Disclaimer: Characters and places belong to J.K. Rowling. Everything apart from the plot, basically.
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A/N: Yes, this is it. This is the LAST chapter.
It's been a very worthwhile fifteen weeks – more than that, since I started writing a few weeks before I began uploading. But fifteen weeks of diligently putting up one chapter every week. And longer chapters than ever before, mind. And I always – apart from one or two occasions when the gods of the internet crapped in my lasagne, or to put it another way, my computer had problems, I did it. Every Tuesday night. Which is quite an achievement, for me – considering I have a complete lack of discipline.
Of course, you shouldn't imagine I did it all myself. Thanks are due to many, many people: Orchid, who is an angel at making significant adjustments that simply bring it to life in a very vivid way – without her it would never have been as good as it is – and at betaing on very short notice. Sophie, whose nagging to write and readiness to beta – even when I give her the chapter the morning before it's due up – are an inspiration, especially when she surreptitiously betas the fic in Maths lessons(and apologies, Sophie, for the part in this chapter that gave you near-hysterics in the middle of the lesson!) Simrun, for not being an official beta at first but stealing the printouts whether I liked it or not, scribbling 'J'aime beaucoup!' and 'Awwwwwww!' all over the pages, and racing out of the room screaming in the middle of chapter 11. And last but not least, to Lou – my Weasley Twin! – for being a muse in times of crisis, forcing me to believe in myself, and always being willing to discuss parts with me when I needed to discuss them.
And of course, thanks also go to YOU, my wonderful readers and reviewers: for your excitement, enthusiasm, constructive criticism and support; for bringing a smile to my face at 7:15 am on a freezing Wednesday morning when I go to check my reviews, and giving me more confidence and self-belief than ever before.
With the thanks out of the way, it's time to talk about the future, because if you think I'm going away you must be mad! I still have my book-length fic to come, remember? I'm hoping for Fallen to be out shortly after the New Year; the plotline is rapidly nearing completion – it's much more complex than anything else I've ever written – and I've already begun writing. It's going to be better than all my previous fanfictions rolled into one! So look out for it: D/Hr, with a subplot of H/G.
With all that said… onto the last chapter. Enjoy!
The common room was no less empty when Hermione returned; although the fires were burning low, their light ruddy and flickering, and the clock on the wall showed that it was almost half past ten. Some students had gone to bed already, but the majority stayed in the richly coloured room, curled on the sofas and chairs, chattering and laughing together. It was the last day of the weekend, and they were all determined to squeeze every precious minute of free time out of the day before the Monday morning came.
Hermione looked over to the place where she'd last seen Ron. He was still there, reading an old, battered book on the Chudley Cannons. He'd read it so often by now that he could probably recite it all from memory, she reflected, but a second look suggested that he wasn't reading at all. The book was open, but his eyes weren't focused on the pages, and he was frowning slightly as though lost in thought.
A spattering of poorly concealed whispers broke out around her as she crossed the room, heading for Ron. She heard the words 'Draco Malfoy' and 'kissing', and realised that the rumours must have spread to the Gryffindors already. She simply chose to ignore them. Squeezing past the gawking Lavender and Parvati, Hermione made her way to Ron's corner and sat down on the couch beside him. He didn't look up; didn't appear to even notice her.
He started. 'Hermione! Honestly, warn me next time you do that, you'll give me a heart attack!'
Hermione laughed a little at his expression. 'I doubt it,' she said, before sobering up. Closing her eyes, she could still see Harry's face as it had been in the Hospital wing: pale skinned, a long scratch above one eyebrow that hadn't healed yet, his deep green eyes almost black, frighteningly hollow. If she opened them, she knew what she'd see: Ron leaning forward, head bent, anxiety and worry reverberating through his dark eyes. Why was it all so difficult?
'I… I spoke to Harry,' she told him, opening her eyes, and Ron looked up. She met his gaze for a moment – his eyes brimmed with fear and hope – then looked away again. 'He… he told me… what happened. Bellatrix. And then…'
'What he did to me?' His voice was smooth, and in no way bitter or angry. If anything, it was sad. Hermione nodded her reply, bit her lip, and spoke again.
'Are you angry at him?' she asked tentatively. 'Because if you are…'
'I'm not,' he interrupted shortly. 'I should be, perhaps.'
'You'd have a right to be.' Hermione shuddered. 'That curse…'
Ron shook his head, and leaned backwards to rest on the soft, padded sofa back. He turned his face towards Hermione. 'I know. It was…' Breaking off, he shook his head, and Hermione didn't press for any details. 'But… you didn't see what he was like. He was… insane. I mean it. It was…' He looked away, a hard knot in is throat.. 'Scary.'
'I meant what I said. He was insane, Hermione, completely… He wasn't even thinking. Just doing whatever his anger made him do. I've never seen anyone that angry.'
Hermione nodded slowly, mulling this over. 'So you aren't angry?'
'No.' Ron sighed, lacing his fingers and resting his forehead in them, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. 'I can't hate him, Hermione. I can't be angry. He's my best friend. Think of everything he's been through… I can't even begin to imagine all that. It's a wonder he doesn't flip more often, or go around in some kind of depression and try to slit his wrists all the time. But Harry, he bottles things up... everything up. She was taunting him, Hermione.'
Ron choked at the memory; he looked up, resting his chin in his hands, his eyes somehow begging Hermione to understand what he was trying to say. 'He just blew, he lost control... I can't be angry at him; I just couldn't, even if I wanted to be. I forgive him,' he finished with a strange half-smile. Hermione was watching him closely,
'You're a good friend Ron,' she said quietly, her face completely serious. Ron shrugged his shoulders in a tiny gesture, as though it wasn't true and wouldn't matter even if it were. 'Really,' Hermione said, and when Ron ventured a small smile, she returned it with one of her own and a sudden quick hug. 'I'm glad,' she added. 'Because Harry was… awful. Really guilty, really miserable… He wouldn't tell me at first. But then when I told him about… Draco and I, you know… He kind of…'
She paused, searching for the right word. 'I don't know. He was really angry about it, anyway, and then he just froze with this absolute look of pure horror, and then said I should do what I wanted. So I asked what had happened, and he… he said it was like what happened with you, that he'd felt like that again…'
Ron shuddered, running one slightly shaking hand through his hair. 'Again? There'd better not be a third time…'
Hermione nodded an agreement, and a new silence fell over them, less tense than before yet still edgy. A few second-years filed past, whispering and pointing at Hermione as they passed, their eyes wide. Rumours again. Well, she'd known what she was getting into when she and Draco agreed to tell the school… She gave the children a warm smile, then her face fell; it produced nothing but another outbreak of whispers.
Sighing, she turned her eyes back to Ron, and fidgeting nervously said, 'Look… You should go and talk to Harry now. Madam Pomfrey…'
He cut her off by shaking his head vehemently. 'No. I'm not going.'
'I just… I don't want to go, alright? It's too awkward...'
Hermione tried to reason with him. 'I know it's awkward, but you need to get it over with. Harry's really, really miserable, you know. He needs to know that you forgive him.'
'No, he'd just…'
'Yes he does.' Hermione said firmly, not letting him finish his sentence. 'He's suffering and he's miserable and hurt inside, he even said himself that he thinks you hate him, and if you don't go…'
'I can't go.' Ron said gloomily, shaking his head. 'You weren't there after… after it happened. He was really, really, really guilty, and just looking at me… You could see it, it hurt him even more. I imagine the last person he wants to see now is me.'
'It would hurt him to see you.' Hermione said softly, making no attempt to deny it. 'And he probably doesn't want to see you. But you have to go anyway. Because until you go and talk to him and tell him that it's okay, he's going to be lying there, alone, guilty and miserable, hating himself for what he's done… And it'll hurt a little more to see you, but after you tell him you forgive him he'll feel better! I just want him to feel better…'
Her voice, which had been growing in both volume and expression, dropped again at the end, and a troubled look passed over her face. It was this, more than her arguments, that decided Ron; clearly Hermione would carry on worrying until he and Harry sorted the whole thing out.
'I'll go,' he sighed. 'I don't want to, and it'll be horrible and awkward, but I'll go.'
Relief broke across her face. 'Oh, Ron, thanks, I know Harry will…'
Ron nodded, tried to grin – which felt as though his jaw had been shattered into pieces – and stood up. 'Bye then.' He mumbled, ignoring her continuing stream of enthusiastic thanks, and set off before he could lose his nerve.
Every step had been harder than the one before. The corridors were empty now, as everyone celebrated their narrow escape in their common rooms. Ron saw no one but portraits and ghosts. Every step away from Gryffindor tower, every step towards the Hospital wing, towards Harry, made the journey more and more stupid. Twice he stopped, afraid of what would happen, and had to force himself to go on.
It wasn't that he didn't want to see Harry. Ron did; he was well aware of how miserable his friend would be, and wanted to reassure Harry that he forgave him. But Ron couldn't help but remember Harry's face as it had been after duelling Bellatrix; it had hurt Harry to even look at him. Because he, Ron, was a walking reminder of what Harry had done.
And now he was standing in the middle of the Hospital Wing, scraping the edge of his shoe along the ground and about to have one of the most awkward conversations of his life.
Madam Pomfrey came bustling up from the curtained bed where he knew Harry was lying. 'Alright, Mr. Weasley,' she addressed him with her usual beaming expression, 'I can give you fifteen minutes, but no more.'
Ron nodded dumbly. Fifteen minutes… they'd last an eternity.
'Well, go on then.' Madam Pomfrey said, and Ron realised he'd been staring blankly at the floor, almost in a trance. 'You haven't got all day.'
Ron nodded, briefly, and shuffled unwillingly towards the bed. He could already see, in his mind, Harry's face: twisted and hurt at the mere sight of him, the reminder… Would Harry ever be able to look at him again without flinching at the memory?
The hangings loomed before him, seeming almost menacing, the final, thin barrier between himself and Harry. They were half open on one side, and a straight-backed, angular chair awaited him. Tentatively, eyes fixed on the intricate cracks in the stone paving, Ron slid up to the chair and sat down, facing the bed, facing Harry – but not looking up, fixing his eyes firmly on the floor.
A moment passed, and nothing happened. Filled with an ominous dread, Ron raised his eyes to Harry's face.
He was lying in the bed, flat on his back, straight and stiff and so still that for one horrible moment Ron thought he was dead, before he saw the minute rise-and-fall of his ribcage. Harry was staring straight upwards, his face emotionless, staring blankly at the ceiling high above him. Ron's mouth felt as dry and gritty as sand, he sucked in a deep breath, summoning all his nerve.
'Harry?' he asked hesitantly. There was no response, not a movement, not a sign, and Ron began to pale. This was worse than he'd imagined; guilt, pain, horror, misery Ron had expected, but not this simple blankness, as though Harry was in some kind of trance. 'Harry?' he asked again almost desperately.
Harry's voice was soft when he did speak, so soft that Ron could barely hear it. 'You shouldn't have come…'
'Yes I should.' Ron asserted, even though he himself had been thinking the same thing only seconds earlier. Harry's behaviour had shaken him. 'Harry, don't act like…'
'Go.' It was barely louder then the whispering rustle of the leaves outside. 'Just go…'
'You don't have to say anything.' His façade was breaking, now; his voice cracked, and Ron saw one hand shake where it lay upon the blanket. 'I know you hate me. I know that. You don't have to say it. You don't have to speak to me ever again. It was my fault, all my fault, and I don't have any excuse for… for doing that. Just… just go…'
Ron couldn't speak for a moment. 'Harry, don't say that, none of it's true. I don't hate you. I never have…'
'Don't try to make me feel better.' This was hissed, but not in anger; it was almost as if Harry was in pain. His eyes closed, screwed up tightly, and he bit his lip. 'It won't work. I know what you think, don't try to lie…'
'I'm not lying!' Ron shouted this, and had to take a deep breath before speaking again, reminding himself that he was in the Hospital Wing and didn't particularly want Madam Pomfrey bursting in on this conversation. He lowered his voice, keeping the emphatic tone. 'I'm not lying. I don't hate you, Harry. I don't. I mean it.'
Harry didn't speak again, and a tense silence fell over the two, so thick and oppressive that it seemed to crush the whole world down to just the two of them, just this corner enclosed by thick drapes, these actions, these words. Everything stood out sharply, more defined; the abnormally quick breathing of Harry, the way Ron picked nervously at the fraying edge of his robe, the soft sheen of the bed's hangings, the crumples in Harry's pillows, the angular lines of the chair. And above all, the feeling as though the air had turned to thick oil, the heaviness and weight in everything, rich and syrupy and dark.
Harry's whispered words broke the silence like a knife tearing through silk. Ron looked up.
'Why don't I hate you?' Ron paused, trying to phrase his answer. 'I don't… I don't know why not. I'm… hell, Harry, I'm more scared than angry. I…'
'Don't be scared.' Harry interrupted, speaking quickly. 'Don't me. I'm not… I won't let myself do that again. Hurt… hurt anyone… I won't.'
'I'm not scared you'll hurt me,' Ron clarified slowly, forehead creasing as he tried to figure out how to say what he meant to say. 'I'm scared… for you, I guess. Because you… because it hurts you. Because it makes you…'
'Hate myself,' Harry finished, his voice flat. Ron shuddered and nodded, although Harry couldn't have seen; he was still staring at the ceiling.
'Don't hate yourself.' Ron found himself saying, without having even thought it. He struggled to explain. 'Don't. Because… because… you just shouldn't. I know you, Harry. You're a good person at heart, you just… lost it for a minute.'
Harry was silent, then a sharp and strangely humourless smile curled his lips, but not his eyes; his eyes were as hollow and empty as ever. 'Strange. You can forgive me for hurting you, but I can't forgive myself…'
'You should. You must.' Ron begged, feeling on the verge of hysteria. 'Otherwise it'll hurt you, for ages and ages…'
Harry's voice was dusky, dark. 'Maybe I deserve that pain… It's only fair…'
'No!' Ron was surprisingly vehement. 'You only… did that to me for a minute, two at most. That's nothing. You'll be hurting about it for months, because you're too stubborn to forgive anyone, including yourself, and that's not fair. You've suffered enough, Harry, please just don't let this add to everything. You don't need any more pain, you've got enough. I forgive you. You have to... you have to … forgive yourself.' Ron came to the end of his speech and found himself almost wondering what he'd just said; certainly he had ranted too much…
'I'll try.' Harry cut in, taking a breath that sounded painful. 'I'll try… because you want me to. But it won't be easy. I might not be able to…'
'You will. You can.' Ron said firmly his knuckles white, as his fingers clenched the edges of his seat tightly.. 'It'll take some time, but… you will. And… Friends again?'
Harry seemed to pause, as if not understanding the question, then he turned towards Ron and leant on one elbow – looking at his friend for the first time in that conversation – and smiled, a real smile, not yet strong, or free from pain, but warm and genuine. It made Ron smile back, in a rush of joy – it proved that Harry was okay. 'Friends.' Harry said definitely, before letting himself fall back into his pillows, his attitude no longer rigid and tense but relaxed and normal, his eyes closed. 'Friends.'
Ron felt like something that had been curled horribly inside him for the past days had suddenly disappeared. He knew that the issue wasn't gone entirely, it probably never would be, but it had been tackled, and they were going to be alright. He grinned, and changed the subject.
They discussed the latest events with Hermione and Draco for five minutes: trading their best Malfoy insults for the majority of it - it was doubtful Hermione would appreciate them anymore. Neither of them liked the development much, but they agreed that as Hermione ought to be trusted they'd give Malfoy a trial, and wait to see whether he'd actually be decent or whether something more sinister was going on before doing anything. Then Madam Pomfrey came, telling them that their time was up.
Ron left with a grin and a promise to return tomorrow.
The corridors were filled with students, in clumps of twos and threes, making their way down to breakfast on the bright, cold Monday morning. The general air was one of rejoicing, which even the prospect of lessons couldn't diminish; not so soon after their escape from Voldemort's clutches. Laughter rang out around every corner, as the students joked and chattered.
Where people weren't laughing, they were whispering, passing on the latest rumour, discussing it in such detail and at such length that the whole school buzzed with the news. Half the students didn't believe it. After all, Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger? Pureblood Slytherin and Muggleborn Gryffindor? Together? It couldn't be – but why, said the others, were there all these rumours then? Surely there wouldn't be such a vast range of rumours – some ridiculous, some plausible – if there wasn't some truth in it somewhere…
The rumours were many and varied. 'Malfoy and Hermione were kissing in the Library. No, I heard it was more than that… and not just in the Library, the Astronomy Tower too! Do you think they're in love? Yes, no, maybe… I think that Malfoy raped Hermione and got her pregnant, so they're pretending they're in love for the baby's sake. You think? Maybe she is pregnant, but not by rape… No, Hermione's too sensible to get pregnant. Probably none of it's true… I bet Hermione's gone over to You-Know-Who's side. What? Rubbish!'
Draco Malfoy, leaning casually against a pillar just outside the Great Hall, found himself rather amused by the wild rumours. He didn't mind them; on the contrary, he found them entertaining. Of course; he and Hermione had decided that the whole school should know, that they shouldn't make a secret of it. Which was bound to cause controversy and rumours, neither of which were that bad. So he resigned himself to maintaining his casual stance against the pillar, listening into the hisses and whispers with an amused quirk at one corner of his mouth.
Most were simply comical - Hermione joining Voldemort, for example. He tried to conjure up the image of Hermione torturing someone at wandpoint, a Dark Mark on her arm and a sadistic glitter in her eyes, and despite the horror of the image he had to snort. It was like imagining Voldemort kissing babies and giving money to charity.
A group of Hufflepuff second years walked past, staring at him with a whisper of, 'Look – it's him!' Draco arched an eyebrow at them and turned his eyes back to the stairs, ignoring the Hufflepuffs as they shuffled past him into the Hall. He wondered why she was taking so long coming…
And at last, there she was: Hermione, rounding the curve of the stairs, one hand resting lightly on the rail. In front of her, turning his head to share a comment with his friends, was Weas– Ron, Draco reminded himself. And behind Hermione… that would be the reason for her lateness; Harry Potter was trailing down the stairs, hands in pockets and slouched gloomily. Perhaps he and Ron were still fighting? But no – Hermione didn't look sad in any way, and Draco's observant eyes noted the worried glance Ron gave to Harry, the quirk at Harry's lips that turned into a hopeful, wan smile. Friends again, then, but something was still wrong.
The trio reached the bottom of the stairs and turned to cross the floor to the doors of the Great Hall. Draco saw Hermione's eyes quickly scan the room, looking, until they came to meet his own gaze. Their eyes fixed for a moment; Draco felt his lips curve a little, and Hermione's mirrored the movement.
She turned to Harry and Ron, and spoke: her voice was distant and hard to hear, but he could make it out. 'You two wait here a minute, would you? Draco and I… we're going to go in together.'
Here the boys glanced up, and frowned when they saw Draco, who simply gave them a polite smile and a nod. They turned back to Hermione frowning. 'Are you sure about this?' asked Harry quietly, running a hand through his hair and shooting a quick suspicious glance at Draco.
'Positive,' she replied, giving them both a bright smile. 'Just give us a minute, alright?'
Harry and Ron's misgivings were obvious on their faces as Hermione turned away, but Draco wasn't paying attention to them, he was focused on her. On Hermione, who was walking towards him, beaming happily
'Hi,' she said, coming to stand beside him. 'Have you heard the rumours?'
'How could I miss them?' Draco pointed out. 'My favourite is the one where you've joined Voldemort, for the sheer hilarity value.'
She snorted. 'I hate that one. The one where we've been secretly meeting for years after falling in love in a tragic Romeo and Juliet style's quite funny, though…'
'You would like that one.' Draco said with a trace of disgust in his voice. 'Can you imagine me as a Romeo? He was a complete Gryffindor-esque idiot. No cunning, no tact, completely reckless…'
'Hey,' she chided him, scowling playfully 'That's my house you're talking about, remember.'
'Believe me, Hermione, I only carry on because if I didn't, pigs would sprout wings and fly away, causing havoc to the agricultural industry and major economical decline, not to mention damning the world to the terrible tragedy of no more bacon or pork sausages ever. It is for the breakfasting habits of millions of Britons that I continue to be an insulting, annoying git, however much it pains me to do so.'
Hermione, to her credit, did try very hard not to laugh out loud, but it was impossible and she ended up spluttering into her hand. 'Draco! Honestly, you're completely incorrigible…' she told him firmly, once she'd gotten her breath back. Draco simply grinned.
'I know,' he informed her, and then changed the subject. 'I see those two have made up?' he remarked, with a glance in Ron and Harry's direction. They were standing, rather awkwardly, in the middle of the hall, talking about something and barely moving their eyes from the corner in which Draco and Hermione stood.
'Yes. Ron went to talk to Harry last night, and it's all sorted out. I think it's still a little awkward between them, but…' Hermione shrugged.
'What happened?' asked Draco. 'Do you know?'
'Yes…' Hermione admitted, adding. 'But I don't think I should tell you… Oh, don't look like that,' she told him, seeing his look of reproach, 'it's not because it's you, it's because Harry would probably hate me forever if you knew. It'd be kind of like…' – she dropped her voice – 'me telling them about you and… and Ceros…'
He paused a moment, a breath caught in his throat, then nodded. 'Alright. I won't ask…'
'Thanks.' Hermione smiled, a happy, warm smile, and without another word wrapped her arms around him, bending her head a little to rest on his chest. It surprised Draco for a moment, but then he willingly returned it, tangling one hand in her hair, the other at her waist. It felt… so strange, but so natural as well. How long had it been? Only days, though it felt like forever.
And even if it felt strange and unusual, insane even to be feeling these things, doing these things, it didn't matter, because it also felt right. And he realised: in the end, that was all that mattered.
She looked up at him, smiling, and spoke, 'Should we go in now?'
'Of course.' he agreed, and with Ron and Harry following behind, he and Hermione walked through the door, hand in hand, to face the reactions of the students, the teachers, and ultimately, perhaps the world. Together.
A/N: So there you go: that was it. Time to take my final bows, thank you all for reading, and remind you as I step off the stage; for the final time, REVIEW!