A/N: Well, here it is, my darlings. Before you lies the last chapter of Linked. I'm sorry it's taken so long, but the holidays have been hectic, and, to be perfectly honest, I had a really hard time writing this. I don't think I wanted to see it end.
I posted the first chappie of Linked way back in June. At the time, I had never reviewed a HP story or exchanged a single word with members of the Draco/Hermione community. I was flying blind with a story that had only one other chappie written and no real direction. I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. My goal was to have 50 total reviews for the story by the time I finished it.
Well, it's six months later. Linked is now on the fav stories list of no less than 346 people. It is my baby, and has been a significant part of my life for so long that I barely know what to do with myself now that it's over. We are nearing the 1000 review mark. Though your reviews, I feel that I have come to know some of the smartest, funniest people on the planet. I feel truly blessed, and not a little bit awed.
I would like to thank all of you for your unending support, your inspiring words, your helpful advice, and your constant and uplifting presence in my life. Hearing your feedback has improved me immensely as a writer and as a person, I'd like to think. It means so much to me to know that I have people out there who appreciate the passion and feeling I pour into my writing and respond to it with equal passion and feeling. You all mean more to me than you can know.
To my ladies over at the Keys yahoo group: Oh, where would I be without my girls? Bored as hell and lonely, that's where. For months of friendship, support, and laughter, you have my unending love and eternal thanks. Here's to many, many more stories, chats, and reviews in the future! I love you, my darlings!
Lastly, I have to send out a hundred million trillion thank-you's to Lorett. Thank you for being a wonderful beta and muse and sounding board when I needed one most. Thank you for snaring me into your net and taking me into a community where I have found friendship and laughter. Thank you, most of all, for being an extraordinary lady and a precious friend.
Here it is, my darlings. May you enjoy every word.
Chapter 23: Linked
After the third time he searched the room for his Arithmancy book only to realize it was already in his trunk, Draco gave up on his half-hearted attempts to pack and threw himself rather ungracefully on his bed. His mind was not on what clothing and school supplies he would be needing for the two weeks he spent at Malfoy Manor. His mind was instead on a small, rather unexceptional girl who was making him honestly consider giving up everything he'd ever known on the off chance that she could make him as happy as he thought she could.
He prayed to whatever deities might be listening that he was doing the right thing in walking away from this. The doubt gnawing painfully at his heart was probably just his inherent selfishness, trying to make him seek his own happiness at whatever cost. He was doing the only thing he could to keep her safe, he reasoned desperately. He thought back to the nightmare he'd had in which he had been required to save Hermione from himself, and he wondered if perhaps he had a bit of Seer in him.
They had nothing in their favor, he knew. The odds were heavily against them, and that was even assuming that they would both make it through the coming war alive and unscathed, which was almost equally unlikely as having a happily-ever-after ending. The only thing in the world that suggested they might work was this feeling in his chest that it had to work, that it was the only thing in his life that had ever made any sense at all, and what sort of guarantee for the future was that?
No, he decided as he sat up, this was for the best. He would return home to a life of duty and expectations, and she would get on with her life and find someone who could love her so much better than he ever could, who would be kind and loving and good. And she would be safe. He would keep her safe from his family, Potter and Weasley would keep her safe during the war, and he could die knowing that he had made at least one decision that turned out to be the right one.
With these thoughts in his mind and a renewed determination in his heart, Draco got back up and returned to the task of packing for the holiday. He pulled open his nightstand drawer to make sure nothing of value was being left behind and found himself face to face with the journal. He was rather surprised to see it, having almost forgotten about it altogether.
He briefly considered slamming the drawer shut and letting the journal stay there forever, but he found himself seized with an unbearable curiosity. Had Delilah James made the same decision he was making now? Had she chosen duty over love? All evidence seemed to suggest it, from the despairing hopelessness that tinged her writing to the indisputable fact that she had consented to an arranged marriage with a Malfoy rather than being with the man she loved.
And suddenly, Draco had to know. He snatched the volume out of the drawer and fell unceremoniously into his desk chair, flipping wildly through the pages. Near the end of the entries, he found was he was looking for.
I have to end it. Father has decided to announce my engagement to one of the Malfoy heirs, and he will be expecting my full acquiesce in the matter. I cannot refuse him. If I did, they would wonder why, and they would surely find out, eventually, no matter how careful we've tried to be. And they would kill him, I'm sure of it. I can't risk that. He's far too precious to me. I'm not entirely sure I wouldn't die with him, at least in the ways that matter. I will have to tell him tonight . . .
Draco sat back, feeling her pain as acutely as if it were his own. He supposed it was his own, in a way. He turned the page to read the next entry.
I am to marry tonight. I can't help wondering where Edward is right now. I wonder if his heart aches the way mine does when he thinks of me pledging myself to another. I wonder if he knows that I love him and that everything I do is to keep him safe. I wonder if knowing that only makes it worse for him. I hope not. I hope he has all the happiness in the world, all the happiness I could never give him and that I will never have because I am not with him.
The next entry was written in a different sort of ink, and the handwriting seemed to have changed slightly. Draco supposed a considerable amount of time had passed between this entry and the one before it.
He's getting married. I read it in the Daily Prophet this morning and nearly broke one of Blake's mother's best china teacups when I dropped it. I think Blake knew something was wrong, but he didn't seem to care very much, which isn't really that unusual, I suppose. I waited until I was back in my rooms before I dared look at the picture that accompanied the article. They looked happy. He seemed to love her. I've never felt so empty. It's like I'm living the night I left him over and over again, and dying a little more each time.
The page on which these few words were written was stained with dozens of teardrops. Draco tried to imagine Hermione being with someone else, having a life without him in it. The next breath he drew was so painful, he wondered if it was really possible to die of grief.
He didn't want to read any more of this, but he couldn't seem to pull himself away. There were only a few more entries, each one a short response to some milestone in either her or Edward's lives that drove her back to the solace of her writing. He finally reached the last entry, which appeared to have been written in the wobbly, uncertain hand of someone of great age.
He died today. I felt it deep in my bones like something fundamental was being ripped away from me. It took me a moment to realize that the dreadful, unearthly sound in my ears was my own sobbing. Celia's children had brought her to see me (she hasn't liked to visit since Blake died; she always did love her father more than me), and I imagine they thought I'd finally met my end. I have no doubt they were bitterly disappointed that I survived.
They know nothing. I did die in that instant; I must have, for how can I possibly be alive when half of me is gone? I have missed him for almost all my life, but I was a fool to think we'd ever really been apart. He was always with me, always loved me. I should have known, should have felt it, because now I feel the loss of it more acutely than all the accumulated sufferings of my life combined.
It seems so clear now, looking back. I did my duty, lived a life of loneliness to keep him safe. Eventually our spouses died, our work ended, all the people and circumstances we feared fell away into nothingness. But our love, the one thing I ever wanted and the only thing I ever really sacrificed, endured beyond all that. We were apart and miserable (I was, at least) for our entire lives, and it seems so pointless now. I could have grown old with him. My children could have had his eyes and his beautiful, loving heart. My life could have been happy. Perhaps a bit harder, at least in the beginning, but so much happier. Never have I regretted my decision more than I do now, now that I see the pointlessness of it. It was supposed to be the one thing in my life I ever did right. How utterly stupid I was. Loving him was the only thing I ever did right. I wish I could tell him so. He deserved that much. He deserved more than that, and if I had it to do all over again, I would give him whatever was mine to give, even myself. Especially myself. I've always belonged to him, anyway.
Draco blinked at the page, wondering vaguely if his heart had really stopped or if he only felt like it had. He looked around his plush quarters, at the expensive clothes strewn carelessly into his trunk, at the platinum-tipped quill on the desk in front of him, at the Italian leather shoes that marched arrogantly across the shelves of his closet. He looked back down at the journal in his hands, where the final words of a broken-hearted woman recorded the anguish of a soul left to face the world without its mate.
Draco took a deep breath, snapped the journal shut, and left the room. The door slammed behind him with a finality that echoed in the stone hallway almost as loudly as it did in his heart.
She was in the Astronomy Tower when he found her.
As soon as she heard the scrape of his shoes on the stone, she whirled around. Her cheeks were wet with tears, half her hair had been pulled out of its knot by the chilly wind and now flew haphazardly around her head, her eyes were puffy from crying, and her features were creased with sorrow. He thought she was probably the loveliest thing he'd ever seen.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, obviously making a supreme effort not to let her voice tremble. He tried to ignore the accusatory tone of her question, the bone-deep, aching sadness in her eyes that made it almost painful to meet her gaze.
"I have something to say to you," he replied quietly.
"You have something to say to me," she repeated in a flat voice. She turned to face him fully, and as she studied his face he saw a tightly-reined-in fury building just beneath the pain in her eyes. "You have something to say to me?" Her voice rose considerably with each emphasized word. "Well, you don't get to say anything to me, Draco, because I have something to say to you first."
"And what might that be?" he asked as calmly as he could manage, considering he was standing there staring at the girl in whose hands he was about to place his future.
"Who do you think you are?" she exploded, moving violently forward while her eyes flashed with fire. "This isn't just about you, you know. This is my life, too, and I don't think I'm going to let you spoil the only thing that's ever made sense in it because you've decided to grow a conscience." He knew it was probably the last thing he should do, but he couldn't help the bemused smirk that twisted his lips.
"And what do you propose to do about it?" he asked.
"I'll tell you what I propose to do about it!" she snapped, stalking toward him and looking less like an angry teenage girl than like a rabid jungle cat. "I'm just not going to let you walk away."
"You're not going to let me," he repeated, trying very hard to not grin at her or kiss her, both of which seemed like unwise courses of action at the present time.
"That's right!" she blustered. "I'm not going to let you. You think you can just sweep in here and change my life and then walk back out again? Well, you're wrong, damn it, because I think I love you, and that doesn't happen to me everyday. Now, don't give me that look, Draco Malfoy," she warned, shaking a finger at him. He felt his mouth snap shut and realized it must have been hanging open. "I know you think I'm mad, but you'd better bloody get used to it, you arrogant, impossible git, because I'm not going anywhere."
With that, Hermione seemed to bluster herself out, and she stood there with her chest heaving and her eyes shining and her hair flying absolutely everywhere, and Draco realized he'd made the right choice. He took a slow, deliberate step toward her, raised his hand and began smoothing the hair away from her face, one strand at a time, until all that remained was the single, stubborn curl that always fell across her forehead. She trembled as he tucked that final piece of hair behind her ear and let his hand linger on her face. He let everything he was feeling flow through the tips of his fingers and into the warm skin of her temple.
"An arrogant, impossible git, am I?" he asked very quietly. "Well, I'll tell you something. You are a high-strung, insufferable know-it-all." He pressed a feather-light kiss to her mouth and then leaned down further still so that his lips brushed the shell of her ear. "And I've decided to stay."
Her fingers tightened convulsively on his arms and he felt joy flow through them both like the first breeze in spring.
"Really?" she whispered.
"Yeah, really," he whispered back. He felt her smile against his neck.
Hermione had never considered herself to be the weepy girly type.
She knew that Harry and Ron saw her as a sobbing mental, but being boys, they had a rather skewed perspective on what qualified a person as an emotional basketcase. She cried as much as the next girl, but no more than the average level-headed teenager that she was. In fact, considering the extraordinary hardships and experiences that life had thrust upon her thus far, she thought she was probably one of the most emotionally stable and composed girls on the face of the earth.
With all that in mind, it was rather remarkable how many times she had been driven to tears in the last week. She had cried over the severing of the link, over Draco's admission that his prejudices had finally fallen away, over a spilt goblet of pumpkin juice at breakfast a few days before, over Draco walking out of her life. And now she was crying again, this time because he had just walked back into it.
With the wind icy on her back and Draco's body furnace-hot against her, Hermione was crying as if the world had ended. In a way, she supposed it had, because in the world she had always known, she would not be standing there sobbing into Draco Malfoy's expensive robes while he stroked her hair and spoke soothing, loving words into her ear.
He'd chosen her. It didn't seem possible, somehow. He was many things, but he wasn't mad, and if the Malfoy heir throwing his lot in with a Muggle-born witch who happened to be Harry Potter's best friend wasn't madness, then what was? Perhaps he was mad after all. Perhaps they both were.
Finally, she composed herself enough to pull back and look at him. Hermione knew she must look a fright, with her face splotchy from crying and her hair a tangled mess and her nose running from the cold and the tears, but he was looking at her as though he had never seen anything so beautiful or precious.
"Granger, this is utter insanity," he said in a serious voice and a grin on his face that warmed her down to her toes.
"Definitely," she agreed solemnly. His grin faded and he raised a hand to cup her cheek.
"They'll try to take this away from us," he whispered urgently. "They won't understand." She could feel his fear, his fierce protectiveness, his desperate need to make her comprehend the depth of his conviction and belief in her, in them, seeping into her wherever their bodies met.
Hermione laughed softly, sadly.
"Of course they won't. I'm not even sure I do." He didn't respond to her admittedly lame attempt at humor.
"We're going to have to fight so hard for this, and even then we don't have much of a chance," he reminded her, though she didn't really need reminding. She sighed heavily and raised her own hand to cover his and press it closer to her face.
"I know." And she did. "But some things are worth fighting for."
"Like this," Draco said softly, and there was a vulnerable uncertainty in his voice, his eyes, and in his heart that made Hermione fall a little bit more in love with him.
"Like this," she confirmed. His boyish, lopsided grin returned and she couldn't help but smile back. When he pulled her close again, she went willingly, pressing her face into the shoulder of his robes and breathing deeply the elusive, spicy scent that was expensive cologne and Draco.
"Hermione?" he asked, his voice muffled because his nose was buried in her hair.
"Do you remember that article about the Iunctus Mens Effect?" If she had possessed the will to remove herself from his embrace, she would have raised one eyebrow at him in an expression that said, 'What do you take me for?' As it was, he seemed to realize his mistake because he continued on without waiting for an answer. "Do you remember how it said that the memories we relive are the ones that define us? Usually bad, but sometimes good?"
"Yes," she replied quietly against his shoulder.
"Do you suppose this is one of the good ones?" She felt tears prick her eyes again, and inwardly shook her head at her utterly girliness as she pulled back to kiss him in response.
The Hogwarts Express was set to leave the next morning, and with exams over and the prospect of a long holiday ahead, the student body of Hogwarts was in the mood for socializing and food, preferably at the same time. Therefore, as Draco and Hermione approached the Great Hall while the end-of-term feast was in full swing, the noise was deafening even from the entrance hall with the enormous door firmly closed between them.
They stood in silence, staring at the towering doors that separated them from a thousand pairs of eyes that would gaze at them with dumb shock at best, and heartless judgment and hatred at worst. Hermione had never found those doors to be particularly ominous before, but they suddenly seemed to be the most daunting obstacle she had ever faced, and she had faced more than her share.
She glanced over at Draco to see him looking at the doors with a grim sort of determination on his not-quite-handsome, utterly compelling face. He felt her gaze on him and slanted those silver eyes over to her. A sardonic smirk twisted on his lips.
"I'm going to take great delight in all the different shades of purple the Weasel is going to turn," he said with a glint of devilish enjoyment in his eyes. Hermione glared at him in what she hoped was an appropriately chastising manner.
"Five points from Slytherin for insulting a prefect," she said softly as she straightened the silver clasp of his pristine black robes.
"Five points from Gryffindor," he responded in an equally gentle tone.
"Because I felt like it," he said quietly as he tucked her perpetually-wayward curl behind her ear. She gave a long-suffering sigh and watched with great joy as his lips briefly broke into the smile he reserved just for her before settling back into a detached, bemused smirk.
"Ready?" he asked, and only his eyes gave away the seriousness, the concern that she knew had inspired the question. She reached out and took his hand in hers and felt his strength pour through her.
"I am now," she replied. He nodded in his curt, formal way, and then began to walk toward the doors of the Great Hall in his unhurried, overly-confidant gait. As they walked, Hermione looked down at their hands. His long, pale, elegant fingers were intertwined with her own, and as she gazed at them, a single thought flooded her mind, making her smile.
They were linked.
A/N: And so it ends. Happily, OF COURSE, you silly things. What kind of girl do you take me for?
Thank you all again for being the wonderful people you are. I hope to hear from all of you again soon when I begin posting my new fic, which will be a post-HBP Draco/Hermione story called For Every Action. You'll LOVE it, I promise. Also, I expect each and every one of you to review when I post the fic I wrote for the DMHGFicexchange, which I'm terribly proud of and want to hear your thoughts on because I'm considering a sequel.
And now, I must say goodbye. Kisses and hugs and unending love! Ciao, my darlings!