Draco and Hermione were left alone in the drab grey room while Potter and Weasley left to set things in motion. A heavy silence settled between them the moment the door closed. Things felt awkward, stilted, and Draco felt a familiar pang of regret at the way things had been forced to play out.
He had known the risks when he left, had agonised over the choices he made while he was gone, knowing that he was hurting her. He'd left her alone, and he couldn't begin to imagine the way he would have felt if he thought it was her who was dead. She had every right to never speak to him again. He wouldn't blame her if she refused to be a part of this, or hexed him, or yelled at him again.
But she did nothing.
She leaned against the wall, her eyes staring unfocused at a spot on the other sided of the room, and so Draco stayed quiet as well. His fingers itched with the need to touch her again, but he would wait for her. Wait for her to be ready. Wait for her to decide what she wanted.
He tapped absently against the cool metal of the table, trying to stop his eyes from flitting to look at her every few seconds. She was frowning now, a small crease appearing on her forehead, and he wished she would talk, just tell him what he had to do.
Her eyes suddenly turned to his, catching him staring. He didn't look away. He held her gaze for a long moment, until she sighed and pushed off the wall.
"Draco, this plan," she said, standing in front of him. "It's – "
"Necessary," he said quickly, cutting her off and hating that he had to. "You know it is."
"I wasn't going to try and talk you out of it," she said, resigned. "I'm not happy about it, but I understand."
He gave her a tentative smile, hesitating for only a moment before reaching for her hand. When she didn't pull it away, he lifted it and pressed his lips to her palm.
"This is it," he said. "Once this part is done, it'll be over, and I'll be back for you."
He heard her breath hitch, and she couldn't quite meet his eye. "I've heard that before," she murmured.
Something in his chest constricted. "Hey," he said gently, kissing her palm again. "I'm right here, aren't I? I'm not leaving again. I'll be with Potter and Weasley, and I know that even if you can't trust me yet, you trust them. I will be back for you." He paused and sighed. "Even if it's only so you can tell me to go away."
She opened her mouth to respond but the door swung open and Potter and Weasley rejoined them.
Draco's fingers were still wrapped around hers, and he watched as both men screwed up their faces at the sight. They weren't angry, Hermione had murmured earlier. They just didn't understand.
Hermione gently disentangled their hands after a moment and crossed her arms over her chest, as though she didn't know what else to do with them.
"What's going on?" she asked Potter, stepping away from Draco.
"It's all set," Potter replied, still glancing between the pair uncertainly. Draco couldn't help himself and smirked. "The leak is being sent to the Prophet as we speak, and there will be an article in tonight's edition speculating that a full pardon and release of Malfoy has been carried out."
Potter handed him a copy of the letter that he and Weasley had drafted, the handwriting disguised so it couldn't be traced back to them, and he skimmed it briefly.
"Good," he said approvingly. "Once Nott sees this he'll be on the lookout for me. It should be easy once you get eyes on him."
"You realise you're not actually pardoned yet, right?" Weasley asked, looking not at all subtly from Draco to Hermione. "You can't just… take off, once this is done?"
"Yes, I'm aware of that, Weasley," he said irritably. "I don't plan on going anywhere, so you don't need to worry."
Weasley shrugged. "Just checking."
"Are we all clear on the plan, then?" Potter said.
"Crystal," Draco muttered. He just wanted to go, to get started, but Potter insisted they wait to move Draco until the next morning, when they could be sure Nott had heard the news.
They had decided he wouldn't go to the Manor. Nott knew him well enough to know he wouldn't be so predictable. He needed to believe Draco was on the defensive, looking over his shoulder. Nervous, but not in a way that was obvious. Draco had to be careful in his movements; his nervousness had to be subtle so that Nott believed Draco was trying to mask it. Nott wouldn't dive straight in and go for the attack; he would watch first, determine the sincerity in Draco's movements, and once he believed it, once he was sure he had the upper hand, he would strike.
And that was when Potter and Weasley would step in.
Hermione had given them a charm they could use to link them to and track Draco. Draco didn't trust their subtlety, not where Nott was concerned, and he had been adamant they couldn't follow him right away. Draco could protect himself well enough without a wand, and the tracking charm would alert Potter and Weasley the moment there was danger around Draco, and they would Apparate somewhere close by, lying low until Nott struck.
It was completely risky and any number of things could go wrong, but if there was any chance that he could end this chase, could finally restart his life, Draco would take it.
"When do you want to make a move?" Hermione was asking Potter across the room. She was tugging on a loose curl, twisting it 'round her finger and yanking it absently.
"First thing tomorrow," Potter told her. "We give Nott a chance to see the news, and then Malfoy goes."
Hermione nodded, her lips pursed in a thin line.
"Hermione," Potter said quietly glancing at Draco and then back to his friend. Draco looked down at his hands, pretending he wasn't listening. "He's going to be okay," Potter reassured her. "This is... insane, but it'll work. Trust me."
He heard Hermione swallow.
"Just be careful," she murmured. "I can't do it again, Harry. I can't lose him."
The Malfoy summer house was falling to pieces. Someone had been through it, broken down the wards and ransacked the place since it had been abandoned. Draco felt a pang of regret as he looked over the shattered crystal bowls and the broken furniture. His mother had been so proud of this place once, had spent hours picking out the décor and tending to the gardens, and it pained him to see the ruins it all lied in now.
No one had known about the house before the war, with the exception of a select few people. One of the few he had been allowed to tell and had trusted the location to was Blaise, and though Draco had screamed at him for two hours in fifth year when Blaise got drunk and told Nott about it, Nott had never found out that Blaise had confessed to Draco. He had alluded to it a few times, had smirked at Draco smugly as though he were in on some grand secret, but Draco had never taken the bait, had bitten his tongue and reminded himself that if he confirmed anything, he would give Nott the power. It was another reason they had chosen this spot; Nott would believe that Draco thought he was safe here.
Draco could feel the tug of the tracking charm somewhere around his middle as he wandered the halls of the house, trying to pull him toward the spot in the nearby town Potter and Weasley were waiting. If he Apparated right now and he wasn't concentrating particularly hard, the charm would pull him straight to them, and vice versa. As long as they remained focused when they felt the urgent tug indicating that Draco was in danger, they would be able to Apparate close by and not give themselves away.
He started cleaning up the house by hand, silently cursing Weasley for suggesting this even if it was a good idea; if Nott thought he was unable to do magic, he may show himself sooner. Draco had dismissed early on the idea that Nott would attack him from the shadows; he wanted Draco to know what he was going to do, wanted to make sure Draco knew exactly who it was taking him down, and he wouldn't be satisfied doing that anonymously. He was clever and calculating, but he was also prideful and violent and had always taken a sick kind of satisfaction in watching his victims writhe.
The hours slowly slipped away as Draco made his way through each room, letting his mask of nonchalance purposely slip every so often and glancing around, before straightening his shoulders again and schooling his face blank. To anyone watching for long enough, he would give off the impression that he was trying to hide his nervousness, and that was exactly what he wanted.
It was while he was in the kitchen that he felt a tell tale prickle on the back of his neck, and he knew with certainty that the danger was getting closer. He didn't look up, didn't react at all, except to cast his eyes casually around the kitchen.
He realised it was going to be too restrictive here when it came to a fight; Potter and Weasley would need a clear shot if they were going to work fast, so Draco made a show of inspecting the fireplace in the kitchen, of checking the side of the house for wood and of edging slowly toward the edge of the trees that surrounded the house.
He could feel the tug of the tracking charm harder now, feel Potter and Weasley getting closer to him, meaning they knew the danger was close. The trees were almost completely still, the barest hint of a breeze rustling them occasionally. Draco paused just inside the tree line, glancing back toward the house, and then he heard the tell-tale sign of a footstep purposely crunching against dry leaves, and a deep, calm voice sounded from behind him.
Malfoy turned quickly, eyes widening and then quickly schooling his features back into practiced nonchalance.
"Fucker is too good at that," Ron grumbled, crouching lower to the ground. "I s'pose at least we're not the only ones who fall for it."
The charm had tugged at them harshly when it sensed the danger approaching Malfoy, and Harry and Ron had Apparated into the scrub nearby, walking, disillusioned, the rest of the way until they were hidden close by with Nott and Malfoy both in their sights.
Theo Nott didn't look much different from what Harry remembered in school. His hair was a little shaggier and his face had filled out a bit, but overall he looked like the same unpleasant boy Harry remembered from school. He had already discussed with Hermione the need to fix the Ministry's complete lack of follow up when it came to the people who had been released following the war. A brief look into Theo Nott's records showed them very little — no one within the Ministry had any knowledge of where he had been or what he had been doing.
"Theo," Malfoy said confidently, throwing his shoulders back to stand taller.
Even with years of experience behind him, Harry knew he would never be able to achieve that same calm facade Malfoy was able to project in this kind of situation. His fingers tightened around his wand, his eyes darting between the two men standing off, forcing himself to stay put.
Malfoy knew Nott, he reminded himself. He knew what he was doing.
"The dead man lives," Theo said dramatically. "I must admit, as thrilled as I was to hear a body had been identified as yours, finding out you were still alive and that I still had a chance to confront you myself was an unexpected delight."
Malfoy said nothing, his chin in the air defiantly.
"You've been a little all over the place today," Theo said casually, his wand twirling in his fingers. "Something bothering you?"
Malfoy's lips quirked. "Just enjoying my newfound freedom," he replied smugly.
"He's just gonna go right for it, isn't he?" Ron muttered. "If he gets cursed before we get out there, Hermione will murder us."
"He knows what he's doing," Harry said, his eyes glued on the confrontation. "We just have to be ready the second Nott goes for the kill."
Nott chuckled darkly.
"Something funny?" Malfoy asked.
"Our justice system, for one thing," Nott said offhandedly.
"Something we agree on," Malfoy said coolly. "Though I'm sure we have different reasons for thinking so."
"I'm curious," Nott continued. "How did you weasel your way out this time around? Did you pay someone off? Suck someone off, maybe?"
"Charming, Theo," Malfoy drawled. "I was released because I've done nothing wrong."
Nott laughed again. "You did plenty wrong, Draco. You were involved as much as I was."
"I never killed anyone," Malfoy bit back. "I never took joy in hurting people."
"You were missing out," Nott said nostalgically. "The way the muggles would beg between my crucio's was like music. You were always too weak to appreciate it."
Malfoy shrugged. "Maybe I was. I'm free though, and that's all I give a damn about."
Harry could see from his spot the way Nott's eyes darkened. "That's all you give a damn about?" he said in a low, dangerous voice. "That's all you give a damn about, is it?" He shook his head and took a step forward. "You're nothing, Malfoy," he hissed. "Do you understand that? You are a worthless, sorry excuse of a man who jumped ship when things got hard. You were nothing but a coward."
"I chose to do the right thing, Theo," Malfoy said evenly.
"You chose to betray us, and you got my father killed in the process."
Nott took a few steps to the side, and Malfoy mimicked him on the other side of the clearing. Their movements were slow and purposeful, and Harry was reminded of two wild animals stalking one another, preparing to move in and attack. He gripped his wand a little tighter, his knuckles turning white, and held a bated breath, waiting for the words that would tip Nott over the edge.
Malfoy regarded Nott for a long moment as he moved, and then he nodded. "You're right — that's exactly what I did." He tipped his head thoughtfully to the side. "And I don't regret it at all."
Harry saw the moment Nott's careful control gave out and rage took over, his eyes flashing with loathing as he advanced.
Curses flew at Malfoy, who had wordlessly thrown up a shield charm. Harry and Ron had their wands aimed at Nott, ready to strike, but they couldn't take him in until he made his intent clear; that he wanted to kill. Anything less would see him released within a year.
"You should have died," Nott spat. "You betrayed me, and everyone else, and better men died because of you!"
"What are you going to do Theo?" Malfoy taunted as another jet of red light hit his shield charm and bounced away. "Are you going to make things right? Are you going to be the one to kill me?"
Nott answered with a stream of curses. Malfoy wasn't attacking back yet, just defending, but Harry could see him getting frustrated.
"Is this the best you've got Theo?" Malfoy called dryly. "Why have you bothered following me? Why did you bother tracking me through Europe if all you planned to do was throw a few hexes at me? What would your father think?"
"I will fucking kill you, Malfoy," Nott spat. "Avad – "
Two identical jets of light hit Theo at the same time, knocking him onto his back as his wand flew from his hands. Harry and Ron charged forward, Ron casting an incarcerous charm to bind the now unconscious Nott. Malfoy was breathing hard, the exertion from defending himself leaving his chest heaving as he looked down at the bound man.
"You alright?" Harry asked him as Ron checked the bindings.
Malfoy nodded, exhaling and running a hand through his hair. "Did you hear enough?" he asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "More than enough. He admitted to torturing muggles, and he tried to use an unforgivable to kill you. He'll be locked up for a long time."
Malfoy nodded. "Good. That's – that's good."
"You sure you're alright?" Harry asked, frowning. Beside him Ron cast a patronus and sent it to Kingsley, requesting assistance to transport a prisoner.
Malfoy swallowed thickly, glancing from Harry to Theo. "Yeah," he said, frowning slightly. "I just – it's done. That's it."
Harry clapped him on the back.
"You're in shock, I think," he said, recognising the signs. "But yeah, it's done. With testimonies from me, Ron and Hermione confirming your story and everything Nott said, you'll be pardoned in full."
Malfoy closed his eyes, exhaling slowly. "Fuck," he breathed out, a weight that he didn't realise had been on his shoulders for the past few years disappearing with his realisation that this really was it. He was free now. He and Hermione —
His eyes snapped open, and his heart was racing for a completely different reason now.
"Potter," he said. "We need to get back to the Ministry, now."
Hermione was pacing her office, wringing her hands nervously behind her back.
She should have gone with them. She should have stopped them. She should have done something. Anything. More.
The three of them had insisted that too many people would be too hard to cover up, might alert Nott. Despite her initial protests, she wouldn't do anything to risk Draco being hurt. Draco had argued with Harry about including Pansy as well, and had — surprisingly — been backed up by Ron insisting she be left out.
It had been hours now. She knew it would take a while, possibly a day or two, but she couldn't stand waiting like this, waiting to hear if he was okay, if he —
The sound of feet thundering down the hallway made her head snap up, and then the door was crashing open and he was there, he was back, and his chest was heaving and his hair was falling across his face, and he was there, which meant it had worked, it was done, it was over.
He crossed the room in two strides and wrapped his arms around her, crashing their lips together without pause in a desperate, hungry kiss. She melted against him as the familiar taste enveloped her, her hands snaking around his neck and pulling him closer, needing him nearer, needing to know he was real and wasn't going away.
She sighed into his mouth, pressing into him, savouring every touch, every noise he made.
All too soon, though, he was pulling back, arms still around her. He pressed their foreheads together. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I shouldn't have assumed but I — "
"I lied to you," she blurted out, unwrapping her arms from his neck and fisting her hands in his shirt, her lips still tingling from the force of his kiss.
Draco frowned as he looked down at her. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
Hermione lifted a hand, fingertips grazing the light stubble on his chin. "When I said I almost fell in love with you," she whispered, and she saw his breath hitch. "It wasn't true," she continued. "I did fall in love with you, Draco."
Draco's arms around her waist tightened as he lifted her off the ground and kissed her fervently again. "I know," he breathed against her lips. "I know, and it was the only thing that kept me going while I was away."
"Don't ever leave me again," she said, fingers clenching in his hair as he trailed kisses along her jaw.
"Never," he promised as his breath ghosted over her skin, making her shiver. "I'm yours now, Hermione, forever."
A/N - Huge thanks and ten thousand hugs to dragonsandotters for all the time and effort she has put into helping me with this story since the start, and thank you to all who have stuck it out. To be honest, I lost a lot of my enthusiasm for the whole thing after the last chapter, and that's contributed to the delay in updating. I am sorry to those who have waited so patiently. Moving forward it's unlikely I will write anymore Dramione stories, because it's just not something I enjoy writing and compared to the other pairings I write I know my writing isn't as strong.
My new WIP, a Drarry 7th year story called "You & Me" is currently being written and I'm almost ready to start posting. Keep an eye out for it! Any other story updates are usually posted on my tumblr so be sure to come find me there! jadepresley . tumblr .com
Thanks again for reading, and for all the love you have sent my way! Love you guys xx