Chapter Twenty-Six: To Kindle a Flame
One year later . . .
Draco was just getting comfortable in the ridiculously capacious informal sitting room at Nott Manor when Theo came barreling through the doors, a panicked look on his face. He hurried over to Draco, an untied scrap of patterned silk hanging around his neck. Pansy raised interested eyebrows from her seat next to Neville, probably just as astonished by her friend's erratic movements and labored breathing.
Theo appeared to be having a panic attack.
"I've forgotten how to tie this thing!" he growled, yanking on the offending piece of fabric.
Draco folded his arms and raised an eyebrow, enjoying the dark cloud that flitted over Theo's face. "Why can't your husband help you?"
"Blaise is locked in the bathroom," he gritted, continuing with a muttered, "Been almost an hour. Probably making love to his own reflection."
"And you've suddenly forgotten how to maneuver a simple knot?"
"I could help," Neville offered, standing up. "But I'm not terribly good at that sort of thing."
Theo's eyes dropped to the messy knot at the base of Neville's throat and flinched.
"Forget it," Theo snarled. He ripped the tie from his neck and paced around a bit before sighing deeply and tossing it back around his shoulders. He gave a howl of frustration and went back to pacing.
"Help him, Draco," Pansy had hissed. "Before I hex him to sleep."
Theo practically skipped over, coming to stand in front of him again. Draco took a moment to absorb his normally quiet friend's obvious turmoil, just long enough to see the rage start around the edges of Theo's eyes before he acquiesced and took hold of the tie ends. It was difficult to get the thing balanced properly with Theo's incessant twitching.
"Stop fidgeting for fuck's sake."
Theo immediately stilled his nervous movements, brows coming together in a vicious frown.
"Watch your language," he snapped.
"They're not here yet," Draco muttered. "I'll swear as much as I fucking want."
"Behave yourself," Hermione whispered as she passed, setting down the last tray of chocolate biscuits on the table. The small breakfast of tea and scones originally planned had turned into a full brunch buffet under Pansy's watchful eye. It was a bit much, in Draco's opinion - how much could they possibly eat anyway? - but she had been adamant about the proper way to receive guests.
Draco took a moment to savor the scent of Hermione as she passed, knowing in a few hours he could bury his head in her shoulder-length curls and wrap her around his body. She took a seat in a large reading chair and propped a book on her crossed legs. The position hiked up the skirt on her thigh a few inches. The Dragon purred. Hermione looked up from her book and smirked at him, completely aware of the direction of his thoughts.
"Don't do that," Theo snapped, wrenching the completed tie from his grasp. "Don't eye fuck Hermione while you're standing so close to me. It's bloody disgusting."
"Watch your language," Draco reminded him.
Theo's growl could rival a dragon's and Draco took the opportunity to slide away, stopping behind Hermione's chair. Without setting her book down, she reached up and slid the fingers of one hand into his. Like a key fitting in a lock, he thought, or the last piece of a puzzle taking its place.
Blaise sauntered in a few moments later, hands in pockets and completely at ease. He was immaculately dressed, as usual. His beard was carefully trimmed to hide the worst of his scars, though his skin had fared far better than anyone had hoped. Draco was just glad the man seemed more resigned to the blow to his vanity.
He recalled several nights during his recovery listening to Blaise moan about his pain, his scars and the general unfairness of life. Did Theo still love him? What did he have to offer him now that his looks were gone? It had been horrible, but Hermione had insisted Draco be supportive. It was difficult to be sympathetic when he could have spent the time with her. Naked. Eventually, Theo had dragged him away and, it was assumed, proved he still thought Blaise was everything he needed.
"Has he had a meltdown yet this morning?" Blaise asked.
"Fuck off," Theo snarled, again yanking at his tie.
"What the fuck Theo?" Draco objected as he watched it unravel. "That was a perfect Windsor!"
Blaise chuckled at his husband's ire as he moved to stand next to him. "Forget the tie. You look great."
"I can't breathe," Theo wheezed, the silk slithering from his shoulder.
"This was your idea," Blaise mentioned, studying his immaculate manicure.
"Why are you so bloody calm?"
"What is there to be anxious about?" Blaise adjusted his cuffs. "I have no doubts about what is going to come through that Floo, or what it means for us and our future."
Draco blinked at the sincerity in his friend's voice and how it had been said so blatantly in front of an audience. It made his skin crawl a bit if he was being honest. Hermione sighed below him, a sloppy grin on her face. He suddenly had a list of disgustingly sweet things he was going to whisper in her ear later. In private. Like a normal wizard.
"I hate you," Theo muttered, his reddened cheeks exposing the lie.
The Floo roared to life. Everyone in the room snapped to attention. Theo straightened with a gasp, quickly tossing his tie to the table while Blaise settled his shoulders expectantly. The two men stood side by side, their hands just touching.
Ginny stepped out a moment later, Lily in tow and a baby with messy, black hair strapped to her breast.
Theo's knees buckled. "Bloody hell, Gin."
"Oh for Merlin's sake, Theo," Pansy hissed acidly from the couch. "You're making a fool of yourself."
Blaise was frowning at Ginny, mouth open to verbally slice her to ribbons on behalf of his husband until Lily skipped up to him and tugged on his shirt front. With only a slight eye roll, he bent over and held still as she gave him a sloppy kiss.
"Hello Uncle Blaise," she sang.
She smacked her lips against the scarred side of his face, as she always did. It made the man melt into a puddle every time. Draco would have rolled his eyes, but he knew his turn was coming and he was reminded of some Muggle saying about stones in glass houses.
Theo received his kiss with as much grace as he could manage.
"Hello, love," he wheezed out, just able to pat Lily on the head before resuming his labored breathing.
"What, no hello for me?" Ginny laughed.
"How about stop clogging up my Floo, you harpy?" Theo growled.
Ginny laughed and stepped between the two men to give them a peck on the cheek each, knowing how much they hated public displays of affection. They both winced.
Lily had made the rounds and was now perched in Draco's arms, twining her arms around his neck. He had no idea why the little girl had taken to him, but he was never entirely comfortable with the attention. She had grown over the past year, but she was still a tiny thing and he was always afraid she might start to cry or get something sticky on his clothes.
"Why all the theatrics?" Ginny wondered as she sat on the arm of Hermione's chair.
"Theo's a bit nervous about the guests," Hermione told her.
"He's having a meltdown," Draco added unhelpfully.
"I am not," Theo snarled.
He is, Draco mouthed over Lily's head.
"Where are my brothers?" she asked, unstrapping the baby and handing him into Neville's waiting arms.
"They're late, as usual," Blaise muttered. "I'm sure they'll show up in time for dinner."
"Hello, Jamie," Neville cooed at the child and resumed his seat next to Pansy, who tried to look unaffected, but leaned closer and smiled all the same. The baby James gave a wide grin and started giggling, reaching for Pansy's nose.
The little boy looked just like his father, and it always brought an intense pang of loss whenever Draco saw him. He wondered how much was his own pain at losing Harry, and how much of it was Hermione's, transferred to him over their bond. He knew some of it was genuinely his, and probably more than he would ever admit out loud.
Hermione reached out to Ginny without realizing it, and the two women leaned against each other as they watched Neville play with James. The familiar buzz of grief traveled along their bond, followed by a deep and intense love. There was a palpable hole in their lives, and though James went a long way to filling it, Draco knew none of them would ever really be the same.
"Your brothers will be here eventually," Pansy observed to Ginny. "They always seem to show up when there's food involved."
"They're still tied up at Hogwarts," Neville confirmed. "Trying to get the last of the Astronomy Tower rebuilt today."
Shaking her head as if rousing from a dream, Ginny looked around at the gathered group with a frown. "You think it's a good idea to spring ourselves on them all at once?"
"They've met all of us before," Draco reminded her.
"Yes, but not everyone at the same time."
"What are you babbling about?" Blaise frowned at her.
"Might we overwhelm the poor things?" she asked. "It's a bit unnerving for normal people to be faced with so much . . . Slytherin-ness."
"That's not a word," Hermione said under her breath.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Pansy demanded.
"You know . . ." Ginny waved her hand vaguely.
"Feel free to leave, then," Theo growled.
"How would that help? I'm a Gryffindor."
Theo closed his eyes as if praying for patience.
"I quite like the level of Slytherin-ness," Neville offered, tripping over the made-up word.
Blaise, Theo, and Draco simultaneously threw him dirty looks. Didn't the man know what a sop he was?
"Stop being so nice, Neville," Hermione said. "You'll give them all a rash."
"And why all the anger pointed at me?" Ginny huffed. "if not for me and my efforts at the Post-War Recovery Association, we wouldn't even be here this morning."
She looked at them expectantly, disappointed when Blaise merely raised an eyebrow and Theo ignored her entirely in favor of staring at the hearth.
She sighed. "The proper response is, 'Thank you, Ginny.'"
They both parroted her under their breaths. A moment of peace passed, filled with the sounds of James babbling and Hermione turning the pages of her book. Then the flames went green and tumultuous again.
"We're here!" George cried triumphantly as he staggered into the room, Ron hot on his heels.
Several muttered objections and a collective release of breath followed their entry. Both men were covered in dirt and plaster, their worn boots muddy and leaving flakes of mortar all over the very expensive rug.
"What did we miss?" George asked gleefully, noticing their less-than-warm welcome.
"Are we late?" Ron asked, a crease between his brows.
Blaise plucked the wand out from between his husband's fingers before Theo could kill them both. Hermione sent a cleansing spell across the room, ridding them of at least most of the filth they'd brought. Oblivious to the gesture, they made a beeline for the buffet and started cramming tiny sandwiches in their mouths.
"Eat all of that food and I will end you," Blaise threatened.
"They should be here by now." Theo paced in a small circle. "What time is it?"
"Just past eleven," Hermione answered, flicking at a page in her book.
"Any moment now," Pansy answered in a sing-song voice as she waved her fingers at the baby in Neville's lap. Neville grinned at her delightedly as she realized what she was doing and recoiled, a look of horror dawning on her face.
As if on cue, the fireplace turned green and out stepped a plump matron with a kind face, trailed by the most adorable twin boys, both with dark hair and wide, brown eyes.
"Sorry we're late," the witch apologized. "But Sebastian decided to stick pudding in another child's hair."
"She was making faces at Sinclair," the boy pouted.
George barely muffled a laugh before Ron elbowed him again.
Some time later, the children were playing on the rug near the hearth, James fussing on his tummy while Lily and the boys played with wizard figurines. Draco slowed as he passed them on his way to get a drink, caught by something Lily said.
"My daddy died in the war too."
Both boys nodded sagely. Draco felt something squeeze around his heart.
"Do you miss him?" Sebastian asked.
"Yes," Lily answered. "But all my Uncles and Aunts help me when I feel sad."
"You have lots of Aunts and Uncles" Sinclair observed, sounding a bit jealous.
"They're yours too now, and I'm your cousin. We're family."
"But we're not related," Sebastian pointed out.
"That doesn't matter, silly," Lily said serenely. "Family is made by love, not blood."
Draco smiled a secret smile and left the children to play. Blaise and Theo were casually holding hands, murmuring to each other contentedly while they watched the children. Pansy sat in Neville's lap as he paged through an illustrated encyclopedia of rare magical plants, both of them completely absorbed. Ron was arguing gaily with Ginny as they passed baby James back and forth, making the child giggle. When Draco found Hermione, she was laughing at something George was saying, his hands making sweeping gestures in the air. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his nose in her hair.
Home. He was home.
The great marble memorial was erected near the Black Lake, newly restored. Hermione was deeply impressed with the work George and Ron had done so far in rebuilding the castle. It had been difficult at first to come back. Difficult didn't quite cover it. It had taken several failed attempts and an open line to Draco's dragon consciousness for Hermione to even step foot on the hill overlooking the castle. The second time had been easier, and every time after that.
Now she watched as Draco studied the big block of dark granite. He traced the name of his mother, his shoulders heavy. Hermione stayed back, still unable to really look at the thing, knowing her eyes would find too many familiar names, and one in particular. Seeing Harry's name carved in marble made his absence more real, and she thought it might just tear her apart.
After a moment, he turned away they started a slow walk around the lake, enjoying the sunshine.
"Why the Great Hall?" she asked after a few minutes of silence.
She could see the spires of the castle just over the rise, and the sight of it reminded her of the question she'd been meaning to ask him.
"Hmm?" he pretended not have heard her.
"When I found you buried in your subconscious, you were in the Great Hall right after the battle. I've wondered why you chose that place."
Draco sighed. "Why would you wonder about that?"
"The graveyard was significant for me," she explained. "Dealing with the news of Harry's failing health. It made sense to find myself in a place we had been together at an important part of our lives. But I don't understand the Great Hall for you."
"It was significant for me."
He was being deliberately obtuse and she could tell by the amusement around his mouth that he knew it bothered her.
"Yes, but why?" she asked with exaggerated patience.
"Because of you."
"Ugh Draco!" she smacked his arm and he winced, chuckling. The sound was still a bit of a novelty and it did things to her insides. She wondered if that would ever change. Gentle mirth tickled along their bond, making her smile at him in spite of her frustration.
"You saved me," he answered.
Hermione frowned, struggling to recall at what point she had saved his life. She couldn't remember seeing him at all during the heat of the battle. Deep in thought, she hadn't realized she had stopped walking until he was standing in front of her.
"They were coming for us," he continued as if she had any idea what he was talking about. She waited for him to elaborate. "I could tell by the looks they were sending our way. It was only a matter of time before we were tied up with an incarcerous and shipped off to Azkaban."
She hadn't realized, but looking back she knew he was probably right. They had been the enemy after all and had probably deserved to be locked up. The thought of Draco and Narcissa in Azkaban gave Hermione a chill. Draco saw her shudder and moved closer, his hands bracketing her waist.
"Then you wandered over, dazed and holding fruit." He smiled at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling. Hermione felt her heart stutter a bit. "I thought you were going to kill us for a moment."
She scoffed. "You did not."
"You sat next to me, touching me right here." He rubbed his shoulder. "As if I wasn't filth, giving us your stamp of approval, however unintentional. They didn't dare harm us after that. You saved us from those people, but you also changed me in that moment - made me better just with just your voice and your eyes."
He smiled at her softly.
"I didn't know," she began, at a loss for words. The idea that Draco had somehow been connected to her through all of those years apart, had held that moment close to his heart . . . well, it was staggering. Knowing him the way she did now, it made perfect sense that a gesture on her part made out of exhaustion would mean so much more to him.
Instead of talking it out, as was her instinct, Hermione reached up on her toes and kissed him briefly. She opened the channel between them and felt him shiver. They parted and merely looked at one another for a moment before Draco's eyes flickered away, caught by something over her shoulder and he did a double take.
"What the hell is that?"
The moment was broken. Hermione fought the urge to sigh and turned in his arms to find what he was seeing.
"It's a bird," Hermione laughed. "Made of . . . silk?"
The thing flapped toward them over a nearby pile of rubble, it's wings in tatters. Something glittery and green was nestled between its black beak. It was one of the oddest things Hermione had ever seen, and she wondered if she should draw her wand, her instincts kicking into overdrive. It didn't look dangerous, only strange.
Draco's hands dropped from her waist as he focused on the disturbing thing.
"I know that jewel," he murmured.
He crept forward as if he might scare the thing. It flapped agitatedly and hopped away.
"You recognize the jewel?" Hermione repeated.
He cursed and started to climb into the debris.
"It was my mum's," he called back to her. "She always wore the damn thing."
Hermione reeled back. How was that possible?
He stopped when he had gotten only a few feet away, and turned back to her, his eyes wide. "It's made of her cloak."
A chill stole over Hermione. "Where did it come from?"
Draco didn't answer, but Hermione could see the remains of a classroom just behind the pile of rubble he was approaching. Had it been trapped in the castle this whole time? He cast a quick revelio spell and cursed.
"It's supposed to find me," he muttered.
"Well catch it already!" she cried, unsure of what else to do.
"You think she was sending me a message?" he asked, his voice tight.
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "Why would she do that?"
The sadness in his eyes filtered away and he focused on her sharply. A spark of excitement shot directly into her bones, fed to her by his expression and the connection between them.
"What?" she demanded.
"It's a map," he answered, scrambling up the stones.
"What's a map?"
"The jewel," he said impatiently, snapping his fingers at the bird as if the motion would force it to come forward. "The jewel is a map."
"A map to what?"
He said the word casually as if the word didn't represent one of the worst inventions to ever exist in the magical world. Dread settled in her stomach, followed quickly by a fierce anticipation.
"She hid it when it became clear that Bellatrix was going to destroy the world," Draco explained. "So if we finally managed to kill her, some dark wizard couldn't just bring her right back."
Narcissa Malfoy had been a crafty witch, Hermione thought. She sent a prayer of gratitude into the universe, thankful that the beautiful witch had had the foresight to take such precautions. Draco finally managed to snatch the glittering rock from the beak of the ragged bird, which immediately disintegrated into scraps floating away on the breeze.
"Thanks, Mum," he murmured, standing in one place for a moment before beginning his descent.
He stepped through the rubble carefully, a look of supreme irritation on his face as his shoes collected more and more mud. A yelp escaped Hermione as Draco tossed the sparkling thing at her in favor of casting a cleansing spell. Once she'd got a proper hold on it, she raised it above her head so the light could catch it. The sun refracted through the facets, exposing the minute runes carved within the stone.
"It's encoded," she told him.
"Of course it is," he scoffed coming up behind her. "Probably leads to a few dead ends, with several puzzles along the way."
"Fascinating." Her heart was pounding. She ached to dissect the magic piece by piece and lay the path bare. She wanted to slide into her scales and take to the sky, track down the evil bit of magic and destroy it.
"You're not going anywhere without me." Draco's voice interrupted her daydream, correctly interpreting the direction of her thoughts. He plucked the green gem from her fingers and went down on one knee before her. She blinked at him, completely perplexed.
"Hermione?" he asked solemnly, a spark of mischief in his eyes and the jewel held out in his hand. "Will you go horcrux hunting with me?"
She felt the laugh come all the way from her toes and echo through the ruins. Draco smothered it with a kiss. He didn't really need an answer, after all. Wherever he went, she would follow; whatever Hermione desired, Draco would provide. It was simply the way of things.
They would need provisions for their journey. Food. Clothes. A tent. And books. So many books. Her heart was racing with anticipation.
Draco broke away with a petulant frown.
"You're making a list in your head, aren't you?"
Hermione denied it too quickly, causing Draco to roll his eyes.
"Well it's a lot more involved than you know," she told him, aware that her nose had lifted defensively in the air. "Only one of us has actually been on a quest to find a Horcrux."
Draco grunted. "You don't need to pack a thing except for your teeth."
Hermione scowled at him.
"Don't overthink it, Granger." he said, backing away from her, his eyebrow lifted arrogantly.
Just as she opened her mouth to deliver a scathing set down, he slid into his dragon form, pearly scales glistening in the sun. By the Gods he was beautiful. He knew it, too. She glared at him for a moment as he preened. Those grey eyes were shining as he nuzzled under her hand, looking for affection.
The impression of wings and air and sunlight caressed her mind, and she felt her Dragon rise up impatiently. With a smug look, Draco galloped away, his wings driving the wind into the nearby trees. She knew he had just manipulated her and she managed to stand for a full minute, toe-tapping, as he swooped above her. The need to join him soon overrode her stubborn desire to make him wait, and a moment later they were soaring through the sky side by side.
A/N: So much love.