Returning to Godric’s Hollow was not on Hermione’s shortlist of desires. Her stomach had been in knots for the entire afternoon as she tried to comprehend that her marriage to Ron was, perhaps, not as sacred as she once thought. The mere thought of facing him inspired her to work late into the night instead. Once she had signed the last document on her desk, she knew that she had nowhere to go other than home.
With a heavy sigh, she Apparated to 16 Gryffindor Drive. She knew that Ron was still awake as soon as the stinging scent of booze hit her nose.
“Where’ve you been?” Ron mumbled, with his attention on a small, violet box. He stuffed it full of glittery, turquoise tissue paper before chugging a glass of Ogden’s and pumpkin juice. It was not the only one of its kind. Dozens of other colored boxes surrounded him, some on the floor and some on the countertop beside his bottle of firewhisky.
“Extra paperwork,” Hermione replied. She kicked off her loafers and walked towards him. “What have you got there?”
“Trying to figure out how to package this new witches’ line.”
Hermione nodded, slowly. Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes had new lines every month, but rarely was Ron allowed to make any marketing decisions. “George is letting you?”
He glared at her. “Why wouldn’t he?”
She sat on the barstool beside him, aching to feel something for the man that she married. Her nose crinkled as his unique odor assaulted her olfactory system. Leaning away from him, she tried to see what product he was attempting to package.
“I’m tryin’ to work, Hermione,” he growled.
Sadly, she stepped down from the barstool and leaned against the counter. The air was thick with tension between the two of them.
“So what’s in the witches’ line?” she finally asked, hoping that he bought into her feigned interest. “Maybe I can help.”
“Dunno. George just sent me with some bottles with some gunk in ‘em and told me to find packaging for ‘em.”
Hermione nodded. “You went to the shop then?”
Ron appeared to be suspicious. “For a little while. Why?”
“No reason,” Hermione said again. In reality, she was embarrassed that her husband had been in public smelling so strongly of body odor and alcohol. If the Daily Prophet had seen him in such a state, they would have printed more articles than she could count. “So did you see the Prophet then?”
He shook his head and took another long drink of firewhisky and pumpkin juice.
“Well, they wrote about me. A pretty nasty hit piece,” she confessed. “I have a copy if you want to read it later. They basically claim that I blew off the Japanese Minister for Magic yesterday. Can you believe it?”
Ron didn’t respond. Instead, he fumbled with a green box and yellow tissue paper. Making a face, he threw it on the floor and reached for a pink box instead.
“Did you hear what I said?” Hermione inquired, raising her voice.
“Yeah, the Prophet wrote about you. Very nice, dear. Hey, could you hand me the orange one from by your feet?” He held out his hand, still not meeting her eyes.
Taken aback, Hermione threw the orange box at him and stormed out of the room. He called after her, asking what he had done wrong, but it was too late. She stepped inside of her study and slammed the door before collapsing into her desk chair.
Marrying Ron had once seemed like a reasonable decision. She acknowledged that it wasn’t a perfect decision, but she was convinced that she was doing what was right for both of them. They had known each other for so many years, loving one another at different times. Refusing his proposal wasn’t an option. They had fought for each other for too long.
Suddenly, she felt like she had to vomit. Sobbing quietly, she hugged her knees and rocked back and forth. Never had she been more heartsick for the man that she thought she loved. He was still alive, still there every night when she was finished with work. Yet, he wasn't present. She could hardly speak five words to him without an argument ensuing. She felt sorry for herself for a long while, twenty years worth of loneliness and regret drowning her. The framed photographs on her desk were a mockery, only reminding her of the lie that she had spent two decades building. Her photograph smiled back at her, Ron’s arms around her waist.
The bittersweet memory sparked an idea. Eager to prove herself wrong, she stood up and started rifling through one of the modest bookshelves in her small study. The shelves contained mostly textbooks and novels written by Muggles, but towards the bottom, there was a dusty photo album. That was where she would find her answers. That was where she would find her love for her husband.
Hermione pulled out the leather album and quickly went back to her desk, opening it to the first page. The photographs had once been organized, but her children had gone through it, leaving it completely out of order.
There was photograph after photograph of their family scattered throughout: she, Ron, and the children. They all stood close together, smiling, mostly posing for the annual traditional holiday picture. Behind them, there was always a tall Christmas tree decorated in red and gold. She sighed. The pictures brought her simultaneous elation and sorrow. Their children were growing, and whenever they were gone to school, the Granger-Weasley home was hollow and joyless.
There were several photos of the children too, mostly baby pictures. They wriggled around in their diapers, sucking on their thumbs and kicking their chubby legs. Hermione smiled. It had been a long time since they were so small. Reluctantly, she flipped through more pages. Anger filled her when she reached the photos of their wedding day, peppered between images of George and Angelina's engagement party and their nieces and nephews. She moved past those photo sleeves as quickly as she could.
Then, there was a picture of her, Ron, and Harry. They were young and laughing, ecstatic to have found such great friends in one another. She closed her eyes. Her life had been so different back then.
After a few more pages, she realized she was at the end of the album. It was only half-full. Their family did not take many photographs, especially since reporters seemed to do that for them most of their lives. Sadly, she closed the cover and put her face in her hands for several moments, reeling from her gut-wrenching revelation.
Defeated, she picked the album back up and walked towards her bookshelf, hoping to shelve it and not look at it again for as long as she could manage. It was too painful.
She was nearly there when her foot caught the corner of the rug, knocking her off-balance. Immediately, the witch tumbled onto the ground, falling hard on her left arm. The album flew into the air, pictures separating from the sleeves and scattering all over the hardwood floor in an unsightly mess. Groaning, she rubbed her arm and got to her knees.
She collected all of the pictures, trying her best not to look at them. Then, among the pile of her snoring, sleeping babies, she noticed a photograph that she hadn’t seen. It was black-and-white, cut out from a newspaper. In it, she sat not with Ron, Harry, or her children, but with Draco Malfoy.
She had forgotten she kept the photo, as she must have tucked it towards the back. Only once had she looked at it since she was a teenager.
"Who is this, Mummy?" Hugo had asked, pointing at the photograph.
A sad smile crept onto her face. "Oh, just an old schoolmate."
Her heart pounding, she reached for the picture. The old paper felt weak in her hands, so she carefully went back to her desk and placed it there.
Emotions shook her to her core. The memory was so long ago, yet it felt so recent.
The Hog’s Head Inn was quiet, as usual. Knavish witches and wizards sat at the bar, ordering glasses of firewhisky and the occasional beer. They stared at the giggling group of three. The young magical folk seemingly did not belong.
“…a better potion to get rid of Wrackspurts. I can’t seem to get them away from Neville!” Luna complained. “I wonder if there’s anyone working on that.”
Hermione and Neville exchanged concerned looks. “I’m sure someone has thought of it,” Hermione fibbed. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go to the restroom.”
She stumbled from her chair to the bathroom, her buzz beginning to give her legs a bit of a wobble. The bathroom in the Hog’s Head was notoriously filthy, so she quickly waved her wand before sitting on the toilet. She let out a sigh of relief as she urinated for what seemed like an eternity. Once she was finished, she scrubbed her hands under the faucet and staggered back to their table.
She looked around. Luna and Neville were not at the table where she had left them. In fact, they were nowhere in sight. “Neville!” she shouted, anxiously. “Luna!”
“Luna? Neville?” she questioned, less loudly.
“They left,” Aberforth grunted. “Something about Wrackspurts.”
“Damn it, Luna,” Hermione cursed to herself, carefully walking towards the bar. She sat on a barstool. “Firewhisky, please.”
Aberforth nodded and poured her a glass.
She chugged the hard drink, making a face as it hit her tongue and the heat ran down into her belly. To her left, there was a shifty-eyed wizard with a thick, scraggly beard and a green hat.
“I like me a girl that can handle ‘er drink,” he growled, baring his broken teeth.
Hermione gave him a look of disgust and scooted her barstool away from him. Aberforth slipped into the back before she could alert him of the man’s drunken state.
“Oh c’mon! I’ll buy ya another,” the man offered.
“N-no thank you,” she stammered. “I’m fine.”
Frowning, the man touched her thigh. “Listen, Mudblood, I’m tryin’ ‘o be a nice guy here.”
Suddenly, a cold voice intervened. “I believe she said that she’s fine.”
Hermione looked up to see the stern, grey eyes of Draco Malfoy. His face was distorted in revulsion, his hand on his wand.
The man’s eyes widened. “Look, I don’t want no trouble, Mr. Malfoy.”
“Then you best leave,” Draco sneered.
Without a word, the man hurried out of the inn without paying his tab. The door closed behind him and whispers filled the few tables in the room.
“I had it under control,” Hermione muttered.
“Did you?” Draco asked. “It didn’t look very under control to me—unless you’ve started spending your nights with grimy old men instead of Weasley.”
Hermione blushed, furiously. “I’ve never spent the night with Ron.”
Draco cocked an eyebrow. “Good to know. May I sit?”
Hermione gestured the then-empty barstool. “Not my place to deny you service. I’ll leave that to Aberforth.”
He sat down, not making eye contact with her. “I saw Loony and Longbottom left. Interesting company you keep, Granger.”
She glared at him. “Her name is Luna, and they’re lovely. They just had to go.”
Aberforth emerged from the back, narrowing his eyes as he saw Draco with Hermione. It was not every day that he saw a war hero sitting idly with a Death Eater.
“Yes, so I heard. Longbottom had a nasty case of the Wrackspurts.” He tapped the bar. “I’ll take what Granger’s having.”
Aberforth poured a glass of firewhisky and slid it towards him, suspicion in his gaze. He quickly gave Hermione a look to let her know that he would intervene if needed.
“So where are your friends?” Hermione jeered.
Draco looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “I don’t have friends.”
She almost felt guilty, but not guilty enough to apologize to him. Instead, she decided not to respond at all. There was a long silence that followed and she was not brave enough to end it.
“Never a night with Weasley, then." He finally broke the awkward air, a smug expression plastered on his face. “Somehow that surprises me.”
“Why?” Hermione asked, leering at him. “Because I’m such an easy Mudblood?”
He chuckled, swirling the firewhisky in his glass. “I just thought you two seemed rather attached.”
She hardly felt like explaining her and Ron’s romantic history to Draco Malfoy. It was complex enough that she hardly understood it herself. Just that morning had she escaped from her depression from their failed opportunity at love. She certainly was not going to let the Slytherin boy have the satisfaction of making her sad again. “Ron and I are friends.”
Draco read her expression and nodded, realizing that it was not a subject to press. “How have you been?”
“How have I been?” she repeated, slowly. “Why are you asking me that?”
“Well, Granger, in the civilized world, it’s a common courtesy to ask.”
She glared and finished her drink. “I didn’t think you knew anything about the civilized world.”
He was quiet for a moment, his expression pained.
“I hope things are better for you now.”
Hermione clenched her jaw. “They are, no thanks to you.” She knocked on the bar, keen to binge drink away her pain, her confusion, and most of all, her new curiosity. “Another, Aberforth!”
Draco downed his glass. “Another for me too, please.”
Aberforth looked at each of them, sliding drinks their way. Hermione could tell that he was considering throwing them both out before they started a scene. It was clear that they still had animosity between them.
“So is this what you do during Hogsmeade weekends?” she asked. “Come drink firewhisky by yourself?”
“Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m actually not by myself,” he retorted.
Hermione was taken aback. She finished her glass of Ogden's and asked for another, trying to recollect her thoughts. Never did she think she would be drinking with Draco Malfoy, but the evening had taken a rather bizarre turn. As much as she wanted to be upset about it, she couldn’t be. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
They said nothing to one another for a long while, tossing back drinks, awkwardly listening to the white noise of chattering witches and wizards. Hermione chewed on her thoughts.
“Why did you stand up for me?” she finally inquired. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Draco ran his tongue across his teeth and throated the glass of firewhisky in his hand. “He was filth.” He patted the bar, ordering another.
“I didn’t even see you in here,” she admitted. The small sip that she took tasted worse than when she drank it quickly. “Where were you?”
“I make myself scarce these days. The Ministry is trying to find every reason to put me in Azkaban.”
“They can’t. Harry testified. They dropped the charges.”
He took a drink. “The Ministry believes I’m reformed just about as much as you do.”
Hermione was quiet. She did not know how to tell her evening savior that she didn’t trust him. Strangely enough, she wasn’t even sure if she would be telling the truth. If studying together taught her anything about Draco Malfoy, it was that he wasn’t as easy to read as she once thought he was.
“Precisely,” he said, coldly. “I’m the poster boy for the Dark Arts.”
“You don’t have to tell me, Granger,” he spat. He finished his drink and tapped the bar again.
Aberforth slid a full glass in front of him, his expression stern. The caramel-colored liquid sloshed onto the bar.
“Draco, slow down—”
He locked eyes with her. “Why should I?”
“Well, I—never mind.” She tossed back her drink before she made a fool of herself. Her head spun as the drunkenness took its toll on her and she felt her inhibitions slip through her fingers. Drinking heavily was not something she often did, but she felt some level of competition between the two of them. It seemed important to drink just as much as he did.
“I could drink myself to death and no one would care. ” He downed his firewhisky and pounded his knuckles on the bar once more.
“That’s rubbish, Malfoy!” Hermione shouted, bashing her fist on the bar. Aberforth glared at her and she blushed, quickly removing her hand and letting it relax in her lap.
“Nobody wants you dead. That's just crude."
"Oh, I'll bet there are folks in the Ministry that would disagree."
Hermione watched him, thoughtfully. She thought carefully about the next thing she was going to say. "Your aunt tortured me, you know," she finally whispered.
“More reason for my bloodline to come to an end as far as you and your little friends are concerned,” he growled.
Hermione shook her head. “Your aunt tortured me and—and y-you watched. You watched every horrible, sickening second of it."
“You aren’t exactly defending your point, Granger,” he mumbled. “If I were in your shoes, I’d blast the Killing Curse at me right now. Suppose I should keep my hand on my wand in case you decide to take me up on that.”
“Draco, you aren’t listening to me,” Hermione slurred, struggling to make her point in her heavily inebriated state. “Your family has done despicable things to me, to the people I care about. But the war is over and here we are, drinking firewhisky. Maybe it's time to move on, you know? The war made things messy for a lot of us."
He gave her a dark look. "I don't claim to be a good person, Granger, but what Bellatrix did was vile."
"Even though I'm just a Mudblood?" she asked, curiously.
"Nobody deserves to be tortured. I suspect you and I both learned that the hard way."
Hermione’s eyelids fluttered, drunkenly. “I’m drunk and I should hate you, Malfoy. Stop giving me reasons not to.”
“Don't worry. You’ll hate me tomorrow,” he promised.
“You know what I think? I think—hmm. Maybe it’s not my place to say.”
He gave her a quizzical glance. “Tell me.”
"Well, I don't think you're as bad as you let on."
Draco strengthened his grip on his glass. “You have no idea what I'm capable of, Granger. You have no idea what I've done."
Hermione pushed her hair behind her ear. “Perhaps not, but I do know you're sitting by a Mudblood—by choice."
A small chuckle fell from his lips. “I suppose that’s true.”
She studied his deep, grey eyes. She thought for a long time, deciding whether she should echo the voice that had been in her head. Finally, she decided that they both needed to hear it. “If we don’t let the war end, it never will."
"Well, isn't that profound," he muttered, rolling his eyes.
"But it's the truth," she insisted, slapping the top of the bar. "As long as we let it rule the way we live our lives, we might as well still be fighting. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of fighting."
Her words were followed by a long silence as Draco contemplated what she had said.
“Why didn’t you leave this bar as soon as you saw me?”
Red-faced and heavily inebriated, Hermione blew her hair out of her face. “I dunno. We could be getting along worse, lately, right? And I guess I don’t have friends either. Not real friends. I have the type of friends that ditch me over some bloody Wrackspurts.”
Draco snorted. “Oh, come off it. You, Weasley, and Potter are practically worshiped.”
“But nobody really cares.” She paused. “Besides, Harry, Ron, and myself don’t really talk, anymore.”
“Is that right?”
“Ron’s been awkward with me since he kissed me,” she sighed, resting her face in the palm of her hand. She would not usually talk to Draco Malfoy about such personal matters, but far too much firewhisky had clouded her judgment. “I think I’m over it, though. It was all a spur of the moment kind of thing, if I think about it.”
Draco Malfoy smirked, seizing his chance at lighthearted conversation. “So you weren’t spending nights with him but you wanted to.”
Hermione held her breath. “I did not!”
“I’ll take your word for it,” he teased, an amused expression on his pale lips. He rapped on the bar again.
“It’s the truth!” Hermione laughed, her face bright crimson. “I mean—I guess I liked him but—well, things change. He didn’t come back to school and he’s an Auror now and I honestly think it’s better for the both of us. He needed to learn how to get by in life without me doing his homework for him.”
“So that's how Weasel was passing classes."
Hermione ignored his comment. “Why did you come back to Hogwarts, anyway? You never seemed like the type to care about your N.E.W.T. marks.” She was eager to change the subject. After spending four months healing from the way Ron mistreated her, she did not want to discuss him with Draco Malfoy, of all people.
“Where else was I going to go? Death Eaters want me dead. The Ministry is just itching to send me to Azkaban. Hiding away at school for a year seemed like the easiest thing to do.”
She ran her fingertips around the rim of her glass. “That’s a bit sad.”
Draco sucked on his teeth. “Don’t pity me."
“It’s not that. I just—”
“Granger, I’m the type of person you ought not be around,” he pointed out, his eyes dark. “Let's not make this kind of thing a habit, yeah? Keep it to Potions."
If she were sober, perhaps she would have agreed. Alas, she was not, and she was rather enjoying company that didn’t mention Nargles every few seconds.
“If you’re such a brute, why didn’t you just let that creep have his way with me?” she asked.
Draco frowned. “You’re drunk.”
“Maybe so,” she laughed, locking eyes with him. Suddenly, her voice was much more serious. “But you intervened for a reason. A lesser wizard wouldn't have done as much."
He shifted in place, his body language thick with discomfort.
“You know, if Ron saw you with me he’d call you a ferret and hex you,” she giggled.
“Thought you didn’t want to discuss Weasley,” he reminded her, pompously.
“I don’t! I just—I think I’m just a bit tipsy,” she admitted, resting her face in her hand. The rest of her drink disappeared down her gullet and she clacked her fingernails against the bar. Another drink slid her way.
“So it seems,” he mumbled, a small smile on his lips.
Before she knew it, she had fallen off her stool with a yelp. Wide-eyed, Draco helped her back to a standing position. Her legs wobbled and suddenly she could not control her wild laughter. Sighing, he heaved her back onto the barstool and took the drink from in front of her.
“We ought to get you back to the castle.”
"Th-thank you. I almost fell flat on my face.” The bushy-haired girl could not stop laughing.
Amused, Draco snickered and held his hand against her arm, helping her catch her balance. “How much did you drink before I sat with you?"
“Not much! Really! I just—I'm not much of a drinker..." The brunette could not stop giggling. "I'm more of a—" She hiccupped, choking on her laughter. "—butterbeer type."
Draco opened his mouth to respond, yet he was interrupted by the flash of a camera. He blinked several times, blinded from the light.
"Of course someone would be—" She hiccupped again in between laughs. "—taking pictures of us," Hermione cackled and coiled her arm around him, holding her index and middle finger above his head. "Pose, Draco. We might as well give them a show."
The camera flashed several more times and the man holding it rushed out of the inn.
“What the hell was that?” Draco asked, still seeing spots.
Hermione nearly fell again. He caught her in his arms as she giggled, uncontrollably. “Prob’ly the Prophet. Who cares? They're all a bunch of—" She stopped, midthought, and hiccupped. "Draco, Draco—” She pawed at his face like a needy toddler. “—thank you.”
Still grabbing his face rather roughly, she slurred, “Well, y’know, saving me from that terrible man. That and—well, honestly, I had fun." Another hiccup escaped her throat as she seized the drink from the bar, to Draco's protest, and downed it. "I don't think I've been able to have fun since, well, you know. It's been a long time.”
The blond held his arm around her, helping her stand. Tears were in her eyes as she continued to drunkenly laugh at nothing in particular. Then, her face froze. The final elixir had done her in. It was clear that she was far too inebriated to walk back alone. Draco motioned Aberforth over and pointed to both himself and Hermione before dropping several Galleons on the bar.
Aberforth leered at him. “If I hear that girl didn’t get home safe, I’ll invent a fourth Unforgivable Curse just for you. Mark my words.”
Draco nodded and steadied her as they stepped out of the inn. Hermione groaned, her stomach rolling with regret. “I drank too much.”
Hermione stared at the picture, chewing on her nails. Their friendship was strange, and generally condemned by the public, yet it was the first time that year that she felt truly happy. Just the day before she saw him, she had still been mourning her lost chance with Ron. After an evening with the blond wizard, wanting Ron seemed almost silly.
There was a knock at her study door. Scared, she jumped and slid the picture underneath a book on her desk.
“Y-yes?” she stammered, her face pink.
“I’m hungry!” Ron shouted through the door. “Can you make something since I’ve been working all day?”
Hermione gritted her teeth.
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