Solid Ground Part 2
All of Hermione's anxiety returned when she awoke only a few hours later. It was almost six in the morning, and much too early to be up, but she couldn't go back to sleep. She stared at herself for a while in the mirror after dressing. Her eyes were puffy, and her nose was a bit red. She hoped the puffiness would be gone by the time she went to see her parents, but it wasn't likely.
Near seven, Hermione went to the kitchenette to start breakfast. Neville appeared at half past seven, but it was almost an hour later when Draco joined them. Hermione felt slightly guilty, seeing the dark circles under his eyes.
"Are you ready?" Neville asked her quietly, just as they were about to leave.
"I don't know," Hermione said nervously. "I don't think I'll ever be ready, but I might as well get it over with."
"That's the spirit," Neville said encouragingly, and together, all three Apparated to the lawn.
As soon as they landed, Hermione felt frozen. A cool breeze blew around them, but it wasn't the cold that stopped her. She was filled with a sudden panic, and was seriously considering Disapparating, procrastinating, and finding some way to buy herself more time to think it over. "I can't do this," she muttered, her eyes wide with fear, her mouth dry. "I can't do this."
A sudden pressure on her hand made her stop, and she looked down. She gasped slightly, surprised to find Draco holding her hand.
He gave it a gentle squeeze and looked at her worriedly. "You can do it," he said, pulling her forward and closer to the house. "Come on."
Hermione reluctantly followed his lead, strangely glad that it was Draco, not Neville, who was holding her hand. She found his touch comforting, in the same way that Harry and Ron's were. But it was different, because she and Draco weren't best friends. There was just something about the feeling that she couldn't put her finger on, but whatever it was it gave her the courage not to flee.
Once they reached the front door they all exchanged glances, and Draco understood that Hermione needed them to ring the bell. Just as he raised his arm to do so, she stopped him.
"Before we go in- thank you. Both of you," she said, turning to look at Neville as well. "Whatever happens from here on, you both have done your part. I'll be sure to let your mother know," she told Draco.
"I wasn't doing all of it for her," he replied simply. He abruptly rang the doorbell, leaving Hermione no time to figure out his words.
She held her breath, waiting. She had all but given up hope that anyone was home when they heard footsteps from inside the house. The lock turned, and the door opened.
"Yes?" the man asked curiously, looking at the three of them. He was tall and thin, with slightly thinning brown hair.
"Dad," Hermione breathed, drinking him in. He looked almost exactly the same as he had a year ago, and Hermione knew Draco was right- she would never not recognize him. There were times she had seriously doubted that she would ever see him again, and to be so close to him again overwhelmed her. She gripped Draco's hand tightly.
"May I help you?" her father asked again, now looking annoyed.
Hermione gasped as a bolt of red light hit her father. She glared at Draco, who had caught him just before he hit the floor. "You Stunned him."
"Well, what was I supposed to do, Granger?" he snarled, his face turning pink with the effort of dragging Mr. Granger into the house. "You and Longbottom were just standing there gaping like a pair of trolls. Besides, no one saw, I checked."
"But the plan was to try and get in without-"
"Without the Stupefy, yes, but you weren't doing anything," he snapped. "Shut the door, Longbottom, it's freezing. And give me a hand here, levitate him to the sofa. Granger, get ready to Stun your mum."
Neville ushered Hermione into the house and levitated Mr. Granger, so that Draco didn't have to hold him. Hermione looked around, feeling relieved that Draco had control over the situation. When she heard her mother's footsteps on the stairs, Hermione was able to safely Stun and levitate her down.
"Small house," Draco whispered, when the Grangers were finally settled on the sofa. Neville went to the windows to close the curtains, in case any Muggle happened to look in and see Hermione waving a wand at her parents.
"No it's not," Hermione frowned. "It may not be as big as your manor, but this is comfortable."
"More like cramped," he said haughtily, as Neville grimaced over at the two of them.
Hermione walked away from Draco and looked around the room, trying to compare it with their old living room in England. "Oh God."
Because of the red curtains, which Neville had just closed, the room took on a reddish tinge. Hermione looked at her parents and saw them bathed in a crimson glow. She shuddered, remembering the brief look of surprise and betrayal on her mother's face before she succumbed to the Stunning Spell.
She turned to Draco and stumbled, feeling dizzy. She closed her eyes and images flashed before her- a flash of red before her parents stared blankly at her, not knowing who she was; the bolt of red light hitting her just before she felt indescribable pain.
Suddenly she realized that someone was shaking her. "Granger. Granger, are you all right?"
She opened her eyes, taking deep gulping breaths, and found herself face to face with Draco. His eyes were a scant few inches away from her own, and he seemed to block out all of the red. "You all right?" he asked again.
Without warning, Hermione felt tears leaking from her eyes. She shook her head and he sighed. "Come here," he pulled her even closer and she wrapped her arms around him, crying into him. "It's just a color," he said soothingly. "It brings back bad memories, but it won't hurt you."
"I know, that's why I feel so stupid," She sobbed uncontrollably, holding him tightly. Hot embarrassment flooded through her- why did she have to react that way to a color?
"You have to get over this before school starts, you know. I imagine the Gryffindor common room is filled with red."
"It is. I was hoping I'd be better by then. It's just that now, the memory is so fresh, seeing the red- seeing my parents- seeing you-"
She nodded. "You were there. But you didn't help."
His arms tightened around her. "I will this time," he promised. He held her for a few more moments before pulling away and handing her his handkerchief. "Here, wipe your face," he said.
Neville came into the room carrying a cup of tea. "Drink this, Hermione."
Gratefully, she wiped her eyes and nose and drank the tea. She realized the curtains were now pale blue. "Thank you," she told them. A few minutes later she felt much better, although still slightly foolish, and got out her wand.
"Do they have to be awake for you to fix- er, do the spell?" Neville asked, trying to be tactful, surveying the sleeping couple.
"Yes," Hermione said, steeling herself for the task ahead. The thought that her friends were with her did much to ease her nerves. She took a deep breath and nodded to Draco. "Go."
He lifted the spells, and Hermione got to work, putting her parents in a trance before they could fully wake up. The boys stayed quiet as she worked, not daring to move lest they break her concentration. Draco, standing a few feet behind her, could feel the energy that was going into each spell.
Finally, she stepped back and wiped her brow. "I think that's it," she whispered, running her eyes down her spell-list one more time. She licked her lips. "And now to wake them up."
"You can do it, Hermione," Neville murmured. Draco said nothing, but nodded. Hermione breathed deeply, and then said the final spell, bringing her parents out of their trance.
It was several long, painful moments before the Grangers moved.
"Hermione!" Mrs. Granger blinked and looked at her daughter. "What's going on?"
Mr. Granger was shaking his head, as if trying to clear it. "Where are we?"
"Mum, Dad," Hermione launched herself at them and hugged them. She kissed them both on the cheek, giddy with relief. "You're back."
"What's going on?" Mrs. Granger asked, patting her daughter's back and looking curiously at Neville and Draco. "I'm sorry, but do I know you?"
"I'll explain everything," Hermione promised, pulling back and straightening her clothes, beaming at her parents.
"Where are we?" Mr. Granger asked, still trying to process the many memories in his head.
"In Australia," Hermione admitted. "Melbourne, actually. Oh, and this is Neville Longbottom, and that's Draco Malfoy- I think I've mentioned them before."
Mrs. Granger, who was always extremely interested in Hermione's life at Hogwarts, recognized their names immediately. She gasped and looked at Draco fearfully. "Are we being held hostage?" she asked Hermione in a whisper which unfortunately carried across the room.
Draco flushed angrily. "If I was holding you hostage I'd be pointing my wand at you," he said coldly, his voice tight.
Hermione's heart had dropped at her mother's question, but she glared at him "Draco," she said warningly.
Draco ignored her. "I haven't been hiding you, it's the opposite! I've been looking for you!" He strode over to the far end of the room and paced back and forth, trying to control his temper. Hermione hurried over to him before he broke something and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him down to her eye-level.
Neville, who had been watching the scene with as much surprise as the Grangers, decided it would be a good time to distract them with a story about Hermione's involvement in the war. Meanwhile, Hermione was talking rapidly into Draco's ear.
"I know they insulted you, but you have to understand that they don't know any better. We haven't yet told them anything about what happened during the war or after. I'm sorry if you think you've got a bad reputation with them, but you were trying to kill someone in Sixth Year. Just give me a chance to explain everything, I'm sure their opinion of you will change, all right?"
Draco didn't move for a moment, and Hermione could feel the tension in his shoulders. "That wasn't nice of her."
"She's scared, please understand." After a moment's hesitation, Hermione felt him relax, and she was so relieved that she gave him a brief hug before returning to the sitting area.
She was surprised to see her parents looking at her curiously and Neville carefully avoiding her eyes. "What?"
The Grangers exchanged looks, and then Mrs. Granger spoke. "Are you two-?" She let the question hang but glanced at Draco, her meaning all too clear.
"No!" Hermione said instantly. She honestly had never thought of Draco in a romantic way before, and was surprised that her parents would think that of her and him. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, somehow not entirely shocked by the fact that her parents were more interested in her having a possible relationship than the fact that they were in Australia.
Her parents nodded, not looking perfectly convinced, but Hermione sat down and proceeded to tell them everything. It took her the better part of an hour, but finally she reached the end of her story. "And Neville and- and Draco came with me to help find you guys, and now you're back to normal." Her voice trembled slightly. She had cried at several points in her story, but now she looked at her parents hopefully, searching for signs of forgiveness.
Mrs. Granger was upset. "I can't believe you removed our memories," she said, clutching her husband's hand tightly. "I feel… violated." She refused to look at her daughter.
Hermione's shoulders sagged, and her eyes stung with tears. "I'm really sorry, Mum. I didn't want to do it, honestly. But I had to. I had to make sure you'd be safe."
"We could have lost you." Mrs. Granger's voice trembled, and Hermione felt even worse. She hated seeing her mother cry.
"But you didn't. And I made sure that even if I did die, you wouldn't remember me… so you'd be happy."
Mrs. Granger didn't seem at all comforted by this knowledge. Mr. Granger put his arm around his wife. "That was… nice of you, Hermione," he said, in a tone which implied he didn't think it was nice at all.
"We wouldn't have even been able to go to your funeral," Mrs. Granger said softly.
"But she didn't die," Draco pointed out impatiently. "So there's no use being nostalgic about a funeral that didn't exist. Now your funeral, that's what she was trying to avoid. You should be grateful."
"Draco!" Hermione hissed, shocked at the way he spoke to her mother. He looked at her almost apologetically, and didn't say anything more.
"I am grateful," Mrs. Granger said angrily, "but Hermione, you should have come to us. Your father and I would have figured out a way, a different way, something that didn't involve magic and something that involved our consent!"
"You don't know what it was like, Mum! You don't know what they would have done to you," Hermione cried. "It was the only way that would have worked, believe me. The Ministry wouldn't take care of you, the Order had enough on their hands, too much to guarantee you'd get maximum protection, and Muggles don't know how to protect themselves from magic!"
"But why couldn't we have retained our memories while pretending to be Monica and Wendell?" Mr. Granger asked.
"Because then you'd live in constant fear and anxiety," Hermione said, exasperated at having to explain things a second time to her normally sharp-witted parents. "I told you, I wanted to make you happy."
Mrs. Granger pursed her lips. "I still can't believe magic can do all that," she said finally. "I can't believe you would do all of that to us. Nothing gives you the right to alter a person's memories! Answer me one thing, and answer me truthfully- how many other times have you modified our memories to suit your purposes? How many times have you used magic to get away with things?"
Hermione felt like she had been slapped. "This was the first and last time I've ever used magic on you," she said honestly, her voice shaking. She wiped her eyes. "And I've never used magic to hide things from you."
Mrs. Granger looked searchingly at her daughter. "I don't know if I can believe you," she said softly. Hermione buried her face in her hands, crying harder.
Draco stood up angrily, but Hermione shook her head. "Don't, Draco, she's right. They can't trust me anymore."
"That's crap, Hermione. You saved their lives, they can trust you with their lives," he said furiously, casting a murderous glare at her parents.
Neville spoke. "Maybe it would be best if Draco and I left. Please, Mrs. Granger, we were thinking that maybe Hermione could spend the night with you. We've been staying at a hotel, but we thought that since she's found you again, she could stay with you so you three could catch up." He rubbed Hermione's back soothingly, and her tears subsided into sniffles as she waited for her parents' verdict.
Mr. and Mrs. Granger looked at each other. "It's up to you, dear," Mr. Granger told his wife.
Mrs. Granger sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I think… no, I think it would be better if you stayed over on a different night," she said, looking remorsefully at her daughter. "Your father and I need to talk things through, and to decide what we'll do next. And I- I honestly don't know if I can trust you right now."
"But everything's done!" Neville protested, feeling Hermione stiffen beside him. "What's next is that you'll return to England, back to how things were before, we've fixed it all up."
"We might decide not to return to England," Mr. Granger said quietly, looking at Hermione and making it clear that the decision had something to do with his daughter.
"Come on," Draco said, roughly pulling Hermione up. "Let's go back to the hotel. You don't need this." Neville followed, taking her other arm. Together, they Apparated back to the hotel.
Hermione walked quickly through the lobby, her head ducked to avoid the stares of passersby. Neville murmured encouraging words, but she barely heard them. As soon as they arrived in their suite, she ran to her room and collapsed on the bed.
"They hate me," she sobbed, punching her pillow. "They hate me! I shouldn't have- I shouldn't have-" she broke off, unable to continue, and struggled to breathe.
Alarmed, Neville ran to get her a Calming Draught. "Drink this, Hermione," he said when he returned, helping her sit up. "You'll cry yourself sick."
She drank the potion with some difficulty, but gradually she relaxed and breathing got easier. "Harry and Ron," she croaked, her throat already sore. "I need Harry and Ron."
"I'll try to reach them," Neville offered. "All right? Just calm down a moment." He handed her a box of tissues and went to use the fireplace.
Left to herself, Hermione realized that she felt lonely. Harry and Ron were on the other side of the world, and they couldn't really help her. She had been wrong when she thought she needed only their money. She needed them. Her parents didn't trust her, and perhaps didn't love her anymore. All she had was Neville, who was nice in his own way, but he was never one of her best friends. And Draco, who was-
"Where's Draco?" she wondered aloud, suddenly realizing he wasn't with them. She couldn't remember when he had last been with them.
"What?" Neville asked, coming in to the room. "They went to visit George," he reported. "Mrs. Weasley is on the line, if you want to speak to her."
"Where's Draco?" Hermione asked again, looking around.
Neville shifted uncomfortably. "He stayed behind. When we were about to Apparate, he looked at me and let go of your arm. I figured he wanted to talk to your parents alone. Will you talk to Mrs. Weasley?"
She shook her head. "I just want Harry and Ron. Tell her to tell them it didn't work out, and I'll write to them when I can."
He disappeared into the living room, and Hermione lay back, the Calming Draught kicking in full-force. Her gut-wrenching sobs dwindled to hiccups, and she felt drowsy. She hoped Draco wouldn't scare her parents too much, but at the same time she felt she couldn't care less what he said to them. Hermione realized with a sinking heart that maybe her parents weren't as wonderful as she had previously thought they were. It was a painful revelation, to find out that they weren't perfect.
When Neville came back, she asked him for a decongesting potion. "Thanks, Neville," she said when he returned. "Draco isn't back yet?"
He shook his head. "It's only been less than half an hour."
She sighed. "Can you wake me up when he comes?"
Exhausted, Hermione tried to smile and went to sleep. The next thing she knew, someone was leaning over her.
"I don't know if we should wake her up," she heard Neville say. "She looks worn out."
Draco's voice sounded much closer. "But she asked you to, didn't she?"
Hermione opened her eyes and was relieved to find Draco perched beside her on the bed. "You stayed behind," she accused, suddenly remembering why she wanted to see him.
He grinned. "Very perceptive."
She glared at him, knowing the effect was somewhat ruined by her puffy eyes and messy hair. "Well? What did you say to them?"
"This and that. But the main thing is, they're sorry. They're still a little wary about magic, but they'd like you to spend the night at their house."
She sat up excitedly. "Really?"
He nodded, and she gasped delightedly. "Draco Malfoy, you are amazing!" she crowed. "How did you do it? You didn't threaten them, did you?"
"No, I just spoke to them. Made them see what the war was like. Made them see what happened to my family," Draco said grimly, sitting next to her on the bed.
"They needed to understand just how hard it was on us 'kids'. We couldn't just go running to our parents especially when they were the ones we were trying to protect. Your parents had no idea what it was like for me, knowing that if I made one wrong move my parents would be killed. And it was hard for my parents too, since they were responsible for my life. It wasn't easy to make the decisions we did, and it was harder to stick to those choices."
"And how did- how did they react?"
Draco rubbed his face tiredly. "It was a long conversation, but they want you to stay with them again, if you're not too angry."
"I'm not angry!" Hermione exclaimed. "I thought they were angry at me."
"I think you should be," he said decisively. "After what they said- they're your parents, after all."
"Maybe I should be, but at the moment I don't care. I'm just happy that they're safe, and I'm safe, and we can be together again." Hermione beamed at Draco. "I can forgive them for this, Draco. But- they didn't invite you and Neville to stay too?"
"They did, but I insisted we'd only be in the way. We'll have dinner with the three of you tonight, though." He stood up. "So there you have it."
"I take back every awful thing I ever said about you," she said, her eyes dancing.
"Oh? Like what?"
"That you're foul and pathetic. Honestly, I could kiss you right now."
"I'm always open to kisses."
"I was just joking," she said, her eyes wide.
He chuckled softly. "So was I."
Reaching out, Hermione caught Draco's hand. "Thank you so much."
He simply looked at her and nodded. "You'd better get packing," he said, turning around and heading out the door.
At dinner it was decided that Hermione would remain in Australia with her parents for an extra month, because everyone agreed she needed a vacation. She conceded, since school was starting a month late while the castle was being repaired. Draco and Neville were to fix up the loose ends in Melbourne. Hermione didn't want to impose on them, but they insisted.
Since Hermione had only packed for one night, she returned to the hotel the next day to pack the rest of her things. She was only half done with her packing when there was a soft knock on the door. "Come in," she called, and Draco poked his head into the room.
"Done yet?" he asked.
"No," she replied, "still lots to do." She gestured at the clothes, books, and other various objects on the bed.
"Mind if I stay for a bit?" Draco asked, opening the door wider.
"Not at all," Hermione said absently, folding some jumpers. "Have a seat."
Draco perched on the chair by the desk. He watched her fold her clothes for a few moments. "Why don't you use magic? You're not scared of it now, are you?"
Hermione shook her head. "No, but I don't want to use it if I can do something otherwise- especially around my parents. It might frighten them."
"Are you guys all right now? Are you all right?"
"We've been better," Hermione answered slowly, wondering at Draco's concern. "They're a bit distant, a bit cold. I try not to mention magic around them. They don't trust me. And after all I've done, I'm not surprised."
"They just feel a bit betrayed. Their little girl got one over them, went off to battle, and left them helpless. They'll come around."
"Neville says you're going back to England ahead of us."
"I'd rather catch the summer there while I can."
"When are you leaving?"
"I don't know. Maybe in a few days. Not immediately, if that's what you're wondering. Unless you want me gone, that is."
Hermione closed the lid on her suitcase. "Of course not." She turned around to face him, feeling oddly shy and nervous. "Draco, I want to thank you. I know I haven't been the easiest person to be with these last few days, but you've been wonderful. You've helped me more than I expected. I don't know how to pay you back." It was true. She hadn't realized how much of a help he had been, how much his support had meant to her.
Draco nodded curtly. "You're welcome, and you don't have to pay me back." He stood and grabbed her suitcase from the bed. "Come on, your parents will be waiting back at the house."
He seemed impatient for her to leave, and Hermione had no idea why. She meekly followed him into the living room and to the fireplace. "I'll see you tomorrow, right?"
Again, Draco gave a sharp nod. Neville came out of his room to say goodbye. "See you tomorrow at breakfast!"
Neville correctly predicted the arrival of the Hogwarts letters, which came the next day. Hermione scanned through the list of required books and skipped to a separate page. "Oh." She didn't finish reading the rest of the letter but sagged in her seat with her face in her hands.
"What's the matter?" Mr. Granger asked.
"I- I didn't get Head Girl," Hermione muttered, her voice muffled by her hands. "It went to someone who didn't skip last year."
Hermione's parents and Neville gathered around her, trying to console her, saying that it was just a position anyway and that Hermione was mature enough to give up the position even though she knew she also deserved it. Their conversation stopped when Draco threw the crumpled up letter down on the table.
"Stupid," he pronounced. "Who cares if you missed a year of school? You're more deserving than anyone in our year, and anyone in the year below us. And so what if she's had perfect attendance every single day of every single year? Did she save the Wizarding world from the Dark Lord? I don't think so!"
His outburst seemed to cheer Hermione up. "Thanks, Draco. I needed to hear that."
"Don't you have a letter, Draco? Neville and Hermione got theirs."
Draco shook his head. "I won't be going back to Hogwarts. I didn't miss too much, so Mother's hired a private tutor for me, and I'll take the NEWTs with everyone else."
"You aren't going back to Hogwarts?" Hermione asked, surprised. She hadn't thought that he wouldn't be in her year anymore. "It'll be strange, not having you around."
He shrugged. "It was strange not having you around too, last year. You'll get used to it."
"You will write, though?"
"I suppose," he shrugged again, looking slightly bewildered at her request. He shot Neville a confused glance, but the other boy just smiled.
Five days later, Hermione Apparated into the hotel to say goodbye to her friends.
She and her parents were going to Sydney for a few days, before continuing their tour in other parts of the country. Draco and Neville were leaving Melbourne a few hours after the Grangers.
The boys weren't in the living room, but she heard voices coming from Neville's room, so she headed there. For some reason, they hadn't heard her key in the lock, and continued their conversation oblivious to her presence.
"-just friends, I swear," Neville was saying as Hermione drew closer.
"But they kissed," Draco said, sounding disbelieving.
"Just once, and what with everything else going on, they didn't have time to think of a relationship." Hermione paused outside the door, wondering who they were talking about. Neville went on: "You know that she's a bit miffed at him for not helping her out with this Australia thing."
"He can't afford it anyway."
"True, but it's the thought that counts, at least to her. I'm sure it's somewhat changed her feelings towards him. Why so curious?" There was a smile in Neville's voice.
"I think you know, Longbottom," Draco said, sounding irritated. "I don't need to say it aloud."
Hermione decided to interrupt before she heard anymore. She had a feeling that the conversation wasn't meant for her ears. She stuck her head around the door and smirked when Draco visibly jumped.
"Did I startle you?" she asked, smiling slightly and trying not to look like an eavesdropper.
Draco glared at her, but Neville gave her an uncomfortably forced smile. "Hermione! Didn't expect you to drop by."
"I've come to say goodbye. And I really can't thank you enough," she said shyly, realizing she was going to miss them both. "Really, for everything- for all your help, and your comfort."
"And my money," Draco reminded her, grinning.
"Yes, your money," she agreed, rolling her eyes. "Must you ruin a moment like this with a joke like that?"
"Moment like what?" he asked, feigning innocence. "Anyway, I don't want to hear your sappy thanks and fare-thee-wells, Granger. Just say goodbye and we'll be done with it."
She scowled at him. "Why don't you just say goodbye and walk away?"
"Because we're not leaving for another three hours. Or maybe I was wrong, maybe I do enjoy hearing your heartfelt words of gratitude and praise. Just don't ruin it by crying."
"Hmph." Hermione crossed her arms across her chest and looked haughtily at him. "Fine. Malfoy, goodbye. Thanks for your help, it was much appreciated."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Very nicely done, Granger. I'd almost believe it except for one thing."
"You sounded too angry. Try saying it with a grateful tone instead."
Hermione gritted her teeth. "You are still the most insufferable prat I've ever met," she told him.
"He's just teasing, Hermione," Neville said, chuckling. "Calm down. He's probably as sorry as you are that we have to leave."
"That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard, Longbottom," Draco drawled, sending Neville a glare. "Hurry up and say your goodbyes, so your parents aren't kept waiting." Draco and Neville had said goodbye to the Grangers at a dinner the night before.
Hermione hugged Neville tightly. "Thanks again," she whispered. "If you see Harry and Ron, don't mention Draco, all right? I'll tell them when I'm ready."
"Sure thing," he said, hugging her back. "Have fun. See you when school starts."
She stepped back, surreptitiously blinking away tears. "Draco, wait. I wouldn't feel right without saying a proper goodbye."
He smirked. "All right, say it."
She hesitated, wanting to hug him, but not sure if it was the proper thing to do. They weren't exactly that close, and though she had hugged him several times since they had arrived in Australia, she always worried that it made him uncomfortable. She looked at him uncertainly, and he solved the problem by stepping up to her and wrapping his arms around her.
"Do you always have to worry about every little thing?" he asked softly. "If you wanted a hug, you could have just said so."
She held him tightly, dimly realizing that it was a perfect fit, her forehead resting just at the place where his neck met his shoulder. "Will I see you again?"
"Probably. The Wizarding World isn't that big."
"I'll miss you," she admitted.
It was a moment before he replied. "I'll miss you too." He stepped back and looked at Neville. "What are you staring at, Longbottom? If you're waiting for a group hug, you're going to be sorely disappointed."
Neville just grinned and shook his head. "Wish I had caught that on camera," he chuckled. "Okay, Hermione, not that I want to get rid of you, but the sooner you leave, the sooner we can pack." Hermione bid them goodbye once again and Disapparated, wondering all the while if Draco had been sincere when he said he would miss her, or if he simply said it because it seemed the appropriate response. She felt slightly giddy, although she didn't know why.
Australia was different without her friends, she soon discovered. Although she enjoyed the time spent with her parents, and enjoyed the feeling of being relatively free from worry, she missed them. She missed Draco in particular. She was closer to Neville, but he was quieter, and he usually agreed with her. Draco, on the other hand, challenged her at practically every turn, teasing her and happily pointing out each and every flaw in her logic. Conversations with her parents were all well and good, but there was a different spark to her conversation with Draco. She hated to admit it, but she was getting slightly bored without him.
He wrote to her, updating her on the things he and Neville had promised to take care of. Sometimes it took days for the letters to reach her, and she found herself waiting for them.
After a month of traveling, it was a relief to finally return home. Their house was just as the Grangers left it, and in many ways being back at home was more relaxing than being away from it. Her school supplies had been delivered, and Hermione had a few precious days to enjoy being home and to read her schoolbooks before returning to Hogwarts.
On the first of October, exactly a month after Hogwarts normally opened, Hermione and her friends arrived at the school. Both the war and Australia seemed so far away, and they looked forward to having a normal year for once.
Hogwarts was different for the trio- it had been their first welcoming feast without Dumbledore; the seventh year was larger than before; certain parts of the castle were still off-limits; there were more ghosts; and the Slytherins were nowhere near as arrogant as they had been before. Harry, Ron and Hermione were as close as before, except that Harry spent a bit more time with Ginny, and Ron and Hermione knew that they were better off as friends. But although the year of Horcrux hunting had brought their friendship to a new level, Hermione couldn't bring herself to tell her best friends about Draco. Being with them again made her feel slightly ashamed that she had been too proud to ask them for money, and she felt foolish that she had wanted to punish them over something so trivial.
She would write to Draco sometimes and would receive infrequent replies. Eventually she decided that their friendship in Australia had no place in Hogwarts, not with NEWTs, schoolwork, and other friends getting in the way. Neville himself said that he and Draco didn't bother keeping in touch.
It was already the middle of November when Hermione was forced to tell Harry and Ron about Draco. They had somehow heard- from Mrs. Weasley, who had heard from Mrs. Granger- that Draco had been in Australia with Hermione, and neither boy was pleased.
"Yes, Ron, it is true," Hermione said calmly, although her heart was pounding, her ears roaring, and her cheeks flaming. This wasn't the way she had wanted them to find out. She rearranged her parchments, hoping to buy some time. "He helped me look for my parents. I'm very grateful to him."
Harry frowned. "But why? Why him? After what happened last year, after what happened in his house-"
"He and his family offered to help me when I needed it," Hermione said in a low voice, looking at the other people in the common room. She hoped her friends wouldn't start shouting. "Look, I'll tell you everything, but first tell me why you're so upset."
Ron spluttered. "Well- because it's Malfoy! You never mentioned anything about going to Australia with Malfoy! What if you needed help? What if you needed protecting?"
"It's more the fact that you never told us, Hermione," Harry added. "We trust you, we know you can take care of yourself, but- why didn't you tell us?" he asked, sounding slightly frustrated. "You told us Neville was with you, but you didn't mention Malfoy. If you needed us, you could have asked, instead of asking him." He paused. "You did ask him, right?"
"Actually, he offered." Hermione took a deep breath and began to tell them everything.
When she had finished, both boys were speechless for several long moments. "I'm sorry, I did want to tell you, eventually. But the time was never right, I was afraid of how you'd react," she said, looking at them tearfully.
"You should have told us, Hermione!" Ron said explosively, looking furious. "You should have asked!"
"I know I should have, but you should have remembered!" Hermione snapped defensively, now feeling angry.
"Damn it, Hermione, you know us," Ron said. "We're not exactly the most sensitive people, but we'd have been there if you wanted us."
"And Malfoy- I wrote you several letters while he was there, and you never even said he was with you!" Harry looked hurt.
"I knew you'd be mad. I knew you'd be so worked up on the fact that it was Malfoy, you wouldn't even be sorry you hadn't thought of offering yourselves." She glared at her friends. "But he helped me. Honestly, he made my life so much easier. He was my rock, I don't know how I'd have gotten through it all without him. Look, it's over with. Maybe it's all our faults. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, so can we please put this behind us? It's stupid. Ask Neville- Draco's a better person now."
There was silence as the boys struggled with themselves.
"We are sorry, Hermione," Harry said finally, looking at Ron, who nodded. "We were just shocked. And… it's Malfoy."
"Yeah. I could have asked George for a loan so you wouldn't have had to go with him," Ron added. He looked guilty.
"We'll pay you back now, though," Harry said firmly. "Well, not now now, but soon."
"Thanks. I don't really need the money anymore… but I'll use it to pay back Mrs. Malfoy." Hermione smiled at them, relieved that everything was finally out in the open. She knew that perhaps Draco would have wanted her to be angrier, but it didn't signify. She had carried the resentment for so long and it had worn her out; now she was perfectly willing to let it go.
Christmas break was a welcome relief to Hermione, who wasn't enjoying the new Hogwarts as much as she had enjoyed the old. She said goodbye to Harry and Ron at King's Cross, handing them each a schedule of NEWT revision to be strictly followed, and got into the car with her parents.
She was relieved to find that all anxiety about her had disappeared from her parents' minds; she had been worried that her two-month absence would widen the distance between them again. But her parents treated her like they always did, warning her not to study too hard, because it was the holidays after all.
Mrs. Granger stopped by her room the night after Hermione returned home to catch up with her daughter. They spoke for a long time, about school, Harry and Ron, Neville, and inevitably, about Draco.
"I've been thinking," Mrs. Granger said, "about why he changed. Aside from the war, I think a big reason is you."
Hermione blushed, and hoped her mother didn't see. "Me?"
"You needed him. Based on what you've told me about him, I don't think anyone's ever needed him like that before. You needed him to be a source of comfort, your shoulder to cry on."
Hermione fidgeted uncomfortably. "I think I annoyed him."
Mrs. Granger shook her head. "Maybe sometimes, but not all of the time. I think he reveled in the chance to be something different to someone. He did rise magnificently to the occasion."
"True." She sighed and rolled over on her back, staring up at the ceiling. "He doesn't write to me anymore, though."
"Really?" Mrs. Granger looked thoughtful. "He probably needs time to sort some things out."
"What sort of things?" Hermione asked rather crossly.
"I'm sure I have no idea," her mother said innocently. Then she deftly changed the topic to the Weasley family.
On the day before Christmas, Hermione was helping Mrs. Granger prepare their lunch when the doorbell rang.
Hermione was helping her mother prepare their lunch on the day before Christmas when the doorbell rang.
"Could you get that please, Hermione? I think our guest is here." Mrs. Granger glanced at the clock and smiled with satisfaction. "On the dot, as usual."
"Guest?" Hermione asked curiously. "I didn't know we had a guest. Who is it?"
"You'll find out if you get the door," Mrs. Granger smiled mysteriously.
Feigning irritation, Hermione huffed and stomped to the door. "Just a sec!" she called, as the doorbell rang again. Quickly, she unlocked the door and pulled it open. Her jaw dropped. "Draco!"
He smirked at her, his cheeks and ears tinged with pink from the cold. "I take it your parents didn't tell you I was coming."
"No, they didn't." Hermione turned and scowled in the direction of the kitchen, but a smile broke out on her face again. She was still slightly annoyed at him for not replying to her letters, but decided to forgive him in the spirit of Christmas. "Anyway, how have you been?" she asked, letting him in and waiting for him to take off his coat. "I haven't heard from you in ages. I thought you'd forgotten us."
He coughed, looking slightly embarrassed. "I've just been busy." He hung up his coat and graced her with a large smile. "How have you been? The Head Girl still getting to you?"
Hermione tried to smirk, despite feeling her legs turn to mush at his smile. She frowned mentally- what the hell was wrong with her? "Martina stopped being so cocky after I found her trying to sneak in to one of the off-limits sections, the one just off the entrance hall. Construction is still going on there, but students like to use those places to… well, you know. Same as ever."
He chuckled. "Did you turn her in?"
"Sometimes I find blackmail more effective," she grinned.
"Really?" His eyebrows rose, and he looked at her appreciatively. "Well done, Granger."
She blushed. "Well, I didn't really blackmail her, although I could have. I just told her that I wouldn't tell anyone, but if she wasn't careful I might accidentally let something slip."
They walked into the living room, and Mrs. Granger appeared from the kitchen. "Right on time, Draco," she said, waving at him. "Make yourself comfortable. Hermione, just stay and catch up with Draco, we're about done here anyway."
"Thanks, Mum." Hermione sat down beside Draco on the sofa. "Have you visited my parents before?"
"A few times. There were some things that had to be taken care of, some papers that the Ministry wanted signed, since they're Muggles and all."
She remembered something. "Oh, Draco, I… told Harry and Ron about how you went to Australia with us."
"I know, they sent me a thank-you card," he snickered.
She stared at him. "Really?"
He laughed out right. "No, not really. Although Longbottom wrote and warned me that they were taking it extraordinarily well. He said I should expect either a Howler, in case it was a ruse, or a thank-you card, since they seemed so guilty that they had forgotten to take care of you. Fortunately, I got neither."
"Right. But you got my letters, right?" Hermione asked her question in a casual tone, although she was blushing slightly. "It's just that you didn't reply to the last two."
"Er, yeah, I got them," Draco admitted. "Thanks," he added anxiously, as if he thought that was what she wanted to hear.
"So you've been busy?" she blurted out before she could stop herself.
Hermione was suddenly angry at him. "I don't believe you. I've been busy too but I found time to write to you." She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the coffee table.
"I wanted to focus on my studies." It was true, in a way, he supposed. That she was constantly in his thoughts proved to be very distracting. But his words only caused her frown to deepen, and he sighed, resigning himself to elaborate. "I didn't want to complicate things."
Hermione looked confused, and Draco realized she didn't remember what she had said in those letters, the way she had signed them 'love from, Hermione'. He had agonized over that, wondering if she had just penned them in her haste as a result of habit, or if she truly meant it. In the end, not knowing how to reply, he decided not to. But at this very moment, it seemed she was still waiting for him to explain himself. "I tried to reply, but every attempt seemed wrong somehow. This thing that we have, I didn't want to say something that would change it, because I- I don't think we're ready yet."
Thankfully, she didn't ask him to be more specific as to what 'thing' they had that he was referring to, because he didn't actually know. Some degree of friendship, bordering on more. He wanted more, but didn't know if she did. But perhaps she did, because at his words she seemed to relax, she uncrossed her arms and turned to look at him, a tinge of pink on her cheeks and a small smile on her lips. Relieved, Draco continued. "It was a mistake not replying. Sorry."
For some reason, he didn't mind apologizing to her. Perhaps because he had seen her strengths and weaknesses, and didn't mind exposing some of his own.
Hermione pulled herself together and managed not to give in to the silly smile that was threatening to grow. He'd said just what she wanted most to hear, and what she hadn't allowed herself to think about. He was right, neither of them were ready for another change just yet.
She nodded and looked at him with mock sternness. "Just be sure you reply from now on. Otherwise my next letter will be a howler."
Draco grinned, and was struck by a sudden thought, put into his mind by her mention of howlers.
"Just curious, how are you with red these days?"
"Much improved." She smiled at him slightly. "I think it's the Christmas season- can't avoid red."
They were silent for a while, and Hermione fiddled with the hem of her favorite blue jumper. A thought crossed her mind. "Draco?"
"What's your favorite color?"
He smiled at her, and even she couldn't miss the significance behind his look. "Believe it or not, it's red."
Just then, Mrs. Granger called out that lunch was ready, preventing Hermione from replying. They simply looked at each other for a while, and Hermione smiled back at him, understanding. She stood up and held out her hand to Draco, whose eyes had lit up at the prospect of food. Together they went into the kitchen, where they were going to eat.
Mr. Granger joined them a few minutes later, and Hermione felt filled with a warm sense of satisfaction as she glanced at her family. It seemed like everything was back to normal- they were all together, they were all safe, and they were all happy. And with Draco beside her, Hermione couldn't help but feel that life was going to get even better. She smiled happily at her mother, who was hiding a grin- if Mrs. Granger had her way, within a few years they'd be officially welcoming Draco as part of their family.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed, please review!
The request was basically: Post-DH, EWE. Snarky!Draco, angsty with subtle romance, something significant (but not cliche or expected) is the color RED, and happy ending.