Author's Note: This is my submission for Dramione Fanfiction Forum's 20 Years Later Fest, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts. This piece began as a random drabble during a word sprint meant to clear my head, and somehow this happened instead. Love and hearts to HeartofAspen and Indieblue for their prompt words: Apple pie, Hippopotamus, Laughable, Languorous, and Regret. I hope you enjoy!
All the thanks to Kyonomiko and LaBelladone x, for being my rock star alpha and beta, respectively.
Disclaimer: I do not own any part of the Harry Potter franchise.
Languorously, Draco Malfoy stretched out on all fours, sharp claws digging into the hard earth as he approached the bustle ensuing at the edge of his domain.
Draco settled into the tall savanna grasses in the welcoming shade of a mutuba tree. His large eyes narrowed at the clumsy ruckus the humans were making; if he could roll his eyes, he would have.
Some distance away, a hippopotamus and her young bathed in the stream. A pack of hyenas raced past, and a wildebeest absently snuffled at a felled log just beyond the stream. Draco couldn't be bothered with any of it. The dry savanna winter had been particularly stifling; his fur had been shedding in clumps.
He lost track of time, out in the harsh sub-Saharan grasslands. As a cheetah, his life had been unnaturally long-lived. But as a man – well, Draco didn't remember how long it had been, since he had last been a man.
Cheetahs didn't feel regret. They didn't feel hopelessness and unadulterated fear; they didn't feel the intense and all-encompassing anguish of loss. Not in the same ways, at least.
The cheetah fought for its next meal. It felt the territorial pull to defend. Thankfully, he had retained enough of his humanity to ignore the desire to mate. That was a particular kink he had never wanted to entertain. And as a human… Draco firmly believed the world didn't need another version of him.
Draco had been willing, so many years ago, to forgo the civilities of modern life if it meant he didn't have to feel any of those things.
He had been lucky, when he had pursued the transition to an Animagus, during his seventh year of Hogwarts. It had been the only thing worthwhile. His last, and most gratifying, intellectual pursuit.
Draco had bided his time back then. When he had learned his animal form was a cheetah, he had scarcely been able to believe it. He had half expected karmic retribution would have fated his escape to take the form of a slug. Perhaps, a ferret. Or Merlin forbid, a snake.
It would have been laughable. If one liked to sob whilst they laughed.
A cheetah was far greater than he had probably deserved. So shortly after his last days at Hogwarts, his father in Azkaban and his mother having succumbed to a particularly vicious bout of Dragon Pox, Draco had fled England with only a Portkey and the tattered and failing remains of his self-worth.
There were very few human luxuries Draco missed. A warm slice of apple pie was one of them.
The humans, with all their hubristic arrogance, began encroaching on his territory with their packs, tents, and instruments of measurement.
Perhaps they needed a reminder; a subtle roughing-up. This wasn't their land.
Rising to his four legs, large powerful paws splaying out – the grasses tickled the pads of his feet – Draco slunk to the edge of their encampment, crouched and ready to spring if need be.
He could overhear their conversations, not that any of them were making an effort to be subtle or respectful in the least. Draco felt his hackles raise as he crept closer, into their camp.
He dropped his head as he approached two young adults, deeply involved in some flippant and irrelevant conversation. Draco contracted his claws, but it wouldn't be worth it. He was there to put them on alert, not cause them pain. Because the other large cats would attack if provoked.
Merlin knew, Draco Malfoy had caused enough pain.
His sensitive ears perked as he caught a word he recognized but hadn't heard for an age. Apparate.
He blinked, fixing his gaze on the two gossips. They still hadn't noticed him, with their utter lack of discrepancy and instinct.
Another word he knew – Galleons.
And then – "The Head Unspeakable will be along any minute. Get this camp sorted!"
Draco froze, and subsequently, he nearly turned and ran as fast as he could the opposite direction. These were witches and wizards. But why were they here?
He took a step back and skirted around the outside of the encampment. Now that he was looking closer, he realized many of the instruments the workers were setting up were wizarding in nature.
Despite himself, curiosity won out. Yet inwardly, he scoffed.
Curiosity killed the cat, Draco.
Deciding to leave well enough alone, Draco turned to retreat to the cool shade of his mutuba tree, away from the scorching midday sun.
But his eyes widened and his heart froze all at once. He blinked, twice. Even after so long, he recognized that head of hair – those wide brown eyes as they noticed him –
He collapsed to the ground.
Draco blinked and the world drifted into a hazy, dusty focus. His body was bound with ropes unnatural in strength. He was in some sort of room. His feline heart raced a desperate cadence – trapped – trapped – trapped.
But hadn't he seen someone familiar from so long ago?
"Great, the cheetah's stirring," someone groaned. "What are we going to do with it?"
Draco snarled in indignance.
"We'll have to put it down," someone else whined, "it was in our camp. We aren't safe."
"We will not!" another voice snapped, and Draco blinked with disbelief. He couldn't have turned into a human if he wanted to; the ropes were evidently imbued to prevent the use of magic. "Clear out, all of you!"
They all left the room except for the woman who had shouted.
There was no doubt about it. The woman he had seen – the one who had so unceremoniously bound and stunned him – was Hermione Granger.
Draco loosened a paw, and he clawed desperately at the ropes that held him. Granger walked over and crouched down; either she was confident in the strength of her spell or she was just as reckless as he remembered.
A pathetic whimper escaped his mouth.
"I know," Granger murmured, her brown eyes meeting his narrowed yellow ones. "I'm going to get you out of here. I'll take you deep into the savanna and set you free. How does that sound?"
Draco growled and pawed at his bonds once more.
"Beautiful, aren't you?" Granger murmured, as if to herself.
Draco snarled in dismay. He was handsome.
And although it had been so long since he had seen Granger – call it a side effect of being alone for so many years – he found he was fascinated with her. She had aged well – for as long as Draco surmised it had been, she looked remarkably young. He wondered what in the name of Merlin she was doing out here.
He wondered how her life had gone since he had left England. She must have married; presumably she had some children running around and Draco found himself hoping they weren't Weasleys.
Draco had always thought she needed someone more intellectual than Weasley.
He snarled again as she approached, holding a hand out before her as if that would keep any legitimate wildcat from biting it off, if they felt as cornered as he did.
He clawed anxiously at the ropes again; the thick strands held firm.
"I know, you're frightened," Granger cooed. Draco wished he could roll his eyes at her. He did his best attempt anyway, and something in his stare caused Granger to falter. Her head tilted as she stared at him; Draco could practically see the cogs whirring.
"Crazy," Granger murmured to herself, shaking her head. Cautiously, she breathed, "Can you understand me?"
Draco released a low growl, letting his hot breath wash over her face. Granger cringed and moved away. Then begrudgingly, he nodded his chin.
Granger's eyes widened and her shoulders tensed as she gazed at him, her lips parted in rapt attention.
"Are you an Animagus?" she whispered.
Disgruntled, Draco hissed at her and pawed at his bonds once more. If she wanted information, she couldn't keep him tied up like some prisoner.
Granger stood and gazed at him, weighing her options. Finally she raised her wand, keeping it held out before her, and she released the ropes keeping him trapped.
Draco felt the cheetah in him relax, rolling his shoulders to feel the strength of them. Even so, he gazed pointedly at Granger and merely sat, cleaning one large paw.
"Change," she whispered. Draco couldn't tell if it was a request or a demand.
He huffed through his nose and went on with his task. He hadn't changed in at least ten years.
Luxuriantly, Draco stood and stretched his powerful legs before him, then paced the room, searching for an exit.
"I've barred the entrance," Granger said in that tone he remembered so well, and Draco wanted to bark in relief that she was the same swotty Gryffindor he remembered. That for all that had gone wrong in the world, Granger was still herself – or a close enough approximation.
He could have cried at the thought. He could have gone quietly into the night.
Instead, he laid down on the floor and rolled in the dust.
"Turn, and I'll consider letting you out," Granger hissed through clenched teeth. "I want to know what you were doing on our campsite. Were you spying? Which Ministry are you with?"
Draco's laugh of incredulity came out as a soft huff.
He'd forgotten how well and truly fulfilling it was to get Granger riled up.
He stood again and paced over, lifting a paw to gently smack Granger in her messy, curly hair.
Granger flinched and stepped back.
"As the lead Unspeakable on this case, with the authority of the British Ministry of Magic, I order you to turn," she hissed.
Something in her tone caused Draco to step back. So she was the Unspeakable he had heard about. He found he wasn't surprised.
And clearly, she wasn't going to let him out if she thought he was a spy. From all he had heard about the Unspeakables, she would have been less likely to put him down when she thought he was simply a cheetah.
Draco sighed. He wasn't ready for the world to know he was still alive, somewhere out in the middle of the African savanna. Especially not her.
But yet – her wand was still raised, and there were ways of forcing the change – painful, complicated ways.
Giving her his best intimation of a scowl, so she could be certain he was angry with her, Draco reached within himself for the long unused trigger that would release his animal form. It took longer than he expected, more effort than he remembered – but it had been so long. He almost couldn't recall how.
Granger stepped back, her arms folded across her chest, and some old human instinct followed the movement.
Finally, the internal connection was found, and he began the shift.
His muscles screamed, protesting the change, and everything felt wrong as he rose to two legs.
Granger's sharp inhale confirmed he still looked close enough to himself, as well. At least he knew he was fully clothed but his hair was probably a disaster.
Draco cursed as he stumbled, his bipedal balance having long since forsaken him. Stabilizing well enough on bent knees, Draco forced himself to meet her gaze.
Granger simply stared, her mouth agape, lost for words. Then she started shaking her head, as if in denial.
"I can't believe it," she finally breathed. "Draco Malfoy."
"Believe it," he gasped in return, his voice hoarse with disuse, the timbre of it unfamiliar. Holding a hand out to steady himself, he made his way to the wall and leaned against it, cursing himself all the while for looking so piteously weak.
"I knew you weren't dead," she murmured, her eyes still wide as she took him in. "We searched and searched…"
Draco snickered, even as the words sounded so utterly false. He found himself coughing, his throat dry.
Granger flinched, and conjured him a glass of water.
"Thought I was your prisoner," he muttered, his voice barely a rasp, feeling a ghost of a smirk grace his lips. He lifted the glass with both hands and dipped his tongue in, lapping once at the cool surface of the water.
Granger let out a sound, and flushing, Draco realized she was trying not to laugh. He clicked his tongue and attempted to diffuse the situation by taking a delicate sip from the glass instead.
"Habit," he murmured, his voice sounding clearer.
"I understand," Granger said with a chuckle. "And whether or not you're my prisoner depends on what the hell you were doing on my campsite?"
"I think the better question, Granger, is what the hell you're doing in my savanna?" he asked with a pointed raise of a single brow.
"Your savanna?" she breathed, shaking her head. "Have you been here all this time?"
"Pretty much," he shrugged, taking another sip of the water. "How long has it been since the war?"
"Malfoy," Granger gasped, shaking her head absently. She swallowed heavily. "The war ended twenty years ago."
Draco pressed his lips together and nodded. He exhaled a long breath through his nose. "I suspected it had been a long time. But it isn't as if a cheetah can cast a tempus."
Twenty years. It felt like a blow to the heart.
"But why?" Granger asked. She searched his eyes, her brown ones shimmering. "Why leave? Why go so far, alone?"
"Seemed preferable to Azkaban," Draco said with a flicker of the brows.
Granger dug a hand into her thick curls, her mouth falling open again. "But… you were never sentenced." Draco shrugged. "You weren't going to Azkaban."
Her voice had dropped to a whisper.
"Sure I was," he breathed, matching her tone. "Multiple counts of attempted murder, endangerment, supporting and assisting the Dark Lord… I knew the charges laid, Granger. It was enough for a life sentence."
"You were tried in your absence," Granger went on softly. She blinked several times. "Harry and I both spoke on your behalf. Malfoy… Draco… you were acquitted."
It was as if all the air had been blown from his chest. His knees nearly gave out again. It was only when he saw the water in his glass swishing about that he realized his hand was trembling.
"Acquitted," he gasped. But he shook his head. He had long since resolved himself to this fate, and words from the past couldn't change that. "My mother had died, my father in Azkaban. There was nothing left for me there, Granger."
"So you chose to become an Animagus and live as a cheetah for twenty years?" she asked, indignant. "You should tell that to Nott, who spent five years petitioning the Ministry to keep your case open, convinced he could find you."
"Theo always was persistent," Draco said, feeling the memories roiling deep within. A smile drifted to his features. "My brother. I wouldn't have expected anything less."
"No one's going to believe this," Granger said. "You're been presumed dead for –"
"Granger," Draco said, holding up a hand. "No one is going to know. I don't intend to return to England."
"Why?" she breathed, shaking her head. "But… you're free."
"I'm freer here than I'll ever be elsewhere," Draco said. He finished the last of the freshest water he had tasted in ages and pressed the cup into her hand. "Thanks for the water, Granger. Am I free to go? I'll keep my distance from your operation here."
"No," she said, shaking her head profusely. "I can't…" she swallowed. "Let me buy you a cup of tea?"
"I appreciate that, Granger, but no thanks. I'll just be on my way," Draco said, attempting to run a hand through his hair, though it snagged on several tangles.
"Have you got some important, time-sensitive appointments?" Granger asked, raising an eyebrow, even as her lips twitched.
Draco pressed his lips together. "I don't think –"
"It's only tea, Malfoy," Granger deadpanned. "I just want to talk."
He let out a weary sigh. "One condition," he breathed. She nodded voraciously. Draco teased his lip as he gazed at her. "Don't suppose there's anywhere nearby where a bloke could get a slice of apple pie?"
Her voice was soft. "I'm sure we can find somewhere."
"So what brings you to Africa?" Draco asked conversationally as he found himself in a tiny cafe, sipping the loveliest cup of tea he thought he had ever tasted.
Small talk seemed suitable enough for the situation.
When the waitress had delivered a warm slice of apple pie, complete with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, Draco had fought every instinct within him not to snarl protectively at passers-by.
He had annihilated the first slice; Granger had chuckled and ordered him another.
"I'm afraid I can't speak of it," Granger responded, her lips twitching. "Unspeakable, you know."
"Of course," Draco said, though he wanted to demand answers on behalf of the other animals in the region. "Can you tell me – shall I relocate?"
"No," Granger said, shaking her head absently. "There will be no negative impact on the land or animals nearby."
Draco exhaled a breath of relief. "So," he prompted. "Unspeakable. Good for you."
Granger pressed her lips together and nodded, awkwardly. Draco realized this must have been strange for her as well, especially given she had believed him dead. And beyond that, the last time she had seen him they had been petulant teenagers on opposing sides of a cause far greater than any of them.
"Married?" Draco asked, looking up at her from his cup of tea.
"Never married, no kids," Granger clipped. She took a long sip of her own tea. "Never found someone I wanted to properly settle down with, I suppose."
"Neither," Draco said with a smirk. Granger laughed, a brilliant smile breaking across her face.
"The Saharan wildcats weren't to your liking?" Granger asked, still chuckling.
"No," Draco said, shaking his head. "Unfortunately not. Or fortunately, depending on your personal opinions on bestiality."
"Fortunately, then," Granger said. She set her cup down, absently tracing the vivacious pattern on the tablecloth. "Look, Malfoy… I know it isn't my place. But… I'm here with the team for two weeks, at which point I've got a Portkey back to England."
Draco swallowed, feeling the pace of his heart speed up.
"You could…" Granger drifted off again. "You could come back with us, if you like."
Draco ran a hand through his disheveled hair. It suddenly occurred to him he was probably quite filthy. Thoughts of a hot shower floated through his brain with a longing he wouldn't have expected.
"I appreciate the offer, Granger," Draco said, swallowing. "I just… don't know that I can do that. To face that world again, after so long."
"You don't have to decide right now," Granger said, and there was something in her voice that gave him pause. "Let me know in two weeks?"
It was hopefulness. Draco felt a jolt in his stomach.
"Why would you want to help me, Granger?" he found himself asking, desperately wondering why she would go to the effort. "Why even care?"
"Because it's been a long time," she whispered, as if it were answer enough. It probably was. She paused, then said, louder, "And if you don't come in two weeks, I'll understand."
Awkwardly, her cheeks flushing pink, Granger lifted a hand and set it on his. Draco felt his shoulders tense, his eyes flickering to her hand on his. Her skin, so pale and clean, stood out in a stark contrast from his, rough and dirty from years spent in the unforgiving grasslands of the sub-Sahara.
Without thinking, Draco turned his hand, his thumb rubbing circles on the back of hers.
Granger's eyes remained fixed on the table as she said, "If nothing else, I'm glad I've run into you. I always wondered, you know?"
"You wondered about me?" Draco breathed.
"Now and again," she said, and her lips curved into a demure smile, her chocolate brown eyes sparkling as they lifted to meet his. "General curiosity, you know."
She hadn't removed her hand from his.
"Right,' Draco said, then clicked his tongue. "Thanks for the pie, Granger. I'll figure out a way to pay you back."
"Nonsense," she said quietly. "It'll go on my Ministry charge account anyway."
Draco chuckled. "Alright, then."
She finally lifted her hand from his, and Draco felt the loss profoundly. He attributed it to an absolute lack of human contact for two decades.
"I ought to get back," she murmured, dropping some local money onto the table. "Will you walk with me?"
Draco nodded and followed her from the cafe.
They walked the short distance to a nearby Apparition point; Granger grasped his arm and the two of them appeared back at the edge of her campsite.
"Can I get you anything?" she asked, looking uncomfortable. "Before you go. A shower? Or some food?"
The longing for a shower was so intensely physical, so mentally obliterating –
"I'll be fine," he murmured, forcing a smile. He held up his hands. "No pockets as a cheetah, you know?"
Granger was staring as if she expected not to see him again. He honestly didn't know whether that would be the case or not.
"It was good seeing you, Granger," Draco said, realizing he meant it wholeheartedly. Despite cutting himself off from the world he had once known so thoroughly, so intentionally, it truly was nice seeing a face from the past.
"Good luck, Malfoy," she breathed, meeting his eyes again. "And please – do consider my offer."
"I'll consider it," he murmured, the words feeling dry on his lips. "Take care Granger."
He turned, unable to stare at her smile any longer, and he was a cheetah before his feet hit the ground.
It had been ten days, and Draco could not run far enough or fast enough to outpace the depth of her smile. The layers and the facets of her chocolate eyes. The soft ring of her voice.
He had slept beneath the stars the night before, as a man, for the first time he could remember since he had come to Africa. And all he could think about was whether or not Granger was watching the constellations as he was. The ones that he knew so well he could have pointed them out with his eyes closed.
For days, he simply ran. The sweltering sun blazing down, he had pushed his feline body to its limits, collapsing with fatigue every night. But still, he could not chase her from his thoughts.
The thrill of the hunt had gone. Observing the other animals no longer held Draco's interest. He grew restless with his long, lazy days.
He ached for a shower and longed for companionship. Indulgences that had not so much as crossed his mind in years – now, they encompassed it.
Granger would be leaving Africa in four days. If Draco didn't go… he wouldn't likely ever see her again.
But if he was honest with himself, late at night when the self-loathing encroached again, he didn't want to go. She was being nice. She had no interest in getting to know him. It wouldn't be worth it.
He had left England for a reason. He never thought he would miss London, with its long days of dreary downpours. But yet...
He had deliberately chosen this life; for so long he had basked in the simplicity of it.
And if he went back now… there would be no quiet escape this time.
Draco paced through the grasses, observing her camp from a safe distance. They had built a fire, the sparks crackling and dancing merrily in the sky above. He could hear laughter; perhaps it was a celebration of sorts.
He wondered what Granger was doing. If their expedition was going well.
If she had, even once, thought of him.
Despite himself and all the warning bells chiming deep within his animal psyche, Draco crept closer to the camp. He crouched on his haunches, camouflaged in the tall grasses and the fading dusk light.
Through the wild cacophony of scents and noises, Draco located Granger's citrusy-floral scent. Cursing himself, and wondering whether this counted as stalking – given he was, quite literally, stalking – Draco approached what he surmised to be Granger's tent.
He lifted a paw, meaning to scratch at the door, then hesitated. It hadn't been two weeks – maybe she only wanted to see him when they were leaving? Perhaps she didn't really want to spend time with him otherwise.
He dropped the paw, about to turn and slink back into the darkness, when the entrance to her tent swung open.
Granger stood there, her eyes wide in surprise; her brown curls were relaxed into waves, wet from a shower.
Draco took a hesitant step back from the door, then another, his large eyes meeting hers.
"Malfoy, wait," she breathed, her voice soft. "Did you want to come in?"
Draco merely stared at her, pawing at the ground, anxious. Granger held the flap to her tent open and Draco crept inside.
"I didn't know whether I'd see you again," Granger said, wringing her hands as she followed him into the tent. She hesitated then said, flushing, "I'm glad you've come back."
Impulsively, Draco turned into his human form, raising an eyebrow as he looked around Granger's deluxe tent. He had been making an effort to keep better care of his personal hygiene and he was suddenly glad for it.
"To be honest, I didn't think I was going to," he admitted. He fell silent for a long moment, clenching his jaw. "For twenty years, I've been… content. I haven't missed England, haven't missed my old life… I haven't wanted for anything."
He fell silent, pressing his lips together. Granger was gazing at him, something akin to sympathy in the furrow of her brow.
"And now…" she prompted. A tense, heavy silence fell between them.
"And now," Draco continued, "I don't know what to think." As an afterthought, he added, "I don't mean to intrude."
"You haven't intruded," Granger said with a dismissive wave. "They're celebrating because we've completed the project early. They'll be packing everything up and returning to England come first light."
"You're leaving already?" Draco asked, wishing he hadn't sounded so urgent.
"I thought I might stay a few extra days," Granger said with a noncommittal shrug. Her lips curved into a smile. "Maybe take in a safari."
Draco snickered. "I could take you on a better one." He sobered. "Were you staying longer to wait for me?"
"Yes," Granger said baldly. "I told you two weeks." She flushed, looking away. "I didn't want to break my word. You know… if you did decide you wanted to come back."
"I don't know what to think, Granger," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "I don't even know how to exist in that life anymore. That stifling, demanding, soul-draining life."
"Nothing says it would have to be like it was before," she breathed, quietly. "You could make a fresh start."
Draco fell silent, staring blankly at a rich tapestry hanging on the wall of her tent; golds and oranges and greens swirled together. It reminded him of the savanna.
"Why are you doing this, Granger?" he asked, his brow furrowed. "I made your school years miserable."
"Because," she said, folding her arms. Draco could sense the way her flippancy sought to conceal her nerves. "Because in your pain, your loss – in your uncertainty and doubts… I recognize myself."
It was as if he had bared himself wide open, his shields obliterated. As if she saw through him, paper-thin as he was, the way her brown eyes penetrated his own.
There was nothing left of him. Nothing the harshness of the grasslands hadn't torn apart, hadn't eroded over the years, bit by bit. Nothing left of the Draco Malfoy who had paraded about as if the world owed him; the Draco Malfoy who had believed himself superior. Who had ultimately been faced with so many hard lessons, and had been found wanting. Every damn time.
He felt like he was choking; it was a physical, rending agony. Granger didn't look away.
"Can I show you?" he gasped, holding her gaze as if it were his lifesource. He cleared his throat. "I want to show you my home. Sod your blasted safari."
The tinkle of her laughter was a lightning bolt to his heart.
"Okay," she agreed, smiling. "I'd like that."
Draco's breath caught on a sharp exhale of relief. "We could walk, or…" he paused, rolling his eyes. "I can't support your weight, unless you cast a feather-light charm."
"I imagine you'd be very uncomfortable with a passenger," she said, lips curving into a smile.
"Probably," he said with a smirk, "but we'll cover more ground that way."
"How fast do you run?" she breathed, her eyes lighting up.
"Fast." He smiled, flashing his teeth.
"Have you got a wand, by the way?" Granger questioned.
"I think so," Draco replied, rubbing the back of his head absently. "I buried it under a tree, twenty years ago. Presumably it's still there."
"Okay," Granger said, shaking her head gently. She cast the feather-light charm on herself. "Let's go."
"You're going to want to put your hair back, I should think," Draco murmured in a low voice, some long-dead part of him leaping to life with anticipation. "And… you'll need to hang on tight."
Granger nodded, her eyes wide as she tied her hair into a messy bun.
Draco met her eyes, biting his lower lip around a grin, and transitioned. He felt Granger settle onto his back, her legs pressing into his sides, but he couldn't feel the weight of her. He turned his head to peer at her and huffed a laugh at her bright expression.
She laid her hands on the muscles of his neck as Draco nudged his way through the door of her tent. He tried to roll his eyes.
Cautiously, he paced to the edge of the campsite. He tensed his haunches, alerting Granger to the fact that he was about to take off. She was going to wish she held on a lot tighter.
With his first steps, accelerating into a run, Granger screamed and threw her arms around his chest, dropping her face closer to the fur on the back of his neck. Draco barked a laugh and she swatted him.
He could feel the tension dissolve from her body as he reached a sprint and she realized she wasn't going to fall off. Then she looked up, watching sideways as he ran, her fingers absently twisting in his fur.
When Draco made his first stop, at his favourite stream, near his beloved mutuba tree, Granger's hair was disheveled, moisture was streaming from her eyes, but she met him with the most beautiful smile he could have imagined.
"It's brilliant, isn't it?" she gasped, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Brilliant," Draco agreed. "I was lucky, that my animal form was a cheetah."
"I always wanted to become an Animagus," Granger admitted. "I suppose I just never found the time."
"Find the time," Draco said sincerely, imploring. He gestured to the mutuba tree. "That's where my wand is buried. My favourite tree." He strolled toward the stream, smirking, acting as a tour guide. "Sometimes I catch fish in this stream."
Granger oohed and ahhed as they went. He pointed out the animals that were still out, late at night, as a blanket of stars took over the inky blackness of the sky.
"There will be more out, tomorrow," he said, glancing her way. "You know, if you wanted to come back."
"Absolutely," she breathed.
"Come on," Draco said, meeting her gaze again. "More to see."
He took her to see his favourite parts of the savanna, places where significant memories had occurred. And he realized, after so many years, how the grasslands really had become his extended home.
If this was to be his last night here, Draco could think of no better way to say goodbye.
"Here," he said, transforming at their final stop, "is the highest point for hundreds of kilometres in all directions." He shoved his hands into his pockets atop the hill. "You can see most of the savanna… and I like to think the stars are brightest here."
He sat down, folding his legs as he picked absently at the long grasses. Granger sat down beside him, her eyes sparkling with joy and exhilaration.
"This is wonderful," she murmured. She paused, deep in thought. "My life gets so chaotic – I always forget to take time to simply relax." She leaned back on the palms of her hands, gazing up at the night sky.
"I'm good for that," Draco said, inspecting his nails. "I do a lot of lounging." Then he grinned, turning on the ground to face her. "Do you stargaze?"
"I like to," Granger said, making a face. "It's hard, in London. Too much light pollution."
"Right," Draco said with a grimace. "It's one of the things I liked about living at the Manor, near Wiltshire. I could always see the stars, if I ventured far enough into the grounds, away from the estate and the out-buildings."
"Are you nervous?" Granger breathed. "Is that why you don't want to go back?"
"Of course I'm nervous," he said with a chuckle. "I feel like…" he paused, his eyes following the familiar constellations. "I feel like a different person. Like I don't remember who I was. As if I'm watching an old memory of someone else's life, only it's mine."
Draco blinked, startled, as Granger dropped a hand on his knee. "You are a different person." Swallowing, Draco put a hand atop hers; she twisted hers to entwine their fingers. "We all are. No one came out of the war unchanged."
Draco frowned, absently tracing patterns on the back of her hand.
"Let's not talk about it right now," Granger said quietly, tugging on his hand. "Show me your favourites?"
"Right," Draco said. He released her hand and lay back, the whisper of a light breeze fluttering through the grasses a soothing murmur to his soul. Granger lay beside him; she met his gaze and he could see the facets of her eyes in the moonlight.
He pointed out several constellations, and as Granger crept nearer to follow his vantage point, Draco found himself increasingly distracted. He could feel the warmth of her body – smell her bright, citrus scent.
Granger was almost pressed against him – by Merlin she was beautiful – and Draco slung an arm around her shoulders and back, drawing her nearer. Instantly, she cuddled into his chest, twisting her legs around his. Draco blinked, letting out a long breath. His heart was racing and he was certain she could feel it.
"Thank you," she murmured, her voice thick with exhaustion, and Draco realized her eyes were closed.
"Likewise," Draco whispered. His brow furrowed as he gazed at her, his sudden and unexpected saviour, and within moments, her breathing normalized with the heavy tug of sleep.
Releasing a sharp exhale, Draco pressed a soft kiss to her hair, before allowing sleep to take him as well.
Draco blinked into awareness with the rising sun. It took the entirety of the listless moment between sleep and wakefulness to realize Granger was in his arms, her face pillowed on his chest.
Some small part of him had suspected their night spent exploring the savanna together had been a dream, disappointing in its spurious nature.
She stirred, disturbed by his movements, and she blinked, twice, as her eyes met his. Draco froze, awaiting the moment when she would pull away.
"Good morning," she said, her fingers absently twisting in the hair at the back of his neck. "I had a nice time last night. Thank you for showing me your home."
"Thanks for coming with me," Draco intoned softly, giving her a cheeky grin to mask his nerves. He traced her cheekbone with his fingertips, his skin tingling at the contact. He tilted his head, gazing at her. "But as much as I've come to love it here… this isn't my home. Not truly."
Granger's sharp intake of breath was audible.
"I'm going back to England," Draco continued on, swallowing. "That is, if you'll still have me."
"Absolutely," she breathed, and the burning brightness of the sun had nothing on the sparkle in her eyes. She smiled widely and Draco found himself without words. "The Portkey is back at camp, and we'll have to pick up your wand. And of course…" Her expression turned coy. "I was promised a proper safari with daytime animals."
"Whatever you like," Draco murmured, smirking. He gave her hip a squeeze, running a hand along her side and back. His heart was beating through his chest. He breathed, "Get up then. We're wasting daylight."
She laughed, nuzzling his chest for a moment before jumping up. He grinned and followed her.
Draco took a fortifying breath, reaching deep for faith, and trust, and some sort of crazy, intuitive belief that things could be better. Would be better.
Draco swallowed, meeting her warm gaze as he bared his soul. "I might need your help."
"You'll have it."
She was so damn pretty, and Draco believed her.
And he found he wasn't afraid.