. He always stops short of bearing any responsibility for anything with an iota of controversy surrounding it. He moves heaven and Earth, sits back a safe distance to watch worlds collide, and then creeps back in to feast on the spoils.
Like a jackal.
"You know that curse you cast that gave you bronchitis--"
"This looks very like the curse you cast at the end of that Jenkins business."
"What are you on about, Hermione? I fail to see any resemblance between that nasty cough Dom has and the enormous boil I visited upon Carstairs' very deserving sweaty forehead."
"Will you just admit it? You're driving me mad."
"I'm so glad. We're even. Because you enter the room and I go completely gaga. You reduce me to an inarticulate wretch; I can't even string a sentence together. Your manifest charms are such-- That hurt!"
"I've really had enough of this. Tell me the curse."
His breath tickled my ear.
"That is not a curse. It's an incantation for..."
I didn't see him for the rest of the week. Normally we'd bump into each other in the lift at some point during the day or at the very least attend the same meeting, but not this week. Thank Merlin!
Hovering over my desk in a frantic flutter, a memo greeted me early Tuesday morning when I entered my office, reminding me that our final meeting regarding "that matter" was on Friday. Implied but not stated was that we'd reconnoiter at his flat for lunch per the usual. I was half tempted to cancel the lunch and suggest we wrap this up at the Ministry, his office or mine. For the life of me, I couldn't put a name to what happened in his office, and I'm not sure I wanted to. Whenever I thought about the warmth of his hand and the length of his fingers, my stomach clenched in the most alarming manner. If I didn't know better, I'd have called it fear.
Words like irritated, furious, disgusted, horrified, and appalled typically describe my standard reactions to him for the past thirty years, but dangerous? If someone had asked me if I thought Draco Malfoy were someone to be afraid of, I'd have had a nice long laugh. That spoiled, narcissistic dilettante?
The guffaws were nowhere to be heard. Oh, yes, he was dangerous. I'd never felt the slightest niggle to ever apologise to Draco Malfoy for the completely justifiable scorn I'd lobbed his way over the years, and now after only a few short weeks into this project, I found myself actually penning him an apology. And, what was worst, I felt compelled to hand it to him in person.
What in the hell was the matter with me?
It wasn't often that I admitted I was out of my ken, but fortunately my normally rather sizable ego took a sensible back seat to my instincts. On the heels of that sneeze, I squeaked out a "Bless you. Good morning, then" and fled his office, his apology clutched in my hand. I headed back to my own office at a near run, collapsing at my desk, the back of my neck damp from sweat.
As the week wore on, however, I found myself far too busy to even think of Draco Malfoy and those hands of his. In addition to my normal workload, I saved Carstairs his job. I wasted most of Tuesday, all of Wednesday, and a good deal of Thursday evening completely revamping a White Paper that he'd been tasked with writing on the recent presidential election and how this would affect relations with our U.S. counterparts. He expected me to sign this utter waste of parchment, even though several of his suggestions were in direct violation of policy. Despite being career ministry, he had no more than the most cursory understanding of current government policy. If it parked itself on his desk and sang Rule Britannia, he'd still be at sea.
To add insult to injury, he spelled a number of names wrong, including my own. (It does not have a "y.")
It was not germane to the task at hand, but not for the first time did I find myself asking: if a man ogles your breasts every time you walk into a room, is it too much to ask that he at least have the decency to learn how to spell your name?
By noon on Friday, I'd convinced myself that the entire episode with the apology and the hands and the awkward breakfast was nothing more than a holdover from the previous week's unpleasant exchange. Armed with rolls of parchment reduced to the size of matchsticks, I Flooed into Malfoy's flat, determined to stick to business, eat lunch, most definitely refuse the wine, and wrap up this Jenkins business once and for all. At which point we'd return to a normal state of affairs: effortless loathing on my part, practiced scorn on his.
Despite my steely determination to keep this formal and to the point, it was all moot the second my feet touched the hearth. There was Malfoy, lying on the sofa, curled up into what looked like a most uncomfortable ball. His hands, pressed together, fingertip to fingertip as if in prayer, were tucked under one ear. Although dressed in his normal attire--a suit costing the equivalent of a small car--the knot in his tie had been yanked loose, his waistcoat was unbuttoned, and he wasn't wearing a jacket. Plus, and this was absolutely jaw dropping, he'd rolled up his shirt sleeves. I couldn't have been more shocked than if he'd been naked.
My immediate reaction was incandescent rage. How dare he lie there, nursing some massive hangover, when we had work to do? Clearly, last night had been devoted to plying some bint with vodka and champagne. Based on the pained look on his face, he must have downed a fifth of Chopin and an entire case of Tattingers trying to get into her knickers. I was about to just let into him, tear strips off of him, when he looked up and wheezed, "Granger?", which was followed by a coughing fit so ferocious that by the time he'd finished hacking, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash if one of his lungs were lying on the floor.
"Malfoy, you idiot! Why didn't you owl me? Why aren't you at home? What is the matter with Pansy, letting you use magic in this state? Has she gone mad? Why--"
He held up his hand.
"Am not. Wrap up this Jenkins business. House-elves so annoying. Nothing. In Paris with mother. No," he croaked and tried to sit up.
"Don't be a silly bugger. Lie back down this instant." I pushed on his shoulder. Falling back into the sofa with a grunt, he closed his eyes. "Do you have a--" I put a hand to his forehead.
He was burning up.
Fortunately, basic first aid was something all of us mastered in the first three months of the war. Parking myself on that horrible coffee table with the elephant legs, I kept one hand on his forehead, and with the other, I cast an Anti-Fever Charm.
"Chest hurts," he mumbled and brought a wan hand up to his sternum in a futile attempt to stem another nasty coughing fit.
"As soon as this charm takes hold, I'll get you a glass of warm water. That should loosen up your chest."
He nodded, but I wasn't really sure he heard me. Always naturally pale, his cheeks were rouged in garish spots of twin colour, stark against the extreme pallor of the rest of his face. Curling in on himself even more, he began to shiver from the fever. I cast a Tempus every few seconds--waiting, waiting, waiting. And it didn't go down. He got hotter. I cast the charm again. Nothing happened. Then I knew; whatever I am, I'm a damn good witch, and the only reason that charm would fail would be because he had magicked himself into bronchitis or pneumonia--or whatever stupid, ridiculous disease he'd given himself--so that I'd be, ostensibly, responsible for getting Jenkins sacked. But he'd bollixed it up, and now he was so sick, his magic wouldn't work even if he knew the counter-spell.
"You stupid, stupid man!" I shouted. He tried to open his eyes, but even that proved too much for him. I grabbed his shoulders and began shaking him. "What spell? What evil incarnate, Dark Arts spell did you cast on yourself?" He didn't answer me, but began coughing again. I held him through it. God he was thin. He must have been sick all week. I knew if we didn't get that fever down, he'd be hallucinating any minute. The heat from him had me sweating.
"Malfoy," I whispered in his ear. "You have to tell me. Merlin, please, what is the spell?"
His answer was to slump against me, murmuring, "Sleep."
I'll 'sleep' you, I thought. I let him down gently, keeping a hand on his forehead, and took a deep breath. Okay, this was magic, impervious to whatever spell I could cast. I'd have to fight this the Muggle way. If he didn't respond in fifteen minutes, I was Side-Apparating him to St. Mungo's.
I ran to the closest window, opened it, and pointed my wand at the set of flats opposed.
I heard the sound of glass shattering, then several bottles of paracetamol came hurtling into the room, hitting the far wall. Excellent. I waved my wand in a large circle and yelled "Reparo" several times, hoping against hope that it fixed all the windows. I didn't have time to do anything else. I raced to the kitchen, grabbed the first glass that came to my hand--a Waterford crystal brandy snifter--and filled it up with water. Racing back to the living room, I gathered up the nearest bottle of pills and shook out four, which wasn't the wisest thing I could have done at the time--not for his stomach--but that was the least of our worries.
"Malfoy, can you sit up?" I barked at him.
"No and too loud," he complained.
Bugger him! I used a Levitating charm and got him upright. He blinked at me. "I really feel rather rotten. Do not do that again."
"Open your mouth and swallow these pills now."
"Now!" I ordered. He closed his eyes again, but at least he opened his mouth.
I threw the pills into the very back of his throat and brought the glass up to his lips. Splashing water everywhere trying to get him to swallow those pills, it was a measure of how sick he was that he didn't even complain that I'd soaked his shirt. He made to lie back down again.
"No, absolutely not. Into the bathroom with you. Now. Come on. Sling your arm around me."
I had to get him into a cool bath. It would be several minutes before the paracetamol worked. If it was going to work. He groaned but managed to get on his feet with a little help, and I basically carried him the length of the flat. I tried not to panic, but he was broiling, the heat from his frame warming through my clothes in an instant. Once we reached the bathroom, I propped him up against the wall, turned on the taps, and began to undress him.
"You are the most irritating man alive. If you weren't on the verge of death, I'd kill you. Now, come on, off with the... Yes, now your shirt. Shoes next. Oh for God's sake, these laces... Trousers, if you please; lift your... Have you eaten anything this week? I swear you've dropped at least a stone, and you're far too... Put a hand... You are... All right, yes, now sit... I know it's cold, but it will help with the fever. Please!"
He grumbled, he whimpered, at one point I even think he growled, but he slowly immersed himself in the cool water. Grabbing his drinking glass, I began to sluice water over his shoulders, all the while one hand glued to his forehead. I counted to twenty, to thirty, to forty, and if he didn't respond by the time I reached two hundred, that was it. Naked or not, wet or not, I'd haul him up by his armpits and...
It worked. Whether it was the chilly water or the pills, I don't know, but by one hundred and forty three he was cooler. The fever hadn't broken, but I wasn't Apparating us to St. Mungo's just yet.
"F-f-f-f-freezing," he stuttered, as he began to shiver uncontrollably. "Think my nuts have atrophied from the c-c-c-c-cold."
"They are fine, I assure you. Another minute and then we'll get you into bed."
He lay the length of the bathtub with his knees propped up and his head cushioned from the hard porcelain by the towel I had rolled up into a little bit of a pillow. Although his eyes were still closed, he managed to raise one eyebrow, and then winced as if that hurt.
"Been l-l-l-l-looking have we?" he said with a ghost of his usual sass.
"No," I said primly. "I know enough about the male anatomy to be quite certain that a dunk in a cool bath will not do them any harm. Nothing worse than a dip at the seaside."
A little smile appeared.
"We shall have to go to the seaside together and do a t-t-t-t-t-temperature test. I'm partial to Torquay. But only if you're n-n-n-n-naked as well. It's only f-f-f-f-fair."
"You are feeling better. That sounded practically normal. As in salacious. Up and then we'll get you dried off and into bed."
As I towelled him off, he said not a word, just gripped my shoulder for balance as he continued to shiver. I did not look. As drying off his genitals didn't elicit any ribald comments, I began to get worried.
I stood up to check his forehead again. "This is Pansy's job," I muttered and sighed in relief. He was a little warm, but not dangerously so.
"She's pants at this sort of thing," he admitted. "Anything m-m-m-m-medical? Utterly worthless. Dom broke his arm when he was three and she was in hysterics for hours. Thank you. I only feel half dead now." He shuddered once more, then tilted his head just slightly and gave me a weak smile.
There it was, that dropping of his mask. Despite the gray hair, he'd always projected this almost ageless quality; Malfoy seemed perpetually thirty-four. When he was younger, he seemed older; now that he was older, he seemed younger. Usually he was set in a permanently young but not callow time warp. Now he looked every year of his age. What was so astonishing was that he let me see him like this. There was no witty bon mot or quip to hide behind. No smirk or arrogant smile.
I dropped my hand.
"I don't think I'd be very sanguine about another woman giving my husband a sponge bath, phobias about medical maladies or not."
There was that tired little smile again.
"Yes, well, you know we depraved aristocrats. Orgies, sponge baths from co-workers. It's all the same to us. God, I feel like utter shit."
He reached for his bathrobe on the back of the door, and when I saw it, I huffed in disgust. Of course, it was some ridiculously expensive black silk affair, which, under different circumstances, might have made him look debauched and rather sexy; the contrast between his fair hair and the deep midnight of the silk was striking.
"Have you nothing better than that?" Something in a plaid flannel would have done nicely. I raised my wand to Transfigure it into something more appropriate. He glared at me and held up a hand.
"Are you mad? This kimono cost me three hundred pounds."
"I suppose it out of the question that you have a pair of pyjamas somewhere in this den of iniquity?" I snapped.
He pulled the robe tightly around his middle and knotted the belt. Merlin, he was rail thin. "What for?" he snapped back. "I want to sleep. It feels like a five-hundred pound elephant is sitting on my chest."
"Are you going to tell me the counter-curse for that hex?"
His response was to shuffle into the bedroom and climb under the covers. He was asleep in thirty seconds.
After Transfiguring one of his towels into an extremely thick wool blanket and tucking the ends under his shoulders and feet, I returned to the living room, shutting the door behind me. I might have to grovel on his behalf, but I didn't want him to hear me doing it. With a sigh you could hear in Cardiff, I flipped open my mobile.
In every family, there is always one branch that draws nothing but sneers and jeers from the rest, and my Aunt Janet had earned that distinction in Clan Granger. My father always claimed that his parents had found her in a church pew, took pity on her, and adopted her; the fact that she and my father are twins was somehow immaterial. She married a man who matched her, sneer for sneer. Quite a feat. The old saw, opposites attract, was not the case here. More like peas in an insufferable pod. Whether it was nurture or nature, they raised a brood of equally arrogant brats that no one liked.
Which wouldn't have mattered one iota if I hadn't been a witch. None of them, with the exception of my cousin Caroline, were particularly intelligent. But being a witch, I couldn't exactly broadcast my position in the Ministry of Magic (one of the youngest department heads in history). The party line was that I was nothing more than a file clerk in the Muggle Ministry. I had followed up the first lie with a second--Ron also worked for the Ministry, as a janitor. If I had given either of us even remotely successful careers, my aunt would have been compelled to ask probing questions vis-à-vis our positions. As it stood now, she could lord it over my mother that her children were scaling the financial ladder with alacrity while her brother's only child was a file clerk married to a janitor. Fortunately, she would barely acknowledge our presence at the odd family get together, only gleefully ascertaining every now and then that we were still in our horrible dead-end jobs. Ron, privy to the deception, would complain loudly whenever he was in her presence about how he had raging blisters on his hands from pushing a broom all day.
We were identical in age, Caroline and I, and, naturally, we had been hated rivals up to the point I went to Hogwarts. Somehow, my parents had successfully fobbed off all questions about where exactly it was I went to school. My aunt and uncle eagerly drew their own conclusions that it was some sort of boarding-school-cum-prison for wayward teenagers. And it wasn't like I could disabuse them of this notion, given that in reality I went to a boarding school for wizards. It made for extremely trying holiday dinners: Aunt Janet served dinner on paper plates accompanied by plastic cutlery because she was terrified that Ron and I would nick the china and silver.
Ron would have despised Caroline on principle--being a spawn of the hated Aunt Janet--but Caroline deserved to be hated in her own right. She knew we couldn't have children (which entailed another enormous lie) and that it was horrible for us, but she never failed to regale me with endless stories about hers, always finishing up with "Have you thought of adopting?"
My polite hello and inquiry regarding the family was followed by a thirty-minute laundry list of the astonishing academic achievements of Beowulf and Gladys. I had expected nothing less. Finally, stopping to catch her breath, I seized the moment.
"Caroline, may I bend your ear for just a moment?" Not waiting a single second for her to get a word in, I plowed on. "The National Health. My God, this country is going to the dogs." Her father espoused a similar rant every holiday meal, so I was fairly confident this would be met with in-kind conservative claptrap. "Ron was diagnosed with pneumonia, and they sent him home with a handful of paracetamol." With anyone else, I'd have used the old "my friend" excuse, but I wanted those meds right now. She might have balked at prescribing something for a sight-unseen friend, but I was hoping that if it was Ron, she'd pony up the script without too many questions.
"Typical," she snorted. No, the political apple didn't fall very far from the tree.
"Yes, one can only hope that the Tories will get in next election and abolish this National Health nonsense." I would make amends for this outlandish statement by writing a very large check to Labour and the Liberals, come next election.
To forestall one of Caroline's favourite rants, I rushed in with my request.
"Do you mind writing Ron a script for some antibiotics? He's just miserable, with a nasty fever."
Caroline might be a horrible person, but she was an excellent doctor. And she knew me. I wasn't the hysterical type who fretted over every sniffle. If I said Ron was ill, he was ill. Five minutes later, after cataloguing all of Malfoy's symptoms in copious detail, she'd promised to call in a prescription to the nearest Boots for some antibiotics; I 'd pick up some cough syrup with codeine while I was there.
Another ten minutes was spent denigrating the current Labour government and I signed off.
I made to check on Malfoy before I went to the chemist; he hadn't moved. Although his breathing was a little rough, his fever wasn't any worse. I sat on the bed for a moment watching him sleep. He'd need to eat something soon, maybe some chicken noodle soup. I doubt the Chevaliers had delivered anything that would appeal to him. I'd pick up a couple of tins of soup at the Boots, along with some ginger ale. Once I'd gotten some soup down him, I'd reheat the lunch the Chevaliers had sent. I hadn't eaten since six, and I was feeling a little light-headed myself. I couldn't even have a cup of tea because there wasn't so much as a single tea leaf, never mind a teapot, in this nightmare of a flat. Do I dare go home and fetch some pyjamas, tea, and teapot? Surely, the ten minutes it would take to Apparate there...
"Malfoy, I'm going to the store and home for just a bit."
I put a gentle hand to his shoulder and shook him, just a little.
He opened his eyes.
"I need to go out for a bit. Get you some Muggle medicine. Will you be alright?"
Expecting a challenge--some tired but emphatic refusal to take Muggle medicine--I braced myself for the inevitable argument. He turned his head to my hand resting on his shoulder, kissed a knuckle, and went back to sleep.
I didn't stop shaking until I reached the Boots.
Although I raced like a mad woman, the trip to Boots and a lightning tear through my home took over an hour. Thankfully, he was still asleep, albeit his forehead a little warmer than I would have liked. Some soup, a cup of sweet hot tea, and a dose of antibiotics should keep the fever a little at bay until I could shove additional paracetamol down his throat. First, I needed to get some soup in him, then the meds. The antibiotics, codeine, and paracetamol would play havoc on an empty stomach.
The interior decorator had thoughtfully supplied the kitchen with an excellent array of pots and pans, which had never been used. I don't know why I was surprised and subsequently enraged. Nothing happened in this flat except seduction and sex, and nothing reflected that so much as pots and pans that had yet to see a flame and the absence of a teapot. God knows why this bothered me so much. I wasn't a prude. And if Pansy didn't mind her husband's loathsome behaviour, who was I to comment?
Yet it did bother me. Quite a bit. And mostly because it said nothing about the Malfoy I now knew. Yes, it was a perfect reflection of the man before all this Jenkins business, but not now. The decorator art on the walls rankled. The leather and chrome furniture, not an antique in sight, irritated. For God's sake, he didn't even have a pair of pyjamas stashed away. A winning combination of anger and extreme hunger--I was so famished I could have chewed a mouthful of carpet--fuelled me so that in a trice I had soup on the table, along with a plate of warmed over Chicken Kiev, courtesy of the Chevaliers, and a pot of tea steeping.
After a ridiculous amount of grumbling, he finally got out of bed. Making a discreet gesture toward the loo, I blushed--which was just silly; I'd seen the man naked before--and beat a path to the dining room.
I was just pouring the tea when he appeared at the doorway. He stopped to study me.
"You look as out of place as a spider on a wedding cake--all domestic, efficient, and starch--juxtaposed to my chrome and glass. What did you call it? A den of iniquity?"
I gave a quick glance around the flat and curled my lip. "It's revolting. I don't know how you stand it. It's not even--" I bit my tongue.
With little more than a shuffle, he made his way over to the table and sat down slowly.
"How do you feel? Tea?"
"As if I've been thrashed within an inch of my life, but I'll survive. Yes to the tea. This soup looks...very noodle-ish."
"It's hot and nourishing," I sputtered.
"I wouldn't bet on the nourishing bit, but it certainly is hot. You are ridiculously easy to wind up. Not even what? This flat, I mean."
"Well... You. It's not even you. I mean... That." I pointed at the computer-generated faux Picasso over the sideboard.
"Really? I'm flattered that you think I'm not that shallow and insulted that you think I have bad taste." With a sigh, he put his spoon down. "I can't eat anymore. This is vile. It tastes like it's from a tin."
"Because it is from a tin. While I fully intended to hunt down a free-range chicken, slaughter it myself, then make chicken stock; and while that was simmering, hoofing it over to Covent Garden to get fresh pasta, and then hire a car to scour Sussex for the sweetest of baby carrots, I thought saving your life from your botched spell was more important. What was I thinking?" I held up a forkful of chicken. "Would you like some Chicken Kiev?"
He made a face. "God, no. And here I thought you were perfect. I expected you to do both. You get full marks on the tea, though." He lifted his mug. "Looks like something from your kitchen. Utilitarian and hideous."
"I'll bring the Spode next time."
"See that you do. That vial of pills on the table for me?"
He swallowed the pills without any complaint and made to get up when he eyed the pyjamas still in their plastic that I'd flung on the sofa--a gift from Ron's Great Aunt Hortense.
"Please tell me I'm hallucinating." Malfoy pointed at the pyjamas.
I gave him a look.
"Has anyone told you that glaring is one of your many fortes? That is the ugliest plaid I've even seen in my life, and I speak with some authority. Remember: I was the judge for the Highland fling contest at the Ministry's Christmas bash. And even if I hadn't been, I still wouldn't wear them on principle. They are undoubtedly your husband's cast-offs, and even he has the sense not to wear them. Not even Oxfam would want them. My advice? Burn them. If Weasley refused to wear them because they are too ugly... Well, I think that says it all."
"Ron hates pyjamas. He sleeps... Well, ahem. He sleeps..." I stirred my tea to draw attention away from my blush. "In not anything."
"That did not make any sense. Ugh. Even thinking hurts. I assume you mean sans pyjamas. Of course, were you my wife, I'd be pulling off my clothes the second I got in the door."
"They are warm--"
"And atrocious. Rather bigoted and probably stupid of me, but I am well enough to refuse to have that shade of fuchsia anywhere near my person. That is nothing more than blackmail material. One snapshot of me in those things and I could never show my face in Milan ever again. Now I must stop talking because my chest hurts like holy fuck."
Which reminded me that he needed a dose of cough syrup and more paracetamol. In addition, I ran the hot water tap in the bathroom sink and had him lean over the basin with a towel over his head to loosen all the gunk in his chest. While he was letting the steam do its job, I fluffed up the pillows and cast a Scourgify on the sheets. Well medicated, with some soup and a cup of tea in him, I could leave without too much guilt.
"I've got to go," I said, tucking the blankets under his shoulder. He put a hand on my wrist.
"I'm sorry I insulted your tinned soup. Stay. You know what a ninny I am. I'll forget to take the medicine and then I'll die and it will be all your fault." Then he puffed out his bottom lip in a mock pout.
"We both know that you are so far from a ninny as to be laughable." I pulled my hand away but couldn't resist brushing back an errant lock of hair from his forehead. "I have to go home. Ron is Firecalling from the States at nine. I'll be back later to check on you."
I was at the door when I heard him say in a sleepy voice, "I'll change the flat."
Ron's enthusiasm for the United States knew no bounds. After ascertaining that, yes, he would be Portkeying home on Sunday afternoon, I let him rattle on. He even suggested we forgo Greece next summer and go camping at some place called Yellowstone, which had many wonderful sights, including bears that tear the doors off cars hunting for bags of crisps. After our experience in the war, just the mention of the word "tent" caused me to flirt with an anxiety attack. Despite responding with manufactured enthusiasm, I had no intention of camping ever again. The allure of the Greek beaches and time with his family would, no doubt, hold sway come next August.
It was just ten when I Flooed back to Malfoy's flat. He was sitting up in bed, asleep, his head lolled to one side. Although his cheeks had lost their fever blush, his forehead wasn't as cool as I would have liked. He started at my touch and murmured in a sleepy whisper, "Didn't think you'd come back. Is it late?"
"Just ten. Ready for your meds?"
After gulping down a handful of pills, he moved over to the left-hand side of the bed, scooted down under the covers, and turned over so his back was facing me. "Am lonely. Stay until I fall asleep. Please? The light won't bother me." He waved a hand in the direction of the dresser, which was covered in rolls of parchment. "My final analysis on Jenkins."
I woke-up at dawn, horrified to realise that I'd fallen asleep while studying his notes. Parchment lay scattered over most of the bed. I don't know how he'd done it, but I was under the covers. He lay spooned against me, our hands intertwined, exactly the very position Ron and I fell asleep in every night.
Having lain with only one man in my entire life, I took a guilty minute to savour this. Over the years, Ron had bulked up. He now looked something like his father did at forty, solid, a far cry from the gangly youth I married. I didn't mind. The weight suited him, smoothed out his angles. Lying with him was the essence of comfort and warmth. Malfoy wasn't as tall as Ron, so his knees fit better in the crook of mine or my rump fit better against his stomach. No, this was nothing like Ron. It was closer, more possessive: the plane of Malfoy's chest tight against my back, the silk of his robe crushed between us. Despite the heavy blankets, his body was cool against mine; the fever must have broken during the night.
I'd be lying if I said it felt wrong or foreign. In truth, it was marvellous. The hint of an erection butted against my backside, while the in and out of his sleep tickled the back of my neck. If he woke up and pressed his mouth to me, I'd be done for. My nipples tingled at the thought.
And now I knew what that horrible clenching of my stomach had been that morning in his office.
I eased out of bed and used my wand to silently gather up and shrink all the rolls of parchment so they fit in my pocket. The Floo powder had just left my hand when I heard a faint, "Hermione?" I stepped forward and tumbled into my own living room, soot and tears staining my cheeks.
Chapter 8: Double-edged Sword
Despite a horrible night during which I slept a total of about four minutes, tops, the next morning's sunrise and a strong pot of tea restored rational thought.
Yes, I'd reevaluated my long-standing opinion of Draco Malfoy as being little more than a womanizing troll (whose job description seemed to be limited to seducing women and paying for pints) to grudgingly accepting him as an actual Ministry colleague, but it ended there. We would get Jenkins sacked--if ever there was someone who deserved to be fired it was that racist bastard--and then he and I would return to the status quo of running into each other at various work-related functions and sharing a ride on the lift on the rare occasions when he sauntered into work on time. Which I could count on one hand. Marriage and fatherhood would, one hoped, mature that irritating sod of a son so that Malfoy would no longer require my help in amassing an army of wizards to Obliviate Dom's escapades from the memories of those Muggles subjected to his pranks and high jinxs.
No more two-hour lunches in that detestable flat. No more pretending to be his wife. No more pearls. No more make overs. No more rings! And no more Monet. I would return it on Monday.
No more, period.
My marriage was in serious trouble, and I needed to deal with it forthwith. Here I was lusting after a man, who, yes, had gone up a few notches in my estimation; but honestly, there was no place to go but up! Dear Merlin, how did Ron and I end up here? If that morning's sunlight had put that ridiculous yearning for Dra--, no, Malfoy, into its proper perspective, it had also thrown the state of my marriage into painful clarity.
What wasn't wrong with this picture?
Granted, I had always been something of a workaholic, while Ron had always spent an inordinate amount of his free time with Harry. But that had never threatened our sex life before. For the first five years, we were absolutely mad for each other. Why did I find writing feet and feet of parchment on the effect that the new American president had on the politics of wizarding Britain (ten meters later, I concluded none) more stimulating than spending the evening with him? Not that I'd sabotaged this relationship entirely on my own. Because if I were being honest, Ron found playing umpteen rounds of Exploding Snap with his nieces and nephews more enticing than spending the evening with me.
The sex (or lack thereof) was a symptom I couldn't ignore, and why hadn't this raised alarm bells earlier? Of course, there's indifference and then there's desiring completely inappropriate men. Nothing says panic stations like lusting after that degenerate Draco Malfoy. Nor could I put it down to the simple yearning for someone, anyone, to touch me. Ron is a hand holder, a cuddler, the sort of man who puts a hand on your shoulder to ferry you through crowds. But we'd gone through an entire vacation without even thinking of sex--or at least I hadn't--and Merlin, it wasn't like we were ancient. Arthur and Molly were probably having more sex than Ron and me. What a sobering thought!
Right. I wasn't starved for physical contact, but I was certainly starved for physical intimacy.
Which explained my cringe-inducing reaction to a kiss on the knuckle from that Malfoy idiot. This self-imposed sexual moratorium was over; this very instant. Contrary to appearances, I am not prim and proper in bed--rather exuberant, in fact--and I've never been shy about initiating sex. I would do so. Sunday night. When he came home. And twice a week thereafter, even if it killed me. And I would insist that once a week we devoted an evening to each other. Me and him. Alone. We would do something. Together. Merlin knows what, but I'd find something that both of us enjoyed. Without Harry and Ginny acting as buffers.
Fridays? Hmmm, we were usually exhausted on Friday nights. Saturday night was our "movie date" night with Harry and Ginny. Sundays were out; we always had an early dinner at the Burrow. Mondays? No, Monday nights were devoted to lining up the work calendar for the up-coming week. Tuesdays? Impossible. Weekly reports were due on Wednesdays so I always worked late. So what about Wednesdays then? That was out as well. Dinner with my parents. Thursdays? Dart tournament night. Asking Ron to give up Thursdays at the pub would be tantamount to asking for a divorce. Fridays?
Lunch on Saturdays? Maybe we could do the shopping early in the morning, but then Ron loved a lie-in on Saturday morning and...
I'd been battling tears all night and just didn't have the energy to fight them anymore, strong tea and sunlight or no strong tea and sunlight. I cast an Hourglass Charm, indulged myself for five minutes with some truly righteous caterwauling, and then stopped when the time was up. This state of near hysterics was most likely due to exhaustion and nerves over the presentation on Monday. I never quite appreciated that old adage, "No rest for the wicked." The house needed a good scrub before Ron came home, and a trip to the grocery store was in order or we'd be eating lawn clippings for dinner next week. The rest of the day was to be devoted to fine-tuning my report to the Minister on Jenkins.
Now that I was, admittedly, hypersensitive to our interactions, I began to question everything.
Sunday afternoon found me at the Burrow's kitchen table, drinking tea, nibbling biscuits, and gossiping with Ginny and Molly. From the click, click, click of needles knitting and purling like mad (yet another blanket for the pending birth of their first great grandchild) to spuds being peeled and Brussel sprouts being trimmed, the kitchen was crackling with magic. I loved Molly and Arthur. They loved me in return; I was like another daughter. One couldn't ask for more supportive, kinder in-laws or better friends.
And yet. We'd accepted without preamble that Ron and Harry would Portkey home from their trip, landing in the front yard of the Burrow. And yes, it made sense because we were immediately going to have a feast of roast beef and Yorkshire pud, conveniently both Ron and Harry's favourite meal, but honestly! In some ways we were still like those teenagers at Hogwarts. I don't suppose it was much different in other close-knit families--with the added issue of Fred's ghost hovering in the corners of the rooms, making even the tiniest of bids for marital autonomy hopeless--but once again I thought about Dra-- Malfoy's comment about how the war had changed us so profoundly that it realigned the stars from their natural configuration.
It was rather like mapping out our week. I couldn't see any way to change it short of a huge emotional earthquake. I didn't exactly think it unreasonable to assume that Ron might Portkey home first, take a shower, perhaps even kiss his wife, and then Floo over to his parents' house for family dinner, but it never would have occurred to either of us. Before. That was just one instance and on a relatively small scale. But this mentality spilled over into every aspect of our lives. There had been no question that Harry and Ginny and Ron and I would live next door to each other. That their children would, in effect, become the children we couldn't have. That Ron would, of course, follow Harry and do wherever and whatever paths Harry chose. Once Quirrell let that troll into Hogwarts, our fates were intertwined.
Did Ron and I have much beyond all that history and sacrifice? I knew we loved each other, but when had we become so comfortable with the everyday that we couldn't be arsed to have sex on our vacation? When Ron and I were first married, it was as if everyone else orbited around us, with the two of us forming a sun at the centre. Now I didn't feel there was a centre. At some point we became part of the orbit, and damned if I could actually name who was the sun; I just knew it wasn't us. I would have been insulted had anyone suggested this ten years ago, but now the very thought was causing my stomach to do violent flip-flops.
These dangerous thoughts bedevilled me all afternoon as we helped Molly put together the dinner. I broke two plates, nicked my finger with a paring knife, and managed to spill meat drippings down a relatively new blouse.
"Damn it," I muttered under my breath. I cast a Cleaning Charm in the hopes of getting out the worst of the stains so that I'd look more or less presentable when Ron arrived. Fortunately, he was generally oblivious to that sort of thing, but the shirt was now a total loss, not even fit for the Oxfam box.
"Are you feeling all right, Hermione?" Ginny said in a low voice. "You seem off." With an up and down of her eyes over my shirt front, she shook her head. "Don't think even magic will get those stains out. Isn't that shirt new?"
"Yes, and you're right. It's buggered. And yes, I'm fine," I lied. "Just tired. It's been a hellish two weeks. Nasty project at work," I said in an undertone, hinting that I would, if I could, talk about it. But I couldn't. You know.
The fortunate thing about Harry and Ron being Aurors was that the majority of their work was confidential. If you didn't provide details then everyone then assumed you were under some sort of Confidentiality Charm. Thank goodness, because, yes, the sacking of Jenkins was to be kept in absolute confidence; the breakfast, lunches, and tête-à-têtes with Draco Malfoy were an equally verboten subject as far as I was concerned.
Ron and Harry arrived with all the expected hoopla. While Harry sported a marvellous tan, Ron's futile attempts to get a decent tan resulted in repeated sunburns; he was a peeling mess.
"It's just not fair," he groused. "Would you look at him? He's the colour of mahogany while I'm nothing but a gigantic freckle."
"A gigantic moulting freckle," commented Ginny.
"Now, Ginny," Molly admonished. "Harry, dear, tell us about New York. Is the wizarding section as large as Diagon Alley?"
"Ron," said his father in a whispered aside. "Did you get a chance to ride the subway in New York?"
Like every Sunday, Molly piled everyone's plates high with food, Ron quipped his way through dinner, Ginny insulted him, Harry was the straight man, and Arthur kept the conversation on an even keel, tempering the edges of Ron and Ginny's banter. And me? I had no idea of what role I played in this tableau. I was seeing all of this with the freshest of eyes, and I couldn't yet parse what my part was anymore.
We Flooed home at around eight. Our usual Sunday night routine wasn't any different. I ran Ron's bath. Despite his height, he still loved a steaming hot bath; the hotter the water, the better. While he soaked, I put out our clothes for the morning, made our lunches for next day, and set the table for breakfast. He was already in bed by the time I came upstairs. He had started the water for my bath.
"What a great trip, but, Christ, I'm knackered. Guess it's back to the salt mines, yeah?" He punched his pillow, yawned, and closed his eyes.
"I'd like to see New York," I suggested. This was an absolute falsehood; however, he'd spent no less than an hour at dinner gushing about how fantastic it was. I'd go and bite my tongue the entire time. "Maybe we could go at Christmas."
Ron's eyes snapped open.
"Are you barking? Your parents would be miserable, and Mum would go spare without the whole family there for the holidays. You know what she's like. Hermione?" He looked at me, really looked at me for the first time since he'd come home. "Bloody hell. What've you been up to? You look as exhausted as I feel. Oh. Right." He sighed. "You've got that Jenkins thing tomorrow, don't you? Know you'll be brill, though. He's as good as sacked." This was accompanied by another giant yawn as his eyes closed again.
"Yes. I'll just be a minute," I promised and nearly ran to the bathroom. I took the fastest bath on record, raking the facecloth over my body in quick, rough strokes, intent on keeping my promise to myself. Sex. We would have raucous sex, which would put to rest that ludicrous longing I'd felt for Malfoy in his flat.
The best laid plans. I could hear Ron's snores while I was brushing my teeth.
I climbed into bed, nestled up against him, and whispered my usual apologies. Just like every night.
Given that Ron was still on U.S. time and I'd had no sleep Friday night and Saturday night's rest wasn't much better, an owl pecking at our bedroom window the next morning roused both of us out of the deepest of sleeps. Just barely light, our bedroom had a six thirty-ish feel about it; I cast a Tempus. I was nearly to the minute: 6:32 a.m. The insistent rat-tat-tat grew even more frantic, prompting Ron, who usually required a physical shake or two to wake up, to shout, "When I find out who sent that owl, I'm going to bloody well kill them!"
I ran to the window and flung open the casing. With a wingspan close to five feet and feathers so sleek you'd swear they were made of silk, an enormous black owl swooped into the room. Issuing a sharp caw in a most definite reprimand, it dropped two rolls of parchment and a small bag on the rug, and then swooped out, but not before giving me a haughty glare. Such a magnificent bird could only belong to one person.
As if there were any doubt, the ribbon he'd used to tie the parchment was monogrammed with his initials. I opened the smaller roll of parchment first.
Still ill. Make my presentation to the Minister on my behalf. I know you'll do your usual phenomenal job.
The bag contained the tape recorder, and the second parchment was obviously his notes, reduced into a tight furl. Not that I needed them. I knew his arguments backwards and forwards. I might have been swilling back several glasses of superb Bordeaux at a majority of those lunches, but the wine did not rob me of my faculties.
Was I surprised? Not one whit. The goal was to get rid of the competition. Abusing my strengths--although no doubt he'd call them weaknesses--he knew I would be fair and balanced, presenting both the political ramifications (which is what Malfoy had concentrated on) and the policy implications (clearly my area of expertise). That I would, in effect, do his dirty work for him without him sullying his hands. This way Malfoy could get rid of his arch-rival Jenkins and keep his pure-blood credentials intact. No doubt he reasoned that those who championed that sort of racism couldn't possibly hate me more. Which was true.
I could just hear his apologies to Jenkins, nothing but one long drawl in that upper-class patois of his. There would be just the right amount of irritation aimed in my direction and bucket loads of remorse on Jenkins' behalf.
"Sorry, Jenkins. I was supposed to be there to counter her arguments and then this blasted bronchitis laid me low. Accept my apologies and, by the way, the Prophet needs a new circulation manager. Do you think it'd suit? Bit of an increase in salary. Imagine that will please Connie." In between the cartwheels of joy and his effusive thanks, Malfoy would pat Jenkins on the back and say in a low voice, "Must keep the old ties intact. A pint after work to cement the deal?"
There wouldn't be any actual mention of pure-bloods sticking together, just hints of it. Of course, if Jenkins had given it a modicum of sense he'd have realized that a coup of this magnitude wouldn't have succeeded without Malfoy's full cooperation and say so. But why think when you could drink yourself into alcoholic oblivion on Malfoy's Galleons? Since Ron had mentioned that Jenkins wasn't any stranger to buying a few rounds, Malfoy, in a classic and brilliant move, would use his opponent's strategies to undermine him. And win him over.
"He fucked you over, didn't he?" said Ron in a sleepy voice. Propped up on one elbow, he took in the roll of parchment on the floor and the one in my hand.
I nodded and went to shut the window.
My presentation to the Minister was brilliant, if I do say so myself. The first half hour was devoted to presenting the evidence. Despite his best efforts, the Minister couldn't hide his fascination with the tape recorder. Indeed, he insisted we replay the important bits and not, I suspect, because he wanted to confirm the tenor of Jenkins' ugly comments. No, he just wanted to push the buttons himself. Given that Malfoy was a master of manipulation, I assumed he knew that the Minister had a secret penchant for Muggle technology. If that wasn't the salient reason for Malfoy capturing that conversation using a Muggle tape recorder, I'd eat my wand. Right off the bat the Minister would be in our pocket.
Next, I steeled myself so not to weave in any subconscious scorn as I laid out Malfoy's laundry list of spin. Which could be boiled down to the simple fact that if the Minister's opponents discovered that one of his department heads spewed closeted bigoted opinions after a Firewhiskey or two, then the Minister would be fatally vulnerable in the next election.
The last half hour was my bailiwick: a truly inspirational and passionate discourse on how Jenkins' under-the-radar racist attitudes could undermine the moral fabric of the Ministry and our reputation abroad. If the Minister's eyes began to glaze over during the last part of the presentation, I put it down to exhaustion, not ennui.
Jenkins was fired by lunch the next day (although the official story was that he was jumping ship to the private sector) and his office cleared out by tea. By Wednesday afternoon, his new, very well-paid job at the Prophet was being bandied about by Ministry gossips. By quitting time on Friday, it was all I could do not to cast an Unforgiveable on Malfoy's well-deserving hide.
A bout of the mid-afternoon yawns had me contemplating a quick trip to the canteen for a cup of coffee when Ron burst into my office, hauled me up from my desk, and began dancing me around the room. Alternately shrieking things like, "Oh fucking hell!" and "Fuck me twice," and "You bloody marvellous woman," and then kissing me in between exclamations, it was a couple of minutes before I could parse why he was so giddy and obviously over the moon.
"Merlin, it's a dream come true. Never thought--"
"Not that I'm not happy being an Auror. But Harry gave his blessing and, yeah, maybe it's only temporary. What did they say? Interim? No. What in the hell-- Acting head, that's it. But I'm going to prove it to them that I'm the man for the job. That no one--"
"Ron, just hold on. What--"
"Fuck! Never thought they'd consider me. Not that I haven't done a bang-up job with the Ministry league. And it's not like I don't know my stuff, but, cripes, this is a hell--"
"Ron!" I shouted at the top of my lungs.
He kissed me hard, grabbed my arse with both hands, and pulled me toward him.
"Oh, Hermione!" he said in a throaty whisper, his breath hot against my ear. "Never thought you'd do something like this. For me. Got to tell Dad. He'll be so proud. Cor, Head of Magical Games and Sports. Party at the Burrow tonight. Owl every one!"
He kissed me again and raced out of the room.
I debated sending a Howler, but realized that if it fell into the wrong hands... If it got around that I was sabotaging other employees to get plum assignments for my husband, my reputation would be in tatters; I didn't need to add fuel in the form of a rumoured affair with Draco Malfoy to the flames.
"Keep at it, luv. For all the good it will do," said the charwoman who was riding in the lift with me as I kept punching the buttons in a futile attempt to make the lift go faster.
I took a moment to collect myself. It wouldn't do to appear to his secretary metaphorically breathing fire. Speculating on exactly why I was poised to skin Malfoy alive would give the gossips an even bigger thrill. Pasting on a veneer of calm, I approached his secretary, a twenty-something with purple hair who was dressed in the most inappropriate set of robes imaginable, to request an immediate meeting. Had her cleavage been any more pronounced then the point of wearing anything would have been totally moot. She gave me a bored glance and scribbled a memo that flew in through the open transom.
"Send her in," boomed a happy if still somewhat hoarse voice.
I'll happy him, I thought.
He stood up when he saw me, the widest of grins on his face. "I understand congra--"
"Your flat. NOW!" I hissed in a venomous whisper and stomped out.
I have no idea how he arrived first--there must be a secret passage from his office to the Floo Station--but he was waiting for me when I Flooed in, propped up against the wall, smoking a cigarette. His flat was devoid of furniture, only the box of Floo powder remained, and even the fake masterpieces were gone from the walls.
Any other time, I would have made some snide remark--"Time to update? Last year's furniture just not up to the job of seducing all and sundry?"--but not today.
Had I ever been this furious? I marched over to him, snatched the fag from his mouth, and crushed it in my palm. Ignoring the searing pain as the lit end burnt the holy fuck out of my hand, I strode over to the sink, flushed it down the disposal, and turned on the switch. My rage was such I couldn't even derive any satisfaction as the blades shredded his cigarettes to bits.
"You are absolutely mad," he said in an undertone and grabbed my wrist. I made to pull away, but he said in a clear voice. "Stop it! I will Stupefy you if you keep this up. You know I will. Now stand still, you irritating woman, while I heal your hand."
Once his spell healed my palm, I wrenched my hand away from him.
"Given the truly murderous glares you're giving me, I take it--"
I raised my hand to slap his face, but he was too quick for me and caught my arm. Shoving me into the "L" between the wall and the countertop so that he'd pinned my other arm, he immoblized my arms. I debated kicking him. As if he could read my mind, he locked my knees between his.
"I'm no stranger to your displays of anger, Madam. Strike me or kick me, and I assure you I will return the favour."
Before I could respond, he dragged me into the empty living room and flung me from him so violently that I hit the far wall from where he was standing.
Keeping his eyes on me, he lit up another cigarette, inhaled deeply, and blew the smoke in my direction.
"Just so we know where we stand."
I gave him the bird (extremely uncharacteristic of me) and began pacing the width of the room. If I didn't do something, I'd go mad.
"What in the bloody fucking hell is the matter with you?"
"As if you didn't know." Stopping my frantic back-and-forth, I hissed, "Smoke away. I hope you bloody well have a relapse and leave this world choking on your own smoke."
In response, he chucked the spent cigarette into the direction of the kitchen. His confidence was such that he didn't even bother to see whether or not it landed squarely in the sink. Or he didn't care; I wasn't sure.
"Thank you for that charming sentiment," he said in a cold voice. "I really don't see why you're still furious over saddling you with that presentation business. It's Friday, for Merlin's sake. You did a superb job. Jenkins got sacked, just like we--"
"THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH JENKINS!"
He blinked a couple of times, as if he hadn't heard me correctly.
"Please do not feign innocence; it doesn't suit you."
"Truly, I'm at a loss."
I gave a decided snort of derision.
"Honestly? I had a bottle of the finest French champagne chilling at the office. I thought we'd be celebrating your husband's promo--"
"He thinks it was me!" I shrieked. "Ron thinks it was me. That I went in there and with a wink, wink, and a nudge, nudge, and a 'Oh, Mr. Minister, I've got a lovely bunch of reasons why Jenkins should be sacked and since I've saved your political hide, in recompense do you think you could reward my husband with a completely inappropriate promotion?' This is your doing, isn't it?"
He raised one eyebrow. "Of course. We have adjoining boxes at the Opera. A couple of weeks ago, over a cognac, I pointed out to the Minister that your husband was wasted in the Auror's office, and that he'd be the ideal candidate to replace Jenkins. His pure-blood credentials are unassailable, his association with Potter would silence those looking for retribution for Jenkins' racist leanings, and, as much as I hate to admit this, he does a fantastic job running the Ministry's Quidditch league. I agree it's a huge step up, but, apparently, I have more faith in his abilities than you do. Interesting. And you're furious because?"
This is what corruption looks and sounds like; all round vowels in a designer suit. And why I thought he was any different from the villainous Death Eater he'd always been, I'll never know. Once a moral bankrupt, always a moral bankrupt.
"Because? BECAUSE? Are you so completely selfish and myopic that you refuse to recognize that this will, perhaps permanently, damage my reputation at the Ministry? That people will think--"
"For fuck's sake! I will tell you exactly what they will think." In three quick strides he'd crossed the room and grabbed my shoulders. "They will stop thinking of you as some glorified, albeit brilliant, secretary who can be counted on to do all the dirty work. Who will write all those endless policy papers that mean shit--"
I moved to free myself but he only gripped me tighter.
"Shit!" he repeated and shook me a little. "They now realize that you are a player. That you are someone to reckon with. That you understand the game and are not afraid to play anymore. That Carstairs, no matter how stupendous your rack or your arse, will never, ever again subject you to his leering and sexual innuendos because he might find himself demoted to janitor, mopping the lobby for his troubles."
"Let go of me," I demanded.
He did, his hands flying off of me as if I were made of fire. Bringing up a hand to stave off a coughing fit, he took three steps back.
We locked eyes.
"It's back," he said without any inflection in his voice. "That utter scorn with which you used to view me."
I had nothing more to say to him.
"I'm going to leave first," he pointed at the ornate gold-plated box containing the Floo powder. "We're having a pre-Opera dinner with the Minister and his wife, and I need to dress." Clearly, my dream of becoming the next Assistant Minister of Magic was hopeless. "My advice to you is to keep your venom about what a revolting and morally degenerate cretin I am to yourself. Thanks to my completely selfish and myopic interference, he thinks you're responsible for handing him back his nuts, does he? Rather an unexpected bonus. I didn't think he was that swift. Regardless, for the first time in thirty years your husband has a chance to be his own man. If you don't think that being Harry Potter's sidekick and Hermione Granger's husband doesn't chafe, then you're a fool. I happen to think he'll be brilliant at this, and that his appointment as Acting Head of Magical Games and Sports will be short-lived. I anticipate that within two months the appointment will be permanent. You tell him that it was my doing, if you insist that he turn it down--which will be problematic as he's already accepted the position--and he will never forgive you."
Damn him to hell.
"And you know I'm right; I see by your face. I'm a ruthless son of a bitch,"--at that I curled my lip--"and given how I feel about you, you'd think I'd do everything in my power to ruin your marriage. Having him believe it was you acting on his behalf, seizing an opportunity that was tailor-made for him will not get me what I want. Sadly, the opposite is also true. I know you don't believe me, but I actually thought making him happy would make you happy."
"Please go," I whispered, because I was three seconds away from tears.
"Your wish is my command," he said with only a ghost of his usual flair. He blew me a kiss, and was gone.
Chapter 9: Made of Steel
"To my gorgeous, brilliant wife, Hermione." Ron lifted his glass in a toast, so boisterous that half of the contents of the glass slopped over the side. "Who's been watching my back for thirty years."
"Someone's got to, Ronnikins. Because you couldn't find your arse if someone drew you a bloody map!" shouted George, at which point all the children began shouting "Uncle Ronnikins," "Uncle Ronnikins," while marching around the table clapping their hands, George in the lead. Not for the first time did I wonder if George would ever grow up. I always answered myself with a resounding "No." Normally, such ribbing from George would have had Ron sputtering in outrage, but nothing could dampen his enthusiasm tonight, and he actually joined in the parade, using the salt shaker as a mock baton.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to start the dishes. If I were lucky, everyone else would be too caught up in the festivities to notice that I'd left the table. The wear and tear of appearing as overjoyed as I should be at Ron's unbelievable promotion was taking its toll. An absolute killer headache pounded behind my right eye, making even blinking torture. With my concentration at the nadir, it was doubtful I could cast even an Accio dish soap, but I couldn't stay at that table one more second.
While I didn't expect Ron--whose elation over this promotion was even greater than when he had received his Order of Merlin, First Class--to give any thought on how I'd rewritten the book on conflict of interest by heading the committee to fire a man so I could replace him with my husband, I expected everyone else around us to say something about me compromising my integrity.
I waited in vain. Not a word.
I didn't think it humanly possible for a person to cry with joy for several hours, but Molly proved me wrong. She'd gone through four handkerchiefs and was in need of a fifth. Arthur gave me the fondest of smiles and hugged me tight, followed by a, "My dear, dear Hermione" in my ear. The rest of the family were equally ecstatic, with no apparent qualms whatsoever.
"Need some help?" Harry asked as he levitated a host of dishes into the sink filling with water.
It wasn't like I could say no, now could I?
A wan "Thank you" was all I could muster up.
"Hermione, you all right?"
"Headache. The noise." I nodded in the direction of the table.
"It's a bit much," he agreed and cast a Silencing Charm. "George is completely bonkers tonight, isn't he? Sometimes I think he has to act twice as outrageous because he's doing double duty for Fred." He touched my forehead with his wand. "Better?"
"Yes, loads," I lied. "Angelina doesn't seem to mind. Harry?"
I truly love Harry Potter. I never quite understood why I didn't fall in love with him, as opposed to Ron; Harry is a much nicer person. One of life's mysteries. But somehow I found Ron's blunt personality and sense of humor much more appealing. Which is rather a good thing as Harry has never seen me as anything but the sister he never had, and I've never seen him as anything but the brother I'd never had.
"Do you think..." I looked down and began to scrub a pot like fury. "Do you think people will think I got Jenkins sacked to benefit Ron?"
Harry put down the plates he was putting away.
My head snapped up. "No!"
"Then," he said slowly, "don't worry about it. Everyone knows Jenkins is a racist troll. It was only a matter of time before he got booted. And I think Ron will do a great job. Plus, it's his chance to get out from under my shadow, yeah?"
Ron had cheerfully followed Harry through Auror training, struggled like hell to pass the test, and earned his promotions the hard way. Although I'd like to think that most people looked at him as his own man, I couldn't deny that all of Ron's less than stellar traits emanated from a feeling of inferiority. I knew that Harry didn't think of Ron as his "sidekick," and it wasn't like I saw Ron as Mr. Granger, but did Ron see himself that way?
"You're not... You're okay with him taking the position?"
"Are you kidding?" he chortled. "Box seats for all the Quidditch matches, not to mention the best possible seats for the World Cup. You missed a spot. This one's still dirty. Here."
"Git," I chided and took the plate back for a second scrub and a rinse. Not like Harry Potter couldn't get box seats with a snap of his fingers. But the thing is he never would snap his fingers. "Here. It's clean. I just don't want people--"
"Hermione," he said in that patient you're getting your knickers in a twist over nothing voice. "Jenkins deserved to get sacked. Do you honestly think the Minister would hand Ron that job out of the kindness of his heart?" He said in a stage whisper, "Don't think he has a heart, frankly."
At my glare, he grinned.
"Kidding. Anyway, someone had to take Jenkins' place and who better than the person who runs the Ministry Quidditch League? It's a bit of a leap up, but Ron won the respect of the team owners from when he chaired that Ministry committee. The owners and the players like him. If he gets the Quidditch teams backing him--and I know they will--then the other sports will follow suit. It's not so far-fetched." He put a hand on my shoulder. "I don't know what you said to the Minister, but he's his own man. No one is going to think that you hexed him into giving Ron the job. I am dead curious though; how'd you do an end run around Malfoy? Knowing him, he had a candidate all lined up."
Oh, Harry. You have no idea.
Yet another epiphany. He didn't put a word in the Minister's ear to make me happy. What a load of bollocks! Malfoy wanted Ron in that job because it cut off another avenue of competition. Ron wasn't Minister of Magic material. Not in a million years.
"My lips are sealed." With my headache now manageable, I cast three spells and five seconds later the kitchen was immaculate. "Shall we? It looks like Molly is about to cut the cake. Ron's favorite. Chocolate, chocolate, and, oh my, more chocolate. You sure you're good with it?"
"Yeah. Besides," he gave my arm a gentle punch, "He's due for a raise and that would have buggered up my budget for the year."
"And yours truly has a staff of twenty, with his own secretary."
I stifled a yawn. Although way past midnight, Ron was still yammering on about how he was going to change this, manage that, reorganize this, eliminate that. I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard such enthusiasm. Had Ron been unhappy as an Auror? Always knowing that no matter how hard he tried, he'd never be anything but second best. Forever.
"Romilda Vane. You remember her, don't you? She was at Hogwarts. Gryffindor but a couple of years behind us."
That woke me up.
"Hard to forget, frankly," I snorted. "That stupid business with Harry and the chocolates. You're lucky you weren't killed."
"Yeah, well, that wasn't the chocolate's fault. Bloody sodding Malfoy. Anyway, she married that idiot Terry Boot, and when she's pregnant with their second kid, he dumps her and moves in with Theodore Nott."
"Really? He's gay? How did you find all this out?"
"As the day is long and she talks fast. Tell me you're joking. All of us knew Boot was a flaming poufter. Not that it bothered me, because, you know, Charlie, but..."
"All of 'us' as in you and Harry?"
"Well, yeah. But we were right. Anyway, so she moved back in with her mother, who's helping with the kids. She's been Jenkins' secretary for a few years. He tried to pinch her arse any time he came within three feet of her, so as long as I keep my hands to myself, I think it will work out fine."
I swallowed twice and then ran my hand through his hair. "I'm so happy for you."
Ron was now putting in hours that rivaled mine, but loving every minute of it. My great plans for having a night out together effectively axed as a result, I insisted that we have tea every Saturday at that new, insanely expensive tea shop on Diagon Alley. Ron would have sold his mother for a slice of their lemon cake. As I nibbled on my two cookies (at two Galleons) and watched Ron devour every single crumb of his dessert (at six Galleons), we'd spend an insane amount of money while he chatted happily about work and what a mess Jenkins had left the office in and the on-going, uphill battle he was having trying to repair relations with the Americans.
Apparently, Jenkins was much more forthcoming about his prejudices than the Ministry knew. The more I heard, the more I was convinced that Malfoy knew that Jenkins was a loose cannon, and the only debate he had with himself was over how he could capitalize on his firing, not whether he should be fired. Using me was a foregone conclusion, but exactly how to manipulate Jenkins' sacking must have kept him up nights. Did he support the current Minister or put in with McLaggen, the up-and-coming leader of the opposition, with family credentials that surpassed Malfoy's--as in he wasn't tardy in joining the Order, nor was his father a notorious Death Eater. Not that I think Malfoy would ever have taken a back seat to an arrogant pillock like McLaggen. After orchestrating Jenkins' removal, Malfoy would have spent every waking moment looking for an opportunity to throw McLaggen to the wolves, leaving the field wide open for himself. No doubt Malfoy decided to back the current Minister because it meant he wouldn't have to endure endless lunches with that blowhard Cormac bragging his way through three courses and coffee.
Unluckily for McLaggen, the Minister was elderly and his wife suffered from one of those progressive diseases that never ended well. I calculated that he would run for only one more term. So did Malfoy, obviously. Had the Minister had a healthy wife, I wouldn't have given a tinker's damn for Malfoy's continued support.
My other resolution met with similar success. Ron was now traveling an insane amount, so initiating sex twice a week was not only far too ambitious but impossible. Once a week was doable. Filled up with tea and sweet, we'd Floo home and have a nice bout, nap a bit, and get up in time for movie night with Harry and Ginny. The first time I suggested it, his eyes bugged out, which made me feel horribly guilty, like he assumed I wasn't interested anymore and he was just going to go with the flow--which was close enough to the truth to make me internally cringe.
While I didn't feel an insane crunch in my gut when his hand rounded the curve of my arse or when he put his mouth to my nipple, the sex was nice and sweet and easy. We knew each other so well. Ron has a spot right below his balls where if I put my thumb there and push, it sends him spare. One of my breasts is more sensitive than the other, and if he sucks on the curve between my neck and my shoulder I'm in heaven. We couldn't discover anything more about each other, but we used that knowledge to our advantage. Yes, easy and comfortable.
And if the tiniest of voices nagged that this felt so middle-aged, I ignored it. We were middle-aged. Every Saturday afternoon I'd lie in bed, flushed and sated, listening to Ron's gentle breathing as he napped and think, Yes, we're back on track.
Malfoy and I did not go back to the status quo. He ignored me. No more teasing in the lift, no more snide comments about the state of my cuticles, no more grooming tips, not even a bouquet of roses with an apology. Nothing. I tried to take the Monet off the wall and met with a spell that had me completely flummoxed. Clearly some Dark Arts variant, after five hours of zapping it to no avail, I gave up. I decided to rearrange my office and sit with my back to it.
Treating me as if I were invisible was fine by me; however, the silent eating of crow part was a little tough to swallow.
Malfoy had been right.
Oh, I'd always garnered more than my fair share of respect--after all, my intelligence had never been an issue--but this was different. This was people treating me with the usual regard, but now tinged with a sort of "didn't know you had it in you" sensibility. All of a sudden I was invited to meetings. Not official meetings, but little get-togethers: lunches, tea in that café around the corner, a glass of wine at Figglesnout's Wine Bar in Diagon Alley. Where people finagled and bartered and bargained, all behind the scenes. Which explained why Malfoy's In Box was always empty, because it was this milieu where he worked. He'd sooner become a Hufflepuff than leave a paper trail. Although often present at these impromptu, private meetings, he never spoke to me directly. I doubt anyone noticed that he was ignoring me, because he'd open doors for me and pull out my chair should we be in a restaurant, but the bantering and teasing were gone. And he never met my eyes. Not once.
As Ron proved to everyone that, yes, indeed, he was the perfect person for the job, my irritation with Malfoy only increased. And when Ron came home to announce that he'd been made permanent head, I burst into tears of frustration. Fortunately, Ron interpreted this as tears of joy, and, of course, if he hadn't been made permanent head I'd have been miserable.
Damn Draco Malfoy to hell for eternity.
I knew I should have accepted this situation for what it was worth. Prejudiced arse of Magical Games and Sports booted out of the Ministry. Husband ecstatic with new position. Minister ecstatic with husband's performance. Myself regarded with newly minted if wary regard.
Why this ate at me and continued to eat at me to the point that I'd lost ten pounds by Christmas, I couldn't say.
Then Lily had her baby.
Two days before Christmas, the Malfoy owl reappeared, the note saying nothing more than that Lily was in labor at St. Mungo's. Ron had just buttoned his pants and I'd slipped on my shoes when Harry Firecalled us. He'd just received an owl from Lily and--
"Malfoy beat you to it. We'll meet you there," Ron said around a bunch of yawns. After Harry had signed off, Ron turned to me. "Thought she was going to have it at the Burrow."
"Your mother thought she was going to have it at the Burrow, as did your sister. Pansy and Narcissa thought she was going to have it at the Manor. I imagine, given everyone's behavior at the rehearsal dinner"--I glared at him; Ron had been one of the worst offenders, casting hexes at anyone who had been a Slytherin--"obviously they decided to have their baby at a neutral location. They have more common sense than their parents. Thank Merlin." I touched the window. Ugh. It was freezing. "Get our coats will you?"
Rodrigo Weasley Malfoy was born on Christmas Eve. Weighing in at nine pounds, two ounces, he was bald, blue-eyed, and had a yell that could shatter glass. Within three minutes of all of us piling into the hospital room, his name had been shortened to "Rod," and he was being passed around like a box of chocolates. By the time it was Ron's turn, Rod was getting a bit fractious. Not that I blamed him. Between the various Weasleys, Potters, and Malfoys, there were at least ten of us crammed into that tiny room.
But Ron truly had the magic touch with babies, especially infants, cooing and saying all sorts of nonsense about what a great wizard Rod was going to be, and how he'd be the most phenomenal Seeker in a century given his grandfathers (he added the "esse" at the last second; I don't think anyone else noticed). How his great-grandmother on his mother's side made the most delectable fairy cakes, and how his great-grandmother on his father's side grew the most beautiful flowers, and how perfect his life was going to be with all of these people loving him.
This was why I loved Ron. Because he was being so silly, and he knew exactly how silly he was being, and yet it was the perfect thing to say to this tiny baby. Uniting the wizard facsimile of the Montagues and the Capulets, families who had nothing in common but a troubled history, his parents, and him.
I'd been standing a corner of the room, listening to all the oohing and ahhing; my turn was coming up. I whispered in Ron's ear that I was off to phone my mother with the good news, and without waiting for a reply, I fled.
Nearly physically bowed over with grief, I stumbled along one corridor and down another, frantically trying to find an empty room. I'd had similar reactions when Ginny and Harry had had their children; I knew that I just needed to have a good cry and then be done with it.
Secreting myself in a broom closet, I gave into the sorrow, crying silently, so wrapped up in my mourning that I didn't even hear the door open. All of a sudden I was enveloped in a hug. For one split second I thought it was Ron, and then I smelled the sharp citrus of his aftershave. A repeat performance of that evening in the gazebo at Hogwarts, he let me soak the shoulder of his suit as I cried myself out.
"Okay, I'm okay," I muttered some minutes later and stepped away. Well, as much as I could without getting impaled by a push broom.
"Lumos. Here." He handed me his handkerchief and waiting patiently while I dried my eyes and blew my nose.
I eyed his suit. "Your house-elves will hate me."
"Don't give it a second thought; they love impossible challenges. Are you all right?"
I nodded. "Thank you. It's always hard when..." I flailed a hand.
"Yes, I suspected," he said gently and brought a hand up to brush back the hair from my forehead.
I leaned into his hand before I could stop myself and let out a shuddery breath. Running his hand through my hair, he stopped at the nape of my neck, his thumb sweeping back and forth a few times in a lazy caress before bringing his hand back to his side.
"I've missed you," he whispered. "Are you still mad at me?"
I shook my head.
"You were right," I admitted. "He's overjoyed. The Minister's overjoyed. Everyone's overjoyed but me."
"I'm not. Overjoyed, I mean. Pretty miserable to be honest. I'm sorry. I really did it to make you happy."
I gave him a look.
"And to make sure that the next Head of Magical Games and Sports is not in a position to threaten your political ambitions. Like Jenkins did. Ron would sooner throw himself from the Gryffindor tower than contemplate becoming Minister of Magic."
He laughed; a throaty, deep laugh.
"Victory," he crowed. "I've corrupted you, the incorruptible. You're thinking like a Slytherin."
"No, I'm not," I protested. "It's just common sense."
"Why is it common sense coming from your mouth, and plain evil when it comes from mine? I should be insulted," he mocked.
"For the love of Merlin," I huffed. "You said you did it for me, but really--"
"No, no," and his hand returned to the back of my neck to give it a little squeeze. "I did do it for you."
"But you also did it for you," I pointed out.
"Well, yes. I love it when I can kill two birds with one stone."
"You're incorrigible!" I sputtered.
I expected him to agree with me--he usually does when I insult him--but he didn't.
"I played this badly. There are very few people in this world that I can't play like a bloody harp. I never would have put a bug in the Minister's ear if I'd known it would... You're too thin. I can't stand to see you so... I really am sorry."
For once he was at a loss for words. I suspected such vulnerability and apologies from him were as rare as Time Turners. It was another dropping of the mask. Squashing down a strange impulse to cup his jaw, I said lightly, "We should get back. Everyone will wonder where we are." Which I doubted, as cooing over the latest addition to the Weasley clan was, no doubt, going to continue until the Matron kicked us kicked us out, but suddenly it seemed imperative that we exit that closet and fast. "I'll keep this handkerchief if you don't mind. I'll probably have another crying jag at some point tonight. I'm really not the weepy sort. I can count on one hand the numbers of times I've cried in the last five years, and I think most of them have been in your presence."
"I do that to people. Frankly, I'd much rather have you in tears, because if you're not crying, you're most likely about to slap my face," he reminded me.
I sniffed. "You do that to people."
"Saucy minx. I do not," he insisted. "If you had been listening to me--and I suspect not--I told you that I'm a god at seducing woman. Most women actually find me utterly charming."
"I am not most women," I pointed out. "Hence the slapping."
"No, I admit they broke the mold when they made you. That's why I'm absolutely madly in love with you. Head over heels. Dizzy with desire. Crazy--"
"Shut it, you goose." I lightly cuffed his shoulder.
Leaning back against the shelves of the closet, he smiled and gave me what could only be an expression of affection. The superb cut of his suit emphasized that physical ease about him, and all of a sudden I imagined him in tennis whites. Reaching up to serve. Merlin, it was getting hot in here.
"Do you play tennis?"
"Three times a week. Not that I can fathom where that came from. Back to the physical abuse at hand, I think you're the only woman besides Pansy who's ever hauled off and given me the what for."
"The woman is a saint," I said in a stern voice.
"Do you hear me contradicting you? Now, let me clean you up a bit. Your nose and eyes are as red as a poinsettia. An appropriate color for brightening up the foyer for the holidays, less suitable on a person." He waved his wand and it felt like a bucket of cold water had splashed over my face. "Better. Now, you toddle off back to the mob. I'm going to have a quick fag. I told everyone I was going out for a smoke; I'd better be true to my word and come back into the room stinking of, what did you call it? Eau de tar and carcinogen?"
"I thought you quit that disgusting habit."
He shrugged and his mouth flattened into a line. "It's been a grim few months. I'm only human. Have I told you that I love it when you're stern with me? Your mouth gets all prissy and adorable. Like you've eaten a sweet lemon. A silly metaphor but somehow apt." He pursed his lips.
I needed some air.
"I'll stop tomorrow. I promise. And as compensation, will you... Will you have lunch with me next Friday? Mrs. Chevalier thinks I've killed you, chopped you up into little pieces, and buried you in the garden. Seriously, if you don't show up soon, she'll have me arrested. Every week she badgers me, 'Where is that adorable wife of yours? Have you been foolish and cheated on her?' Then she starts screaming at me in French that men are pigs, and how could I treat my beautiful wife with such contempt? And then her husband comes out of the kitchen to look daggers at me because apparently my alleged infidelity is opening up some best forgotten wounds."
He began talking faster and faster so that I couldn't make hide nor hair of what he was saying.
"And I can't really say that, yes, I have been foolish, but not in that way because when you spend your life punctuated with meaningless encounters, you know exactly when you come across the most meaningful encounter. That seducing women is really just a symptom of boredom, and you keep on seducing women because you assume that that's all there is and when you discover it's not, you're both grateful and terrified."
I stared at him. "Draco, you're babbling. Am I supposed to make sense out of this?"
He huffed a little laugh and paused. "Absolutely not. You know I'm a babbler. Had a bit of a brain seizure there. Must be nicotine-withdrawal induced psychosis. Basically, I'm terrified that Mrs. Chevalier will come marching over to the flat and cut off a finger with some gigantic meat cleaver in punishment for cheating on you. So you have to have lunch with me." He held up both hands and splayed his fingers. "I don't think amputation is a good look on me."
"I doubt Mrs. Chevalier is going to hunt you down and maim you just because you're cheating on me. Yes I will, but not in the room upstairs and no ring."
He exaggerated his mouth into a manufactured pout. "Just for the lunch. Please. It looks so pretty on your finger. You have beautiful hands."
I ignored his compliment. "The name. That was your doing wasn't it? Does anyone but me know that the grandson of Harry Potter is named after the most notoriously corrupt pope in history?"
He grinned. "I doubt it."
"You evil little sod!"
"I'm racking up the points tonight, aren't I?" He grinned again.
The closet was too small and we were too large and the last few months had been too horrible.
"S-s-s-illy bugger," I stammered because I was close to tears again. "Missed you, too."
"I'm glad," he said in a gruff voice. "Well, not glad exactly because missing someone isn't pleasant. In fact, it's bloody awful. I nearly hexed Carstairs just for the sheer hell of it because I've been at sixes and sevens for weeks, plus, I was just, you irritating woman, you drive me mad. Last time I looked he was still breathing, and how dare he keep torturing the rest of us by his presence. He should be put on an ice float and let the polar bears feast on him. In fact, I'm going to insist that very item be on the Agenda at the next staffing meeting. No doubt I'll get another Order of Merlin for the suggestion. Since I can't hex the boring as all fuck bastard within an inch of his life because if I did--it would more like a mercy hex--you'd get all outraged on his behalf, and the silly twit does not deserve your sympathy. Did I say irritating? You are most irritating. Who deserves your sympathy? I do, because, really, having to put up with that man's stupidity all these years is, I'm certain, going to bring on a stroke."
"You're babbling again. A stroke. Really?"
"Yes. In fact, I feel one coming on." He put a hand up to his forehead in a dramatic gesture. Sarah Bernhardt had nothing on Draco Malfoy.
We were back to the status quo and somehow far beyond it. It was foolish and mad and completely inappropriate, but I reached up and brought his hand into both of mine and squeezed.
"You'll have to have your medical crisis all by yourself, I'm afraid. Thank you for sending that owl about Lily. I'll see you back at the hospital room."
I let go of his hands, pushed open the door, and ran down the hallway.
Chapter 10: Your Serve
"Ahem," I said in a stern voice and shook my hand in his face.
The Borgia heirloom was firmly cemented on my wedding ring finger, and no amount of pulling would dislodge it.
"No need to be so shirty. I mean anyone with even half an eye would see how beautiful that ring is on your hand. You have exquisite hands. It's the first thing I noticed about you."
"Not my Mudblood buck teeth? That's how I remember it." I pursed my mouth in irritation and shook my hand again.
"Oh no! She's pursing her mouth at me," he said in faux horror. "Hexes can't be far behind," he whispered in my ear.
"Stop getting your knickers in a twist. I'll warrant they're probably virginal white cotton that on anyone else would stop the most violent sexual desire dead in its tracks, but on you I'm sure they are as sexy as all hell. Oh, the stern eyebrows! Now I'm really in hot water. Just for lunch. Please. I promise. I mean, you're my wife--"
"I'm not your--"
He waved away my objection. "For all intents and purposes, you are." Seeing the look at my face he backpedaled immediately. "Here. At lunch. Only on Fridays. For one hour. As such, I'd rather stick a fork in my eye than contemplate the idea that in the throes of mad love I bought you that plebian, utterly drab set of rings. It's insulting."
"Ron had absolutely no--"
"Please do not bore me with the sad state of his financial affairs. Yes, I'm sure when he bought you those metal circular eyesores he didn't have two Galleons to rub together. He certainly can't say that now, and I have yet to see him addressing that sorry state of affairs you call your wedding rings."
"He doesn't care about things like that," I said primly.
Our twentieth wedding anniversary had come and gone with only a dozen roses to mark its passing. I tried, without success, to ignore the stunning ring that Harry had surprised Ginny with on their twentieth (which happens to be the same day as ours--we had a double wedding--we didn't even get married on our own). Ginny and I marked the event by pooling our money and tacking on three days at the end of that Auror trip so that Ron and Harry could bake themselves on the beach while staying at some ridiculously expensive hotel in San Diego. Wherever that was.
It wasn't that I wanted a new ring because I didn't. Well, I wouldn't have turned it down. But what I would have appreciated was a tangible acknowledgment of our two decades together that didn't end up in the dust bin a week later. Plus, I couldn't help but feel that the roses were nothing more than a "save." That I would have gotten only a peck on the cheek if Ginny or Harry hadn't reminded Ron to do something. Still, I found myself standing up for him.
"Ron isn't the most visual person in the world unless it's the sight of a Quaffle sailing through the air. It's all right."
"No, it's not. It irks me. It's on par with his ignoring your working vacations and letting you sink into a frumpy middle-age without so much as a whimper of protest," he said in a sharp rebuke. "Please, I don't want to talk about him. He only irritates me."
I hated it when Draco insulted Ron, because ninety percent of the time it wasn't that he was right, but he wasn't exactly wrong.
"Now I've hurt your feelings. All right, I was saving this for later, but I can see that I must spend this capital today or you'll sulk the entire lunch. I couldn't bear that after eating lunch by myself for weeks on end. He's doing a magnificent job, much to my surprise."
"Now you're back to scolding me. Excellent. Of course, I knew he'd be good, but he's surpassed all expectations and has completely silenced the critics who dared to whisper the word 'nepotism.'" He gave me a look. Which I ignored. "Not that I was right or anything. Anyway, the word is that Jenkins left the office in a state of complete disarray. Your husband is sweeping through with his new broom and in addition to putting things right, he's discovered some fiscal, how shall we say, irregularities."
That explained Ron's comments about Jenkins: as in, "If I ever have the good luck to run into that skiving bastard, I'm going to beat him to a bloody pulp."
"But now he works for the Prophet. Aren't you afraid, he'll--"
"Steal from me? Only if he's a complete idiot. Fortunately, the circulation manager does little more than glad-handing and buying pints. Which he's very good at. I've already had a word with him. If wants to keep his dick where it belongs, as opposed to growing out of his right ear, he will account for every Knut that passes through his hands. This little revelation did prompt me to hire him an assistant, whose job is to watch him and keep his files in order. Pansy will have my guts for garters if the Prophet ends up being on the wrong end of some kickback scheme."
Clearly the Jenkins' were short on funds. Given the shabby furniture and the even shabbier clothes Constance Jenkins was wearing the day I sneaked over to their house, I'd say there was something drastically wrong. Department heads were well compensated.
"I suggest you use your network of spies to determine whether or not Jenkins has gambling debts. He couldn't possibly be spending all that extra lolly on drink or he'd be dead by now. I can assure you that he's not been lavishing it on his wife. Constance Jenkins looks like she buys her clothes from Oxfam, and I wager she hasn't been to a hairdresser in months. As you've pointed out numerous times, I'm an expert on dowdy. Do you think they'll prosecute?"
That would make Ron's job impossible. As much as his staff seemed to like him now that the initial shock was over, it was one thing to make political and social inroads and quite another to expect one's staff to rat out a boss they'd liked. And by all accounts, Jenkins had taken care of his employees with nice bonuses and lavish raises. So they wouldn't report his skimming off the top, no doubt.
"The Minister says no. Although Bowden--"
"The head of accounting?"
"As of this morning. It's iffy he'll still have his job by quitting time. Stupid bugger. Had he turned any more of a blind eye to Jenkins' shoddy financial procedures, the Minister would have been justified in commissioning a seeing-eye dog for him. If the Minister needs someone to throw to the press, Bowden will be it, as the Minister's decided it's not worth the turmoil to prosecute Jenkins."
"Which was your line of reasoning with the Minister, neatly side-stepping any possible fallout from delving too deeply into pure-bloods and their secret little cabals."
"Perhaps. Anyway, it's nothing more than incompetence and a judicious padding of expense accounts. Which would be bloody hard to prove. I will say that his expenses exceeded mine by a wide margin, and I buy an awful lot of pints on the Ministry's dime."
My eyes widened, because if these lunches were to become public knowledge... When speaking of double-dealing, as always he was three steps ahead of me.
"No worries. These lunches are paid for by Malfoy Galleons, I assure you. Malfoy pounds, actually. Have I told you how lovely, absolutely lovely it is to sit across a table from you again? And you're not slapping my face or kicking me or throwing champagne in my direction. What is this world coming to?"
He was resting his chin on his palm, smiling at me. Happy.
"I did miss you. Dreadfully." Then he belied the low, insistent tone of that "dreadfully" by following it with a silly, "Who else has the ability to keep me in line? Hmmm?"
"A hopeless task," I pointed out. And because this conversation was getting far too dangerous, I changed the subject. "Lily and Roddy are doing absolutely marvelous. We were over there last night visiting, despite this gale. Oh, this weather! I'm tempted to cast a Warming Charm in here. My feet are frozen."
"We're going over there tonight. Yes, it is beastly," he agreed and then all of a sudden my feet were toasty. "There's a new show opening at the Tate next week. Let's brown bag it and visit it over our lunch hour. Say, Thursday?"
Before I knew it, we were having lunch at Chevaliers every Friday. Ostensibly it was to discuss Ministry business away from the Ministry, but whatever business that needed to be discussed was dealt with by the time we'd ordered our meals. Then Monday's lunch became antique shopping day. Not the antique shopping I'd done with my mother. We went to shops where you made an appointment and had to ring a doorbell to gain access to the showroom. When I protested that I really couldn't afford even a teacup from these places, Draco snorted. "You're usually not this thick. It's for the flat. I told you I was going to change it. I sincerely doubt this desk is early nineteenth century. The legs aren't right. It's awfully beautiful though. What do you think? I like that china set over there. Service for twenty seems extreme. I wonder if they'd break it up. Too frou-frou for every day?" Tuesday's lunch was devoted to museums where we'd pick up a quick sandwich in the cafeteria and inhale the art as we walked and munched. Thursday's lunch was spent perusing bookstores--Foyles usually--and then we were back to Friday's at Chevaliers. Before I knew it, I was having lunch with Draco four times a week. The only day I was free was Wednesday. The day he had lunch with the Minister.
I commented once on how at home he was in the Muggle world. "Which is surprising, if you don't mind my saying so." I'd picked up a history of the Borgias and was browsing through it.
He took it away from me and put it back on the shelf. "Incomplete at best. Aunt Delizia is due for a visit. We'll have tea. You'll learn far more from her about my family in one hour than any half-assed history written by Muggles." He shuddered as if warding off a chill. "Not that it's their fault. Muggle historians can't help but have it all wrong. Yes, well, after the war the wizarding world wasn't very welcoming to put it mildly. You'll appreciate the irony. I found myself escaping to Muggle London just to interact with people whose first reaction on seeing me was usually a smile, not a sneer. Oh, look, a new book by Ian McEwan. I love his writing. Don't you?"
This was a gradual process, an invitation here, a suggestion there. So gradual in fact, that it wasn't until late spring that I realized that I was spending more time with Draco Malfoy than I was with my husband. Ron was travelling constantly; even weekends were eaten up. He assured me that this insane pace would probably only go on for a year or so. Given the amount of overtime I'd put in over the course of my career, any complaints on my part would have been most unfair. Even so, I had to bite my tongue as our Saturday tea became a thing of the past, and even the heretofore sacrosanct Sunday dinner with Arthur and Molly was now once a month at best. I was no sooner emptying his suitcase full of dirty shorts than I was filling it up with clean ones.
Yet I wasn't lonely at all. My days were filled with work and lunches with Draco, and my nights with even more work or I perused Muggle newspapers for interesting art exhibits or book reviews. When I started to yawn I'd get into bed and snuggle up with a book that I'd picked up at Foyle's. With Draco.
No, I wasn't lonely in the least, although I should have been. Looking back, it was all so intimate: the lunches, the discussions about art and books, the arguments over classical music versus jazz, the mutual love of gardens, which prompted an afternoon off to attend the Chelsea Flower Show. Together. Yes, it was all so dangerously intimate.
And then there was my wardrobe.
The man was devious down to his last molecule. I have to admit it took me a couple of weeks, but I began to notice that my clothes were slowly but surely being replaced. A grey wool pencil skirt that I'd debated consigning to the Oxfam box because the backside was getting threadbare all of a sudden wasn't threadbare. In fact, it was not even the same skirt. For one thing, that skirt had been lined with cheap sateen. This skirt was nearly the same cut but lined with black silk. And it looked slightly different. Severe yet chic. As opposed to severe and dowdy. It's a fine line, but the difference was undeniable.
Then my serviceable black twin set was replaced by one made of the finest merino wool. At this rate, by August he would have replaced my entire wardrobe.
One Friday at lunch I said casually, "The last time I looked in the mirror I was not Eliza Doolittle and you are not Henry Higgins."
He actually blushed.
And was speechless!
"I know clothes are important to you, and no doubt I embarrass the hell out of you when we're out together. But please. No more. All right?"
"Did I go too far?" he mumbled, which was most unusual for him.
"Yes," I admitted, "I assume you had your house-elf make the switch?"
"Possibly, but really. Hermione. Look at you. You're so..."
"Three more sentences and you will dig yourself into a hole from which not even magic will save you," I warned.
He shrugged and began to pout.
"Stop that this instant."
I raised an eyebrow.
He held up his hands in surrender.
"By the way, your wards are downright pitiful. Not that Sneepy couldn't have Apparated through them. Malfoy house-elves are extremely powerful and do not give me that look of consternation. I'll have you know that I freed all my house-elves at the end of the war. They have clothes and everything. That's better. I love your smile. You have a very sweet smile and it's rarely directed at me. I shall savor this moment forever.
"Unfortunately, no matter how many smiles you wing my way, it does not excuse the fact that you need a refresher course on wards. Seriously, I could have broken that pitiful mess of spells that you call wards when I was six. Without a wand."
"Yes. I was a most precocious child."
"Precocious I'm sure doesn't quite cover it."
"I'm a precocious adult."
"Draco," I warned.
There it was again; that booming laugh. When he'd finally stopped chortling, he wiped his eyes with his napkin and said, "I absolutely adore you. Now, what would you like for dessert? Shall we split a cream bruleé?"
One day in late May we were walking back to the Ministry after our usual Thursday book-buying expedition when Draco said out of the blue, "Do you get any exercise?" and I replied in a voice that was a trifle frosty because this had been a sore point between me and Ron for years, "No, I keep meaning to do something," and he replied, "How about tennis? Do you play?" and I replied, "Yes, I used to be quite good," and he replied, "Excellent. I'll meet you at Activité at 7:00 a.m. on Monday and Wednesday mornings."
My first reaction was to say yes and then I realized. "Isn't that a little early for you?"
"Because I saunter into the Ministry around ten? I'm one of those disgusting people who need four hours of sleep a night. Max. I'm up at five every morning. By the time you're lumbering out of bed, Miss Lazy Bones, I've already showered, shaved, spoken to my broker, and made my trades for the day. Then I get in a good hour of exercise. Every day. When was the last time you moved that delectable arse of yours?"
"I beg your pardon."
"My point. At the risk of repeating myself, I'll meet you at Activité at seven."
Tennis. I hadn't played tennis in years. I used to love tennis. I found myself saying, "Yes, all right," before common sense insisted I say no.
The next day after lunch I said far too casually, "Ron, would you like to play a spot of tennis with me?" Which I was honest enough to admit was brought on by guilt because Ron and I seemed to have become nothing more than occasional roommates at this point.
At home for the weekend--the first time in weeks--he looked up from the Quidditch magazine he was thumbing through.
"Tennis?" he said with as much enthusiasm as if I had asked if he was in the mood for a round of Bat-bogey hexes. "You know I don't play tennis."
"Yes, well, I thought you might have changed your mind. We could play tomorrow. At the court in Tunbridge Wells. Before we go to Sunday dinner."
He paused and I could tell he was holding back. That he was having a hard time not tearing strips off of me. "Hermione, I'm coming off a ninety-hour week. I'm so bloody exhausted that I'm going to take a three-hour nap this afternoon and still go bed before it's dark. Tomorrow? Wake me up before noon and you're a dead woman. When I get up, I'm going to lounge around in my shorts for a couple of hours, only getting dressed in time to be presentable to my mum. I'm not even shaving if I can bloody well get away with it."
That was that.
While Ron took his nap, I Apparated into Tunbridge Wells, bought myself a new pair of trainers, and then Apparated to my parents' house to unearth my old racket from a cobweb-infested corner of the garage. I couldn't convince my father to bat balls with me at the local courts, so I pounded balls against a backboard for two hours.
I hadn't played since the summer before our sixth year, before all hell broke loose and improving my backhand became pointless when stacked up against surviving beyond my seventeenth birthday. But I had been a decent player at one time, and I was competitive enough that I didn't want to get too badly trounced.
Activité was a recent addition to Diagon Alley. Tucked in the very back, obviously magicked to an astonishing degree, it was the wizard equivalent of the modern Muggle sports club. There were the tennis and squash courts, but also classes on moga (magic and yoga), weight rooms (where buff young wizards worked out on weight machines that looked like medieval torture racks), and rooms magicked for the runners to display any desired setting. Sloths could meander on paths through the New Forest, while the physically buff could run up and down the crags of the Scotland. Hip beyond belief with an active pick-up scene, there was a waiting list for membership months long. Personally, I couldn't imagine trying to flirt with someone while sweating like a pig, but then that kind of sexual dance had never been my style.
I'd never been in it, but Harry and Ron had joined the day it opened. Every month I noted the debit from our Gringotts account with a little shudder. Not that Ron and I didn't have the money (and, of course, for Harry it wasn't an issue), but I considered it a gross extravagance, especially since I doubted Ron and Harry actually exercised. I'd sat through many a meal listening to how brill it was, from the always warm towels to the magnificent pub in the basement. I did point out once that they didn't seem interested in the exercise part at all, but in paying twice the going rate for pints so that they could ogle young women in revealing gym clothes. They rolled their eyes and gave each other that look that said, "She just doesn't get it."
Despite being skeptical at exactly how 'brill' it could possibly be, it was with some trepidation that I pushed open the doors. Draco was waiting for me in the lobby, his slender frame clothed in the most elegant of tennis whites. I hadn't thought about it when I left the house, but immediately I knew that the ratty old tee-shirt of Ron's and my gardening shorts were, obviously, completely inappropriate. While this attire might have been fine for the tennis courts around the corner from my parents' house, here I'd be amazed if they didn't show me the door.
Ignoring my spanking new trainers, Draco handed me a bag, saying, "How remiss of me to schedule a game on such short notice. I took the liberty of buying you some tennis whites." So quickly that I didn't even have time to respond, he said in a rush, "I'll meet you on court number one," and then he was off.
There was a part of me that was miffed, because how dare he assume I'd be a scruffy mess that had just tumbled out of bed, and there was a part of me that was grateful because I looked like a scruffy mess that had just tumbled out of bed.
Well, I had my wand; I could adjust this outfit if it didn't fit.
Silly me. It was perfect. With this fitted top and a short skirt, I could have played center court at Wimbledon without raising any eyebrows. Thank Merlin I'd shaved my legs the night before.
Draco was sipping from a water bottle when I entered the room. He stopped mid-gulp. Just stopped.
"What?" I shouted.
He put the water bottle down and trotted over to me.
"You're a vision. Not that I'm surprised." He reached up to tuck a hair behind my ear. "Now, I don't intend to be easy on you--"
"You did say you were quite good at one time."
Southern England's Champion for players under fifteen two years running, but I refrained from boasting.
"Yes, I was passable."
He narrowed his eyes. "Hmmm, knowing you, you probably had your opponents in tears of defeat. The only thing you do badly is dress. Do you..." He paused and his eyes widened a fraction. "Is that your racket?"
I lifted up my old wooden Wilson, a little scuffed around the edges, but still sound.
"What to buy you for your birthday is no longer in question. Now, shall we?" He made a gallant sweep of his hand to indicate play. Fishing in his pockets for a couple of balls, he bounced them to me. I caught them without a fumble; a good sign.
We began warming up, just batting the balls back and forth.
"This is quite lovely," I shouting, referring to the room magicked to look like a tennis court on some English estate. The gardens around the court were stunning; all white roses and azaleas. It looked familiar.
"Yes, I spoke to the owners of this place and they allowed me to spell it so that it replicates the grounds of the Sissinghurst. It's perpetually spring. "
I stopped mid-swing. The owners. Why did that have a familiar ring?
"You or Pansy?" I didn't bother to elaborate.
"Are you going to hit that ball?" he demanded.
"You or Pansy?"
"Merlin, you're irritating. Mother, actually. She needed an investment."
I reached up and served, hitting the ball with a resounding thwack. My racket might be old-fashioned, but you'd have never known it from the way that ball sailed over the net. It hit the grass like fury and bounced away from him. I'd put quite a spin on it.
"Bitch," he mouthed.
"Is there any part of the wizarding world that isn't owned by you and/or your relatives?"
"It's something of a work in progress. Service, if you please. This one I won't miss."
Chapter 11: House of Cards
It all came crashing down on a glorious summer day in early July.
The entire month of June was a series of muggy mornings followed by torrential afternoon showers that lasted into the late evening; our umbrellas never quite dried off. At the first sign of really good weather, I couldn't stand wasting a single ray of this precious sunshine. After picking up a picnic lunch from the Chevaliers, a quick walk to a nearby Muggle park saw us eating baguettes lathered with Dijon mustard topped with thick slices of pate, our faces turned toward the sun like desperate flowers.
Like any self-respecting Brit, wizard or no, I'm obsessed with the weather. I was about to grumble about how sick I was of the rain and hopefully this was a sign summer was finally here, when I heard a faint, "Oi!" I knew that voice. Merlin. There was Ron and Harry throwing a football--Ron's latest American-inspired passion--on the green. Before I could even reach for my wand, Draco had cast a Disillusionment Charm and we and all the picnic accoutrements snapped into near invisibility.
"We should..." he began, but I didn't hear the rest.
Because Ron and Harry were laughing and teasing each other. The football went back and forth as they shouted; that insults-masquerading-as-affection thing that men do with each other. As the play progressed, it was obvious that Harry's Seeker skills gave him a most unfair advantage. The ball cut through the air when Harry lobbed it and wobbled sadly when Ron threw it. As is his wont and in keeping with the dynamic that had been the basis of their friendship for thirty years, Ron complained about how it was so unfair, which Harry sloughed off, as is his wont, and then complimented Ron's latest throw or catch. At least Ron could now laugh at himself, making jokes at his own expense; on how the NFL--whatever that was--would leap at the chance to sign him as starting quarterback and how he'd put a good word in for Harry. Despite his being exceptionally good natured as a rule, I realized with horror that I hadn't heard Ron laugh in ages. Immediately, I rationalized this was because of his new position. Another five seconds and I realized that he certainly didn't have a problem with his working horrendous hours and laughing with Harry. In truth, I hadn't heard him laugh in response to me in ages. For one horrible moment, I seriously wondered if Ron had to choose between me or Harry, who would he pick?
A warm hand grabbed my wrist and I was pulled away.
We landed in his flat. Still devoid of furniture, Draco Transfigured one of his ubiquitous handkerchiefs into a sofa. "Sit down," he ordered. "I might not have a real sofa but I have excellent liquor, and the Chevalier's thoughtfully supplied us with a thermos of their superb coffee. Doctored up to the nines, it should suffice."
Not bothering to wait for an answer, Draco went into the kitchen and I heard the comforting sounds of coffee cups rattling as they met their saucers.
I might have joked to myself that Ron and I were nothing more than roommates lately, but that apparently wasn't so much of a joke as a painful reality. A beautiful summer's day and he'd leaped at the chance to spend lunch with his best friend and not his wife. As I had opted to spend it with Draco Malfoy and not my husband.
Thermos, cups, saucers, sugar bowl, creamer, and a bottle of cognac soon came sailing through the air and hovered in front of me in lieu of a coffee table. Draco splashed a generous helping of booze into my cup and then filled it with coffee, one sugar, and the perfect amount of cream. "Drink up," he ordered as he handed me my cup. For himself, he neglected the coffee all together and filled his cup to the brim with cognac. With a grimace, he said, "I have a feeling I'm going to need this." He took a healthy slug. "Now, why the long face? I'm sure they didn't see us. And besides, it was just lunch on a park bench. Nothing to get all--"
I flailed both my hands. "He doesn't laugh like that with me," was all I could get out around the sobs that threatened.
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Interesting. I was expecting a massive guilt fest. No, I imagine he doesn't. But then--and I don't mean this as an insult; just an observation honed over thirty years--he's a rather simple fellow."
I exploded. "For fuck sake! Can you please lay off of him for once in your bloody--"
"Stop yelling. I can tell this is going to be one of those conversations that whatever I say, I'm going to come out sounding like a complete bastard. Christ, I wish I had a cigarette. Hermione, he's a pint and darts man, with some Quidditch thrown in there for good measure. Deny it. He's certainly not stupid, but he only uses his intelligence when he has to." He paused to give me a chance to challenge him, which I couldn't, because, yes, this was Ron to a tee. "He's basically lazy." Which was also true, but marital solidarity demanded that I stand up for Ron. I opened my mouth to protest and he held up his hand. "Lots of people are. Some days I wish I were; I think I'd be a lot happier. Hermione, he's not very complicated person and you basically invented complicated. Plain and simple. At a certain point..." His voice drifted off into a small sigh.
Had Ron and I reached our "point," where it was obvious to everyone that duty and obligation were the mainstays of our marriage?
"Why did you marry Pansy?"
That threw him. He put his cup and saucer down on the floor and patted his jacket pocket for a cigarette. "Damn," he muttered. "What does that have to--"
"Because it does." He cocked his head in a silent why. "Please."
I needed to know why an art-loving intellectual married a woman who thought painting was something you did to the walls of the lounge every couple of years, because it might give me some insight into why an easy-going man who sees books as a boring but necessary evil chose to marry an uptight bookworm.
"Merlin's dick, I want, no, I need a cigarette. This must be dire. You're not glaring at me as you usually do in response to my pathetic bid for copious amounts of nicotine." When that didn't get any reaction he frowned. "I'd hoped for a little more time because-- Bollocks the world to hell!" he shouted. His voice reverberated off the empty walls. "Listen," he said in a near shout, and then caught himself and said in his voice normal, "Listen. Your scorn for my wife is legendary so I'm telling you: don't say a single word against her." He held up a warning finger. "Not one or I will lay you low. She has put up with a tremendous amount from me over the years. When I say she's a saint, I'm not joking. That lock on loyalty you Gryffindors think--"
This was said with more than just a trace of his former snide.
"We do not--"
He patted his pocket again.
"Fuck. I'd give my right eye for a fag right about now. Yes, you do. Shocking as it may seem, it's a trait Slytherins value as well. My mother, Blaise Zabini, and Pansy were the only three people who stood beside me when I changed sides. That counts for a tremendous amount in my book. The rest of you barely tolerated me, sending me out on suicide missions as you waited for me to display my true colors, not even bothering to contain your surprise when I'd come back alive." This was dead on. We never trusted him from the day he arrived at Grimmauld Place--Pansy in tow--to the day Voldemort died. "I couldn't say this at the time, but I'm saying it now. Fuck you, Hermione. Fuck you and Weasley and Potter."
I had the grace to feel properly embarrassed and blushed with shame. We deserved that, as events proved. Harry might have defeated Voldemort on his own, but Draco's efforts weren't marginal. Even post-war, we'd always assumed he had a secret agenda. Of course, his agenda wasn't secret at all. He had every intention of becoming Minister of Magic.
"You should blush. Thank Merlin someone cared if I came back alive and that someone was Pansy. She loved me with a passion I didn't deserve. I loved her in my fashion and Mother approved. I wanted children. She wanted my children. It seemed enough. How was I to know that marrying your fuck buddy is the height of stupidity? We both married our best friends, obviously." He took a swig of cognac directly from the bottle and offered it to me. I glared at him. He gave me a shrewd look, as if he were calculating emotional and mental Knuts, and then said in a quiet voice, "Look how well that turned out."
"I didn't!" I shouted.
He answered that by muttering, "For fuck's sake yourself" under his breath and took another swig.
"I most certainly did not," I reiterated. "Ron and I--"
"Right. Then tell me what in the hell you're on about, getting all weepy about the two of them playing a simple game of catch. I doubt you two have shagged in weeks." He gave me the once over. "Months, in fact. So tell me. What do you and your husband talk about? Hmmm? In those few minutes between climbing in between the sheets and sleep. Work, the goings on of the Weasleys ad nauseam, and Potter and his brood? I think that sums it up. I rarely see the two of you together without at least some member of his family or Potter or Potter's wife or Potter's kids alongside. Even then he treats you like you're another sister."
So angry that it took me a couple of seconds before I could form a coherent sentence, I opened my mouth to deny it. That second gave him the opportunity to say something so horrible and so true that later I'd look back on that moment and know that it was the very second my marriage ended.
"Today. The two of them. Tell me honestly if this isn't all about your husband and his continuing platonic love affair with Harry Potter. Hermione, if Potter and your husband weren't so hopelessly middleclass, they'd have fucked each other by the time they were sixteen and then set up house like poufs who mate for life." He took another swallow of cognac. "Fucking hell, not even the cognac is helping. I envision the two of them in some unspeakably grotty flat with dirty underwear piling up in the corners of every room. Come to think of it, no grotty flat; maybe just a few goes in the locker room. Had they fucked at Hogwarts, at the very least they would have gotten it out of their system. Potter seems very attached to his wife. He actually looks at her like he wants to shag her on occasion."
"He did-- We were-- In the beginning--" I sputtered, the tears now fighting to get out.
What was the point? It wasn't like that when we got married, or maybe it was and we just didn't see it. The double wedding was something of an ominous precursor, now that I thought of it. I tried to raise my cup, but my hand was shaking so badly that I spilled coffee all over my lap.
"Hermione?" With a few quick strokes of his wand, he cleaned me up. "What in Merlin's name--"
I turned away from him to cry those hot awful tears that have no sound; tears that signal the very bottom of grief. A handkerchief found its way into my lap. Eventually I turned around. He was sitting at the far end of the sofa.
"I can't comfort you; if I do I'll start mauling you. I have no idea why you still want to be married to a man who doesn't understand you and who seemingly can't be bothered with you most of the time, but apparently you do."
Six months ago I would have been outraged by that statement. I couldn't face him. I closed my eyes and in a dull voice said, "I can't, Draco. You and me. I'm not made like that."
"I know. I cry myself to sleep over this very fact."
I snapped my eyes open, ready to rip into him, because how dare he be flip about this? And then I blushed with shame again, because the mask was now completely gone, his face drawn, bleak, pale, with every hard year etched deep in the brackets around his mouth.
"I have a horrible feeling that's one of the reasons why I'm madly in love with you. Apparently, I have a heretofore latent masochistic streak. And people automatically assume I'm a sadist. They are so wrong. Circe's dick... Merlin, I'm babbling again because since when does Circe have a dick? So, tell me. Do we continue this faux fucking we've been doing for months? We might as well be fucking, you know. We're doing everything but."
He tried not to sound bitter, ending his last sentence with a little lilt in his voice, but I couldn't blame him really. If Ron was guilty of neglecting his boring wife, at least he wasn't guilty of having an affair. Because that's what this was. Now that we'd verbalized it, it shocked me just how far we'd come.
"You're right. We are doing everything but. I'm sorry. We need to..." At this something inside me died. Right in the center of my soul. "Stop."
He put his head in his hands for a few minutes and then straightened up. "Well, this should make this next bit a little easier. Or not," he added sotto voce. "First of all, I need to say this because I won't get another chance. You think that I want to fuck you so you'll become the ultimate trophy shag of that craven seducer extraordinaire, Draco Malfoy. Oh, I wish I hadn't just seen confirmation in your eyes. Someday I will tell you how much that hurt me. Someday I hope you'll look at me, and I won't see that half-second of disgust with which your gaze always greets me. Anyway, it's not true. I want you because I love you."
"Don't" I cried out.
He scooted over next to me and took my chin into his hand, forcing me to look at him. Had he gone absolutely mad? What did this prove? What would we gain by saying any of this out loud? I put my hand on his mouth to silence him, to stop all these dangerous words, because I could not hear this. I should not hear this.
"Draco, stop. We--"
He kissed my palm. I dropped my hand with a sharp breath and a cry.
"No, I won't. Rather cruel of me, but I'm feeling rather cruel. I want you to repeat this conversation over and over to yourself in the middle of the night when you can't sleep. I want it to haunt your dreams, you utterly maddening, entrancing woman." With a gentle back and forth, he swiped the gentle dip below my lip and the tip of my chin. "You have the most beautiful mouth. If it were mine... And lest you think it's only your physical charms that have enchanted me, think again. You are the only woman besides my mother who not only doesn't let me bully her or manipulate her, but who also can match me wit for wit. Three weeks into my marriage I realized that Pansy might be my best friend and lover, but no amount of rationalizing on my part would make her my equal. I bedded all those women out of boredom and loneliness. Remember that department head meeting last year? The one to discuss our embargo of Americans imports until they revised their immigration policies?"
Yes, that meeting. Carstairs called the American Minister nothing more than a jumped-up Irish tinker and, apparently, half the Executive Council were Irish or had Irish roots. It was amazing he only got one black eye.
"Hard to forget. How does Carstairs keep his job?" I murmured out of the side of my mouth. We were too close.
He narrowed his eyes at me in a brief rebuke and then his mouth softened from its grim line into a small smile.
"Because woefully misguided softies like you keep writing his White Papers. Do not for one moment think that I don’t know you rewrote his latest. Your name was spelled right. For once. Anyway, that day you were your usual unkempt natty self. You'd spent most of the meeting chewing on the cuticles of your left hand and writing notes with your right, your wand holding up that unruly knot of hair. I said something you took exception to, not exactly a game changer. Par for the course. You opened your mouth to challenge me, and I have to admit I expected the usual Gryffindor claptrap. Instead, sense, wisdom, and brilliance came out." His gave my chin a slight squeeze. "Then I looked twice, and I noticed that in addition to having the most phenomenal brain, your eyes are the color of fine cognac. Then I looked a third time, and, Christ, if you don't have the most beautiful mouth. Then I looked a fourth time and realized that you have a rack that would give a eunuch a hard on. And then I found I couldn't look away."
"Please don't" I begged. His grip on my chin tightened.
"Hermione, listen to me. For years, I despaired finding my equal. I'd resigned myself to enduring boring lunch after boring lunch with women who have I.Q's of a teabag so that I'd at least have the novelty of fucking someone I hadn't fucked before. And then even that became unspeakably dull. Do you know what it's like to be in a room and know that you're the smartest person there? Of course, you do. It's very lonely, isn't it?"
"Yes," I whispered.
He kissed me on the forehead and then despite his previous admission, he wrapped me in an embrace, his breath hot against my ear. "I love you. I know you don't believe me, but I do. And aside from the fact you are beautiful and smart and articulate and sexy, most importantly, you're the only person I know who has the guts and determination to stop me from becoming my father."
After uttering that bombshell, he pulled away to stand up. His face tightened into a grimace. "Here's where I ruin any chances I might have ever had of earning your love. Again, I know you won't believe me, but this is going to be like shoving a hot poker into my ear. The Assistant Minister has resigned and I'm replacing him. I wanted to tell you myself. I can't imagine a worse time, but I don't think I'll get a second chance. And, as I said, I wanted to tell you myself."
My cheeks tingled, as if someone had slapped them.
"Yes, he's lost the confidence of the Minister. I think the official story will be that he's ill, but really he's just terminally sick with incompetence."
"And you're replacing him?"
"Until the next election. Then we will run together. Assuming the Minister's wife doesn't have a relapse. If she does, he'll resign and I'll run on my own."
"I was never even under consideration, was I?"
He leaned over to touch my cheek and I flinched.
"Fuck," he muttered and straightened up to his full height. "Never let it be said that Malfoys don't have brass balls. No, you were not. You are brilliant and brilliant and did I say brilliant, but you are refreshingly incorruptible. You do not play the game, Hermione. You might be the moral compass for the Ministry, but I'm sad to say, moral compasses do not make good Ministers of Magic. They make excellent moral compasses."
I stood up, marched over to the fireplace, scooped up a large handful of powder, and Flooed home. Being the middle of the day, no one was home. Lonely didn't even come close to how I felt.
"Ron, once and for all, I'm not going to Greece with you all. Not this year. That's the end of it. I'm off to have my bath and go to bed." I hung up my coat and made to go up the stairs. We'd just finished having dinner over at Harry and Ginny's. He followed me up the stairs and into our bedroom.
"You're not still narked about not getting that job are you?"
I whirled around. "No, I'm not narked. I'm violently disappointed, depressed, and thoroughly disheartened. And, in addition to that, I'm woefully overworked, as I've had to assume many of Malfoy's responsibilities because we haven't found a suitable replacement for him. If you'd been listening to even half of what I've said over the last three weeks, you'd have gleaned as much. Which is why I'm not going to fucking Greece with you. Read my lips. Enjoy yourself, Ronald."
I stalked out of the bedroom and slammed the door to the bathroom on the tail end of his "Hermi--"
And while I was ridiculously overworked, the truth was that I had no desire to endure two weeks of everyone tip-toeing around me, whispering behind my back, "Is she okay yet?" as if this were just a bad cold, insinuating that all I needed a cup of strong tea and a good night's sleep, and I'd be fine in the morning. No one, not even Harry, seemed to understand what this meant to me. Yes, there had been more than enough signs that Malfoy was going to be the inevitable choice. I knew that. Yes, it hurt. But what hurt even more was that, with the exception of Draco Malfoy (Merlin, the irony), no one seemed to understand that this was a nearly fatal blow. Everyone was most solicitous for a week, and after that it was more like, what is her problem? I had an excellent position within the Ministry. I was very well regarded and respected. Why couldn't I just buck up? I imagine most of Ron's responses to people's concerned inquiries were along the lines of: "Yeah, her knickers are still in a twist. That's Hermione. Remember SPEW?"
In the dark of the night, almost welcoming my now habitual insomnia, I lay there going over and over the political dynamics within the office, the cliques, the divisions between the factions, which were cleaved along the old house lines and wasn't that a depressing thought: the power structure of the Ministry was nothing more than Hogwarts thirty years later. True, we didn't have to turn in six feet of parchment on the Goblin wars of the fourteenth century every Friday and there was the added bonus of paycheques, but it was not that much different.
Even worse, I couldn't say that Draco wouldn't do a good job. It wouldn't be the job I would have done, but he had a rapport with the Minister that I could only envy. Related by marriage to Harry Potter was a terrific bonus, plus he had the respect of a few key players. Everyone else was intimidated by him. Playing the game? Over the years he'd manipulated the situation to where he not only played the game, he was Seeker, Beater, Chaser, and Keeper, all in one.
Ron came home early that day. As always, he had forgotten to cast a Sunblock Charm and even though he couldn't have been playing football for more than thirty minutes, his face was the color of a strawberry. His first words to me were, "Bloody hell, Hermione. I'm so sorry."
He tried to comfort me, but I was inconsolable, and Ron is all about cause and effect. When a glass of my favorite wine, a foot rub, and a funny story about the Italian Quidditch team wearing ballet tutus failed to elicit even the tiniest of smiles, he immediately called over Harry and Ginny. They spent several hours insulting Draco, talking around me as if I weren't there. I sat there mute, sipping on my wine. I suppose they thought this would make me feel better, but a laundry list of his faults and Death Eater past made me feel much worse. Because it said to me that a former Death Eater who knew how to play the game could become Minister, and someone like me, who really only had competence and loyalty to recommend her, might as well whistle in the dark.
I brooded all weekend, and when I returned to work on Monday, no one would look me in the eye. The Monet was gone, which saved me the humiliation of demanding that he remove it. My life returned to working lunches and lots of overtime. The invitations to clubby insider get-togethers stopped, and my status returned to that of Ministry swot, the go-to person for all the work no one else wanted to do but must get done.
After a week, Ron stopped pussy footing around me. He did buy me boxes of caramels and more flowers than I had vases for, but the truth was that he didn't know what to say to me. Leaving me surrounded by candy and dozens of roses, he spent what little free time he had with Harry and Ginny, and taking his nieces and nephews along with Romilda's children to summer league Quidditch matches. I'd taken to Apparating to Tunbridge Wells after dinner and exacting out my fury and disappointment in nightly tennis games with my father. By this point he was no match for me. Nearly seventy, he was perfectly happy with lobbing the ball and back forth in a lackluster way for an hour. What I wanted was a nasty, violent game of tennis where I could smack that ball over the net with the hopes of not only gaining points but exacting some sort of retribution. What type of retribution I didn't know, but I often came away from those games more frustrated than when I started.
After Ron's request fell on deaf ears, he enlisted Harry, Ginny, Molly, and Arthur to petition me to come. Harry and Ginny knew better. They asked once and then dropped the subject. But Molly and Arthur kept urging me: "It won't be the same without you." "You're so overworked and tired. Just for a week then?" "The children will be so disappointed." "We're so worried about you." Until the last possible moment, they kept on bombarding me with a barrage of wheedling and guilt-laden requests that I join them. Finally, the Saturday morning everyone was due to leave arrived. It couldn't come fast enough. Standing in the garden of the Burrow to see them off, I avoided meeting any of their eyes. I hugged Harry and Ginny, heard Ron yell, "Oi, we need to get a move on!" and watched them Portkey away, vanishing into a whirl. At which point I screamed at the top of my lungs, "Thank, God!"
As I lay in bed that night, exhausted from six hours in the garden, casting spell after spell trying to bring it to some sort of order after six months of total neglect, I realized that Ron hadn't even said good-bye.
Chapter 12: All Fall Down
Because my office was temporarily assuming some of his duties while we searched for a suitable replacement, we had to communicate. This was done solely by memo. Which his secretary signed. With a mutual understanding precise as the cut of a sharp knife, I never looked at him in meetings, or chance run-ins at the canteen, or the lift. He followed suit. We talked at each other, not to each other. I did notice he was losing weight. And that when he stepped in the lift, he often smelled of cigarette smoke.
I received two owls from Greece letting me know Ron and the family had arrived safety. One from Harry and one from Molly.
Most of the Ministry takes a portion of their holidays in August and the halls were nearly empty of staff. My In Box became a towering mass of parchment. The influx of memos flying in through the open transom was non-stop as people dumped their unfinished work on me. By Thursday, the mountain of memos came up to my shoulder. I'd be chained to my desk until ten o'clock every night, right up to the minute Ron and company came home. I had every intention of slogging my way through the ever-increasing workload, working a slew of twelve-hour days, only stopping when I couldn't see straight because of the exhaustion. Every intention.
My ambitions were, apparently, common knowledge. Draco's promotion itself was gossip-worthy, and then to have the bonus tidbit of that condescending Hermione Granger getting her comeuppance. Could it possibly get any better? I imagine several people were rubbing their hands together in glee. My rise through the ranks had been meteoric; it was natural that I made enemies on the way up. The first week after the announcement that Downs was retiring--which was followed by another announcement that Draco had been appointed interim Assistant to the Minister--was torture. I'd walk into a room and all conversation would stop. By now, the whispering behind hands and the casting of an occasional Silencing Charm had more or less died down. I could walk into the canteen and get a sandwich without a bunch of people staring at me.
As I stood in line, debating whether or not to buy the stale turkey sandwich or the stale ham sandwich, I tried not to think of the Chevaliers' potato leek soup that had quickly become my favorite. Or the pot au feu. Or the tarte au citron. Or the coffee. Or Draco. Deciding that I wasn't hungry after all, I was halfway across the room when I saw Romilda Vane in line, gossiping with another secretary from Ron's office.
Ron talked about her incessantly. What a good sense of humor she had. How hard it had been for her raising two small kids by herself. How it was easier now that they were in Hogwarts. How during the summer Boot had to be strong-armed to take the children for the odd weekend. As she was Ron's secretary I forced myself to be polite to her, but other than the occasional run-in at the Ministry, we tended to steer clear of each other. I certainly didn't want to socialize with her, and when Ron asked me if I'd minded if he invited her and her kids to go along to the summer Quidditch league games, I gave him my blessing and my regrets. I had too much work to do, but by all means. When we'd been students I'd cheered at all those Quidditch matches only because I was terrified that either Ron or Harry would be hurt. As a game, I thought it devoid of strategy, and, therefore, boring. It was only about flying fast and faster. What can you say about a game where winning depended largely on the eyesight of the Seeker? I did find Harry's reputation as a world-class Seeker quite amusing, when he literally couldn't see the castle wall without his glasses.
Despite my sympathy for Romilda's situation with that irritating sod Boot, I didn't find that time had changed her much. She had been the brunette flirt to Lavender Brown's blonde flirt: boy crazy and determined. Thirty years later, she was still loud and boisterous, the sort of woman who tended to wear shirts displaying more cleavage than what I'd call professional and enough make-up for three women. Probably her one indulgence--I can't imagine her salary had room for anything else--she spent a small fortune on magical manicures. Every time I ran into her, her nails were decorated in some different scene, usually in deference to the seasons. Snowfall for winter, flowers waving in the breeze for spring. I suspect she disliked me at Hogwarts and it probably wasn't much different now.
The other woman she was with nudged her and pointed at me watching her. Romilda blushed and instead of the usual wave, she thrust her chin up in a challenge and smirked at me. I wasn't one to leap to conclusions. I also wasn't a fool.
Fortunately, I went numb. Or I might have cast the first and last Unforgiveable in my entire life.
Immediately, I sent Harry an owl that said, "Is Ron having an affair with Romilda?" This was not fair, but I didn't care. Despite his age and the horrible things that have happened to him, Harry retains a basic innocence. He wrote back, "Don't put me in the middle, Hermione. Love, Harry."
Which, of course, answered that question.
I packed half the pots and pans, my books, my clothes, my wedding china and crystal (I left the silver as it was an heirloom from Ron's side of the family), and sat in the middle of all these boxes, wondering where to go and what to do next. Aside from a few antiques I'd inherited from my grandmother, the furniture was "ours." Even though I had picked out most of it, I never wanted to see any of it ever again. I made a list of all the things about our house that bothered me, but which I'd put up with because of its proximity to Harry and Ginny: the smoking chimney; the lack of cupboard space in the kitchen; the dark staircase; and the way the wind tore through the attic, emitting a high-pitched whine as it rushed by the poorly caulked windows--the windows Ron had never managed to recaulk despite having lived there for twenty years. This was a pointless exercise, but the act of writing on parchment has always had a soothing affect on me. As the list grew, it wasn't long before I realized how much I had hated this house, but hadn't let myself hate it. Because it was next to Harry and Ginny. So that Ron could play with their children whenever he wanted. To act as surrogates for the children we couldn't have.
He Flooed in as I was finishing up my list. I couldn't help but notice that someone else had managed to cast a Sunblock Charm on him so that he wasn't a sunburned mess. Even my role there had been usurped by another. I immediately Incendio'ed the list.
A quick look around at the boxes and he knew. "You're going then?"
"Brilliant observation, Ron." This was too snide. I swallowed and added in a fairly calm voice, "I'm taking the china, the crystal, my books, my clothes, and a few pots. Not all; I've left you half. I'll be back for my grandmother's furniture. You can have the rest. The house, too."
I reduced it all and began putting the small boxes in a laundry basket. The longer I stayed in this room, the angrier I became. I needed to leave right away.
"Never liked that china."
"Where are you going?"
God, he was being sulky. I had to get out of here before I said something I'd regret.
"I don't know. I hadn't gotten that far. I guess my parents for a bit. What does it matter?"
"It matters! We've been married for over twenty years and things have been shit for a while, but it still matters, Hermione."
That sentiment--which was Ron at his best; touching and blunt--was overshadowed by the memory of that smug, triumphant smile on Romilda's face.
"You know what matters, Ron? That I had to find out you're having an affair from the woman you're having an affair with!" I shouted. So much for restraint.
Resentment, guilt, grief, and anger washed over his face, and then he started crying.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled.
I had said sorry over the years, night after night. I meant every one and now found it didn't matter. Or maybe it mattered but it didn't change anything. It didn't take a genius to figure out that within a month of my leaving him, she'd be pregnant. She might be pregnant now. I should have hugged him. I should have apologized as well. He interpreted my silence as a rebuke.
"You know it's not all my fault," he protested.
I opened my mouth to say No, it's not, but before I could agree with him, he began to lash out. How had I not realized how angry he was at me?
"Fuck you, Hermione." He wiped his cheeks free of tears. "She treats me like I have a brain. She doesn't go all 'Ronald' on me because I'm not into museums or books. Spending an evening at the pub watching me play darts doesn't get a two-hour scowl or a look like it's one step above a Cruciatus curse. She doesn't treat me like some glorified house-elf. Like I don't get half of what's going on at the Ministry. Because I do, you arrogant bitch. And she--"
I held up a hand because I really did not want to hear anymore.
"Stop, Ron. Right now. I don't want to listen to a laundry list of how wonderful she is compared to me. I'd like this marriage to end on a civilized tone, and if you keep--"
"Bloody hell," he moaned and kicked the leg of the sofa, with a viciousness that made me wince. "You know, I think that's part of our problem. Fuck civilized. Maybe if we'd had a few real knock-down, drag-out fights, instead of this passive-aggressive thing we do. Like everything's fucking hunky-dory, when we don't have sex in months--"
"That's unfair. That's so bloody unfair. I tried!" I shouted. "I tried, but it was always dinner at your parents' house, or movies with Harry, or--"
"You call that trying?" he said, followed by an ironic laugh. "Sex with a flobberworm would have been more animated. Any less--"
"That is enough. Shut the fuck up, Ron." I stood up, grabbed the laundry basket, and made for the fireplace.
"You gonna fuck him now?" I whipped around; my grip on the laundry basket tightened a hundred-fold.
"What are you talking about?"
I suppose it was rotten of me not to give him something of a moral pass. I might have done had he not turned vicious. I might have said at some point that, yes, we have wronged each other in equal measure. We still might have salvaged some personal honor out of this. Not now.
"You put a Fidelity Charm on me?"
He blushed and then belied the shame by a snotty, "Yeah."
"How dare you!" If hadn't been clutching the handles of that damn laundry basket I don't know what I would have done.
"When your wife looks like she's creaming in her pants every time that Death Eater motherfucker comes into a room, you dare. When she has a tennis date with him twice a week, at the same club she'd refused to even walk into when you've asked her, you're fucking right you dare. When--"
I dropped the laundry basket, whipped out my wand, and cast a Mute Charm on him.
"I said shut the fuck up. I wanted to sleep with him, but I didn't." I opened my mouth to explain, to say that I was marginally more ethical than he was, and I couldn't. We failed each other. Our hands were equally dirty. But I did need to say one more thing. "You went too far when you cast that charm on me. Everything else is forgivable. Not that."
I picked up the laundry basket and Apparated out of the house that had been my home for twenty years.
My parents' house was dark. I could hear the faint drone of the telly in their bedroom as they watched the late-night news before turning out the lights; something they'd done ever since I could remember. I dropped the basket and called up the stairs.
"Mommy? Daddy? It's me."
Even simple magic is based on a series of complicated rituals, so it stands to reason that marriage in the wizarding world would require a panoply of interlocking, complicated spells. I had thought our wedding was glorious for a number of reasons, but the marriage spell was so beautiful it rendered me almost speechless. Every spell has a character to it. Part of my fascination with magic is how corporeal it is. The marriage spell is the living embodiment of hope, love, and honor. That's why the casting of Unforgivables is so dangerous, because these are corrupt spells and they corrupt the user. A wizard might not have any control over their physical DNA, but their magical DNA is very much of their own making. As Ron and I cast the required oaths over twenty years ago, it seemed as if magic's angels were singing our praises.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Divorce is just as ritualistic, and instead of magical angels singing, there is the overwhelming sense they are weeping: for the sad knowledge that those hopes and dreams never matured or were realized.
The people who had been the witnesses at our marriage had to be the witnesses at our divorce. Harry, Ginny, Arthur, and Molly were all sobbing by the end; even the witch who cast the divorce had tears in her eyes. The only people in the room who were dry-eyed were me and Ron. Being virtually immune to the sorrow emanating from those spells told me that our marriage was indeed over. Magically and emotionally. My rings disappeared at the final incantation. Had I been to Greece that summer my hands would have tanned and there would have been a faint band of pale skin. As it was, there was no mark, no sign to indicate those twenty years.
They must have planned it, because no sooner did the ceremony end than Ginny grabbed Ron's arm and Apparated him to Merlin knows where. Then Harry reached for my wrist. The pull of Apparition nipped my stomach.
We landed in Hogsmeade, at the gates to Hogwarts. He didn't say a word but hiked his head in the direction of the school. We passed through its gates.
Why he thought he thought this place would provide solace was a mystery to me. He led me to the lake. It was in the middle of morning and classes were going on, so the grounds were deserted. Dumbledore's magnificent tomb and Snape's meager headstone were off to our right; we could see the stands of the Quidditch Pitch in front of us. The roses were past their prime, and I could feel autumn in the chill of the ground when we sat down. I had nothing to say. I had no intention of apologizing or justifying myself. The truth was that our respective affairs were only a symptom. Our marriage had ended a long time before either of us knew it. Had we been more honest people, it might have ended with some mutual respect. As it was now, I nearly hated Ron. I hoped that would pass with time.
"I'm not choosing, Hermione."
Lovely, lovely Harry. Of course he'd have to choose. There was no doubt in my mind who, given the choice of either me or Ron. Draco was wrong, actually. I didn't believe there was any latent sexual desire between them. Harry really loved Ron. The reluctant celebrity of the wizarding world singled out a less than presupposing eleven-year-old boy to be his best friend. A boy who no matter how much he struggled was an afterthought in a family populated by people who burned very bright. Ron was a candle to everyone's flame. Harry didn't care. Ron was a flame to him. The brother Voldemort denied him. I suppose I was the sister denied to him, but realistically? He loved Ron best, of that I was certain. And Ron? To know Harry is to love Harry, but aside from that, I suspect Ron was afraid of going through life without being anyone's best friend. And he was Harry Potter's best friend. Harry loved Ron unconditionally, and Ron needed that.
Maybe I didn't love Ron enough. I didn't think Romilda Vane would give him what he needed, but if they had a child or two, then maybe it wouldn't matter.
"People choose, Harry."
"Not me," he said with that characteristic stubborn edge in his voice. I couldn't help but smile. That aspect of Harry's personality had not changed; stubborn to a fault when he believed he was right. A trait we shared. "You and I have lunch. Once a week. And we do a movie every now and then. I'm not playing any sort of game, lying to Ron or you about what I'm up to. You're both my friends and you'll both continue to be my friends."
I reached over and put my hand over his.
I didn't think it was possible to be angrier at Ron than I already was. How dare he! And then I remembered that I'd dragged Harry into this mess with that owl demanding he tell me about Ron and Romilda, and, again, my hands were no cleaner.
"Did Ron tell you?"
"Well, yeah, in a really pathetic bid to win my sympathy. Then I pointed out that he was, you know, with Romilda, and he shut it. But even if he hadn't told me? I could tell that something was happening. You two--� You look at each other. Anyway, why him?"
"There is no Malfoy, but maybe there was. Sort of. I don't know. Why no longer Ron? To me that's the more important question. Why'd you bring me here?" I demanded.
The famous green of his eyes had faded a bit over the years. In some light they looked blue. Today, against the green of the lawn, they were again that astonishing color, so bright and true he might have been fifteen again.
"Because. Because I want you to remember that at one time you two were good."
"That was a long time ago." I began to cry.
I did what millions of divorced women do. I filled my time the best I could. Being at the Ministry was torture, so in the most polite and firm way possible I told everyone to fuck off; I wasn't doing their job. For the first time in my life I worked a forty-hour week. I joined two book clubs hosted at Foyle's that met during the lunch hour on Mondays and Fridays. That was two lunch hours gone. Ginny marched into my office shortly after the divorce and said that she wanted to take yoga classes. A number of Quidditch injuries were coming back to haunt her and she needed to limber up. I accepted the lie with good grace, because obviously she was also trying not to choose, which was so admirable considering it was her brother. She held up a brochure for a yoga studio near the entrance to Diagon Alley. Would tomorrow suit? Twice a week. I nodded and didn't start crying until she left the office. Harry and I ate lunch together on Wednesdays. That took care of my lunch hours. The book clubs meant that I had a ton to read, so after I washed the dinner dishes, I spent my evenings reading, using a Silencing Charm to drown out the volume of the telly.
The weekends were harder to fill. I began taking tennis classes at the local park near my parents' house. That ate up a goodly portion of Saturday morning. Saturday afternoons were spent at Hogwarts helping Neville tend to the greenhouses. He hadn't chosen sides either. Herbology had never interested me, but the act of weeding and pruning and being back at Hogwarts was therapeutic. Neville never asked what went wrong and I never told him the details. I suppose he knew. We talked mostly about the school. The last of the damage from the war was finally being repaired. There was a fair helping of school gossip. The question foremost on everybody's mind was whether McGonagall would retire this year. No one except Hagrid and Madame Hooch were left from the original faculty from our time--Poppy Pomfrey had retired last year--and I think Minerva was lonely. She was looking a little stooped the last time we had tea.
Even with the lunches and the Saturdays with tennis and Neville, I was unbearably lonely. I found myself in a sort of exile from the wizarding world. My life for the last thirty years had orbited around Harry and Ron. I loved my parents deeply, but even after all this time the wizarding world was still a giant mystery to them (and why wouldn't it be?). Arthur and Molly had been my wizarding parents, and their loss was nearly as heart-breaking as the disintegration of the marriage itself.
Arthur kept in touch, in a male sort of way, of course. He'd send me owls with newspaper clippings of Muggle inventions or politics that he thought I'd appreciate. He always ended his owls with a firm "Love, Arthur." I responded to every single one, and we became pen pals of a sort.
Harry had thought to cheer me up by describing the truly horrific scene at the Burrow when Ron announced we were getting a divorce. How Molly had gone ballistic and torn strips off of Ron for over two hours. But really, both of us were to blame and a part of me wished I'd been there to soften the blow. Introducing Romilda into the family fold would happen soon. Molly was never going to choose a daughter-in-law (no matter how beloved) over a son. Beyond a tear-stained owl--a piece of parchment three feet long filled with paragraph after paragraph of how much she loved me and what a tragedy this was--I didn't hear from her again except for my birthday and holiday greetings. It was now all too clear to me why people who get divorced have a shocked expression on their faces. Because they are wrenched bodily from a world they knew into a world where there are no familiar colors, few familiar faces. People have said to me, "I've lost everything." I now know how they feel.
So distraught and at sea, I even forgot my birthday and burst into tears when after dinner one night my mother brought out a sad little birthday cake with one lone candle that she'd picked up at the local Sainsbury.
Did I miss him?
Did his words haunt me in that bleak part of the night when it's just your pillow and the dark?
I missed the camaraderie and the sharing of books and the love of art and good food and fine wine and tennis twice a week. I missed talking to him. I missed the physicality of him next to me. The scent of his aftershave when he leaned in close. The musky smell of his sweat after a rousing game of tennis.
Did I believe him?
Some days, yes; some days, no. He was like a half-finished puzzle. Bits and pieces were filled in, but the overall picture, the whole, eluded me. Mismatched puzzle pieces were littered on the table but I couldn't seem to make any of them fit. All I was left with was an incomplete mosaic. I had managed to connect all the end pieces but the middle was nothing but a jumble. There were the faint remnants of the bratty aristocrat that had so defined him as a teenager at Hogwarts; traces of the slightly louche twenty-something who with his wife established post-war wizarding chic; sizeable bits and pieces of the thirty-something who, with a Machiavellian blueprint, began simultaneously establishing political alliances and destroying his rivals. The pieces for the man who saw my intelligence as an asset, who rivaled me in my love of books. and who thought I was beautiful and brilliant remained undone.
Did I love him?
Some days I thought yes and some days I thought my passion for him was merely in retaliation for the ennui that had characterized my marriage for so long. At night, however, in the bleak part of the night when it's just your pillow and the dark, I loved him madly. I dreamed of him most nights. We were usually in his flat, still filled with all that awful chrome and leather furniture, but it didn't bother me. I never knew what I was saying, but in these dreams he was listening to me talk or pouring me tea or brushing my hair. They weren't lurid dreams. They were far more pathetic. They were dreams of the every day.
Then there were the lurid dreams. The dreams where I'd wake up touching myself, shuddering in orgasm.
Sex is wasted on the young. You will never capture that bone-deep passion again, but that sex is about colliding because if you don't you will go mad. Sex when you're older is about nuance and building passion, touch by touch, kiss by kiss. It's about the knowledge of putting your hand there, and then there, and please, God, there; stepping it up until that release is so sweet. When you're young pretty much anything will get you off. I would joke that Ron could fuck a Kleenex and get off provided the tissue had been lubed up. With women it's different, a little harder, but that sense of colliding to sate is the same. But I would never trade that frantic need for the sexuality I had now. Now there was a deliberation and knowledge about it and it was much more satisfying. And, as we know, Hermione Granger is all about knowledge.
A few nights of those dreams and I found myself masturbating every night. I would put my pillow over my head to block out the knowledge that I was lying in the bed I'd grown up in, made-up with the horribly loud sheet and comforter set I'd received as a present for my thirteenth birthday. I couldn't touch myself enough. I'd lay there letting the insomnia feast on me until I thought I'd die of exhaustion, and then I'd think of him in that black kimono and how he fit against the length of me. And that full mouth and what it would feel like around the fullness of my nipple. I would reach down and stroke and imagine. I told myself that it was only so that I could fall asleep.
Which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Looking back, it seems like my marriage was a combination of relief that we survived and camaraderie forged by tribulation, with some decent sex holding it all together. Those years now seem fuzzy to me. Like how I want them to be, rather than how they had been. Maybe they had been real. In the beginning. Maybe then we did have those days when we listened to each other. When I wasn't Ron's glorified babysitter and he wasn't my best friend with benefits. Maybe if we'd had children it would have been different. They would have been the emotional superglue binding us together, and we could have successfully ignored the fact that we had nothing to say to each other by talking about our children and our grandchildren.
Is that how people do it?
Chapter 13: The Politician's Wife
The faint smell of citrus made me look up. He was leaning against the doorframe of my office; his chin too prominent, his cheeks too hollow. Lingering in the doorway, as if uncertain about his reception, my face must have reassured him because he stepped into the room and closed the door. He cast a Silencing Charm for good measure.
"It's true then. I'd heard rumors."
Color me surprised. He held up a copy of the Prophet, which was turned to the "Announcements" page. Yes, our divorce was one of three granted in the past month. Divorce was rare in the wizarding world, and since there was no property to divide and no children to consider, our petition went through the courts in record time.
Our eyes met. For the first time in four months.
"I assume it's because of that Vane woman."
How did he know everything? It was a little disconcerting.
I shrugged. "Yes and no. You were right. About most things."
"He has appalling taste. Present company accepted, of course. Do you have a place to stay?"
I'd been circling adverts for flats in that day's Prophet when I smelled his aftershave. I held up my newspaper. "Just started looking really. I'm staying with my parents, but it's a bit much Flooing in from Tunbridge Wells every day."
Which must have sounded like a paltry excuse because he Flooed in from Wiltshire every day none the worse for wear. The truth was that if I stayed another week at my parents' house I'd go completely mad. In their eyes I was forty-one going on fourteen. If I stayed up past midnight, my mother would cluck at me at the breakfast table telling me I needed my sleep. To avoid her constant questions about what time I put out the lights, I'd been reduced to lying and using my wand to cast a Lumos so that I could read under a tent of bedclothes. My father, not knowing what to say, took to leaving the table right after dinner, holing himself up in their bedroom with the telly blaring. The nightly tennis matches were now forgotten. If I wanted to play, I had to play by myself with just the backboard for a partner. It was horribly emblematic of my current state of affairs. I had only meant it as a temporary measure anyway, and here we were at twelve weeks. With a shock I'd realized that I'd never lived on my own before. I'd pretty much gone from my parents to a dormitory at Hogwarts to sharing a flat with Harry post-war before marrying Ron.
I had no other friends but Harry, Ginny, and Neville. My world had been work, them, and Ron's family. Which had kept me more than busy. Now? I'd spent my evenings organizing the petition for my divorce, and once that was done, I either played tennis by myself or rehashed family gossip with mother while she knitted sweaters for me that I would never wear.
"Take the flat. I haven't changed the wards. Stay as long as you like."
Before I could even respond, he turned around and left.
That night at dinner my mother began complaining that I was getting too thin and my father agreed with her, and she insisted that I start drinking milk shakes before I went to bed at night. Instead of screaming at them that I was over forty years old and I could bloody well decide if I was too thin or not, I found myself saying, "I've found a place to live."
The next day I went to Draco's office. Naturally, as a result of his appointment, his office had been moved to Level One, the pinnacle of locations within the hierarchy of the Ministry. The tarted-up secretary had been replaced by an older woman who embodied the term "battle ax," her robes buttoned up to her chin. I hadn't even reached her desk before a memo was scribbled and sent through the transom.
"Send her in," bellowed a voice. A hastily cast Smoke-Be-Gone Charm hadn't quite done the job; the room still reeked. He stood up when I came in. How old-fashioned he was. I hadn't had much interaction with Narcissa Malfoy, but clearly manners were something of a religion with her.
"Please sit. You look like shit. Are you alright?"
A Gryffindor would never be that blunt. I liked it. My post-divorce life had become something of a sad commentary on my old life. I'd have to stop that or I'd become one of those resentful older women who despise men on principle. And yet, why hadn't people said something; in all those years and years where it was obvious to everyone but us that our marriage was crumbling before our eyes? People were shocked that we were getting a divorce, but they weren't surprised. I'd have given my right eye for an amiable divorce, as opposed to the ugly one I was currently experiencing. If Ron and I had been a lot less Gryffindorish about our relationship, we might have ended things a friendlier note. Or not. It's hard to say. But I found Draco's honesty, this telling it like it is, so refreshing. I answered in kind.
"Thank you, but I'm only here for a second. And no, I'm not. Doing very well. My parents are driving me spare. Is the offer still open for your flat? I'll pay rent, of course."
In lieu of lighting a cigarette, he began spinning his wand through his fingers to gain a little more time. I knew he was debating whether it would be too insulting to offer it for free, and if I did take him up on that offer, what it would mean.
"Twenty Galleons a week?"
This was ridiculously low, but it suited my budget, as he well knew, since he'd committed to memory the salary rankings of all employees. I couldn't stand another dinnertime conversation with my mother trying so hard to be supportive and saying all the wrong things.
"It's not finished, but I don't imagine you care. There's a bed now at least."
"Whatever. I just need some place to kip for a bit until... Well, until. You're too thin."
Which, yes, I knew was insanely ironic.
"The hazards of the new job," he said lightly. "I'm going to light up because I absolutely have to. Take my word for it." He Accio'ed a cigarette from a box on his desk, lit it with his wand, sucked in deeply, and exhaled the smoke with a rush. "You may interpret this any way you like. Pansy and I are getting a divorce. It will be months until it's finalized because pure-bloods do their damndest to make this sort of thing impossible. Conveniently, it won't be sorted out until after the election, but there it is. I'd appreciate it if you would keep it under your hat. It's not public knowledge."
I nodded and then left the room, determined not to think. About anything but moving.
Propping my laundry basket filled with the remains of my marriage on one hip, I Flooed into the flat. He hadn't been quite as honest as he should have been. Yes, there were a few empty holes where he hadn't found the right piece. Curtains would have been nice, as well as some rugs, and cutlery would have to be bought. But basically the flat was finished.
Those chilly modern grey walls had been painted a soft peach. A desk that I had admired at one of the antique stores--complete with the type of quills I favor and rolls of parchment--sat against one wall, the Monet overhead. Another desk, which was nothing more than a sheet of glass jutting out of the wall, had its own compliment of quills and a Frank Stella painting overhead that he'd fallen in love with on one of our gallery jaunts. With its club chairs and overstuffed twin sofas in understated chintz prints, the room was so resolutely English that the only thing missing were the fake Constable prints for the walls. The odd blend of the modern and antique was reminiscent of his office, except that these antiques weren't cast-offs from the Malfoy Manor attic. These were pieces he thought I'd like. One look at the mahogany dining table and I burst into tears yet again. Round with only two chairs, it was neither antique nor modern. He might have picked it up at John Lewis. It was just big enough for place settings for two people, a bottle of wine, and perhaps a teapot.
And then there were all the new bookshelves lining the flat. For our books. I cried harder.
Three days later the owl found me at the flat.
Four days later, an invitation to lunch came in through my transom at the Ministry.
"So. There must be a reason why you're inviting me to lunch at the most high-profile restaurant in Diagon Alley."
"There are two reasons. Three actually. First of all we need to be seen together. A pre-emptive strike, if you will. I guarantee you that after this lunch with me, Cormac McLaggen will appear with that nasty patented leer of his and ask you to dinner within thirty seconds of your re-entering the Ministry."
"The Minister is retiring and you're running next spring."
"Got it in one. They've got a passable burgundy and a quite good Pouilly-Fuissé. Everything else on this menu is unicorn piss. What's your poison?"
"The white. I'm having the salmon."
"Superb choice. It's the only dish that they don't overcook here. Order the pasta and you will regret it."
"Back to McLaggen. Surely, you don't think--"
Draco put a finger up to his lip as the server approached our table.
"Good day. First some wine to wash away what I know will be an inedible lunch. A bottle of the Lassarat Pouilly-Fuissé. If you want a decent tip, get that here as of five minutes ago. My guest will start with the soup, yes?" I nodded. "And I'll have the frisée salad. We'll both have the grilled salmon. Thank you." He waited until the waiter had crossed the room before beginning again. "Think? I know. He's putting together a coalition of former Gryffindors and the odd Hufflepuff," he curled his lip, "to oust that nasty former Death Eater, Draco Malfoy. His entire campaign will be a rehash of my war record."
Cormac had not improved over time. He'd only gotten oilier with age. His career and rise in the Ministry were based on his credentials as a member of one of the oldest wizarding families, as opposed to any actual acumen or smarts.
"Why would he be that stupid?" I didn't bother to contain my scorn, and I didn't care who heard me. "He spent the entire war in the States, ostensibly trying to drum up support from U.S. allies, but I think it was nothing more than a nine-month pub crawl. I can't find a single person in the U.S. government who's even heard of him." The waiter arrived and after Draco's approval, he poured us each a glass and then left. I gave it a moment of thought as I swirled the wine in my glass. "The Death Eater bits will work against you, of course," I pointed out; he grimaced. "And there's no denying that you were something of a Johnny Come Lately to the Order, but you did your fair share at the end. Even Harry would attest to your contributions. Cheers."
"Santé. Thank you for that; a little late, as in twenty years too late, but why quibble? You're right. McLaggen will most definitely need to address his non-existent war record. Ergo, he needs someone with a sterling war record. I understand that McGonagall's retiring next year, and I assume Longbottom's taking her place, so he's out. That leaves you, Potter, and your ex-husband."
His long fingers even extended to Hogwarts. I could see him Flooing into Hogsmeade every now and then, buying rounds of beers and butterbeers (accompanied by a more than generous tip to atone for his casting an Imperius curse on Rosmerta). And naturally, while there, he'd be getting the latest Hogwarts gossip from the Slytherin students. Always two birds with one stone.
"Good luck with that. Ron can't stand him and Harry thinks he's an idiot."
"That's why he's going to approach you."
I unfurled my napkin and fussed with it on my lap. I needed a couple of seconds before I looked up.
"I doubt it. My stock in the Ministry is a bit low these days."
"Nonsense. Thank you, my good man, I was beginning to think we're going to grow roots before the starter arrived. What is that saying? More tears are shed over answered prayers. I can't imagine your soup is more inedible than this pile of wilted greens masquerading as salad. It seems the food here is determined to reach new and ever lower lows. Bon appétit. Potter has made it known that this little marital dust-up has not changed his loyalties in the slightest. That lout of an ex-husband and you continue to be top tier as far as he is concerned; he's made that very clear."
True to his word, Harry hadn't chosen.
"Ron isn't a lout. He was just much more obvious," I coughed, "about his transgressions." I'd defended Ron for thirty years and I found myself standing up for him even now; some habits are impossible to break.
"Gryffindor," he sneered but belied that with a small smile.
Having made my point, I continued. "McLaggen's an idiot if he thinks that I will bring him votes."
"Ugh, if I'd wanted dirt in my salad, I would have ordered it. I wouldn't say he's an idiot, but he's not that smart. Although he doesn't need to be. He's smart enough to know he's not that smart, but smart enough to hire smart people. That's far too many 'smarts' in one sentence. The dirt in that salad obviously contained brain-killing properties. Before I set foot in this place I could actually utter intelligent sentences. Now--"
"Sorry. Even with recent events," he paused to make his own fake cough, "you are still considered part of the Potter-Weasley-Granger power bloc. To have any one of you on his ticket is to have all of you on his ticket. Which means he has Potter."
I pushed away my soup. Georges Chevalier's magic with a stock had spoiled me. This soup tasted like it had been made from boiling water, a bouillon cube, a limp carrot or two, and a few ancient potatoes.
"He would never think of that himself. He's not exactly thick, but I wouldn't even call him bright. Notice I didn't call him 'smart.'"
"Of course not, you opted for the inedible soup, not the intelligence-stealing salad. Theodore Nott is advising him, and Theo put the 'B' in bright, not to mention the 'W' in wanker. I should know. I roomed with him for seven years. The injustice. People call me a devious wanker, when it's obvious they never met Theo."
"His wankery does not mitigate yours."
"Don't use logic against me. I'm still suffering from the effects of that atrocious salad."
I brought my napkin up to my mouth to hide a smile. I'd so missed his silly, amusing prattle. Did he only do this with me?
"If Cormac and I were on a ticket--"
Our entrées arrived. After one bite, we both pushed our plates to the side.
"Amazing. Even worse than the starter. Order your victory robes. I couldn't possibly come up with a running mate short of Potter himself that would be powerful enough to beat you two. You'd wipe the floor with me."
I held up my empty wine glass.
"So why not? Why shouldn't I?"
He refilled my wine glass and studied me for a moment.
"This divorce has hardened you a bit. Another item to add to the 'Why I Hate Weasley' list. The Hermione Granger of six months ago would have sneered at the idea of being Assistant Minister to a tosser like McLaggen."
I shrugged and took a sip from my glass. At least the wine was decent.
"Because he has handlers galore who will run the government for him as he's incapable of it. You will be put in charge of some important sounding but menial cause--most likely reducing government waste--and be completely and utterly ignored."
I would merely be a convenient stepping stone. He'd keep me on for one term. Once his feet were firmly planted as Minister, he'd dump me in favor of one of his cronies.
"Yes, that's obvious. So I turn him down. And?"
"Reason number two. You run with me. Reason number three. Marry me. They are mutually exclusive. I'm offering you a choice." He threw a bunch of Galleons on the table, grabbed my wrist, and we Apparated to the flat.
"Say something," he demanded as he paced in front of the fireplace.
"Do you want some tea?"
"No, I don't want any fucking tea."
"Accio cognac and snifters."
I ordered my hands to stop shaking and poured both of us a healthy three fingers worth of cognac. I didn't bother to heat it up. I handed him one. He stopped pacing and downed it in one go. I did the same. I hadn't been one for Dutch courage in the past, but I didn't seem to be that person any longer.
"Do you want another?"
He shook his head and began pacing again.
I sat in one of the club chairs, wondering how in the hell to say any of this.
"First, why are they mutually exclusive?"
He threw himself into the club chair opposite.
"Don't be thick, Hermione. God, I should be wooing you, but I'm absolutely in a nutter of a state and all I can do is, seemingly, snarl. You'll just have to bear it because my nerves are at a fever pitch right now. Blame the salad. I can't have you be my wife and Assistant Minister of Magic. I do have standards. Low ones, I must admit, but I have no intention of boinking you if you're Assistant Minister, and I have every intention of boinking you if you were my wife. The combination, however, would terrify people; they'd elect anyone but us. Frankly, if you were my wife and we ran on a platform together, McLaggen could put together a ticket with Carstairs as his number two and they'd slaughter us. That's how dangerous we'd be."
I couldn't dispute that. "So why the proposal versus the job offer?"
"God, woman! Why are you making me spell this out? Merlin's dick, Hermione--"
"Because," I said a little too forcefully, "I'm coming out of a marriage where we didn't spell things out, and it ruined, Merlin knows, how many friendships and relationships. I thought you said I'd make a lousy Assistant Minister," I reminded him.
"Yes, you would," he admitted. "But not with me as Minister. I am devious, calculating, cunning, crafty, Machiavellian, sly, and tricky enough for both of us. If I remember correctly, I said you were a moral compass and therefore unfit for the job. Except I need a moral compass." He looked down, studying the snifter I was clutching in both my hands. "I'm one of those people who can go either way. A rather nasty thing to admit, but at least I recognize it in myself. Because the one thing I learned at the hands of Voldemort was that absolute power corrupts absolutely, as they say." He raised his head again, making eye contact. Merlin, he looked tired. "You'll be my moral compass. I can't very well ask my mother, and she's the only other person who has the balls and the intelligence to tell me the what for."
Good, but not good enough.
"And the marriage proposal? Don't you think that will hurt you, even if we don't run on a joint ticket?"
He shrugged. "Yes, it will, but my ambitions, believe it or not, have their limits. If we were married, as Minister I'd keep my paws off your department. I'd have to pick an assistant who was a semi-rival of yours, and then make sure that it was quite clear that you were my assistant's responsibility. Heaven forfends, Carstairs comes to mind," he sighed. "But I'd do it. You're worth the gamble. Besides, two birds with one stone, Hermione. We run together, I ensure that I do not become the man my father was. People will see you as a check on my tendency to megalomania--something of a Malfoy curse. Or I marry you because I'm flipping mad about you, and by virtue of our life together I do not become the man my father was. Either way I get what I want and need. Which is a moral compass. I will point out that you will also get what you want or need. Regardless."
Had we had this luncheon five days ago, my answer wouldn't have been any different, but I might have agonized over it more. He wasn't the only person with ambitions.
"Draco, do you know why I agreed to lunch?"
"No, why?" This was said with a nonchalance that I knew was completely manufactured; his shoulders tensed just slightly. The pieces of the puzzle were fitting into place.
"Because I was going to tell you that I'm resigning."
He was perfectly still except for the hand resting on his leg. The knuckles went white as he gripped his kneecap.
"McGonagall is retiring this summer. She has offered me the position of Headmistress of Hogwarts."
"Fuck," he said under his breath.
I poured myself another glass of cognac and motioned to him, did he want another? He shook his head.
"I can't stay, Draco. You're right, I'm not a politician. I'm a swot who got into politics. I followed Harry and Ron into the Ministry, just like I followed them through the halls of Hogwarts."
I waited for him to say something, to convince me to stay, to contradict me, because regardless of whether I accepted any of his proposals or none of them, I was much more valuable to him at the Ministry than I would be at Hogwarts. The knuckles of his hand gleamed even whiter.
As McGonagall said to me as she poured my tea, "Hermione, let the Harry Potters and Draco Malfoys of this world run the Ministry. I can't imagine anyone more qualified to run this school than you, and I know for certain there is no one who loves it more."
Which was true.
"It's where I belong, Draco."
He waved a tired hand, as if it were so patently obvious that verbalizing it was overkill.
"Congratulations. Only a fool would disagree."
Whatever I could say about Draco Malfoy, he certainly wasn't a fool. He faced me, the mask completely in place. I had no idea what he was thinking. Then he got up to make for the bottle of cognac and stopped. He stared at me. The mask dropped.
"It's g-g-g-gone. That look you'd give me. It's...."
I got up and crossed the room to the bedroom door.
"Draco, come here."
He stood there, not moving, and for one horrible moment I thought that this had all been a ruse. That my original suspicions were true. It had been an elaborate game to seduce me. And now that he had me, even the sex was pointless. He'd won. I put my hand to my stomach because I could feel the dry heaves threatening.
"You're going to think I've gone completely around the twist, but I need to know. Will you marry me? I'm going to fuck you silly regardless, but it matters to me."
He swayed as if someone had cuffed him on the shoulder. "I need-- I need to hear--"
"I love you. Now, please. Fuck me silly."
I made to unbutton my shirt and he tutted me.
"Hermione," he chastised and stilled my hands. "Don't rob me of the pleasure of undressing you. How long has it been since someone made love to you?"
"A long time," I whispered.
"I'm going," one button went, "to buy you the filthiest, most obscene," a second button went, "lingerie that the French make," the third button was gone, "and I'm going to sit at my desk," buttons four, five, and six fell, "and imagine my mouth sucking on your nipple" I groaned.
He leaned over and sucked my nipple through white cotton of my bra, while his hands found my arse. Then he sucked harder while those hands grabbed and kneaded. I fell against him as sexual shivers weakened me. Yes, sex at this age was so much better. I angled myself and brought my thigh against his groin and pressed.
"You wicked--" he whispered.
Oh, he was tall, far too tall for me to kiss comfortably and I had to have that mouth. Now. I caught his wrist, dragged him to the bed, and pulled him next to me. I licked that bottom lip and then sucked on it as I found his buttons. I winnowed my hand under his undershirt and found his nipples. Oh, dear God, yes. I pinched. "Fuck!" he said loudly and then he flipped me over and lay on top of me to take charge of the kiss. A brutal kiss that was all tongue. Panting and begging in between gulps for air, I pulled away and whispered, "Draco, please," and thrust up my breasts against him. The kisses turned to a lazy exploration of my ears, my neck, my collarbone, the valley between my breasts, my armpits, everywhere but my breasts until I thought I'd go mad. I kept thrusting up against him, my breasts, my groin, and although he was all over me, he was everywhere but there. Finally, with a flick of his wand he removed my bra and then threw it somewhere above my head. Then he put that gorgeous mouth on one nipple while his thumb circled the other. I moaned out my approval and snaked a hand between us, brought it to my groin and pressed.
"Naughty," he murmured and all of a sudden my wrists were bound with his tie to the headboard, which conveniently was some insanely filigreed iron affair, no doubt pilfered from Aunt Delizia's palazzo.
He propped himself up with his elbow and then sat up to look at me, with my arms above my head, knees canted up, my skirt bunched around my waist, my shirt undone, and my breasts wet from his kisses. I expected some lascivious comment on my state of dishabille or being at his mercy. But suddenly the knots of the tie loosened and he fell on top of me, burrowing his head into my stomach and beginning to ramble; I couldn't understand half of what he was saying, but I got the gist. He was in love, he was happy, he never thought I'd love him back, and wasn't life grand? "Beautiful. You're so--" "I know I'm a--" "...happy." "You're so--" "...worth it." I stroked his hair until he eventually quieted. I patted the bedclothes until I found his wand and spelled off all our clothes. Then I tugged on him until he crept up between my thighs and lay between them, his erection, solid and hot on my stomach. I locked my legs around his arse and began to rock.
"Draco," I whispered.
It was absolutely standard missionary and marvelous. No fancy sex magic, no bondage games, no changing positions a dozen times. He set a languid pace at first so that he could kiss me and fondle my breasts. And when he was close, a hand stole between us to stroke me in counterpoint to his own rhythm. The scent of me filled the room, the desire so overwhelmingly obvious that he cried out my name, as if he couldn't believe that I was this wet for him. I came first, and my arch into him was complimented by his own groan of ecstasy as he rode out his own orgasm. I had lived without this bliss for far too long.
Tucked into the crook of my arm, he was quiet for such a long time afterwards that I began to worry.
"Everything's fine. I can feel you tensing up, wondering if I'm having second thoughts." Hoisting himself up on his elbow, he looked down on me and brushed back an errant lock or two. "I'm just wondering how to move along my divorce. Pansy and I have been separated for months; most of the legal wrangling is done. Indiscriminate catting around is tolerable. Being madly in love with someone else is insulting beyond all reckoning."
Apparently everyone knew my own heart but me. Even Pansy Parkinson!
"She knew? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Of course, she knew. She might not be book smart but she's very people sharp, and the one person she knows better than anyone else is me. Anyway, dear heart, it wouldn't have mattered, now would it? You were determined to be the ultimate Gryffindor martyr to that sad, little marriage. My marital status didn't matter one jot."
He waited for me to contradict him, which I couldn't very well do.
He laughed and nipped at my bottom lip. "I'm a very bad influence on you. Let's not talk about your marriage because you seem to be determined to defend that man, and perhaps he deserves it and perhaps not. Regardless, I'm naked and you're naked and the last thing I want to talk about is Ronald Bilius Weasley." He began thumbing one nipple. "I want to marry you tomorrow. I love you. You love me. Of course, why wouldn't you?" I smacked his bottom for him. "Spanking games? Why, Miss Granger, still waters run very deep. Later. Why? You asked me why once and now it's my turn."
"Turn?" I repeated, because that thumb was doing the most wonderful--
"Yes, your turn." He stopped and took his hand away. "Remember? The only woman who has the balls to save me from becoming my father? Aside from all that loving business, which is not insignificant by any means, there's the other half of the equation."
I began to pout and brought his hand back to my breast.
"Why?" he demanded.
I cupped his balls. "Because you're the only man," I stroked him from root to tip, "who will stop me from becoming," I sucked on my thumb and then swiped his crown, "a supercilious bureaucrat who judges her success," I blew on him and watched with satisfaction as his penis jumped in ecstasy, "on the number of memos she produces in a given week."
"Right answer," he purred and began sucking on my earlobe. "I love oral sex. How about you?"
I groaned out my answer and spread my legs.
Chapter 14: Epilogue
I will always wonder if he played me that day in his flat. That he knew that if he had tried to cajole me into staying at the Ministry it would tell me that he was more interested in furthering his career than me. If so, it was quite a gamble, but then politics is half smarts and half a roll of the dice, and Draco Malfoy is something of a consummate dice roller. No matter, I suppose.
Much more traditional than I am by far, he insisted on getting married the day after his divorce was granted. I could have toddled along without actually getting married--having just gotten a crash course on marriage and how the institution makes you neither happy nor faithful--but he wouldn't hear of it. When I pressed him on it, he replied, "First of all, people will say you're just another one of my fucks, which is absolutely intolerable. Second? What can I say? I'm a possessive bastard."
He asked me if Pansy could stay in the Manor as she had her own wing. He didn't feel comfortable kicking her out, and Narcissa wanted her to stay. I wasn't a lady of the manor sort, and my memories of Malfoy Manor were so horrendous that I never had any intention of stepping across that threshold ever again. I gave him my blessing. I had expected that was the end of it, but then, with that sensitivity that still surprises me, he said, "Horrible things happened to you there. We'll divide our time between the London flat and Hogwarts." He spends the odd weekend down at the Manor, visiting his mother, but he never expects me to join him.
Considering that we had detested each other in school, it gob-smacked everyone that Pansy and I immediately fashioned a working relationship. Not making a fuss about her staying in the Manor earned me a lot of points in her book; not making a fuss over the divorce earned her a lot of points in mine. Pansy might be his ex-wife, but she was still publisher of the Prophet, which continued to function as the secret Malfoy house organ. Hating me would undermine her relationship with Draco, which meant she might not be privy to the freshest dirt on the Ministry. They have drinks together once a week. She's dating some cauldron tycoon, a brash American that suits her to a tee. Draco has given his approval. Slytherins.
Ron did marry Romilda and not a moment too soon. It turned out that Romilda's divorce wasn't as final as it should have been--as in they hadn't filed the papers properly and the actual divorce hadn't been granted. Ron Bilius Weasley II was born three days following the ceremony and Margaret Ginevra Weasley ten months after that. Ron's happy with her; at least Harry thinks so. Harry likes Romilda well enough, although he complains that her voice gets on his nerves.
When Lily became pregnant with child number two, Dom confronted both of us and said that they were sick and tired of having separate family events and could Ron and I please pretend to get along as both of us were happily remarried to other people. To which Draco said, "Point." We now attend joint family functions. Although never advancing beyond the most perfunctory hellos and good-byes, Ron and I are civil to each other, while Romilda and I have perfected the art of never being in the same room alone together. I cannot look at Ron's children without getting teary, and we usually leave these family affairs early. Draco says it's because Romilda's voice gives him migraines, but we both know better.
We are all acting so French that sometimes I wonder when the English in us is going to rear its ugly head. When it does, hexes are going to start flying.
Sometimes when I can't sleep, I lie in bed trying to pinpoint where Ron and I went wrong. I never have an answer. Draco puts it down to the war and leaves it at that. I don't think it's that simple, but maybe I can't face the fact that it's that simple. Failure is not something I do well with. I'm no longer angry, just terribly sad. I don't believe that it was my fault, just as I don't believe it was his fault: we failed each other. But I hate to think that we were doomed even before we said, "I do." When I have a night where I can't sleep, Draco's Hermione-is-having-one-of-her-bouts-of-insomnia sensor will wake him up. He'll massage my back and work the kinks out of my neck and then take me from behind, always making sure that I come before he does. It brings me back to the here and now, back to him, and then I can sleep.
It hasn't been bliss twenty-four seven. I had gone from being married to roughly forty people to being married to one. I miss being part of a clan. Hogwarts--its teachers and students--have become my clan in a way. It helps, but it's not the same. And there are memories of Dumbledore and late nights in the Gryffindor Common Room that only Harry, Ron, and I share. It's a part of my past that now feels incomplete; like I have a phantom limb of sorts. I would imagine Ron feels the same. Even so, you can't base a marriage on the past. As we discovered.
Time is filling in the pieces of the puzzle that constitute Draco Malfoy. There have been a few surprises. He's much more playful than I ever imagined, which makes me playful; a side of me heretofore untapped. His intelligence is fierce, with an astonishing ability to parse a situation in less than a quarter of a second. He claims I'm far brighter than he is, which I think is true, but I don't have his edge of ruthlessness. I bring a rational, logical bent to any dilemma and he brings cunning and perspicuity, and together we are indeed formidable and terrifying.
The potential landmines are obvious: Draco has a tendency to be moody. I can usually jolly him out of his snits, and if I can't, I order him to the gym to run three miles. The endorphins usually do the trick. I'm still a workaholic, but Draco has made an ironclad rule that short of the return of Voldemort, Sundays and vacations are sacrosanct: no work. In addition, we play tennis three times a week, and Friday lunches are devoted to an hour and a half by ourselves at Chevalier's. We fight, although not that often. When we do we say rotten things to each other it's with the tacit understanding that my marriage to Ron and his relationship with his father are off limits. We never go to sleep angry. Ron was right. If he and I had let go every now and then, it might have kept us honest and talking.
Draco is still not Minister of Magic. The Minister's wife had a miraculous recovery, and his intention of resigning evaporated in light of her improved health. Initially, Draco was terribly disappointed at the Minister's decision to stay on, but now he doesn't seem to mind. Well, he minds because he's an ambitious sod, but he's also very patient. As I well know. Besides, it's given him time to beef up his ever-expanding dossier on his only real rival, McLaggen. I'd underestimated Cormac. Those nine months in the States during the war hadn't been devoted to pub-crawling after all; bordello crawling is more like it. I do point out, repeatedly, that given the sheer numbers of Draco's indiscriminate liaisons with women, it might royally backfire on him should he decide to smear Cormac with allegations of sexual misconduct. But as he points out, he didn't frequent whore houses. Plus he's a reformed slut and the masses always love it when politicians see the error of their ways. He will be Minister one day; it's only a matter of time.
Draco says the happiest day of his life was when he put that ring on my finger for real. We couldn't tell Mrs. Chevalier that we were only pretending to be married before, but were officially married now, so we lied and said it was our anniversary. Which was not really a lie, I insisted. Which caused Draco to snort in derision and call me a Slytherin in Gryffindor clothing. Could we have the upstairs room to celebrate in private? For our wedding dinner we had Georges recreate the first meal down to the asparagus spears and then threw champagne on each other.
When Draco patted my cheeks dry and used his napkin to daub the champagne off the lavender sheath that he re-spelled on me in honor of our first "date," he whispered in my ear, "My wife."
I whispered back, "My love."