Draco sat in front of one of the worst things a writer can sit in front of: a blank page. His quill had been dipped in ink, the lighting was just right and he was sitting extremely comfortably in a leather chair. But of course, the most essential was lacking: inspiration.
He dropped the quill on the parchment and leaned backwards in his chair, rage running through him for the fifteenth time that day. It was not just his chin that hurt (and, what was more, deteriorated his otherwise rather appealing appearance), it was his head that throbbed, his heart that pounded. Worst of all, it was Granger's stupid voice that ran through his head. It was a quality about her he had always hated: that pretention, the haughtiness, the illusion of knowing more than he did. In his younger days, it was what had made him want to yell Mudblood at her - there was one condition she could not deny, one fact that she could not talk her way out of. But of course, the War had ended all of that.
He wondered what he could call her now. Stupid? Hardly. Alone? Obviously not, Draco heard his thoughts say, to his great surprise. In vain, he searched, but nothing came to his mind. It was maddening. How could Granger take away what he had always been best at? How could his anger toward her completely disarm him of his power of words? Nobody, let alone a woman he hated, had ever had that effect on him. It was unnerving.
For Granger was a woman now, he had noticed that. He had not seen it right away, it had been a gradual discovery as she chatted away about the boring features of her stupid department. She had a figure, she wore heels, she was good at her job. Know-it-all Hermione had vanished and this transformed, oddly fierce Miss Granger had taken her place. Not that he could ever find her attractive, for he knew all her faults and they by far outshadowed her few good qualities - but he could see why men would be drawn to her.
He got up early the next morning, drained a cup of coffee and headed for The Daily Prophet. Drisella was in, and though her secretary begged him to wait, he stormed inside, put on a happy grin and closed the door.
'Malfoy? What the hell are you doing here at this time of the day? I thought you didn't get up till noon at least.'
Drisella eyed him with shock behind her square spectacles, her hands shuffling papers, but her manner not entirely dismissive. 'Who gave you a bruised chin?'
'My next subject, Drisella, dear,' Draco said. 'Or rather, her future husband. Now hear me out.'
'I sense that I am not going to like what you have to say,' Drisella muttered, throwing the papers in a messy pile and folding her hands. Draco flashed her the kind of smile most women fell for. He collapsed into a chair, put his feet on the desk and withdrew last week's newspaper. He threw it on her desk so it landed with a picture of Hermione Granger face-up.
'Hermione Granger,' Draco smiled. 'Not quite Harry Potter. War heroine, but from a Muggle background. Recently engaged to fellow war hero Ron Weasley. Flashy job at the Law Enforcement Department of the Ministry of Magic. Everyone must be hating her right now!'
Slowly, Drisella picked up the newspaper and eyed the picture. Hermione was linking arms with Ron, under the cheesy heading of "Engaged: War Heros And Love Stories, by Penelope Clearwater". Her face wore a frown and she appeared to be thinking. Draco eyed her, biting his lip, crossing his fingers.
'You really think there's dirt on Granger?' Drisella said doubtfully.
'Drisella, I've been with her for only one morning so far, and her husband's already given me a scar for life! There's plenty.'
'You'll have to be bloody careful on blood lineage. I don't want people to think that the Daily Prophet is pro-pureblood.'
'Of course. Come on, Drisella. Give me this story. I'll promise you it'll be good.'
Drisella sighed, stood up, whipped her glasses off her nose and wiped them concernedly. Finally, she nodded, and Draco resisted the urge to kiss her.
'All right. You can write about Granger. Hand it in by next Monday.'
'No problem. Thank you, Drisella, thank you.'
Hermione restrained a groan as she heard Malfoy's voice and rage settled itself in the pit of her stomach. She tried to obtain a moment's distraction by organizing her files, but she knew that Malfoy was staring at her, so she looked up.
'Well, what do you want?' she snapped angrily. Malfoy raised his eyebrows.
'Did you not hear Lillian yesterday, Granger? You're supposed to convince me that this department is worth several thousand galleons. You're not doing a very good job, you know.'
Hermione bit her lip. Her desire to do a good job was so enormous that she almost sprang to her feet to show Malfoy the rest of the cubicles, but her hatred for him restrained her. This was one of the things she despised most about him; he made her feel torn, indecisive. And if there was one thing that was worse than making the wrong decision, it was not making a decision at all.
Making up her mind, she got to her feet, threw the last piece of paper in its attributed pile and stood in front of Malfoy. He eyed her warily. She stretched out her hands.
'Coat, Malfoy,' she simply said.
Surprised, he did nothing for a moment; then he shrugged his thin black jacket off him and handed it to Hermione. She smiled and dropped it to the floor. He scowled.
'Well at least I tried to be polite,' she answered, her voice dripping with sarcasm. 'Follow me.'
To Hermione's surprise, but pleasure, Malfoy remained silent while she pointed out the different cubicles and introduced him to some of her colleagues. Most of them were intimidated by him, others were impressed, and a few select, female secretaries abandoned all shame and flirted in front of Hermione, who cringed with embarrassment. He took it with ease, as if he was accustomed to this behavior, and it only sickened Hermione even more. When she had to address him, she did it with an icy tone; when he talked to her, it was through gritted teeth. There could hardly be two people who despised each other more.
'You know, this really would be a lot easier if you would just cooperate,' Malfoy muttered, as they returned to her cubicle and she pulled up a chair for him. She barked out a laugh.
'And why on earth would I want to do that? Especially after yesterday.'
'Oh, come on, Granger, you can't possibly defend Weasley. He punches like a girl.'
'Shut up, Malfoy,' Hermione exclaimed angrily, and several of her colleagues looked up. Regretfully, she bit her lip. Malfoy seemed to be enjoying it. He leaned back in his chair comfortably.
'You're a very expressive person, aren't you, Granger?'
'What does that have to do with anything?' she asked irritably, rifling through papers so she would not have to look at him.
'Have you always been this outspoken?'
'I don't conceal my thoughts, no.'
She looked up at him suspiciously. It was not like Malfoy to be this subtle; he generally bragged about everything and anything, but asking questions like this was most unusual, even for him. It made her feel awkward and uncomfortable, as most private questions would; but the fact that it was Malfoy who was asking them was even worse. She picked up a pen and spinned it between her fingers. Malfoy eyed her curiously, a little surprised at the fact that they shared the same gesture of frustration - spinning a pen.
He had never before seen a woman look so fidgety. She could not sit still. Her hands were always moving, her eyes were on the look-out and she jumped every time someone touched her. It intrigued him, and suddenly he wondered what she would do if he ever grazed a hand against her arm. He shuddered, shaking himself out of what was surely some spurt of madness, returning to the present and his ideas about an article.
'I guess that must have led you to some sticky spots, Granger. Remember my third year? You slapped me.'
'You deserved it,' snarled Hermione.
'I can't even remember why,' Draco continued. 'Something to do with a Hippogriff, wasn't it?'
Outraged that he could not remember having been the cause of an almost-execution of Buckbeak, Hermione remained momentarily speechless.
'How typical of you not to remember ever being the source of unhappiness, Malfoy,' she breathed, laying the pen down. 'I don't think you fully realize just how many lives you could have cost during Voldemort's reign.'
Draco flinched, but ignored the pang of guilt in his stomach. He had to focus on his article; at least this was getting him somewhere.
'We can't all be heros,' he muttered. 'Even though it was probably enormous fun for you and Weasel King.'
'Of course it wasn't,' muttered Hermione, 'not always... Not the times where I didn't know where he was... whether he'd come back...'
Hermione shook herself awake from what she was saying as sudden realization dawned on her. Her eyes flashed angrily.
'It's none of your business anyway, Malfoy,' she said forcefully. 'Let's get back to work.'
'No, what were you going to say?' Draco persisted. 'Tell me.'
'I'm not going to tell you anything.'
'Please?' Draco breathed. 'I'd like to know.'
There was an astonishing amount of sincerity in his eyes as he said this, and Hermione, surprisingly, felt tempted to tell him. He seemed so eager to know the truth that it seemed possible that he might feel some form of regret over the past. But more importantly, it tempting to relieve some of the anxiety she had once felt. She bit her lip, leaned forward and eyed her surroundings to make sure that nobody was listening.
'It's just...' she began uncertainly. 'There was a time when... when I didn't know... when Ron doubted. And then he went away. And I - I didn't know where he was.'
She finished awkwardly, leaning backwards and suddenly feeling confused at her need to tell him this. Malfoy put on a sympathetic face, but inside, his heart was pounding. Obviously, there were cracks in the beautiful facade of their engagement. He wanted her to say more, but did not dare make further inquiries in case he would scare her off; instead, he gave a crooked smile and asked questions about the department. But inside, while he was listening to Hermione's boring commentary, he was thinking up the first paragraph to what he was persuaded would be his greatest article.
Draco had planned the following day meticulously. Pleased that Granger had shown an ounce of trust and confided in him - however small the secret - he was convinced that if he continued to hide behind that kind, caring mask, his article would be the juiciest, most scandalous piece of work ever published. He saw the awards already, heard the acclaim and felt Drisella's warm hand as she patted him on the back, congratulating him and promoting him to a better position. He could cease to write such pathetic articles and embark upon real journalism; he could give up the name of Henry Betteler and become Draco Malfoy, famous reporter for the Daily Prophet. He was determined to see his dream fulfilled, and Hermione Granger would be the tool to fix it.
Hermione got to work early that day, eager to have a few Malfoy-free hours to herself. It was not as if he had got to her, but she had not liked how easy it had been to tell him things. He should not have heard whatever problems might have existed between herself and Ron, and she scolded herself for taking such liberties.
She twirled her engagement ring around her finger, staring at it admiringly. The smile turned to a scowl at the thought of what Malfoy might say. 'What a small rock, Granger, no wonder, Weasley can't afford anything, can he?'
Why did he have to pick her. Why not some other person, some suitable, leggy secretary who would flash smiles at him and drown him in compliments? Who knew what that might have led on to. She could picture it in her head; he would thank her charmingly for the tour, then ask her if she would like to join him for drinks. After a glass of wine, well, it would not do any harm to go to his house and pay back the favour and give her a tour of his place.
Disgusted with herself, Hermione fervently shook her head. The doors to the elevator opened and she strode into the almost-empty department. There were a few workaholics like herself there, drearily greeting her over a cup of coffee, but apart from that, to her pleasure, it seemed no one was in. She quickly sat down in her cubicle and checked her in-tray; to her utter bemusement, it was empty. Her in-tray was never empty. Lillian always managed to find her something to do.
Suddenly suspicious, she eyed the office Lillian occupied. Her belief was confirmed; the lights were on and she managed to see Lillian's silhouette, her hand beckoning her forward. Giving an angry sigh of frustration, because Hermione had come early precisely to avoid this, she stood up, smoothed her skirt and made her way to the door. It was half-open and she did not even bother knocking.
'Yes, Miss Gherkin?'
'Granger, quite a good thing you're in this early. Perhaps Draco told you of his plans for today.'
'Yes, he wants to take you to Gringotts, talk investments and charities, and then he's managed to convince me to keep you to lunch. After that he'd like to see some of your own previous work, the eradication of pro-pureblood laws and your views on animal rights.' Lillian looked up, lowering her glasses and fixing her with an approving eye. 'You've seemed to engaged him quite well, Granger, so far I've heard nothing of praise about the department. Unless things go very wrong, we're probably looking at a very generous contribution.' Lillian looked away again, occupied with her files. 'Just keep it up and you'll be looking at a bonus.'
Hermione's stomach seemed to jump excitedly. A bonus. If she could have a bonus at the end of the month, it would mean that she could move her wedding up several weeks. She and Ron would not have to keep saving, they would be able to be man and wife by next month already. The prospect of these happy circumstances allowed her to momentarily overlook the mystery of Malfoy being pleased with the department.
'Thank you, Miss Gherkin,' Hermione murmured, smiling uncontrollably. 'Oh, before I forget - it's my boyfriend's sister's wedding this Saturday, and I know I usually work Saturday mornings, but I was wondering if -?'
'Yes, yes, of course,' barked Miss Gherkin, 'take the day off. It'll be your turn soon, anyway, I believe.'
Hermione smiled wider, bemused; it was the first kind word she had heard from Lillian before. She took off before the moment was ruined, closing the door behind her.
She was still grinning as she reached her cubicle and found, to her pleasure, that Ron was standing by it. She leaned forwards and kissed him after checking that none of her colleagues were watching.
'Hey,' Ron murmured against her lips, equally smiling, 'I thought you said none of that at the office.'
'I've changed my mind,' Hermione answered, grinning, and she deepened the kiss. After a few luxurious moments, they pulled apart and Ron held out her lunchpack.
'You forgot this at home.'
'Oh, thanks,' Hermione said, placing it on the desk, 'but I won't be needing it.' She sighed, looking at Ron's expectant face. 'Now please don't lose control, darling, but Malfoy is taking me out to lunch.'
'What -!' Ron started, but Hermione placed her hand in front of his mouth, curling the other around his neck.
'Listen, just listen!' she exclaimed. 'Lillian just called me in. She said if I keep this up, then I could be looking at a bonus. A bonus, Ron! We wouldn't have to wait, we could get married next month.'
She removed her hand from his mouth and leaned up against his chest. He folded his arms around her, his heart still pounding from anger.
'I know it's difficult, and I like it even less than you do, but it's just a few more days. If we could get married next month, wouldn't it be worth it?'
'I hate knowing that you're with that slime,' Ron muttered.
'A few days,' Hermione repeated. She untangled herself from him and placed another kiss on his cheek. 'You better go or you'll be late.'
'I love you.'
She watched his figure disappear into the elevator and gave a reassuring wave. He had gone none too soon, for moments after the doors closed, the second elevator opened, and out strode Draco Malfoy. He looked surprised at Hermione's wave, and she rolled her eyes and turned towards her desk, waiting for him and his lewd remarks.
'Well, well, you must be warming up to me, Granger,' Malfoy said, as he approached her. 'A wave, now that's the first sign of kindness I've had since I came here.'
'Sod it, Malfoy, I was waving at my future husband. He took the other elevator. Lillian told me what you had planned for today.'
'Did she, now? She is a dear. Are you ready, then?'
Hermione moved around to the other side of her desk, throwing a notebook, a quill and a packet of Kleenex in her purse. Draco, amused, held up her lunchpack and eyed it carefully. It contained a banana, a ham sandwich and bundle of cookies wrapped in aluminium. He took out the banana and gazed at the skin. Words had been carved on it: Love you, Ron. Draco was torn between rolling his eyes and re-reading it. It seemed such an incredible thing to do, carve love words on a banana. That Weasley should do it was truly a proof of his love for Hermione. It was nauseating, but it was amazing all the same. Romance seemingly did exist in this world, no matter how often Draco had claimed that it did not; romance could be found on the skin of a banana.
'Are you coming, Malfoy?'
Hermione's voice was full of exasperation and wonder, but he must look like a fool, staring at the banana. He gave her his trademark smirk and quickly peeled the skin off, wolfing the banana down. Hermione watched him irritably, but not suspiciously, and he managed to toss the skin in her dustbin without her asking questions. He did not know why he did it; but some part of him would be annoyed watching her smile at Ron's romantic ability.
'Let's go,' he muttered a little crossly, his mouth full, and a bemused Hermione followed him to the elevators.
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