That’s what Penelope said they were looking for, as though Hermione did not fit that description. She was perfectly fucking stable, thank you very much. Aside from the divorce, the constant flat-hopping, and overbearing commitment to her job, she was perfectly stable. Penelope Clearwater, Executive Assistant to the Minister for Magic, had tried to be delicate.
“You work late six nights a week, Hermione. You don’t become Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation at twenty-five otherwise, and you are brilliant. We all know it. You have been doing wonderful work there for five years. Problem is, Padma Patil and Cormac McLaggen are up for the position as well and …” She paused to sigh and look Hermione directly in the eyes.
“After everything that happened, there is some doubt that you are stable enough to be Senior Undersecretary. Cormac and Padma have families and homes, things that keep them grounded. The sort of thing that keeps your head on straight. Given the history of some in this position,” she needn’t say Dolores Umbridge’s name, “Minister Shacklebolt wants to ensure whomever he selects will have perspective on those other important aspects of wizarding life.”
Hermione narrowed her eyes and anger flooded her tone.
“A spouse and a house? It doesn’t matter that I am the most productive employee in the high offices? I will be rejected because I don’t have a spouse or a house?”
“Hey, I am coming to you as a courtesy, Granger!” Penelope snapped. “I want them to choose you, but you need to show that you have a life outside the Ministry.”
“Well I do have a life outside the Ministry!” Hermione lied. “I have a boyfriend and … and we may even move in together. Timing couldn’t be better.”
“Well,” Penelope said skeptically, “then you must bring this mysterious boyfriend, who you certainly didn’t just make up, to the office parties and then to the retreat where the committee will select the new Undersecretary.”
So Hermione forcefully threw open the door to Rosa Lee’s Teabag on her lunch break, fuming and mumbling to herself about outdated wizarding traditions. It was the middle of November, but that did not stop the world from wholeheartedly embracing Hermione’s least-favourite holiday. The tea shoppe walls were lined with garland, fake snow fell from the ceiling, and each table had a shrunken, fully-decorated Christmas tree next to the sugar.
As a group of carol singers surrounded Hermione Granger, she shrunk into her chair and pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. She did not need carol singers, it was just one step too far. It was still November! Christmas season seemed to start earlier each year, and each year Hermione only wished for it to go by more quickly. She looked up at the singing crew of witches and wizards in complementary red and green robes, and thought of how perfect it was. This was the perfect topper for the shittiest day she had in ages.
Out of nowhere, a mysterious voice in her ear whispered for her to “play along.” Before she could ask what he meant, for it was certainly a man, he placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Darling!” he shouted, just loud enough to be convincing. “The Healer said our son should be cured of Dragon Pox any day now!”
The carolers abruptly stopped singing. They looked at each other for about five seconds before they scuttled along to the next table. She sighed in relief, chuckled, and picked some of the fake snowflakes out of her hair.
Hermione looked up to thank her yuletide saviour … Draco Malfoy?
Those grey eyes and that white-blond hair were unmistakable. He wore a devious smile, but his eyes crinkled at the corners now and their mischievous glint was only half-baked. He slid into the chair across from Hermione and said,
“You’re welcome, Granger. You looked like you were being tortured.”
“It’s fine,” Hermione replied. “Thank you. Christmas is not my favourite time of year and it seems to start earlier and earlier each time it comes around.”
“I have my own Christmas ghosts as well,” Draco replied. He nodded absentmindedly and looked away.
The conversation stalled there, with Hermione unsure how to move forward. Should she ask what he meant? What did it matter, they hadn’t seen each other in years. She knew nothing about his life since ... Well, since Ron. Post-Ron, nothing about anyone’s social life mattered. The cavern in Hermione’s chest where her heart should have been was filled only by ambition and the occasional smiles Ron shot her in the hallway at work. She didn’t have enough time for her own life anymore, let alone keeping up with anyone else.
“Are you … good?” Hermione attempted, then cringed. Draco smiled a bit.
“Yeah, Granger, I am good. I have,” Draco sipped his tea, “everything I need. No complaints.” He may have asked how she was doing or something about international magical cooperation and Blast-Ended Skrewts for all Hermione knew. Her eyes were drawn to Draco’s left hand as he wiped the corner of his mouth.
“I thought you were married,” Hermione blurted out. She wished she could grab the words out of the air and stuff them back down her throat before Draco heard them. His face fell and he dropped his eyes to stare at his tea. He stirred it a bit before replying,
“No more,” Draco confirmed.
“I’m sorry,” Hermione apologized. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Yeah,” Draco mumbled. Hermione nodded along.
“It’s fine, Granger. I should, um, I should get going.” He pushed his chair back a little too forcefully.
“Yeah,” Hermione acquiesced as Draco stood to leave. He turned around and hesitated before asking,
“Walk me out?”
An idea was blooming in the recesses of Hermione’s brain. It was terrible; she knew she should decline Draco’s invitation and bolt back to the Ministry. Work is safe, important, and necessary.
Perhaps, for once, work could wait. She rose to stand at Draco’s side and he held the shoppe’s door open for her. Hermione shivered a bit in the cold and stuffed her hands in her pockets. Diagon Alley was packed at lunchtime, and more than one passerby stopped to stare at the duo as they walked along the street.
“I apologize for being curt with you,” Draco said. “My personal tolerance for talk of my love life is very, very low. My friends seem to think it’s time I start dating again. Haranguing me for the past year about how I need to ‘at least try,’ as Pansy says. They say it has been two years but, really, it has only been two years, you know?”
“I know,” Hermione responded. “Ron and I split up five years ago and I still …”
“You were always too good for him,” Draco insisted, offhand.
“That’s not true,” Hermione stared very intently at the ground. “We just didn’t work. We were different people and I think he started to resent me after awhile. We grew apart because I was always at work. Mark my words Draco Malfoy, I am going to be Minister for Magic one day. I thought dedication would get me there, but apparently I was wrong,” Hermione quipped.
“Apparently?” Draco asked.
“It turns out, Padma Patil and Cormac McLaggen are ahead of me for the open Undersecretary position.”
“Padma was always a quick study but Cormac, really? He has the brains of a box of puffapods.”
“Well he has a family and a steady place to live, which are unofficial requirements for the committee. They say it gives you ‘perspective’ and ‘stability,’” Hermione practically spat the words out.
“You do not have a place to live?”
“I tend to … drift,” Hermione said. She could tell Draco knew there was more to that story, and was grateful he did not press the matter. The idea had fully flowered and she could barely contain it. “Then I told someone I would bring my nonexistent boyfriend to the office parties and mentioned we may be moving in together soon. The entire office is expecting me to reveal a secret life I don’t have, and it may be the only way to get the job I deserve.”
Draco laughed as they passed Fortescue’s.
“I wish I had the gall to pull that off. A pretend girlfriend to get my friends to leave my life well alone for a bit. It’s hard to move on when it is all everyone tells you to do. They never gave me time to learn how to do it again.”
“Would you—” Hermione stopped herself. This was a bad idea. Such a bad idea.
“What?” Draco asked. Before Hermione could respond he shouted, “Ah! Flourish and Blotts! This is my stop, Granger.”
Hermione blurted out, “Would you do me a huge favour and pretend to be my boyfriend?”
Draco looked at her, his eyes narrowed, trying to find the joke.
“Granger, I don’t know you, you don’t know me … We aren’t …”
“I know, I know,” Hermione said. “I hated you, but it would make more sense that we kept it quiet. I know I’m not as pretty as the other women you’ve—”
“You believe my objection is because I don’t think you’re pretty? Merlin, Hermione, just how big of an arsehole do you believe I am?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Hermione shook her head. “This was stupid, I shouldn’t have asked.” She turned to walk away but Draco grabbed her arm.
“Wait!” he demanded. “Wait, maybe it isn’t stupid. Maybe we could make this beneficial for the both of us. I owe you a debt, so would this suffice as repayment?”
When Hermione insisted Draco owed her nothing, he ground his teeth together and his jaw clenched reflexively. His grip tightened on her forearm.
“There is no clemency for bystanders.”
She knew what he meant, and she’d be lying if she said it wasn’t the worst moment of her life. Even worse than when Ron left, even worse than watching Hagrid carry what she believed to be Harry’s body back from the forest. Writhing on the floor of Malfoy Manor, she focused on one platinum blond head upside-down in her sightline. Draco Malfoy stood by as his aunt tortured Hermione.
Some things in life do not need to be spoken aloud. Draco’s regret was evident in his self-deprecating tone, and Hermione felt his need to repay her in the way his fingers clutched at her. Draco dragged her closer like this was an opportunity he didn’t realize he was waiting for.
“Let me do this, Granger,” he insisted. “Let me do it and I swear on Merlin’s grave we will make you Senior Undersecretary. I owe you that much.”
Could they really do this? Would anyone believe them? Hermione knew it was all destined to go to hell in a handbasket, but if it got her the undersecretary position it would be worth it. She sighed.
“If we’re going to do this, it’s best you start calling me ‘Hermione.’”