Title: The Collection
Word Count: 8,633
Prompt: Tree ornaments
Warnings: Minimal swearing
Summary: He made them into memories, and she kept them all.
A/N: Thank you to Kalina for putting the Advent together again. I hope you all enjoy the story, and have a happy holiday season! :D
It was the middle of July, the sun searing a path of perspiration across the nape of her neck, and Hermione was holding a Christmas ornament in her damp palm. She pocketed it with as much confusion she had held for it when opening the Portkey box, and rubbed her palm against the ironed-flat line of her work trousers.
She was hit with a Cooling Charm the moment she opened the door to the red brick building, and her eyes automatically found the receptionist. The woman smiled at her as she made her way across the marble floor, glancing at the indulgent looking seating area to her left. She didn't make it halfway across the room before the receptionist's eyes lifted to a spot above her head, and someone cleared their throat behind her.
Hermione breathed in until her spine was stiff and shoulders were back, turning to face who she suspected to be a security guard or the man she had come to see. Beyond the papers, she hadn't seen him since the war ended four years ago, but there was no mistaking Draco Malfoy for someone else. Every inch of him appeared composed and immaculate, from the lay of his hair, to the stone wall posture, to the shine of his shoes that she could make out from there.
Malfoy nodded once, breaking the stillness that had come over them, and they both started towards one another. His grasp on her hand was threatening the position of her bones for a second, before it loosened into something firm without the danger. She wondered if it was a warning, his nerves, or if he changed his mind on strength when his hand swallowed her own.
“Would you like to tour the building?” His tone was brisk without being clipped, and she was glad for the professionalism.
“No, I'm not here to tour the building today. Do you have a room in which we can discuss things?”
“My office, yes.”
There was a pause of tension before he held his arm out towards the lifts. Hermione started towards them, and Malfoy fell behind a few steps. His footsteps quickened until he was in front of her, and then slowed until he was walking beside her. Hermione watched him from the corner of her right eye the entire time, reminding herself what the job entailed, and how many times she'd been through it already.
She stepped into the lift, positioning herself beside the left wall as Malfoy stood near the right. He pressed the button for the third floor, the top floor, and Hermione realized that lift music was not for the enjoyment of the riders. The silence was thundering in her eardrums, and she was pretty sure Malfoy could hear her swallow. She'd taken the lift twenty floors with an angry Harry, and this one still felt longer.
They exited the lift to a small lobby, three fireplaces against the far wall that had yet to be connected to the Floo Network. A secretary looked busy as she flipped through envelopes, and they passed her without a word, winding through two hallways. Malfoy didn't have a nameplate next to his office, but she knew the two massive doors with extravagant handles could only lead to one place.
She paused in front of them, expecting him to lead the way, but he just hovered a step behind her. She shifted, shooting him a sideways glance, and reached for the handle at the same time as he did, his arm brushing the top of hers. His hand drew back an inch in the air, and her own dropped to her side. She felt like making a series of noises just to break the awkwardness building tension in her bones.
Malfoy pulled the door open, and she strode forward, releasing a huff of air. “Have a seat,” he told her, moving around her and towards the desk across the room.
The chair would have been perfect to fix Ron's posture, but at the moment, it was only perfect for making her more uncomfortable. It felt nothing like the lobby chairs had looked, and she wondered if it was a tactic on Malfoy's part.
“Would you like anything to drink?”
“No, thank you.” She pulled the Malfoy file, parchment, and a pen from her briefcase. She had brought her quill specifically for this meeting with him, but she had no where to balance an inkwell without using his desk. “Are you aware of my purpose here, Mister Malfoy?”
“Great.” She looked up when she had everything settled on her lap, giving him a nod. “I've reviewed the file you submitted to the Ministry. Your company owns an apothecary, brewery, and invests in two other companies?”
“Yes. The apothecary is located in the front of the first floor, and eventually the whole of the second. The brewery is on the bottom floor. There are three greenhouses located at Malfoy Manor. We've invested in two companies, as well as a research facility.”
She nodded. “I'm going to be interviewing you about the company today. At the end of this meeting, I'll supply you with a list of official documents I'll need within three days. If those are correct, we'll proceed with the process.” She took a breath. “Are you only distributing your brewed potions from your own apothecary?”
“Yes.” His hands fell from the desk and to the arms of his chair as he studied her a moment. “Is this normal procedure?”
She paused in scanning his employee list, and looked up to meet the calculating grey across from her. “For former prisoners who plan to open a business that will distribute potions to the public, yes. Now, I understand you have company owls that deliver ordered goods. How far is your planned reach?”
Annoyance flashed across his features, and for a second she thought he was going to say something to express it. He pushed his chair back instead, standing, and looked at her down the line of his nose. “I'll get the distribution map.”
The potion was orange-red, reminding Hermione of a sunset. It might have appeared like an intriguing thing to drink, had it not been for the thick bubbles and sour scent.
Hermione jumped, lurching to the left at the voice on her right. Malfoy raised a single eyebrow in response, before his gaze slid over to the cauldron. “Your secretary told me you were here.” Just in case he thought she was creeping around his premises.
“You've completed the staff interviews?”
“Yes,” she said. He looked like he was waiting for more, but she refused to give him details. “Experimental, you said?”
He waved a hand at the four cauldrons on the table, all of them different colors and scents. “All ingredients are approved by the Ministry for public use, and were included in the file I gave you on the company's stock.”
Hermione had learned to pick her battles in these situations. Normally, she'd be taking a sample and bringing it to a Ministry lab, but she knew doing that would have Malfoy digging his heels in on everything she wanted for the next month…at least. She'd find out eventually.
“You realize that they will have to pass through us and testing before being released, right?”
“For the next ten months, yes.” He glanced at her, and must have read her suspicion as easily as he put up that wall of indifference. “I'll submit them if and when I approve of the final product, Granger.”
She nodded slowly, lowering her suspicious look to the cauldron before he caught on. “You're not going to think this is a coincidence, but I'll be reviewing your stock in two hours. Four assistants will be accompanying me. You have the option to close the apothecary until we're finished.”
“You're really going to trust four other people to do it properly?” He sounded mildly amused, and she pinched her lips. “I'll close for the rest of the day.”
“Good.” She paused, feeling his eyes on her. She had no reason to stay any longer, but curiosity was sometimes more damning than rewarding for her, and she rarely knew which one it was until after. “What are you trying to achieve?”
“You've asked me that already.”
“With the potions, I mean.”
There was a fall of silence, but she only had time to think of two different sentences to aid in an escape before he answered. “How much have you read on Litgem's Theory?”
She looked up in surprise, and he was his usual face of calm and detachment. “You want a list?”
There was the amusement again, so brief and fleeting that she might have imagined it. “Of course you have a list.”
She sniffed, raising her chin. “Suffice it to say a lot, then.”
Some sort of excitement overcame him. Perhaps it was as mild as interest, but it changed something in his face, and she had trouble looking away again.
“It's my business! The Ministry can't just--”
“We can, and we will! You can't hire people who were released from Azkaban last week--”
“He's not running the company, he's--”
“He's a criminal! He's still under watch and restrictions, and until he passes that, you--”
“He picks plants, Granger, he's not even brewing--”
“He can't be trusted in any position where he works with things that will be--”
“It's my business, and I'll hire whoever I want--”
“That – no, shut up, Malfoy – anyone that isn't a--”
“Shut up? Very prof--”
“--they'll shut you down, because it's--”
“Get. Out. Of my office. My building.”
“You can't kick me out. That's interfering with--”
“--and I can report it, and you can say goodbye to your--”
The sound of their laughter combined was like a song she'd never heard but knew instantly she'd love, new yet warmly familiar. She rather liked the way they moved together, though she didn't know why she was paying such attention to it.
“Are we doing another round of interviews? Because I'd like to discuss how my boss laughing at me makes me feel.”
“She's a Ministry lackey, not a therapist, Smitt.” Malfoy held up one of the vials from the experimental potion Smitt had tried, inspecting it in the light. “Was--”
“I'm a Ministry official, Malfoy--”
“Yes, you're very important.”
She glared at him as he asked Smitt what the potion was meant to be. “Condescending git,” she muttered.
Apparently, her grumbling was not the level of near silence she had thought, because Smitt cut off mid-reply to laugh. Malfoy turned halfway, looking over his shoulder at her in surprise. Beyond a few arguments in private during her work here, she'd always ranted internally before. She blamed his laughter.
Hermione cleared her throat and dusted off her skirt. “It's a, uh…term I use, like a reminder. A code name, really, for something I have to do. Now. Which is why I said it now.” She cleared her throat again as Malfoy gave her an incredulous look. “If you'll excuse me, Mister Malfoy. Mister Smitt.”
The Portkey took Hermione directly to the small lobby in front of Malfoy's office, and the secretary jumped hard enough for stacks of parchments to drop off the desk. Hermione gave her an apologetic smile, but wasted no time in getting to the office doors. Malfoy called for her to enter on the fourth rap of her knuckles.
He looked surprised for a moment when he saw her, his mouth clicking shut from whatever he was going to say to someone else. She didn't know what he found in her expression, but it was almost fascinating to watch how quickly his guards flew up. He leaned back in his chair with only the slightest air of interest in his otherwise arrogant and statuesque demeanor. He looked like a shark feigning friendship with his food.
“There was an incident with the Hairicle Potion. We're still figuring out the details, and trying to see what ingredients were at the root of it. However, we do know that someone combined the potion with Polyjuice, lost all their body hair, and then hair began to grow inside of their skull.”
Malfoy blinked at her, and then snapped forward. “Inside of their skull?”
She nodded. “The victim is at Saint Mungo's now. They're fixing it, and it doesn't appear to have damaged anything too badly.”
“Victim,” he said slowly, rolling the word across his tongue. His gaze was hard when it swept over her – a few months ago, she might have reached for her wand. “Are you shutting me down?”
“No, of course not. It's not the potion itself. You'll have to stop distribution immediately. Put a warning label on all new bottles. Send out letters to customers. Post it in the paper. Likely pay the man's hospital bill. Perhaps more for compensation.”
Malfoy pushed his fingers into his hair, and paused to rub his temple with the heel of his palm. His eyes fluttered shut for a moment, and he released a breath that bordered a growl. It was the first time she'd seen him show stress, and she wondered if he was too stressed to care, or had grown comfortable enough with her to reveal it. There was a glass of amber liquid half-full on his desk, and she could only guess at how much he'd had to drink before this.
“This is going to be a mess,” he said quietly.
“Yes,” she said, and his eyes opened onto her. “It's important to remember that it's not the potion itself, though. It'll cause some commotion, but it won't irreparably damage the reputation of the company.”
He studied her until she had considered and tossed aside five different possibilities for something to say. He focused his unnerving attention on a sheet of parchment next, writing in quick, fluid movements.
“Are you sending that off to your secretary?”
“To the appropriate people. Anything written with this quill automatically appears on a parchment they have on their desks.”
“That's a little dangerous.”
She tried to lighten the tension, but Malfoy didn't wobble the slightest. He looked exhausted before she blinked, his oversized office dwarfing him, but then he was back to taking up so much room. “I'm not penning love letters, Granger.”
She had to gather as much of her self-control as she could through her own exhaustion to not laugh at the idea of that. She thought he caught the strange movements of her mouth, though, for all that he was staring at it.
“Do you always work this late?” she asked.
They shared a look of amusement that more closely resembled a bone-tired person on the brink of sleep, whose ceiling had just begun to leak over them. Because it was life, and you were going to wake up sore, angry, and cold, and there wasn't a single thing you were going to do to change it.
Malfoy tossed his quill onto the desk, and it rolled into a stack of folders as he settled his gaze on her. “Do you want a drink?”
And against all her better judgment, she said, “Yes.”
“I need a list of ingredients.”
“I'm not telling you the potion contents.”
Hermione had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. “You don't need to tell us the preparations or the specific amounts, but you do need to supply a list of the ingredients within each potion.”
His mouth twitched in a movement she was starting to recognize as agitation, and he looked around the lab. Hermione wrapped her arm around her briefcase as she pushed the edge against her chest, and dug out a few sheets of parchment and a pen. She held them out to Malfoy, waving them when he took too long to take them. She was in a precarious position, and she did not want to be picking up the contents of her briefcase in a moment while he smirked and made rude comments.
He took her offering, his eyebrows raised and pushed towards one another as he looked at the Muggle pen. Hermione snapped her briefcase shut, and Malfoy moved to an empty space down the table. She took a step closer to the box he left on the edge, and she picked up one of the vials, turning it between her fingers while inspecting the dirty yellow of the potion.
“This is the hair growth potion?”
“I don't suggest you try it.”
She gave him a look, but his head was still bent as he scribbled down ingredients, smirking at the parchment. “You should create a potion to help deal with insufferable prats. I'd buy it by the cases.”
“Hm. I've been too busy with the one for insufferable bints.”
“Of course, self-interest. You're like a chimpanzee.”
He stopped writing, his eyes darting up to look blankly at a distant table leg, and then he slowly lifted his head. “Chimpanzee? If you were going to choose an arrogant, self-serving animal, why not a Hippogriff? Are you trying to get me to pick bugs out of your hair? I thought that was Weasley's job.”
Her lips thinned as she glared at him. “A chimpanzee is preening, looks cute and innocent but is actually aggressive, and when you think it's just swinging from trees, it's really about to throw crap at you. Their playfulness could also include ripping someone's face off, and they always want to be the dominant one.”
Malfoy's grin grew to the point that it no longer could, and he huffed out a breath before he broke. His eyes fell shut, and the sound of his laughter filled up the entire room. Hermione started smiling without knowing why she was.
“That explanation fits you fairly well, Granger.”
“I disagree. I'm only aggressive when I need to be, I'm not always trying to be the dominant one, I don't--”
“You fight for dominance with me,” he said slowly, and she shifted on her feet when his gaze rapidly climbed from her shoes to her eyes. “I'd always win.”
She was quieter longer than she should have been, but there was something in the way that he was looking at her that was unrecognizable and made her feel strange. “I doubt that.”
The dark, challenging look was different than the one he normally aimed at her, and her next inhale came quicker, before he lowered his head towards the parchment again.
Hermione had tried to angle around the house when he greeted her from the porch, but he'd left no choice when he shoved open the front door and waited for her to cross the barrier, like a demon at the gates of He-- All right, perhaps that was a bit dramatic. At least at this point in time.
Her voice must have sounded tight as he led the way through the parlor, because he looked at her over his shoulder, a small wrinkle in his forehead. The parlor looked different than she remembered, but it still sent the ghost of memories to draw cold fingers across her nape. She tried to concentrate on Malfoy instead, and the back of his tousled hair.
Her visit to his home had been a surprise, which he'd pointed out to her with much annoyance at her arrival. She'd been too busy surveying him to even reply. Normally, every bit of him was put together so fastidiously that she had taken to glaring at him on particularly rough days.
Today, it was obvious he had just rolled out of bed once she crossed his wards. His hair was pushed back from an attempt to put order to it with his hand, but stray locks were still attempting multiple directions. There was a wrinkle in the left leg of his trousers, which she wouldn't have seen with anyone else, but sought and focused on with him. It was like a chink in the armor.
But the most distracting of all was his face. His eyes were slightly puffy from the call of morning, and there was a wrinkle from his pillowcases on his right cheekbone. He had yet to shave, and the stubble made him appear more roguish than that grin she had seen once, when an extra button had opened on her blouse and she'd been speaking to one of his employees. He had accused her of trying to seduce secrets out of his brewers for a week, until she asked him how he noticed one little button, and he had never talked about it again.
Malfoy had a wrinkle in his jaw as well. The three short lines were almost lost under the shadow of his stubble, but she could see them now that she was closer. His lips looked pinker than usual, or maybe that was just the contrast. He really did-- His mouth spread under her gaze, and the grin she'd been thinking about earlier made its second appearance in her direction. It did something to her stomach that she refused to call anything but nausea.
“Greenhouses. New, old, both. Trouble hearing, Granger?” His eyes seemed brighter, and her own felt too wide, heat burning in her cheeks.
Had he said something? She'd been too busy…with the…chinks in the armor. “Ah… You know, in the morning, people have weaker hearing than any other time of wakefulness.”
He raised an eyebrow, and looked like he would sooner believe she temporarily blacked out. She should have gone with that one. “Really?”
She had no idea. “Yes, absolutely. Sometimes it just, zzch, and you can't hear anything. Also, in the morning, I tend to block out annoying sounds. It's like my brain is trying to conserve to deal with the rest of the day.”
“I'm sure it must be a horrible thing to not be able to hear yourself talking for hours. I'm surprised you even speak at all. I'd been sure the majority of time you only spoke to listen to yourself.”
“Not everyone is like you, Malfoy.”
“What is that saying? Not everyone can be perfect, etcetera. I respect your attempt to try.”
“I'm sorry, what was that last bit? I couldn't make it out through my laughter.”
“I didn't hear you laughing.”
“Ah, must be that morning hearing thing again. I told you, Malfoy.”
“Ah, right. Annoying sounds.”
“No, I meant…ugh.”
Malfoy's sleeves were folded up to his elbows, his robes tossed over a table behind him. She could make out the scar of the Dark Mark on his forearm, but it was the only thing that marred them. Muscles and tendons moved swiftly as he added things to the potion while stirring it, lights catching fine, golden hairs. His fringe was hanging over his eyes as he focused intensely on the task before him, steam billowing up in front of his face.
His shirt pulled taut when he stretched his arm for something, and Hermione's eyes roamed down his chest, the curve of his bum, and flicked guiltily to his shoes. She was waiting patiently for him to finish so she didn't startle him into messing up – that did not include ogling. It certainly wasn't the first time she had noticed how attractive she found him, and it wasn't likely to be the last, but this was a job. Which meant…lack of ogling. Which would have been a lot easier had he kept his robe on. It was just curiosity, really. Really.
Hermione pulled herself up straight, taking a deep breath, but it stuttered in her throat when she found him looking at her. The heat was unstoppable as it burned into her cheeks and ears. He must have only seen her when she'd been staring at the floor, but suddenly turning neon had to have been an indicator of bad thoughts, straying eyes. Malfoy's lips lifted, the smirk slowly spreading across his mouth.
Shouldn't she be wanting to slap that off his face right now? What was wrong with her? She needed to get angry. Yes. Grr. Angry.
“It's a bit warm in here.”
“Is it?” he drawled.
“You know,” she started to say, and something unrecognizable passed across his face before he just looked expectant, “women, on average, have faster heartbeats than men. So with the blood pumping more, we get hotter quicker.”
He opened his mouth, but traded words for a knowing look that was far more effective than nearly anything he could have said. The heat made a resurgence, and she looked at the potion like it was fascinating.
Malfoy moved over to the table next to the cauldron, pulling a mushroom from a jar. His fingers were long and steady on the knife as he cut in a quick, sure stroke. “Is there a reason you're here?”
Oh, that looked even worse. She'd outed herself for ogling, and now it looked like she randomly checked in just to see him. Which wasn't true. Obviously.
She made her way around the table for a distraction, picking up one of the knives laid out between empty jars. There was a root in front of her with half the bark removed, and she started cutting away the rest of it.
“I'm surprised you still brew. You have enough people to do it for you now.”
“They assist. If I didn't enjoy it and wasn't excellent at it, I would have never risked what was left of the Malfoy fortune in this company.”
He said it like she had already known, and it was written down somewhere in all those notes she had kept extensively in the beginning. All the anger and nerves at the start made even more sense now. She wouldn't have taken him for someone to risk that much…though it made sense, considering he would have eventually had to work for someone else if he hadn't.
“Is there room for me to stand here?” she asked. “Because I'm having trouble breathing with all this ego.”
“I don't think you'd survive removing your own head, so perhaps you should try some breathing exercises.”
She snorted, cutting the next strip of bark off a little thick. “Can you teach me? I'm sure you've mastered it by now.”
“There's nothing wrong with confidence. It tends to get you what you want.”
“As long as it's about the right thing.”
She jerked a little when his fingers touched her skin, firm but gentle as they tilted her wrist. The pad of his thumb was rougher than the others, but they were all warm, guiding the direction of the knife. His arm was pressing against hers now, and her heart thumped oddly. She barely noticed she was cutting anything still.
“You're always about the right thing, Granger.”
“Usually, yes.” Sometimes she was about the wrong thing. The very wrong thing.
Malfoy smirked like he'd read it in her eyes, and there might have been a second where his fingers stayed on her wrist more than they needed to, or maybe she was paying too close attention to not give significance to the insignificant.
He made a sound in his throat, resuming his own cutting, and both of them pretended to not notice that his arm was still pressing against her own. She could feel the heat of him through her sleeve.
“But these,” Hermione said, pausing to wave the large jars at Malfoy, “were not listed in the official inventory file that you submitted--”
“I submitted the inventory file last month. It should be obvious to anyone with a quarter of brain – which I do understand is still being hopeful in regards to the Ministry – that I'm going to acquire--”
“The Ministry has a quarter of brain? You're the one who didn't--”
“It's not my issue that you require a list every--”
“The department does! The Ministry!”
He threw his arms out. “Then there you go! They want them every month, they get them every--”
“They're supposed to get them any time anything has changed! They--”
“Then why would they require a new list once a month if nothing changed before that?” he yelled. “Do you--”
“It's just Ministry policy to--”
“--in the rubbish bin, and then ask for another? Are you just throwing shit away? The--”
“I told you that you needed to--”
“--dient is from something restricted, a protected--”
“That's completely different! You need permission for that--”
“And I ask for it! It's fucking Lionfish spine and--”
“It's something that you didn't have last inventory--”
Malfoy pushed against her as he yanked something off the shelf she was standing in front of, and then stepped back, shaking the jar back and forth. “Lionfish. And do you know what Lionfish have with them? A spine. And do you know what was something listed on my last inventory report? Lio--”
Hermione huffed, shoving the jars back onto the shelves. “That's not the point!”
“It's the whole point! They're--”
“Even if that could slide, you didn't have anything related to--”
“--report me, shut down my business, because I didn't tell you I--”
“If they came in here and found--”
“--which is perfectly legal to have! A second-year at Hogwarts can use the bloody thing! They're common--”
“The point is that there are rules, and you've broken them!” she yelled.
“It's a rule that doesn't make any damn sense!”
“It doesn't matter if it makes sense!”
“Have they brainwashed you? If the rule doesn't make sense--”
“It doesn't give you the right to disregard it!”
Malfoy stared down at her, livid, his jaw clenching as often as she was exhaling. It was his silence that made her notice how close they were standing, his chest near enough that having her wrist at her breast was close enough to be poking him with her index. She could feel his warmth meeting hers in that small space, pushing back against her skin.
His eyes were bright and alive, grey and blue, and there was faint red across his cheekbones. His exhales skimmed her nose, and when she raised her chin, his eyes dropped to her mouth. They lingered there for four escalating pounds of her heart, before dragging their way back up. Her stomach was fluttering in some mad dance, and she felt big and small at the same time. She looked down, helpless, to the full, pink curve of his mouth. Her heart jumped into her throat when he swayed close enough for her finger, still touching his chest, to crook.
“Just file the inventory,” she breathed in a rush of letters.
He was searching her eyes for something, and she was more afraid he'd find it than if she stayed there any longer. Her finger skimmed down, down, feeling his sharper intake of air, before dropping back to her thigh from his stomach. She closed her eyes, just for a second, and stepped around him, leaving the stockroom a shaky, breathless mess.
Malfoy was mocking her professionalism. It had taken her a few hours to catch on the first day, but it was all about reading his expressions. It wasn't polite interest, it was barely restrained laughter. The past half-dozen meetings, he seemed bent on knocking her back into the territory they never should have got into in the first place. He regarded every absentminded slip of conversation as a victory, judging by the amusement that briefed his expression whenever she realized and guided the topic back to work.
She had been distant, aloof, strict, and efficient for weeks, and so had he, but then he decided to turn it into some game. Something that entertained him, and that made her forget. She didn't know why it was so easy to fall into it with him. It should have been the hardest thing.
“You said you were debating it with me because it related to my request? I still don't see how the work of Aldman relates to my request for the Thorndulper.”
“Because,” she said very slowly, while thinking very quickly, “Aldman wrote about inhumane practices of”–he already looked amused–“skinning animals, which…relates.”
He hummed, leaning back in his chair, and she glared at him.
Malfoy glanced over at her as he grabbed his robe, laying it over his arm. “Are you waiting for me to open the door for you? Perhaps another awkward pause in front of it?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, stifling a yawn. She shouldn't have stopped here before the Ministry – that meant it was far too early to be dealing with Malfoy. “What?”
“The first time you came, when you stopped right in front of me and waited for me to open the door for you.” He raised an eyebrow. “You--”
“That was a matter of respect--”
“I got your intention--”
“I wasn't going to just open your door when you weren't inside.”
His eyebrows drew together for just a second as he took a folder from her, his hand ghosting her skin. “Respect for me?”
“Obviously. It was your space. It's not like I can't open a door by…my, uh…”
His hand was in her hair. His fingers were sifting through it in what felt like gentle waves as he navigated the curls. Goosebumps ran down her spine and arms, and his fingertips skimmed the circle of her ear.
“Do you sleep on down pillows?”
“What?” she whispered, matching the softness in which he'd asked.
He pulled something white from her hair – a feather, and she distantly placed why he had smiled to himself when she entered the office. He held it up, the smallest curve to his mouth, and he was so close that something inside of her snapped. She felt it like a release of something fluttery and alive to the bottom of her stomach, and an adrenaline that had her surging to the tips of her toes.
She clenched a hand around his shoulder, swaying in her unsteady balance, and his eyes were almost even with hers. He looked as surprised as she did, and she almost stepped back. Just almost, because everything was thriving forward, and his gaze dropped to her lips, and she kissed him.
There wasn't a moment she could think of that he wasn't already kissing her back. He groaned, low and deep, and she felt the rumble of it against her chest. His hand skimmed the fabric at her ribs, and then his arm was around her, pushing her more tightly against him. She wound an arm around his neck, mesmerized with the feel of his mouth, his body, the dip of his tongue over her bottom lip, and then his taste.
Their lips parted against one another, inhale, exhale, as he twisted to throw something somewhere. His freed hand surged into the hair at the back of her head, and his lips closed around her top lip before she even heard the tossed object hit the ground.
She pulled his bottom lip into her mouth, remembering the curve of his grin, and felt it give between her lips, and felt him take, and take, and take.
She hadn't seen or spoken to Malfoy in a week, and her mind was tired of running through a hundred things every minute. This was the best course of action, though. She knew that. She was pretty sure. She thought. So she didn't understand why she was finding it so hard to meet his eyes, and why there was something weird burning in the center of her stomach.
Another pause that lasted too long. Maybe he knew she was dying to get to the door, and run, and hide in her house, and replay this a hundred times over but differently. He had to know this would have been horrible for them if it was different.
“By choice, I assume?”
“Given recent developments, I thought it best. I'm handing this over to Wesley, who is a very intelligent and trustworthy man. You're in good hands these last two months.”
The seconds dragged on forever. He must have stared at her for a near minute before turning for the table. “Very well, then.”
She almost stayed – but it was staying that got them there in the first place.
Hermione stared at the ornament wedged in a white box, refusing to touch it. Malfoy had supplied a Portkey to his building each time since her first day of going there. He had said his house used to be filled with holiday trees years ago, and when he'd found no reason to keep the boxes of ornaments, he began using them as Portkeys. They must have been worthless to him, but she had saved all of them.
Malfoy's personal owl had delivered this one three hours ago. If there had been a business issue, the person she handed the assignment to two weeks ago would have contacted her. This was a personal matter, and it didn't take much thought to know what it was about.
Did this mean it meant something more to him? A starting point rather than the culmination of everything before the end? She didn't know what to do. She kept remembering that morning in his office, and the feel of him, and all the moments that came before it. Not even an afternoon at the Burrow could rid him from her head for more than a half hour.
She narrowed her eyes at the ornament. He probably spiked her tea with some experimental potion to make sure she couldn't stop thinking about it and him, and doubting.
Hermione rode the lift to the ninth floor, and pushed her shoulders back as she headed down a corridor and into a lobby. Her nerves had started a tumbling motion in her stomach before she even left her house, but she tried to concentrate on each click of her shoes, the hold of her posture, anything else.
The tactic made her forget etiquette, however, and she pulled the two doors open without knocking. The apology died in her throat when she met Malfoy's eyes, the tumbling in her stomach speeding up, and the massive doors thudded shut behind her.
God, she had missed looking at him. A lot of things, but just looking at him, too.
Wesley wasn't here yet, and the buffer she'd been hoping to have by arriving five minutes late evaporated in the tension. She swallowed audibly, but raised her chin, making her way to a chair in front of Malfoy's desk. The same desk he had pinned her against with his body spread across her, and his mouth hot and damp on her neck as-- Lala, luhlela, laluh, the uses of Dragon blood a--
“Would you like a drink?”
She shouldn't have looked up. The light from the window behind him made the git look like he was glowing, and that's why it was so hard to look at him. Or maybe it was just the lines of his cheekbones and jaw, the shape of his mouth, and the bright grey that was unwavering on her.
“No, thank you. Where's Wesley?”
Something shifted in his expression, and his jaw clenched once. “He should be here shortly. Should I bring in my secretary, or are you all right on your own?”
Anger prickled in her chest, and she grabbed onto it like the buoy in the storm. “I'm fully capable of being on my own.”
Silence filtered in around them as they glared at one another. She had a feeling he meant that quite differently than she had intended. Had this been why he requested a meeting with both of them? To prod at her insides a bit, and look at her in a way that made her feel guilty, regretful, and reckless?
“Why do you need me here, Malfoy?” She meant for that to come out a lot stronger than it had.
“Wesley is confused over the workings of the company, since you stuck me with an idiot two months before I didn't have to endure this shit anymore.”
Hermione bristled. “He's fully capable. I made sure to secure you the best available before I--”
“You're the best available.”
She flushed, dropping her eyes to the shine of his desk. Which didn't help the flush at all. “I had a project come up that made me unav--”
“Don't try to feed me that, Granger. We both know what--”
“I crossed the line,” she said softly, raising her eyes with a plead for him to drop it. But he wouldn't, and they both knew it.
“You got scared, and--”
“I wasn't scared. It was unprofessional, and completely against my duties as an employee of the Ministry. It would have been horrible if it was discovered. They might have shut down your company, labeling it a corruption. They might have fired me--”
“Ah, so this is all about--”
“It was unethical to stay, and to even…to do that when we were in a working relationship--”
“That wouldn't have failed just because--”
“There are rules! You--”
“You and the bloody rules,” he muttered. “You left the job and stopped all cont--”
“--anything could happen while the assignment was still ongoing, because they would know! And I didn't know what you wanted, or what you want, and I wasn't willing to risk everything, including your business, for an accident that happ--”
“An accident? Granger,” he growled, “if you want to be an idiot, then be it, but don't make disillusions about my intelligence. An accident was when you knocked over a row of vials in the lab, or fell on your arse in the hall. We didn't accidentally--”
“I'm sorry if Wesley has been problematic, and now you're angry because whatever he's doing is jeopardizing your final approval from the Ministry. But I can guarantee you that if we had continued…if things had…if someone had found out, it wouldn't be just jeopardizing. At best, it would have been another year for you with someone else.”
Her heart was pounding too hard. It really couldn't be healthy, the amount of times he got her heart racing, and so confused that it wasn't always sure how to continue a normal, rhythmic beat. He was just looking at her, his eyes flicking over her face, then settling with this look that made her feel he was reading the parts of her mind that she didn't even like to touch.
“Is Wesley coming?” she asked on a breath.
“No. Do you want a drink?”
And with all her better judgment, she said, “Yes.”
Malfoy sauntered into the living room, pulling his shirt over his head, and Hermione rushed her vision from the hollow of his throat to the patch of his skin where his trousers were unbuttoned. A mess of blond locks popped out of the top of his shirt, followed by his eyes on her, and then the sleepy curve of his smile.
“You've been rummaging out here for an hour, and you've only managed that many ornaments?”
Hermione shrugged and sniffed, sliding a hook into the silver clasp of a purple ornament. “There's a right place for each one, and it takes some time to make sure I've found it.”
She glanced at him as he studied the ornaments on the tree with suspicion. She moved to obscure some of his view, angling to hook the purple ball onto a branch. She glanced again when she was done, and he was giving her a calculating look that always meant she was about to really enjoy or hate whatever he was going to do or say.
“You kept them.”
“Huh?” The tips of her ears warmed up a bit as she plucked a gold tree from the box.
“Is your morning hearing acting up, Granger? You saved the Portkeys.”
She cleared her throat. “Yes, well…I had no ornaments. And the stores were out. Why waste money?”
“The stores were out for over a year?” he drawled, but she could hear his amusement as he gave a significant look to the ornament he was pushing with his fingertip.
“That wasn't the first one, it was this one.” She pointed to the gold ball with a silver clasp, and he raised an eyebrow. “What? They were pretty. I wasn't going to throw away perfectly good ornaments.”
He tilted his head, narrowing his eyes at the line of ornaments. “I had known you were seducing me, but I didn't know the fascination started so early on.”
She glared as she snorted, bumping into him to move him out of the spot she wanted. “I was fascinated with the ornaments. And I did not seduce you.”
“I've quite clearly showed you each way you had,” he said, his voice dipping lower.
She flushed, taking a deep breath. “In a very fabricated, exaggerated manner.”
His hand met her hip, and slipped across her stomach. His arm tightened, pulling her back against him, and she pretended she didn't lean into it. “I remember you agreeing you had.”
“I agreed under duress. It doesn't count.”
He huffed a laugh against the shell of her ear, and must have been able to see the goosebumps on her arm when she slid another ornament onto the tree. “That's the one you sent me after the meeting.”
“You mean the farce of a meeting in which you--”
“I mean the meeting that resulted in you sending me that, and then resulted in quite a few other things.” Her hand wrapped around his arm as he rocked them forward, hanging a small bird. “What's that one from?”
“We…argued about fish for forty-five minutes. Oh, that's the other bird. No, that was the day you spilled your tea all over your trousers.” She laughed at the memory of the look on his face.
“You barreled into me, just like you had when I was holding a box of experimental potions. You're lucky I had more--”
“I did not barrel into you either of those times!” she said, turning to face him. “My arm skimmed you with the box, and I was halfway across the room when you spilled--”
“You obviously have selective memory. You threw yourself at me when I was holding--”
“Oh, please, I never threw myself at you, I tripped and brushed your arm.”
He raised an eyebrow, glancing over at the tree. “Where's the one from…there it is. The fireworks one?”
Her mouth clicked shut, and she narrowed her eyes at him. She would not call that throwing herself at him. It was more…losing balance before snogging him. He smirked at her, but his smugness was ruined by the light hitting the ornaments and throwing a dozen different colors across his skin. Not even Malfoy could look effectively cocky when he was glittering.
“What are you smiling at?” he asked, his eyes tracking over her face, and she wondered if he was watching the colors dance on her skin as well.
“Nothing. You look…” she paused, fighting back the grin, “pretty.”
“Pretty?” He scowled at her a moment, before he found a way to use it against her, and the smirk was back. “Are you going to collect me? Hang me up on the tree? Perhaps--”
“I don't know. You'd take up a lot of room, and there's a lot of other pretty things.”
She grinned when the scowl reemerged. “I am obviously the prettiest-- If I could be classified as-- I'm the best looking… Keep laughing, Granger.”
“Sorry,” she gasped out. “Well, actually, no, I'm not, but--”
He kissed her, which was always the most effective way to shut either of them up. She muffled her breaths of laughter against his mouth, and he grumbled against her own. He buried a hand in her hair, determined, before kissing her fully.
She had kept the ornaments because they were lovely, and she hated throwing things away that were useful. She was glad she had now. Each one told a story she wanted to remember, written in their delicate structures. After awhile, the memories would fade just as the colors would, but she would still have them. Just like she did him.