Hermione’s boots crunched through the thick layer of hard snow, her breath coming out in cold puffs. She pulled her cloak tighter, a sense of the freezing temperatures imposing itself despite her warming charm.
It was a cloudless night. She could see hundreds of stars.
Her task was an exciting, unexpected one. It had originally fallen to Connor, her ever-present, always-annoying coworker who’d made it his mission in life to best her at every opportunity—or attempt it, at least.
A quirk of a smile crossed her lips at the thought of him. She often wished he would be unpleasant about it, but instead he was incredibly charming. Truthfully, Hermione had expected something to happen with him. In fact, she’d thought he would ask her to join him tonight, to retrieve the items together. She’d anticipated that one thing would lead to another and they’d end up getting a drink before calling it a night; maybe he’d try to kiss her and maybe she’d let him.
But … there was also that … other thing.
That other bloke. The one who kept showing up when she least expected him and did very unpredictable—but interesting—things. She thought he might be interested in her, but whenever she found herself expecting something to happen, he did something completely confusing that made her question her line of thinking.
Hermione huffed in the frigid air. She really shouldn’t be surprised: everyone had told her that Draco Malfoy was the most enigmatic person they’d ever met, but she’d thought she could figure him out.
Boy, had she been wrong.
A stick cracked beneath her boot, bringing Hermione back to her task. She was walking down the main road out of Little Hangleton, headed for the Gaunt House. In the years following the war, there had been something of a scramble in the scholarly community to understand what had happened with Voldemort.
Recently, one of Hermione’s colleagues in the Experimental Charms division had the idea to examine the Gaunt House. He hadn’t been looking for anything in particular, but he believed there might be something to discover there. He’d found that some of his spells behaved oddly in the vicinity of the small house. This had led to further research and the inclusion of other divisions in the Department of Mysteries.
When the call for a volunteer to visit the Gaunt House had been posed in her division, Experimental Potions, earlier in the week, Hermione had unashamedly thrust her hand as high in the air as she could force it to go. She didn’t even care that she’d come out of her seat a bit.
But her supervisor hadn’t been looking in her direction and had seen Connor’s first. A fact which he enjoyed reminding her of at every opportunity.
Today was the day Experimental Potions had been assigned to visit the Gaunt House, and Connor had gone with a team to collect samples. He hadn’t returned to the Ministry before Hermione left, so it had come as quite a surprise when, earlier that night, Connor had appeared in her Floo and asked for her help. He’d said he was starting to feel ill and had forgotten to collect samples of the ivy, so could she pop over there and help out?
She’d been thrilled to say yes, and so here she was, nearing the lane that would take her to the decrepit home of the last Slytherin heir before Voldemort.
The week before Christmas. At nearly midnight.
Hermione slowed as she sensed that she was nearing her destination, watching the lane carefully as she looked for the break in the hedgerows. Before too long, her wand light revealed the gap, and she turned off the main road.
Harry had told her much of what he’d seen in the Pensieve about the Gaunt House, but she still wasn’t prepared for the sinister feeling on that path. It felt terribly close and dank, even though she could see the stars above her. She had to remind herself that no one had lived in this house in sixty-some years; no one was waiting at the end of the walk to pounce.
Nevertheless, she gripped her wand a bit tighter and continued down the lane.
When she neared the dark trees, she was reminded of Fangorn Forest, a fictional forest in one of her favorite books. What had once been the Gaunt House was all but invisible under the mass of flora growing on, in and through it. What remained of the house was covered with ivy, each leaf snow-kissed after a fresh fall earlier in the day.
The air was thick, and Hermione hesitated. The air was very still, and she couldn’t entirely shake the feeling of dread she’d felt just moments before. But that was ridiculous. A whole team of Unspeakables had been there all day—all week, for that matter.
Hermione shook her head to dispel the feeling, then stowed her wand and got out her specimen bag. She paused just before reaching for an ivy leaf. With a hesitant breath, she slowly extended her hand.
Just before she touched it, someone grabbed her hand.
Hermione screamed but couldn’t pull her hand away. She whipped around to face the intruder, her free hand already wrapped around her wand.
When she saw who had frightened her, she cursed and let out her breath. “Merlin, Malfoy! You scared me half to death!”
His expression was fierce as he glared at her, startling Hermione out of her surprise. “What on earth were you thinking, Granger?” he snarled.
Her eyes went wide. “I’m sorry? What are you talking about?”
“You would have touched that ivy, bare-handed, that’s what!” It seemed that he remembered then that he was still holding tightly onto her hand. He released it, flexing his fingers a bit and frowning at his hand.
Hermione stared at him. “So?”
Draco’s look was incredulous. “So?” he repeated harshly. “So, it never occurred to you that, perhaps, someone of your heritage might want to think once or twice or twenty times about coming so close to the home of someone who truly hated all things Muggle? Hmm?”
Hermione crossed her arms, her impatient breath coming out in a puff. “It’s been cleared.”
“Oh, yes. Cleared. By whom?”
“Aurors,” she said defensively.
He rolled his eyes. “Aurors. Fantastic. I’d trust them with my life every time.”
“They used the standard array of tests,” she argued. “They’ve been perfectly adequate for years—”
Draco mirrored her pose. “Since when has adequate been sufficient, Granger? This is your life we’re talking about!”
“Nonsense!” she said, her voice rising. “They’d have found anything that sinister!”
“You can’t test for spells you’ve never heard of,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Oh, and I suppose you think you’re the one for the job,” she bit out. If she’d stopped a moment to think, she would have asked herself why she was arguing him over something so ridiculous instead of why he was there in the first place, which she was far more curious about. But she didn’t stop.
“Well, I hardly know every spell either, but I know a lot more about Dark spells than some bloody Auror,” he retorted. She opened her mouth to rebut him, but he shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m arguing with you.” Then Draco took his wand and pointed it at the house. A shot of black light hit the side of the house and it shimmered, a sickly orange and black and green light rippling across the surface, spreading out to the surrounding overgrowth.
Hermione’s eyes were wide. “Oh,” she said, letting out her breath. “What does that mean?”
He shrugged as though she’d asked his toothpaste preference and tucked his wand away. “It’s not a specific test. It just tells us there are a lot of Dark enchantments on this house and everything touching it. I cast this spell first thing on the first day we were here, which is why I insisted no one of Muggle heritage be allowed anywhere near this part of the project. Now. May I?” He extended his hand toward her.
She looked at it in confusion and then at him.
“The specimen bag. Please.” His voice was surprisingly gentle considering the way he’d been speaking to her moments before. She gave it over without a word. “What do you need?”
“The ivy,” she replied. “Branch, leaf, twig, root. An end piece with a bud to keep in stasis until spring. Aren’t you worried? About the curses?”
Draco chuckled darkly. “Why would I? I’m exactly the kind of person this Gaunt fellow would have welcomed with open arms.” He finished collecting the pieces Hermione had requested, sealed the bag, and handed it to her.
Hermione was touched, though she couldn’t explain exactly why. Perhaps no harm would have come to her, but Draco hadn’t wanted to take the chance. And speaking of …. She pursed her lips and stowed the specimen bag in her own beaded one.
“What exactly are you doing here anyway?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest.
“Besides possibly saving your life, you mean?” he replied.
“You cannot think I’m going to let this go. You’re smarter than that,” she said with a small smile.
Draco’s answering look was hesitant. “I’d hoped we could simply skip this part.”
“Not a chance,” she replied.
He seemed to think frantically for a moment and then tucked his hands into the pockets of his long, gray overcoat. “I suppose you’d never leave me alone about it. Right, well, let’s take a walk then, shall we? I don’t fancy lingering here longer than I must.”
Hermione nodded, thrilled at the thought of getting as far away from the Gaunt House as possible. He motioned for her to go on and then fell into step beside her. He waited until they’d reached the main path to speak. She was grateful; the air was cleaner, and it felt as though she could hear the world again. She hadn’t noticed the quiet near the old house until the sounds returned.
“As you know, I’ve studied Dark magic extensively since the end of the war,” he began. “The Ministry likes to bring me in whenever Dark magic is or might be involved in any way—cases seen by Aurors, research in Mysteries, anything. I’m intimately familiar with this case, so I knew that today was the day your division was supposed to collect the plant samples.” He paused, his brow furrowed. “I saw Connor tonight in a pub, so I asked him how the collection went. He said he’d forgotten the ivy and that he’d asked you to get it.”
Hermione stopped walking, stunned. “You … saw Connor in a pub?” she repeated, waiting for her heart to settle on some emotion.
Draco stopped two steps after her and turned, his overcoat swirling.
Snow started to fall.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Was he … alone?” she asked, surprised that she didn’t care much. And why should she? Nothing had ever come close to happening; there had just been the teeniest hint of maybe.
“No.” His tone was a bit tortured. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” she asked, confused.
Draco huffed dramatically, his shoulders tense. “To … bear the unfortunate news.”
Hermione couldn’t help it. She laughed. “What, because Connor wasn’t alone at a pub?”
He frowned, her response obviously puzzling. “I’ve seen the way you act together. If I was wrong, I apologize.”
Hermione started walking again. “I wonder why he lied to me.” Draco caught up to her easily. “He told me he was sick and couldn’t go back for the ivy. Why would he lie?”
“Perhaps he didn’t want to close that door?” Draco offered. “He’s interested in you, so he wants to keep you interested.”
“Well, he’s not that interested, is he?” She looked at him sideways.
Draco didn’t say anything further on the subject, and they walked in silence for a minute or two.
Hermione had to prod him to continue. “So, you saw Connor in a pub. He told you ….”
“That you were collecting the ivy he’d forgotten. I wanted to hit him. I told all of the division leaders not to give tasks to those with Muggle heritage.” Draco shook his head angrily. “That git Connor didn’t know that, of course, so he had no trouble foisting his incompetence on you.”
“And you came straight here?” she prodded, when Draco seemed to have stopped.
“Yes. Glad I did, too. There’s no telling what would have happened to you. Magic has a way of percolating when it just sits there. Dark magic even more so.” Draco kicked a rock.
Hermione was hit with a sudden realization. Draco cared about her! Maybe in all of his confusing actions, he was trying to tell her that. She was very suddenly and acutely aware that she’d left her flat in her pajamas and thrown an enormous periwinkle wooly sweater over them. It almost went to her knees. Merlin, and he was impeccably dressed as always, though she supposed he could be wearing a T-shirt under his coat. At least she had her cloak over her horrendous attire.
Well, horrendous and absurdly comfortable. So there was that.
Hermione stopped walking again. “Do you want to get a drink?” Her heart was pounding; this was so not like her. She never did anything unless she’d thought about it a hundred times first. Certainly, she’d never asked someone out so abruptly. In her pajamas, no less.
While Hermione was busy freaking out internally, Draco had stopped and was eyeing her strangely, as though she’d sprouted a third ear atop her head or was suddenly speaking fluent Mandarin.
There was, of course, the distinct possibility that Hermione had imagined the whole thing and he was, really and truly, just doing his job really, really well.
“My treat, of course. You know, because, you just—possibly—saved my life. And I ought to thank you for that. It seems … the right thing to do.” Hermione bit her lip to stop herself.
Slowly, a smile crept onto his face. “I suppose I did.”
Then somehow her lips moved again. “If you don’t want to, I understand.” Hermione forced a smile. “I mean, it’s late; it’s literally freezing and you probably have … reports and things … to write. Shopping to do—Christmas is in a week … though you can’t really shop right now, as it has to be after midnight already. Though if you had a computer, you could shop all night if you wanted. Or Apparate to someplace where shops are open. Or—”
Draco put his arms on Hermione’s shoulders. “Would you please just … stop talking! For one second!”
Hermione nodded, pursing her lips. This was altogether new territory for her, and the unknown terrified her.
“I would like that,” he said finally, releasing her. “Provided you allow me a word or two here and there.”
She released a breath. “You would?”
He nodded, then frowned. “Though, to be honest, I’d rather take you to dinner.”
Her eyes went wide. “What?”
Draco peered searchingly at her for a moment, then looked away. “Maybe you don’t know. I really thought I was too obvious.” When he met her gaze, his expression was determined. “Hermione. I’ve been … trying to get your attention for months. Many months. But something would happen, and I’d think you had something going with Connor, so I’d back off. And then I’d question myself, question if you really were with him, question what I was thinking, what I thought you wanted …. It’s been a bit maddening. So seeing him out tonight with someone, hearing that he’d so casually put you in harm’s way … albeit unknowingly …. I could’ve put him in St. Mungo’s, but I felt I had to get to you, first, just in case.”
Hermione was completely stunned. Sure, she’d wondered, even daydreamed a little here and there, but never did she consider that he was actively pursuing her. “I … I don’t—”
Draco put a finger to her lips. “You have this way, Granger. You completely disarm me. I knew I’d have to explain myself somehow tonight, but I never expected … to tell you all of this.”
A delightful fluttery sensation settled in her stomach. He was deliciously close; his eyes were wild alive.
“So … dinner?” he asked, somewhat uncertainly. “You can still buy me a drink if you want—a glass of wine, perhaps.”
Hermione shivered even though she couldn’t feel the cold. “Yes,” she said with a widening smile. “Dinner sounds nice.”
Draco smiled then, warmly. She’d never seen such an unguarded expression from him, and it gave her hope. He was always so careful, so calculated, around her, but perhaps if they got to know each other better, he would open up to her.
“I have one requirement, however,” he said, back to his usual manner.
She looked at him quizzically. “Oh? And what’s that?”
“You must leave the, uh, purple goat at home.”
For a second, she was bewildered. Then she swatted his arm. “For your information, this sweater is extremely comfortable.”
“I’m sure,” he said with a smirk.
“And quite warm,” she added, pulling her cloak tighter around her.
“I’ve no doubt.”
“And it’s not goat. It’s just … goat-like. I can see that. But it’s periwinkle, and I’ve never seen a periwinkle goat.”
Draco chuckled, tucking his hands back into his pockets and looked toward the field they were standing beside.
Hermione studied him a moment. She realized it said something about the strength of his feelings that he’d asked her to dinner while she was wearing her pajamas and enormous sweater—which she would never be able to look at again without thinking about goats.
“Would you like to meet at seven?” he asked, breaking her train of thought.
“That sounds fine.” She smiled. “Where?”
“I’ll send you a memo with a location tomorrow,” he replied. “If that suits you.”
“Sure,” she said. Then she yawned. “I’m sorry. I should get home. We’ve got work tomorrow.”
Draco sighed. “Indeed.”
“Well, goodnight, Draco. Thank you for, um, you know, possibly saving my life and all.”
“Please try not to need me that way again. Ever.”
Hermione’s smile faded a bit at the intensity and seriousness of his expression. Exactly how much did he care about her, she wondered? It would certainly be exciting to find out.
“I suggest you leave first,” he continued. “I want to be sure you’re safely away from here before I go.”
“All right. Goodnight again, Draco. See you tomorrow.” She gave a small wave and a smile and Disapparated.
She missed his wind-up fist-pump.