Chapter 45 lunch

Dear readers,

Just to let you know, at its completion, this fanfiction is over 215,000 words—that's the equivalent of about 700 word document pages. I am proud to say we have both made it to the end.

During that time, you have generously left me with over 1,190 reviews. 500 readers in 30 countries have added Stolen to their alert lists and over 300 name it as a favorite story. Twenty-four communities have honored it by including this story in their lists of bests. Creative readers have produced amazing fanart and banner for the story as well as nominated it for a contest. Out of curiosity, I googled it and found readers suggested it on yahoo answers and other sites.

I can honestly tell you I never anticipated such a response. I had never written romance before, fanfiction or original, and only wrote the first few chapters because I couldn't shake the idea. I had hoped to build a love story that was about real life and not fantasy, though it takes place in fantastical world. Through your patience with up-dates and mistakes, along with the power of your reviews and messages, this story has improved my writing as much as my degree has, especially writing the entire thing out of my comfort zone. Just compare the first chapter to your favorite—a total transformation.

This could never have happened without you and I feel a little guilty knowing this can never be as fun for you as it was for me, but I hope it comes close. I must warn you, this may not be the ending you expected. As always, thanks for reading and please leave a review.

Thank you and goodbye.

Chapter 45: Shall We Shake Hands?

He did not blame her.

He knew now what he had been like during that time, though all he remembered was being down in dark carven, cold and damp, looking up towards a stream of distant light— hearing but not understanding the murmurs trickling down. And then, one voice he recognized...


He knew that he was fearful, disgusting, and dangerous. He was mad. He did not blame her for not taking him in, but rather sending him to St. Mungos where she faithfully visited.

He remembered few things from his recovery. He remembered her crying in pain when he grabbed her arm once. He remembered her crying in sympathy while he struggled to regain his health. He remembered her crying in desperation as she brought faces to him which he could not recognize, then in frustration as he failed to even feed himself properly, feasting instead like a ravenous beast. He remembered her crying in despair when the healer told her, "He may not get any better than this."

And so, in a way, these memories of his time there was more painful than his time in prison. For in that cold dark place his best and his worst memories tortured him but all of the tears were his own.

But he did not blame her for this, and that is why he had asked her to lunch— that and to give her the good news. He needed her to know that he was going to be fine now, his normal self, like it or not. She needed to know, she need to not feel bad for sending him away at first. That was his purpose in calling. He did not want to tell her all the horrible things he remembered. He did not want to tell he still sometimes fancied that he loved her. She had been through enough.

When the healers told her that may be mad forever, she took him away from St. Mungos, he gathered. She stayed with Harry in a big house in London. It had been difficult, he knew; he had been a burden, but he had begun to feel better. He had a loyal house elf Pip all too eager to cater all his needs. Harry and he played chess, and cards, and listened to quidditch games in the evening. Always in silence. Sometimes they had Lupin and his family over. Sometimes the Weasleys. Once Longbottom. He preferred the werewolf. Had he been well enough to realize Harry was babysitting him, or worse befriending him, he would have fought it. As it was, he was still too skittish to go outside, to fly with Harry, or even to go out into a public place like a restaurant. Sometimes he could not get warm. He would not leave his room unless asked or coaxed. He would not hold a wand. He was not himself, not even a whole other person.

One day, he ventured from the darkness of his room and found her immersed a library, a menagerie. Porthos laid across the hearth and she rest her small boots on his back. Beside her rest a tall, sturdy perch or iron and upon sat a pathetic looking creature. Skulking lazily about was that blasted cat. The room was filled with warmth from the fire and the familiar scent of baking and stew from downstairs. She had salvaged scraps of his life and scraps of him and brought them here.

He stared at her beauty a moment undisturbed, her golden hair and brown eyes glowing in firelight, before Pip passed him by with a squeak. "Excuse me, sir."

He was surprised to find he did not jump that time, but his presence startled her. Again, he opened his mouth to speak and found he did not know what to say. He only felt like he would weep. And suddenly the sound that was within him, consumed by joy yet conceived in sorrow, was in the room filling it.

They all turned, elf and bear even, to the familiar Irish Phoenix on the perch as it was singing, beautiful and grave. He choked a little, unable to match it. It was strangling him. Putting her book down gently, Hermione came towards him. She did not make a sound nor move too quickly. She reached out to him.

He remembered his mother and her death foretold by the wives tale of the song of that bird and felt that familiar panic, but with the close feeling of terror also flooded a rush sanity. Painful. Sudden. Like pulling out a splinter. Running. His father. Potter. Azkaban. And he was seeing all of it at once as a person, not as a madman through a darkness and a cold weight.

"It's just the rain." She had said.

She was cautious, seeing his eyes become his own again but not yet daring to believe. She took him to the window and unfastened it, flinging it open it. Seconds later, a deep rumble flew over the city and burst. Everywhere, filling his nostrils, was the gentle hushing sound of rain stinging pavement and leaves. The wind blew it into his face. It wet his skin.

Ironically, this remnant of his suffering brought back the memories he had clung to then. Memories of dishwashing and a shared bedroom and a dance. All his memories back, he was whole.

And he had her to thank for that. Even if they never spoke again.

But he did not blame her for that either. Who would not have moved on, as long as he was gone, as inhuman as he was when he finally returned? She had sent him to a muggle mental health institution, a very good one. He had made, he somewhat hated to admit it, substantial progress there. It was a relief to be away from it all, from magic even, for the time being. A bored Potter wrote to him as often as she did, maybe more. After Weasley's death, Draco had to tolerate the bloke's loneliness so long as he knew they were not friends. Now, the doctors told him the therapy and medicine had done all it could and he needed to go and ease back into a life. Simply as that. You left as a child who was engaged, now go be an adult by yourself. Sure. Easy.

But he was lucky, he knew, and he wanted to tell her that as well.

When he arrived before lunch, Diagon Alley was busy with people preparing for the festival. Everything was draped in green and white. He spotted her at an outdoor table on the balcony of a tearoom. She did not notice him approaching as she was preoccupied with scrutinizing and scribbling upon a piece of parchment. He entered, scaled the crooked stairs for which the place was named, and walked behind her with a slight mischievous grin, throwing the newspaper down before her. The report on today's anniversary celebration was overshadowed by another story.

"Have you seen the headlines? Depressing isn't it?" She glanced at it, then chortled a little at his hateful little speech. He read aloud: "'Hogwarts Youngest Seeker to Become Hogwarts Youngest Teacher—Harry Potter to Raise the Safest Generation as Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor.'

"Ol' Scarhead is taking up space for his worshiping party with news on his new job. Thank God he didn't take a piss recently, or the fools at the Daily Prophet would die with no way to fit it all on the front page." She just shook her head, smiling, not believing him for one minute and yet knowing Potter would have likely said the exact same thing.

"Anyway, they'll make loads of course." He sighed, sitting back in his chair and propping her feet up on the railing. "Everyone will want their children educated by the Boy-I-Killed."

She laughed aloud, sipping her tea as they brought his. The place was very busy.

"You look good." She said, examining him.

Her raised his eyebrows suggestively and ran his fingers through silky white hair, cut a little shorter than it once was but still falling around the edges of his face, the face a little thinner. It had more color though. She wrinkled her nose at his prideful display, rolled her eyes. He briefly noticed she had fastened her hair back with a ribbon, but it was escaping.

"I'm healed. That's the good news I have for you. They've released me and I'm staying in the hotel in London."

"Why aren't you staying with Harry and I?" Her eyes were wide, but her face happy.

"And encourage Potter's unhealthy obsession with me? Don't be silly." She squinted at him, waiting for the real answer. "No, I didn't want to impose. Three's a crowd and all."

"That's stupid." She proclaimed plainly. "The only reason I stayed was right after Ron died Harry didn't want to be alone. He still has the nightmare, you know? He can't even handle a boggart; it turns into Voldemort. And it's as if he's alive again. Standing there in his robes, just standing and smiling." She added with a chill in the warm summer air.

Draco examined her, then tossed his head back spitting, "Worthless Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher."

"Well, maybe, but I didn't have anywhere else to go. Now it's just out of convenience. I haven't had the time to look at anywhere else really. Fred has, well, he's bought a place with room, but I told him I wasn't interested—"

At this he raised his eyebrows. Fred? Weasley? Good God, what did that say about her taste?

"But living with Harry can get tiresome." She admitted. "So much quidditch! And he leaves messes everywhere, but it's his house, so I can't complain." She sighed. Draco remained silent, brooding again, not trusting himself to speak. She leaned forward. He must have looked frightening again.

"Do you remember what happened before?" Her voice was dark and quiet.

"No," he lied. She nodded. He suspected she knew he was not being honest.

"Is it hard?" she asked, leaning forward further. "Being here? With all these people? Magic?"

"Not really." He shook his head. "Not anymore. Everything you did, Hermione, really helped. Thank you. After being away, it feels almost normal. I don't feel normal, but everything else does at least. What about you?" he asked over his cup, raising it to his lips.

She thought for a moment before answering.

"Sometimes I don't believe it. I walk around and I think I'm dreaming or I am dead. But then I do not care. I don't want to wake up.

"And other times," she frowned a bit, biting the inside of her mouth like she used to. "Other times I get angry." She admitted. "How is it possible to go back to what it was before? To open the same shops and eat the same dinners. To pretend none of it happened. It makes me…I want tear down their buildings and leave it ruined. Like it was. Like it was supposed to be."

He nodded in understanding and the watched the others in silence. They were observers on the outside of this excitement. Not part of anything. He broke the silence.

"The next step is to find somewhere to live, something to do. Get back to a normal life. Haven't ever had one of those before." He explained. "Not sure where to start. I don't even have a complete education."

"Yes you do." She eagerly informed him. "Hogwarts honored us all with graduation. They said we had earned it, which was true of course, but I think they wanted to move on as quickly as possible. Wanted us out."

"You miss it?"

"Of course."

He stared down at the ring his teacup had left. "Me too. Are you working then?"

"At the ministry."

"I thought so."

"Sorting out muggle relations, but to be honest sometimes I miss working in Flourish and Blotts. Maybe once things die down…but I suppose I can do more good where I am."

"Liberating houseelves?" he teased.

"That's rich coming from you. Pip found me. It's how I knew, or suspected, where to find you."

He did not know that and considered it strange. He turned it over and over in his mind.

"I've made sure your animals were safe, all of them." She said kindly. "And you should know that being the only Malfoy heir and not being written out of any wills- because they thought you were dead though you were in fact not- you've inherited everything. I don't think you'll need to work. And you'll certainly be able to rebuild."

This news left his eyes wide and his voice momentarily silent. A feeling of relief filled him like that right after being narrowly missed by a spell. A feeling, once commonplace, which he had not felt in a long time and may never feel again.

"Speechless?" she joked, sitting back with her cup rather haughtily.

"Did they—I mean, is Casus Malfoy's home alright?"

"Of course," she assured him and his body relaxed in a way it had not yet been able to. So the Malfoy fortune and lands and heritage were his to do with it what he pleased.

"That's something I've been meaning to discuss with you," she produced her papers. "I'm writing a book."

"A book? How do you find the time?" he asked, incredulous.

She blushed, but it did not seem to slow the stream of words pouring forth. "It's about Casus, since I did destroy the original record. I was thinking about how your fountain said 'the Mark Remains'."

His expression and voice equally dark, his hand fiddling with his teaspoon, he recited: "Undeservedly you shall atone for the sins of your fathers."

She gulped. "How did you?"

"I watched you. From the Eagle. It's enchanted. That's how they knew I was there."

"Yes, well it got me thinking about everything I learned from you…"

"Learned?" He interrupted. "Hogwart's greatest know-it-all learn? Let's hear it then."

She read to him from her parchment:

"The actions of Tom Riddle, known as Voldemort, where of selfish motivations and sadistic desires which he used to incite hate and excitement in followers who shared his sick appetite or his supposed values.

But where does such a desire come from?

Voldemort was evil in taking advantage of the hate and turning wizard against wizard, but he was not responsible for creating it. Hate is born of pain. The hate of mixed bloods and muggle borns is not innate in most. It was created by cruelty that some families did not feel able to forget or forgive.

Neither cruelty done to muggle borns nor by muggles to magical people may be forgotten. If ever we forget how we came to this, we will surely find ourselves upon it again."

His eyes feeling rather warm and wet, he nodded in approval and gratitude. Understanding, she put it away, smiling. She spied her watch. "I really have to go before things get too wild here. I have to go by work and straighten out a few things in our official statement on the conclusion of the interrogations."

"Well, I suppose this is where we wish each other luck." He said, a little bitterly, dropping his feet to the floor.

"Shall we shake hands?" She asked with an awkward joking tone as she stood across from him.

"Let's not." He stood and walked to her side. He could smell strawberries and vanilla in her hair. She touched his arm anyway.

"Alright. I know you're going to be fine Draco. Just fine."

"And you will be save the Wizarding World. Again." He sneered in jest, leaning against a column. "And I will build a big mansion, with a great moat, have dozens of slaves, and never eat a poor meal again. And it will incredibly boring after everything."

"Boring, but safe."

"I know. That's what I want for you. That's why I left." There. He said it. "I had to go back, but it didn't feel right dragging you along."

She touched his hand. "I'm so proud of you." He grimaced. Those weren't the words he wanted to hear, and those watering eyes embarrassed him. She wiped them clean, releasing him. He flexed his hand, missing her touch.

"I really have to go." She stood, spying the time. "I'm supposed to be there already—" She collected her things.

It was happening. She was leaving, and she would be busy and successful and flattered by men. And she would have less and less time for him, and then someone would sweep her off her feet. Probably some muggle at that. Then the only time he'd see her would be sitting at her wedding, alone. Save maybe Potter sitting next to him.

"Hermione!" He called after her over babbling children. He had to speak. He had to tell her all the things he'd brought her here for. He had to let her know before he never saw her again. He had to make sure this was not the last time, and stuttering dumbly, he asked: "I was wondering, I mean if you're not busy, maybe you would like to marry me sometime or something."

That. Was not. What he meant to say. Not all.

She was looking at him with the most unusual look—was it indignation, outrage, or absolute befuddlement? Regardless, she was apparently entirely taken aback by his complete idiocy and so was he. Then—God help him—her eyes were watering. He was making her cry. He would surely never win her back now. Damn his loopy brain and fumbling mouth! 'Quickly make an excuse,' he mentally yelled at himself.

Her mouth twisting slightly, she spoke. "Well," she sighed and replied but he could not hear her as a parade of colors and brass instruments and drums neared them.

"What?" he called to her wildly over the table.

She was laughing, laughing at him. But he was certain she looked as though she were crying too. She shook her head. Well why wouldn't she? What had he done, after all, but leave her? It was a lie anyway, for them to be engaged. She probably had a boyfriend by now. Not as rich or good looking as he, he hazarded a jealous guess.

"It's not like I have anything better to do!" She shouted over the commotion, giggling so that every inch of her small, perfect frame was quivering. What a snarky response.

In that moment, he did not regret a damn thing that had happened. How could he? This was so much better. There is in the world, he realized, a possibility for as much good to happen as un-expectantly as all the tragedy. As terrible as suffering may be, as hopeless as it may seem, one has to remember that there is always the possibility for it to be equally as good. One just has to wait. One just has to say yes—or, 'sure- I've not got anything better to do', in this case. Before they could grab each other fiercely and kiss properly, a ruckus of excited merrymakers crashed into the table. Draco's lap was filled with butterbeer and fumed.

A snort jerked him from his rage. Hermione was laughing hysterically, eyes sparkling and hair sparkling as well filled with confetti spread around her like a fan of peacock's feathers. He laughed at her in turn, really laughed, until his ribs ached. A little annoyed, she cast a drying charm on his pants.

He really thought he ought to thank them for disturbing them. First, because it had been a long time since he'd seen something as funny as Hermione with her hair filled with confetti and second because the table was no longer between them. Ignoring the roar of the celebrating crowd and blaring music, they finally met. Their bodies pressed together, then their lips. His mind was pleasantly numb, as if he'd has some firewhiskey and there was a sharp heat between them. A bright light flashed, blinding them. He almost bit his tongue, or hers—he was not quite sure.

Rita Skeeter. His profanities went unheard by the gaggles of children and families nearby due to all the noise. Everyone remained jovial, save Hermione who covered her mouth in horror.

Nonetheless, they would later cut out the front-page picture from the festival and kept it, minus the hideous cupid and ridiculous hearts of course. They framed the picture, one that had become rather famous, of them kissing amidst the crowd he had not noticed as they screamed with approval and applauded. Confetti flying wildly around them, standing in beer. They had an unspoken agreement to keep in the headline. Not exactly their cup of tea, but it was true enough. And it said something about their victory.

"This charming young couple," the article read "met before the return of Tom Riddle while they were in school at Hogwarts. They announced their engagement nearly two years ago. War drove them apart and put off their nuptials. Now, re-formed Death Eater Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter's friend and ministry official Hermione Granger (muggle born) represent the new day that has dawned for the Wizarding World. They symbolize an important message: all we fought for, all we have to gain, and –most importantly—that love survives all!"

It did not conquer, really, Draco felt. It was more a constant and quiet thing; love did not like it, but it bore lust, separation, betrayal, anger, and death. It weakened at times. It definitely changed. In the end, love had just survived. And that was enough.