The guy sitting in the waiting room is tall and blond and angular and visibly, tangibly sulky.
He's also bleeding everywhere.
Hermione really doesn't have time for this.
Living at home again after six and a half years of relatively unfettered independence is exactly as bad as Hermione initially expects it to be.
Her laundry is all mysteriously, magically done on a regular basis, which is nice, but there are also a lot of depressingly invasive questions about her love life—or lack thereof—that inspire acid-washed tingles of heartburn and pounding tension headaches and quite a bit more mental aggravation than she's prepared to deal with at this point in the academic year. She's writing a thesis, not putting the finishing touches on her Bachelorette application. There is no room in her schedule for a "relationship".
Hermione explains all of that—slowly, and with a frankly admirable amount of patience—to her mother, and then her father, and then three of the bored, empty-nesting neighbors who nosily power-walk around the cul-de-sac every morning.
To no avail.
What's it to her, though, if they want to waste valuable Wednesday night book club hours gossiping about Hermione's perpetual loneliness? She doesn't care. She's fine. She has Crookshanks, and exploratory data analysis, and an incredibly dependable vibrator with nine settings. She's going to be published, professionally, at the end of this six-month stint in upper middle class suburban purgatory, and all they're going to have is a pile of empty wine bottles to recycle.
She feels sorry for them, honestly.
She pities them.
Which is obviously why, when her dad tells her that their office is in desperate need of an emergency weekend receptionist, she only rolls her eyes a little before agreeing.
"Excuse me," Hermione says, probably not as politely as her parents would prefer, "do you need another...towel? Or maybe just a bowl?"
The blond guy who's been half-bent over in his seat for the past twenty minutes, holding a blood-soaked towel to his mouth and tapping his foot against the leg of his chair with no discernible rhythm, glances up at her with something very nearly approaching disdain.
"Excuse me?" he drawls.
And, god, he has an accent. Blurry. Fuzzy. Almost a lisp. Whatever that ugly Canadian version of French is called.
"Just, well." She pauses. Clears her throat. "You're bleeding. A lot."
He sneers, which is admittedly kind of impressive considering how swollen his face is. "Thanks, I had no idea."
"You had no idea that you're getting blood all over the floor?"
"What do you mean 'so'?"
He snorts, inadvertently spraying more blood across the industrial blue carpet, and then winces. She notices that the bridge of his nose is slightly crooked, like something's either been broken or dislocated, and wonders if he was in a fight.
Hermione crosses her ankles under her desk, a muscle twitching in her jaw. "What, you just—don't care? That you're a walking biohazard?"
He stares at her, disbelieving. "Are you fu—sorry, do you work here? Is it your job to hand out towels and interrogate patients?"
She huffs, turning her attention back to the ominously blinking cursor on her spreadsheet. It's mocking her. From a distance. She really doesn't have time for this. "Did you have an appointment?"
"Did you," she says, more coolly, "have an appointment?"
He smirks. "No."
"Then what are you even—"
"Do you not know who I am?" he asks, tone decidedly patronizing.
She narrows her eyes. "In my experience, the only people who ever use that particular phrase are people that I would prefer literal death to actually recognizing, so—"
The door next to Hermione's desk suddenly swings open, cutting her off.
"Hey, Draco, sorry for the wait, we're all ready for you," her dad says, poking his head out and jerking his thumb behind his shoulder. "Did you bring, ah, your trainer said you'd have the..."
The guy—Draco, what kind of name is that—reaches into his sweatshirt pocket and pulls out a small Ziploc bag full of—
"Is that milk?" Hermione bleats.
Her dad chuckles. "There are teeth in there, too, sweetheart."
Draco snorts again and tosses the bag from one hand to another. "What was your name again?" he asks her, too smoothly, eyeing her with a bizarre blend of scorn and apathy and almost reluctant curiosity. "Didn't catch it."
"Didn't offer it."
"Hermione," her dad sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Just—Draco, this is our daughter, Hermione. She's home for a few months while she finishes up her thesis."
"On what?" Draco asks, sounding unimpressed. "Nothing...interpersonal, I hope?"
Hermione flashes him a dangerously thin smile. "Psychology is a soft science."
His expression ripples with an incredulous kind of amusement. "Criss."
"What?" she snaps.
He leans forward, directly into her personal space, and lowers his voice so her dad can't possibly hear. "You need to learn how to relax, I think."
Hermione grits her teeth and looks accusingly at the single drop of bright red blood he'd just dripped onto the corner of her massive, color-coded desk calendar. "Weirdly, that's only the second worst bodily fluid you could've exposed me to."
Draco barks out a surprisingly sincere laugh at that before he straightens his shoulders, gives her a sarcastic two-finger salute, and saunters away, following her dad down the hall.
Four days later, she has an ultra-purifying honey-avocado-oatmeal mask drying on her face and a steaming mug of ultra-calming jasmine green tea waiting for her on the coffee table.
Her thesis is nearly done.
She went to yoga that afternoon.
She ate a spinach salad for lunch.
She's fine. She's centered. She's perfectly capable of accomplishing things, and being nice to herself, and—relaxing. She's relaxed. She's going to unbury one of those Massage Envy gift certificates her advisers are always giving her for Christmas, and she's going to seriously consider using it.
She takes a deep, oxygen-rich breath, and switches on the TV in the living room.
"—and Malfoy's got a bit of a reputation, you know," the announcer for a hockey game is saying. "Quite the instigator, isn't he, Barty?"
The camera is focused on two players in different colored jerseys who are tearing their gloves off and shouting at each other. And because Hermione is exceedingly, relentlessly unlucky, one of them is Draco, Draco Malfoy, apparently, and he's just as smug and pointy and inexplicably fascinating as he was in her parents' office. Draco shoves the other guy hard enough to knock his helmet off, and then jerks his chin up, demeanor visibly taunting.
The second announcer hums. "Yeah, well—that's how they grow 'em in Montreal, eh, Ludo?"
"Yeah, and you know, it's just so—he's talented, isn't he, has an absolutely uncanny ability to see the ice, especially in, uh, in high-pressure situations, but, gosh, you know, the—the fighting—"
"He's just a pest, Barty, that's the, uh, that's the word around the league."
"Yeah. Yeah, absolutely."
"And—oh, there he goes, looks like he's landed a pretty good hit, and—you know, I've gotta say it, Barty, I've just—Finnegan, that's, uh, that's Seamus Finnegan, the Minnesota forward—he's really. Gosh. He's just gotta defend himself better, there. Malfoy's just. Just bullying him."
"And Malfoy's not that big, you know, doesn't have a huge size advantage, but he's just so..."
"Scrappy, yeah, just—just gets under your skin."
"A pest, yeah."
"Wicked wrister, though."
"Really smart—just—just a really clever player, too."
"Gotta think that reputation's well-deserved."
"Anyway, looks like a double minor for roughing, there, so we're gonna—"
Hermione blindly jams the power button on the remote and takes a much too large gulp of tea.
Four days after that, she's sitting cross-legged on an ugly, velvet-upholstered armchair in a quiet downtown coffee shop, glaring balefully at her laptop, when she hears that awful, smarmy, brain-meltingly distracting voice.
"Is this relaxing for you?" Draco Malfoy asks her, sipping leisurely at a frozen blended mocha. There are chocolate sprinkles stuck in his straw. She can see them. "It doesn't look relaxing."
Hermione raises an eyebrow. "I don't know how to say this delicately, so I'm not going to bother."
She smiles. "Fuck off."
"Careful," he says dryly. "Or I might think you're trying to flirt with me."
"Oh, you'd know if I was trying to flirt with you."
"Maybe," he concedes, flicking his hair back with a practiced nod of his head. "But would you?"
She frowns, firmly ignoring the heat she can feel creeping across her cheeks. "Wait, what?"
"Never mind," he says, flapping his hand and plopping down, uninvited, into the armchair adjacent to hers.
"What are you doing?"
He peers innocently at her laptop. "Joining you, obviously."
"Why are you joining me?" she demands.
"Because I'd like to enjoy my beverage in a comfortably relaxed position, Hermione, is that a problem?"
"Your proximity is a problem."
She blinks. "What?"
"Why do I bother you so much?" he asks, uncharacteristically crisp—because of course he can turn his accent on and off like it's a particularly annoying light switch.
"It isn't about you," she replies, but the words don't taste quite right. "I'm just—busy. It isn't personal."
"Oh, so you're like this with everyone?"
Hermione's nostrils flare. "Yes."
He slurps at his drink, studying her. "Interesting."
"You lick your lips when you're lying."
She stares at him—at his eyes, glittering gray and blue and silver in the late afternoon sun, at his pale, winter-chapped skin and the golden-blond stubble skirting the knife-sharp line of his jaw, at the way he has an ankle so annoyingly, nonchalantly propped up against his knee—and she swallows, oddly flustered.
"I don't have time for this," she says, slamming her laptop shut.
"For a conversation?"
Draco grins, unabashed. "So, it is personal."
Hermione stands up quickly, too quickly, and tugs at the sleeves of her sweater, hitching her bag higher up on her shoulder as she avoids his gaze. "I have to go," she announces. "It was...satisfactory. Seeing you. I guess."
His grin twitches wider, curves deeper, turning alarmingly contemplative around the edges, and then he throws a crumpled-up paper napkin at her, watches her fumble for it with an obnoxiously droll kind of expectation.
"I have better reflexes than you," he says.
"You're an athlete, it would be hugely embarrassing for you if you didn't."
He brightens. "You know who I am now."
She bristles and squeezes the napkin in her fist. "By accident."
"Really? I Googled you," he admits.
"You have a very...detailed academic resume."
"I—well, thank you, I've worked incredibly hard to—"
"But using arbitrarily-reported consumer data for your machine learning algorithms..." Draco trails off, dismissive. "That's a systematic flaw."
Hermione gapes at him, nonplussed. Uncomprehending. "What do you know about it?"
"I'm a hockey player," he says, blankly, blandly, like that's a valid, self-explanatory response. "I know quite a bit about statistical analysis and the hazards of incomplete data."
She stands there, stock-still, spine rigid, posture stiff—
And then she sits back down, draws her knees up to her chest, and fiddles restlessly with the cuffs of her jeans.
"Go on," she says slowly.
Relax, just do it, is scribbled on the napkin Draco had thrown at her, right above a phone number with an unfamiliar area code. Hermione inspects the mechanically tiny, shockingly neat handwriting for a full three minutes before reaching for her phone.
Time is a social construct, anyway.
She can always make more of it.