In the early morning, it rained steadily for an hour or so before petering off into more of a drizzle, misting onto the windows until enough droplets had collected that a rivulet would form, winding its way down the glass and collecting at the bases of the panes. Despite the misty quality of the morning, the sun rose just the same. Reluctantly, rays of daylight stretched across the sleepy Hogwarts grounds, slowly quilting it in golden brilliance.

Hermione blinked awake to the sight of a pale arm slung around her and the Dark Mark staring in her face. She squirmed uncomfortably, both from the proximity of the hateful tattoo, and because she desperately needed to use the loo. Turning to Draco, who was on his side and spooning her from behind, she discovered he was still asleep. He got rest so rarely, she did not think she had ever seen him sleeping before. Heart swelling with fondness, her gaze flickered from his face, to the place where a few locks of his light hair had curled under his ear.

Taking great care not to disturb him, she disentangled herself and slowly rose from their bed. The stone floor was cold beneath her bare feet, which shocked her system. Ripples of gooseflesh ran down her body as her nakedness was exposed to the chill in the air that characterized the early spring morning.

She made her way toward their bathroom with a surprising amount of aching. Her body was a little sore from what they had done, and when she leaned down to retrieve her discarded school robes from where they had lain on the floor all night, she noticed a very small amount of blood sticking to the insides of her thighs. There was also something else, a different sort of stickiness that she did not think was hers, but Draco's.

I can't believe we did thatand not even in the mandala, she reflected, thinking of the way he had felt when he moved inside of her.

After relieving herself, she debated a shower, as there was a muskiness that seemed to be clinging to her skin. Glancing quickly in the mirror, she was struck by her appearance and paused a moment. Her hair was wild - though that was nothing new - but it was her face that seemed different. Almost like it was visible on her lips and in her eyes that she was a woman who had shared a bed with her husband, at last.

Tearing her eyes away from her seemingly altered self, she shook away the fancy and allowed her practical side to chalk it up to imagination. Deciding it might be best to wash up after all, she prepared for a shower.

The water was warm and soothing, exactly what she needed. For several minutes, she merely stood under the showerhead with her eyes closed, savoring the slow relaxation of her muscles. Soon enough, she heard the door open slowly, followed by the sound of someone sneaking in.

She smiled when Draco's head poked around the curtain. Tilting an eyebrow, he queried, "Mind if I join you?"

"Of course," she answered, feeling oddly shy in his presence, even as she made space for him to join her in the shower. She was not sure where she should be looking.

"I can't believe you left this morning without waking me."

Uncertainly, she queried, "Is that rude?"

"Very," he confirmed seriously, though his eyes laughed at her.

A smile spread across her face and she reached up to tuck his darkening hair behind his ear before allowing her fingers to follow a trail of water down his neck. Catching her hand with his, his pressed a kiss onto the backs of her knuckles.

"Well, Mrs. Malfoy," he hummed, eyes locked onto hers, "are you ready to brave the gossip mill of Hogwarts?"

Hermione shuddered. Grimacing, she put on her bravest face and sighed, "No. But let's do it anyway."

.

.

There were more than a few whispers in the Great Hall when Hermione and Draco appeared together in the entryway. He placed his hand on the small of her back to draw her closer and murmured, "Where would you like to sit?"

Eyes scanning the room, she noted that Daphne was sitting beside Tracey Davis at the Ravenclaw table, with Theo across from them. Normally this might have been relatively neutral ground, but for the fact that Hermione had not seen Theodore in some time and that he was one of the only ones in the hall that did not seem to be looking their way. Combing over the cavernous room a second time, she observed that Ron was eating with his Quidditch team, which left Harry and Ginny with Luna at the Slytherin table.

"Will you sit with Ginny, Harry, Luna, and me?" she queried.

"I saw that coming a mile away," he admitted, looking both smug and highly irritated. "Alright, let's do it."

"Thanks," she whispered, suspecting that he was more relieved not to be sitting with Theo than he was letting on. As they were fully committed to going public, she figured she might as well go the whole way, and pressed up onto the balls of her feet so that she could leave a chaste kiss on his cheek.

Gossip erupted almost immediately, with some students even craning their necks to get a better look at them. A small group of former-Slytherin sixth- and seventh-year girls immediately began consoling a tall brunette amongst their number, who burst into tears at the sight.

Somewhat used to the rumor mill at Hogwarts (which could turn very nasty, very quickly), Hermione ignored everyone. After all, being friends with Harry had certainly come with its downs as well as its ups. Draco, too, was familiar with it. Due to his known association as a Death Eater, he was frequently given a wide berth by the other students, though Hermione also knew he was well aware what others said about him behind his back.

Reaching the Slytherin table, Hermione turned to her friends and tremulously queried, "Mind if we sit with you?"

Rolling her eyes, Ginny sarcastically drawled, "Like we're going to say 'no'..."

Simultaneously, Harry answered, "Of course."

Grateful, Hermione slid onto the bench across from Luna and Ginny, and next to Harry. "Thanks."

"Hello, Draco Malfoy," Luna greeted, airy as usual as she added a small mountain of brown sugar to her porridge.

"'Morning, Lovegood," he responded, genially enough. Then, saucily, he acknowledged, "Weaslette."

Ginny stuck out her tongue at him before moving on to pouring herself a glass of orange juice as if sitting with Hermione and Draco together were a commonplace thing. Harry was absentmindedly chewing on some bacon and continued scribbling away at a bit of parchment he had brought to the table.

Feeling more confident as a result of her friends' easy acceptance, Hermione conversationally asked, "What have you got there, Harry?"

"Quidditch strategies."

"I want you to remember that you did this," she told him, "next time you're teasing me about bringing a book to the table."

"That's different," Ginny jumped in.

"How?"

"Quidditch is life. Ancient Runes… not so much."

Draco smirked and helped himself to a cup of coffee, inhaling the aroma and closing his eyes as he took his first sip. Subconsciously, he leaned into Hermione's side as if he could not get enough of touching her, even casually like this.

The moment was broken by a shriek of, "Draco?"

His eyes snapped open and Hermione turned to see Pansy Parkinson had stopped, mid-stride toward her House table, and was staring at the two of them. Her face was haggard, as if she had not slept the entire night, and her eyes had gone round like a pair of silver sickles.

To his credit, Draco only lightly responded, "Good morning, Parkinson."

The former-Slytherin girl's mouth fell open and she hastily shut it, only for it to fall open again. She looked a bit like a gasping fish. Without another word, she turned on her heel and stalked from the hall. Gossiping erupted once more and Hermione's eyes fell to the Hufflepuff table, where she caught Ron's eye. His face was not a full red, but it had certainly gone pink and he was staring at the place where Pansy had disappeared like he envied her, her escape. Nearby him, the other members of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team began whispering amongst themselves, most notably Sally-Anne Perks, who was a known gossip. Hermione wondered if Sally-Anne was remembering the night Hermione had dropped a drunken Pansy Parkinson back off in the Hufflepuff dorms without reporting her. Enough people had seen Draco assist her as far as the common room; there was little doubt word had spread they'd been there together.

Why can't they mind their own business? she inwardly grumbled.

Handing her a piece of toast which he had generously slathered with greengage jam, Draco remarked, "Ignore it."

Taking the toast, she decided he was right, and did her best to comply.

A little while later, the first warning bell sounded for morning classes and they all stood to gather their bookbags. Ginny left for Care of Magical Creatures, while Luna wafted off in the direction of Divination.

"On to Transfiguration?" Harry queried, looking at the other two.

Hermione glanced at Draco, who was shouldering his bookbag, ready to join them. The three of them set off in the direction of class.

Just as they were about to step onto the stairs, a voice called, "Oy!"

Harry turned first. "Ron?"

Despite that Hufflepuffs did not share Transfiguration with the Slytherins and Ravenclaws, and his class was in the opposite direction, Ron quickly caught up to them. Without even sparing at glance for Harry, his eyes shifted back and forth between Hermione and Draco at a speed that nearly made her dizzy.

"So," he grunted, "you two are official, then?"

Hermione laughed, "What gave it away?"

Draco's hand slid into hers and he affirmed, "Hermione and I decided last night that there was no more use in hiding."

Ron grimaced, not bothering to hide it, "I still hate it when you call her that."

"What else is he going to call me?" she queried.

"Why can't he just go back to 'Granger'?"

A sinful smirk spread slowly from the corner of Draco's mouth to stretch across his face. Looping his arm around Hermione's shoulders, he lazily, but proudly, drawled, "I think you mean 'Malfoy'."

His face changing to red faster than a traffic light, Ron was spared responding to Draco by the sudden presence of Daphne flouncing past them. The statuesque girl stopped on the first step of the stairwell and turned to Hermione, Draco, and Harry, querying, "Are we going to Transfiguration, or not? It's a lot of stairs and Professor Buchanan doesn't like it when we're late…"

She had utterly ignored Ron, whose ruddy face had now entirely drained of color at seeing her.

"Hey, Daphne," he croaked out weakly.

Fixing him with her most imperious stare, she spared him only a second of her notice before turning on her heel and resuming her climb.

"We're coming," Hermione called, hitching her bookbag higher on her shoulder. Then, looking back at Ron, she mouthed, "Sorry."

"Weasley," Draco drawled in parting, slipping his hand back into Hermione's and leading her up the stairs after Daphne, who had slowed to allow for their approach.

Below, Hermione heard Harry saying to Ron, "Better luck next time, mate…"

Staring at Daphne's rigid stance, coupled with her steely expression of not-entirely-convincing nonchalance, Hermione mulled over the odds of there ever being a next time.

.

.

"I know a word of letters three, add two and fewer there will be."

"In the name of Morgana," Daphne wheezed as she took her final step onto the landing of Ravenclaw Tower after them, "why is it a different riddle every time? Don't they ever repeat?"

"That's a good question, actually," Draco mused.

Hermione ignored them both; her tongue was peeking out of the corner of her mouth, face screwed up in concentration as she dissected the riddle. Finally, she answered, "The word 'few' is three letters, and 'fewer' is five."

"Too true," replied the eagle head door-knocker, swinging inward.

"For Circe's sake, I'd have spent my whole lunch break on this landing!" Daphne exclaimed in exasperation.

The three Ravenclaws entered the common room together; it was mostly deserted, as the majority of the school was at lunch. However, a few students were holed up in corner desks, or else surrounded by notes at one or other of the tables, rapidly attempting to memorize as much information as possible. Hermione's stomach flipped uncomfortably at the thought that in a short two-and-a-half months, they would be sitting for their NEWTs.

"Right, we'll grab our things and meet back here in a few," she said, turning back to the task at hand.

"Blaise is going to have a field day when he discovers I've moved out," Draco observed, eyeing the boys' staircase that rose off to the left. "Bloody gossip…"

Daphne giggled, "Come on, Hermione."

The two of them ascended the girls' side on the right and Hermione found herself releasing a held breath when they found the eighth-year dorm empty. Without any sort of decorum, Daphne strode over to Hermione's trunk at the foot of her bed and flung it open, dragging it toward the middle of the room.

"Right. This shouldn't take long, you're pretty tidy."

"Thanks for agreeing to help me pack up, Daphne. You're a good friend."

In the month following Sue's and Daphne's fallout, things between the Ravenclaw girls had been rocky at best. Hermione would deny avoidance on her part - she had needed the extra time in the library or the married suite to focus on the unbinding ritual. Not to mention her woeful under-preparation for NEWTs.

Sue had pointedly avoided communicating to both Hermione and Daphne, and when she had to speak of them to others, she merely referred to them as 'the Gryffindor' and 'the Slytherin' respectively. Initially, Padma had appeared to take her friend's side, but over time, had slowly seemed to recognize that Sue was in the wrong, as she kept stealing more and more furtive glances at the two of them.

Ever the kind one, Lisa had quickly recognized that Daphne had been avoiding Hermione; correctly deducing that it was because she had snapped at her, Lisa reached out to both Hermione and Daphne separately on several occasions during the week after, until she finally contrived to get them both together. Daphne's apology had exploded from her mouth like it had been bubbling there for some time, though Hermione had immediately insisted it was unnecessary.

Daphne now seemed to be thinking about the same incident, because with a glance toward Lisa's bed, she said, "It's hard work being friends with a Hufflepuff, because you know she's acting out of the actual goodness of her heart."

Hermione had to laugh at that. "I'm so glad she does."

While had Lisa continued to spend most of her time with Padma while in Ravenclaw Tower, she had gone on treating all of her dorm-mates as if nothing had happened, and her easy cheerfulness was a kind of balm. She had even tamed Hermione's hair one morning for her when it had snapped her last hairband...

Bringing herself back to the task at hand, Hermione began rummaging through her bedside drawer and floating things over to her trunk. She paused when she came across her wedding band.

A simple circle with no adornment whatsoever, the white gold band was unassuming, yet, meant so much to her. She fiddled with the necklace she wore - a plain chain with a small pendant displaying her birthstone - which had been a gift from her parents. Then, her eyes caught the bracelet which Harry and Ron had gifted her back in September, the blue stones glinting in the light from the fireplace.

Given that she wore jewelry from all the other important people in her life, slipping Draco's ring onto her finger felt perfectly natural. It was heavy - but not in an oppressive way… and it made her feel a certain way when she looked at it, which she could not quite place. It felt something like coming home.

Feeling a gaze on her back, she noticed Daphne looking at her and had caught her admiring the band with a grin spread across her face.

"Oh, shut up," Hermione snapped, also grinning.

"Never." She paused, "I assume this means the two of you are going to the Spring Fling together?"

Hermione started. "With everything else going on, I confess I had completely forgotten about it."

Dumping a stack of books Hermione had left in a corner into her trunk, Daphne announced, "I'm thinking of going stag. Millie is, too. Having a man around seems suddenly like so much less of a necessity to me."

With wonder at her friend's newfound self-assuredness, Hermione suggested, "You could take Theo, as friends. It would be good for him to get out, I think. I've noticed he's been skipping all his classes..."

Looking deflated, Daphne confirmed, "He's not in a good mental place, it's true. I'd think he's been trying to get himself kicked out of school, except he still turns in all his essays and gets full marks. For a little while, I thought he was getting notes from someone, but he's not spoken to anyone except me and Neville Longbottom - of all people! I can't figure out how he's doing it!"

Hermione had a sneaking suspicion she knew exactly how Theodore was achieving full marks on all his essays without attending classes, but she did not speak her deductions aloud. It was not her secret to tell, after all.

To change the subject more than anything, she went on, "Well, you've got time to decide about the dance. It isn't until the first of May, anyway. You've got a month or so."

"I don't think I'll be changing my mind," came the firm answer.

"Okay."

Seeming almost consternated, Daphne queried, "What? Just… okay?"

Hermione shrugged.

"You're a strange witch, Hermione Granger."

"That's Hermione Malfoy to you," she teased. "Come on, I think we've got everything, and we still have to drop it oft."

After shutting the trunk and performing a feather-light charm on it, the girls made their way back down into the common room, where Draco was waiting for them beside his own trunk. One of the first things she noticed, was that he had put his own wedding band on, as well. She also noted, with interest, that he was now also wearing his family's signet ring.

Interesting...

"Shall we?" Draco suggested, levitating his trunk.

"Does this mean I get to see your private suite?" Daphne queried, looking excited.

"You can come, but we are just dropping off our things."

That was still good enough for Daphne's curiosity, and she followed them both. About halfway there, she began trying to convince Draco to start speaking to Theodore again. "I think you should forgive him. Whatever he's done, it can't be so bad… it's Theo we're talking about. He's castigating himself."

"Leave it, Greengrass," Draco warned.

Sensing at least a temporary defeat, she did, but Hermione could tell Daphne was not done with the cause. By the time they arrived at the suite, she had moved on to discussing NEWTs - a topic which Hermione latched on to with vigor.

They had to hastily drop their things and leave, so that Daphne barely got a perfunctory look around the room. It was still just enough time for her to exclaim, "What a mess!"

"Hermione's been experimenting," Draco offered in explanation. "Come on, we've barely enough time for lunch as it is…"

.

.

"I noticed you put your family's signet ring back on."

Draco glanced up from the container he was currently labelling, causing a droplet of ink to fall off the tip of his quill and seep into the carpet. This went unheeded as his gaze went to the ring on his hand. "Yes. Although I'm planning to make some changes to it."

"Oh?"

After classes were done for the day, Hermione and Draco had retreated privately to their suite to begin packing up all of her experimenting, labelling each ingredient into its own separate container and organizing them all into a cupboard with an extension charm on it. They had been doing so in relative silence for nearly an hour, which was only occasionally punctuated by the occasional question from Draco as to what a certain item was, and once by Hermione, who grew frustrated when her inkwell had run dry.

"I'm planning on changing my family's motto," he said.

Hermione looked to him in surprise.

Noting her expression, he further explained, "Sanctimonia Vincet Semper. Purity always conquers. It seems the wrong sentiment to have."

Guardedly, she advocated, "It does also showcase how far your mindset has come."

He waved this away, insisting, "I've thought about it at length. I think it's the right decision."

Smiling at him, she told him, "I'm very proud of you, Draco."

He huffed out a single laugh, his mouth curling into a private half-smirk. When it faded, he turned back to labelling the container (Bark of Carya ovata) with his elegant penmanship. After a pause, he quietly added, "I think about our vows a lot, as well."

"Our vows?" she repeated, curiously.

"They were so staggeringly generic," he observed, "so unlike all of the wordy ones I'd always expected to have to deal with when I married someday. You may not know this, but traditional pureblood wedding rites can go on for hours. When I was nine, it remember the agony of having to sit through five hours of ceremony.

"It got me thinking, when it's all stripped down to its bare bones, the real important bits of a marriage seem to be what everyone considers to be stunningly generic: do you take this woman to be your wife? To commit to her the fidelity and loyalty of your body and your possessions? To honor her, to keep her in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, as long as you both remain bound? The instructions to a marriage are so simple when you put it that way."

Looking over to him, Hermione discovered him still idly writing away at a new container (Spleen of Field Mouse) in his calligraphy, as if he had not just said something profound. In fact, there he was, just simply wearing his glasses and his Ravenclaw uniform, brows slightly furrowed into concentration as he picked up the next dish and attempted to discover what was inside of it in order to label it properly. Her heart stopped in her throat and she merely stood there a minute, determined to commit this passing moment into the banks of her memory forever.

Spotting her looking at him at last, something of her emotions must have shown on her face, because Draco set the dish of questionable ingredients down and crossed the room toward her. He took her hand and said, "I hope those are happy tears."

Rubbing at her eyes, she had not realized any tears had escaped - or that there had been any moisture there at all. She nodded, hoping to reassure him.

"It's been a long road getting here, hasn't it?"

She nodded again, "It's all adventure from here on out."

Indulgently, he agreed, "I'm sure that Gryffindor part of you is longing for adventure, isn't it, wife?"

She laughed, a throaty sound due to her emotions, and wiped at her eyes again. "Aren't you excited, too?"

He fixed her with an amused look. "I'm just glad to be rid of Macmillan's snoring."

Seeing the laughter in his eyes, she swatted at him.

Then, grinning, his gaze turned toward the door that led into their bedroom. Tilting his head in that direction, he lightly tugged on her hand while a mischievous look sparked into existence in his eyes. "You know, the bedroom is still comparatively empty… and I've a inkling on how I may endeavor to cheer you up..."

.

.

Author's Note: So, here's the thing... due to a sizable influx of reviewers and PMers sending me rude remarks about my fics, I took a brief hiatus. Writing fanfiction had ceased being fun for me, and I nearly pulled my works and ghosted you all. A few friends talked me out of it, and I'm so glad they did. I'd have missed it (and you) terribly. I don't say this because I want sympathy, I say this because I have a hope that whatever you, the reviewer, writes in those little boxes at the bottom of each chapter, you will imagine saying to a person's face. Not just on my fics, either - on any. There are people on the other side of the keyboard, though you may not see them... and we all have minds and beating hearts.

That being said, I do want to thank everyone who encouraged me to continue, whether here on FFN, or in any of the Facebook groups I'm a part of. Yes, I know we are very close to the end of this tale (already written, by the way) - but at the end of the day, this is my hobby. If you, in any way, make me feel bad about my hobby... shame on you.

Okay, I'm done with my rant. Sorry about that, but it needed to be said. Now is the fun part, where I get to tell you how awesome you are for sticking it out through the longer-than-usual wait between chapters... and for those people that go out of their way to make me feel all the warm fuzzies. You're amazing. Sometimes, I get frustrated... and sometimes, you, the reader, are the catalyst to helping me push through that frustration. Thank you... so, so much. I appreciate you, because without you, there would be no story.

Additionally, I want to thank my beta reader, I was BOTWP, who knows this fic almost as well as I do. It would not be the same without her invaluable input.

Much love.