The Forbidden Forest was just as shady as Hermione remembered. Her heart thudded in the walls of her chest as she weaved between the trees and stepped over endless sticks and sizable rocks. Rays of sunlight darted through the few gaps in the heavy canopy, giving her the light that she needed to find her way to the spot she knew so well.
Birds cawed, perching on high branches and peering down at her, watching her every move. She chewed on her lip as she looked to her left and to her right, knowing that she was getting closer to the place where Draco had told her to meet him. With each step, her heart beat faster.
Then, finally, she was there. Amidst a great sycamore tree and a handful of evergreens, there was a large boulder and a stump. Seated atop the trunk of fallen jack pine was the young-looking, fair-skinned man that had invited her to the isolated place.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show up,” Draco murmured, smirking.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to either,” Hermione admitted, watching him awkwardly.
The bizarre sensation of déjà vu rushed over Hermione as she tentatively sat down on the boulder. Draco dug in his faded black messenger bag until he found a sandwich wrapped in cloth. He raised his brows and tossed it to her.
“Thank you,” Hermione said, peeling back the cloth. She took a large bite and let out a small, satisfied moan. As soon as she bit into it, she realized how little she had eaten over the weeks. “It’s delicious.”
“I know. I just ate one,” he replied, thoughtfully, “since you were so late and all.”
Hermione blushed. “To be fair, you didn’t specify an exact time, and not being able to Apparate here tends to complicate things.”
Draco nodded, cocking a sly eyebrow. “The privacy is worth the trip, I’d say. Seemed like you didn’t need any more nasty press.”
She took another bite. “I certainly don’t.”
The two of them had not been alone in their spot in the Forbidden Forest since they were teenagers. While Hermione tried not to reminisce, it was difficult when Draco was staring back at her, barely looking older than he did when they were in school.
“Scorpius tells me he comes to the forest sometimes,” Draco noted before casting a quick ward. “I try not to think about him there ever since he ran away with Potter's boy... I am proud that he's a bit of a rebel like his old man, though.” He cast another ward.
“I wouldn’t call you a rebel,” Hermione mused. “I think ‘jerk’ is the word you’re actually looking for.”
Draco smirked. “You weren’t calling me a jerk by the tail end of it, were you?”
Her face reddened, but still, she could not let him get away with such sly comments. "I was sparing your feelings, obviously. It's not my fault you've always been so...sensitive." She let the last word roll off her tongue like it made her physically ill.
He chuckled. “Same attitude you’ve always had, Granger.”
Hermione ate the last bite of her sandwich and cleared her throat. “So, are you looking forward to the holiday, then?”
“I suppose,” he replied, slowly, furrowing his brow. He was not accustomed to her awkward topic swaps. Her face expressed the questions that her mouth wouldn’t, but he knew he could only answer the questions she dared to ask. If he pushed her too much, she would leave. “Like I said before, I’ll spend it with my parents and Scorpius, so that is something to look forward to. I imagine you’ll be spending it with your children and Weasley?”
“Yes, we go to my in-laws’,” Hermione murmured, looking down at the forest floor.
Still bothered by her proverbial tiptoeing, a frown graced his face. He did not want to push her too far, but he had to have answers. He had to know why she was not acting like the person that he once knew so well. “There’s something wrong with you.”
“What? My filthy Muggle blood?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “I thought we got past that when you decided to have sex with me.”
He snorted. It was good to hear her making jokes. “No. I meant your demeanor. You’ve been acting strange every time I see you.”
“And how would you know what I’m usually like?” she asked, annoyance in her tone. “You’ve hardly spoken to me in the last twenty years. I’m not nineteen anymore.”
Draco narrowed his eyes. “You wouldn’t be here if something wasn’t going on, Granger.”
"I'm here to learn about that favor you mentioned." Her voice cracked. "I-I'd like to know what it is."
"You only care about the favor because it gave you an excuse to come."
Hermione did not respond. She knew that he was right, but she did not want to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. Instead, she quietly stared at the damp ground, refusing to make eye contact with him.
“Well, let’s think here,” he said, hopping down from the fallen tree trunk. He laced his hands behind his back and paced back and forth. “You’re the Minister for Magic. You just wrote your first book. I’m sure both of your children are getting nothing short of superb marks in school. What could possibly be going so wrong in your life that you agreed to meet with a Malfoy?”
“Oh, come off it, Draco,” Hermione scoffed, finally making eye contact with him. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting an old friend. You’ve said it yourself.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “But you wouldn’t have if everything was fine. Not here, anyway. You forget, Granger. I know you.”
“So you keep reminding me,” she muttered, crossing her arms.
“It’s Weasley,” he pointed out, finally crossing the line that he had promised himself he would not cross. “If you won’t admit it, I’ll say it for you.”
With a deep sigh, Hermione replied, “Draco, it’s really none of your business.”
“Perhaps not,” he said, airily, stepping dangerously close to her. “Still, I’m going to go out on a limb here, Granger. I don’t think you’d be here if things were good between you and Weaselbee. In fact, I don’t think you’d be here if you didn’t hope that I would be waiting for you when you finally found it in you to leave him.”
He stood so close to her that she could smell the musk and Fraser fir on his jacket. The strong scent brought back memories of their time together.
“You know, if you spent as much time studying as you do in the Forbidden Forest, I wouldn’t have to help you with your Arithmancy homework,” Hermione noted with a smirk. She sat beside him on the forest floor.
He smirked back. “I think you owe me, anyway, Granger. Without my help in Potions, you wouldn’t have finished your Alihotsy Draught yesterday.”
“I would have finished it! I just—”
“You just what?” he cut her off, grinning. “You just couldn’t figure out how to chop Alihotsy leaves without the help of a rather handsome Slytherin?”
Hermione pushed him, lightly. “You’ll always be an arse, won’t you?”
“Probably. Interesting that you’re so drawn to arses,” he replied, raising his brows. “I’m always trying to get rid of you and you keep following me. You’d think you’d want to get away from me since I’m such a—what was the word again? Arse?”
“Makes sense you’d be trying to get rid of me. I am a Mudblood after all. You should’ve used the Killing Curse on me months ago,” Hermione retorted, rolling her eyes.
He planted a kiss on her lips, only to pull away with a devious grin. “I’m killing you the slow way—with my irresistible charm.”
Hermione did not know how long she had been lost in the memory. Her cheeks were hot as she thought about their adolescent kiss. When she finally returned to reality, Draco was waving his pale hand in front of her face.
“Sorry,” she muttered, rubbing her temples. “I was just thinking.”
He looked her up and down. “Don’t apologize. It’s not like you.”
Hermione furrowed her brow. “What do you mean it’s not like me?”
“Because it’s not. You’ve always stood up for yourself, especially to me. What the hell has Weasley done to you?”
Hermione closed her eyes. She did not know if she could tell him the truth. She wasn’t even sure if she fully understood the truth. Being jealous of his deceased wife and detesting the man that she married did not seem like reasonable behavior.
Draco leaned closer to her, studying her uneasy expression. “If that absolute swine is hitting you—”
“Oh for Merlin’s sake!” she hissed, waving him away. “He doesn’t beat me. He’s just a drunk.”
Draco took a step back and gave her a confused look. “For how long? The Granger I know wouldn’t put up with that.”
She buried her face in her hands. “I suppose since before we got married. I don’t really want to discuss it, though, Draco. I’m sure you could read all about it in the Prophet.”
Draco chewed on his lip for a moment, his eyes narrow. “Do you remember the first time we came here?” he suddenly asked.
Hermione nodded, slowly. “The day after Halloween. You didn’t want to be seen with me.”
“I didn’t want anyone to curse us,” Draco corrected her. He sat down on the edge of the boulder beside her, his arm only centimeters from hers. “Too bad you hexed me, anyway.”
"You called me a Mudblood," Hermione pointed out. "You deserved it."
"Exactly," he agreed. "I deserved it."
She watched him, suspiciously. “What exactly is your point, Malfoy?”
He chuckled. “The point is that you didn’t let me get away with it. Then, I apologized, and I swear on my own grave that I’ve never used that word again.”
“Never?” she inquired, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Somehow I have a hard time believing that.”
“It’s the truth.”
She frowned. “I still don’t know what that has to do with Ron.”
“You’re letting him get away with something that’s affecting you and your children, but you hexed me for a bloody word. Think about it, Granger,” he explained.
“You tortured me since first year,” she spat. “I wasn’t just going to let go of seven years of hell because you’d been nice to me for a few weeks.”
“And you shouldn’t let go of twenty years of hell because someone was your friend when you were kids,” he growled.
Hermione was silent. She knew that her former flame was right, yet she could not tell him that. Their complicated history laced his tone, leaving her to wonder if the two of them had unfinished business. Alas, even if they did, she was still married to Ron.
“What are you so scared of, Granger?”
She could not meet his eye. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she lied. “Life isn’t always going to be perfect. Of all people, I’d think you would understand that.”
The blond widower flared his nostrils. “It’s been perfect before.”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Oh, come off it, Draco. I’ve known you since we were kids. When has your life ever been perfect?”
He stared at her, his dark eyes answering the question. She hurriedly looked away.
“You know, the Minister of Russia is waiting on me,” she mumbled, scrambling down from the boulder. “I don’t exactly need another hit piece on me so I suppose I better get back to the office.”
Draco nodded, silently. The air was thick with tension.
“I don’t know if we should keep meeting like this,” Hermione continued, flustered.
Draco nodded again.
She gave him a melancholic smile. “It was nice to see you again, Draco.”
Leaving the grounds of Hogwarts was just as difficult as it was to reach them. To her delight, Aberforth spared her any questions when she arrived at the Hog’s Head. From there, she Apparated back to her office and transfigured her Hufflepuff attire back into her work robes.
She sat down at her desk and buried her face in her hands. Every time she saw Draco, she was only reminded of their past. Comparing him to Ron was second nature, and in every scenario, the blond wizard outdid the man that she chose to marry. Holding in a sob, she swallowed the pain and confusion.
Then, there was a knock on the door to her office.
“C-come in!” she stammered, pressing her eyelids to assure that tears did not develop. She could not embarrass herself in front of the Russian Minister for Magic.
The door swung open and Madelyn slowly walked in, anxiety in her expression. She chewed on her lip. “Minister?”
“Yes? What?” Hermione snapped. She cleared her throat and repeated it more professionally. “Yes. What is it? Where is the Minister?"
Madelyn gulped. “W-well, you were gone for quite a while and you actually m-missed him. He wasn’t very happy that you w-were late a-and he left. He called me a M—well, I won’t repeat it.”
"It was only by a few minutes," Hermione replied, glancing at the grandmother clock on the wall. Then, she zeroed in on one concerning detail. "Wait, what did he call you, Madelyn?"
Madelyn kicked the floor, uncomfortably. "W-well it's a not-so-nice word for M-Muggle-born."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. If she had not gone to Hogwarts, Madelyn never would have been called the toxic word. Yet, part of her was glad that she went. It gave the Russian Minister the opportunity to show his true colors. He was the type of ambassador she did not want visiting the United Kingdom. “Send him a letter telling him we don’t tolerate that kind of talk in our establishment. If anyone asks any questions, tell them we have no comment at this time. If anyone has anything nasty to say about it, we’ll just have to tell the papers exactly what he called you.”
Madelyn opened her mouth to protest, but swallowed her objection. In a small voice, she replied, “Of course, Minister. We’ll send that out at once.”
Madelyn closed the door behind her and Hermione exhaled, sharply. As much as she wanted to blame Draco Malfoy for her life challenges, it would not have been fair. Her husband and her career had been creating obstacles for her far before her adolescent fling visited her at Flourish and Blotts.
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