Hermione had almost made a clean escape until her unfortunate discovery on the street. Confronted with the reality that her coat pockets were, indeed, empty—neither the crumpled receipt from the grocer's nor a slightly sticky sweet wrapper could be mistaken for her mittens—she was forced to return to the Ministry, entirely against her will.
She needed those mittens because she'd promised Ginny and Angelina that she'd take the kids ice skating tomorrow, giving their parents a much-needed break. Fred, Roxanne, and James were prone to rampaging for hours, and a Warming Charm on her bare hands wasn't going to cut it in a Muggle park. No, she needed her mittens, the ones that she'd hand-knitted two winters ago. The stitching wasn't the best, and she'd had to redo one of the thumbs three times; but they were warm, comfortable, and imbued with an exceptionally strong Warming Charm. She hadn't even been out of the Ministry for ten minutes, and the bitter night air had already numbed her bare fingers.
Hermione hurried through London's snowy streets, squeezing herself into the musty old telephone box and silently cursing the Ministry's Anti-Disapparition Jinx the entire ride down. Oh, there were excellent reasons for the jinx's existance, but, at the moment, what she wanted was to pop in and out of her office in a heartbeat. She'd originally hoped to escape from the Ministry before anyone in particular had noticed that she was gone, as he'd been making little remarks about tonight's Christmas party. Well, she wasn't going to be around for this year's party, that was for sure. Not after what had happened last time.
As the telephone box came to a halt, Hermione looked up and down the entrance hall before cautiously leaving the booth. Although the entrance hall usually held no more than a few people by seven o'clock at night, tonight it was completely deserted thanks to those either tucking into their dinner at home or into the Ministry's gratis champagne at the party. Hermione sidled into the main hall before scurrying across the floor, her footsteps echoing in the grand vaulted central chamber. She glanced left and right before sliding to a halt in front of the main set of lifts. She jabbed at the button for the lift, drumming her foot against the floor as she anxiously waited. She'd be in and out of her office with her mittens, quick as a thought, just as long as the lift came quickly. The set of doors to her right opened with a chime. Hermione darted forward, only to skid to a halt once more.
Draco Malfoy, the last person she wanted to see, was standing squarely in the middle of the lift. His look of surprise quickly turned into sly delight, unlike her own look of dismay.
“Auror Malfoy,” she said stiffly.
His smile grew even wider. “If it isn't Unspeakable Granger. Come to join the party, instead of spending another year sulking in your dungeons?” he drawled.
“Multi-level underground laboratories,” she automatically corrected. Just because her department didn't have flashy high ceilings, expansive windows, and a large interior decorating budget—well, any interior decorating budget—did not mean that the Department of Mysteries was some kind of dungeon.
“Your offices are made of stone, you have no windows, and rumour has it that they practically chain you to your desks. It's a dungeon.”
While Hermione adored her work, that wasn't to say that her work environment was without flaws. The Department of Mysteries wasn't a dungeon, but it certainly didn't have the fine hardwood floors, enchanted tapestries, and five-layer crystal chandeliers that graced the Department of International Magical Cooperation. Hermione put that down to more than a little inter-departmental blackmail on that account. Looking at Draco, she found herself missing the first nine months of the year, when she'd been seconded to the Department of International Magical Cooperation. Her time with International, working on the renewal of the St. Gallen Treaty on the Regulation of Experimental and Restricted Magic, had not been without its perks. For example, her International colleagues had been much more sociable by far, even if one of them had been a too-charming prat who—
Hermione took a deep breath. She and Draco were colleagues; that was all they had been and all they'd ever be.
The lift doors attempted to close, and Draco rapped them sharply. They squeaked and sprung back. He leaned against the doors, holding them open.
“Come in, come in. Heading up to the party, were you? I was about to abscond, but now that you're here...” He trailed off, and she was sure that it was the kind of silence that was intended to imply something absolutely scandalous. It had taken months of dealing with his faux-flirting before she'd learned to not react. Returning to the Department of Mysteries two-and-a-half months ago had clearly taken a toll on her immunity.
“No, I'm not heading up to the party. I just forgot my mittens,” she muttered. She stepped back from the lift doors. “I'll let you go on your way,” she said hopefully.
He raised an elegant eyebrow. “Whatever gave you the impression that I was leaving? I'm going down.”
Hermione looked at him in disbelief. “A minute ago, you were 'about to abscond.'”
“I was about to abscond to the dungeons. I felt that I needed a trial run in freezing temperatures before I went and explored the arctic exterior conditions. I see you’re well prepared.” He tilted his head and looked at her. “Did you know that your coat looks like a vagrant Chesterfield that is attempting to eat you, which is both terrifying and simply wrong? You really need to get a new coat. This one is a disaster.”
She ignored his comments, instead looking him over. He did appear to be leaving for the night. He was wearing his usual grey woollen overcoat—as blatantly expensive as her own battered corduroy coat was faded and worn—and his fine black cashmere scarf was tucked around his neck. She'd picked it up once, when it had slipped from a coat rack, and she knew that the wool was butter-soft. It was with some bitterness that she noticed his set of fleece-lined black leather gloves poking out of one of his coat pockets.
All in all, it was quite unfair that Hermione was forced to travel through the winter months masquerading as a pile of ambulatory blankets while Draco cut through the snow and ice as neatly turned out as a catalogue model. He'd sartorially shown her up on almost every occasion during their nine-month stint in International.
It had taken many people—Hermione included—by surprise back in January when Draco was named the Auror Department's representative on the Ministry's St. Gallen Treaty negotiating team. Growing up had turned Draco's cutting tongue to smooth silver, and he'd proven himself invaluable during this year's negotiations. Over the following months, she'd not only swallowed her misgivings but had gained a new found respect for him. If that had been the only way in which her feelings had changed—but dwelling on that was foolishness. After all, his feelings were the same.
The lift doors attempted to close again, and Draco kicked them. They sprang back, properly chastised.
“After you, Granger,” he said, with a wave and a theatrical bow. Reluctantly, she entered the lift. Even though his newly-discovered need to tour the Department of Mysteries was obviously a ruse, nine months of working with Draco had taught her that he was more than willing to fence with logic when it stood in the way of getting something that he wanted.
Hermione hadn't been fed such a blatant set of lies since the end of her time with International, an event which had also marked the end of Draco's and her frequent contact. She was certain there was a connection between the two. There was also a connection between her leaving International and her new-found ability to take her tea breaks in peace, given that Draco no longer hovered around her desk every single day at a quarter to two. The Department of International Magical Cooperation had a tea cart that sold little blueberry and raspberry scones, served with just a dollop of marmalade, which were absurdly delicious. Draco would steal—had stolen—her scones right off of her plate when she wasn't careful.
Which, of course, was yet another one of the many reasons why she was glad they were no longer working together. She certainly didn't miss the way that he'd perch on her desk and ruminate about how many scones he was going to steal this time, or the way that he'd bat his eyelashes and practically purr as he asked her to hand-feed them to him. A request that she had always met with a roll of her eyes and a threat to shove him off of her desk. She'd absolutely never imagined what it would be like to have Draco lick crumbs off her fingers. Never. Not even once. Certainly not countless times over the course of her stint in International, until she'd wanted to tackle him and lick him head to toe. Self-control was a wonderful thing.
The lift doors ground shut, and Draco yanked the lever for the Department of Mysteries, sending them downwards. As the lift descended in awkward silence, Hermione resolutely kept her eyes on the lift's wooden panelling and gleaming brass trim, refusing to peer through the doors' windows into the dark void in which all of the Ministry's lifts moved. She'd never liked heights, even theoretical ones. She was pretty sure the magical lift shaft still counted as a height even if it was more of a bottomless void.
She could hear Draco restlessly shifting beside her. She ignored him. He coughed, as fake a cough as she'd ever heard. Hermione hunched her shoulders and diligently continued to ignore him. She resisted the urge to tap her foot against the floor and willed the lift to move faster. Had it ever been this slow during work hours? Time seemed to crawl, and Hermione was all too aware of the man standing beside her.
“This lift is endless,” she muttered. Too endless. She frowned and leaned forward to inspect the lift display. The indicator arrow was hovering between floors. They'd stopped moving. Hermione froze.
“What?” Draco said, evidently noticing that something was wrong. He'd stepped next to her, peering at the display with a frown as his shoulder brushed hers, sending prickles up her spine. This close, she could faintly smell the Scotch on his breath as well as a general hint of cinnamon and pine. He really must have come directly from the party; the decorators were always too liberal with that damned 'holiday scent' they spritzed all over the hall. Draco tapped the display with his wand. The arrow stubbornly remained stuck, fuelling Hermione's rising panic.
“We're trapped,” she blurted out. How could this have happened? It was well past seven o'clock. She was supposed to be home by now and tucking into her dinner, not stuck in a lift!
“Perfect,” he said cheerfully, as though they were having an adventure and not trapped in a death-box. “I think it's time we had a conversation.”
She turned to Draco with a look of horror. “We're trapped in a lift, and you want to have a conversation?” This had to be a nightmare. She couldn't Disapparate, the lift was hovering above a bottomless pit, and she was stuck with Draco Malfoy. To make matters worse, it was the week before Christmas—she had a-million-and-one items on her to-do list, and he was giving her a smug smile that made her stomach flip. She did not find him charming. She did not find him attractive. She did not care that he took his tea with cream and two sugars, that he never dog-eared the corners of his books, or that he looked utterly disarming when his mouth quirked and his nose scrunched up inelegantly whenever he was truly amused. And she bloody hated the fact that even after four months of telling herself those words, they still weren't true.
“You're not fond of conversation? How contrary to my previous estimation of your character. Perhaps you think that I should summon Potter and Weasley with my Patronus so that they can rescue us? Have them likely further break the lift in a fit of ill-guided yet well-intended heroism?”
“I can live without seeing you whip out your Patronus on every single occasion. Just because you have one doesn't mean you have to flash it around.” Gods, as bad as the situation was, she didn't want to see the kind of overreaction from her friends that a Patronus message was sure to produce.
“Oh, Granger. I don't 'whip out' my Patronus every chance I get. Just on special occasions.” He winked, as if utterly unaware that it was possible to die from over-exposure to sharp cheekbones and grey eyes, especially if one was a repressed researcher who worked in a dungeon and no longer had strikingly attractive men draping themselves all over her desk every time they felt 'bored'. Draco forged onward. “How delicious will it be when we're discovered trapped in the lift together, huddled for warmth? Potter and Weasley will burst in here, and then I'll be hung upside down while they interrogate me about whether or not I've robbed you of your virtue. Although, I'd say that if anyone's virtue was robbed, it was mine, given what you were doing to it last year after we stole away from that travesty of a Christmas party—”
This conversation, right here and now, was exactly why she'd left the Ministry in a hurry, and why she'd had to sneak back, and why this entire incident was nothing short of a debacle.
“—and speaking of last year, I want an update on your 'special research project'. I have yet to actually see this ‘project', despite having become very well-acquainted with your office desk and floor. The last performance review was quite stunning, and I wanted to see what you were going to offer this year for an—”
Hermione lunged and plastered her hands over his mouth, mortified beyond belief. Damn the St. Gallen Treaty and damn International! Ill-conceived one night stands after too much wine were supposed to be gracefully ignored, not turn up two weeks later as your co-worker for the next nine months. He flinched back almost immediately. Embarrassed by her own over-reaction, she started to draw her hands back; but before she could safely stuff them in her pockets, he'd stepped forward and captured them in his own.
“Morgana's magpie, your hands are like ice,” he said with a wince.
“Your commentary is appreciated, but that’s not your problem,” she said, not meeting his eyes and making a half-hearted effort to pull away from his grasp. Embarrassment was warring with the sheer, melting relief that his touch brought. Truth be told, her hands were freezing, and his were warm. Very warm. He brought her hands up and blew gently on her fingers. She gulped as his breath ghosted over her cupped palms.
“What kind of Auror would I be if I failed to protect one of the Ministry's most valuable resources from losing all of her fingers to frostbite?” he murmured.
“I hardly think that frostbite is on the list of perils that require an Auror's intervention,” she said, tugging lightly against his grip. Not to be thwarted, he wrapped her hands in his own and began rubbing them. Hermione winced as the blood rushed back into her fingertips, which had begun tingling from the warmth.
Draco shook his head. “No, you're putting other people in danger waving those blocks of ice around. They're a public safety hazard, so I'm confiscating them. Your hands are mine until further notice.” They stood there, her hands in his, looking at each other. This close, she could tell that he'd been drinking a bit more than she'd thought. There was a slight sway to his shoulders that was unusual, as he was normally so self-assured and possessed an excellent sense of balance. She realized that his left thumb was absently stroking the curve of her palm, a delicate movement that sent shivers through her. She swallowed nervously.
“You're tipsy, Malfoy.”
“Maybe,” he sighed, looking down at their entangled hands. “Gods, Hermione—I just—do you have any idea how awful the last few months have been? I think you've ruined me.”
Hermione was bewildered. Ruined him? How could she have ruined him?
He continued. “As deliciously entertaining an evening as it was, I thought last year was just a combination of too much wine and bad judgement. I admit that I felt a touch of joy at the thought that I would be that one pleasant—yet guilty—memory you would take silently to the grave. I mean, how often does one get a charming invitation to go inspect Hermione Granger's 'special research project', which entails sneaking out of a high-profile party, going down to her office, and thoroughly testing every horizontal surface in the room? Why you did it, I still don't know, but rest assured that I treasure the memories.”
She flushed. “Draco, I don't—”
“No interruptions, Granger, this is my confession,” he chided. “Let me assure you that the story doesn't end there. Why, the Monday after, I was so sore that I couldn't even properly lounge in my chair, and Potter started giving me this long lecture about an Auror's responsibilities and not out carousing late at night on the town with anonymous strangers. I had to just sit there and agree. I mean, what was I supposed to tell him? 'Potter, I threw out my back because I was flat on my back on Granger's office floor for an hour last Friday, and she had some very persuasive oral arguments about why I shouldn't attempt to get up' is the kind of answer that only leads to more questions, you understand. I mean, it wasn't as though I was invested in you—I didn't even like you at that point.” He dropped a kiss on the back of her hands. “Sorry, love, it's the truth.”
Hermione gaped at him.
He continued. “So, when the order came from up-high that I was to be seconded to that rather plum assignment in International, you can trust that I was quite pleased. Another few months in which to make you prickle and bristle. Which, I might add, you do quite frequently and quite well.
“And then, you were perfectly civil for a month. And then two. And then, by three, I realized that you could be charming when you wished. At four, I discovered that you've an extraordinarily ruthless turn of mind when someone's in your way; and by five, I realized that you were not only one of the most interesting, attractive women of my acquaintance, but that I wanted to know everything about you, and I hoped that you felt the same way.”
Her earlier conviction that the entire thing was some kind of joke taken too far by alcohol and over-confidence was rapidly dissolving. Draco's words left her spinning, unsure of where they stood.
“Due to your incredible tenacity in the face of my pursuit, I eventually concluded that you'd rather not pursue anything while we were working in the same department. So, I waited. And waited. September ended, and I kept my entire social calendar free, because surely you'd pounce on me, once our time in International was over. But I was wrong.
“Here I was, fantasizing that you would show up and proclaim that, in light of my astounding sexual prowess, blinding good looks, devilish charm, and superb intellect, you'd realized that we were meant to be. Then, you would whisk me away for a holiday on a tropical island, force me to spend thousands of Galleons on the most expensive suite in the resort, and tie me to the bed-frame so that we never set foot outside of our room for an entire week. Instead, dreary October trips into despicable November, which slides into a ghastly December, and I finally realize that you do intend to defy fate and nature by spending our winter holidays moping around the Ministry, forcing me to languish in London gloom. Really, it's not to be borne.” He frowned. “There's only so many months a man can take while being tormented by the memory of having had the best shag of his life, with the love of his life, before the prospect of having it off with his hand for the rest of his life starts looking like a recipe for permanent residency in St. Mungo's. I'm bloody well in love with you, Granger. And if you don't mind, it would be rather convenient if you could admit that you're in love with me too.”
“I—I—” Her mouth was impossibly dry, and her heart was pounding. She had no idea what to say. There was simply no plan drawn up at any point in her life that detailed 'Steps to Take When Draco Malfoy Accosts You in a Lift and Confesses His Love.' The silence grew, and Hermione still hadn't found her voice.
As she stared at him in bewilderment, Draco slowly turned a dull shade of red. He let go of her hands and looked away from her, pulling out his gloves and putting them back as though he had no idea what to do with his hands. He looked absolutely flustered and—if one knew him well—more than a bit distraught.
“Or I may be far more drunk than I realized and I may have just given the kind of unwanted personal confession that requires years of dedicated repression, extensive application of alcohol, and a Memory Charm or two before I can ever look you in the eye again.” He drew back stiffly. “If you'll excuse me, I'm due to go inspect the approximate depth of the lift shaft.”
That jolted her out of her shock.
He continued blithely, not meeting her eyes. “Do these lifts even have shafts? Maybe it's more of a bottomless pit. Is that even possible? I mean, what if it's not bottomless but more sort of endlessly looping? I suppose I should ask you, as you're the Unspeakable, but I imagine that you'd rather I begin my inspection shortly, so—”
“Draco.” She grabbed his coat and pulled him close, kissing him deeply. He was stunned for a moment, but swiftly wrapped her tightly in his arms. By the time that they broke apart, he was clutching her for support.
“I'm in love with you too, you silly bastard,” she whispered.
“Well,” he said in a shaken tone of voice. “That worked out.” He leaned down and kissed her again, and this time, she ended up grabbing him for support as she panted for breath. “So, if you're in love with me, why did I have to come track you down in a broken lift in order to find out?” he asked.
Hermione looked away in embarrassment. “I thought it was all banter. You've got a reputation as a flirt; I didn't think you were in earnest.”
He looked at her in surprise. “Do you seriously think that I come on that strong to every woman who crosses my path? Granger, I regularly asked you to hand-feed me your scones. Everyone thought we were shagging.”
“Well, we weren't,” she huffed. Did no one have faith in her moral standards?
“We should have been. In fact, I think we should remedy that right now.” Draco started flicking open the buttons on her coat, even as he kissed her.
She broke away from him with a gasp. “Draco,” she panted, “we're in a broken lift. Someone's going to notice that fact, try and fix it, and get an eyeful.”
“Excellent point,” he said, as clearly as he could while pressing kisses against her neck. “How about we take my Portkey and leave this broom closet-with-delusions-of-grandeur?” He reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a small brass ouroboros. Green bits of either glass or gemstones glinted from the snake's eyes, and Hermione swore that it was giving her a knowing grin.
Hermione stared at it and then swatted his head. “You've had a Portkey this entire time? You let me think we were trapped? You—you—” She paused and took a deep breath. “We will have words later. Where does it go?”
He smiled as he looked down at her. “My flat.”
That sounded tempting. Hermione eyed the brass ouroboros and sighed. “We need to inform Maintenance that the lift is broken—”
“Come now, Granger. Do you really think that anyone's going to fix this thing before Monday? They'll slap an 'Out of Order' sign on it and let it hang. We can let them know by owl. From my flat.”
At the moment, Draco looked like a very satisfied cat, pressing up against her, playing with her hair, and, judging from the way that he was nuzzling against her cheek, ready to curl up next to her in bed as though he belonged there. Which, perhaps, he did. Temptation warred with duty, and temptation was winning. Wait, hadn't she come come back to the Ministry for some other reason besides snogging Draco in a broken lift?
“But—my mittens,” she mumbled, finally recalling her original goal. It was really impossible to think when Draco was pressing kisses against her neck.
He pulled back from nibbling on her neck, to her dismay, and sighed. “I promise you the softest, fluffiest, warmest mittens ever imagined by Muggles or Wizard-kind, if you'll escape with me from this broken lift.”
She raised an eyebrow and gave him an amused look.
“The mittens are conditional on you being there in the morning,” he continued. He looked at her sternly. “No mittens until morning. I won't let you use me for my mittens, Granger.”
She smiled. “Oh, I was planning on taking more than just your mittens tonight.”
He pulled her in for another breathtaking kiss, even as she placed her hand on the Portkey. As they kissed, she felt the Portkey activate, and everything became a blur of endless light.