Festive music, the tinkling of glasses and the hum of chattering voices rose up, increasing in volume with each drink consumed by the occupants of the lovely Surrey home. While her friends and colleagues buzzed around her, Hermione stood gazing speculatively at a wreath of red and green, which adorned the cornice over the corridor into the lounge room, resisting the urge not to whip out her wand and blast the dreaded thing to smithereens.
She narrowed her eyes accusingly. That seemingly innocent decoration was the cause of her present, and to be honest, an entire year’s, mental upheaval. This particular garland of mistletoe was, in fact, plastic. She knew this because she had, albeit somewhat aggressively, insisted to Ginny that no real mistletoe be used in the decoration of her house for this Christmas party. She’d even performed a quick bit of spell work on the wreath just to be sure her friend had paid due attention to her request. One could never be too safe.
“Since when are you allergic to mistletoe?’ Ginny had exclaimed at the time, looking at Hermione as though she had three heads. In fairness, it had been rather a random comment, and the underlying stress was probably apparent.
“It’s been a… er—recent development.”
Sure, mistletoe was a popular Christmas decoration, frequently gracing the walls of Muggle dwellings without wreaking too much havoc. In fact, they tended to embrace the idea of kissing under its leaves, what with the opportunity to snog their companion senseless in the name of being blameless. Total nonsense, of course. In magical dwellings, however, the seemingly harmless plant had a rather more sinister impact. As with many commonly found weeds and plants, the mistletoe, when surrounded by the thrum of magic, emerged from its dormant state to release a charmed pollen at regular intervals. Those who fell afoul of the pollen developed a sudden and inexplicable desire to pounce on one another.
Of course, the effects lasted only a few seconds, when common sense and, in many cases, utter horror, descended on those unsuspecting victims. Hermione had been prey to one such encounter only the year before and the aftereffects had been somewhat dramatic.
“You’re quiet. They won’t bite, you know.” The voice from her right startled her, and she turned to her companion, Harry, to accept an offered glass of elf-made wine.
“Sorry, I was just lost in my thoughts.”
“I can see that,” he replied. “Ginny says you were a bit mental—er, I mean… concerned—about the decorations.” He glanced hastily at her suddenly sharp expression. “So, who was it?”
She sighed wearily, not bothering to refute the suggestion.
“Well?” he continued. “Tell me, Hermione, who’d you snog under the mistletoe that has you so tightly wound and aggressive towards plants? For someone who excelled at Herbology, your stance on flora has taken a rather drastic turn.”
“Harry!” she gasped. “Oh, no one important. It was last year at the Ministry Christmas party. It’s complicated and I’d rather not talk about it.”
He snorted into his drink. “Apparently, you weren’t the only one. Did you hear about Michael Corner and Marta Whipsworth?”
She had. She’d harboured something of a crush on him at the time and had not been well pleased to hear of it. Marta Whispworth had done rather well for herself, even if it was just the once.
“Very unlucky for him. That laugh of hers is ghastly, like the offspring of a hyena mating with a common garden pixie. It just goes on and on and—”
“Now, Granger, is that a hint of jealousy I detect?” The new voice, and its familiar tone, sent a stream of funny little tingles running down her spine.
“Malfoy,” Harry said by way of greeting.
“Potter. Not a terrible party so far.” From him this was outrageous flattery.
Harry, having a relatively fine working relationship with Draco Malfoy, but little appreciation for any social interaction with the man, muttered his thanks, and wandered off in search of his wife. Thus leaving Hermione with him. Risky, she thought.
She turned to glance at him, noting his perpetually shiny hair and black attire. “Where’s your Christmas jumper? You don’t look very festive.” She arched a brow, mimicking his own much-abused facial tick. “And I’m not jealous.”
He arched his brow back at her, a look of distaste gracing his features, no doubt at the thought of ever being seen wearing something decorated with the colour red, reindeers or an overweight old man in a jumpsuit.
“We both know you got a better deal than Corner, in any case.” His lips quirked in amusement, before he sauntered off towards the kitchen.
Hermione watched the lean line of his back as it moved further from her line of sight. Oh boy. If it weren’t for the fact that she did—despite her very best efforts and with much confusion—enjoy the way his touch made her senses whir, amongst other less mild sensations, she really would hate mistletoe, more fervently than Ginny was led to believe. Really, it was the noxious weed’s fault she was in this predicament in the first place. After all, before that incident last Christmas, she’d never thought about Malfoy in that way. Well, except for that one strange dream… but that hardly counted, what with him bearing antlers and fish scales. Clearly, that was no reflection on reality.
Mistletoe was a reminder of two things to her, both slightly uncomfortable. One was the fact that at 27 she was still technically single and approaching spinsterhood in the eyes of the outside world. The second being that incident at the Ministry Christmas party the year before. When all of this had started.
It was more awkward that it had happened, rather than that the moment itself had been awkward, given she still flushed to remember the fizzing in her stomach the moment his lips first touched hers. She had found herself standing in a darker section of the atrium, which had been all trussed up for the occasion, and watching Michael Corner chatting and smiling with some random—and, on principle, detestable—woman, when Draco Malfoy had slinked up beside her.
“He shows far too much teeth when he smiles,” he muttered, as he followed her gaze. “I can’t fathom what it is you see in him, for someone with a supposedly higher IQ than flobberworm.”
“Charming as ever, Malfoy. He has a lovely smile, actually, and I’ll have you know it’s quite normal to show teeth. You wouldn’t know that of course, given that your facial defect doesn’t allow for such a thing.” Her smile was saccharine when she glanced at him.
Oh, the verbal sparring. She couldn’t deny that, even before the sexual aspect—not to mention the other more concerning developments—of her attraction to him, it had always been something of a thrill.
He narrowed his eyes, and she just knew he was itching to walk past a reflective surface to remind himself of his superior genetics. They’d continued to play their little word game, a common occurrence between the two of them that had developed over the three years they worked together in the Ministry. Hermione in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and Malfoy in International Magical Cooperation. An ironic choice of vocation given she found him to be highly lacking in any cooperative skills himself. Despite working in separate departments their work often intersected, resulting in much time spent debating issues of global legalities and ethics. Of which, of course, she’d felt sure he had none. Somewhere along the way though, they both seemed to forget to hate each other with the venom of their youth, and she felt sure he too found a strange—admittedly unhealthy—enjoyment in her company. Though they both worked tirelessly to pretend otherwise.
That night everything had changed for both of them. During this debate about the qualities of Michael Corner, the man she had been considering as a very viable candidate for her escape from spinsterhood, they found themselves at the mercy of the aforementioned plant. When the proverbial dust settled on Hermione and Malfoy, she’d found her fingers brushing through the soft hair at the nape of his neck, his hand on her hip and their lips very firmly locked.
Wide eyed they’d both sprung apart, muttered incoherently and departed in entirely separate directions. At the time, Hermione couldn’t help but think about how wildly inappropriate it was that the Ministry chose to decorate the halls with mistletoe. It was hard to be professional with a co-worker you’d just snogged senseless, even if it was somewhat involuntary. Not that they had snogged per se, and truth be told, at the time she wouldn’t have minded so much if it had been Michael Corner. Mostly because the aftermath would have been so much less confusing then.
Neither she nor Malfoy mentioned the incident for a couple of weeks and things seemed to settle back to normal. She had rather hoped to avoid him entirely, but if anything she saw him more regularly, and despite acting as though nothing had changed, she couldn’t help but note the amused glint in his piercing gaze.
That should have been a relief at the time, but somehow seeing him, with the newly acquired knowledge of how nice he smelled and the velvety taste of him on her tongue, had done something very strange to her. She had thought for quite some time she was addled. Hoped, was probably more accurate. Then she had spent a solid two weeks researching lingering side effects of exposure to mistletoe pollen, of which apparently there were none.
This was rather awkward, given that no such thing was documented and she hadn’t heard anything about Rudolph Billius and Lolly Mump—a witch from her department with a rather unfortunate snout for a nose and a propensity for spitting as she spoke—shagging each other senseless in storage closets since their own very public encounter two years prior.
That, however, was exactly what had happened with Hermione and Malfoy. It had gone far beyond the fuzzy stage and was now very clearly a pattern. A habit. A rather naughty one at that. She’d now lost count of how many times they had accidentally done the old bump and grind in the last year. She did know, however, that after every encounter she scolded herself for her lack of self-control, insisted it would never happen again, and reminded herself that regardless of how very enjoyable this debilitating problem was, thinking about Malfoy undressed was really not conducive to solving her relationship—or lack thereof—woes. After all, a future between the two of them was utterly inconceivable. Right?
Glancing down at her glass, she noted it was empty. Introspection certainly made one thirsty.
An hour later, and feeling somewhat tipsy thanks to the fortifying effects of alcohol, Hermione fled another yammering co-worker, tried valiantly not to look around the room for one very blond male, and escaped to the bathroom to splash some water on her flushed cheeks.
“Relax,” she commanded her reflection with as much authority as she could muster. Alcohol was really, although a great relaxant, probably not the best aid to help with her present situation. It had a way of softening the rigid texture of her walls, and making her eyes wandering more frequently in the direction of the man at the constant forefront of her mind.
She told herself to get it together and ventured outside the bathroom in the direction of the lion’s den. Or serpent’s lair, as was probably a more apt description. However, as she marched back down the hallway, she was suddenly accosted by a firm pair of wandering hands. She knew those hands intimately.
“What are you doing?! There is absolutely no way that… oh!” The wet heat of his mouth against her agitated pulse caused Hermione great distraction… or at least enough to prevent her recalling the reason for her protestations. She could feel his grin of triumph pressed against the column of her neck. She pulled away quickly to glance around.
“There’s no one here. Weasley is more than likely attacking some hapless girl serving crudités and, knowing Potter, he’ll have found someone to save. All in all I think you’ll find they’re far too distracted.” Malfoy drawled in a tone, which suggested her friends really ought to be less predictable. Incidentally, they weren’t at all. He was just incredibly prejudiced toward anyone who didn’t find him excessively handsome or fascinating.
Hermione Granger really shouldn’t have been one of those people, but there was something about the Malfoy heir that got under one’s skin. Like bubonic plague, she supposed. Truth be told that might be the lesser of two evils.
“Someone could come at any second…” She muttered as she brushed him off, somewhat reluctantly. “And you know how complicated that would be.”
It was true, he did know. And she felt very confident that the last thing he wanted was for her friends, or indeed anyone, to find out about the nature of their relationship. For one thing, her friends just may be inclined to hex him. All forgiveness for past wrongs could easily be revoked in the wake of that discovery.
Plus his parents and entire former social set would be aghast at his having any kind of relations with her. Though the old ways were well and truly out, the fact remained that the end of the war didn’t spell the complete dissipation of centuries’ worth of hatred and persecution.
Even if it had somehow changed that of one man. She glanced at the tall and elegant man before her. He was beautiful in that seraphic sort of way that glowed brightly in the darkness. Sometimes she wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch him just because, but she felt sure he would find that gesture intimate on a level he wasn’t interested in. That was part of the issue with this whole mess. Clearly, she wasn’t the kind of girl who could do that with a man and not develop some sort of attachment, even when she knew it was unfathomable. She would have been far better off never knowing.
He pressed his mouth to hers again and stilled her thoughts briefly, causing a fluttering in her stomach, not to be confused with the thrum that occurred slightly lower. She let her hands creep around his shoulders, her form pressed against his for one dizzying moment before she pulled away. His groan of frustration echoed her internal one.
He set her back and gazed intently into her eyes, the piercing clarity of his never ceased to unravel her. “Right. We both know how complicated you find the thought of that.” He shook his head and walked away from her for the second time that evening. And even though that was supposed to be what she wanted, it left her even more out of her depth.
He was watching her; she could feel his gaze peeling off the layers, leaving a scalding trail across her skin. It made her completely lose track of the thread of her conversation with Michael Corner. She took another sip of wine and returned her thoughts to him. She had no idea what he was talking about.
“—and then I said, well, you know me!” He laughed, and she tittered along with him, assuming that was her cue. In reality, she couldn’t help but think that perhaps on this occasion Malfoy was right. He really did have an excessively toothy smile. And she, as the daughter of dentists, usually had a great appreciation for well-maintained teeth.
Michael continued chatting away and Hermione, failing to curb her curiosity, glanced in Malfoy’s direction. He was glaring at her, to the point that the girl beside him looked rather alarmed and seemed to take the hint that he wasn’t interested in discussing her pigmy puff, or whatever inane thing she’d spoken to him about.
Hermione swallowed. He needed to shut that down if they were to avoid attracting more curious eyes, but she couldn’t deny the strange thrill at his open hostility towards her talking to Michael. It couldn’t be jealousy, could it? Well, actually, she supposed he was highly capable of such emotion, but was in retrospect probably just unimpressed at being rebuffed and not wanting to share his toy. It was harsh, since she herself had been vocal about needing secrecy, but she was just so confused and he never felt the need to voice his own thoughts on the subject.
Finally, she excused herself, smiling apologetically at Michael and looking pointedly at the main occupant of her thoughts, indicating he should follow her out of the room. She paused in the hallway until she noted his presence and then proceeded upstairs to the spare room.
He closed the door and looked at her mutinously. “Interesting. Despite publicly flirting with Corner, you dragged me into a private room to talk. Didn’t make any progress, I assume. Perhaps you ought to have brought some mistletoe along to help with the process.”
The biting tone to his words ruffled her feathers. It was a ridiculous conversation, not least of which because she no longer had any interest in Michael at all, and was in fact rather infatuated with the bewildering man before her. She didn’t know how to tell him that though, or if she even should. She just couldn’t fathom the strange shape of this thing between them fitting into the neat lines of her life.
“You can be such an arse, sometimes. For the record, I’m not interested in Michael, okay. Not that it gives you the right to glare at me across the room like a homicidal maniac. I thought we agreed to put an end to all of this…”
“Last time you said that you accosted me two hours later and dragged me into a storage room. So forgive me if I find your whims hard to follow.”
Hmm, she thought, that was unfortunately quite accurate. There was just something about him that, despite the voice of reason waffling in her ear, she just couldn’t resist.
“I was confused! I still am, to be honest…”
His body still seemed to be thrumming with latent anger, but he strode forward and gripped her arms, hauling her against him. His lips found hers and she clung to him, quite disproving all of her previous protests.
“What’s confusing about that?” he asked. She liked the slightly rough quality to his voice, his lack of composure.
She felt breathless. “No, that’s more confusing.”
“It seems pretty clear to me.”
He kissed her again, and she rather lost track of all her logical reasoning, amid the fervent desire to rip every item of clothing off his overly dressed self. These were the moments she loved most, when things were simple, arguments silenced and it was just them revelling in each other. She didn’t have to worry about looking at him too often, she could run her eyes over him, feel her tightly wound limbs melt against his.
They fell in an ungracefully heap on the bed, and she shivered at the warmth of his mouth blazing across her skin. When his hands brushed her there, she quivered, a moan tumbling from her lips.
“What was that?” Malfoy stopped his ministrations and turned his head to the other side of the room. “Did you hear something?”
“Probably… just… the wind. Don’t stop.”
Satisfied, he returned his attention to her, and the voice in her head sang the hallelujah. Traitor, she thought.
Her self-control was utterly pathetic. Actually, that statement would imply she had any to begin with. She berated herself as she tried to gracefully shimmy back into her dress, fingers reaching behind for the tricky button at the back.
“Let me,” he murmured from behind her, shifting her fingers away. As his own brushed the hair from her nape and deftly fastened the button, she took a deep breath, trying to still her erratic heartbeat at the simple gesture.
Such responses were exactly why she was supposed to be avoiding any further encounters. Regardless of her words, the silliest most irrational part of her wanted to read something into them.
“So, you were saying…” She turned to look at him, noting the satisfied gleam in his eyes, the quirked lips and raised brow.
She brushed her hair back from her face and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress. “I admit that I hadn’t planned on that… but it doesn’t really alter the facts, does it?”
“And what are they, exactly? Life usually doesn’t follow a five-year plan.” He ran fingers through hair that was, as always, perfectly in place, despite the activity of the last twenty minutes. “You complicate things by overthinking.”
“This is complicated already! Can’t you see that?”
“Tell me something, Granger, what do you want? Because it seems to me that you don’t have a bloody clue! You say you want to end this, yet here we are again.”
“Oh and you do? You’re not exactly vocal about what you do want, except sex on demand, apparently. And I do know what I want. Something real!”
His head snapped back as though she’d slapped him and he stared at her with a look that could almost be disgust. “You are so ignorant.” He paused, shaking his head almost imperceptibly, as though to himself. “And for the record, I do know what I want. Not that it matters now, because I’m done here.”
And just like that, he turned on his heel and left her alone in the room with her thoughts, an angry maelstrom of noise and whispered indignations. She only had more questions.
She hated the way he did that. Expected her to spell things out, yet refused to give her any proper insight, any information that she needed to make a decision. She wasn’t the kind of person who functioned on gut instinct. Reasoning and logic guided her, and she trusted in it. She trusted in fact. But with him, all she knew was murky uncertainty, and that was terrifying. He was done? She felt ill. That was what she had asked for, had claimed to want on more than one occasion, yet the thought left her feeling bereft. Because that’s not what you really want, said the voice within.
Pushing her shoulders back, she took a deep breath and returned to the party, the noise and festivities doing nothing to distract her. Upon entering the lounge again, she noted Malfoy was still there, though he refused to look at her. She was surprised he hadn’t left entirely, as she had wanted to, but supposed he was probably making a point.
Before she could reflect on this further, Ginny and Ron appeared at her side. “There you are!” said that latter around a mouthful of tortured food.
“We were wondering where you and—Harry!” Ginny exclaimed. Hermione glanced at her dark-haired friend, presently holding a cardigan out to his wife, a rather shell-shocked expression lingering upon his features. “You went to grab that half an hour ago.”
“I er—got held up…” he mumbled dazedly.
“Was it in the spare room closet after all?” Ginny queried, clearly not noting the strangeness of Harry’s behaviour.
Hermione, however, felt the full force of the situation slap her in the face, her stomach swooping to the vicinity of her ankles.
“Unfortunately, yes.” Harry’s clear green eyes met hers, her own horror reflected in his expression.
“Er—Harry, can I borrow you for a second?” He looked extremely reluctant but she successfully dragged him to the kitchen, where she poured them both copious measures of firewhiskey for posterity. Plus the fact that he appeared to be in a state of mild—okay, perhaps, not quite mild—post-traumatic shock.
“So, er—how much did you hear, exactly?”
He took a lengthy swig from his glass. That wasn’t promising. “Everything. I’m still hoping that this is one of those very unfortunate and slightly uncomfortable dreams that I’ll wake up from and not remember at all.”
“You won’t… tell anyone, will you?”
He snorted. “If I could scourgify my mind, I would.” He drank another measure, then looked at her seriously, seeming to accept that this was, in fact, reality and something best dealt with. “Malfoy? I’m, well, speechless… how in the name of Merlin?”
“I don’t know how it happened, it just… did. First it was the mistletoe,” a look of realisation lit his features as she spoke, “and then it happened again… and again.” She shrugged helplessly.
“And in the spare room too, apparently.”
“We thought we heard something…”
“Actually, Hermione, you didn’t really seem all that concerned at the time, if I recall. Look, I—er, really don’t want to know more than necessary, more than I already do, in fact. Just one thing.” He poured them both another measure. “Do you actually like him… beyond the obvious… aspects.”
Bless him for trying to be a good friend and navigating what was without doubt the most awkward conversation of their entire friendship to date.
“I think so… yes, I do. I know it makes no sense, and of course, it’s Malfoy, so it would never work. Not that I even have any idea what he wants in any case.”
“Hermione, for the smartest person I know, you’re being incredibly obtuse about all of this.”
She paused to glance at him quizzically. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
He sighed. “What I mean is that, from what I heard, the person putting the brakes on, well, anything, is you. And while I don’t relish the thought of spending more time with him than necessary, I hope the reason you’re so confused isn’t because of what myself or anyone else would think. Granted, there would be a lot of questions if anything… more… happened.”
He wasn’t wrong there.
“If he makes you happy, in any way, then you probably owe it to yourself to at least see where it goes. Doesn’t mean you’re going to marry the guy.”
He could be pretty wise when he wanted to be. Perhaps marriage and being so grown up and responsible had given him far better perspective on relationships in general.
They left the kitchen, and as they re-joined the fray, Hermione glanced over to where Malfoy was standing. “You’re right. Maybe it’s the alcohol talking, but it’s a worthwhile risk. I’ll do it. Thanks!”
“Er—what?” he asked, but she paid no attention. She was too busy psyching herself up as she marched over to where Malfoy stood, looking rather bored as some witch spoke to him. She noted the weary look in his eyes at her approach.
“Excuse me,” she said to the witch, who seemed unimpressed with the intrusion and looked to Malfoy for a response.
“Go away,” he said to her abruptly, barely shifting his gaze from Hermione to acknowledge the poor scrap of a girl. She looked affronted—understandably, he really was a rude git at times—and left in a huff. “What now, Granger?” he finally said. “I’m tired of having the same argument and have decided to dedicate my night to getting sloshed on cheap wine instead.”
He didn’t seem to be drunk, so his efforts thus far had been unsuccessful. She took a deep breath, her heart thudding a funny pattern in her chest.
“I think—no, I know—we need to talk about—”
“What’s the point?” he interrupted. “You made your stance quite clear, despite being entirely hypocritical in your actions, I might add. I refuse to be some dirty little secret anymore,” he said.
There was a scathing tone to his voice, so different to the playful note of snarky banter to which she was accustomed. She hoped fervently that it was a cover, a defence against this wholly confusing situation, not unlike the denial, which had clearly been hers.
“I realised something important. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
“Clearly, it does.”
Thickheaded, stupid male, she thought. He was actually going to make her spell it out. She threw all caution to the wind, and took a step closer, pressing her palms against the cool black fabric adorning his chest, and brushed her lips to his.
Hermione could have sworn she heard a glass break in the sudden stillness of voices, although Harry’s muttered “Not again!” was rather distinct. Malfoy’s mouth was frozen against hers, in shock, probably. He pulled back and she suddenly, through the misty fog of alcohol, wished soundly for a black hole to appear and suck her right into it. Oh, the mortification.
“What—” he said, pausing to glance up and inspect the ceiling above them.
“I don’t need mistletoe or excuses to kiss you if I want to, that’s another thing I realised.”
He looked slightly dazed for a beat, then his gaze shifted back to hers seemingly searching for something.
His tone was a little rough when he finally spoke. “You don’t do things by halves, do you?” He glanced over her shoulder at the watching group. “Well, let’s be thorough and really drive the message home then, shall we?” He pulled her against him, and kissed her so soundly that she felt it straight down to her toes.
When they came up for air, her lips felt puffy and tender, her head full of the cloudy scent of his skin. He grinned then. A proper full-wattage smile, the likes of which she hadn’t thought was in his repertoire. And with the perfect amount of teeth on display.
It was a smile she rather hoped she’d get to see much more of in the future.