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Title: Hero of the Day
Summary: Life is about the little things.
Warnings: Off screen (absent) character death
Author's Note(s): Title taken from a song of the same name by Metallica. When you need to write a war fic, some heavy metal music might be called for. Many thanks to my beta, D!
There is no fanfare when he finds them, when he joins them and confesses his weaknesses and failings and wishes only for a small corner to fill. It's as though everyone looks down on him for taking so long to decide to betray his family and his upbringing and his blood and his legacy. He's turned his back on his whole life and absolutely everything in it, but they act like it's the least he can do. After all, it's his fault Dumbledore is dead.
To be fair, not everyone treats him like a pariah. The Boy Who Lived keeps sending him looks that mix a disgusting level of pity with some kind of understanding. As though Potter could have a sodding clue. The Weasel King obviously still hates him, but he doesn't say anything.
Her, though. She doesn't look at him with pity or scorn or understanding or hate or fascination. She simply looks at him with acceptance.
It's the most wonderful and annoying and magical thing he thinks he's ever felt.
He quickly notices that Granger is barely there. Sure, she's present and accounted for, but there is something about her that is far, far away. Her presence is altogether overpowering, and yet no one seems to see her. He notices that she is there when anyone needs something. She fixes things, solves things, makes connections, and then whoever needed her help is off and running.
She's constantly windblown from people leaving.
It's a source of extreme consternation that he seems to be the only one who realizes what's going on. The Brightest Witch of His Age keeps them all moving forward, the oil necessary for the smooth operation of the Rebellion. There are times she seems stronger than steel, harder than diamond, constant as the waves.
Yet he also sees when she slips, when her mask falters, her resolve weakens, her hands shake. He marvels that one person can hold so many things in motion, but he realizes that she's becoming increasingly untethered. The farther she moves from the solid rock of who she is, the more wobbly the spinning plates become. She tries to be all things to all people, but she cannot support the weight of their expectation.
Soon, she's bound to crash.
Draco sees all of this because he is relegated to dark corners and back rows and the outer edges. His distant vantage point helps him see a wider picture. Everyone in her orbit rushes in like a comet, takes and takes (and takes) and then rushes away again. Only he seems to see her reeling from the near collision.
She thinks she's fooled everyone, that no one notices that she's barely hanging on. Her parents are far away with no memory of her, and her friends, the only people she has, daily fighting against others driven by hate. A seemingly inexhaustible well of hate, against people like her, simply for existing. The weight is punishing. She thinks of Frodo and the One Ring and how the burden grew daily, and she understands him a little.
A day comes when she stumbles through motions long memorized. She is spent at the end of the day, escaping to the edge of the room, seeking a shadow, begging silently that no one need her for a few minutes. She thinks she's succeeded, and she closes her eyes, allowing herself to sink, just for a moment, into weightlessness.
Then someone—the Death Eater—speaks her name—
—ripping her cruelly from her respite. Only she's not greeted with a sneer or judgment or wariness or contempt or any number of adjectives she'd always associated with him. It occurs to her that he hasn't looked at her with anything but questions since he found them.
He hands her a cup of tea and she nearly breaks. She has tried too hard to be strong, to be enough, to prove herself, to Be Enough. If she can just have the answer to the question, know the right spell, see all the angles—she will be enough. Being that person, the ENOUGH person, is the most exhausting thing she's ever tried. And no one sees it—by design. She's been the smart one, the one with the answers, for so long, that it's all they say.
But it's not her, the deep down in her marrow her. In school, when the stakes were low, she'd brushed off the niggling unease at putting on a mask. Now, when lives depend on her, she is starting to crack. She cannot be enough for the Rebellion, for all of her friends, for the Adults, who look to her, always to her. But she pushes reality away and forces it.
She has started wishing she could stop. To lie down and sleep for days. To be seen for who she really is. Though, she isn't sure who she is. She's been someone else for so long.
But he brings her a cup of tea, and she can tell it's strong—the way she likes it. There are two sugar cubes on the saucer—the way she likes it. There's a hint of milk, freshly poured, still swirling in endless fractals—the way she likes it.
She can barely accept the cup, her hands are shaking. He has noticed her, somehow. The tea, perfectly prepared for her, proves this. Even if it's just how she takes her tea, he has seen her. Her heart wrenches and she just holds the cup, unable to drink it because she'll dissolve.
Her eyes meet his, and there is a strength in his gaze that startles her, a fierceness she hadn't thought he could possibly contain. He merely nods, his expression stern, and retreats, vanishing into the room that was suddenly far too loud.
It doesn't end there.
One night it's a glass of water when she seems on the edge. Another night it's his cloak draped over her shoulders because it was snowing and the woman was teetering so badly she didn't notice. One afternoon he blocks the sun so she can sit in the shade. He does it when she appears most invisible, most in danger, most obviously begging for someone to notice that she is falling apart.
He can't understand why he is the only one who sees.
He is haunted by the burning questions that rage in her eyes now when she looks at him. He doesn't speak to her, he simply tries to fill the void the best way he can. He firmly believes that she is, if not the key to ending the war, then a very important one. He sees the way Potter needs her, relies on her, hefts his weight onto her shoulders without even realizing it. If Potter is the end of the war, then she is his path to it.
Over time, he notices that she stands a little taller, her back a little straighter. He doesn't see her quite so on edge; consequently, he doesn't step in as much. No one has noticed his interference, which doesn't surprise him. After all they never saw her disappearing.
Then Neville dies.
And he is astonished by how strong she is for everyone else who is falling apart. He literally gapes at her, wondering if he'd misread her all along. She even gives him a half-smile, feeling his concerned gaze fixed upon her. So he goes to his room—his glorified closet, really—because he feels completely out of place amongst the mourners.
Sleep is elusive, and even though it finds him, it is fickle. Every little sound disturbs him. Then his eyes shoot open, and he lies there, listening quietly. Light flickers, and his eyes dart to the gap at the bottom of the door. He can see a pale blue light coming from the hallway and two shadows, indicating someone is standing just outside his door.
He waits, and after a few moments, the door creaks open. For an instant, he panics, but then he recognizes the riotous hair, highlighted by the small light emitted by her wand. He watches her enter the miniscule space and quietly close the door. She takes a shaky breath and inches toward the bed. He can practically taste her hesitation. His own heart is pounding; this is completely unexpected.
But he doesn't speak, just watches as she sits down, the springs creaking loudly in the stillness. He waits, breath baited, for what she will do, his mind spinning with questions. He has spent no time on this question, of her coming to him, because it is unthinkable. They barely exchange mumbled words in passing. Yes, he's extended himself toward her, but only in the most innocent, miniscule ways. Only because he cannot bear to watch the strongest person he knows fall apart. Even now, he cannot name what he wants her to do, and he has no idea what he will do in response.
She doesn't speak, either. After long moments of staring at her back, where he thinks he might go mad with anticipation, her shoulders slump and begin to shake. Then her head bows and she sniffs quietly. His heart constricts, and he reaches for her, gently pulling her back against him. She lets him, settling down to lie with her back to him, curling into herself and letting her grief pour out. Draco wraps his arm tightly around her and simply holds her.
It takes some time before her mourning is spent. When her breathing becomes even, he thinks she's fallen asleep. He allows himself time to stare at her, to trace the line of her, to memorize her scent and the feel of her in his arms.
When he wakes up, she is gone.
It keeps happening. Someone dies, she is a pillar of strength, but then she comes to him without a word and sobs in his arms until exhaustion claims her. She is always gone when he wakes, no matter how hard he tries to stay awake.
One night, he is holding her, his thoughts a raging torrent. Holding her without speaking, without even seeing her face, is becoming torturous. He longs to speak to her, to brush the hair out of her face, to wipe her tears. Yet he is afraid that acknowledging her presence with words will break whatever fragile thing she's doing.
He struggles with telling her to stop, with pushing her away. Part of him wants to, because holding her, her warm body flush with his, is a particularly cruel kind of torture. That he can't help but think of her closer, of his hands in her hair, of the moonlight on her skin, is beside the point. It's not knowing her mind, her thoughts, that threatens to drive him mad. He cannot fathom why she comes to him nor why she is silent, why she barely acknowledges him outside of his tiny room. He supposes she must find strength in it, because she keeps going. She always keeps going.
He is deep in thought this night when she stirs, and he is stunned to feel her moving in his arms. She turns over, all the way, and his breath hitches when her eyes meet his. It takes all of his efforts to keep his gaze from drifting elsewhere. Her eyes flit across his face. His heart is pounding in his chest. Without a word, she reaches up and ghosts her fingers along the line of his jaw. He swallows hard.
In that moment, he wants her to kiss him. He could never kiss her; it would be too much, a betraying of himself, an opening up he isn't nearly ready for. But if she kisses him, it's only because she needs something in that moment, and Merlin help him, he doesn't think he minds being that something. For just that moment. Tomorrow it would disappear, relegated to wherever she tucks her thoughts of him, and they would pretend nothing had happened.
He'd already decided he wouldn't let her turn him into a secret, a shame, something hidden in the back room. It could only be the one time, just one kiss, nothing more. He couldn't handle anything more because that would be so much harder to ignore.
Finally, when he thinks his skin will burst into flame from the drift of her fingers, her eyes lift to meet his. He finds it difficult to breathe as he waits for her to do something.
Then she sighs and pulls away, taking all of her warmth, her aura, her essence with her.
"I'm sorry," she whispers in the darkness, and a part of him hates her. She'd made him wish, made him want things he cannot afford in this war. His mind cannot wrap itself around how deeply he wanted her to kiss him. It is still too busy trying to comprehend that she hadn't.
He can't speak, and she is gone with a soft rustle of fabric and the click of the latch on his door.
It is the last night she comes to him.
Draco allows himself the next day for sulking and brooding and shooting death glares at Weasley, but after that, he forces himself to fully return to the fight. There are battles to dissect, strategies to plan and meetings to snooze through. He does his part, helps where he can, but no one quite wants to let him all the way in.
He notices that Hermione seems especially upbeat, positive, in motion, but he quickly discerns that she's trying to fool him. However, he lets her think she's succeeded, and he doesn't rush in when his gut tells him he should. Besides, why should he? Who is she to him, really, anyway? He doesn't owe her anything, it isn't like he's trying to make up for anything that he said or did to her in the past...
Upon coming to this realization, Draco finds a wayward bottle of Firewhiskey and drinks himself to sleep.
So he lets her be. He watches the tension in her shoulders mount, the line of her lips harden, the light in her eyes dim. He silently begs someone, anyone, to notice that she's falling again. He wants someone else to catch her this time, if only because he wishes she had someone else looking out for her besides him. Someone to step in, to force her to rest, to let her say no, encourage her to take moments here and there for herself.
He wonders again why he bothers. Before, he had believed that she was the key to their victory. Now, he remembers her eyes dancing in the soft light of the moon peeking in through his window. So, yeah, he cares because he wants Potter to win, but also he cares because he had wanted her to kiss him. And he suspects he might find himself wanting her to kiss him again.
Then one day, it breaks.
It happens during a meeting, where Hermione is taking notes and agreeing to do everything that is asked of her, far more than is reasonable. Yet they are so accustomed to her bearing the weight that they don't think. He gets angrier and angrier, not only at them but also at her because who does she think she is? Why does she think she can—or should—do it all?
Then Lupin asks yet another thing of her, something about research, and she nods and starts to write it down, but her hand is shaking so hard she can't. He is the only one who notices! Again! He gives her a minute or two to recant, to pull back her acquiescence, but she doesn't, she only stares at the parchment in front of her while the meeting continues around her. Everyone oblivious.
When Lupin speaks to her again, asking more of her, she doesn't reply. Draco's jaw is clenched, he is so angry.
"What do you say, Hermione?" Lupin asks, a strained expression on his face.
She lifts her eyes to his, and that is when he snaps.
He stands dramatically, drawing all eyes to him. "Go to bed, Granger," he says, unable to keep all of his resentment out of his tone.
She merely blinks at him, and there is silence for an instant before everyone else jumps to her rescue.
"Who the hell are you, Malfoy, to tell her what to do?" Weasley roars at him.
"You've got some nerve," Potter says coldly, eyes narrowed.
All of Hermione's friends are yelling at him, but he merely stands his ground, staring at the top of her head. Letting them throw their worst and letting it roll over him, a rock in a stream. The tip of her quill dips a fraction of a hair, but he knows all about that infinitesimal hesitation.
"Go," he repeats, firmly but more gently, ignoring everything around him.
Then she stands, and everyone goes silent, waiting to see what happens. Weasley looks smug, like he expects her to slap him again, like in third year.
Instead she lifts her eyes to his, her expression blank. Then she starts for the door. Draco moves to intercept her and holds out his hand. Without a word, she gives him the parchment she'd been writing on and continues out of the room.
No one moves except Draco, who slides into the chair she'd just vacated. He dips the quill into the ink bottle and waits for Lupin to continue.
She can't believe the way he'd talked to her. She can't believe he had talked to her. She'd been as surprised as everyone else to hear him address her in a meeting. Draco rarely talks, and even less with her.
Of course, it isn't as though there is nothing between them. As she lies in bed, after sleeping for three glorious hours in the middle of the day, she thinks about what happened at the meeting. She replays the scene in her mind, failing to not thrill at the sound of his voice in her memory. It was a soothing sound, despite his tone. Or maybe she heard his intentions more than anything else. It was confusing, how such a harsh command could melt her now.
Her first reaction had been to push back, to insist that she was fine and refuse, abjectly, to do what he had essentially commanded. It isn't in her nature to immediately and simply do as she's told; her initial response is to question, to wait, to weigh her options. She likes to know the why of the thing.
But before she even had a chance to reply, her friends had jumped to her defense and she'd suddenly felt tired, bone-weary, exhausted. As her friends and the people who cared about her had yelled at Draco, called him names, derided him for daring to speak and to tell her what to do, Hermione realized that his single, somewhat harsh command was by far what she needed. Her friends may have thought they were helping her, when really, it had been Draco. Again. As he had been helping her for many months. Not once had they noticed her the way he had, cared for her in ways that actually helped.
Now she realizes that his concern for her is deeper than she'd previously realized. She stares at the ceiling, wondering what she'll do next. She went to bed, as instructed, and it was perfect. Part of her feels the pull to get up, to go help, to do whatever Harry needs her to do. But there is part of her, too, that wants to snuggle further into the covers and let the world drift by without her, just for a little while. She hears Draco's voice again in her mind, and she thinks she knows what he might say if she reappeared so soon. So she stays, stretches her toes as far as they'll go, and resolves to stay a little longer. To think. About something other than Harry and the war and Horcruxes and Weasleys.
She wants to think about a boy.
One thing she knows is this: she refuses to let him stay quietly in the shadows any longer. She will no longer relegate him to stolen glances, her ears strained for his voice, memories of his arms wrapped securely around her. He is not someone she is ashamed of; rather, she is ashamed of herself for needing him. She'd always thought her strength was in her ability to figure things out on her own, to be strong. Now, she is beginning to realize that she could never be everything everyone else needs at all times.
Draco is helping her to grow, to be stronger. It was not strength which caused her to push herself beyond what she could handle. She will show him that she is learning.
She yawns, and her body begins to drift to sleep yet again. She is surprised, but she smiles.
Now she hopes to dream about him.
He doesn't see her for almost three days. The atmosphere at Grimmauld Place is subdued, as though she is on her deathbed and not merely taking much deserved rest.
If anyone sees her, he doesn't hear about it. Someone faithfully takes a tray to her door, knocks, and leaves it, and later, the tray sits there empty. He suspects Potter and Weasley at least attempt to talk to her. Everyone in the house notices him now. He can't walk down the hall or go to the loo without being Observed. The Dimwitted Duo now eye him suspiciously, warily, whereas before they were content to ignore his presence. It grates on his nerves, and a small part of him selfishly wishes he'd kept silent.
As her absence lengthens, though, he decides it was worth it because she is finally taking time for herself.
When she does emerge, it is near the end of breakfast after the third night of her "confinement." He is preparing a cup of tea, his back to a group of stragglers still picking at whatever food is left. They are absorbed in a conversation he is trying to ignore when it suddenly goes quiet for a half-instant. He turns, expecting to see everyone's eyes on him, their favorite target for derision.
Instead, he sees her, standing just inside the door. She is smiling at her friends, and she looks better than he's ever seen her. Her eyes are bright, and she is obviously well-rested. She's wearing an oversized sweatshirt with a neck so wide that her shoulder is exposed. Draco remembers staring at that shoulder in the dark, and his mouth goes dry.
This happens just as her friends register that she is really and truly there, and she is immediately surrounded.
He scowls and resumes making his tea, sliding out the side door.
Three hours later, he is sitting on the back steps, sipping from a contraband hip flask, a scowl on his face. He hasn't been inside since she appeared; he isn't sure there's enough room for him anymore. Before that meeting, where he broke his silence and had the nerve to tell her what to do, he knew his place in the house. In the Order. His role was very clearly defined, and he never strayed from it—except when he'd done something for her. But as they'd never spoken of it, they could both pretend it wasn't real. The same was true of her nocturnal visits to him; they were easily ignored.
Now, though, he isn't sure what to think, not sure where he stands. He has broken their unspoken rules, and he's been in limbo since that meeting, unsure what happens next.
He is deep in thought over the possibilities when he hears the door open, and even though he doesn't turn to see who it is, he knows it's her. It is all he can do to remain calm and cool and unaffected.
It takes a moment for the word to sink into his consciousness. She used his real, given name. He turns a bemused eye to her. "Is this something we do now?"
She blinks in confusion. "What's that?"
"Talk." He takes a long drink from his flask, a deep fear blooming in his gut. He doesn't think he can do this, be casual and light with her. Certainly he cannot be easy with her; his every nerve is on edge, his thoughts tumbling over what she might say.
"You started it," she says amusedly.
He can't fight a grin so he takes another drink. "Touche."
She smiles and faces him, leaning against the rickety railing. "I've been told you did excellent work while I was... away."
He shrugs, exhaling shakily. "Someone said that?"
"They all said that," she replies, tilting her head to the side.
"You've substantially fewer tasks assigned to you than before," he remarks, a strong sense of the need for flight beginning to overwhelm him. He takes one last drink and then stands.
"I noticed that," she says. "I didn't take any of them back."
That surprises him, and he doesn't bother try to hide it. "Good for you, Granger." He begins to walk up the steps, his eyes focused on the door. He is only a few feet from relief, from being swallowed up in the huge house, from hiding behind the locked door of his only personal space.
"Would you be interested in continuing to do what you've been doing?" She steps toward the door as well, and a tiny ball of panic explodes in his stomach.
"I'll do whatever I'm told," he mutters. Only two more steps to go.
"I'm not telling you what to do," she admonishes softly.
He stops and looks at her, which is a huge mistake. She has moved as though to intercept him before he can get to the door, so she is very close. Her expression is one of earnestness, of a war within her between hope and despair, dependent upon his response. It is too much pressure, and he feels the small landing closing in on him.
But then he realizes that she has asked him, not commanded, fully willing to accept whatever answer he gives. And of course it does something pleasantly awful to his nerves. He drags his gaze away. "Yeah, I will."
Her smile is brilliant, and he can't help being touched by it. Again he looks at her, and it is then her smile falters. "Draco," she begins.
This is it; this is what he has been dreading for three days, and he cannot bear it now. He feels all of his walls going up, the windows shuttering, locks securely in place. "See you around," he says, not quite able to make his tone as cold as he'd have wanted but enough that she flinches.
"Wait," she calls, but he is already halfway to his room.
Life moves on. Draco sits at the table in meetings now and takes notes, as she'd requested. Hermione takes his place on the edges of the room, yet still participates. She maintains good boundaries, volunteering only for what she can reasonably do. Whenever she wavers, a look from his quiets her.
After some weeks of this, however, Draco decides to see what happens if he doesn't interfere. She takes on three tasks, then four, and he feels his nerves twisting in annoyance. A few minutes after volunteering for the fourth, however, she recants and hands it off to someone else. He doesn't look at her, but he can feel her eyes on him.
The days feel like they once did, way back at the start. Sure, he is more centrally involved, but he is alone again, on the outside. She is much better, and so her smile is brilliant and her eyes dance and her laugh skips around whatever room she is in.
Her friends are back to ignoring him, though sometimes there's something like grudging respect in their glances. They've got their friend back, spick and span, nice and neat and no work for them. He suspects they must know something; surely they'd required some kind of explanation from her about that meeting. But they leave him alone, and sometimes he wishes they would attack, just to have something to do.
She doesn't need him anymore. And that's okay.
Then suddenly, the war is over. Potter wins, and Draco feels both immense, unburdening relief and also overwhelming dread. He must now face his parents, his friends, everyone whom he has betrayed. He must now face a world that believes he is still a Death Eater, a world that will be suspicious and slow to forgive. But he doesn't have to face that world yet, and so while everyone else spills into the streets to celebrate, he grabs a beer and goes into the back garden.
He is almost to the bottom of a bottle, wishing he'd grabbed two, when someone joins him. It doesn't surprise him that it's her; of course it would be her.
She extends another bottle to him, and he thinks, not for the first time, that she is some kind of creature sent for him from the gods. Though, he cannot imagine he has done anything worthy of her. He manages half a smile as he accepts the cold bottle. Upon removing the cap, he holds it up toward her.
"To Potter," he says.
She looks at it thoughtfully, then raises her own bottle. "Harry."
They clink their drinks, then take a sip.
They are surrounded by the sounds of fireworks. Just as when Voldemort was defeated the first time, when witches and wizards ventured out of hiding to celebrate, so they are doing now. And as fireworks are common among Muggles, they choose to celebrate with them now. They can be heard all over London; Draco chuckles at the thought of millions of confused Muggles, wondering what holiday they have collectively forgotten.
Between them, however, the silence stretches. Draco begins to feel awkward, sitting there alone with Hermione Granger in a small, overgrown garden.
"Shouldn't you be off celebrating with the hero of the wizarding world?" he mumbles before drinking deeply from his bottle.
"Harry isn't the only hero of this war," she says quietly.
She sits beside him then, and he is alarmed at her proximity. He can just feel the heat radiating from her body, can just smell the wafting scent of her shampoo. Merlin help him, his fingers remember her curls, and he begins to craft his exit strategy.
"Draco," she says, her voice shaky. This gives him pause, and he looks at her. She is focused on the bottle in her hands. "Please believe me when I say that if it hadn't been for you, I don't know that I would have made it through."
He shakes his head and prepares to stand. "Don't be absurd."
"I mean it," she says, grabbing his arm to prevent him from leaving. They haven't touched since the last night she came to his room, and he is acutely aware of her hand on his arm. It is causing all manner of delightfully unpleasant, marvelous sensations in his person, and he cannot decide if he wants to remove her hand or not. Stuck in indecision, he simply sits there.
She looks him in the eye, all shakiness or hint of nerves gone. "You saw me, you gave me the strength to keep going, and I don't have the words to thank you."
"And yet you managed," he says flippantly, though his thoughts are anything but. He doesn't know how to navigate these waters, so he does what comes naturally: he tries to push her away, make light of her words and thoughts.
Anger flashes through her eyes and she hastily removes her hand. "Don't be such a prat," she snaps.
He thinks about a vicious retort, but his heart is not in it. "Fine," he mutters. He feels her anger dissipate somewhat, and she repositions herself on the step, drawing her even closer to him. It is such an exquisite torture that he feels even more like running, yet he also craves less distance between them.
"How did you know?" she asks, her voice almost a whisper. "I thought I had everyone fooled. Why did you see through me, when no one else did?"
"The question is why did they not see?" he replies, his gentleness surprising him.
She smiles sadly, then nods. "I guess they really were fooled."
He snorts. "They're idiots, of course." He expects her to jump into offended mode, to defend her stalwart comrades and require that he retract his statement.
Instead, she laughs and sips from her bottle. "They are idiots. But they're my idiots, I suppose. They really would do anything for me, even die for me."
He doesn't like that, and he decides to find a corner in the house in which to continue drinking. "Anything except actually try to understand you," he mutters. "Thanks for the beer, Granger." He starts to stand.
"Draco," she says, amused. "They aren't all that bad. But I don't want to talk about them."
He huffs and relaxes back on the step. "So we're doing that again, are we?"
"Well, I... I'm not quite finished," she says, her tone anxious. After a moment, she continues. "Harry is going to get a lot of attention now." He snorts and takes another drink. "Deservedly so, of course, after all. But I want you to know that I consider you one of our heroes."
Draco scowls at the ground. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I'm not," she says firmly. "You helped me. You showed me that I shouldn't try to take on every problem, shouldn't try to be the answer for everybody. At least, I started to see it, to believe it. And you didn't make me feel like less of a person for saying no. Harry and Ron, they must think I can do anything and everything, because so many times when I've tried to say no, they act so disappointed in me, and I end up saying yes. But you never did that. You were okay with my no. It might sound small, but to me, it meant a lot."
She took a deep breath. "You... are a hero, Draco. To me. And... I cannot thank you enough."
No one has ever said such a thing to him before, and he immediately wants to reassure her that, of course, he is no hero. There is a long list of failures behind his name, and besides, he was only being a decent person to her, not rescuing puppies or helping old witches Disapparate or something.
"Just promise me your first born child, and I'll consider us even," he says, mentally preparing to make a hasty retreat.
"Draco," she calls again, a hint of impatience in her tone.
He sighs and gives her a perturbed look. "You have used my given name more times in the last ten minutes than ever before in our lives."
She quirks an eyebrow. "That's because it keeps feeling like you are about to run away."
He freezes at her words, still as a statue. "Yeah, I am," he confesses. How did she know? He is extremely confused and overwhelmed and strangely flattered, an odd combination of feelings, and he wonders if this is a tiny part of how she had felt that first time he had brought her tea. He feels understood in a way he can't remember ever having felt before, and over such a small thing.
"Well, don't," she says.
Maybe it is the shock of being on the receiving end of one of her commands, maybe it is the shock of her understanding him so well, but he relaxes and stretches his legs, settling in.
"Why do you want to run?" she asks. "Are you afraid of being seen?"
He suspects she doesn't understand the full meaning of her question. "Not with you," he replies, as close as he can get to saying he is scared to be seen by her. And yet, her insight tells him that she does see him, in some small way. It fills him with a lightness, a feeling of floating, that he hadn't expected.
Then he senses tension from her where it hadn't been a moment before.
"There's something I've wanted to say for a very long time," she begins, biting her lip and eyeing him strangely. Then she sighs heavily and turns to look at something on the ground. "I have wanted to kiss you for a very long time. Only I didn't think it was a very good idea."
He freezes, his arm midair as he'd been about to take a drink. "What?"
She gives him a withering glare. "You heard me."
His mind is spinning over itself, so quickly flitting from one idea to another that he cannot form a coherent thought. One word seems especially prominent, so he says it. "Why?"
"Why do I want to kiss you?" she asks. "Or why isn't it a good idea?"
Her question further shuts down all hope of rational thought. It sounds like she implied that she wants to kiss him, as in, presently. At this moment. Sitting beside him with very little air space between them. And he flexes his hand automatically, the fingers of which had threaded ever so lightly through her hair and were now twitching with desperation to do so again.
Thankfully, she doesn't need a response from him. "Is it really any wonder?" she asks, glancing at him. "After everything you've done for me... You've been more of a friend to me than any of my actual friends. You've shown such tenderness and care that I can't help but notice, and it doesn't hurt that I find you quite handsome."
He gapes at her inelegantly, all attempts at remaining stoic and unaffected abandoned.
She goes on as though this were the most natural conversation in the world. "My heart jumps whenever I hear your voice and probably all the more so because it is so rare. And it doesn't matter if you're telling Remus about the layout of some building in Prague or making some snide remark to one of my friends."
Draco is so entirely overwhelmed that he finishes his beer in one go and then drops his head into his hands. At no point in his life has he been part of such an honest conversation, and it is truly dizzying the nonchalance with which she makes these confessions. As though she is entirely certain that he won't end up breaking her heart into a thousand pieces.
"Why haven't I kissed you?" she goes on with only a pause to catch her breath. "Is there any wonder there, either? I don't know if it's real."
That jars him out of the freefall he's in and he whips his head up to look at her. "Don't know if what's real?" he asks, frowning at her severely.
"What I'm feeling," she replies. "I just got through thanking you for essentially saving my life, so naturally I'm a bit wary of any sort of romantic feelings I've been experiencing. How can I know if they are true or just a byproduct of the gratitude I feel toward you or the feelings of comfort and safety when I'm around you? It's why I didn't kiss you that night."
Their eyes meet, and he knows his are wide open, shutters gone, a window through which she must surely see how he feels.
"I wanted to," she says quietly. "Very much so."
"I wanted you to." He glances at her lips, but kissing her is, oddly, the farthest thing from his mind. He is too busy trying to process all the words she's said since joining him outside.
Something in her relaxes, as though relieved to finally hear him give away part of himself, as she has done. "You did? Then why didn't you?"
"Me kiss you?" He shakes his head, resolute. "No, I couldn't. You came to me, in the middle of the night, and wept for over an hour. It would have been the lowest of low to do anything without your expressed wish."
"So if I'd kissed you..." She trails off, watching him expectantly.
"I'd have kissed you," he replies. "A little."
She nods, full understanding sinking in.
"Look, I'm not sure what you're after here," he says, peeling at the label on the bottle. "I'm not familiar with conversations like this, with all this brutal honesty. I can't give you that. Not... like this." He can imagine giving himself to her, in a different way, which is its own kind of brutal honesty. He shakes his head.
Hermione smiles at him. "All I want is to see what could happen. Now that the war is over, and we can leave this bloody house, and you don't have to watch my every move to make sure I'm taking care of myself, and I don't have to wonder why I am drawn to you. I just want it to be because I'm attracted to you and you make me laugh and think and dream, not because I am grateful to you for noticing me."
Her frankness is astounding, raised as he was in a world where no one said what they really meant, everyone only looking out for their own interests, and where anyone could be bought. He shakes his head in amazement and takes another sip of beer. "You're attracted to me?"
She laughs. "Is that all you heard me say?"
He chuckles. "No. You dream about me, too."
She nudges him with her shoulder. "Prat." Then she sips from her bottle and tilts her head thoughtfully. "So. What do you say?"
She rolls her eyes. "About... seeing. About this. About us."
"Will there be snogging involved?" he asks lightly, though he doesn't feel light. He feels twisted and stretched and yet delightfully, painfully apprehensive.
"Merlin, I sure hope so," she says, her voice teasing.
He'd meant it as a joke, a rhetorical question, one that might, possibly, make her blush. Instead she keeps calling his bluff. "I'm never quite sure what to make of you."
Her smile sobers a little. "This is me, too, you know. I'm not just a harried girl across the room who needs a cup of tea and a lie down."
"I know," he says quietly, lamenting the empty bottle in his hands. "I suppose we don't really know each other that well."
"No," she agrees with a brilliant smile. "That's what I'd like the chance to do. To... start fresh. To figure out if there's anything truly between us. What do you say?"
And this is his chance, the only one she's likely to give him, and he is not prepared for it in the least. After all, he's had no thoughts beyond wanting to snog her senseless. Well, no, his musings don't typically end at a snog, but a snog is all he has allowed himself to think possible. A heavy snog one night, and then back to silence. He'd barely begun to even entertain the possibility that he might maybe have the beginnings of a semblance of actual feelings for her—to admit it to himself, at least—and here she is, offering herself to him. Heart on the table, here's a knife, I trust you, please don't hurt me.
He is incredibly undeserving of her, and he cannot fathom why she wants to take a chance on him. However, now that he's peeking through this wall in his own heart, where he's never dared to go before, he finds that he does want to see. He wants to put titles and labels on his own feelings—
But what if they don't quite match up to hers?
Besides that, would she still want to kiss him if she really knew him? All the deep down parts of him? Because wasn't that what he had done? Seen through her walls and into the heart of her? Not her whole heart but the part of it that had been screaming to be seen? He still wonders why he of all people saw it, but then maybe that is part of the magic of it all. She'd been waiting for him, perhaps, her heart already perfectly tuned with his, just needing a little push.
"I'm no hero," he tells her. "I'm not... Potter. I'm not even Weasley, who was out there, by his side. I've not got much to recommend me to you."
"You don't have to be a hero to everyone," she argues. "You don't have to save the wizarding world. You... saved me. You are my hero." She holds her hand out to him, palm up in supplication.
Draco stares at it, then hesitantly covers it with his own. It is electric, fantastic, and he—
"I want you to kiss me."
"What?" he says in a rush of exhaled breath.
"Kiss me," she demands, a playful spark in her eyes, but he also knows she sincere. "When the hero gets the girl, he should always give her a kiss."
He smirks, staring at their joined hands. "Is that so?"
"Mmm," she muses, "it's in the guidebook. It should be smoldering."
"The kiss? Or the book?" he says jokingly. She opens her mouth to speak, but he stops her. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," she huffs impatiently. "Draco, kiss me."
So he does.
He doesn't claim that the earth stops spinning, the heavens part, the sun shines brighter, the birds break out in song. He doesn't even claim that time slows down, or a fairy is born, or fireworks explode, or angels sing. Well, there are probably fireworks, on account of the end of the war.
One thing he does know is that his world feels suddenly righted, where he hadn't known it was off-kilter. He will henceforth mark time from that moment, and his entire life will fit into either Before He Kissed Her or After He Kissed Her.
And there are, most certainly, fireworks.
End Notes: I've never written a war fic, but it was requested by my Dramione Duet partner. It's intimidating! There are so many out there already, written so well. I never felt I could add much to the field. Here was my prompt: "She thought it was an uncharacteristic display of heroics. And if he'd
had his head on straight, he'd agree."
My partner also mentioned: I really enjoy angst but I'm also fond of quiet moments of shared happiness-no matter how small. Soft touches. Loaded glances. I'm kind of a sap for anything that might give me a case of the Feels. Ultimately, my favorite thing is character growth.
That's a tall order for a story with a maximum word limit of 8000! But I really ended up happy with this. I hope you enjoy it too!