THE LONGEST WALK
It has been a year, she told herself. Almost a year, her heart corrected as she stood before the chapel doors ready to head down the path that would lead her to the rest of her life. She stood there, dressed in virginal white, her chestnut curls tamed for the occasion, pinned back with sprigs of orchids. Her small pale hands gripped a fragrant bouquet of white roses and peonies, her eyes dry of any tears and her normally soft mouth set into a firm hard line.
A warm, gentle hand took her elbow as her father's face filled her view. "Ready?" He took in her grim visage, mistaking the tension in her face for bridal nerves. "It'll be alright, hon. Give me a smile. I want to make sure we don't need to do any emergency dental work before stepping out there," he joked.
Her hazel eyes met their mirror images in his face and the corners of her mouth lifted in a faint attempt at a smile. Reassured, he wrapped his arm around hers and faced the two footmen who had opened the doors to the chapel, where hundreds of people awaited the marriage of two of the wizarding world's most celebrated heroes.
The procession music started, the congregation stood up as one and faced the door. Her hand tightened nervously on the supporting arm. Father lead daughter out from the doorway. Memories assailed her as her soul cried out for another even while her feet took her step by step closer to the man who would soon be her wedded husband.
It had started in her bookshop. One ordinary Tuesday in June nearly two years ago. It was a relatively quiet day, not many customers coming by, which gave her time to do some rather needed cleaning amongst the tall stacks. She had been standing on her rickety counter stool attempting to reach a particular awkward spot above the heavy tomes on goblin lore with her Muggle duster, strands of curls coming loose from their confines, her skirt stretching a bit above her knees, when a smooth sardonic voice came from behind, startling her.
"If I'd known that bookshops were populated with clerks with gorgeous legs, I'd—" She'd turned involuntarily at his voice losing her precarious balance on her stool and fallen off in his direction. He'd automatically caught her in his arms with a decidedly inelegant grunt.
Her face was pressed against his chest as she mumbled some impolite curses for his lack of observation, which continued as she hit him on his shoulder, giving her some leverage to pull back.
"Inconsiderate br—" She had been prepared to shred him when her eyes met a pair of silvery-blue ones. An electric tingle went down her spine. That coupled with being confronted with a half-forgotten face stole her thunder and left her looking like a doe-in-headlights. One of his blonde eyebrows rose as he looked back at her impassively.
The incredulity in her voice was clear.
"Granger," he replied back, his voice lacking the usual sneer. His arms were still around her, holding her close to him. The heat where their bodies met was both unfamiliar yet somehow right. He was staring at her, seemingly drinking in her flushed cheeks, her pink slightly parted lips and wide hazel eyes.
She in turn was taking in his thinner, strong-jawed features and those memorable steel eyes. It had been eight years since she'd last seen him at their Hogwarts graduation. By that time, the long-standing hatred that had grown between him and her and her friends over the years had deteriorated as each had had to struggle in building a new life out of the destruction wrought from the Great War. There had only been the residual unease left that she felt would always be a part of their relationship.
However, in being confronted with the grown man he had become, that unease melted away into something else that her body seemed to have grasped far ahead of her nimble mind. Self-consciously she moved out of his hold, his arms slow to fall away from her sides. She straightened her blouse and pulled at her skirt, bringing the length back over her knees. He cleared his throat and awkwardly put his hands in the pockets of his tailored suit.
"What could I do to help you?" she asked, trying not to stare at him. He'd let his hair grow long enough to fall over his brow. His height seemed intimidating now, perhaps only because his shoulders seemed to have become wider, straighter, closely clad in the fine dark fabric of his jacket.
His eyes wandered about the shop. The stacks of shelves, the cozy reading space on one side of the door, the counter and old-fashioned register on the other side. It seemed appropriate to him that the bookworm he had known as a girl would come to work in such a place, though he thought she probably could have taken a more prestigious job at the Ministry.
"I'm looking for a book," he said, rather obviously.
She gave him an amused smile before moving behind the counter to place the stool back where it belonged. He watched her movements, graceful yet efficient. "I gathered," she answered smartly. He inwardly smiled. Same Granger.
"Just a gift for my mother. She's started a collection on anything having to do with ancient Egyptian wizardry for some reason."
Narcissa had gone through phases: first it was ancient Greece, decorating the manor with Greek magic sculptures and putting on plays of Greek tragedies; currently ancient Egypt where she now had idols of Egyptian gods up in the front hall and soon it would probably be Zulu shaman tribes of Africa with spears being displayed over the mantel.
"Ah. The works on ancient Egypt are here in this aisle." She indicated the third row away from the counter. He moved down the aisle, taking his time in looking over the titles, not really seeing them as his attention was on the beautiful woman keeping herself busy at the counter. Her wild hair seemed to have smoothed out into long curls, her figure still tiny but now shapely.
He would have been pleased to know that she, too, was having a difficult time keeping her concentration on the task in front of her, her hands sorting the recent arrivals while her thoughts centered on the intriguing customer in the third aisle. This man seemed different from the boy she used to know, more open, less defensive.
He appeared from the stacks. "I found something: The Egyptian Wizard Chronicles. She'd love this." He held the book out for her to charge and wrap and she took it, her fingertips brushing over his. That living zing went through her again. Her skin flushed as she met his eyes . He seemed as surprised as she felt. She quickly looked down at what she was doing.
She finished the transaction and handed the wrapped book back to him. He smiled at her and thanked her.
"It was nice to see you again." She nodded in response and he made his way to the door. His hand paused on the door handle and he half-turned back to where she stood at the counter; he did no more than look at her with an unreadable expression for a moment, before smiling crookedly and walking out the door. She thought that would be the last time she saw him for awhile.
She was wrong.
She was halfway down the aisle and had yet to glance up at the altar. Instead, her eyes had been focused on some middle distance. Her face was composed, serene-looking. Maybe she didn't look like the glowing bride she should have been but at least no one save for a select few could see she was under some sort of strain.
She glanced to her left and caught the smiling faces of Neville and Luna Longbottom, Fleur and Bill and as her eyes moved back to that middle distance in front, the emerald green eyes of Harry with his flame-haired wife, Ginny, right next to him. His own eyes were serious, the only one in the crowd who seemed to have some clue as to the bleak look in her eyes. He gave her a tiny nod.
Her thoughts stayed with him for the next few days. She would catch herself thinking about him, about moments in seventh year when he had seemed almost human or how his arms felt around her when he had caught her the other day. She would then give herself a mental shake and get on with business.
But then night would come. And in the quiet of the night she dreamed of him. Not girlish dreams, but dreams of heated touches, soft whispers and warm skin against skin. She was embarrassed to admit this even to herself but these too, these ethereal echoes of possibility, would come to mind throughout the day. She didn't know what to do about it. She did not move in the same social circles as him. His family was known to be anti-Muggle anything and so it wasn't something fruitful for her to dwell on.
Yet she did.
She was in the middle of one of these daydreams of him on a drizzly afternoon, when he walked through the door. She absently glanced up from the account book, where she had been marking some figures, to greet the customer, only to realize that the object of her desires was right in front of her and looking at her with an intense expression full of some emotion that she couldn't put a name to, but it was something that heated her cheeks.
He carefully approached where she sat at the counter, never breaking eye contact, as if a sudden movement from him might cause her to sprint away. He stood in front of her, two feet of countertop dividing them, yet she felt him in her space. He hadn't said a word and just looked at her upturned face.
"Yes?" She'd meant it to come out as a sarcastic greeting but the barely lit tinder of a growing fire between them seemed to already be consuming the oxygen in the room, shortening her breath, making her voice come out as a whisper.
Slowly he placed his hands on the counter and leaned in a bit. She felt her own body automatically move towards his, like metal to his magnet.
"Hermione." The name sounded unusual coming from him. "I'd like to ask you out. For a cup of tea. Today." The words were measured but hesitant, as if he wasn't sure what the reception of them would be, which considering their past, he had all the reason to be wary of. His eyes a dark stormy gray, full again of that unnamed emotion, looked at her expectantly.
"Yes." A statement now, stronger. He gave her a genuine smile, one that she had never seen before, that caused her breath to catch and her heart to stutter.
They'd gone out to tea at a Muggle café, the people behind the counter greeting him by name, which surprised her. At her questioning glance, he'd simply stated, "A lot of things have changed since we last saw each other."
No other statement could have been truer. As they sat in the small café, with the gray world around them, she felt a connection with him. They shared their experiences since leaving Hogwarts, his ambitions on becoming a renowned attorney and her reasons for becoming a simple bookseller.
At the end of the afternoon, they smiled at each other, more at ease in each other's presence than one would have ever dreamed possible for people who came from two completely different worlds. "Have dinner with me tomorrow night," he said. She raised a brow at his non-request. He grinned sheepishly, again that tug at her heart, and added, "Please." She accepted.
The next night, she spent more time on her appearance than she had in ages, carefully applying make up, leaving her hair loose and getting herself into that date night staple—her little black dress. When she'd met him at the door, he'd gone slack-jawed at the sight of her and she had smiled a purely feminine smile.
Dinner again was a revelation. That connection that she thought might have been a one time thing was still there and growing stronger by the minute. They had kept the conversation light and flowing except for a moment in the middle when she'd asked after his family and he'd gone a bit silent. Out of all the changes in his life, he'd said, the remaining constant was his father's belief in pureblood supremacy. She hadn't known how to respond so she didn't say anything and he changed the subject to a simpler matter.
After the dinner, he walked her home to her flat. They walked closely but not too close, not touching yet each completely aware of where the other was. There was a moment in front of her door where they stopped and turned to each other to say their goodbyes. She looked up and he looked down, their faces inches apart. The match was about to light the fire but then she turned away, uttering a quiet "good-bye". She opened the door, stepped through and gently closed it behind her.
She stood with her back to the wood, her mind telling her to carry on with her life and to not get involved in anything more with the man, as there could be no future to it. But her body, her heart told her to open the door again and step into the unknown. After a moment, without thinking about it further, she turned back around and opened the door.
He was still in the doorway, his fist raised, caught in the motion of knocking on her door. Their eyes locked, light and dark, and that tinder that had been smoking caught fire, becoming a raging blaze. His hands were in the soft masses of her hair, her arms around his neck, their lips meeting in a kiss that sent jolts down through her fingertips and right down to her toes. He pushed, she pulled and they were through the door, slamming it shut behind them. Turning, he backed her against the door, lifted her hips, raised her legs and wrapped them around his waist, her skirt, loose enough to allow room for movement, was now trapped between them.
Her hands moved through his hair, down his neck, over his shoulders while his own hands gripped her hips then moved to the hem of her skirt. His lips traveled down the column of her neck and she tipped her head back in invitation, her skin burning wherever he touched. He pulled back, his breath ragged and his hips giving an involuntary push against hers, her back riding up the door a bit further. She let out a soft mew of delight. His eyes, dark with passion met hers, swimming with desire, asking an unspoken question.
"Yes," she whispered, bringing his lips back to hers.
She reached the end of the last row of chairs. She felt the weight of the gazes of her family and friends. Her eyes traveled the last distance she had to walk to reach the man she was going to marry. They moved over the short steps and up the tall form of the groom waiting next to the minister. His face so dearly familiar, his blue gaze compassionate and loving. He knew what was running through her mind right now and he understood. Her eyes filled and she blinked rapidly to hold the tears back.
The months that had followed that night were deliriously happy for her. Never before had she felt this sense of completeness, that the world was spinning right and that nothing could go wrong. She had fallen absolutely, irrevocably in love with a man who could, by turns, drive her insane with his impertinence and make her explode with his passion. A man she thought was her total opposite but who at the same time could know exactly what she was thinking. And the best thing of it all was that he felt the same way. They could barely be out of each others' presence without wanting to be back together. They couldn't be in the same room without needing to touch.
The only dark moments of their relationship came when they spoke of revealing it to her friends or to his family. For now it was a clandestine love affair, neither wanting to ruin their time together by exposing it to people with known prejudices against each other. He felt his parents would never accept her and she felt that her friends would never fully accept him, maybe even revile her if they knew how far she had fallen for him.
And so they carried on, completely in love, choosing for the moment to ignore any consequences of their secrecy.
Then one winter day, he proposed, in a candlelit dinner at her flat, getting down on one knee before her and she had accepted without hesitation. They made love that night, he was gentle with her, treating it almost as if it was her first time. And in the morning, he said he would tell his parents of their love and of their engagement and let them know that she was first in his life now, and that they had to accept that. He left to go do so.
And never came back.
Never to be seen or heard from except for a cold terse note a couple days later that told her he wouldn't marry her and wouldn't be seeing her again. When she received this, something shattered inside of her, causing something unnameable, deep, emotional and painful to spill forth and she had wept and sobbed and cried as if someone had died. He had finally accomplished what years of stress and violence and unendurable conditions during the war had never done—he had broken her.
There was an infinitesimal pause in her footsteps just before the stairs leading up to where the minister stood with the groom. This hesitation was noted only by the two people closest to her—her dark-haired best friend and her own fiancé.
Then she was up the steps and at the altar, her hand placed in the lanky redhead's, about to marry the wrong man for the right reasons. They turned to face the thin elder man in a dark somber suit, his gray hair neatly combed back. The minister gave the bride an encouraging smile and began the ceremony, "We are gathered here today…" Her mind wandered once more.
It was many months before she could bring herself together enough to do more than work and eat and sleep. Her best friends had shown up on her doorstep and gotten her to go out to dinner with them and during that time, she had smiled for the first time in a long time. Some days later, Ron asked her out again and she accepted, determined that she would move on, that she would find her balance again. Ron was familiar and loved and she felt comfortable in his presence.
After some time, Ron had asked her, haltingly, what had happened to her in the past year and she felt the gaping hole, barely healed over, break open again and she spent the night crying on his shoulder, telling him her sad tale. She could tell that he was shocked about who she had been involved with but sympathetic for her suffering.
Ron vowed that he would always be there to take care of her. She had wanted to believe him and had continued seeing him, because he was safe and none of what she had felt before, that frenzied excitement, that jolting energy, ever happened with him. She knew that their underlying friendship would survive anything, even if they didn't make it romantically.
She hadn't heard from him once, hadn't seen him at all. It was like he had fallen off the face of the planet. He was never coming back, she accepted that, and saw that she needed to live her life fully. So when Ron had proposed, she said yes.
She was brought back to the present as the minister spoke those rote words, "If there is anyone who would object to this marriage, speak now or forever hold your peace." The silence rang in her ears. His absence more damning than if had he been standing there in front of her telling her he didn't love her. She drew in a shaky breath. The tears she had been fighting to keep back were even closer to spilling than before.
The minister continued after a long moment, turning to the groom, "Ronald Bilius Weasley, repeat after me—"
The door to the chapel slammed open. Hermione froze.
"I object," a quiet emphatic voice was heard. A collective gasp escaped from those in the room. Her heart soared while her normally agile wits struggled to grasp the current circumstances. Slowly, she turned, still disbelieving. For who else could be standing there, looking more gaunt and unkempt than anyone could ever have imagined, but Draco Malfoy.
Time stood still as he moved forward, retracing the steps she had just minutes ago finished herself. His gaze only on the bright petite figure in front of him, ignoring the shocked whispers that erupted around him. His eyes said everything and more than she thought she'd never see or hear from him again. She barely registered Ron's hand falling away from hers as the man she loved so much, the man she thought had been lost forever, came to her, in the longest walk of her life.