A/N: The title says it all. I'm trying something a little different with this one. Hope you like it!
She's crying again, Draco deduced from the other side of the book shelf, the hiss and crackle of the fireplace filling in those long gaps of silence in the library as he tried to focus on his Potions essay.
It was nearing ten o'clock.
Most other students had cleared out for the night and retreated to their separate dormitories, but Draco had stayed behind a couple of minutes, hoping to bang out at least a line or two before he fucked off to bed. Suffice to say his second year at The Academy wasn't as easy he'd hoped. He'd managed fine in his first year, having received mostly E's and O's in his introductory classes whilst also splitting his time between a part-time job and the position of Seeker on the school Quidditch team, but his second year had proven to be something else entirely.
With a deep breath, Draco dipped the tip of his Quill into a pot of black ink, just barely scratching the surface of his parchment before he heard it again. The crying. At first he'd brushed it off thinking the uppity little witch had simply caught a cold, but as the seconds piled on, the sniffs and whimpers and the soft, broken inhalations became harder to ignore.
In the back of his mind he wondered what was so wrong that she couldn't hold it in.
The wizarding world was at peace, the Dark Lord had been defeated and the Ministry had offered the trio a set of high-ranking positions at the Auror Office straight out of Hogwarts. According to The Daily Prophet, both Potter and Weasley had accepted the offers, but Weasley had eventually stepped down to work at his brother's joke shop. In the end only one of the three had decided to continue their studies.
Sparing no more than a second of thought, Draco quietly nudged one of his rolls of parchment off of his table and onto the floor, bouncing a discreet look through the narrow gap in the shelf as he bent down to pick his parchment up.
Right away he could see that he was right.
She was crying.
The curls of her hair were bunched up in a messy top knot, the sleeves of her jumper were tugged down and dampened in tears, and the warm brown of her eyes were flooded deeply in whatever feelings she'd held in all these months.
She was alone at her table, clutching tightly to her Quill as she tried to blink away the tears in her eyes. Every breath she took, she struggled to hold in. The last traces of the strong, opinionated witch that Draco had once known, had suddenly vanished in the space of that one second.
Ignoring the tightness in his chest, he grabbed his parchment and quietly faced away, gathering then that she had no idea he was there. No idea that Draco Malfoy had caught her in such a state.
His heart ached for her and he didn't know why.
One Week Later
Hermione settled into an empty table at the Dining Hall, swiftly ignoring the stares and whispers that followed her every step. Somewhere down the line she had grown used to the attention, but it wasn't always so easy. She had spent most of her first year at The Academy hiding away in her dormitory or in the library or in whatever empty corner of the castle that she could find. In fact it wasn't until midway through her second year that she had learned to ignore it.
For the most part she loved it there — at The Academy. It was like Hogwarts but bigger, and it was packed with some of the most brilliant minds in the wizarding world.
But it wasn't home.
Absorbed in her copy of Moste Potente Potions, Hermione smoothly lifted her gaze as the morning mail came in, hundreds of letters and packages carried in by Owls and plopping down in front of staff and students alike. Twice the size of the Great Hall, the tables at The Academy Dining Hall were open to all as there were no Houses, the food was prepared by chefs instead of house elves, and the ceiling wasn't the only thing that was enchanted. The walls, the floors and the tables were enchanted as well, often representing the seasons.
That day the Dining Hall reflected winter.
Hermione might have appreciated the evergreen trees blanketed in white, twinkling lights dancing high up above, and tiny pieces of snow falling from the ceiling, were it not for the letter that smacked her squarely in the forehead as it fell down on her.
Startled by the impact, she grabbed hold of the letter and glanced up to find that the owl had already flown away. She had no idea which one had made the delivery.
It can't have been Ron's owl. He normally didn't write to her on the weekend given how busy he was at the shop on those days. We also had that awful argument through Two-Way-Mirror last night. There was always a chance that he'd written her an apology letter, but she very much doubted that. It was her fault they'd argued after all. She'd canceled the date they had set in place for the third week in a row. It's not that I don't want to see him. I just … Setting aside the sinking feeling in her chest, she figured the letter was either from Harry, Ginny or her parents.
With a deep breath, she tore through the wax seal, unfolding the parchment to find that it wasn't a letter at all.
You have been cordially invited
the birthday celebrations
"Really quick before I'm off to Edinburgh with Angelina. We've got a new shipment of Skiving Snackboxes coming in from the warehouse at eight o'clock this morning and an interview lined up for nine. Do you think you'll manage or should I reschedule the lot of it for when I'm back?"
Staring blankly at the freshly delivered letter in his grasp, Ron swallowed the ball of anxiety that was lodged deeply in the back of his throat and quietly tucked the letter in his back pocket. "I'll manage," he uttered to George after, the rhythm of excited chatter and scurrying footsteps echoing in from the front of the joke shop, as the two brothers hung back in the office. "You go on. Have a good time in Edinburgh. I'll take care of the shop."
There was a glimmer of suspicion in George's eyes as he stood by the door in his traveling cloak, simply studying his younger brother. Normally when Ron was in a mood, the older wizard would poke fun at him until he pulled himself out of it, but that day was different.
"Hermione's not Flooing in tonight, is she?" George guessed, knowingly.
Without a word Ron nodded, falling deep into thought as he remembered the words she'd used in the letter, the crookedness of them as though she'd scribbled the letter in a great hurry.
I'm deeply sorry for canceling our date tonight. I love you more than words can describe. Truly. I just … I feel as though I've been living my life on auto-broom for quite a long time now. Between school, work and coming home to see everyone, I have no time for myself. I've lost sight of who I was before I came here. I want to find that girl again and I want to bring her back to you as soon as I can.
Please don't for a moment think that I don't miss you. Because I do. Everyday. I just need time to be me again.
In part Ron was glad that Hermione was finally taking time for herself, doing something other than studying and hiding away in the depths of her dormitory, but she'd always been so adamant in keeping to their weekend dates in the early days.
The fact that she had broken their plans for the third week, and then declined his offer to come see her instead of the other way around … well, he was disappointed to say the least.
"Long distance isn't for everyone," George went on to say, breaking his younger brother's train of thought. "If you're unhappy —"
"I'm not," Ron rapidly interjected, swallowing the mixed feelings in the back of his throat as he got up, brushing the wrinkles from his uniform. "It-it's just one date."
"I know, I know. I'm just saying … you're both really young still. It might be easier to take some time apart for now. At least until she's finished school."
"Believe me, we've had enough time apart as it is."
"Not the kind that you need, though …" George inserted.
Ron scrunched his mouth into a frown. "Listen, I don't know where this caring, older brother act is suddenly coming from, but I'm not in the mood for it," he stated, firmly. "Go on to Edinburgh. I'll take care of the shop."
Looking hesitantly at the younger wizard, George was silent for a moment. "If you need anything —"
"I don't. Go."
"Okay, okay … I'm off."
Ron sighed deeply when he was finally left alone, extracting the letter from his back pocket as if to read it again, make sure he remembered it right. There was no mistaking the urgency of it, the manner in which his girlfriend had tried to communicate her feelings without quite doing so.
On the one hand he could have been reading too deep into the letter, searching for something that wasn't there, but on the other hand it was so unlike Hermione to brush him off like this.
Of course he wasn't so delusional to think she had fallen out of love with him due to just this, but he knew her well enough to know that something was out of place. Something she'd neglected to mention.
With a deep breath, he set aside those feelings and made his way to the front of the shop.
To his relief it was a slow morning.
Given the frigid chunks of wet snow that were falling from the sky that day, the usual crowd had been reduced to an eighth of what it normally was.
Smiling and nodding in hello to the few customers who had wandered in for a look at the new items, he hardly noticed the young witch who had approached the front desk.
"Sorry, is this Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes?" asked a soft, unmistakably feminine voice.
Ron glanced ahead, his eyebrows twitching up at the sight of that one Slytherin girl's younger sister. "Erm … yes, this is the place. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Adorned in stylish blue robes, the young witch nodded, quietly tucking a lock of wavy black hair behind her ear. "I applied for a position here last week. George Weasley said I could come in for an interview today, but … he doesn't appear to be here."
For a moment Ron just stared at her, unable to control the shock that rippled through his features. "You're the applicant?"
She fell silent as if confused. "Er … yes, I suppose I am. Is that a problem?"
"What? No, no! Of course not! I just … I wasn't expecting you until nine o'clock," he blurted, an embarrassed hitch in his throat as he swallowed. "George is in Edinburgh this weekend. I, er … I've got a shipment coming in at eight, but I'd be happy to proceed with the interview after that if you can wait."
"Oh, of course. I'll just … have a look around," she decided, an anxious colouring to her cheeks as she glanced at the various items that lined the shelves and walls and display tables. "Actually, I … I might just pop out for a quick walk if that's okay."
Something told him that he wasn't the only one having a bad day. "Are you sure? It's snowing quite heavily out there," he reminded her, nodding to the wet chunks that were smacking against the exterior of the shop window. "You're welcome to wait in the café upstairs."
In the few years since the war, George had expanded the shop, adding a Quidditch simulator and an attached café to his rapidly growing business. The café was run by a house elf and happened to be Ron's favourite place to go when he needed a moment to think.
He figured by the traces of anxiety in the applicant's eyes, she was in need of a place like that.
"Thanks. I-I'll go there now," she uttered after a moment of thought, forcing her lips into a smile before she quietly turned away from the front desk, a slim folder clutched tightly to her chest.
In the back of his mind he wondered what a witch like that was doing in a shop like theirs, and as she climbed the stairs to the café, he had a feeling she was wondering the same thing.
Moments later the new shipment of Skiving Snackboxes had arrived, swiftly breaking his train of thought as he signed for the boxes and charmed them to the storage room in the back of the shop in a clean, organized fashion exactly the way George had taught him. Only then did he climb up to the second floor of the establishment, nodding good morning to the house elf and then grabbing himself a coffee as he approached the younger Greengrass sister by the café window.
She appeared to be lost in thought, transfixed by the wet snow as it cascaded down the window in swift, narrow streams.
"Ready?" Ron asked from a safe distance, jumping in surprise just as she did.
Momentarily startled, the young witch gathered her senses, dropping her head in embarrassment. "Sorry, I-I was just — I didn't mean to —"
"It's okay," he reassured her with complete sincerity, in both his voice and his kind, bright blue eyes. "Now how about we get on with this interview before Diagon Alley is reduced to one giant puddle?"
Her lips twitched into a smile as she chuckled, softly. "Good idea."
In the seconds after, they settled into one of the tables at the café, sitting across from each other in silence as Ron eyed the girl's résumé.
"Astoria Greengrass … age nineteen … a summer internship at the Department of International Magical Cooperation … five months of volunteer experience at St. Mungo's Hospital … letters of recommendation from various high-ranking witches and wizards … three O's and four E's in your OWL's … all O's in your NEWT's …" He abruptly lowered the parchment, face screwing as he looked to the witch. "Sorry, why do you want to work here again?"
She quickly glanced down, as if to hide the traces of truth in her eyes. "Erm … I-I've just … I've read about the owners of this shop, how it came to be, and I … I believe in the message of going against expectations … making your own way …"
There was a small twitch along Ron's bottom lip as if he hadn't expected an answer like that. To his knowledge the Greengrass sisters came from a wealthy, pureblood family and had been raised with all the privilege in the world. He wasn't quite sure, but he had a feeling that was exactly the reason that Astoria had applied for a job at the shop. To go against expectations and to make her own way through life, just as she had said.
"You do know you're a bit overqualified to wipe the floors of a joke shop, don't you?" he asked, the faintest glimmer of amusement in his eyes.
She chewed her bottom lip, hesitantly. "I figure I could learn a thing or two from the people here. Surround myself in good energy if nothing else."
Resisting the urge to ask what she was running away from, Ron nodded to the witch, taking one last look at her long list of accomplishments. "I, erm … I'll need to have a word with George before I make any decisions, but from what I see here, it's likely going to be good news."
Her eyes lit up. "Really?"
Later That Night
Swirling his glass of firewhiskey, Draco barely noticed the brunette as she arrived. It was only as Blaise nudged him in the ribs that he lifted his gaze, the rhythmic th-thump of the music and the ambiance of chatter, dancing and laughter, pounding deeply in the shells of his ears as the party commenced.
"Look who's here," Blaise uttered to him, a hint of a smirk on his lips as he nodded to the doors of the pub.
Similar to Three Broomsticks in layout, the pub where Nott had decided to do his birthday party was called The Dark Wing, and happened to be located in Ballycastle, a wizarding village on the outskirts of The Academy. It was a bit quaint for Draco's personal tastes, but it was also the only pub in all of Northern Ireland that carried his favourite brand of firewhiskey.
Suffice to say he was pleased when Nott had suggested they go there.
Taking in a mouthful, Draco forced the fiery liquid down his throat as he spotted the brunette by the doors. Going by the nervous, slightly dazed look in her eyes, he figured she had no idea why she'd decided to come. In part he'd expected her to ignore the invitation and go about her night studying the way she usually did, but she'd always had a way of proving him wrong. Even when she didn't know it.
"I'm going to ask her to dance," Blaise decided, a downright giddy look on his face as he set his glass down to do as he'd said.
Ignoring the weird tug in his chest, Draco hung back a moment, observing from the other side of the pub as an entirely different wizard approached the brunette.
Blaise frowned. "Figures the birthday boy would go for her."
Without a word, Draco fixed his attention elsewhere, slowly but surely meeting eyes with Pansy as she danced on one of the tables with a few of the other girls in the group. Shooting him a wink whilst running her hands down her body, he had only one guess as to what she wished to do with him once the party was over.
They had spent the night together a couple of times, but it was never anything more than sex. In part because they were both so busy with school, and in part because the romantic interest just … wasn't there. On either side. Back in the old days they'd casually dated but the interest had faded after the war. The attraction had of course remained, but he wasn't sure that was enough for him anymore.
"If I ask her to have a drink with me tomorrow, do you think she'd be up for it?" Blaise asked.
Draco rolled his eyes at the suggestion, downing another mouthful of firewhiskey. "You do know she has a boyfriend, don't you?"
"Wait, really? I thought she was single."
"Well, you thought wrong," he reaffirmed, quietly looking to the brunette amidst the thick crowd of people that stood in the way.
That night she was dressed in Muggle clothes. A sensible, form-fitting black dress, a pair of heels to match, and a slim black clutch to hold her things.
If not for the curls in her hair, he'd barely have recognized her.
Slowly Blaise followed his friend's line of sight, pressing his lips together to keep from laughing. "Surely you know I'm talking about Tracey …"
Taking in another mouthful of firewhiskey, Draco suddenly choked. "R-right, of course. Tracey's single. You should definitely ask her out."
Blaise chuckled at his friend. "Of course, of course … I see how it is now. This is why you asked old Theo to invite Granger to the party in the last second," he gathered. "You can't wait to get in those knickers, can you?"
Glaring now, Draco opted for silence.
"I can't say I blame you," Blaise added in the seconds that followed. "A witch like her … Merlin, it's a right shame she's wasted on a bloke like Weasley. Why don't you go on and give her a little snake bite to take home to her boyfriend?"
"You've officially gone mad," Draco plainly stated.
"Maybe … or maybe I'm onto something. I s'pose there's only one way to find out." Without an ounce of warning, Blaise glanced ahead and shouted loudly over the music. "Granger! Granger, over here!"
Draco's eyes widened. "What in Merlin's name do you think you're —!"
Whatever words he'd thought to say had swiftly plummeted the length of his throat as both Theo and Granger calmly walked over.
Truthfully she'd no idea what she was doing there.
At first she had assumed the invitation had been delivered to her by mistake. It was no secret that she and the Slytherin crowd had never quite gotten along. But most of their lot had relaxed over the years, grown distant towards their pureblood upbringings.
In that regard, Theodore Nott appeared to have grown the most distant.
The fact that he had extended such kindness as to invite her to his birthday party … well, she was confused to say the least, but ultimately she felt she was better off confused and in the presence of a group of Slytherins than in the depths of her dormitory alone.
"You guys remember Hermione," Nott smoothly began, breaking her train of thought as the both of them found their way to the back of the pub, to where his friends were leaning against the bar, overlooking the dancing and chatter.
"How could we forget?" Blaise kindly asserted, bowing his head to her in hello. "Pleasure to see you again, Hermione."
She glanced to him in surprise. "Er … the pleasure is mine … I think."
Chuckling politely in response, he then motioned to the tall, blond-haired wizard that stood to his left. "Draco here was just saying how good you look tonight."
There was an empty beat in the conversation after he said that, during which time he was given a lightning fast elbow to the ribs, his face twisting in pain as Nott snorted with laughter.
Hermione simply stood there in silence, a twitch of uncertainty in her chest as she glanced to the only wizard amongst them who'd not yet spoken a word to her.
Once a great pain to her and her friends, the grey-eyed wizard who had delivered the elbow to Blaise's ribs, had somehow slipped into the shadows in the year and some months that Hermione had spent with him at The Academy.
With only a glance in his direction, she was met with a look that knocked the air out of her lungs for a moment.
"You'll have to ignore Blaise. He's had one too many pints," Malfoy said to her, curtly. "Good to see you've … found your way out of the library for a night."
Hermione swallowed the lump in her throat, firmly. "I suppose that's one way of saying hello."
Without a word, Blaise and Nott exchanged a quick, knowing look with each other.
"I'm not one for pleasantries," Malfoy clarified, the frigidity in his gaze speaking the exact words that his lips didn't.
Resisting the urge to roll her yes, Hermione simply swiped a shot of firewhiskey off of a passing tray and knocked it all the way back before she glanced to Blaise and Nott. "Okay. Which one of you wants to dance?"
A/N: Thanks for reading! I'd love to know your thoughts.