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Ready Ankles

Chapter Text

Oh I'm re-re-ready for my heart attack
Oh I'm oh-oh-over everyone for that
So I smile, smile, smile for the fact that I am here

 

One

 

"No."

Hermione leafed through a stack of old files and financial statements, sub-dividing them into three piles—keepdiscard, and undecided—while talking on the phone to Padma Patil, her second-in-command. Background voices and clatter on the other end made conversing more distracting than beneficial. Hermione had attempted to end the call three times, but Padma was more persistent than usual about this particular matter.

Weird, but not too abnormal.

"I certainly hope that your refusal has nothing to do with a certain childhood rivalry."

Her face hardened, not at all liking the tone of Padma's accusation. "Of course not." She was far beyond the puerility required to reject a client based on events that had transpired years before. Truthfully, Hermione just didn't want to take his company under her wing. "Now that wouldn't be very professional of me, now would it?" She kept her tone neutral, sarcastic even.

Padma didn't catch on to the underlying irritation in her business partner's voice because she was suddenly distracted by the heated argument between Zara Giguère, the head consultant of the new branch, and one of the movers. "Hold on."

After a brief pause, Hermione was treated to a side-conversation in French, starring Padma and Zara. The latter was upset because the movers were treating the furniture so carelessly. Hermione rolled her eyes and tried to stifle her impatience by working on the stack in her hand. Hermione wasn't exactly thrilled that Zara would be running the Parisian branch of PT Image Consulting (or P-TIC) after Padma returned to London, but had to begrudgingly admit there was no one better fit or equipped for the position. She had at least twenty years of experience on Hermione and came with a client list as long as her arm.

By the time Padma finished settling the disagreement, she was handing the discard pile to Intern One for shredding.

"So you'll agree to it then?"

"No," Hermione repeated, laughing to underscore her words.

Everyone briefly looked in her direction before returning to their work.

The level of activity in the office was mild for a Friday. She and the seven staff members that had been hand-picked to stay late and help—with pay and dinner, of course—had convened in the conference room to work on the dreaded task of office de-cluttering. Intern One was chewing gum, humming, and shredding paper. A junior accountant and Intern Two were sitting at the conference table that faced a corked wall, busily updating client files on company laptops. Interns Three and Four were steadily bringing in client folders from the file cabinets for Hermione and her secretary, Louisa, to look through and organise. Price, her personal assistant, was busy looking through the itinerary for the next week.

"Nothing against him, but I'd rather not."

Padma chose her next words carefully. If she'd been attempting to persuade anyone else, she would've talked to them calmly, implored them, reasoned with them, and even tried to guilt trip them into agreeing. But this was Hermione Granger. No one forced her to do anything. Ever. Padma had to do something she hated: she stopped deliberating and plotting…and just let the conversation take its course. "In my personal and professional opinion, his offer is—"

"I'm sure it's more than fair, but I don't want to take on a new client. I'm up to my eyeballs in clients." Hermione glanced at the uncertain pile, frowned, and adjusted her telephone headset. After computers, it had been the first thing she bought herself after she and Padma took on their first Muggle clients. She liked phones, thought they were more sensible and less intrusive than Fire Calls, but hated the way they kept her glued to her desk. It had always been a habit of hers to stay in motion, to work on several tasks at once, and the headset made it possible.

Ron thought it made her look stupid, but didn't dare say that to her face.

"You shouldn't be taking all these clients," Padma told her sternly, waving off one of her assistants who was trying to get her attention. "We just hired eight junior consultants that are more than eager to—"

"They need more training before I'm willing to set them loose on our clients."

Padma coughed, which drew more attention than she wanted. "They do not, and you know it." Exasperated, she rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand. It was time to take this conversation into a private room. She excused herself and went into Zara's future office. It smelled like freshly dried paint and cigarettes. Padma frowned and made a mental note to remind her that not everyone appreciated the smell of smoke. "Yuck."

"What was that?"

"Nothing important," Padma leaned against the desk. "Back to the original subject. The junior consultants are exactly what you wanted and what the company needs: bright, efficient, and trustworthy. You're just being stubborn, Hermione. We went through this same thing when we decided to start taking Muggle clients, and again when we decided to open the firm in Paris. I—"

"I'm not." Hermione retorted as she decided to keep all the 'uncertain' papers, at least until tonight when the phone calls stopped and everyone left. "I just—" She realised she was in a room full of listening members of her staff and silenced herself. "Nevermind."

Padma knew her well enough. "I know that you don't want to become obsolete, neither do I, but remember why we're doing all this expanding. We are growing. We're not just some hole-in-the-wall business anymore. This is your dream, right? You wanted to take P-TIC to a new level, right?"

"Of course."

"Well, the only way we're going to do it is if we make some changes, bring in new blood, and spread the workload. I know this has been our show for the last six years, but business is booming at a rate that we can't keep up with on our own. You haven't taken a vacation in years because you've felt like you couldn't, but I'm working hard to—"

"I understand that—"

"We can't do everything and be everywhere. You've got to start having faith."

Hermione gave a great sigh because, deep down, she knew Padma was right.

This was her ultimate dream for her company. She'd had the idea to start an image consulting firm two months after the war, when the mourning period was over and the entire wizarding world fell into post-war chaos. Things were awful. Hermione still felt a little naïve for thinking that all the problems would die with Voldemort. They hadn't. Even when the dust settled, the Ministry was at its most vulnerable: the economy had completely collapsed, the Ministry was completely disorganised, and people were living in terror because rouge Death Eaters were roaming the countryside, killing when they could and being pursued by very inexperienced Aurors. To make matters worse, the dementor-less Azkaban was full of Death Eaters awaiting trial and there were several breakouts, and the Interim-Minister was determined to keep the Ministry's going-ons internal.

His decision had led to a complete lack of trust in the Ministry, which quickly dissolved into riots in the streets, more vandalism and talks of overthrowing Shacklebolt and placing Harry Potter into power. The Ministry had needed someone—an outsider—to fix their image and convince the people to put their faith back into the very people who had helped save them from Voldemort.

And the idea was born.

Hermione shook the thoughts from her head and cleared her throat. "Fine."

Padma perked up. Well, that had been remarkably easy. "Are you saying 'fine' to letting the new consultants be more involved, or 'fine' to meeting Draco Malfoy to discuss taking on his company as a client?"

"The former. The latter still gets a firm 'no'."

"You're being unreasonable."

"I'm not sure how. I don't need him or his company. Not only would it completely muck up my credibility, but I'm almost certain that this will come with a string or two attached. It's unlike Malfoy to be too generous."

Padma spun around in her chair. "Regardless, you should capitalise on this."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Don't be absurd."

"He's offering to pay you four thousand Galleons. Four times the amount of the normal fee."

She paused. "Per year?"

"Per week."

"Really? That much?" Hermione chuckled to herself as she leaned back in her chair and considered her options.

Intern Three and Price shared a quick glance from the places they were working at. If more than reasonable fees were being discussed, they knew their boss might compromise her principles regarding taste and decorum to take on a new client, even if she wasn't that excited at the prospect of working with them.

"Well, he must be desperate. Or stupid." Hermione finally said. Most of their clients usually were. PT Image Consulting had a reputation of being the first firm corporations called before a major scandal hit. "This could be a great opportunity for one of our new junior consul—"

"He wants you."

"Of course he does." She frowned; thoughts and theories flooding her brain.

Padma could almost hear Hermione's distaste, but knew her well enough to know that she would concede. The offer and intrigue were just too much. Finally, after several moments of silence, she heard a sigh.

"Have his secretary contact Price to confirm a meeting for Thursday at six o'clock at The Greenhouse."

"Will do." Padma flipped her mobile shut. She basked in the glow of victory for only a moment before making a second call. There were two rings before a voice she recognized immediately answered. "Hey. She's in. Good luck not getting hexed." Padma chuckled at his response and swiftly ended the call.

There was much to be done and very little time in which to do it in.

Hermione slipped the mouth piece up over her head, and frowned at the new predicament she'd gotten herself into. "If anyone needs me or has any questions about file organisation, I will be in my office."

She stood and picked up her handy notepad and pen.

"Price, pencil in that appointment for me, please. Also, be on the look-out for a confirmation call from Dunder-Malfoy." Now that she was semi-committed to taking a meeting with him, she would, at the very least, treat the meeting with the respect it deserved. She had a lot of research to do. "Oh, and hold all my calls for the afternoon."

Hermione arrived at The Greenhouse a full fifteen minutes before the designated meeting time, expecting to have over forty minutes to herself. She knew several CEOs, and tardiness was the rule, instead of the exception. Especially for the initial meeting. Tardiness usually annoyed her. It showed an obvious lack of respect and regard for her time. However, her day had been so mentally wearing that she welcomed it.

And she'd welcome some food, too.

The only thing she had eaten was toast and half an apple, and her low blood sugar was having an adverse effect on her mood. She wanted nothing more than to sit at the delightful table in the corner that she had requested, and order a decent glass of wine and Limousin veal sweetbread to tide her over. More than food or wine, Hermione wanted a few minutes to collect herself, clear her mind, and prepare herself for whatever Malfoy had to throw at her.

It had to be something.

She'd spent hours—no, days—researching Dunder-Malfoy, studying the reports his assistant had sent over, and talking to every one of her contacts. Not only had she been unable to find anything about his company that would warrant him paying her four thousand Galleons for her services, Hermione had learned that Malfoy was actually ran a tight and efficient parchment company that had minor problems.

No scandals. No illegal use of funds. No recalls. No illegal production. No house-elves.

It was perplexing, and Hermione didn't like that one bit.

For the most part, her clients weren't complicated—greedy and inconsiderate, but easy to decipher. Some complied with her demands, some compromised, and some made her want to hex them into the next century, but overall, it was satisfying work. Companies needed her to fix their image and respected her opinions. They took her harsh criticisms and sought her advice long after their contracts ended. And even though Hermione rarely respected or even liked her clients, she admired the ones who stuck with her, got their act together, and succeeded. It took a lot of time, faith, and resilience.

Draco Malfoy had the latter in spades.

The maître d', who walked alongside her, tall and unblinking, informed that they had only been waiting ten minutes for her. "They haven't ordered. They are waiting for you, Miss."

Hermione blinked in confusion. "Excuse me, 'they'?"

She looked and the sight made her fists clench, hard.

It wasn't the sight of a prompt Draco Malfoy sitting at their table, looking completely…like himself. No. It wasn't even that he had come prepared with a ridiculous looking quill and a bit of parchment. No. What really sent her careening over the edge was the fact that he was sitting with her best friend, Harry Potter. Her first instinct had been to turn on her heels and walk out, but Hermione was nothing if not a professional. Besides, this was her only chance at getting a decent dinner by someone else's hand, and she was famished. Her stomach grumbled in agreement. So with carefully calculated strides, Hermione shook off the maître d' and seated herself.

Draco saw her coming from the corner of his eye and politely rose to his feet as she took the seat across from him. Potter greeted Granger with a crooked smile that fell when her eyes narrow into mere slits.

She was not a happy witch.

"You're early," she said in lieu of a greeting. "And Harry," her voice was full of accusation. "I thought you were having dinner with Ron."

Harry flushed, remembering the conversation they'd had earlier that day. There really was no excuse he could give, but it didn't stop him from trying. "I—err—erm—"

Potter was a piss poor liar if he ever saw one. Draco had no idea how he'd been convinced into letting him come along. "You're early as well, Granger," Draco replied, settling down once again.

"Well, I like to have a few minutes to myself before meetings," she told him primly, voice heavily laced with the infuriation she felt. "I also do it to avoid walking into surprises."

Both wizards started to speak simultaneously, but Hermione cut them off with a look Harry had dubbed 'The Ron'. It was usually accompanied by hard breathing and a bulging vein on the side of her neck. Since neither had yet to make an appearance, Harry figured they were safe. For now. He glanced over at Malfoy before making eye-contact with his best friend. No matter what Malfoy had said and no matter how hard Padma laughed at him over the phone all week, Harry was their only hope at convincing Hermione to help. He was sure of it.

Now, if only she'd give him a word in edgewise. "Hermione, I—"

She held up her hand. "Harry, I'm not sure what's going on, but I don't plan on speaking to either of you until I've had a glass of wine and some carbs."

And she didn't.

Hermione scanned the room, quickly finding what she was looking for. It only took a moment before one of her favourite waiters, Mandel, came over, questioning her as to what she desired in a soft, muted voice.

"I'd like a bottle of pinot noir," she told him. "And three glasses."

Draco tried not to look affected. Pinot noir was a good choice of wine, he had to admit. It wasn't his ideal selection, but it was red, soft, and would go well with just about anything on the menu. She probably knew that, too. How accommodating. Draco eyed the witch across from him. So Granger knew a little about wine?

Surprising, but not too.

"Does Madame have a preference tonight?"

"No," Hermione answered, sounding more dismissive than intended. She paused and tried again. "I trust your judgement, Mandel," and gave him a small smile. "We're not exactly ready to order just yet, but I would like to order the Duck foie gras terrine as my starter, please."

"Excellent choice."

The waiter returned less than two minutes later with their wine and menus.

Draco kept his eyes on Granger while she watched the uncorking, carefully scrutinising her. He'd seen Granger a handful of times since Pansy had fallen for Weasley—the one without table manners—and decided to drag him along for the ride. Granger was never late, but always left early, which annoyed Weasley into inserting his giant foot into his mouth. Watching her verbally cut him to bits had always been the highlight of the day. Draco leaned back in his chair when Granger accepted the glass from the waiter and took the obligatory first taste. She must have done something since Draco had seen her last because she looked go—bugger.

He frowned.

Not again.

Every bloody time he saw her, he felt this strange…attraction for her. There had to be a reason for it, but Draco couldn't identify it. It definitely wasn't her personality. Granger was a slightly irritating, know-it-all. Time hadn't changed that. But… she was also incredibly witty and had a dry charm about her. Nothing too special. He wasn't drawn to her hair, which was currently pulled back into a bun. It was plebeian, at best. There was nothing special about her clothes: navy, pin-stripped, and professional. Insipid. She even wore plain jewellery. No engagement ring. Draco blanched slightly. Had he actually looked at her finger?

Harry kicked Malfoy under the table and grinned brightly upon receiving a glare that could easily freeze a fire. "Welcome back, Malfoy. Now if you could stop staring at Hermione long enough to order, that would be great."

"I wasn't staring." He tried to hide his discomfort with curt words, but it was apparent that he'd failed when Potter started chuckling and Granger's cheeks took on a bit of colour.

"Actually," she shifted in her seat awkwardly. "You were."

"See anything you li—oww!" Harry grimaced. "Did you both have to kick me at the same time?"

Looks were exchanged, smiles were repressed, and answers were given simultaneously.

"Yes," Draco replied curtly.

"I felt it was necessary," she agreed.

Harry glared at them both.

Hermione sipped her wine. "Take your time ordering, Malfoy."

The look she gave him made his cheeks start to heat, but Draco took a large gulp of wine to counteract it. He hadn't so much as glanced at the menu. To save himself any future embarrassment, he said the first thing that came to mind: "I'll have what she's having."

"Saddle of venison, it is. Excellent choice." Mandel excused himself and left.

Hermione unfolded the white napkin and draped it across her lap. "You trust my taste?"

"Trust has very little to do with it. I've never eaten here before, but the staff knows you fairly well. It was only—" Draco was interrupted by the arrival of Granger's starter.

Hermione thanked Mandel with a quiet nod, glared at Harry when he boldly asked for a taste, and picked up her fork. The first bite was heaven on earth. The second was epic. It made her giddy in a way that was almost unbecoming for a witch of twenty-six. She attempted to stifle the growing smile on her face, but couldn't. The food was so meltingly tender it was humbling, so flavourful it almost made her forget that there was something fishy going on around her, and so incoherently delicious it almost made her stop listing all her conspiracy theories.

Almost.

A few more bites and sips of wine quieted the suspicious part of her brain and allowed Harry to drag her into a conversation about nothing important. She hadn't seen him in nearly two weeks, but he had so much to talk about. Their jobs. Ginny, who was training with the Harpies in Cyprus. Hermione's abysmal date with Dean Thomas that Padma had set up. Seamus' birthday party next week. Hermione's trip to Paris for work. Cho's wedding next month. It went on.

And on.

Draco mentally checked out of their inane conversation the moment it had begun. He hadn't been so keen with having Potter at this meeting, but his presence was working out for the better. Not only was the focus off of him, but Granger's mood was improving. Perhaps he would get exactly what he wanted, after all. Draco sipped his wine and unintentionally allowed his mind to wander. He found himself consciously watching Granger. She was almost fondling her fork as she spoke to Potter, running her fingertips up and down the handle. It was an unconscious action, he knew, but Draco was almost incoherent with the bizarre desire to become that fork. He stared at it, imagining Granger's fingers and how they would feel on his skin, running up and down his…

"Would you pour me another glass of wine, Malfoy?" When he only blinked at her as if she were speaking an archaic dialect, she gestured to the bottle. "It's sitting right next to you."

Malfoy's hand shook slightly as he filled Hermione's glass and she could only imagine what was wrong with him. Perhaps he was playing mental games with her. Her suspicion reawakened. "Do you not like the wine? You've barely touched it."

"It's a good choice, but I'm not here to eat, drink, and be merry."

After chewing on her latest bite of food, Hermione quipped, "Can't say that I'm wholly surprised." She took a large sip of wine before she finally asked the question of the hour. "What is it that you want? And how did you manage to drag Harry into your scheme?"

"Scheme?" Draco drawled. "I should be offended."

"But you're not," Harry said simply.

"Not at all," was his smug reply. "However, you should know that your precious Potter came on his own accord."

Hermione found that very hard to believe.

"I did," Harry confessed, straightening his glasses.

"Why?"

"Because we need your help."

"'We?'" Hermione snorted. "Oh, now this is rich. Since when have you and Malfoy been a 'we'? And does Ginny know?"

Harry missed the double entendre. "Of course she does, she was the one who suggested it."

"Kinky."

Draco almost choked on his drink while Potter glared. "You're not funny."

"I like to think I am," she replied primly. "I must have some sense of humour. If I didn't, I'd be hexing you both right about now, Statute of Secrecy be damned." Hermione sipped her wine. "I think I'm ready to find out why I'm here."

Fresh fork in hand, Potter attempted to steal the last bite of her food, only to be rejected when she swatted his hand. Like a child. Once again, Draco hid his facial expression by lifting the wine glass to his lips. While the speckled wizard sulked, he told her everything he knew about the situation. "Last week while you were gallivanting in Paris, Weasley gave Pansy a promise ring. For a reason unbeknownst to me, the action led to a huge row and ended when she walked out on him. She says it's for good."

Hermione held up a finger. "First of all, I don't gallivant. It was a business trip." She added a finger. "Second, I fail to see the issue here. They're completely smitten with each other. They'll work it out like they always do, and you both will see that all this scheming was for naught."

Simultaneously, Malfoy snorted and Harry shook his head. "We're not so certain."

"Oh?" she questioned as she took another sip of wine.

"She's moved out. Completely."

Hermione set her glass down and leaned back in her chair, thoughtfully. Now that was interesting. She'd had a strong opinion about them impulsively moving in together after only three months of dating, but kept her mouth shut. As much as she cared about being right, she cared more about keeping the peace between her and Ron. Besides, he was a big boy; he could make his own mistakes and everything. "What happened?"

"Ron says she completely flipped when he gave her the ring and started saying all these things that really irritated him, so naturally, he put his foot in his mouth in a spectacular way," Harry shook his head. "He didn't tell me what he said, but it was bad enough for Pansy to storm out the house in a robe with nothing but her wand."

"What an idiot," she rolled her eyes. "Both of them."

Draco agreed with her there. "While I think that leaving him was the best—" He scowled when Potter kicked him, but kept his eyes on the frowning Granger. "Pansy's a good actress, but I know she's not happy."

"Again," she said dryly. "I fail to see what I have to do with any of this."

Harry sighed and started recounting his adventure with his heartbroken best friend. "Ron's crushed."

"I'm sorry to hear that, but—"

"Look Hermione. I know you'd rather not get involved, but this is important. Ron's been staying at with me until he finds another place because—well, he can't stay at theirs without thinking about her. And…" Harry sighed. "He won't snap out of it. His mood is all over the place and I'm not sure what to do. I can't keep my cupboards stocked because he eats everything. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and he was sitting on my kitchen floor, eating a stick of margarine. Margarine!"

"We both know that Ron has arteries of steel."

"I think you're missing the point, Granger," Draco said.

"Because you haven't made a point, Malfoy," she retorted brusquely.

"Okay, here's the point," Harry adjusted his glasses. "We want you to help us get them back together."

"I'm an image consultant, not a counsellor."

Harry knew he wasn't explaining this as eloquently as Malfoy could, but he was just sitting there looking at him. "Well, Malfoy wanted you to work for his company and, maybe, set up a way for them to get back together…"

But Hermione did something neither expected. She tilted her head back…and laughed.

Neither shared her amusement.

"It's not funny, Hermione."

"You and Malfoy, teaming up to play love doctor…that's not funny, it's hilarious!"

Draco glared at her. "So are you going to do this?"

She sobered and replied with no hesitation. "Not a chance." When Harry opened his mouth to argue, she held her hand up. "I haven't interfered with Ron's love life since I starred in it. When we broke up, we agreed not to stick our noses into each other's relationships. And that works for us. I don't expect either of you to understand."

"But this is different! He wants your help. It's obvious she still cares about him or else she wouldn't—"

Hermione felt the distinct buzzing of her pager on her hip and checked it. "Hold that thought."

"What the hell is that?" Draco eyed the little device curiously.

"It's a pager. Muggles use it all the time to communicate. When there's an emergency and no one can reach me by mobile, they page me. It's quite efficient, and unlike a Messenger Patronus, I can receive messages from anyone at any time."

"Nifty," he drawled.

"So you have to go?" Harry looked a little disappointed.

"Yes, sorry, but it's Padma and I know it's nothing frivolous. We've been having a few issues at the Paris branch today and whatever she needs me for has to be handled straightaway. You understand, right?"

"Of course I do." Hermione smiled at him, picked up her purse, and plucked out her wallet. She started to take out a few banknotes to pay her portion of the bill, but Harry stopped her. "I'll pay." There was a grin on his face when he added, "And I'll make sure to eat your food for you, too."

"Wonderful," she replied dryly and stood up, purse in hand. Hermione was pushing in her chair when she caught Malfoy's eyes on her. "Oh, and so we're clear, my answer is still no. I'm not going to interfere." And she left before either could argue.

"Well, I guess that's it then," Potter said to him, sighing with defeat.

Draco snorted. "Hardly."

 

Chapter Text

I'm re-re-ready for another round
And I'm hope-hope-hoping this one puts me down
'Cause I'm clean like linen,
But I'm foggy in the night

Two

 

It was well after midnight when Hermione said, "I'll be right down," and set the phone on the receiver. She gathered her purse and briefcase, placed all her unfinished work into a neat pile on her desk, shrugged on her jacket, and left her empty office. Her driver, Ellis, stood patiently beside a silver Sedan. Upon seeing her, he hurried to open the back door.

"Evening, Miss Granger."

She stopped and gave him a mock angry look. "And here I was thinking we'd finally moved on from stiff formalities." Ellis Bates had been her driver for just under four years. He was a nice older man, who wore round glasses and was on the short and stout side. Prompt and polite, she constantly asked him to call her 'Hermione', but his professional nature had not once wavered. Secretly, she liked that best about him.

"I apologise."

Hermione slipped into the back of the Sedan, placed her briefcase and purse on the seat beside her, and exhaled. Ellis shut the door behind her and soon, he was pulling off. Truthfully, she could do without the car or on-call chauffeur. There were other more efficient modes of travel. The entire Floo system, right down to the powder, had been modernised. And Apparition was an effective alternative. Both could quickly get her from place-to-place in little to no time. This was why she had a car. Hermione's days were chaotic, at best. She was endlessly on the go and never spent more than a couple of hours in the same place. With instant travel, she would have run herself ragged and into retirement much sooner. In the car, she could spend the travel time thinking, relaxing, and preparing for the next meeting or problem.

Oh, and Ellis. He was like a second father and she would've gone mad without him.

He was loyal, agreeable, and a damn good listener—a trait she admired, but was in short supply.

"You look tired tonight." Ellis looked at her from the rear-view mirror.

Hermione flashed him a tired smile. "I am. How are Martha and the kids?"

"Very well. Martha wanted to thank you for the gift certificate. Dinner was wonderful."

"Oh, it's not a problem, at all."

"How was your day?"

"Long. Very long."

"Tell me about it."

And she did.

It took the entire trip to her flat, but she unloaded the new troubles with the Paris office. "Zara is even more of a perfectionist than I am, and that's saying a lot. I keep telling Padma that she better be worth the headache she gives me everyday." She told him about her irritation with Seamus, who was badgering her to give Dean another shot. "There's nothing wrong with Dean, honest. I've known him since I was eleven. He's attractive and funny, but he's a terrible conversationalist and listener. When we talk, it seems like everything just flies over his head…if he's even listening, at all! How can I date someone like that?" Hermione even told him about the conversation she'd had with her mother. "She didn't get married until she was thirty, and she's worried about me at twenty-six. It's ridiculous. She keeps dropping hints about wanting grandchildren and how there are wonderful, available men in Australia, just for me. And she wonders why I'm not flying there for her birthday in June. I can barely take the international phone calls; I don't think I can take her in person for a week."

By the time she finished, Ellis, who had been listening quietly, was parking in front of her building. He put the Sedan in park and killed the ignition. "First, I've listened to you talk about this Zara woman for weeks and I think no one is worth that kind of irritation. I don't care how good she is or how many clients will come along with her. Second, you can't date someone who doesn't communicate effectively. It never ends well. So stick to your guns and don't let your friend, Seamus, convince you to change your mind. And third, your mother loves you and wants you to be happy. There must be something you're saying or doing that isn't convincing her. Don't make any excuses when it comes time to visit her. Just go. You're not going to have forever with her, just think about it." Ellis smiled at her. "Now, it's late. I'll pick you up right here at seven."

"Better make it six." At the concerned look on his face, she added, "I'm going to go right in and sleep, promise."

The ride up to her floor was uneventful. Thankfully. By the time she closed the door behind her, a wave of exhaustion hit her hard and she was in no mood to look at her mail or owl posts. Hermione abandoned her briefcase at the door of her office and trudged into her bedroom, yawning. She heard a strange noise filter from her den, but figured it was Crookshanks. Ever since he figured out how to turn on the telly, it had been a battle to get him off the Ottoman. But Hermione wasn't going to fight him tonight. He could sit and watch the telly all night for all she cared.

Her answering machine on her bedside blinked, indicating messages, and her stomach rumbled for food, but what she wanted most was sleep. It seemed as if it had been forever since she'd slept more than four hours at any one time. She unbuttoned and shrugged her blouse off, then her skirt and shoes.

A bath. That would be just what she needed to fully relax.

The water was warm, filled with scented bubbles and a vial of potion that would loosen her tired limbs. Music trickled in from the wireless in her room. The only thing missing were candles, but it was perfect enough for her. Hermione sank into the deep, wide tub and gave a contented sigh. Yes, this was perfect. Steam. Moisture. Heat. She took her time, thoroughly soaking before washing off all the grime of the day.

When the music on the wireless changed to a slower melody, it caused an odd image of Draco Malfoy to flash in her mind. It took her back to yesterday's bogus meeting—if it could be called that—in The Greenhouse, and back to the way he'd stared at her. The look in his eyes wasn't heavy with the contempt or disgust he'd felt towards her when they were children, but with fire—fire and curiosity. And it made her feel—Hermione dashed the thought away and sunk under the frothy water.

Only when her lungs burned for air did she resurface. The gasp of breath that followed made her cough and ultimately decide that the bath was over. She got out, dried her body and hair, and changed for bed. However, the moment she settled under the covers, her stomach decided that it would no longer be ignored.

"Fine then." With a low growl of annoyance, Hermione rolled out of bed, mindlessly grabbed her wand, and headed in the direction of the kitchen. And she froze mid-step when she heard more noises. Crunching and mumbling noises, to be exact.

Definitely not Crookshanks.

Stealthily, she walked down the hall, making sure not to be heard. Whoever this was had to a wizard—and a powerful one, at that. Her flat was warded and locked tighter than Draco Malfoy's wallet. Hermione frowned. She needed a better analogy. A drum. Yes. Perfect. There was only one person who knew the code to get into her flat via Floo, and Harry was not stupid enough to come over after midnight without writing or calling first. With her wand at the ready, Hermione leaned against the wall next to the archway to the living room and peeked in. The telly was on and there was a person wearing a grey hood sitting on her sofa.

Crookshanks was nowhere to be found.

And just when she was about to breathe the hex that would bring them crumbling to their knees, the person let out a great sigh and wistfully asked, "Crook, where's my Mr Coulston?"

What the—"Ron?!"

At the sound of her voice, Ron jumped clean off the sofa with a high-pitched—and un-manly—screech. He bumped into Hermione's coffee table, which sent everything he'd scrounged from her fridge—and Crookshanks, who had been enjoying a few crisps of his own—flying. As the cat yowled and scurried under the sofa, Ron pulled the hood off his head and ruffled his red hair in an attempt to avoid meeting her eyes. The decision to turn and face the music only happened when Hermione shifted her weight from foot-to-foot—a sure sign that she was about to start yelling. He bet her hand was on her hip.

Ron glanced and cringed.

Yes, yes it was.

His face was beet red when he breathed, "Hey Hermione."

She blinked at him. "Is that all you have to say to me?" When he said nothing, her other hand went to her hip. "What the hell are you doing in my flat at almost one in the morning? Why are you watching movies with my cat? I was about to hex the muffins out of you!" Hermione paused and sniffed the air. "And why the hell does it smell like pie and cheese!"

"I was waiting for you, and I got hungry." Which was a bit of an understatement. Ron was nearly ravenous by the time he got there. Harry's cabinets were always empty…or locked.

Finally, she moved out of the doorway and into her sitting room to assess the damage. She paused when she reached the sofa. How much food had he eaten? Better yet, was there anything left? "Do I still have butter?"

Ron paled. "Uhh…"

"Margarine?"

"Erm…"

"Oh for heaven's sake, Ron!"

"Sorry." His demur apology sounded a little too dejected for her tastes. It snuffed out the anger that had started to flare behind her eyes. He looked a mess. His hair was wilder than Harry's on a good day, and there was a yellow stain on the centre of his jumper. Probably mustard.

"Missed your mouth again?" she joked.

Ron looked down and shrugged weakly.

Hermione frowned. She'd never really seen him so…depressed. Not even when the Cannons didn't make it to the playoffs his first year. Not even when she decided to end things between them. He took most everything in stride. After the war, Ron had transformed into the 'we'll make it next year' and the 'you're right about us' man. But not now. Right now, he looked as if he'd lost his last friend on Earth.

"I would still be at Harry's, but he had some Auror thing to do tonight. I didn't want to be alone, so I asked him for your passcode, but I'll just…go back to Harry's and wait."

"No, no. You can stay. Just…go shower. You smell like Butterbeer and burritos."

While Ron showered in the guest bathroom, Hermione kept herself busy despite her fatigue. She cleaned the mess he'd made of her den, eliminated the food odours, and managed to coax Crookshanks from underneath the sofa by waving the remote control in front of him. Then, she went to Harry's to pick up a set of changing clothes for Ron…and heard Harry snoring away in his room. Curious. Instead of barging in on his shower to demand answers for why he lied, she laid his clothes on the toilet after asking, "Still alive?" and receiving a muttered response. When Hermione heard the shower cut off, she raided her secret food stash, and was done munching on her chocolate chip cookies long before he came dragging into the living room with wet hair.

"Thanks Hermione, and I'm real sorry about the mess I made."

"It's fine. We can finish…watching whatever movie..." she glanced at the screen. "Never Been Kissed? Really? I don't own that—"

"It's Pansy's favourite. She knows it by heart." Hermione's eyebrow rose. Pansy Parkinson watched Muggle movies? Bizarre. As if he'd heard her internal query, Ron said, "The telly was the only Muggle invention that Pansy said she could respect. There's nothing like it in the wizarding world, she said."

"Oh…maybe we should watch something different…"

Ron sighed. "No, that's okay."

"You're really broken up over Pansy, huh?"

"I love her." Not past tense. Present. As in, he presently wasn't over her.

This was the main reason they had decided not to interfere—or even comment—on the other's love life. It had been hard enough for them to preserve their friendship after their pathetic attempt at a relationship went up into flames, without them meddling in the other's business. And, really, what could she say or do to make him feel better? Move on? There are other witches in the sea and witches out there more suitable—and nicer—than Pansy Parkinson? None of that even sounded right in her head. It sounded bitter and made her look like a jealous ex—which she was not, for the record.

So, to fill the tense moments following his comment, Hermione went to fetch blankets and Ron ventured to her kitchen for more food.

"You honestly can't be hungry," she called after him.

Ron stared at her empty refrigerator. "I eat when I'm depressed." Then, he opened her freezer. Jackpot.

She relaxed on the sofa. "Depressed, happy, sad, angry—what is that?"

He'd returned from her kitchen with the very last item from her freezer. It was wrapped in foil paper that he was tentatively peeling off. "Looks like a piece of key lime pie." Ron plopped down next to her.

"I have no idea how long it's been—"

It was gone in three bites.

When Ron didn't drop dead or start foaming at the mouth, Hermione decided to restart the movie. Minutes in, she was frowning at the telly as Ron's mood declined even further. Never Been Kissed had always left her with mixed feelings, which was why she'd never bothered to purchase a copy of it. Whenever she watched it, the romantic in her always got lost, busy imagining what it would be like when she finally found the elusive 'one'…and if he would look like Mr Coulson. And then reality would smack her in the face and remind her that in the real world, men like that didn't go for frumpy copy editors.

It was a huge let down.

When the credits started rolling, Hermione turned to her best friend and sweetly asked, "So, Ron, why did you really come here?"

Ron went white. He wasn't sure why, but that tone of voice made him want to wet his trousers like he did when Mum caught him playing show-and-tell games with his third cousin, Darla, behind the shed.

"Harry's at home, snoring."

"Oh," he laughed nervously. "He—he must've g-gotten back after I-I left."

Plausible, but he was hiding something. She could smell it. "Ron," she patted his knee. "You're not being honest with me."

"Of c-course I am," he gave a high-pitched laugh and focused on anything but her. Crookshanks gave him a disapproving look. Traitor.

"Ron."

He focused on the mantle of her fireplace. Were those pictures new?

Her voice took on a sterner quality. "Ronald Bilius Weasley, look at me."

Blue eyes drifted to the blank telly screen. "La, la, la…." If he didn't look at her, he'd be just fine. Just fine.

Hermione shifted next to him and decided to use another tactic. "I'm not going to get mad, promise."

Without thinking, his head whipped in her direction. "Oh yes you will. Malfoy—"

"Malfoy?" she shrieked.

"Oops." He clasped both hands over his mouth.

It took some work and a little magic, but she was successful in pulling his hands away from his mouth. "What did Malfoy say?"

Hermione felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise at the very mention of his name. It was a bizarre and uncomfortable feeling that she eviscerated as soon as she could. When she could think about what Ron had said, the tingling in her fingers stopped. What had Malfoy done? Harry had been unusually accepting of her refusal to help Ron win back Pansy. He would've persisted for days, but he hadn't so much as mentioned it since. Well, the only time she'd seen him since that strange meeting. Hermione had been too busy to be suspicious, and now she was paying for it.

"Tell me, Ron. Now."

And he cracked. "He said—he told me to come over here and convince you because they couldn't. He said that with a little push, you'd help, despite our agreement about not interfering."

"Why would he have the audacity to think that I'd cave just because of you?"

"He said you would because it's important to me, and I'm important to you."

She frowned, lost in thought. "He didn't say those exact words, did he?"

"Hell no. This is Malfoy we're talking about. I had to paraphrase. A lot." He looked at her, a bit sheepish. "So are you?"

 


 


Draco Malfoy was known in every Muggle café within a five mile radius of his office. He was in and out of them all day, every day. He always picked up a coffee on his way to whatever destination he was headed towards. Whether it be another meeting or back to his office.

It was no different that morning.

The hour was early; slightly earlier than he was used to, but he'd been oddly restless and unable to stay home. Dawn was an hour or so away when he walked out of the café, coffee in hand. He could've easily Apparated directly to his office, but decided to walk the short distance instead. The air was crisp and cold. The sky was leaden and brooding. It would rain soon, and he didn't want to get caught in it. Luckily, his schedule didn't require him to leave his office much. Just meetings with his Board of Trustees, his senior accountant, and a few potential parchment buyers.

He could've come in much later, but Draco liked arriving to work before anyone else. He enjoyed the silence a quiet office provided because it was the best way to and prepare for the day ahead and his high-strung assistant, Medora. She drove him insane during the very best of times, but she was very exceptional at her job.

With the exception of the night crew and security, the Dunder-Malfoy building was nearly vacant when he arrived. He gave a nod to the old wizard, who stood in the centre of the lobby, before heading in the direction of the elevator. The ride up to the fourth floor was quiet and he serenely sipped on his coffee. Muggles made the best coffee, he was convinced. They weren't nearly as incompetent as his father had thought. Draco frowned. His father had been wrong about a lot of things, but he forced himself not to think about it and walked past the waiting area, Medora's desk, and unlocked the door to his office with a wave of his hand.

He stepped in and…blinked.

Hermione Granger was sitting quite comfortably in his chair.

Waiting.

Draco almost dropped his coffee.

Hermione, on the other hand, appreciated the 'just-shit-my-trousers' look upon his face.

She was slightly reclined, sipping on her coffee and reading the contents of a green folder. Granger wore a teal skirt, cream blouse, and to his dismay, he noticed that the heels she wore made her short legs look infinitely longer. She had nice legs. And he'd gotten a nice view of them because they were propped up on a stack of financial folders his accountant had left on his desk—green folders. "What the hell are you doing, Granger?"

"It's a pleasure to see you again so soon, Malfoy." she said pleasantly. There was a hint of a glare on her face and an undercurrent of steel in her voice that told him just how false her greeting was.

It took several moments for him to find his voice. Thankfully, they came out cool and stern. "How did you get in here? I have Anti-Apparition wards set up for anyone who isn't me."

"Manipulation, but I'm sure you're very familiar with that tactic," she answered accusingly. "Using a heartbroken Ron to convince me to help your little mission was such a classy move."

Son of a—she knew everything. No matter how good she looked in that skirt, right then, he couldn't stand her. Unfortunately, he knew the feeling wouldn't last long. He also knew something else. For a change, Potter was right. Granger was always two steps ahead of everyone and everything. Draco frowned. What in the hell had that oaf said to her? Weasley was supposed to convince her without bringing him up.

"Do you deny it," she asked, raising her eyebrows daringly.

"Of course not," he scoffed. "I'd do it again. Only...I'd revise my plan so you wouldn't be sitting in my office at six in the morning."

For once, she sort of admired his directness. It was different...almost refreshingly so. Everyone, clients included, always tried to outmanoeuvre her. She had no idea why, but spent valuable time proving that she was indeed, smarter than them. "Sending Ron wasn't a bad idea in theory, but it proved to be a tactical error in the end. Put a little pressure on him and he'll squeal like a stuck pig." She glanced at her watch. There was plenty of time before her next order of business.

"I'll remember that." Draco murmured darkly as he walked towards the desk, closing the door behind him with a wave of his finger. "Now, why exactly are you reading my company's financial statements?"

"I was bored." Hermione shrugged. And curious, but she didn't tell him that. "Did you know that you can increase revenue by tweaking a few marketing strategies in your company? Dunder-Malfoy might be the top parchment company in Western Europe, but your competitors are right at your heels and your salespeople are getting lazy. If you provide more incentives, perhaps they will become more aggressive. According to this." She tossed the green folder she had been perusing and it landed wide open on his blotter. "You had a surplus this past year and didn't hand out any raises. Not smart, Malfoy." She shook her head admonishingly. "Not smart at all."

Draco's frown deepened.

She gracefully dropped her legs from his desk before jabbing her finger at the paper the folder was open to. "And your senior accountant is an idiot. There are two mathematical errors in that statement alone. Sloppy work at its finest."

He took several calming breaths. Strangling her would not help his cause. "Is there an actual point to your visit, Granger?"

Fluidly, she pushed the chair out, standing up. He didn't notice the manila envelope on his desk until she picked it up and handed it to him. "I've decided to help. Not for your sake or Harry's, but Ron's. He was honest and upfront about it. He loves her and he wants me help. Unfortunately, you were right. This is important to him, and he is important to me."

Draco couldn't believe it. Looks like Weasley could do something right, after all.

When she saw the frown morph into a smug smirk, her jaw clenched. "I don't like being manipulated, Malfoy."

"And I don't like the fact that I'm even doing this."

"Then why are you?"

"I have my reasons," he answered flippantly as he opened the folder she'd given him.

"Reasons that you don't want to share, I assume." Hermione watched him carefully.

"Correct."

She was never one to give up, but Malfoy was giving her nothing. "Fine by me. Let's move on." And she slipped right into consultant mode. "Now, I've taken a good look at your company spending while sitting here, and it looks like you're pretty cheap—"

"I prefer the term frugal," he told her as he set down his coffee on the sideboard next to his Fanged-Geranium.

Bemusedly, she quirked her mouth. "Well, 'cheap' is the one you're going to get. Your charitable market is non-existent. You've never sponsored a charity—you've never sponsored anything. Forced altruism and value of goodwill have gone up in recent years, Malfoy, and you need to jump on the bandwagon before your buyers decide to leave you behind. Besides, there are benefits. You can write it off, for starts. Also, recent studies statistically validate the fact that companies that are charitable have improved financial performance, enhanced brand image and reputation, increased sales and customer loyalty, and increased ability to attract and retain employees."

Draco pulled out the contents of the folder while she talked. There was so much written on at least twelve pieces of parchment in Granger's neat handwriting that he'd have to read it later. His brain was already approaching 'information overload'. He was about to walk around to sit down in his chair, but stopped when he recognised that the parchment she'd used was made by one of his competitors. It made him frown inexplicably. "So, what does this have to do with your plan to get Weasley and Pansy back together?"

With an air of superiority, she tucked her fluffy hair behind her ear. "To help your company and Ron, I've orchestrated a singles auction that your company will sponsor. Basically, I'm expanding an event that's already in existence, but that matters not. The W.W.O.R. don't seem to mind. In fact, they're thrilled to be backed by a company with as much...success as yours."

"The W.W—what?"

"The W.W.O.R. stands for The Wizarding World Orphan Relief. I suggest that you find as much out about them as humanly possible in the next twenty-four hours. I plan to have your company's publicity team announce it later on today—"

He was so shocked that he barely kept his mouth from falling open. "How did you manage that?"

"I'm very good at what I do." Granger smiled. It was genuine, cunning, a bit arrogant, and it made his stomach flip with momentary nausea. Fuck.

"The event is set in a week, and I've set the ball in motion to expand the event from the original line-up of ten witches and wizards to thirty. I already have a journalist working on an article about the event to place into today's Prophet. It will discuss your company's interest in the W.W.O.R., the organization itself, and a 'casting call' of sorts for twenty additional single witches and wizard willing to participate in a date auction. Questionnaires will be due on Monday to give us enough time to sort through them and contact the lucky twenty. I got them to print the questionnaire card the W.W.O.R had their original participants fill out, which will likely sell more papers. Win-win for everyone. We'll be working with volunteers—"

"Did you say 'we'?"

"Yes. You're going to help. It'll make you look better. Like you actually give a damn."

He briefly thought about the consequences of tossing her out the window, but batted the thought away. Draco had learned how and went to pick his battles over the years, and this wasn't the time or place. "What exactly will I be doing?"

"Well, you'll be working with me. First and foremost, we'll be looking for a bigger place to hold the event and we'll have to do that first...so we can announce the event in full in the Sunday Prophet. We're going sort through the submissions and determine the rest of the participant list. Ron is participating, we decided, so that's one. We're also going to send out the letters and—"

"You could just tap your war hero friends."

"Most of them are married."

"Surely the Snake Wranlger isn't married."

"Actually, Neville married Luna last month."

"Loony's married?" Draco made a face. "Now I feel disgustingly single."

Hermione was agreeing with him before she realised what she was saying. "Tell me about—nevermind." She froze. Malfoy's eyebrow cocked curiously, but she diverted her attention elsewhere and continued on. "We have several appointments tomorrow with wizarding venue managers to look for an upgraded location for the event."

"Tomorrow is Saturday."

"Your point? The auction is next Friday. We don't have a moment to lose. So bring Galleons and Pansy, and wear comfortable shoes. We'll meet here at nine o'clock sharp, and expect to be out most of the day."

"Why Pansy?"

"The only way to fix this mess is if I have a chance to figure out exactly what happened. Ron was too embarrassed to tell me, and I have an inkling that he doesn't know everything. Pansy is the only other person who knows what's going on in her head. It's really the only way, and I've considered them all." Strangely enough, Draco had no doubt about that. By the time he dragged himself from his thoughts, she was walking to the door. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting in twenty minutes with another client."

"You can use my Floo."

"Thanks, but no. My driver is downstairs waiting."

Draco was perplexed. "Driver?"

"Yes, driver. Some people come into work early to get peace and quiet." She eyed him pointedly, and he wondered how in the hell she managed to figure that out. "But I have a driver. You'll be meeting him tomorrow, so keep your Muggle-hate down to a minimum."

"For your information, Granger, I don't hate Muggles. They make great coffee."

The corners of Hermione's lips started to turn up in what was the beginning of a smile. "This is going to be very interesting."

"I was thinking something similar."

"Oh?" She looked almost intrigued. "I thought you were considering the possible ways to toss me out your window and get away with it."

Was she reading his mind? "I had. Very briefly. However, I'm not one to attack a witch." He gave a smirk. "No matter how irritating you are."

That time, she did smile. "I know I'm irritating, but I'm worth it."

"I don't doubt that," Draco replied smoothly and froze. Had he just flirted with her? He met her eyes. Yes, yes he had. Fuck.

Hermione's smile faltered slightly. First the look in the restaurant and now—was he flirting with her? Her brain scoffed at the idea, but the look in on his face couldn't confirm it. "I think we're done here," Hermione took a step backwards, hoping her unease didn't show. "Until tomorrow, at least." Merlin, she was rambling. She hadn't done that in front of a client in a very long time. If ever. And she knew she had to get it together. Fast. "Tomorrow, Malfoy. Don't be late. Owl me if you have any questions."

When Granger shut the door, Draco sat in his chair and spent the next fifteen minutes drinking his coffee and trying to wrap his head around everything that had happened this morning. She wasn't human, that was for sure. It was half past seven when his mind stopped swirling. Granger had completely changed his day around, put thoughts in his head, and changed his routine. He had to talk to Pansy and public relations team, research the W.W.O.R., and really consider the things she'd told him about his business. Not to mention, he had to address the fact that he'd flirted with her.

With a tight frown, Draco picked up the green folder she'd been looking in when he walked in. Sure enough, there were mistakes. He finished the rest of his now tepid coffee in several gulps and calmly set off on his first order of business. Draco pulled out a clean piece of parchment, dipped his favourite quill into ink, and drafted his accountant's termination letter.

Effective immediately.

Chapter Text

Oh I'm lo-lo-losing for one last time
When I take-take notice of a happy time
Well I found my way out of this big parade

Three

Pansy Parkinson did not like being rushed. She was convinced that success came from carefully laid plans, and when someone was rushed, they made silly mistakes. Draco, who was almost speed-walking in front of her, had already made two. He'd overpaid for their breakfast, giving the waitress five Galleons instead of two. And when he finally had checked his watch once they arrived in front of his office building, he realised they were fifteen minutes early.

Not that it mattered, she was there, waiting patiently in her chiffon belted top, Muggle denims, and sensible pumps. Pansy frowned when she witnessed the slight tensing of her best friend's shoulders and stance. It was the only proof of Draco's mounting—yet annoyingly denied—attraction to the witch, and it irritated her to no end.

Granger, Granger, Granger. Always Granger.

"Early again, Malfoy," She greeted pleasantly. "I'm starting to think that your punctuality is a statistically significant occurrence."

"What the hell does that even mean?" Pansy snapped.

Her only reply was an amiable yet distant, "Hello, Pansy."

It was the only way Hermione could cope with Pansy, who was petulant on a good day and impossible on a bad one. And this was a really bad one, judging from the sneer. When Pansy started openly dating Ron, he had entertained the insane hope that the two of them would become friends. The only thing she and Pansy could agree on was the fact he was completely mental. Just because Harry and Malfoy had only recently run out of ways to verbally abuse each other, didn't mean that she and Pansy would fall into line. What a ridiculous notion, especially when Ron and Malfoy still despised each other to the core. Apparently that was different and acceptable because of the Malfoy-Weasley eight-hundred year conflict over something no one could even remember. And the fact that the Weasleys' were Muggle-lovers.

Purebloods, Hermione thought with a roll of her eyes.

"If you're both ready, we can head to my car," she gestured to the silver Sedan and Ellis, who was standing outside of it.

"I'm not getting in that death trap," Pansy folded her arms with a distasteful frown. "I'd rather Apparate."

"Not only do you have no idea where we're going, but I'd rather get this day over with, so get in the damn car so we can get started." Draco shot back testily. Granger's eyes widened slightly and Pansy glared at him before stomping in the direction of the car, but he didn't give a damn. Saturday was his only free day of the week and it irked him that he was giving it up. To make matters worse, he also hadn't had a moment to get a cup of coffee and he needed coffee if he was going to make it through the day without strangling anyone. "How long will this take?"

"I've narrowed it down to five venues since yesterday. I'm confident that we'll be able to choose today."

"Good." And he started for the Sedan.

Hermione fell into step beside him. "How did you get her to come?"

For the first time since he left his house, a twinge of a smirk made its presence known on Draco's face. "I told her I was being forced to spend the day with an insufferable Granger."

Surprisingly, she wasn't irritated, only humoured. "In thirteen years, you haven't picked up another adjective to describe me? That's sort of sad, Malfoy."

That isn't the only adjective I'd use, Draco thought as he snuck a glance at her bum as when she got into the car. Damnit.

Because Pansy had defiantly decided to ride in the front, the backseat of the car was spacious and comfortable. While Pansy figured out the seatbelt with strange alacrity, he'd fiddled with it for several moments before Granger lifted the armrest between them and helped him. Draco involuntarily—he would rather die than admit otherwise—inhaled her scent. She smelled…clean. No perfume, no scent of ink or coffee like the rest of the car, just fresh. He inhaled again just after she got the seatbelt to click.

Hermione froze, pulling up so she could look him in the face. "Did you just sniff me?"

"Of course not." He would've been able to give a more convincing answer if she hadn't been so close.

She stared at him a second longer before she decided to drop it. Malfoy, who had relaxed the moment she moved, was lying. Big time. However, this was neither the time nor place to properly berate him. Not with a snickering Pansy and a smirking Ellis listening. Instead, she told her driver that they were ready and leaned forward to grab two of the three cups that were in the backseat cup holder. "I bought us all something that will help us through the day. Herbal tea for you, Pansy. I made sure they put in extra honey." She handed the plastic cup to the now wide-eyed, gaping witch.

"How did you know?"

"Ron told me."

Instead of being overjoyed that Ron remembered something as minuscule as the way she took her tea, Pansy scowled and turned back around without thanking her. Hermione frowned thoughtfully. That hadn't worked. She hoped that mentioning his name would give her some emotion that she could build on.

Quiet excitement and smugness, she could work with.

Anger and irritation, she could not.

"All right. I have a coffee with one sugar for you, Malfoy. I have a feeling you'll need this most." He looked more befuddled than Pansy, but accepted the cup with a small murmur of thanks. Hermione picked up her own cup and sipped. She needed to think outside the box if she wanted to figure out what had happened.

The ride was quite for several minutes until Draco finally decided to ask, "How did you know about me?"

"I saw the name of the café on your cup yesterday, went in, and asked. They know you quite well."

"That's a surprising amount of effort, Granger. Do you do that for all your clients?"

Hermione froze, mid-sip, and panicked. God, why had she asked? "I—umm, like to know what my clients like," she recovered quickly. She really didn't like her clients enough to give a shit how they took their coffee, much less purchase it for them. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. They were on their way to the Dunder-Malfoy building when she saw the café he frequented, and asked Ellis to pull over. The idea to buy them both drinks came after.

"Really?" Malfoy sounded suspicious.

"Of course."

Lie. Lie. Lie. It was written all over her face and etched in her voice. Granger stared out the window.

And Draco was smug for a single moment before his reluctant interest in her finally, undoubtedly, grew.


 

Two venues down and Draco was mind-numbingly bored.

Granger and Pansy, despite scattered moments of polite insults and subtle rudeness, actually worked quite well together. Granger would figure out what the venue was willing to do, and Pansy would chip at the overall price with some expert quibbling. They were like the dream team of venue selecting.

With nothing really to do, he wandered out of the banquet hall and out to the lobby of the wizarding hotel. With no real destination in mind, Draco explored the nice lobby and declined all offers for assistance. If he'd been a smoker, he would have continued on outside and indulged himself. Instead, he walked, making a quick circuit of the lobby, before returning to the ballroom the hotel had dubbed the 'Flamingo Room'.

Granger was waiting for him there.

"Is this the one?" he asked because he was tired of looking.

She shrugged. "I'm not looking to have you pay a fortune to rent a ballroom for one night and it looks like they aren't willing to provide anything other than the room, but Pansy is inside haggling. She's surprisingly good at that." Hermione folded her arms. "She's also something of a conversation escape artist. I've never met someone so talented at diverting and evading a topic."

"That's Pansy."

"Regardless, I'm still confident that I'll find out what happened before this trip concludes." When Malfoy said nothing, only stared straight ahead, Hermione narrowed her eyes and asked. "Why are you doing this? Really?"

"Excuse me?"

"Why are you helping Ron?"

"Purely for selfish reasons, I assure you. This is all a win-win for me. When this is all over, Pansy will be back at home with Weasley and I'm bound to gain clients, which will—"

"Actually, you'll need to do this regularly for the next year before you see any sort of increase in the amount of buyers."

"A year? I'll have to work with you a year?" Despite the frown on his face, that actually didn't sound like too bad of an idea. A year. Working close with Granger. The possibilities were endless. "A year is a very long time."

Hermione smirked. "Some things are worth the time."

Alarms started going off in Draco's head. Something about the way Granger had said those last few words sounded a bit like flirting. The inflection was almost knowing…and very coy. He had a feeling she was about to leave and he wanted to keep her talking and possibly flirting, but wasn't sure what to say. "What else?" Draco blurted out.

"Pardon?"

It was too late for him to go back now. "What else is worth the time?"

Hermione thought about his strange question for a moment. "Any number of things. A well cooked meal, a well made set of robes, a well planned charity auction," she ticked off. "Almost anything good is worth waiting for."

"I'm not sure I entirely agree with you there, Granger. Sometimes good things just fall together instantaneously, with no explanation."

"That's rare, at best. Why do you think that photographers take a second picture?"

"Because the first one is," he paused, knowing that he had walked right into that one. "Never right."

She grinned. "See?" Malfoy shoved his hands into his pockets and fixed his lips to speak, but she beat him to it. "This was refreshing." As soon as Hermione let the comment slip, she wanted to bite off the end of her tongue.

"What was refreshing?"

A blush worked its way up her neck. "Don't worry about it."

He nudged her gently. "Just spit it out, Granger."

She stared at Malfoy for a second, puzzled at how easy it was for her to talk to him. "Our conversation. It was…refreshing." Hermione didn't wait for his reaction. "I'm going to check on Pansy and make sure she hasn't done anything illegal." She looked at Malfoy one last time before ducking back into the ballroom, the door clicking shut behind her.

Draco leaned against the wall…and smiled.

Hermione found Pansy standing alone in the centre of the room; the hotel manager was nowhere to be found. The witch's head turned when she heard Hermione's heels on the hardwood floors. There was a half-smile on her face when Hermione asked, "You didn't kill her, did you?"

"That would make the deal I got Draco a complete and utter waste. The manager is going to gather the paperwork."

"So she caved?"

"I got her to drop it down to half the original asking price—and they're willing to cater."

Hermione blinked. That was better than she had anticipated. "How—wait, I'm not sure if I want to know how."

"It was legal. The hotel is new and needs exposure and they rarely get events like this." Pansy told her primly. "In the end, they needed this event to draw more business more than they needed the money."

"Once we're done here, their banquet halls will be booked for the foreseeable future. And Malfoy's company, if he continues to work with me and heed my advice, will triple his profits, at least," said Hermione, mostly to herself and with a touch of excitement in her inflection.

"How do you do that?" Pansy asked, bringing Hermione quickly from her thoughts.

"It's all about moulding a company into a business that consumers can trust. I work on the inside and outside of companies. Customer and employee satisfaction are equally important, in my opinion."

Pansy was quiet for a moment. "You know, today wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I like what you do. It's not so different from my job, but completely different, at the same time. Does that make sense?"

Hermione's lips pressed in a thin, understanding smile. "Yes."

Pansy was an event planner for a large firm, but had been restricted to doing small weddings and parties. It was a shame, really, because she had the right temperament to plan corporate benefits and trade shows. Pansy was no patsy, obviously, but Hermione was a bit surprised at how much she knew and how she was able to use her ferocity for good and not evil. She had good ideas, too, but they were too big for what she did. What a shame. There was nothing worse in the world than wasted potential, even if it was Pansy Parkinson's.

"Do you like what you do, Pansy?"

"Somewhat," Pansy shrugged and tucked her dark hair behind her ear. "I like planning things out, taking an entire event and breaking it down to the last detail. However, there are only oh-so many ways to plan a wedding or a party. It gets a little humdrum."

"That boredom probably stems from the fact that you've got far more potential than your bosses are willing to recognise."

Pansy looked at her. "I've never heard a compliment from you that was directed at me."

"I don't hand them out like fliers, you know."

A ghost of a smirk teased the corners of Pansy's lips before they settled into what looked like a sad frown.

Silence fell between them like a heavy curtain. While Pansy looked around, Hermione started to mentally design the place, even though all the decorating would be handled by W.W.O.R. volunteers. When she looked over at Pansy again, she noticed that her entire demeanour had changed. There was a sort of hardness about her that Hermione was a little too familiar with. That was Pansy's defence mechanism; something she could hide behind to conceal the fact that she was less than perfect, worse for wear, and maybe even hurt. Hermione found herself wondering if Ron was the only one truly devastated by their breakup.

She had to know.

"You do know that Ron would be beside himself if he saw us right now. We're alone together and we haven't even pulled our wands out to hex each other."

"I was just thinking that." Pansy sounded tired.

"Do you miss him?"

She seemed startled by the abrupt question, and only then did her façade slip. It was brief. If Hermione had blinked, she would've missed it, but her eyes told the entire story. Regardless of how Pansy answered her question, Hermione knew the true answer.

Yes, she missed him. Yes, she loved him. Yes, she was hurt.

"That doesn't matter, Granger," she snipped defensively.

"I think it does," Hermione replied calmly.

"You're not about to wax poetic about love being the only thing that matters in the end, are you? Because I'd rather you didn't perpetuate that lie."

Judging from the nasty tone her voice had taken, Pansy was looking for a fight, but she refused to give her one. "I'm not that unoriginal. Or sappy."

"Then why am I here? I know Draco didn't drag me along because he didn't want to be alone with you, no matter what he says or how he acts." Pansy folded her arms. "He's been floating down the River of Denial so long that he'd rather drown in it than give up."

Hermione couldn't hide her bewilderment. What the hell was she talking about? She thought Pansy was trying to evade the topic until she realised the witch was waiting for her to answer the question. "I—well, I asked him to bring you along."

"That explains his persistence." Pansy mumbled under her breath.

"What was that?"

"Nevermind," she waved it off. "So what do you want? You've been trying to steer the conversation all morning. Where are we going?"

With a frown, Hermione finally realised just why she and Pansy never got along. They were a lot more alike than she'd anticipated or realised. They didn't act the same nor did they use the same type of reasoning, but they both stayed far ahead of the learning curve to avoid surprises. No, they weren't equally matched, but there could only be one intelligent person in their dysfunctional band of nearly ex-enemies. And Hermione was it. Not Pansy. She'd been honing in her territory since the day she and Ron brought their relationship out of the bedroom.

"Well?" Pansy tapped her foot impatiently.

"I just want to know what happened," Hermione replied stiffly.

And she looked sour all over again. "What did he tell you?"

"Nothing."

"Not surprising. If I were him, I wouldn't have told you either."

"Well, are you?"

"I shouldn't. And normally, I wouldn't because it's none of your damn business. However, I've been dying to tell you that I am sick to death of your interference in my relationship with Ron."

Her eyes widened. "Excuse me? We made a pact when we broke up that we wouldn't—"

"I'm not talking about meddling. I'm talking about your influence. On him." Pansy's face softened ever so slightly. "Why did you have to be so good to him, huh? It would've made things a lot easier if I didn't have to live in your shadow."

Hermione was truly lost for words and Pansy was surprised by her silence, but before either could say anything, they were interrupted by both Draco and the hotel manager. A look, filled with the promise of finishing their conversation later, was exchanged before they went their separate ways. While Pansy discussed last minute details about the reservation, Hermione walked over to Draco and filled him in on the plan as they joined the two witches in the centre of the room.

Lunch was an oddly pleasant affair at a lovely little Middle Eastern restaurant where Hermione and Pansy ate delicious monkfish and prawn kebabs, while Draco experienced his first taste of Turkish wine and eyed his Poussin warily. Hermione had expected Pansy to be extremely reluctant to try something new, but instead found a companion and fellow food enthusiast.

It was…nice.

Another thing that was lovely was the atmosphere. Low-slung lights, antique lamps, and artefacts from the Ottoman Empire created a lovely ambiance that was slightly romantic, but overall relaxing. Conversation between them was light and polite, but with an underlining of tension. Malfoy was quiet and his face unreadable. The infrequent moments of banter between Pansy and Malfoy—to draw him into the conversation—had given Hermione an insight on their friendship. Pansy knew him. Understood him. Possibly better than anyone. And there were looks she'd give to remind him of that whenever he said something sarcastic or rude. She knew those looks. After all, she'd given them to Harry more than a few times herself.

Amusement lit up Pansy's eyes when Draco finally tasted his Poussin. "It's not going to kill you, Draco."

He made a face as he chewed, swallowed, and took several sips from his wine glass. "I beg to differ. The texture is strange."

"But not bad, right?" Hermione asked.

Draco glanced across the table at her, catching a glimpse of her as she ate more of her kebab and becoming very conscious of the way his body was starting to react. He shifted in his chair and tried another bite of his Poussin under her watchful gaze. Draco chewed slowly. It really wasn't bad—just different. An acquired taste. Kind of like Granger. "No, not bad."

"That's good."

Pansy and Granger fell into a conversation about other good Turkish restaurants in the area. There weren't many. Draco sat back and listened quietly. He hadn't been excited about Pansy joining them for lunch initially, but it was going well. Granger, he realised, was more forthcoming with personal information when she was eating. Already he'd learned that she enjoyed cooking and foreign films, and had a little flat in Paris that was in desperate need for furniture.

Thank Merlin for Pansy.

If it had been just him and Granger, Draco would have been obligated to talk to her. Not that he didn't want to. He did. Maybe then he'd finally figure out the meaning for his bizarre attraction to her. But if he was being honest, and the wine starting to allow him to be brutally honest with himself, Draco just…wanted to be around her; to figure her out. Pansy's presence had given him the luxury of being able to do just that, to simply sit and listen to her talk for prolonged periods of time without having to say a thing.

For now, that would do.

Unfortunately, it didn't last. Draco glanced at his watch and nearly jolted. It was three; much later than he'd thought. He had to meet his parents at the jeweller in a few minutes. Mother was getting her wedding ring resized and Father wanted to figure out just why his son was working with Hermione Granger. He would have to keep his mother talking in order to avoid his father's questions and probing eyes.

Lucius Malfoy wasn't above using Legilimency on his own son.

"I have to go meet my parents in Diagon Alley." Draco stood. "Excuse me." He started to reach into his pocket for his wallet, but Pansy stopped him.

"It's on me." She told him pleasantly. "Give Narcissa my love."

Lunch was officially over twenty minutes after Malfoy left when the conversation shifted right back to where they'd left off. Tension returned to the table once the waiter brought the bills, which was a shame because surprisingly, Hermione had been enjoying herself. But she put the mission of finding out what happened over her own feelings, and asked, "So, what happened? How did I interfere? Because last I heard, he was giving you a promise ring with the intent of making it an engagement ring at the right time."

Pansy bristled and sipped her wine. "This isn't a new problem, to be honest. You've been very much a part of our relationship ever since it started."

"I didn't know that."

"Of course you didn't. I keep face with the best of them." She paused. "Why did you break up with Ron?"

Crossing her legs at the knee, right over left, Hermione leaned back and answered the tough question. "He needed something that I couldn't give him, and vice versa. He wanted to cling and I wanted a little space. I had responsibilities then, and I have them now. And at the time, either he didn't want to understand it, or he just didn't. In the end, we're much better as friends."

Pansy blinked a few times. "That was anti-climatic."

"What?"

"I thought it would be a better story, maybe something that involves cheating or deceit. Sans Ron, that's typically how my relationships end."

She cracked a smile. "Sometimes relationships just end, without a third party involvement. Some things aren't meant to last forever. Ron and I were one of those things. It happens, and you move on."

"I've never seen you with anyone else."

"I go on a lot of unsuccessful first dates, thanks to my friends."

Her words tapped Pansy's curiosity. "Really?"

"Yes. I probably don't have time for a relationship, but I make time. Some would say that's code for 'I don't have a clue how to date, and feel daunted by the idea'. That's not true with me. I like dating. I'm always willing to try anything just once."

"Even someone you don't like?"

"Probably not, but there are few people I just flat-out don't like."

"Draco is one of them, right?"

Hermione thought about it for a moment. She didn't exactly hate Malfoy anymore; she didn't know enough about him to like him, either. He was attractive and had a sense of humour she could appreciate. Witty, sharp, logical, smart. She didn't mind having a conversation with him, either. There was a grudging respect for him buried somewhere inside of her. Win-win or not, what he was doing for Ron and Pansy wasn't as selfish as he'd claimed. Harry's intentions were more selfish, now that she thought about it. Pansy wasn't living in his house, driving him batty, and eating sticks of butter in the middle of the night. Malfoy didn't have to ward and lock his cupboard to keep Pansy out. When it came down to it, he was helping out a couple in desperate need of saving, and Hermione could admire that.

"Malfoy is…"

Pansy smirked. "Don't know how you feel about him? Understandable. Draco is likeable when he wants to be. Then again, he can also be that idiot cousin one keeps in the attic and doesn't talk about."

She laughed. "That sounds about right." Then, Hermione sobered. "And you've steered us off track. Back to you and Ron."

"I was hoping you wouldn't notice."

"You're good, but not that good. So spill."

Pansy sighed and tucked her hair behind her ears. "I'm actually not sure how it dissolved into fighting. It's all a blur. But we were arguing about—I can't even remember. All I know is that we were furious at each other, and he says something to the effect of: 'Hermione would've never done that.' And I just saw red." She was getting angry just from the memory. "It's not the first time he's said something like that. He knows that I've always had a problem…well, jealousy thy name is Pansy Parkinson."

Her eyebrow rose. "You're jealous of me?"

She polished off the rest of her wine and nodded uncomfortably. "If you tell anyone I admitted it, I will deny, deny, deny."

"I'm not that petty."

"Good." Pansy poured herself another glass from the bottle. "Ron and I…we know how to hurt each other. I take it as well as I give it, but I got fed up this time. I'm sick of being compared to you, I'm sick of wasting my energy trying to be better than you in his eyes, and I'm sick of blinding myself on the shine of your halo." Pansy drank the second glass without even stopping to savour the taste. "Every time he says it," she started hoarsely, voice raw. "It makes me think—" She cleared her throat. "Why go for the copy, when you can have the original?"

Hermione frowned, calculating all the ways she wanted to curse him out for using her to hurt Pansy. "Believe me, he does not want the original. That's his defence mechanism at work."

"Well, he can take his—"

And she realised something. "You aren't completely innocent in this, either. It's not in Ron's nature to act. He reacts. You clearly say or do something that constantly pushes him over the edge. It forces him to play the only card he has against you, which are your insecurities about me." When Pansy's head lowered to the table, she knew she was right. "So, what is it? What do you say?"

"I'm—I'm actually not sure. Like I said, we're experts at hurting each other."

She couldn't help but think that Pansy was withholding something essential, but Hermione let it go temporarily. "Maybe you two need to find a different expertise."

 

Chapter Text

I woke, woke, woke on a pile of grass 
I'm slow, slow, slow from the week I've had
I need your smile, your tears, your every-thing

Four

 

Pansy started awake and groaned when she saw the time.

1:46AM.

Sleep was evading her with expert precision. And she knew why.

Upon returning from a Saturday evening out with Daphne, where she had been called an absolute kill-joy, Pansy had been exhausted. However, instead of napping, she'd taken the time to Fire Call her mother where she spent several minutes listening to the summation of her day and answering her probing questions.

Yes, she was fine.
No, she had not started dating a new pureblood.
Yes, she would be at dinner on Friday, but only if the auction didn't run over.

The moment her mother took a breath, Pansy had made her excuses, ended the call, and attempted to wash off the stress and dirt of the day with a hot shower. It hadn't work. The shower revived her and left her a restless mess. And for half an hour, she'd sat and smoked one of Daphne's cigarettes while listening to the muted sounds of the Wireless. Pansy tried to think about any and everything, but thoughts of Ron intruded and inhabited the four corners of her mind, forcing her to admit yet again that she was unhappy.

And it was misery that sent her pacing in the room, stalking an imaginary dragon in her head. She'd lied to Granger about, well, everything. She knew exactly what had happened after Ron gave her promise ring. She knew the awful things she'd said and done…and the guilt had begun to manifest into self-loathing and agitation. Pansy had been the one who walked out on him, but for days now, she paced and debated her decision.

Was leaving good or bad? Right or wrong? It had become a convoluted mess that couldn't be sorted.

By two-thirty, she'd succumbed to guilt, misery, and then sleep that only lasted sixteen minutes.

She didn't want to move, but knew lying in bed would only make matters worse. So she indulged herself with half a container of chocolate ice-cream, watched a late night movie, and sulked at nothing in particular. Maybe at herself? Pansy didn't know, nor did she want to think about it. Work seemed like the best option and she successfully dived into her latest project. It was a party for a five-year-old, but she worked on planning ever detail as if it was the biggest party of her career and another two hours passed in the blink of an eye. She yawned for the first time at three-forty and began gathering her work into a neat pile. The black address book Daphne had used as a personal ad earlier had accidentally been shuffled in with the folders and files for the party. Pansy took it out, tossing it aside with a casual flick of her wrist.

Daphne was a lot like her mother. Neither of them approved of her relationship with Ron. It went against the natural order of things.

Slytherins did not date Weasleys. Purebloods did not date beneath them.

Needless to say, Daphne had been thrilled when Pansy had come to her the night she'd left him. Daphne didn't even wait an hour before she started trying to set her up with some other bloke. Pansy, who was an expert at avoiding commitment before Ron, was not interested in being pushed into something that would only be temporary.

Funny how things could change in one year.

When Pansy finished reorganising everything and slipped it all into her briefcase, Pansy picked up the book and began leafing through it.

Baddock, Malcolm.

"Too young."

Cauldwell, Owen.

"Too Hufflepuff."

Why did Daphne have his address? She made a mental note to badger her about it later.

Goldstein, Anthony.

"Too gay." Literally. He had a partner and everything. It was a shame, really.

Goyle, Gregory.

"Too…Goyle."

Malfoy, Draco.

"Granger's...well, once they snog it out."

Zabini, Blaise.

"Been there, done that, didn't like it."

Pansy closed the address book and tossed it on the floor. Her thoughts had brought the fatigue back, fuddling her brain with too many things to deal with on less than three hour of sleep in the past two days. She'd lain down with a book and fell back to sleep with it over her face. On waking for the second time, she didn't know what had roused her. Pansy glanced at the clock to see if her alarm had rung. It was five in the morning. The Wireless was still playing, sending strains of easy-listening music across the room.

"Pans?"

She looked in the direction of the voice and saw the door to her room open. A single hand came around the frame, followed by an arm, a shoulder, and then the rest of Ron. She knew it was him. The light in the hallway highlighted his red hair, but she still squinted and called out, "Ron?"

"Shit, I woke you, didn't I?" he said, coming full into the room.

"It's five in the morning."

"Sorry, I haven't been sleeping well and—"

Pansy felt like she'd eaten a mouthful of sand. "I haven't been asleep that long." Or at all. "Shut the door, will you."

Ron did as she asked, closing the door with great care. Then he just stood there, hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his sweats as she got out of bed and wrapped herself in a blanket. He was nervous—had been for the better part of the night. He'd locked himself in his room with enough food from Harry's cupboard to feed a family of five, and stared at the address to Daphne's flat. The paper was still in his pocket, stained with water and oily fingerprints from the crisps, but he'd made it. Not that it really mattered. Even though he'd overcome his trepidation, Ron was still wary and unsure around her. Pansy padded across the room until she was standing within touching distance, but she didn't say anything for several minutes.

He had hair in his eyes and Pansy had to restrain herself from reaching up and brushing it away. She'd done it every day since the first, and habits were a hard thing to break. She knew that for certain. "How did you know I was here?"

Her question was asked so softly that Ron had to replay it in his head to figure out what she'd said. "How did I—oh, I forced it out of Hermione."

She blinked at him, unconvinced.

A blush warmed his cheeks. "Okay, she told me…after she hexed me so hard I almost forgot how to eat."

Pansy wanted to smile, but couldn't. A wave of guilt so strong it made her nauseous. He didn't deserve that. You did, she thought sadly. Because she'd lied to Granger. Because this entire mess was her fault, right from the beginning. Because Ron was just so—Pansy nearly wretched. She had to turn and sit on the end of the bed before she lost even more control. "Go home, Ron. Daphne will curse your bollocks off if she found out that you were in her flat."

"I don't care."

Once the initial shock of Pansy leaving him passed, Ron fought loneliness and anger hard. He'd been dumped before, several times, but this was different. It came out of nowhere and it felt like someone had died. He thought his feelings for her would pass in a few days and tried to shake it, to pay attention to any of the enormous number of witches available to him. He'd dragged himself out after practice with his teammates, just like he'd done before. He'd gone to Muggle pubs, had a few drinks, hung out with friends, and talked to some women. Ron had even attempted to flirt, tried to be charming, tried to get those little rushes of excitement he'd always gotten from women.

It didn't work.

A nagging little voice in his head always made comparisons. That one wasn't as pretty or as feminine as Pansy. This one wasn't as funny or as smart as Pansy. And that one, oh no, that one was nothing like Pansy. They were all sub-standard. And he knew then that he had to get her back. So no, he wasn't leaving. Daphne could hex his bollocks off and curse him, but he wasn't walking out of here without an answer.

"I don't care, Pans," he repeated earnestly.

"Well, I do," she retorted sharply.

"That's hard to believe."

The bitterness in his voice cut like broken glass, but she maintained what was left of her composure. "You're right. I don't. Not at all."

Ron gripped the end of his shirt tightly in his fist before releasing it. "Are you trying to convince me or yourself?"

Pansy decided the answer would be better left unsaid. After drawing her knees into her chest, she rested her head on her knees and took several deep breaths to calm down. More than exhaustion and nausea, she was disgusted with herself for feeling so awful. This was supposed to be for the best, right?

Yes. She knew that. Then why did she feel this way? Why couldn't she sleep? Why did she feel like crying all the time? And why was there so much...pain?

"You do care," Ron broke the silence. "Just a little bit, right?"

And that was the problem. "Just go. Now!"

She was yelling and it didn't matter to him that he might anger her further, or break the final bond between them. He refused to leave. Not like this. He needed more: to be close to her, to talk to her, to have her attention, to raise some emotion in her, even if it was anger. "Not a chance. Not until I say what I came here to say—" He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

"Did Granger tell you to say that?" Pansy asked coldly.

"Yes, but I would've said it anyway if I knew where you were. I'm sorry. I really am. And I want you to come home." When Pansy didn't say anything immediately, Ron frowned. "You're mad at me."

"And you're just as intelligent as you've always been."

Ron bristled at her cold words and unconsciously took a step backwards.

She watched him awkwardly stare at his shoes before asking, "Aren't you tired of me yet?"

Perplexed, he ran a hand through his hair and briefly considered yanking it all out. "Am I supposed to be?"

"Yes!" she blurted out, showing more emotion than she wanted. "I've been terrible to you lately, and you just take it. You—"

"I take it because I know it's not the real Pansy saying all those things…" Ron trailed off with a shrug.

"You're too good for me," she told him, clutching the blanket tighter.

"Don't say that."

"You're too nice to me."

"Because I love you."

Pansy flinched, releasing her grip on the blanket. "Don't say that. Stop saying that!"

"I know you don't want to hear it and I know you might hate me, but it's the truth."

"No."

"Yes!"

Later, she would beat herself up over her next words, but right then, she couldn't let him sit here and think that. "I meant…" she bit her lip. "I don't hate you."

He didn't understand. "But you're angry with me."

"I'm not angry, I'm—" She froze and looked away, horrified because she almost told him the truth. "Nevermind."

Kneeling in front of her, Ron pondered his words before he said, "I know what I said was wrong, and it doesn't mean shit to you at this point, but—"

Pansy hushed him. "What you said didn't make me leave, so don't punish yourself like that. I left because of me. I didn't leave because of you."

"So come home for me." He knew he was knocking on the door of pleading, but didn't care. This was his last chance. "I'll sleep on the couch and I won't tell you that I love you anymore."

She shook her head sadly. "Ron—"

"I'll skip practice and we'll talk. We'll figure this out, Pans, like we always do. We'll do and be better after this."

Her heart felt incredibly heavy and she felt fifty years older. Pansy got up and crossed the room to the lone window. She watched outside, at the darkness, the clear sky that was only just starting to show hints of dawn. She sighed heavily, "I—"

Ron cut her off, voice thick with determination. He got to his feet. "I know things have been rough for us, but we've had good times. Loads of them. Like when we—"

"Please," Pansy's voice was barely above a whisper. She turned to him with watery eyes. "Please stop."

He shook his head and grabbed the abandoned blanket on the bed. Cautiously, Ron took the ten step to her. "I'll stop if you don't give up. I know you're not ready to give up."

She stared at him through glossy eyes, fighting back tears she didn't want him to see. "And how do you know that?"

Ron froze, then blushed. He draped the blanket over her shoulders and she accepted it slowly. "I'm not sure. I just hope you aren't."

"You know me, Ron," a sad smile spread across her face. "I'm not known for my stamina."

"So?" He touched the hand that rested at her side hesitantly, not at all knowing how she would react. When she only blinked at him wordlessly, Ron twined their fingers.

"So, what?" Her mind screamed to pull her hand away, but she couldn't. Not yet. It was warm, calloused, and familiar. In a blink, she remembered the first time he'd awkwardly grabbed it when they were walking in Diagon Alley.

"I—" he sighed, brushing his thumb against her knuckle. "Pans, I'm not known for my patience, but I'm trying real hard here. And I'm willing to keep trying. The only question is: are you?"

 


 

 

The library was crowded to the point of suffocation when Hermione walked in. And noisy. Teenagers walked around in packs, chatting loudly while annoyed adults stared on but said nothing. She gave a smile to the tired-looking librarian that knew her by name. She was timid and passive, which weren't traits that would ensure a silent library. One of the witches in the loudest group busted out laughing, and Hermione shook her head.

Madam Pince wouldn't have any of this nonsense.

Not in her library.

Because no one else would, Hermione silently sent a Silencing Charm in the direction of the laughing witch, rendering her temporarily mute while her friends looked around to see who had sent the charm. Two Stinging hexes and Trip Jinxes later, and the group of girls were running out of the library. Fast.

But at least they were quiet about it.

"Thank you, Miss Granger." The librarian smiled meekly.

After hitting two running boys with a Trip Jinx that sent them sprawling on the carpeted floor, she turned around and said, "It's not a problem."

"Mr Malfoy is waiting for you over there." She pointed him out with a shy smile.

He was sitting at a table near the back wall, lazily flipping through a book. Early again.

A little girl ran past his table with a book for her mother, who was sitting two tables away. The scowl he gave that woman was fierce enough to make her gather everything and usher her daughter to another section. Great, Hermione though as she exhaled and walked towards him. She wasn't in the mood to deal with a grumpy Malfoy. She'd dealt with her fair share of irritable clients and Zara today, and right then, all she wanted to do was compile the list of celebrities, send out the letters inviting them to participate in the auction, and go home.

Draco looked up when she sat down across from him. "This place is a bloody zoo. I can't even think."

"Hello to you, too, Malfoy."

It didn't go unnoticed that this was the first time she'd used the word 'hello' while greeting him. Even if it was sarcastic.

"Are you going to be a temperamental arse tonight?" she asked as she cast a quick Muffliato over the area. She didn't need anyone eavesdropping, accidentally or not.

"I hadn't planned on it, but who knows?" he shrugged casually. "It's been a long enough day. Anything is possible."

"I bet that your long day wasn't as long as mine."

"Try me." Draco challenged.

She shot him a questioning look. "What did you do?"

As a prelude, Draco inhaled deeply and shut the book he had been reading. "Besides the general meetings and whatnot, I interviewed five people to fill the position of my accountant. I also managed to avoid lunch with my nosy father. He's pulling out all the stops to figure out why I'm working with you, of all people."

"I'd be extremely offended by the 'you, of all people' comment, if I didn't know that it was a direct quote from your father."

Draco slid the book aside, smirking. "You never know, I could've added that bit."

Hermione shrugged casually. "You could have, but you didn't." She figured a witty comeback was in the works and asked, "Why is he concerned?"

"Retirement has made Father restless and meddlesome. He has to know everything that's going on. Although, it doesn't help that he's on the Board of Trustees. After I presented a list of employee incentives to the Board today, he became downright curious about your influence over me."

"Influence?" Hermione smiled for the first time in several hours. "I hardly think taking my advice means that I have influence over you."

Draco leaned forward, just a bit. "Then what does it mean?"

"Only that your pockets mean more to you than your vanity."

"Or maybe," he stared at her intensely. "My father is correct."

Hermione coughed on her own reaction, but didn't say anything else. There it was. That look. And it made her more uncomfortable than ever. After clearing her throat, she diverted the conversation back to safety. "So, any prospects for the senior accountant position?"

The look on Granger's face was priceless and Draco took a moment to appreciate it. "Two."

"Would you, erm," she cleared her throat. "Would you like me to screen them for you?"

"Already done." He shifted in his seat. "Now, tell me about your day."

Hermione looked at him with wary eyes. "You were actually serious? You want to know about my day?" That was…strange.

"I don't say, ask, or do anything that I don't mean."

"Okay then." Hermione tried not to smile. "Well, it started at like six in the morning with Ron barging in. Pansy didn't take him back like I'd anticipated. She told him she wasn't sure if she was willing, or something like that." Hermione glanced at the book he'd been reading. Volume two of The Philosophy of the Mundane. She wondered how long he'd been waiting for her. "I'm starting to think that there's more to it than she's saying, which irritates me to no end. I don't like being lied to."

Draco shrugged. "Pansy's unpredictable. Believe me. I never expected her and Weasley to make it two days, much less a year."

"Why do you say that?" Hermione leaned forward, her brows coming together with curiosity.

"Pansy had high hopes to…secure a husband. Even after the war. Her mother set her up with several pure-blooded wizards; all who used and disposed of her. From what I remember, she gave up on getting married and that's when the sporadic dating started. No wizard made it more than a few weeks with her, if that, but I thought it stopped with Weasley."

Hermione stored his words away for future reference.

"So far," he flashed a very rare smile. "Your day isn't matching up to mine at all."

"Well, I'm not nearly done yet. I got to work late because my cat sat on my alarm clock, which would have been okay any other day, but not this one. I walked into a maelstrom of insignificant drama, most of it stemming from the new Paris office. But Padma handled that for me since she's there. I'm not looking forward to my trip there anymore."

"Trip?"

"Next week. Purely business. I won't have enough time to tour the sites."

"Pity."

"That, it is." Hermione agreed with a nod. "Anyway, I had seven meetings back-to-back and I had to help out with the auction's media blitz and I helped plan the order of events."

"The order?"

"Yes. First, the president of W.W.O.R. will show everyone what their organization is all about during a brief—and I do mean brief—presentation. I told her to make it entertaining. Second, a Weird Sisters cover band will perform a few songs. And then the auction will begin."

"This is turning into quite an event."

"I know. There will be approximately two hundred people in attendance, which is better than I anticipated."

"How many people ended up sending submissions?"

"Just under a hundred. I have all their submissions in my briefcase. I made my interns transfer all the information to Muggle notecards. Makes them easier to read."

"Interesting."

"Very." Hermione tapped her fingers on the table. "The auction is looking to be a huge success since you've stepped in to sponsor it. Several restaurants and spas have stepped up and are donating meals and services to go along with the eligible bachelor or bachelorette at the auction, which will inspire more bidding action. I ran my assistant nearly ragged today because I sent him to every place to—" she yawned suddenly. "Oh, excuse me."

"That's fine." Draco leaned forward. "I'm only slightly convinced that your day was busier than mine." The smirk on his face was bordering on playful.

Hermione crossed her legs, clearly taking his challenge. "All of my clients this afternoon decided that they wanted to act like a bunch of sodding wankers. I haven't eaten anything since breakfast. I broke a heel. Ellis got a flat tire, which delayed me almost an hour. He was so flustered that I gave him a bonus. Things happen." When Malfoy nodded, she continued. "Oh, there's more. Believe me. My secretary is trying to set me up with her son. Seamus is relentlessly shoving Dean in my face, too. They both showed up at my office today, wanting to go to lunch, just the three of us. Obviously, they think I'm stupid. I could see exactly what was going to happen. Seamus was going to have an 'emergency' and I'd be stuck with Dean. I'd rather starve than have another awkward, silent—oh goodness! I'm unloading on you."

Draco didn't mind. Really. But he didn't tell her that. He watched her hands as she talked; how she used them to underline her statements and clasped them together when she realised she was doing it. Draco watched her eyes; how they moved when she talked and narrowed when she recalled the many details of her day. He even watched her lips; how they pursed when she was irritated and wrapped themselves around words he actually listened to. He'd learned more about Granger in the last five minutes than he had during that lunch with Pansy. She was probably the hardest working witch he knew, and she took some sort of demented pride in it. Granger was also in desperate need of a vacation…and food.

Oh, and she was—he hoped not—going to be dating her secretary's son soon.

"Perhaps when we're done here, you could give your secretary's son a—"

"Whoa there, Malfoy." She held up her hands. "My secretary's son is gay, and she hasn't figured it out yet."

"And this Dean?"

"I went out with Dean Thomas, you remember him, right?"

Draco shifted uncomfortably. Dean Thomas was one of the classmates that had frequented the prison under the drawing room. "Yes. I remember."

Not that he could ever forget.

"You know," Hermione said carefully after noticing the distinct change in his demeanour. "The war was a long time ago. You—"

"I know," he replied. "Just go on."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely."

"Okay," she paused for a moment and picked right back up where she'd left off. "Dean and I went out once—"

"When?" he interrupted, hoping to bring back the ease of their pre-Dean conversation.

Hermione thought about it for a moment. "About a month ago, I think, but that doesn't even matter. It will go down in history as a raging disaster. The problem now is Seamus. He insists that I come with Dean to his party next week, but I'd rather chew on reconstituted sawdust."

The look on her face was priceless, but Draco was focused more on the latest thing he'd learned about her. Granger was perfectly single. And he tried not to smile—or do anything that would suggest anything other than indifference on his part. "You win, by the way. Your day was much longer."

She smiled, mentally noting just how easy it was for her to talk to him…and how comfortable she felt. It was odd, but—Hermione gasped and suddenly remembered just what they were supposed to be doing. "Oh! Right. We have a lot of work to do—"

"Do we have to do it here?"

"Excuse me?"

He leaned back in his chair. "I was thinking we could go somewhere for dinner and maybe work at my flat instead."

"I might have to endorse this idea of yours. I am starving." Hermione thought for a few moments. "I live in walking distance from here. Now that I've properly restocked my cabinets after Hurricane Ron went through, I can make dinner and we can work there. It'll be quiet, for the most part." She regarded him with a curious look. "Is that fine?"

More than. Hell, it was more than he'd anticipated. "That's fine."

Granger's flat was large, bigger than he would have thought. It was done up in that non-committal yet tasteful way he'd seen pictures of in decorating magazines, but with a flair that he'd come to recognise as 'Granger'. All Granger. Her sitting room had almost a feminine quality to it, tastefully painted walls, numerous wooden bookshelves, pictures of friends and family on the mantle, and corridors lined with lightly framed paintings and lit by small, silver lamps. And while Hermione read her messages and listened to her voicemail, Draco had explored it all, even the spare bedroom, which had been converted into a home office.

It was, by far, the most lived-in room in her flat.

But as he rounded his way through the classy dining room, open kitchen, and back into the sitting room, Draco decided her flat suited her. There was something feminine about Granger, too. And she was certainly tasteful. Maybe a little dry, but he was slowly coming to the understanding that maybe—just maybe—she might be holding back her charm on purpose. At least to him, or better yet, them. Her clients.

For the first time, he really didn't want to be her client. Just so she could—

"Sorry to keep you waiting."

Draco whipped his head around, noticing immediately that Granger had changed into something more comfortable. His mouth went dry, and it was puzzling because all she had changed into were navy joggers and a maroon short-sleeved shirt that said Gryffindors do it better—definitely not hers.

Hermione caught him looking at her funny and awkwardly pulled at the end of her shirt. "Ginny's idea of fun. Shame it's so comfortable." When he didn't say anything, she pulled at her ear. "You can take the Floo home to change into something else, if you want. I'll get started on food."

After a moment of thinking and considering, he took her up on her offer and left. Instead of rushing, which would show his eagerness, he took his time. He read his owl posts and replied to one from his mother before changing.

By the time Draco returned to Granger's flat, she had everything organised to a science and her flat smelled like a Thai restaurant. It wasn't bad because he actually liked Thai food, but the table settings and wine glasses made the room feel oddly intimate in a way he couldn't explain. Unfortunately, he spotted the four stacks of white notecards which served as the centrepiece, and they almost put things back to perspective.

Almost.

The sight of Granger did a good job of tossing all thoughts of—hell, everything—from his mind.

Her back was to him, and it gave him the perfect opportunity to observe her as she hummed a tune while cooking. The sight was oddly…cute in a repressed, academic sort of way. Granger was starting to unwind right before his eyes. Her shoulders had dropped from where they had been up around her ears and she was moving fluidly around her kitchen. Draco would have felt guilty for intruding, but didn't.

Not even for a moment.

Not even when she turned around and froze.

Once she recovered from the initial shock, Hermione asked. "How—how long have you been standing there?"

"Not long."

The look on his face was a mix between amusement and something that made a blush start on her neck, and spread painfully upward. "You really shouldn't sneak up on people like that."

"What are you making?"

His question pulled her from the pit of mortification that she was freefalling into. "Gang Gai—or chicken curry. I usually make it for Harry and Ron, but it's quick and easy to make. Besides, the sauce is amazing. I've made several modifications that just—well, you can taste it for yourself." As Malfoy slowly approached, Hermione busied herself with summoning a spoon and dipping it into the sauce. And when she turned again, he was closer than anticipated and felt a twinge of something inexplicable. All she knew was that it nearly made her drop the spoon, as if it were suddenly too warm. "It's hot."

Granger's hand shook slightly as Draco leaned and bent his head to blow on the spoon. He looked directly into her eyes as he tasted the sauce, and the moment seemed incisive and stretched into oblivion. As soon as he realized it, he broke his gaze. "It's really good." She gave him a tense smile and turned to check on the bubbling rice, leaving Draco to wonder what would happen if he dragged his lips across the exposed part of her neck.

A shiver ran through him that he couldn't control.

And for the first time, he wasn't irritated by his attraction to her.

"You should…" Hermione cleared her throat. "Probably start looking at the submissions. They're on the table."

Neither moved at first. She marked the moment, the feel of his breath on the back of her neck, and tucked it away for later. Hermione also made note of Malfoy's hesitation and the near sigh that made her shiver in the warm air of her kitchen. She put that sensation away for later analysis, too. Then, she took a cleansing breath, forced the thoughts out, and continued.

But the tension would not be ignored.

It continued on into their actual dinner where they ate in complete silence, and Malfoy paid her two compliments—one after his first bite and the second after he helped her clear the dishes from the table. After dinner, Hermione busied herself with one of the stacks and Malfoy worked through another. Occasionally, they'd read out one of the responses for the other's amusement, but no words were uttered outside of that. The one thing that stood out in Hermione's mind was Malfoy's eyes as they cut between her and the stack of notecards he casually looked through. She could easily imagine them cutting someone down with a glance, but she could also imagine a lot of things in them that gave her another twinge. This one she recognised and dismissed without giving it any credence for what it was.

She needed some wine.

The Chianti wasn't chilled enough, but she didn't care…and neither did Malfoy. He polished off the first glass before she could sit the bottle down, and the second was gone before she finished her first. Only after she finished her second glass, did the tension start the long process of dissipating.

Draco began leaning back in his chair more, and Granger started laughing more and making jokes. Something began shifting in her fact that left her looking more attractive than he'd ever seen her. More approachable. Less tense. And as the transformation occurred, Draco finally began to see some of her actual charm. Not the charm she used in meetings, or when she was in a cajoling mood as opposed to her normal mood.

Real charm. Personal charm.

And he felt the beginnings of a transformation in himself; where he began to accept that he wanted a lot more than just to get to know her so he could shag her senseless.

Draco wanted—well, he wanted a lot more.

That was for sure.

It was well after one in the morning when Hermione tied the final letter to the ankle of the owl and sent it off to Bethany Hope—their final participant. Malfoy was inside, attempting to clean the mess they'd made, but he seemed a little preoccupied.

Well, as far as she could tell from out here.

After days of rain, the night time sky was finally crisp and clear. She looked out at the view of London and gave a contented sigh all to herself. Although there was still a chill in the air, Hermione could feel something else, something warming pushing under the breeze that heralded the first real days of spring. She liked spring. It—

The opening of the screen doors behind her effectively severed the thought.

Draco watched as she leaned out over the railing and lifted her face to the sky. He could tell that she wanted some alone time, but of all the people he'd worked with or for, she had the ability to make him go against his nature and judgment. And right then, his judgment was telling him to go back into her flat and leave before she saw him staring at her. His feet, however, had other ideas, and Draco found himself approaching her.

But it was the look she'd given him over her shoulder that made him take the last few steps.

"Nice night?"

"Exceptional," Hermione replied with a sleepy smile. "Too bad I can feel myself fading."

"Early morning?"

"Not if I can help it, but most likely," she yawned. "Lots to do in so little time. And I still have my actual work to do."

A very small part of Draco thought about excusing himself, but a larger part of him wanted to stay. Just to see what would happen. He had an idea about what wouldn't happen. They weren't going to have some fascinating conversation. Hell, they weren't going to talk too much at all. And they certainly weren't going to touch, even though he wanted her to stop leaning forward on the railing and over on him. He knew all that, but he stood there anyway, not touching, talking, or even looking at the night time sky anymore.

Hermione glanced at her clock. It was almost pointless to go to sleep, and the thought made her very tired. All-nighters made the days harder. The weight of her rigorous schedule, to which she was more than partly to blame, bore down on her at that moment and made her think about a vacation. She needed one badly, but the idea was laughable, at best. There was always somewhere to be, something that needed doing, and it usually occupied her time and mind.

Tonight, there were other things clouding her mind. Some had to do with the much needed time off she needed to take, and strangely enough, others had to do with Malfoy. The notes she'd made and sensations she'd felt earlier started flooding her brain. Hermione looked over at him and felt a familiar blush creep up the back of her neck. She'd been around Malfoy a considerable amount of time since Pansy and Ron had started dating, but he hadn't really evoked such a strong feeling in her before this week—before tonight.

And that was a potential problem.

He was a client, but she hadn't treated him like one. At all. She'd gotten personal with him, which was a huge no-no in her line of work. Everything was supposed to remain pleasant yet distant, and here they were, in her flat at almost two in the morning, nearly touching. What made matters worse was her realisation that she didn't feel an ounce of guilt about her behaviour. She actually liked talking and listening to him. She liked—oh no.

"Is there any other time we need to meet before the auction on Friday?" Draco asked. It had gotten far too silent for his tastes.

"Probably not," Hermione stammered inelegantly, much to her dismay. She quickly re-gathered all the sensations and notes that had spilled from her mind and shoved them back into their corner. She had to get it together. Fast. "I've got everything covered."

"And if you don't?"

"I'll contact you. Or drop by."

"Or I could drop by...perhaps for lunch?"

Hermione was glad it was nighttime because the blush that spread across her face was instant and strong. "Ah, I'm—busy. Or I will be."

"You don't sound too sure about that."

"Oh, I'm sure. Yes. Busy, busy, busy..." she trailed off, shifting about uncomfortably until she felt him exhale beside her. Hermione shivered involuntarily.

"Cold?"

"A bit. I should get to bed. You can let yourself out, right?" Hermione didn't wait for an answer before rushing back into her flat.

Draco watched her go with a thoughtful look on his face.

 

Chapter Text

My toes are cold, ankles are sweaty
And up my legs, knees are heavy
My hips were shaking, my back was breaking
In love...

Five

"Pansy?"

Hermione was not at all surprised to find the witch sitting in her office lobby early Friday morning. She had just gotten to the office herself and had hoped the witch had gotten her letter on time last night to make it here before her day kicked into high gear. They had much to discuss. Pansy had been an unofficial—and unpaid—liaison between the venue and Hermione's office for nearly twenty-four hours. She'd been taking care of the small details, problem solving, and making sure everything ran smoothly when Hermione was too busy.

And it was working on phenomenally well.

"She's been waiting patiently," Louisa said.

It was true. Pansy had been standing outside the locked office doors when Louisa and Price walked in together. They'd let her in. While Price worked to ensure that Hermione's day ran as smoothly as possible and Louisa set up the office for the day, Pansy had leafed through several Muggle magazines.

"Granger, you wanted to see me?" Pansy asked.

"Yes." Hermione led her into the office. "Have a seat. Would you like something to drink?"

"No, thank you," she said primly.

Hermione placed her belongings next to her chair and sat down. "Do you know why I asked you to come today?"

"It can only be two things: business or personal."

"Or both."

Scowling, Pansy pursed her lips before replying. "I'd like to get the business aspect of this conversation over with first, if you don't mind."

"Very well." Hermione clasped her hands together and leaned forward on her elbows. "How are things going at the venue?"

"Smoothly. I went there before I came here and the volunteers have decorated everything. The tables and chairs are set, the stage has been constructed, and the menu has been finalized. We're just waiting for place settings, but of course, it's too early to tell. If you show up to the hotel, and we aren't down two participants or the entire structure has imploded, we'll be doing good."

"Great work." Hermione smiled genuinely. "Thank you so much for doing this."

"It wasn't a problem." Pansy was actually more grateful for the project than she'd let on or anticipated. She didn't have nearly enough work at her job to keep her mind off of a certain wizard. "I enjoyed the challenge."

"That's actually very good to know."

"Why?"

"Because I'm thinking about offering you a position—"

Pansy nearly leapt from her chair. "Excuse me?!"

"A position," she replied, struggling to maintain her composure. "First as a paid intern, just until you finish taking classes—"

"Classes?" Pansy's eyes were large with surprised, but somehow wary.

"Classes. You know a bit about the business of image consulting, but you're still very much a novice. And I'm almost certain you have very limited experience working with Muggles. Am I correct?"

"Yes." Pansy frowned and sunk back into her seat. "So why are you thinking of offering me a position?"

"Because I hate to see potential wasted." Hermione crossed her legs at the knee. "This is also why I need to ask you something else."

"Is this the end of the business talk?"

"Yes."

She sighed. It was almost impossible to stay ahead of Granger, Pansy had learned that quickly. It was starting to become very annoying. "I know you want to know why I didn't take Ron back after his apology."

"The question crossed my mind a time or two." Two hundred times, but who was counting? "But my question is: do you have some sort of grudge against yourself?"

Pansy recoiled. "Excuse me?"

"I've been giving this some thought for the last few days, and after learning a bit about your past relationships, I just wondered. It's probably none of my business—actually, I know it's not—but the fact that you're working very hard to ruin your relationship with Ron beyond repair convinces me that you must not like being happy. And my 'influence' on Ron has very little—if anything—to do with that."

If Granger had done this about anything else, she would have been furious. But with the fatigue and guilt weighing heavily on her, Pansy just couldn't muster the energy to react nastily. "That's very presumptuous of you. It's funny. You didn't really care for us being together anyway. Why are you so vested in this?"

"Like I said, I hate to see potential wasted, and you never answered my question."

She did not like where this was going, but the best course of action was to play dumb. "How exactly can I?"

"I suppose you can't. But you should know that Ron won't use you or leave you when he's bored. He's loyal to a fault, and when he falls in love, he falls hard. You," Hermione leaned forward, keeping her voice as comforting as possible. "You don't have worry about being hurt anymore."

Pansy started coughing. Hermione blinked once at the witch before calling Louisa. "Will you bring Miss Parkinson a glass of water?" Louisa entered with a glass of cold water, and the Prophet for Hermione to peruse. And while Pansy sipped with a thoughtful look on her face, she decided to catch up on current events. There was nothing really interesting. A new Ministry decree, Quidditch scores, silly gossip that didn't involve her, an article about the charity event tonight, and the announcement of Astoria Greengrass' engagement in the Society section.

Granger folded the paper to look at her. "Anytime you're ready to talk, I'm ready to listen."

She allowed the silence to fall because it was disturbing how Hermione Granger, of all people, had hit the nail on the proverbial head of her issues.

After getting her heart broken for the second time in four months, her mother—a four-time divorcee—had told her: 'You feel too much, Pansy. Romance is for the weak. You are not supposed to marry for love, only status and comfort. Love will break you, so keep your distance and never get too involved'. That would be the key to protecting herself from pain. Simple enough, right? Too bad she hadn't remembered her mother's words when she spotted a fit-looking Ron Weasley at Cho and Theo's engagement party last year. It would have been much simpler if she had. Pansy would have easily managed the tough skin she was legendary for, and she and Ron could have had harmless fun for a few nights.

Instead, after the first one, emotions got in the way of everything. Fucking emotions. They'd turned her into a bloody sap that spent all her free time inserting herself and Ron into every romantic scenario imaginable. Wedding, house, kids, pets. Pansy had imagined it all. And it was more than that. She would bite her lip with impatience when they were apart and couldn't get enough of him when they were reunited. Pansy would reach for his hand in public, smile perfect smiles and kiss perfect kisses for the entire world to see.

They were happy—almost frighteningly so.

As the weeks multiplied and emotions deepened, so did her terror. And so did the fights.

Then he had to give her that ring.

"It's not much," Ron had told her as he slipped the gold band on her finger with shaky hands. "I just...wanted you to know that I love you and one day I intend to do this right."

Pansy bristled at the thought.

"What are you thinking about?" Hermione broke the silence.

"None of your business, Granger," she snapped. "If you think I'm going to break down and have some emotional revelation in front of you—"

"Merlin forbid that," Hermione scoffed. "I don't like you enough to let you sob in my office. I just want answers. Truthful answers. From you." She stared at her with clenched jaws. "I want to know why my best friend is convinced that you're done with him and why he's not participating in this auction to make you jealous, but because he wants to forget about you. I want to know why you're torturing him and yourself—and don't pretend that you're fine, because I know you're not. Your feelings about all this are written on your face and hidden in your actions."

"And if I leave here without answering?"

"I'll just badger you about it until you do, simple as that." She leaned back in her chair, giving her a challenging look. "But I wouldn't test me, if I were you. I'm determined, irritating, and extremely stubborn, and don't you forget it."

Pansy held her gaze for several moments before she frowned. The last thing she needed was a persistent Granger on her back. "I really hate you. Granger." She sighed, waving an invisible white flag. "This is what happened." She took a breath. "Ron gave me a ring and made a lot of promises that scared the shite out of me."

"And you started the fight...because you were scared?"

"Precisely."

Hermione sipped her coffee. "Scared of what?"

"Does that even matter?"

"Yes, of course it does." She set her cup down. "And now it matters more because you've tried to evade the question."

Pansy frowned. "It was because—" She froze and looked at her skirt, memorising the patterns as she smoothed it down.

A thoughtful Hermione looked at the witch sitting across from her until the answer was obvious. "Because you wanted his promises." Her silence was the only answer she needed. "Oh, honestly."

"Look, I don't care if you don't understand my reasons and methods." Pansy stood up, annoyed by the condescending tone of Granger's voice. "But I've been a sprinter for five years, not a long-distance runner. I don't have the ankles or the stamina for it."

Hermione stood with her. "Most people don't wake up one day, lace up their trainers, and decide to run a marathon without the proper tools or training. They take it slow, they pace themselves, and they don't simply give up when they're tired, sore, or even scared. Not when they really want it. Not when they love it." When Pansy didn't argue, Hermione asked. "For one second, think about the good times and forget the fights, the insecurities, and the grudges. Forget about your fear and your bad ankles. Then, answer this: are you ready to lose him?"

 


 

Granger had been artfully avoiding him the moment he walked into the Flamingo room.

Artful Avoidance was the best and worst type of avoidance. Best because she had to put forth some sort of effort, which meant she cared enough to circumvent every single one of his crafty attempts at approaching her. However, it was worst because it meant confessing that she was a professional…and he was a predictable novice. And admitting such a thing—even in his mind—would be wholly unacceptable. So when Granger made her fourth U-turn upon seeing him and dragged her hapless assistant along with her, Draco walked after her. He didn't rush, nor did he attempt to catch up to her. He just walked and he didn't blink twice when she first dipped out of sight. He stopped and talked to the hotel managers, asked a volunteer a few questions, and even granted one of the auction participants an autograph.

Every now and then, his eyes would scan the room and he didn't get frustrated when she completely disappeared off his radar.

When the witch walked away with her autograph, Draco moved on.

The room was in organised chaos. Volunteers, dressed in navy robes, were rushing around. Some were setting up chairs and place-settings at the tables, others were helping the participants find their way to the back, but the majority of them were staring at cover band, who were in the middle of a sound-check. Potter was talking to a few fans, while Weasley stood next to him, looking forlorn. Draco frowned and continued on. Hotel employees were helping make last minute changes, and the caterers were setting up the table. There were several well-dressed witches and wizards, probably managers, being given instructions by a clipboard-wielding Pansy. Draco's eyebrow rose in curiosity as he walked further into the banquet hall. When had that happened? He considered walking towards his best friend and asking that very question, but he was distracted by a group of early guests who were huddled together near the centre of the room, listening intensely to something. Or someone.

Granger had to be there.

And he was right.

By the time he reached the group, they had largely dispersed. Only Granger and two other men, one he recognised from his research as David Plath, founder of the W.W.O.R., remained. Potter, who had managed to escape his fans, joined the three of them with a polite smile and handshakes. Potter said something that made her smile comfortably, and Draco was a bit surprised. Not just at how her two worlds overlapped, but at how she managed to balance them without any visible effort. He didn't have that ability. There were family and friends, and there was work. Outside of basic pleasantries and reserved politeness, he'd kept things separate as much as possible. He—

"Malfoy," Harry waved the spaced-out wizard over to their small group. "Over here!"

Hermione attempted to smite him with her death glare, but he wouldn't look in her direction. "Wise move, Harry."

"What was that?" David Plath asked.

She hadn't realised she'd said that aloud, but recovered quickly. "Oh, I was just saying that it was a wise idea for Harry to wave Mr Malfoy over to the group. I'd hoped you two would meet before the auction began." Malfoy greeted her with a handshake that lasted two nanoseconds too long. Much to her dismay, the fact that she hadn't seen him in nearly forty-eight hours and avoided him like a Nundu for the last two hours hadn't made that twinge vanish. Not even a little bit. Hermione went through the motions of introducing him to David Plath and his life partner, Stephen, but her mind was entirely someplace else.

It was only right at that moment that Hermione could admit to herself that Draco Malfoy was an issue for her. She was attracted to him, and as much as she didn't want to allow that attraction, it was there. Now she had to simply deal with it. And that was exactly what she was going to do. Hermione had it planned out in a matter of seconds. She would take those feelings and put them elsewhere. Maybe take up meditation or yoga to channel her mental energy away from him. Having feelings for Malfoy, in her mind, was wrong. He was her client and that made it simple.

Draco—wait, Malfoy—equalled 'no'.

Hermione repeated all that to herself as she tuned in and out of the conversation Malfoy was having with David about his charity organization. Her lips actually moved when she went over her own logical words, but she wasn't aware of it. Harry was, however, and interrupted her pep-talk. "Are you talking to yourself?"

"Just running over a few last minute things in my head."

Hermione was obviously lying, Harry concluded when she didn't meet his eyes. Thanks to Ron, he'd learned to read lips during Potions and she was muttering something about 'Malfoy' and 'no'. Interesting.

"Everything looks amazing, Miss Granger. Just relax and enjoy the night." Stephen smiled.

"Actually, I need to discuss something with you." Draco said. "A business matter."

That sent up an immediate, albeit inexplicable, red flag. "I'm sure that it can wait. Stephen's right. Everything looks good. Too good to discuss business."

He was grasping for straws. "It's an important matter."

"What is it? I'm sure you can say it here."

Draco shook his head. "It's important and private."

"Well, there's a room connected to the participants' waiting area that'll give you some privacy." Harry grinned. "I found Ron there about an hour ago."

"Et tu, Brute?" Hermione glared.

"Always," was Harry's reply.

She sighed and relented. "Fine, lead the way."

I'll thank Potter later, Draco thought as he took her by the elbow, noticing just how much she stiffened at his touch. She was uncomfortable around him, which made him inwardly grin. He'd felt the same around her long before this week, and this was a sort of ironic payback that he basked in. Draco gave her elbow an affectionate stroke with his thumb, and her wide-eyed response was too priceless for words.

"We'll be back." The last thing he saw before he turned to leave were David and Stephen's exchanged looks of befuddlement, and Harry Potter's two thumbs up.

Sometimes, Draco really hated him.

They didn't make it more than four metres away before Hermione said, "I know you don't want to discuss business."

He deliberately shortened his strides to make it easier for Granger to keep up, but found that her shorter legs carried her towards the stage with surprising efficiency."And I know that you've been avoiding me since I walked in."

"I haven't been avoiding you."

"And I'm the Minister of Magic," he rolled his eyes, scoffing. "Something happened that night on your patio."

Hermione frowned. He was a little too close for comfort. "You were there, Malfoy. Nothing happened."

"Only because you ran back inside and locked your bedroom door."

"I didn't run," she argued primly, nose in the air. "I scu—walked. Very fast. And I didn't lock my door, thank you very much."

Draco snorted.

With the band still running their sound-check on stage, the waiting area for the participants was nearly empty. There was only one witch in there, and she was too busy looking at herself in the mirror and bobbing her head to the music to notice. Draco found the door to the adjoining room and opened it. It was dark. Granger walked in first and he followed, letting the door close behind him with a small click.

The lights came on and…

"Malfoy, why are we in an empty broom closet?" Hermione looked around

"Potter obviously has an interesting sense of humour."

"And a strong desire to be hexed." She folded her arms impatiently. "What else did you want to discuss? I have a lot to do before the auction starts and mmmph—"

It wasn't the most graceful kiss he'd ever initiated, that was for sure, but it was the most impulsive. The soft kiss he'd intended to give her became hard and intimate on impact. But it didn't matter. He'd ended up right where he wanted to be, with his arms around her and his body crushed between hers and the door. And for a several long moments, Granger kissed him back. He'd felt it, the movement of her own lips, the way her body leaned into his instead of being rigid and tense.

Hermione was fairly certain that she was losing her bloody mind. Everything had happened so quickly that she hadn't had time to think or respond rationally. Instead, she'd let herself go before she even realised it. And even if Hermione tried, she couldn't gather her wits. Every sensation mingled together, from the sound of Malfoy's back bumping against the door, to the scent of the cologne he always wore, to the beating of his heart under her hands that were pressed between him.

When he pulled her even closer, his hands bunching the soft fabric of her robes as he held her, all thoughts of how wrong this was completely disappeared. Hermione freed her hand and began to kiss him back in earnest, touching him here and there. On his shoulder. On the back of his neck. His arm. Hermione slipped her hand inside his jacket and allowed her hand to travel down the tense curve of his back….

It was like nothing he'd ever felt, with the sound of the bass thumping, shaking the walls around them, and covering the small sounds they couldn't help making. Unconsciously, his lips moved from hers to her neck, then journeyed down to her shoulder and up to her ear where he nibbled gently. Each touch of his lips was accompanied by a barely audible sigh from Granger. It was the sighs that got to him more than her wandering hands, more than the actual kissing, more than—

A knock on the door pulled them both from their stupor.

Draco immediately, albeit breathlessly, vocalised his frustration. "You've got to be—go away!"

She silenced his rant with a soft, lingering kiss before pulling him off the door so she could open it. "Something you need, Harry?"

"Actually, yes. The sound-check is nearly over and a woman from—"

"The Volunteer Teacher Organization! Oh goodness! I almost forgot they were coming to the event." In a flash, Hermione was rushing to get herself back into order. She fixed her hair and fixed her twisted and bunched robes, completely flustered. "Draco, the next charity that your company is going to sponsor an event for is—well, you just heard me. Anyway, V.T.O. sends volunteer teachers to third world countries to teach in small magical schools. They have volunteers teaching in thirteen countries, and they're constantly expanding." Hermione smoothed down her hair and dusted at a few invisible wrinkles. "I've started plans for your company to sponsor an event for them in the next few months, but today I'd like it if you offered to send four hundred pounds of parchment and two hundred quills to their school in Haiti. It's their oldest, they could really use the supplies, and it could be a very nice first gesture."

When Hermione slipped past her grinning best friend to leave, the only clue that was left of their time in the broom closet was the blush on her face.

Harry's grin brightened at the sight of the mussed Malfoy. "Nice hair."

The scowl on his face would have had more of an impact if he didn't look like he'd been attacked and nibbled on. His jacket was hanging off one arm and his shirt wasn't tucked. Three buttons were undone. Still, he didn't let up. "One day, Potter, I'm going to tap dance on your grave."

"But not today." Harry straightened his glasses.

Draco only grunted in response and buttoned his shirt.

"You're welcome, by the way," he snickered. "That went better than expected."

"I really can't stand you."

Harry ignored him. "Did she call you 'Draco'?"

"Did she?"

He hadn't noticed.

 


 

The tension that had settled into Pansy's shoulders during the cover band's performance turned into nausea by the time the auction started. Ron was fourth, and she'd spent hours trying to forget that small fact, but couldn't. There were a lot of things she'd been unable to forget—Granger's words, mainly. Pansy spent the hours following their conversation terrorizing everyone she could and brooding under a growing thundercloud of depression. By the time the auction started, it was so big and black that everyone—participants, hotel employees, and volunteers included—had steered clear of her.

Except Granger.

Pansy sulked temporarily at the thought. Every attempt at sending her running away like everyone else had been met with extremely bored eyes and, on one occasion, an indifferent yawn. Pansy looked over at her as the bids for the third person—Cormac McLaggan, who was coming attached to a dinner at the nicest wizarding restaurant in London, probably to offset his pretentious personality— passed the thirty Galleon mark. Everything had run as smoothly as an event could look after only a few days of expanding and refiguring, but Granger looked more relaxed than she'd ever seen her…and mentally unavailable. Pansy nudged her in the shoulder.

Hermione resurfaced from the sea of her thoughts where she'd desperately tried to dig up the shame and guilt over the latest Malfoy Incident, but she hadn't found it. "Something you need?"

"No, I was wondering where you had gone off to."

"I'm still here, just listening to the bid." Cormac's bid had risen another ten Galleons. It was bizarre to her because no one could pay her any amount of money to share a dinner with him or his leering eyes. Hermione cracked a small smile.

"Are you okay?" A smiling Granger made her nervous, no matter how bad she felt.

Hermione thought about it. "Yes," She was better than fine, but didn't tell Pansy that. "Yes, I am. Quite fine."

Pansy glanced over her shoulder where David Plath and Draco were discussing something quietly. She didn't know David well enough to gauge his mood, but Draco was trying hard to look the part of a businessman. Cool facial expressions, squared shoulders, and a polite smile. But the closer she looked, the more he began to look like the cat that had been at the cream. The tension that had been on his face the last week was gone and—Pansy looked at Granger suspiciously, wondering if she was the cream. "What do you suppose they're discussing?"

Hermione looked over her shoulder just in time to catch Malfoy's gaze. The look on his face was a mix of heat, appraisal, and amusement. She had to look away before she smiled and ruined everything. "Business affairs," she cleared her throat. "More than likely. David just bought out Florish and Blotts. It would be a good idea if they became friends. I can't even imagine how much parchment they go through in a single month."

Granger was definitely the cream. That much she knew. "Uh-huh."

A smug Cormac ended up going for forty-seven Galleons to an older witch, who looked more than pleased with her win. And Hermione couldn't help but want to be a fly on the wall during their dinner conversation. She looked over to convey her thought to Pansy, but found her standing completely rigid, gripping her clipboard within an inch of its life. Ron was walking on the stage, hesitantly, as the announcer read off some things about him.

"Ronald Weasley loves the flying and Quidditch more than anything. He's deathly afraid of spiders and doesn't have a favourite food because he loves them all."

"That's not true," Pansy mumbled to herself. A bubble of indignation rose in her chest, scalding her throat. "None of that is true."

"Pansy?" Hermione rested her hand on her shoulder. She was trembling. "Are you all right?"

"They're making him sound like a Quidditch jock."

"What are you talking about?" Pansy's voice had taken on a slightly hysterical edge that made Hermione hand her clipboard off to someone standing nearby, she didn't see who. She took a deep breath and hoped Pansy would follow suit. She didn't.

"Bidding will start at five Galleons."

Two bids for twenty and twenty-five Galleons rang out almost immediately.

"H-he doesn't like flying or Quidditch more than anything. He likes being outside the moment it stops raining. He likes train rides to Hogsmeade and Christmas. He—"

"You're babbling."

"No, you don't understand, Granger. That card is wrong. You—you have to make them change it! You have to make them say that he hates Indian food because it makes him sick, mushrooms because he has an aversion to eating fungus, and mint candy because it reminds him of toothpaste."

Pansy looked as if she was a walking heartbeat, and Hermione shook her slightly. "Listen to me. You can end this right now. Remember what I asked you earlier?"

"Ye—no!" She exhaled. "Wait, yes, I remember."

"Are you ready to give him up? Because I don't think you are, and I know he's not ready to give up on you. Look at him. He's miserable."

When she followed Granger's eyes to a pale Ron, who was gripping his trousers to tightly his knuckles were white, Pansy felt as sick as she'd felt the morning he'd showed up at Daphne's flat…only worse. This was supposed to be for the best, right? This was supposed to ensure her protection, right? But it felt…so wrong. Tragically wrong. And what was worse was that Granger was right. She had to have some sort of grudge against herself if she was willing to give up the best thing that had ever happened to her for self-preservation. This was a punishment, and she hadn't done anything wrong, except—

The bids were getting higher and higher, and Pansy felt herself start to panic. She didn't know if she could do this. And when the bidding tipped over fifty Galleons, she knew she couldn't just stand off to the side and watch someone else 'win' him. Not when she—not when she was the one who—who loved him. She loved him.

"Think about it. Which do you want to hold on to more: Ron or this insane grudge you have against yourself?"

Everything after that was a blur of decisions, actions, and feelings that didn't stop until she stumbled on the stage.

"Sixty-five Galleons!" she shouted, "And if anyone else makes another bid, I'll hex them right out the room!"

Everything stopped.

Ron looked at her with wide eyes.

"I—" Pansy nearly tripped on her heels as she took a step forward. "Bloody shoes," she grumbled as she kicked them off. Pansy looked back at Granger who was urging her with wild hand gestures to keep going. Draco was standing with her, face unreadable. Turning back to a frozen Ron, Pansy took another step forward and said the first thing that came to mind. "I've got sixty-five Galleons, no stamina, and bad ankles. I'm terrified, but if you're still willing, I'm willing."

"You know I am." He didn't get to say another word before she launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck and nearly squeezing the life out of him. Dumbly, his shaking hands went around her, fisting the back of her robes because she couldn't be real. But she was. She was there. And warm. Thousands of words wanted to spew from the depths of his heart, but they didn't have to. Her mumbled apologies and first-time declaration of affection and love said more than he ever could.

 


 

The next morning, Hermione sipped a large cup of black coffee as she skimmed through the files provided by their newest client: Magnum, a non-profit company that rescued animals from poachers and abusers. The founder was about to be smacked with accusations of animal cruelty and using donated finances to fill his own pockets.

Unfortunately for them, he had loose lips and was eager to go on the record to prove his innocence.

Two Words: No comment, she thought as she scribbled detailed notes in preparation for the emergency team meeting in two hours where she would hand the Magnum case to a group of her junior consultants. There was no doubt about in Hermione's mind that they would have their hands full trying to save this company. People loved their animals. With a shake of her head and another sip, she shuffled all the files into one great pile and moved them to the left side of her desk.

Picking up her calendar, Hermione leaned back in her big chair, swivelling it around to face her window. She was packed. Lunch and dinner meetings with several of the clients she'd kept on, conferences with lawyers and journalists, staff meetings at the office. Crookshanks had an appointment to get his shots on Wednesday, an important charity event for long-time client of hers on Thursday, Seamus' party on Friday, and Paris next Saturday for the next week. Well, at least Paris was something to look forward to, she figured. Then shook her head. She'd been there countless times in the last couple of years, and she hadn't seen much of the city. This trip was just going to extend the streak. It was a shame.

With a great sigh, she closed her appointment book.

"I hear you're turning over Dunder-Malfoy to one of your junior consultants."

After stifling the smirk that threatened to swell into a smile, Hermione spun around in her chair at the sound of the familiar voice. Draco Malfoy leaned against her open door, arms folded and eyebrow lifted. She set down her book and picked up her coffee. "Caroline is one of the best." After gesturing to the chair in front of her desk with her eyes, she took a generous sip and sat it back down.

Draco crossed the room confidently, but didn't sit. "Why not keep me yourself?"

"It's not like you need my services, Malfoy." Hermione spelled the door to close with a small click and lock. There weren't many people in yet, but she didn't need any surprise visitors. "Your company is better off than half the companies I work with. You only have minor issues, and now that you've started addressing them, Caroline is perfect to help keep Dunder-Malfoy going in the right direction. She's got excellent ideas."

"Ever considered that maybe I only want to work with you?"

Hermione sipped her coffee. "I did. Very briefly, but then I figured that you wouldn't want your father meddling and complaining about my 'influence' over you."

"He's going to complain anyway after lunch this afternoon." Fortunately, Granger was too preoccupied to catch on to what he'd said. "Besides," he moved on swiftly. "You have excellent ideas, as well."

"Thank you," she sighed. "Tell that to Padma, who is a bit miffed at me for reprimanding Zara so close to the opening."

He looked impressed. "When did you do that?"

"She called me at three in the morning, ranting about something unimportant, and I'd had enough. I told her she had forty-eight hours to get her act together and stop being a pain in my side, or else she was fired. I let her know that I had her replacement on speed-dial, which I don't, but the threat of being replaced scared her straight, I think."

After hearing about this Zara witch for the entire week, he was more than surprised that she'd finally done something about her. "Nicely done, Granger."

She shrugged. "It was the only way I could stop her reign of terror. I wanted her to understand that I don't need her or the drama she comes with." Hermione suddenly realised that she'd gotten off topic, again. That happened a little too easily around him. Folding her arms, she sat her cup down and leaned back in her seat. "So, Malfoy, what exactly are you doing here?"

"Like I said already, I want you to work for me."

"Thanks for the offer, but no. I have a rule I need to enforce with you. I never work for people I like." As soon as the last syllable was out, Hermione looked down and tried to pretend that she was starting to work on something. She should not have said that, especially to him. Malfoy's ego was incredible, even on a bad day.

Draco didn't bother to hide his smirk. The fact that she was avoiding eye-contact spoke loud and clear. "So you like me, huh, Granger? The feeling is mutual."

She looked up at him, eyebrow raised.

"Go on," he egged her on. "You can admit it. It won't kill you."

"It might, actually." Rolling her eyes, Hermione rose from her chair and rounded the desk Malfoy had reclined against. She brushed an invisible piece of lint off his shoulder and didn't pull away when he took the opportunity to snake an arm around her waist and draw her closer. "You never know about these things." Damn him. And damn herself, too, while she was at it. Where the hell had her resistance gone? Malfoy was supposed to equal 'no'. Right?

Apparently not.

"So you do like me." Draco stated, matter-of-factly.

Hermione exhaled and finally confessed, "I do."

It was the first time she'd admitted her feelings aloud…and it wasn't half as bad as she thought. Hermione rested her hand on his chest to elude the unavoidable eye-contact for a few extra moments while she processed that startling new development. When her eyes finally met his, there was only a hint of humour in them and it made the corners of her lips twitch a bit. She waited for guilt and shame to arrive, hand-in-hand, but they never did. Her brain didn't even lecture her about how her feelings for him were a bad idea. There was no negativity. At all. In fact, Hermione couldn't help but feel…really good about where she was right then.

Good and comfortable.

Maybe even happy.

"That's very beneficial for me to know." Draco bent to kiss her with gentle fierceness. "I was beginning to wonder with the way you left without saying goodbye after the auction."

With a hazy shrug, she replied, "I was exhausted. I knew I'd be here today, though I thought I'd be doing some light work." Hermione rolled her eyes and frowned deeply. "Unfortunately, I was wrong."

"New client?" One hand trailed up and down her back, while the other covered her hand that was still on his chest.

"Yes," she murmured, twining their fingers together. It really was strange how comfortable she felt around him and how easy their conversations came. Strange yet lovely. But how long would this last? "And he's a real winner, too."

"Has to be if you're here on a Saturday."

Hermione said nothing in response, but asked a question that was starting to weigh heavily on her mind. "What exactly are we going to do about this, Malfoy?"

"This?"

"You and me," she replied. Her voice was softer than she'd realised. "For the first time, I don't have a direct plan of action—" Someone knocked on her office door. Hermione groaned and called back, "Give me a minute, please." Draco let his hand fall to his side, expecting her to pull away. But when she didn't move, his hand came back. "I'm sure this week will be a nightmare. Maybe you can accompany me to Seamus' party. I doubt you'll want to come because there will be more than a few people there who'll just stare at you…at us."

"I'll come." Draco didn't tell her that Potter had already goaded him into coming. That prat.

"Okay," Hermione tried not to look too happy, but she was. Seamus' party was starting to look like something she could look forward to.

"And then?" he asked.

"There's Paris. I leave the next morning and will be gone for a week, so no chance to really figure this out then. Maybe we can figure all this out when I return." It wasn't the best of plans, but it was sensible.

"Why wait? We can go on a date, of sorts, tonight."

"Tonight I'm having dinner with Ron and Pansy. They want to 'celebrate their love' and her new job at P-TIC."

"Me, too. Potter's coming, too."

Hermione snorted. "I love my friends, but that's not my idea of a date."

"Which is why I propose we skip out early, kick your cat out, watch one of those Muggle movies you like, and cap the evening with a lot of snogging on your sofa." When Granger smiled, he leaned forward just a bit. "Then Seamus' party." Her smile never wavered so he decided to drop the final part on her. "And then, we'll have the next two weeks in Paris." Her smile disappeared, but he didn't stop or react. "Evenings and your free-time for the first week, of course, but the second week will be—"

"Unfortunately, you're mistaken," she cut him off. "I'm only spending one week in Paris."

Draco shook his head. "No, two."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Not only do I not have that kind of time, but—"

"Actually, there's plenty of it," Draco smiled slyly. "Especially when everyone gets the memo that you will be on vacation for a week after the opening."

"You didn't!" she gasped.

"Actually, Padma did. She seemed a little too ecstatic about the prospects of you taking a vacation. So much that she said she would take over all your clients until you returned."

Hermione glared at him, not in anger, but suspicion. The final pieces of the puzzle were fitting together. "She was in on this all along, wasn't she? She knew about your plan to get me to help out Ron and Pansy. That's why she was so adamant about me taking a meeting with you."

"Perhaps." The smile on his face was wry. "Angry?"

"Surprisingly, no." She stared at their still entwined fingers. "I really should be. I hate it when she meddles, but everything worked out in the end…including a few unexpected things."

Like this, Hermione thought to herself.

"Exactly," he nudged her gently. "So, a week in Paris with me? Yes or no?"

She chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully before she answered his question. "I-I guess." A smile started to stretch across her face as a flutter of nervous excitement twitched deep down in her stomach. "Yes." She was going to Paris with him, and no matter what happened, she promised herself she wouldn't regret this decision. "Definitely."

"It's a date, then." Draco murmured as he lowered his mouth to hers.

Hermione smiled against his lips.

And so it was.

Fin