Birds chirped and sunlight streamed through the trees, painting dappled pictures along the pavement. Rose rushed towards the building, her precious cup of coffee in hand. Standing in line for twenty minutes to get her fix at Mecca Espresso had put her slightly behind schedule, but the coffee was divine and even her punctuality-obsessed inner voice considered it worth the extra few minutes. Selected to give one of the key lectures at the Sydney Symposium for Arithmancy-Based Security Systems, she wanted to ensure she gave a speech worthy of the honour. She mentally reviewed her talking points while skipping briskly up the steps.
When a tall, thin man with pale hair crossed her path, she wobbled mid-step and only barely managed to maintain control of her pile of parchment and teetering coffee. Looking up in irritation, she felt her heart skip several beats before beginning a frantic pounding in her chest. She blinked at the face she knew so very well, stunned into uncharacteristic silence.
“Sorry about that! I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
The familiar quirk of his eyebrow made her belly swerve in multiple directions simultaneously.
“Sorry? Are you all right, Miss?”
“Erm, nice to meet you, Rose. I’m Jason, Jason Wilkins.”
“Jason …” Rose scanned him quizzically. There was no way this wasn’t the man she remembered. She was versed enough in Glamours and various magical disguises to recognise those as possibilities, along with the astronomically small chance that he truly had a doppelganger. But her heart recognised him, knew his scent, his face, the way he moved, the perfect way he held his hands …
She could not help the shocked, whimpering sound when she spotted the silver ring on his left hand. Feeling as if her heart were splintering in her chest, she whispered, “You’re married?”
“Yes,” he said slowly, still looking at her as if he’d never seen her before in his life, as if he’d never lain in bed with her, gasping with her as they’d floated down from intimacy so powerful, so magical that the air had crackled around them. “Almost three years now.”
“I see,” she managed. “And you’re happy?” The words caused physical pain but she pushed them out anyway.
“Of course!” The cracked pieces of Rose’s heart shattered to dust. He’d never before looked so content, so peaceful, so free of worry, so happy. Even at the height of their passion, he’d never acted like this. The man she loved had too many ghosts, too many dark corners. She’d thought it was simply part of him; she’d thought no amount of joy, however transcendent, could erase that.
“Well, I best keep moving. Nice to meet you, Miss—Rose.” He gave her a cheerful wave and loped down the steps towards the busy street.
“Goodbye, Draco,” she whispered, watching him disappear into the crowd.
♥ ♥ ♥
“How could I forget? The girl who destroyed my best suit with a cup of mediocre coffee.”
“The girl you knew you’d fall passionately in love with?” Rose prompted, giving him a cheeky grin.
“Yes, well, I didn’t know that at the time,” Draco said, pulling her closer until she was tucked, warm and cosy, under his arm.
“You were the most gorgeous man I had ever met,” breathed Rose, her eyes going dreamy. “Standing there, so perfect and noble-looking, while I was trying not to laugh out of sheer mortification.”
“You were laughing and I was so angry.”
“But you forgave me!”
“Yes. How could I not? I saw in your eyes that beautiful, perfect peace I’d always longed for.”
“Oh,” Rose sighed. “You are so incredibly romantic, do you know?”
“Yes, well, I also thought you a cheeky brat who couldn’t even be arsed to apologise properly for the ruination of a thousand Galleon suit!”
“I said I was sorry!” she argued.
“Between giggles.” Draco’s expression was fond exasperation.
“You like it when I giggle,” teased Rose, climbing astride him and letting the sheet fall back.
“I love you and every beautiful breath that passes your lips, laughter or any of your one million perfect sounds.”
“Only a million?”
“I will never cease trying to discover more,” he vowed.
♥ ♥ ♥
He looked up from his untouched crème brulee and fixed her with an intense stare. She tensed when he took a deep breath before responding—that was never a good sign.
“I think that this isn’t working anymore, Rose.”
“What isn’t working?” she asked dumbly, unable or perhaps just unwilling to comprehend. He remained silent. “You mean us?” she asked, her voice small and uncharacteristically uncertain.
He nodded slowly and her heart felt as if he’d rammed a knife through her chest.
“I don’t understand. We’re happy. We’re in love.”
“This relationship is not prudent. It’s not good for you.”
“Not good? That’s rubbish! You’re good for me, the best for me! And who are you to tell me what’s good for me anyway?”
“I don’t think we should see each other after tonight. I will be leaving town, so that should make it easier.”
“Easier? How can you say that? You’re just leaving? Just like that? Running away?” She threw down the gauntlet, knowing how much he hated being accused of cowardice, desperate to keep him fighting, keep him with her.
“Yes.” When he finally met her eyes, the grim determination there was more devastating than any of his words could be.
“I’ll go with you. I’ll go anywhere! I love you. I want to be with you. I know that you love me, too. I know it! Don’t you want us to be together?” Her voice broke on the last word.
“No,” said Draco, his grey eyes cold and resolved. “I don’t want us to be together.”
Rose tried to hold in the violent sob that ripped from her throat. Rising unsteadily from the table, she fled. Away from Draco, away from these lies about not wanting her, away from all of it.
When she returned the following day to talk sense into him, to show him how wrong he was, she found Malfoy Manor deserted. Staring at the sitting room where they’d spent so many hours, now draped with dust cloth, she choked back another sob. She stumbled to the bedroom, their bedroom, where they’d spent so many hours, even days at time, wrapped up in each other, holding each other, loving each other. The bed sat bare in the centre of the room. Tears streaming down her face almost blinded her and she stumbled to the bed, curling up on the stripped mattress, pretending she could still smell the scent of the two of them in the fabric. Lying there, alone and broken, Rose cried, heart-wrenching, body-shaking, painful sobs, until she exhausted herself, fading into fitful, sticky-eyed dreams.
♥ ♥ ♥
“I’m not sure yet, Mum,” Rose muttered, picking raisins out of her scone. Twenty-two years and her mother still couldn’t remember that she hated raisins.
“I’ve been looking into options for you and there are tremendous opportunities! There are openings in Beijing and field work in Cairo—I know your Uncle Bill would put in a good word for you, not that you’d need it, but it never hurts to know people.”
“Beijing and Cairo?” Rose’s tone was sceptical.
“That isn’t all!” Hermione was quick to assure her. “You would not believe the opportunities in America right now.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Never! I just want you to explore all your prospects. The world is your oyster, darling. If you’re keen on staying in Europe, I saw that Cassius Perniweather, the foremost expert on the Continent, is looking for an assistant. I know it sounds menial, but it would open doors we couldn’t even dream of!”
“Mum, I think I want to stay here. Near London.”
“You know, I always regretted not seeing the world when I was younger. There were so many options, so many opportunities … I stayed here and did all right for myself, but oh, the places I could have gone, the experiences—Oh, Rose, honey, go. You can always come back home.”
“But I have a life here. I have … people.”
“We’ll visit you, darling.”
“I have a person, Mum—a man. I want to stay here near London with him.”
Hermione was silent for a long moment. “There are good opportunities in Apparatable distance,” she said finally, not sounding convinced.
♥ ♥ ♥
“Really? I thought you had dozens of opportunities lined up around the globe.”
“I did. I do. I was accepted into eleven different programs or positions on four different continents. I could go anywhere.” She waved a hand dramatically.
“But you’re staying here?”
“You’re here,” she whispered, giving him a soft smile.
At that, Draco sank onto the sofa, crushed her to his chest, and kissed her so deeply, so fully, so all-consumingly that Rose forgot everything else.
♥ ♥ ♥
After the brief niceties had been observed and the tea poured, Hermione spoke. “I know you’re in a relationship with my daughter.”
Draco’s face displayed nothing, a skill he’d finally mastered out of necessity after his overly emotive teenage years.
“I think you know why I’m here,” Hermione continued.
“I dare say you disapprove of your daughter dallying with a former Death Eater.”
She frowned slightly. “I may not like you much, Malfoy, but I do recognise the good you do. You’re not the same man you once were and I applaud that. Despite that, I cannot support your relationship with Rose. She’s young, brilliant, and has the entire world at her fingertips. And yet she wants to stay here. Why? To be with you. My daughter, who is so bright and visionary that she could do anything … instead she wishes to throw it all away, for you.”
“I would never ask her to.”
“You don’t have to ask,” Hermione shot back reproachfully. “She may be the cleverest girl of her own age, but when it comes to you, this, she’s just like any other young girl in love. She can’t see straight. Someday she’ll regret giving up everything to stay here for a man with whom she fancies herself building a life. She’ll regret it.”
“Like you do?” Draco asked, one eyebrow raised.
Hermione coloured and gave him a withering stare. “This has nothing to do with me.”
“Of course not,” Draco assured, his voice pure genteel politeness, but the insinuation lingered. “Granger, you’re incapable of Slytherin subtlety, so why don’t you just tell me why you’re here.”
“Rose is young and naïve. She can’t see anything but you. You know this can’t last—that you are not what’s best for her. You need to be the one to end it. For her own good.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because you care for her. I can see that.”
Draco said nothing, knowing Hermione was holding out. Sure enough, she played her trump card, the one that Draco, master player he was, had known was coming.
“You owe me, Malfoy. You stood by as I was tortured with Unforgivables in your own home. Stood right there in the room. You did nothing to stop it. I’ve never made it public, both because I didn’t want to talk about it, and because Harry wanted to protect your family and I respected that. But you owe me, and right now I’m calling that in.”
“You’re saying the only way I can repay my debt to you is by sacrificing what may be my one chance at true happiness?”
“No, you sacrificed that yourself when you accepted that tattoo on your arm.”
Draco turned and stared out the window, lost in thought. Hermione stood, her work complete, and saw herself out.
♥ ♥ ♥
“You always take Draco.”
“It’s my namesake. I could win this with only the names of my ancestors, you know.”
“You Blacks and your delusions of stardom.”
“You’re just annoyed that I know more about Astronomy than you.”
Rose swatted him lightly, grinning up at the sky. She didn’t need to look at his face to know that he was smiling, too. Competitive stargazing, where they went back and forth naming constellations until there were no more in sight, then bickered over details, like if Draco could count Aries, even if he could only see one of its stars, or if asterisms likes Ursa Minor were acceptable once they’d exhausted all visible constellations. The rules changed slightly each time, depending on the sky and their whims, and often victories were hotly contested, as both of them possessed strong competitive streaks and were sore losers.
“I already said that one,” he teased.
“Shut it, I’m serious!” Draco turned his head slightly at her rebuke and the moonlight glittering over his face made Rose’s belly twist just as intensely as when they’d first met. “Tell me again why you love me.”
He raised an eyebrow but answered honestly. “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me. When I’m with you, I remember that there is beauty and wonder left in the world. I spent years hating everyone and everything, convinced that there wasn’t anyone on this earth who wasn’t out only for him or herself. Sure that no one could really love, least of all me.”
“Then you met me.”
“Then I met you,” he agreed. “And I couldn’t keep my eyes off your beautiful face.”
“But that’s not why you love me.”
“No. I love you because sometime during this past year with you, I think I found my soul again. You’re my star, shining light into all the darkest places. It doesn’t hurt as much with you here, you keep the nightmares at bay, and you make me feel… peaceful. Like I’m finally safe, like I can finally stop running.”
Rose ran her fingers across his cheek and leaned over to kiss him softly. “You’re my star, too. Before I met you I was just a too-clever girl with lofty ambitions and my head in the clouds. With you, I’m so much more than that. You see right into my soul and make me feel like I’m the most amazing woman on the planet, not just because I’m brilliant or because of what I can do, but simply because of who I am.”
“There’s nothing simple about you, Rose,” Draco teased, his voice tender and soft in a way it only was when they were alone together.
“And that’s why you love me,” she shot back, sighing contentedly and clutching his hand in the darkness. After a moment she reached up with her other hand and traced a crown in the sky. “Corona Borealis.”
Instead of answering immediately with another constellation, Draco paused long enough to make Rose to glance over. Scanning the sky, he began tracing a large, complicated pattern she didn’t recognise using stars from almost a dozen different constellations.
“Did you just make that up?”
“It’s traditional on my mother’s side to be named after the stars. You’re my family now—you’re my star. For that you deserve the most brilliant constellation of them all.”
Rose stared in wonder at the golden lines, slowly fading, among the stars. “With Draco wrapped around it,” she observed.
“Seemed fitting. Wouldn’t you agree?” Draco shrugged.
Rose answered with a long, lingering kiss.
♥ ♥ ♥
Hermione sat back in her comfortable desk chair, looked coolly at her unannounced arrival, and removed her glasses. “What exactly are you unable to do?”
“I love her. She is everything to me. I cannot live without her—it’s impossible, unfathomable!”
“And yet this is what I’ve asked. That you settle a great debt—one that I know has gnawed at your soul for years.”
“Begging doesn’t become you, Malfoy.”
“Then give me an alternative!”
Sighing, she leaned forward. “If you need somewhere to go, a way to forget, I might be able make that happen.”
“Anything.” Draco’s voice broke on the word.
Hermione dug through her files and pulled out contact information that she hadn’t used in 25 years.
♥ ♥ ♥
In that brief moment of inattention she collided with a well-dressed man in a crisp, grey suit, her boss’s coffee spilling everywhere, soaking into the pristine white of his shirt and darkening the grey of his jacket and trousers with double milk double sugar. Trying desperately not to laugh, because her mother always said that her habit of uncomfortable laughter in inappropriate situations was unbecoming and unprofessional, she only stared, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.
Sharp grey eyes rose to meet hers and she trembled inside, not because of the fury those eyes held, but because in that instant she was sure she’d never met anyone as handsome or intriguing in her entire life. Her heart pounded, her lungs ached, and she marvelled as, within the frenetic buzzing of her mind, one thought took form. This must be what love feels like.