Gringotts was ever shining when they reached the doors, the ascent of the stairs leaving them a little breathless as they crossed the threshold and entered the imposing building. Malfoy was walking in a very proud manner, his shoulders thrown back, and his figure appeared to its best advantage; Hermione noticed a little crudely how slender he was. They reached what appeared to be the reception and Malfoy drummed his fingers inquiringly on the desk. The goblin snapped his head up.
'I'm here to visit my vault,' Malfoy said. He reached for the inside pocket of his jacket and withdrew a small golden key. The goblin picked it up and examined it closely; Hermione stood, bored, watching the process.
'Follow Thorkin, please,' the goblin said, summoning one of his colleagues; this one, slightly shorter, shook his head towards another door. Hermione sped up to Malfoy's side.
'I thought we were going to talk investments and charities?' she hissed in his ear. Draco raised an eyebrow at her.
'Actually, I just said that to Lillian so she would let you go. I need to make a withdrawal.'
Enraged, Hermione stopped in her tracks.
'You cannot be serious!' she snapped furiously. 'You're wasting my whole morning!'
Draco frowned and stopped too, looking slightly impatient.
'Your afternoon as well, Granger, so get used to it. Come on, the goblin's waiting.'
Hermione eyed him for a moment, clearly tempted to bolt out of Gringotts, but to Draco's great surprise, she took a step toward him, and they made their way to the goblin, who was waiting in front of a curvy door. Opening it, Hermione revisited the Gringotts she knew for the first time since they had retrieved the golden cup from the Lestranges' vault; it was strange, to stand here, watching the place. It had not changed a bit, although it must have - she, Harry and Ron had blown it to smithereens back then.
Draco eyed Hermione curiously. It looked as if she were summoning courage to her, drawing deep breaths as the goblin led them to the nearest cart; it was very strange. Something clicked in his brain as faint recollections of the ruins of Gringotts associated themselves with Granger... Had she not been part of it with Weasley and Potter? Making a mental note to investigate it further, he crawled into the cart and waited for Hermione.
'Well?' he pressed, watching her as she stood riveted to the spot, something like fear in her eyes as she saw the goblin mount the driver's seat. 'For Merlin's sake, hurry up, Granger.'
Being pushed about was one thing Granger was not having, and Draco knew it; to his satisfaction, she climbed awkwardly into the cart, clutching the hem of her skirt as she seated herself into the only other space, cramped next to Draco. He tried not to look at her very appealing slender legs, nor to focus on the fact that her whole left arm was squeezed against his right side; the atmosphere suddenly seemed to thicken with something strange.
'Vault 221,' he told the goblin in a thick voice, and the goblin nodded, giving them both a crooked smile.
Before they were aware of it, the cart was hurtling forward in breaking speed; Hermione let out a scream of terror and he saw her clench the side of the cart, her knuckles turning white. Brow furrowed, he turned his head to see her face; it was pale and bloodless, and a strange yearning to comfort her suddenly overcame him. Before he could speak any words, however, the goblin took a left, and Hermione fell sideways on top of him, her arms flinging themselves around him in horror; but he did not push her back. Instead, he entwined his arm around hers and held on to her upper arm. Strangely, he found that he was relieved when she did not struggle, merely closed her eyes and hardened her grip on his shoulders.
They suddenly stoppped. The goblin turned around, grinning.
'Vault 221,' he smirked. Draco threw him a dirty look and turned towards Hermione. She had still not loosened her grip and his shoulders were aching. He slowly let go of her arm until she opened her eyes.
'It's over,' he said uncomfortably, 'we're here, Granger.'
Hermione's breathing slowed noticeably. It seemed as if she became aware of where she was, and, more importantly, who she was with; she let go of him immediately. He cleared his throat and stood up.
'Your key, please,' the goblin interrupted his thoughts, and he hurriedly fished for it inside his pocket and handed it to the creature. Draco had still not stepped out of the cart.
'Do you need help?' he murmured awkwardly to Hermione, who had put a hand on her forehead and was now very obviously trying to calm herself down. She looked at him, and he was shocked to see anger in her eyes; he had not expected her to be so fiery.
'No,' she snapped, and, as if to prove this, stood up. He watched her warily. She came gingerly to her feet, swayed and fell down almost immediately. Draco reached out instinctively and caught her upper elbow before she reached the bench; the force of it pulled her slightly closer to him.
'Most people can manage the ride quite easily, you know,' he said quietly to her, tilting his head to a side. Her face flushed, but it looked better than it being pale.
'I don't exactly have great memories of this place,' she answered defensively, and his stomach clenched in excitement.
'Care to elaborate?' he whispered tentatively. Hermione gulped.
'Your key, Mr Malfoy.'
Draco could have cursed the goblin as it interrupted his attempt to find out what had happened. He whirled around and took the key from the goblin, seeing that the vault door had been opened in the process; he looked back at Hermione, but she had taken a step away from him.
'Your gold's waiting,' she said to him, before sitting back down on the bench and concealing her head in her hands. He sighed.
The vault was enormous, the ancient Malfoy vault designed to contain the millions of galleons passed from father to son. Draco was used to the sight and it did not impress him; he scooped the nearest pile of galleons into his money bag, handed it to the goblin and made his way back to the cart, where Hermione was sitting quite steadily now. He climbed back inside, but made no attempt to ask further questions, knowing it was fruitless so long as the terror of the return journey was present.
He heard her draw a breath of courage as the goblin climbed back inside, and subconsciously - or perhaps not - let the back of his hand graze hers in what could almost be suspected as a gesture of comfort.
The blinding sunshine greeted them joyously as they left the bank, and Hermione let out a gasp of relief. Draco started walking down the marble steps when he noticed that Hermione was not with him; turning around, he saw her leaning against a column, taking deep breaths.
'Just give me a minute, Malfoy,' she sighed, passing the palm of her hand over her forehead. Draco considered her reflectively.
'Come on,' he finally said, taking her upper arm once more. 'You need a pint.'
Ten minutes later, he and Hermione were sitting comfortably in one of the darker corners of the Leaky Cauldron, Firewhiskey on the table. Hermione watched uncomfortably as Draco unscrewed the bottle and poured three shots into the tiny glasses they had been given.
'Come on, Granger,' he grumbled, passing her one of the glasses, 'you look like you need it.'
Hermione stared resolutely at the drink, seemed to shrug, and then downed it in one. She gasped as the back of her throat burned. Draco let out a genuine chuckle.
'So are you going to tell me what the story is? Why Gringotts terrifies you?' Draco asked as he passed her a napkin. She dabbed it at her watering eyes, then pulled an angry grimace. To Draco's continuing surprise, he saw her swill another shot of Firewhiskey - he had not thought she was this defiant.
'It surprises me that you don't know,' she said, playing with her napkin and avoiding his eyes. He frowned. 'It was during the War. It was a long time ago.'
'Obviously, that doesn't matter since it still affects you.'
To his surprise, he saw her shiver, though the pub was overheated. She took another sip of the Firewhiskey. Draco's curiosity was overwhelming; this intrigue was so great. But he knew he mustn't push it.
'We had to steal something from the Lestranges' vault back then,' she continued. 'It was a hell of a journey and we only narrowly escaped. I didn't think...' She suddenly grew silent and then shrugged. Her eyes darted up at his for a few moments, doubtful, hesitant, before she leaned against the bench. 'I don't know why I'm telling you this. Must be the Firewhiskey.'
Draco shook his head. Here was one thing he was accustomed to.
'It's not the Firewhiskey. It's because you need to get it out. Trust me, I know.'
It was strange to talk like this to her, Draco reflected, as he gulped his drink. The words he were speaking had some truth in them; she was not the only one traumatized by the War. But then, he was not writing an article about himself.
'Trust you? Have you changed at all since the War?'
He looked up to meet her gaze and was surprised at the sincerity in Hermione's tone of voice. In the dim light of the pub, she looked very pretty, her brown locks framing her pale face, her forehead creased with a frown of confusion and her pink lips a little pouty, wet from the Firewhiskey. He was completely drawn in, but that was not unusual; the little self-control he had was usually lost around women.
'That's an odd question,' he said quietly, and Hermione almost blushed.
'It's just,' she attempted to explain, 'you were such an arse. Dumbledore... the Room of Requirement...'
He noticed that she did not mention the worst of all experiences; the event that he had witnessed alone with her, the one which had tortured him through nights, the reason why he had sold Malfoy Manor as soon as possible. He wondered whether the scars Bellatrix had inflicted on her victim were still there.
'I don't know what to say to that,' he admitted. She shook her head.
'You don't know whether Muggleborns are Mudbloods and Purebloods aristocracy?'
'No,' he answered immediately, and so sharply that Hermione started, 'that I don't believe in anymore. That never got us anywhere.'
He looked down at her hands which were twirling the glass round and round. They were such beautiful hands; soft, delicate, with a tiny wrist. Such vulnerability should never have been exposed during the War. How could anyone believe that the veins in those hands contained dirty blood? He looked at her eyes, but they were downcast; she was still frowning, avoiding his eyes.
'How did you get out of the Manor alive, Granger?' he breathed, for the fact that she had escaped his old home with her life suddenly seemed miraculous as it had never done before; he had never fully appreciated how lucky she must have been.
Her eyes shot up, something like terror in them as events seem to flash on fast-forward; he bit his lip guiltily - she had obviously not wanted to relive the experience.
'I can't talk about that night,' she whispered, and shivered again.
'You can to me,' Draco breathed.
'No, I can't, I can't,' she whispered, obviously terrified.
He reached his hand out in concern and laid it on her wrist; she drew back immediately as if she had been burned.
'I'm sorry,' he gulped. 'Not just for mentioning it, for - for back then, I -'
'Shut up, shut up, Malfoy!' she said in a loud voice, so the neighbouring clients looked up curiously. Draco gazed at her intensely. 'Don't, please.'
'I won't,' he whispered immediately, 'I'm sorry. I - what are you doing?'
She had stood up and thrown a galleon on the table; she swung her bag over her shoulder and walked out the pub. Draco sat there in extreme doubt, not knowing whether to follow her or not. When he finally did pluck up the courage to go after her, she had gone.
Draco had learned one thing from visiting Gringotts with Hermione: there were things she was terrified of reliving. And that clearly meant that she had experienced things worth writing about.
He tossed his keys on the nearest table in his apartment, trying to ignore the gnawing feeling of hunger. His inspiration was so great that he could not satisfy his desire for food right now; he must write.
He had not counted on Asteria though.
If one were to give a description of beauty, Asteria Greengrass would sure embody every word. Her long curly blonde hair, her icy blue eyes, the sexy lips, the high cheekbones - had she not been Draco's lover, Asteria might have been mistaken for a Malfoy. They had been seeing each other for convenience's sake since the War had ended; Draco had had a brief relationship with her sister, Daphne, whom he had left when he met Asteria. Daphne was charming, but not nearly as enigmatic or alluring as Asteria, with her husky voice and cold manner. Draco was crazy about her, but neither wanted a commitment - that was why they were so well suited.
'Evening,' he smiled at her. She was wearing a slinky black cocktrail dress and her hair was tied back. She smiled.
'Hello,' she answered, and she leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. His smile widened as he lazily breathed in her intoxicating perfume.
'How long have you been here?'
'Just thirty minutes,' she answered promptly, taking his briefcase from him and leading him into the living room. He watched her as she reached for a pair of gold earrings and put them on. 'You'd better get changed, I've got reservations for 8 o' clock.'
Draco frowned. It was so typical of Asteria to believe that he would follow her anywhere, at any time.
'I can't,' he muttered, walking over to his desk, situated conveniently at the other side of the room. 'I have to write.'
'You can do that tomorrow, can't you?' he heard her say, impatience in her voice.
'No, I can't,' he answered shortly, but truthfully; he was aching to write about Granger, aching to explore her further. His impatience with Asteria had never been this great - he just wanted to be alone.
He suddenly felt her soft hands on his chest and she leaned forwards from behind, her lips resting on his neck. Normally, this would be enough to persuade him to do anything; to his enormous shock, however, he still could not get Granger out of his mind. He laid his hands on hers.
'I can't, Asteria,' he said firmly. She drew back angrily.
'Fine,' she snapped huffily, and he turned around in time to see her grab her wrap and purse and head towards the door. 'I'll get Blaise to go with me. Let me know when your love affair with your work is over.'
She slammed the door, but Draco couldn't care less. He had never pretended that Asteria meant more to him than his work, and nor had she; it was her problem if she had misunderstood.
Satisfied, he picked up a quill and dipped it in ink, looking forward to writing the introduction to the article of his life.
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