That evening, Hermione fought her way through a very crowded Leaky Cauldron to meet Harry, Ginny, and Ron for dinner. As she pushed through the throng, she noticed several patrons glaring at her and heard a few non-discreet, angry whispers.
Hermione's history of defending Death Eaters had not made her as popular as she once was. In fact, the Daily Prophet had more than once referred to her as a "traitor" to Muggle-born witches and wizards. Like Ron, many people could not understand the fact that her job was to uncover and present the facts, regardless of what she or anyone else believed about her clients.
"Sorry I'm late," Hermione breathed, sliding into the empty chair next to Ginny, who hugged her. "My meeting ran long."
"That's okay." Harry smiled at her. "Ginny and I only just got here."
"Let's order," Ron said, "I'm starving! I haven't eaten in . . ." He looked at his watch. "Two hours."
Hermione smiled and rolled her eyes but agreed because she was quite hungry too.
Once everyone's drinks arrived, Harry cleared his throat. "So, uh . . . Ginny and I have some news." His cheeks were tinged pink and he smiled broadly. "We're engaged."
Hermione and Ron cried out joyfully in unison. Hermione's gaze immediately went to Ginny's outstretched left hand, which had a large sparkling ruby ring on it. Ron clapped Harry on the back. "Welcome to the family, mate!"
The four friends spent the next hour laughing and talking over the couple's upcoming wedding plans. As Harry and Ginny good-naturedly argued over Australia versus Greece for their honeymoon, Hermione stole a glance at Ron, who was obliviously stuffing his face with Hermione's remaining food.
There was a part of her that would always love him. She'd loved him for so long but, at the same time, their romantic relationship had been a disaster.
Not only did Ron not support her in her job, but he'd also been forgetful and uninterested in their relationship. Although she knew he loved her in his own way, he certainly hadn't made her feel special. Combining that with the ferocious fights they had, and Ron's inability to have deep conversations, she knew she'd been right to end things.
But now, seeing her other two friends so happy and complete, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy. She always thought that would be her and Ron someday. Clearly, she'd been very wrong.
"So 'Mione, how's work?" Harry said. Although Harry and Ron were both Aurors and the three of them often dealt with the same people, Harry was the only one who showed an interest in her cases. Hermione noticed Ron stiffen next to her.
"Yeah, any interesting cases?" Ginny asked, always ready for a little gossip.
"Uh . . . yes, I guess you could say that," Hermione did not feel ready to have this discussion with her friends, but she knew it was inevitable.
"Really? Who?" Ginny leaned over the table eagerly.
"Draco Malfoy . . ." Hermione said it almost as a question, waiting for the inevitable blowout.
"WHAT?!" Ron dropped his fork, and food flew off Hermione's plate.
"No way!" Ginny exclaimed as Harry sputtered and coughed, having choked on his drink.
"What's wrong with you?!" Ron turned on Hermione angrily.
Harry managed to recover enough to gasp, "You can't be serious."
"Is he still hot?" Ginny unhelpfully asked.
"Ron! Calm down!" Hermione smacked her hand on the table. "Just let me explain, okay?" She turned to Harry. "And yes, I'm serious." Ginny's question she ignored.
Ron crossed his arms, his face as red as his hair, while Harry ran a worried hand through his hair. "How?" Harry said, "I mean, what about what happened at the Manor?"
"I know, I know." Hermione sighed. "Shackelbolt assigned me the case. He doesn't know about what happened at the Malfoys'."
"You should've told him," Harry said gently. "Or refused because of your history with Malfoy."
"I did refuse, at first," Hermione said. "But Shacklebolt still felt I was the best option. He said every other Inquisitor has a grudge against the Malfoy family—"
"What, and you don't?" Ron demanded. "Because you should!"
Hermione glared at Ron but ignored him. "Shacklebolt thought I was the only one who could be impartial."
"Can you?" Ginny asked.
"Yes." Hermione nodded. "I wasn't sure, initially, but I know I can. This is my job and it's what I'm good at. Honestly, I defend terrible people all the time. This is no different."
"Stupid ferret," Ron grumbled.
"But what about your . . . involvement?" Harry asked, no doubt thinking that word sounded better than torture.
Hermione shrugged. "It really doesn't pertain to Malfoy's case. I never pressed charges—Bellatrix is dead—and Malfoy didn't capture us or torture me . . . he was just there."
"Yeah, standing there watching!" Ron threw a napkin on Hermione's plate. "Bet he enjoyed every minute of it."
"Ron, you don't know that," she said, but then realized neither did she.
"Harry and I would've done anything to have gotten out of that ruddy cellar and helped you. Malfoy was ten feet away and did nothing! I'll never forgive him for that, and you shouldn't either."
"I didn't say I forgave him, Ron! Stop putting words in my mouth." She sighed. "I was going to refuse the case, but then Narcissa Malfoy came to my office and asked me—"
"What, now you're all buddy-buddy with the Malfoys?" Ron threw his hands in the air. "I don't believe this. They're a bunch of criminals!"
"Narcissa was cleared of her charges," Hermione said. "And Harry testified for her."
"I still don't know why you did that." Ron glared at Harry.
"I would be dead right now if she'd given me away to Voldemort, Ron," Harry said calmly. "And who knows how many other people. She risked her life by saying what she did . . . and she did it all for Draco . . . so it makes sense why she came to you, Hermione."
Hermione smiled weakly at Harry, relieved that he, at least, was being reasonable. She was glad no one asked her what Narcissa Malfoy had said to her, or rather shown her. Hermione didn't want to share everything she had seen in Narcissa's memories. She knew Ron would say Hermione had been manipulated. And maybe she had been.
"Look," Hermione said, "I'm just going to make sure he gets a fair trial and that will be the end of it. I'll likely never have to see him again—whether he's convicted or not."
Ron shook his head. "I don't understand why you guys would have anything to do with that family. They're all evil. You know, Dean Thomas and I apprehended Rudolphus Lestrange the other day."
"Who?" Ginny asked.
"Bellatrix LeStrange's husband," Hermione answered immediately.
"Yeah, Malfoy's uncle." Ron shoved Hermione's plate away, apparently finally having lost his appetite. "Anyway, when we raided his hideout, we found a whole bunch of Bellatrix's memories there. She kept them as trophies to prove her loyalty to Voldemort or something. From the looks of it, every evil thing she ever did for him was preserved." He shook his head. "I've been viewing them all and, let me tell you, the things she did are sick."
Hermione shuddered. "I don't doubt it, Ron. We all know what she was capable of, but Draco Malfoy is not Bellatrix Lestrange."
"May as well be," Ron grumbled. "What type of messed up things have you had to see in his memories?"
"I haven't seen any of his memories yet, but even if I had, you know I'm not at liberty to disclose that information."
Ginny nodded. "How has he been towards you?"
"At first, he wasn't any happier about it than me," Hermione said. "But today . . . he was okay."
"Well, if he gives you a hard time, you can back out at any point," Harry said.
"I know," Hermione said. "Honestly, so far, he's been more pleasant than most of my clients." She took a sip of water. "Look, let's talk about something else, okay? I didn't want to keep it from you guys, but I knew you wouldn't be happy about it. It's just something I need to do, okay?"
"Don't trust him for a minute, 'Mione," Ron warned, pulling Ginny's unfinished plate toward him. "If Malfoy's involved, you're bound to get hurt somehow."
"I'll be fine, Ron," she assured him, wishing she could feel as confident as she sounded.
A/N: What did you think of Harry, Ron, and Ginny's reactions? I know you're all itching to see more of Draco and Hermione together, which is exactly what you are going to get in the next couple of chapters! You can see a sneak peek of Chapter 10 on my social media now. Twitter: CeceLAuthor, Facebook: CeceLouiseAuthor, and Pinterest: cecelouiseauthor (I have a Chapter Previews board).
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