It had been fortunate that when Harry, Ron, Draco and Hermione had arrived in the entrance hall, they'd slammed down amidst a group of some two dozen or so students, fifth-year and above, who'd flatly refused to be shooed off to their dorms. Most of them had fought in the massive battle the year before, and now all of them were bound and determined to defend their school against whatever danger threatened it. Neville had been among them, had been at Hermione's side in an instant, and had known what to do. His innate modesty notwithstanding, Neville at seventeen was easily as competent in life-saving magic as the school's mediwitch- who was, at the moment, upstairs in the hospital wing, presiding over a ward full of hysterical younger students, some of whom had mild injuries from the stampeding of the Haunted House when the alarm had gone off, and many more who were simply distraught. Obviously, Hermione's case would have taken precedence had Madam Pomfrey been aware of it- but she was not aware of it.
No matter, though... Neville had seized control, and now, several moments and one hell of an awesome display of magical power later-
Hermione twisted from her back onto her side, coughing violently. She couldn't seem to get a deep breath; her throat felt like it was burning, and on top of that there was a vile, murky taste in her mouth that made her gag and retch. She was freezing, and was marginally aware of being wrapped in something cold and wet that was clinging to her, restricting her ability to move, especially her legs. Curling into a ball on her side, she finally managed a deep, hitching breath, and then spat, trying to get that foul taste out of her mouth.
Only then did she become aware that there were people all around her, and that she seemed to be inside- perhaps in the castle's entrance hall, judging by the smooth flagstones beneath her. She found this mildly surprising for some reason... she had expected to find herself outside- but why? And then it all came back in a rush; Lucius, and... the lake, oh God, the lake. She attempted to push herself into a sitting position and felt two pairs of arms come out to steady her- then she was being drawn in between two large, warm, solid, familiar-smelling bodies sitting on the floor; Harry and Ron. As their arms encircled her, she let her head fall forward onto the nearest shoulder- Ron's, she thought, but wasn't sure; everything was still a cold, wet blur to her- assuming that it was, indeed, Ron she was facing, that meant it was Harry leaning into her from behind, pressing himself against her, trying to give her some of his warmth.
There were voices now. Or rather, there had been voices since she'd first regained consciousness, but she was now beginning to make sense of them; to pick out words amongst the babble.
"-freezing. Harry, she's shaking. We've got to her out of this-" Ron.
"-run up and get her some of my robes-" Lavender.
"-stupid, Brown, it'll take you a bloody half hour to get back here with all those damn stairs... the dungeons are much closer; I'll go." Pansy.
This last was followed by the sound of footsteps hurrying away. Then-
"-Hermione. Can you hear me? Say something, love." Harry.
She dragged her arms up- they felt like lead- and wrapped them around whoever it was that was holding her upright... she was growing increasingly convinced that it was Ron, though by no means positive; she had yet to open her eyes. She did not attempt to speak, though. She didn't feel ready for that. For the moment, she just wanted to be held, to be warmed. Also, she wanted Draco. His voice was missing, she realized.
Where was Draco?
Her teeth began to chatter.
The sound of running footsteps heralded Pansy's return some moments later. Hermione was aware of jostling as the Slytherin girl shoved her way unceremoniously through the crowd of gawkers that had surrounded the trio on the floor, Millicent right behind her, shouting now in her big booming voice for everyone to get back, just get the hell back and give the girl some bloody room, for Merlin's sake.
Hermione wondered foggily just what it was she'd disliked for so long about these Slytherins.
She felt herself being pulled away from Harry and Ron- she tried to cling to them, needing their solidity, needing their warmth- but to no avail. The hands that were on her now were smaller, feminine; and they were gentle, but also insistent.
"It's all right," Pansy said in her ear as she finally opened her eyes, blinking hard... but was unable to achieve any kind of focus. "We're just going to help you out of your wet clothes. Won't take a minute."
Above her, Millicent was shooing Harry and Ron back, and calling on all the girls present to gather around, forming a sort of human shield against male eyes as Pansy and... was that Ginny who'd pushed through?- she thought she could make out a splash of bright red hair- began peeling the cold, wet, dirty sheet off of her.
Pansy had apparently brought a towel too, for in the next instant she was being given a quick yet thorough rubbing down (as Millicent, standing guard above her, bellowed menacingly, "Colin Creevey, you nasty little perv, you'd better get that camera out of here right the hell now), then her arms were being pulled upward, above her head, just as if she were two years old, and a blessedly warm, soft garment was being guided over her head and smoothed down her body.
She saw, as her eyes finally came into focus, that it was a heavy, forest-green knit dress with a wide cowl-neck; long, straight, and unembellished, that would just graze the tops of her feet when she stood. It was a type of garment she'd seen many of the pureblooded girls wearing in their leisure time, and she wondered fleetingly whether there was a special term for it, and what its history was. She'd never owned one, nor had any inclination to, as she'd thought they looked far too dressy to be comfortable for lounging about in on weekends, which was how she'd mostly seen them being worn- but she now realized that, whether through the use of magic or simply through good design, those looks had been deceiving. Its elegant appearance aside, the dress fit her like a second skin; it had all the warm comfort of a favorite pair of Muggle sweats.
She made a quick mental note to pick up a few the next time she was in Diagon Alley.
Now her hair was being gathered back into a loose ponytail, deftly secured with what appeared, in the brief glimpse she got out of the corner of her eye, to be a wide green leather band. It occurred to her to be faintly amused that she was now, to all appearances, a perfectly pedigreed, pureblooded princess (there's some alliteration for you, Lav, she thought)... Lucius Malfoy, eat your heart out.
Hermione blinked. "What?"
"I said," Pansy repeated, "do you feel able to stand up now?"
"Oh. Yes, I... I think so."
Pansy and Ginny were helping her up then, and she had a brief moment in which to observe the cadre of sixth and seventh-year girls from various houses- Lavender, Padma, Parvati, Susan, Hannah, Luna, and of course, Millicent- who had circled around to protect her from potentially prying male eyes- and cameras- (that Colin did get a little more creepy with each passing year)- and then Harry and Ron were breaking through the human barricade and sweeping her into a tight three-way embrace once more.
"God, Hermione, we thought-"
"-ever, ever scare us like that again, do you hear me?!?"
Then Neville was there, drawing her gently away and giving her a brief once-over, vanishing the bruises that had been darkening on her throat before declaring her basically all right. The crowd was thinning now; the fifth, sixth and seventh-year students who had been gathered in the entrance hall, ready to defend their school, wandering away in twos and threes as it became apparent that the danger had passed and the only casualty of it had made a full recovery. A moment later, only Harry, Ron, Millicent and Pansy remained.
"Where-" Hermione paused, rallying herself to speak. "What happened to Lucius?"
"We told the professors where to find him," Ron said grimly. "McGonagall said the bodies of the six other convicts have just been discovered- apparently Lucius engineered the whole escape, and brought them with him so that the Ministry, assuming they were looking for seven criminals who'd have scattered in all directions, would spread themselves thin instead of concentrating all their resources on hunting just one man. As soon as the escape was a success, he killed them all; they'd served their purpose. Ingenious, really, in a ruthless, evil way. Snape said he'll be going back to prison, but not Azkaban. A prison for the worst of the worst, deep underground. Under Siberia, actually. I'd never heard of it until tonight."
Hermione's eyes widened. "I've read about that, but I never actually credited it. I thought it was just a myth. There are no first-hand accounts, because... because no one's ever come out alive."
Harry shot Ron a quelling look, then reached out and cupped her cheek. "Let's not dwell on that right now," he said gently. "Are you all right? I mean, really? I think you should go to the hospital wing just to make sure."
"Yeah," Ron put in. He was standing a little off to the side, his arms wrapped around Millicent from behind. "You were- shit, Hermione, you were blue. You weren't breathing." His dark blue eyes were wide, and his arms tightened protectively about his girlfriend as he spoke. Hermione gave a slight smile at this, remembering what Ron had said earlier about being a man in love. They were perfect, Ron and Millie. If anyone had the grit necessary to become a true Weasley woman, she did.
But at the same time, the little display of affection sent an undeniable pang of envy into Hermione's heart. Where was Draco? She'd realized his absence almost immediately, even before she'd opened her eyes. The simple fact was, it was all well and good to be comforted by her friends, but she wanted to be held the way Millicent was being held now... and she wanted Draco to be the one holding her. She'd never even felt Draco's arms around her before, but she wanted them now, desperately.
She felt tears start in her eyes. Why had he abandoned her?
"I'm fine," she said, hating the way her voice was shaking just the smallest bit, because now Harry's green eyes were darkening protectively, and she didn't need that because she was fine, really- physically, at least.
But as for mentally, emotionally... "I just... I need to see Draco." She looked around, from face to face. "Did any of you see where he went?"
For a moment there was silence, then-
"He's outside," Pansy said, her voice sounding uncharacteristically hesitant. "He- he stayed long enough to see that Longbottom had you breathing again, and then he ran. He-" Pansy looked around at the others, then took Hermione by the sleeve and led her a short distance away. "He's scared, Granger," she said quietly. At the incredulous look in Hermione's eyes, the Slytherin girl continued, "he's scared of what almost happened to you- and he blames himself completely- but it's more complex than that. He's scared of what he feels for you; how strong it is."
"He told you that?" Hermione asked, amazed.
Pansy raised an eyebrow. "Not in so many words," she said, rather archly, "but then, he doesn't have to, does he? I know. Does Weasley have to spell it out for you how he feels about Millicent?"
"No," Hermione admitted. "He did, though- but I'd have known even if he hadn't. He's my best friend."
"Exactly," Pansy said. "And you've known him since you were what, eleven? Well, I've known Draco since we were three, so trust me when I tell you I can read him like a book. And what he needs right now is for you to go to him... but trust me also, Granger, when I tell you that I meant what I said before. He's never... he's never cared for anyone romantically before, not like this. He's vulnerable- and if you hurt him, I will rip you to shreds, near-death experience or not."
Hermione couldn't help but smile at this. "I understand, Parkinson," she said. "It's in our nature to be protective of our boys, isn't it?"
Pansy grinned back. "Go on, Granger. I'll run interference with Potter. Speaking of over-protective..."
She found him in the pumpkin patch again. There were far fewer pumpkins out here tonight, many of them having been taken up to the castle as Halloween decorations. Of those that were left, several of the smaller ones had been hollowed out, carved while still on the vine, with lights placed inside that flickered in the night.
He was still in his costume; the white of the painted bones and of his hair against the darkness was how she located him at first. He was standing with his back to her, leaning sideways against the trunk of a tree- the Forbidden Forest crept right up to the edges of the patch- but she could see, even in the nearly complete lack of light, that his arms were crossed over his chest; his whole tightly contained stance screaming to her of the quiet, almost furtive sort of misery she so often caught Harry in when he thought he was alone.
In that moment, as she felt her heart lurch within her chest, she knew that she would spend the rest of her life doing everything in her power to take that misery and guilt away. It killed her when she saw it in Harry, and it was killing her now as well.
As she approached, she had to actively remind herself to address him as-
He turned quickly, startled. And then he had closed the distance between them and engulfed her in his arms all before she had time to do more than draw breath in preparation for... well, for whatever it was she'd been going to say next. It didn't seem important anymore, considering.
Considering who he was. Considering who she was. Considering that they came from worlds that were more than different; they were diametrically, and often violently (as had been amply demonstrated this night) opposed. And considering that it no longer mattered in the least. All that mattered was his arms around her. It felt every bit as right as she had imagined it would.
"I'm sorry," he said into her hair. "I'm sorry, Hermione, I'm so sorry-"
"S'all right," she murmured soothingly, muffled, her face pressed into his chest, her arms coming up to hold him right back. "Its okay, Draco. Everything's fine."
"You weren't breathing." His voice sounded funny- oddly constricted. "You were... God, your lips-" he leaned away from her, took his thumb and ran it gently over them. "And it was all because of me. All my bloody fault."
"Draco, no. You didn't choose the family you were born into, any more than I did, or Harry, or any of us. But you made a choice last year, and it was the right one. And you still haven't gotten around to telling me why you chose the way you did."
"You must know by now. Come on, Granger, you can work through advanced Arithmancy, but you can't figure out something as simple as that? Bollocks. You just want to hear me say it."
She couldn't help it- she laughed out loud. "All right, Malfoy, you win. I just want to hear you say it. Humor me?"
"Fine. You're the reason I switched sides," he said solemnly. "The only reason. I can't even place exactly when I started to feel... differently about you, all I know for sure is that about halfway through sixth year, when both sides were gearing up for war, the Death Eaters approached me about this new plan they had for luring Potter into a trap. It involved... well, it involved you as the bait, and they wanted me to get you out of Hogwarts. It would have earned me my Dark Mark. By the time they spoke to me about it, they had already notified my father, in prison, of the plan. He owled me, ecstatic. It would have been considered an enormous honor for me to have received the Mark when I was sixteen- initiation rites usually take place a year and a day after one's seventeenth birthday. But I knew I couldn't do it, I-" he paused and his arms tightened around her nearly painfully (she thought of Ron and Millie, thought, so this is how it feels)- "I couldn't let that happen to you. So I went to Dumbledore, and I- I switched allegiance. My friends came with me, and I was grateful for that, but I would have done it even alone. And everything I've done since- when I fought alongside Potter, I was fighting for you. Only you. I just made one mistake. I sent my father a letter explaining my actions, and the reason behind them. I reckoned I owed him that much just for being my father- my only remaining parent. And he was serving a life sentence in Azkaban; I never thought-" he broke off. Pressed against him as she was, Hermione thought she felt him shudder. She decided it was time to change the subject.
"Draco- why did you never tell me any of this before?"
He released her then, and turned away, gazing off into the forest once more. For a long moment there was silence, and Hermione began to be afraid that she's said something fatally wrong... though what, she wasn't sure. Before she could ask, he spoke again, but so quietly she had to lean in to hear him.
"I have my pride, Granger. I don't take rejection well. For five years I'd done nothing but give you cause to hate me. I had no reason to suppose that if I told you any of this your reaction would be anything other than complete revulsion. That being the case, I decided it was better to love in silence than be rebuffed."
"Better to... Oh. Oh, my."
Draco turned back toward her, his face hard. But she was beginning, at last, to learn to successfully read him in spite of his formidable defenses... and she knew the hardness was a mask, thrown up in the wake of his admission a second ago, shielding the vulnerability that speaking those words had caused. When he spoke again, his voice was harsh.
"That's right, I bloody well said I love you. Now, if the feeling's not mutual, as I accept is most likely the case, at least have the decency to come out and say it- I do not like being strung along, Granger. Just-" he made an abrupt, unhappy hand gesture. "Just cut me loose, all right?"
She could hardly think of an adequate response to this. The best she could do was, "Never. I will never cut you loose, Draco Malfoy."
And wrapping her arms around him once more, she pulled his head down, hard, and kissed him.
One of his hands tangled in her thick, dark hair and the other moved to press against the small of her back, pulling her in, holding her body against his, and the last thought she had before giving herself over completely to the physicality of the moment was that everything she'd been through this night was worth it- that she'd go through it all again, to discover what she now knew; she was Draco's reason. His only reason.
And from here on out, he'd be hers too.
(A/N: I love completing fics! Okay, I said all this at the very beginning, but once again, this was written for a fic exchange; everyone who participated got to request 3-5 things they wanted included in the plot of a fic, and then the mods assigned each participant someone else's request to fulfill. (And if the plot seemed at all rushed, please bear in mind that these exchanges have time limits; I had about a month in which to write this- normally the writing process is much longer for me.) The request I was assigned asked for the following:
3 - 5 Things you want your gift to include:
a) some inter-House unity
b) setting in 7th year post war
c) a get-together in the great hall that is NOT a Yule-ball formal event type
d) Neville doing a favor to either Draco or Hermione...
e) and lots of glitter, because I like glitter. A light, fun and romantic fic would be nice, but I'm not requiring any moods or anything.
What you don't want your gift to include:
Nothing totally out of character, Draco and Hermione can like each other from the start but they shouldn't be already together, ExtraordinarilyPretty!Hermione
And, I can't resist tooting my own horn just an itsy bit- a vote took place at the end of the exchange and I was granted "honorable mention" (4th place). Now I'm going to say something only once, and be done with it: the person who received my request never turned in my fic, so there was no "exchange" for me- I gave, but didn't receive. She received, but didn't give. I know who it is, and she does have an account here at FFN, but I'm too big a person to name names. However... Naughty, naughty, shame on you.
Many, many thanks to my awesome beta-reader Alex25, who is a wonderful D/Hr writer and I highly recommend her work, including "Not What It Seemed", the fic she wrote for this same exchange.)