Hermione wasn’t sure how her life had come to this. Days filled with paperwork bled into silent evenings and the same blasted nightmares that had haunted her since the war. She told herself she should be thankful for everything she had—two beautiful children, a flourishing career, a loving, albeit increasingly distant, husband. Friends, family, respect. Everything she had wanted for herself as a child.
Her therapist started each session by asking for the first word that came to her mind. More often than not, it was “suffocating.”
A week after turning forty, she took the suggestion of “reconnecting with an old passion” and joined a muggle book club.
From the outside, Tate’s Bookshop was nothing more than a refurbished townhouse in the middle of Notting Hill, the small black and white sign the only indication it was a bookshop. The rare London sun doused the front in warm light, the brick soaking up the rays while it could before September gave way to horrible winter weather. Hermione pushed through the door and immediately closed her eyes to inhale the smell of coffee, leather, and books. The muted rustling of pages helped drown out the noise from the street.
“Hello, dear,” came a voice from behind a shelf. A tall woman in a plaid apron appeared around the corner, a kind smile on her face and a braid of white hair wound around her head. “Welcome to Tate’s.”
Hermione was immediately reminded of Professor McGonagall, though she was certain this lady was unable to transform into a cat. A nametag on her apron read “Caroline.” Hermione smiled. The tightness in her chest lessened as she stepped fully into the shop and let the door click shut behind her. “Good afternoon,” she said. “I—“
“Are you here for the meeting?” Caroline asked. “They’re just upstairs. Let Stewart know I’ll be up with the tea in a few minutes.”
She disappeared around the corner before Hermione could speak. Taking a deep breath, Hermione turned towards the stairs in the corner.
Laughter greeted her as she stepped onto the landing, and she spotted five people crowded around a small table covered in scones and sandwiches. A young woman with short black hair perked up upon spotting Hermione.
“Ooooh, a new person!” The woman all but leapt from her seat on the blue couch, making her way across the small room with lightning speed. “I’m Emma, what’s your name?”
Hermione smiled at the woman’s infectious energy. “It’s—“
She was interrupted by another newcomer just behind her, and a frighteningly familiar voice. “Sorry I’m late; Caroline caught me with the tea tray.”
A chorus of hellos rang out as Hermione turned to face the owner of the voice, and she cursed inwardly at the pointed features framed by silver-blond hair that greeted her. From the neck up, he looked just the same as he had at the Ministry not two days prior with his long hair in a low ponytail, but the effect of a simple oxford shirt and grey trousers in place of robes was overwhelming. Recognition flashed through Draco Malfoy’s eyes as he met her gaze. She could practically feel the thoughts racing through his mind before his face settled into a careful mask. He straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin.
“Malfoy?” Hermione asked. She tried to convince herself that she was imagining things—Draco Malfoy wouldn’t be caught dead carrying a tea tray, let alone into a muggle book club. Surely this was just a side-effect of her insomnia. She hadn’t slept for more than three hours during the last seventy-two, so hallucinations weren’t out of the question. “What—“
“Oh, you know Draco?” Emma asked, bouncing up on her toes between them.
Hermione blinked. She hoped her mouth wasn’t hanging open, but she was having trouble containing her shock. If Emma could see him, and she quite obviously could, he couldn’t be a figment of her imagination. Draco Malfoy, in a muggle book club, carrying a tea tray. She supposed she had seen stranger things in her life.
“Don’t overwhelm her, Ems,” Draco replied smoothly. He handed off the tray and gestured to the stairs. “A word, Granger?”
He wrapped his hand around her elbow and guided her out of the room before she could protest. His grip was firm, and if they had been any younger, Hermione would’ve read it as threatening.
“You need to leave,” he whispered as soon as they were out of sight. His hand didn’t leave her arm.
Hermione’s first instinct was to laugh, but she quashed it when she saw his face. His brows were drawn up as if he were pleading with her, and the softness of his mouth lent sincerity to his visage. Still, who was he to demand that she leave? She had just as much right to be there.
“Not a chance,” she whispered back.
Malfoy pursed his lips and huffed a breath out of his nose. She could see the struggle in his eyes, but he finally spoke again, his voice low and reluctant, “Please.”
Hermione’s eyebrows shot towards her hairline. “Must be a pretty special book club if you’re willing to beg for it.” She realized his fingers were still wrapped around her arm when they tightened, the faint scratch of fingernails pressing into her skin. She made no move to pull away even as her mind flashed a distinct warning of danger. She felt her heart speed up, the adrenaline flowing through her veins as she stared up at her childhood enemy. Vaguely, she noticed Draco’s pupils widen, threatening to overtake the silver irises.
“Are you guys ready to get started?”
Emma’s head popped around the corner, and the tense silence between the pair dissolved. Draco’s hand fell from her arm, and he flashed an easy grin at the woman.
“Right behind you,” he said.
Hermione stared up at him, unable to adjust her view of the Draco Malfoy she knew to this friendly stranger in front of her. True, he had mellowed out after the war, making the effort to improve his image in the Wizarding World, but the same pride and coldness had remained.
Emma disappeared once more, and the tension returned to Draco’s shoulders.
“If anyone asks, we met at secondary school. Follow my lead if they get nosy,” he said quickly.
“Merlin,” Draco breathed, moving further into her space until Hermione could feel the heat of his breath on her cheek. “Can you just trust me on this?”
Hermione arched one eyebrow in response. “Trust you? Really, Malfoy?”
“If you want to hold onto grudges from twenty years ago—“
“—by all means, feel free,” Draco finished, “but not here.”
They maintained eye contact until it was uncomfortable, and Draco broke away to return to the meeting. Hermione reached out and grabbed his arm.
“You know I’m going to want an explanation,” she said when he turned back to her.
Draco nodded once and slipped his arm from her grasp.
“See you next Thursday!” Emma called as she crossed the street, waving cheerfully at Draco and Hermione. The meeting had left them in better spirits than before, and they both smiled as they returned the wave. The conversation had flowed easily, and Hermione had been pleased to find that Draco’s insights on their current reading material had challenged her thinking in a positive way.
As soon as Emma was out of sight, Hermione turned towards Draco and crossed her arms. “So,” she said.
Draco shook his head. “Not here.” He swept one arm out to the side as the other pressed against her lower back. She began walking without a second thought.
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere more private,” he answered, not bothering to explain further.
They walked in silence for several minutes, Draco’s hand a constant pressure in the bend of Hermione’s spine. It occurred to her that she ought to pull away and put distance between them, but the touch grounded her. She didn’t want to read into it, so she shoved the thoughts to the back of her mind.
“How long have you been going to Tate’s?” she asked, just to fill the void.
Draco removed his hand—Hermione’s steps stuttered at the loss of contact—and lifted it to rub at the back of his neck.
“I suppose it’s been over a year already,” he replied. “I started going just as Scorpius started his second year.”
“That long?” Hermione asked. “Why—“
Draco flashed her a look, and the words died in her throat. “I promised you an explanation, but not until we get off the street.” He halted in front of a red door and produced a single key—it was normal by muggle standards, which surprised Hermione more than necessary. “And I expect an explanation in return.”
“Of what?” Hermione asked as he turned the key.
Without answering, Draco disappeared through the door and up a flight of stairs. Hermione followed quickly, and they traveled through a second door on the first floor.
The studio flat was sparsely furnished, but she could tell each piece was quality and probably outrageously expensive. A leather sofa sat against one wall, a dining table and set of chairs in glass and chrome took their place next to a small kitchenette, and a large bed with white and navy coverings dominated the left side of the single room. However, the overwhelming feature of the room was the piles upon piles of books. Shelves overflowing stood against every wall, stacks sat next to the sofa, and the glass dining table looked ready to crack under the weight. Hermione found it hard to breathe for a moment.
“This—” She waved a hand around, trying to get her point across without words. “This is—“
“—is my flat, Granger,” Draco replied. He cracked a grin as he placed his key in a bowl on the counter in the kitchen.
Hermione whirled around, her mouth gaping. “You’re kidding.”
“I never kid.”
“But,” Hermione stuttered, turning back to the room, “this—this is …”
“I know.” Draco smirked and pointed towards the couch. “Feel free to sit. Would you like to stay for dinner? I don’t have anything in, but I could call for takeaway.”
Peering at him over her shoulder, Hermione tried once more to reconcile the Draco Malfoy she thought she knew with this man standing comfortably in the middle of an incredibly small, incredibly muggle flat.
“Is Thai okay?” he asked, holding up a paper menu.
“What - the - hell - is going on, Malfoy?” she asked, approaching him quickly and jabbing a finger at his chest.
He snatched her hand away, his fingers wrapping tightly around her wrist, and Hermione stumbled towards him. She regained her balance through a hand on his chest, but didn’t push away.
“Would it kill you to stop being so suspicious?” he spat, anger flashing through his eyes. “I will not be put on trial in my own home.”
“You can’t seriously be asking me to believe that you live here? You, of all people?” Hermione searched his face, looking for any hint that he was less than genuine. Aside from the frustration, she saw nothing but truth. Her fingers shifted against his chest, and she realized the compromising position she was in. She dropped her hand to her side.
“That’s your problem, Granger. For all your preaching about acceptance and peace, you are so bloody closed-minded.” He released her other hand and turned away. “Do I seem different to you? Do I—“
He stopped, pursing his lips and breathing heavily through his nose. His hands clenched into fists at his sides. Hermione remained silent, not wanting to give him reason to lash out.
“Just … just go. It’s obvious you’re not going to believe a word that comes out of my mouth, so why should I even bother?”
The defeat in his tone made her pause. Again, she was thrown off by how dissimilar this man was to the one she thought she knew. To be fair, had she ever really known Draco Malfoy? Apart from the insults traded at school, and the careful truce they had called since, the only thing Hermione had to go on was the gossip columns in the Daily Prophet and stories from their mutual coworkers at the Ministry. Realization slammed into her.
“I think I get it,” she said softly. “Why you escape here.”
“You don’t understand the first—“
“You aren’t judged by your past,” she interrupted. “They don’t see you as the wealthy son of pureblood elitists. They don’t know what you’ve done, or what you’ve been through, so they don’t treat you like anyone special. There’s a certain kind of freedom in that, I suppose—they don’t have expectations of you, so you don’t have anything to live up to.”
Draco flinched at the allusion to his father, but he didn’t say anything as she spoke.
“Since you have me all figured out” —he finally turned to face her once again and, more gently than before, took her left hand and lifted it— “care to explain this?”
It took a moment for her to realize what he was talking about. The usual glint of her wedding ring was missing from her finger, and she could feel the weight of it in her pocket. Hermione sighed. Tit for tat, she thought. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” she muttered, not loudly enough for it to be directed at Draco, but she was sure he heard it.
“As appealing as that sounds, that’s not exactly what I had in mind,” he replied.
Hermione rolled her eyes, and the easy fellowship they had achieved during the walk from Tate’s returned. Draco grinned, and before another moment had passed, the two found themselves giggling like school children.
“It’s not malicious, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Hermione said once they had gotten their breath back. “I just …”
“Wanted a change?” Draco finished. At her nod, he continued. “I know the feeling. My therapist calls it a mid-life crisis.”
Hermione let her gaze drift around the flat, taking in her surroundings. Titles of popular and obscure muggle books came at her from every direction. She supposed if she were to have a secret hideaway, it would look similar to this one. “Does anyone else know about this place? From our world, I mean.”
“Not a soul. My account manager at Gringotts might suspect though, since he sends a check to my landlord every month.”
“And how often do you stay here?”
“Every Tuesday and Thursday, and most weekends, if I can get away with it.”
Hermione let out a low whistle. “Doesn’t your wife wonder where you are?”
“Does Weasley know where you are?” Draco shot back.
“He … he works late on Thursdays, with George, at the shop,” Hermione replied.
There was a moment of tense silence, and Hermione hoped Draco wouldn’t push the issue. It wasn’t that she was hiding this from her husband; there just wasn’t a point to telling him. He wasn’t interested in Hermione’s hobbies, never had been, and there was no reason to believe he would start now. Still, now there was a forbidden aspect to it. Hermione knew she could be friends with whoever she wanted, but this, meeting with Draco Malfoy in a secret flat in muggle London, wasn’t especially appropriate. The slight rush of adrenaline through her system at the thought of sneaking around caught her off guard—she hadn’t had that feeling since Hogwarts and the war. It was exhilarating.
Draco made a move in the corner of her eye, and the motion was enough to draw her away from her thoughts. He was peering at her; she felt herself blush under his scrutiny.
“I—I have to go,” she said slowly. She wanted to stay, wanted to see if she could hold onto the familiar feeling of excitement, but the risks were too great. Shaking her head, she silently berated herself; she was married. And this was Draco Malfoy. Don’t be stupid, Hermione.
“No Thai?” Draco asked.
Hermione shook her head once. “Can I apparate from here?” she asked, going for the secret pouch in her purse where she kept her wand.
She turned on the spot before another moment could pass, briefly noticing the bewildered look on Draco’s face before the darkness squeezed around her.