Chapter Thirty-One: In the Ashes of the Midnight Sun

(June 10th)

Part 1: The ornate box

The smell of Muggle paint was strong in the air, and he followed his nose until he found himself in the doorway of a very familiar conference room.

Or maybe not.

Mother had redecorated, again, and Draco had a hard time forcing his face not to twist into a scowl.

He looked around, then stepped back to make sure that this was the correct room.

Indeed, it was.

But—Draco took a full step into the room. Everything was wrong. Instead of the sumptuous walls and marble floors, the walls were now a cream colour. Not to mention the carpet on the floor—the bright blue carpet—which was a mural of a Quidditch player who happened to be in constant pursuit of a snitch that he never caught. In place of silently sneering portraits were posters of famous Quidditch players and one of a purple, ogre-looking creature jumping around.

And toys. They were everywhere.

Some were organized on one side of the large room—most were not. Draco frowned with distaste.

His puckered brow finally morphed into an outright scowl when, while wandering further into the room and noting the distinct changes, he nearly tripped on one of the evil little toys. The closest poster, which happened to be of that jumped-up Gryffindor wanker, Oliver Wood, did very little to stifle his cackle. Draco glared. Wood laughed. Draco brandished his wand. Wood flashed a cocky smirk. Draco pondered aloud about which fire spell was best.

And Wood fell silent.

Once he sent the offensive toy flying across the room, Draco brushed his shoulders, pocketed his wand, and turned to leave. And that was when he heard it.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

His head sharply turned, jutting inquisitively, with incredibly observant eyes. And there it was.

The clock.

He could've sworn that he'd told Arcturus take it away. And yet….

Draco seemed to gravitate to it like an old man to a park bench. With cautious fingers, he reached up and touched it. The wood was smooth beneath his fingers, crafted well and finished just as skilfully. It was a Malfoy heirloom, but at the same time, it looked very unlike the same clock that had taunted him the last time he'd been in this room. The wood was lighter in colour, and the appearance of the clock's face was changed to make it fit with the childish appearance of the room.

Childish.

Draco almost snorted at the irony of it all.

He hadn't had a single good memory that took place in this room, but with some time, carpet, toys, and Muggle paint, Mother had managed to redecorate the past. Or at least she'd tried. Such a thing wasn't really possible, even with the toys strewn about the carpeted floor. The past was lurking everywhere: under the layers of paint, in the shadows of the small bookcase, beneath his feet, and ticking right in front of him.

It was unavoidable. Draco reached and touched the glass face.

Her handiwork was impressive, nearly flawless, but the ticking would always give it away. His hands and eyes moved slowly. Draco had no idea why he was being so cautious—or even why he was appraising the bloody thing. It was a clock. Just a clock. An annoying clock, mind you, but it was a clock nonetheless. It made him wonder just why he'd given so much power to an insignificant clock. And now it seemed stupid to resent a clock… even this one. It hadn't done anything to him, per se. True, the ticking rehashed bad memories and had taken him back to a place where he felt most vulnerable, but—it was over.

He wasn't there now. In fact, he was eons past that day and those feelings.

And Draco understood why his mother had redecorated the room but left the clock. To Draco, the clock and this room represented a time of his life where he'd felt off-balance and emotionally exposed. But to his mother, it all was a reminder of where they had come from… and her hope for the future.

"Draco?" Mother called from the doorway.

Amazed that he could hear her over the voices in his head, he turned and blinked. His mother wore a plain navy—not black—dress with the pearl necklace he'd sent her a couple of weeks ago. And it surprised him because she hadn't worn colour since Father's death. Needless to say, navy wasn't exactly bursting with life, but it was a start. Strangely, the fact that her dress was Muggle didn't occur to him until she frowned, dusted an invisible bit of lint off her sleeve, and complained, "I don't care what Pansy says or how many charms she casts on this dreadful garment, it'll never be better than Madam Sphoons. Never."

Draco offered his mother a small, but slightly strained, smile. "You look beautiful, Mother. As always."

And he wasn't just saying that, either. Her hair was curled and swept up into some intricate style and her face was made up and perfect, but those weren't the reason why he'd complimented her. For the first time in a very long time, his mother looked… less haunted and overall relaxed. The perpetual worry lines etched around her eyes had started to smooth, and Draco found that his own silent worries about his mother were slowly disappearing with them.

She smiled. "Thank you, Draco." Narcissa seemed to remember something and exclaimed, "Oh!" He was about to inquire, but she casually walked across the room and gave him a hug. It was a bit odd, and he suspected that Granger had something to do with it. However, he let her hug him and whisper "Welcome back, son" into his ear.

He glowered a bit when she absently straightened his tie, but said nothing.

"You look healthy. It looks like Venice was good to you. Perhaps that's why you didn't write but once."

"Not exactly. It was actually a very long trip. The Venetian Ministry didn't want to cooperate, at first, but all Potter had to do was flash his scar and everyone started kissing his arse—"

"Language, Draco."

The wizard rolled his eyes. "Sorry."

"It's fine. Are you just returning?"

Draco shook his head. "I've been back since yesterday evening."

"Oh?" Narcissa looked intrigued. "Hermione was here for dinner last night. She just so happened to mention that you weren't returning until this morning."

He knew exactly what she was saying, "I know," Draco replied smugly. As far as Hermione knew, he had spent the last three and a half weeks at the Worldwide Wizarding Law Seminar in Vienna. As the weeks passed, he had a feeling that she didn't believe him. Just little things, he supposed. She never asked him about the seminar, or anything for the matter. Pity. He'd gotten a copy of the entire itinerary for nothing.

Perhaps he was just being paranoid.

Yes, that was it.

"That's what I told her before I left. It would've been extremely difficult to explain why I arrived home a day early and spent the entire evening missing in action."

She chuckled. "I think she has too much on her mind at the moment to really notice."

Draco was curious. "What do you mean by that?"

"She's… more restless than usual."

His eyebrow rose slowly. "Restless… how?"

"Well, she was the driving force behind the redecoration of this room. She's working extra, cooking an exorbitant amount of food, planning renovations on her home when she is at home, dragging me around Muggle London to—" Narcissa sighed. "Needless to say, she's running herself ragged and driving me positively mad. And she paces, a lot. I can't stand the pacing. How in the world do you deal with it? She goes back and forth and back and forth and she never stops! Just on and on and—" She cleared her throat. "I just convinced her to go home and take a nap. She's likely wearing a hole in her carpet instead."

It was hard not to chuckle. It amused him greatly when his mother was flustered simply because it didn't happen often. He'd only been able to ruffle her feathers a few times in his life, and it had taken him years to do it. Somehow, Hermione had managed to do it in a few weeks. He didn't know if it was frightening or completely genius. And as he listened to his mother quietly fuss about his… about Granger, Draco considered the possibility that he'd gotten his lack of patience from his mother.

"Mother, the pacing is tame in comparison to her insufferable knuckle-popping."

Narcissa blanched. "Thanks Heavens she didn't subject me to that form of torture."

He just sniffed. "Do you know what was wrong with her? She seemed fine in her letters."

"I suspect it has something to do with the newspapers on her back porch."

Draco blinked. "The what?"

"Oh… she didn't tell you." She dusted an invisible piece of lint off his shoulder. "Well, I suppose you'll find out soon enough."

He didn't like the sound of that. Not at all.

Mother—with strangely perfect timing—asked, "Do you like the room? I only picked the paint colour. Hermione did the rest. I had no idea how to decorate a child's room. It's been a long time, you know, but when I mentioned the project to Hermione just after you left, she just sort of took control over everything. I would've protested, but I got the feeling that it was something she needed to do."

Draco fell silent. "You could've used my old room."

"That had initially been my intention, but we have more than enough space here. And really, out with the old and… perhaps in with the new."

"You didn't get rid of the clock."

Narcissa smiled rather softly. "You noticed, huh?"

"It was hard not to."

"Hermione said you would."

And it was funny because Draco only scarcely remembered mentioning the clock to her. He wasn't sure when it had happened, only that it was late at night and Granger's hair had frizzed in the most atrocious way following a walk they'd taken. Maybe the night before he'd left town? Draco pondered but then decided that the date didn't matter, only the conversation. What had started as an actual conversation had diminished to murmurs on her part and yawning on his. He wasn't sure how or why he had told her the story, but Draco had left comforted by the belief that she hadn't stayed awake long enough to hear it all. Apparently, he had been wrong. And she was right.

"I figured as much."

She toyed with her necklace, and it prompted Draco, who was ready to change the topic, to ask, "Do you like the pearls?"

"Yes, they're beautiful. Where did you get them? And more importantly, who picked it out?"

"Australia and Pansy, naturally. She designed the string and sent them to me in Italy." When she softly chuckled, he added, "I, at least, played a major part in owling the gift to you."

He recognised the gracious yet coddling tone she used when accepting his little gifts when he was a child when she said, "The most important part, of course." Then, she smiled.

Rolling his eyes, Draco shoved his hands into his pockets. "I figured you wouldn't want anything from Venice, since we'll be there at the end of August." A question jumped to the front of his mind. "Speaking of, how exactly did you convince Granger to join us? She wrote me last week to tell us that she'd be joining us. I didn't bother to invite her because—"

"I think you underestimate the strength of a healing woman. She doesn't need you to protect her, Draco. One way or another she has to face these things. And they're going to be uncomfortable, for the both of you, but if you're truly serious about—"

He curtly interrupted her lengthening speech. "Mother."

"She needs a partner, not a protector."

Draco wanted to tell her that he was already privy to that,but decided it would take the conversation down a path he wasn't ready to travel. Talking to his mother about any aspect of his relationship with Hermione was second on the 'conversations-he-never-wanted-to-have' list. It was only trumped by the incredibly embarrassing 'how-many-grandchildren-will-I-get?' discussion. So he stood and blinked while Narcissa explained to him the importance of treating Hermione like an equal partner, a queen even.

"I've seen the way you've treated your past girlfriends, and well, I never approved of them so I kept my distance. Hermione is different. You should always show your appreciation with gifts and trinkets and, for the love of Merlin, be romantic—"

At that, he decided it was the perfect time for a subject change. "I think I left a few robes in my room and I'm going to go…and get them…."

Narcissa smiled. "I understand why this conversation would be a bit awkward."

"A bit?" Draco snorted. "Try, dreadfully." He shifted his weight. "I know what my duties are to her and to the preservation of our…relationship." At that, she raised a perfect blonde brow and he tried to assure her. "I do. Believe me, and we're not…like that. Granger wouldn't know what to do with a trinket, and if I ever decided to be 'romantic,' she would think I was possessed or something. Thank you for the advice, but I'm—we're—going to do things our way."

Instead of looking affronted, Narcissa flashed a wide smile and went about straightening the room. They were meaningless tasks that she could've done with a spell, but Draco, who was a bit confused by her reaction, took to watching her with his back against the freshly dried walls.

He vaguely remembered doing something similar when he was a young boy, except he was likely sitting on the floor with his legs folded Indian-style and a scowl of boredom and disapproval on his face. Now, it felt oddly refreshing to do this, to stand and watch his mother do something pointless without worrying about…well, anything. And Draco found himself wondering if this was what it could be like for him. A simple, worry-free existence. Could he do it? And furthermore, could he be happy with it?

Truth be told, after the last eight years, a simpler life didn't seem so bad.

At least, not in theory.

"You know, Draco," Narcissa said as she turned to him. "You can't get rid of everything just because it's unpleasant. Sometimes those painful things need to be in your face for you to truly appreciate what you've been through…and what you've overcome."

Draco paused. "I—understand that now."

She tilted her head slightly to the side. "You do?"

"Yes."

"Then I have something for you." Narcissa smiled and left the room, returning mere seconds later with a very familiar-looking ornate gold box that was covered with a variety of gems and diamonds.

It looked as old as the Malfoy family. Wonderful. Draco had a really good idea who it belonged to, but asked about it anyway. "What is that?"

"I was going through your father's belongings, and—don't even start, Draco," Narcissa scolded after he made a face. "I found this in your father's office while you were away."

The wizard blinked.

Narcissa sighed when she realised her son wasn't taking the bait. "It's full of letters…letters that were likely written by your father while you were away at Hogwarts. There are other things in here, too…."

Draco blinked again.

Her next words were spoken slowly, carefully. "I know that your relationship with your father was—"

"That has nothing to do with anything, Mother. I've buried my resentment. I'm at the point where I've accepted what he did and understand that he believed his choices to be correct. Have I completely forgiven him? I'm still working on that, but a box of letters written over ten years ago isn't going to change anything for better or worse. All it'll do is waste my time."

"Draco—"

"I don't want them, nor do I need them."

Narcissa always had been unyielding, so it didn't surprise him when she refused to give up on this. Annoying? Yes. Shocking? No. "They could really help you get to know him."

"To be honest, Mother, I know Father about as well as I should—as well as he would want me to. And I only needed one letter for that to happen. Anything else would diminish what I already know." Draco paused. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go retrieve Granger before she wears a hole in her carpet. You should head over to Aunt Andromeda's."

Narcissa extended the box out to him, again. "Just take it. Do whatever you want with it, at first. You never know. You may actually change your mind."

"I know that I won't."

ooo

Part 2: A Man's Courage

The day was passing like molasses on speed—slow, yet a million things seemed to be happening.

In her head, at least.

The solitude was difficult and the waiting was interminable, but before Hermione knew it, the sun had begun its long and slow decline. Still, the evening was far away, and she was beyond restless. And her restlessness had led to a pacing session of epic proportions. It wasn't the kind of agitation that a sprinter felt when waiting on the blocks for a starter's gun to fire.

No, it was the kind of restiveness one felt when being forced to fix something without the proper tools. She sighed. There was a mess on her back porch. And while Hermione's mind had been made up about what to do with the confiscated papers Blaise had delivered several weeks ago, she was actually struggling with was how she was going to fix her problem without reading the article.

Hermione cursed their Anti-Magic charms. It was the reason why she couldn't take down the Stasis charm—the only charm that happened to work on the newspapers—and blow it all to bits.

Who in the hell would put Anti-magic charm on newspapers?

Someone in the business of mind-torture. Or, at least in the business of torturing her mind.

Hermione couldn't help but pace.

She walked from the sink to the table and then back to the sink. Next, she went from the sink to the back door where she spent nearly a minute gazing out at the stacks of newspapers on her back porch. She chewed her lip, groaned, and stared. Hermione shifted her weight from one foot to the other before sighing and stuffing her hands into her pockets. She relaxed before remembering just what was in her left pocket and pulled her hands out as if they were on fire. After walking back to the sink, she took a drink from her coffee cup and started over.

Apollo's eyes never stopped watching her from the doorway, but by the tenth time, he'd taken to licking his paw, and Hermione's feet were hurting. It was enough to convince her to stop. Well, that and the realisation that she'd wasted a full half an hour just pacing. She looked over at her kitten. "This can't be healthy."

Yawning, Apollo trotted to the back door.

"Want to go out?"

He pawed at the door.

She folded her arms across her chest. "Have you learned your lesson?"

The kitten meowed.

"All right." Hermione smiled fondly before opening it and letting him out. "Stay away from the—"

Watching Apollo at that moment was something like watching a moth bump against glass.

As he'd done every single time she'd let him out before, he went for the pile of newspapers. The moment his little paw touched into the protection charm, he bounced off. Not far, but far enough to stun him for a few moments. As she shook her head, Hermione watched him get up and try again. For such an intelligent kitten, Hermione had serious doubts about Apollo's common sense. Perhaps his stubbornness and determination to get to the newspapers always won the battle of wills.

Hermione picked him up and held him above her head. "You'll never learn, will you?"

Apollo looked at the papers, then back at her before meowing.

"I thought not." She cradled him in her arms and walked back to the door, opening it just a bit. "And this is why you get to go back inside." Hermione put him down on the kitchen floor and said, "I'll be back soon." Apollo growled, which made her eyebrow rise sharply for a moment. "Oh, don't start. I gave you another chance and you blew it. We'll try again tomorrow." The kitten growled again but turned and pranced off. Hermione tried not to look back when she turned and left him, but failed just when she started down the steps. She figured he would be off sulking somewhere, but instead she found him at the back door with his paw against the glass.

It was bloody hard to keep walking, but a glance at the stack of newspapers helped her along.

Quickly.

She considered sitting on the pier, but instead Hermione decided to shed her socks, roll up the legs of her trousers, and walk along the grassy banks of the lake. It was the first time she'd ever left the confines of her own property, but a walk seemed like the best thing to do and the lake looked more and more inviting with each step she took away from her pier. It was perfect outside. Cool, but not cold. Overcast, but not actively raining…and it didn't look like rain was in their forecast for the evening. And she wasn't the only person taking advantage of the weather, either.

There was a Muggle on a little rowboat in the middle of the lake, fishing.

Hermione wasn't sure how far she'd walked before the temptation to just get her feet wet became too great. She walked to the water's edge, right to where the grass ended and the rocky mud began, and stood staring down at the water. Hermione took a step forward. She had no idea what she was stepping in, and mud oozed under her feet. It was shallow at this point, still, and yet very murky. Lake water lapped gently at her feet. The first few were like a shock of cold to her system, but it didn't take long for the witch to acclimate to the water.

Hermione closed her eyes and slowly walked out into the lake as far as she could, getting the very bottom of her rolled up trousers wet. But it didn't matter. She was too busy absorbing all the sounds and smells around her. There was an unforced calm in the air, and it seemed that Nature was in one of its ebullient moods. It didn't take long for her teeth to start chattering. Hermione could've placed a warming charm on herself, but ended up ignoring the chill.

In the time she stood there, Hermione didn't find a way to quell her anxiety or lasso her runaway thoughts, nor did she figure out what she wanted to do about the problem on her back porch. She did, however, find a brief moment where nothing even mattered.

She wanted to go out further.

First, she rolled up the right trouser leg even further, then the left—

And that was when she heard the distinctive crumple of paper. Reaching into her pocket, Hermione retrieved the worn letter and held it tightly in her fist. It was last Friday when Ginny's Ural owl delivered everything Hermione had thrown at her in Parvati's office. There was no note. Still no apology, but the fact that she'd given everything back spoke more than a sudden apology ever could.

Ginny had finally made her decision.

She was finished, and more importantly, she was ready to let go.

Hermione wished her the best of luck.

The letter had spent the last three days moving from the pocket of one outfit to another. She had no idea why she was carrying it around. Ms Shepard had asked during her session that morning, but there was no real reason. Or so she thought. Regardless, it wasn't healthy. So, what was stopping her from just opening it, laying it on the surface of the water, and letting it drift away?

It wouldn't be—

The snap of a twig on the bank ended that thought.

Her head snapped over her shoulder. She was ready to reach for her wand to hex first and ask questions later, but froze when she saw that it was only Draco.

The same Draco she hadn't seen in a month.

With a pleased-looking Apollo—who had likely served as his guide—trailing at his side, the blond looked at her peculiarly but didn't say a word. Hermione swore she saw a smile ghost his lips when she first saw him, but she wasn't sure. He could've been smiling at the cat—wait, no. That didn't seem right. They rarely got along. Likes always repelled.

The moment of silence continued, but not for much longer. Hermione looked back out over the lake water one last time before fully turning around to face him.

But she didn't move.

It was strange, but she was so mixed up. Probably because so much time had passed. No matter; the awkwardness that had started to dissipate before he'd left was back with a vengeance. She wasn't quite sure what to say or do. Her first reaction had been to rush over and…throw her arms around him or hit him for scaring her, she couldn't decide which. Just seeing Draco had eased something inside of her chest that she hadn't known was tight. She'd missed him, truly, but there was something that kept her safely in the lake away from him, backed off and in her place.

The first words between them came from him. "Your kitten has a strange obsession with paper, especially the papers on your back porch. You should get rid of them."

"I've been trying to figure out a way to do that without looking at them. Magic isn't an option, sadly."

Draco frowned. "Why are they on your back porch to begin with?"

"The only theory I have is that it's Blaise's elaborate form of self-actualizing torture. Facing fears and whatnot."

"Ah, that actually sounds like him."

Hermione pocketed the letter and sighed.

"You're wet."

It was then that she realised that she'd taken a couple of steps backwards and was now nearly waist deep in the lake. Hermione blinked. "It's not cold." Anymore.

"But it's dirty."

Hermione blinked. "Not really. You should come in."

Draco snorted. "I'll pass. You should come out."

"Take a chance."

"I already am."

There was an awkward pause where they both started at each other. She used the silence to replay those three words in her mind. I already am. There was still a hint of uncomfortable disbelief in his voice—like he struggled to get over the fact that here he was, with her, of all people. And Hermione had a feeling that he would always have that tone—or maybe it would disappear once they made it through this stage. Still, she understood. After all, Hermione couldn't quite believe it herself.

Apollo's purr broke the silence and Draco rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean," he cleared his throat and added weakly. "I've already been in the lake, to save your life. Not in the mood for a repeat. Why are you even in there?"

She put her hands on her hips. "I'm not quite sure, actually. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I needed to clear my head."

"You can't even swim."

"I'm not very far in the water. I doubt that drowning here is an option." She squinted at him. "You really want me to come out, don't you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do, but not because I'm afraid you're going to drown."

"Then why?"

"I have something to show you."

The sound of sloshing water rang out in the silence as Hermione made her way back to the edge of the lake. The chill didn't settle into her legs and muddy feet until she stood in front of him, but it didn't last long. Draco dried her with a couple of quick and silent spells. She stepped on a rock in the grass and winced. And his hand was right there, on her shoulder. His concern was silent, and Hermione wanted to comment on how good he was at that, but with a growl, Apollo pounced on a little rock. It distracted Hermione from the fact that while Draco's hand was still on her shoulder, his eyes were locked on her.

"He clearly needs to get out more," Draco drawled.

"I was just thinking that." Her eyes wandered down to their feet that were mere inches apart. Hers were pale and his shoes were covered in little grass clippings. Hermione looked back up at him, then covered his hand on her shoulder, not bothering to twine their fingers. And Draco did nothing except watch her closely…and let her. The sane part of her brain shut down and as she lifted up on the tips of her toes, Hermione wondered if he'd let her just….

She kissed him with slow, apprehensive deliberation. Every thought, both good and worrisome, fled from her mind when Draco slid his hand to her neck, moved his feet, and kissed her back. His kisses were careful and dominant, but with a hint of intense affection. And Hermione liked that about him.

Draco was who he was, intractable and reticent, especially with his feelings. He fought incredibly hard to keep his emotions private, but he always did something to show her that he cared. So far, he'd done it with a touch and a simple drying spell. Little, but all she needed…all she could really take at the moment. She figured they could build on that.

Just when her shoulders started to sag, just when she had familiarised herself with him again, and just when she started to lean into him, Draco eased up. He didn't move though. With his forehead resting against hers and his free hand on her waist, Draco silently waited. Hermione didn't know why, but she didn't question his closeness, either. Perhaps he was happy to see her. The idea made her smile.

"Welcome back," Hermione murmured, eyes still closed.

He released her a little too soon for her liking. "It's good to be back."

"How long have you been back?"

"Not long." Draco finally looked at her, and she wondered why he looked so intense, so serious when he asked, "How are you?"

"Better," she replied easily. "It was quiet for the first time in a long time. My head, that is."

"Is it still quiet now?"

"Yes, yes it is."

There was nothing after that, at least until she felt two of his fingers reach for hers, hesitantly curling around them. The kiss and the quiet moments after were something that she'd instigated. But him touching her? Now that she hadn't expected. There wasn't a single iota of 'touchy feely' in this man, and it made Hermione eye him questioningly. Was this him trying? Draco quickly averted his eyes. And suddenly, his hand was in his hair and her stomach was tied in knots. She hadn't decided if they were the good kind or not.

So, Hermione mumbled, "How was Vienna?"

"Busy." For the second time, he cleared his throat.

Hermione shrugged, feeling a little discomfited. "So, what did you want to show me, again?"

ooo

Hermione stumbled hard on the landing but didn't fall. She couldn't. Not with Draco's hand gripping her wrist. And it was odd because he'd nearly taken a misstep trying to keep her on her feet. Before her thoughts could take her in the direction where she contemplated what that meant, she opened her eyes slowly…then froze.

She shook his hand off, her heart hammering so hard in her chest that she thought it might crack her ribs. Hermione struggled to breathe but worked harder to keep her hands from shaking.

"Why—why are we here?" she asked him quietly.

The wrought-iron gates to the cemetery were high and imposing and, not to mention, firmly locked with a large rusting padlock. She took an uncomfortable step backwards only to run into Draco's body. His hard hands immediately came down on her shoulders, causing her to tense.

"Why are we here?" Hermione asked him again, more firmly this time.

Draco didn't answer.

"I don't like cemeteries."

"You came to my father's."

"That was different! I did that for Narcissa! I—I did it for you."

Her words hung in the air.

"Draco, why…are we here?"

With his hands still on her shoulders, he guided the reluctant witch to the gates. He moved away from her to unlock the gate with his wand and looked over his shoulder at her. "I wanted to show you something," he said as he pushed open the gate with a loud creak.

Hermione just stood there, arms folded across her chest and her face a mask of disinclination. Draco didn't say a word. What could he say? He just looked at her. She looked at the gates, then at him, and shook her head. His eyes narrowed. And she knew what he was saying, even with no words spoken. Follow me. Trust me. She frowned. It wasn't that she didn't. Goodness, for a while there, he was the only person that she could trust…even though she hadn't acknowledged it. Follow me.

He was nothing if not persistent, and soon, she clasped her hand in his and they walked through the front gates. It was starting to get dark; the sun was starting to set in a blaze of colours that, along with the man with her, provided Hermione with a sort of comfort that she had never known. And she watched the sky to avoid watching the ground. She watched the clouds in the hope that she would forget where they were.

It didn't work.

As they walk past the few graves littered across the once-alive grass, Draco hesitated, and it forced her to look down. Then around. Morbidly, Hermione inwardly mused over how nature didn't bother to exist amongst the forgotten souls in this place. It made her heart ache and her knees buckle. Draco stopped.

"You okay?"

She inhaled. "Yes."

"We're almost there."

Hermione nodded and exhaled; her feet carried her forward, uncharacteristically slowly.

The graveyard they were walking through was old, almost disturbingly so, but full of neglected history. Mossy gravestones lined both sides of the path, with crosses covered in reddish rust, others of wood, blackened and drooping to the ground. The thick grass, yellow here and there with dandelions and weeds, had overgrown many of the graves. This must've been the oldest part of the cemetery, but when Draco led the way into one of the narrow side-paths, Hermione spotted something that she did not expect.

Fresh graves.

The three headstones were close together, the centre one smaller than the others, in the cool shadow of a large tree that rustled in the breeze. Hermione half-expected him to continue on past them, but he didn't. Instead, Draco released her hand and gave her a little push forward. Towards them. She looked back at him only to discover that he had turned his back to her. This was what he wanted to show her, and she was obviously meant to see it alone.

With what felt like a perpetual frown on her face, Hermione looked back at the three graves. She almost turned to leave when she noticed something.

It was plain, simple even, but the engraving of the angel was unmistakable…as were the words underneath:

Matthew Granger
February 22, 1999 – February 4, 2003
His was a man's courage.

Hermione couldn't speak.

Her heart was lodged in her throat.

ooo

Part 3: Liar

For a full twenty-seven minutes, Hermione didn't move.

Draco didn't know what was worse: the sight of her on her knees, head bent, and shoulders shaking…or the quiet sniffles that sporadically escaped her lips. It had left him most uncomfortable. When Pansy and Blaise arrived, hand-in-hand, Draco felt the unease ebb only slightly. When his mother arrived, looking around warily as she stood with the couple several feet away, he finally pushed off the old oak tree he'd been leaning against. And when Potter quietly joined the small group, bearing a large bouquet of flowers and looking just as uncomfortable as Draco felt, he finally walked over to them.

He cursed inwardly. Fuck. He'd forgotten about flowers….

Pansy gave him a nod and left the group to join Hermione. Narcissa followed at a slower pace, but stayed several feet away.

"Did anyone follow you here, Potter?"

The media had been in a frenzy since news of Potter and the She-Weasel's break-up had become public the week before. It was a good thing that they'd spent more energy speculating about the reasons why instead of tracking the hero down. Still, Draco couldn't take any chances.

"No, of course not. I made sure."

Before Draco could reply, Blaise asked, "How long have you been here?"

They all spared a glance in the direction of the two women.

"Around thirty minutes. How is Pansy?" Draco didn't think it would be wise to ask either about their trip to Australia, simply because then he would have to discuss his trip to Venice with Potter. It was another one of those conversations he would rather die than have. He wasn't sure how, but they'd come back different people. He had, too.

"Pretty good, considering."

That piqued Potter's interest. "Considering?"

"Don't worry about it." Blaise slid his hands into the pockets of his black slacks. "How's Hermione?"

Potter's interest didn't wane, much to Draco's dismay. Still, he answered his friend's question while keeping an eye on Scarhead. "She didn't want to come into the gates, and unbeknownst to me, she's been driving my mother mad, but all in all, she's fine. About squeezed my hand to death."

Blaise smirked, but it died the moment Potter remarked with, "Yeah, she does that."

The silence following that comment was so prickly it was almost unbearable. Blaise started chewing gum, Potter stared at the flowers, and Draco tried to stifle the uneasy feeling rising in him. He doubted that he'd said those words on purpose. It was probably just another one of his foot-in-mouth moments, but it did a good job in reminding him that Potter would always be there, lurking. Fuck.

Draco was almost a hundred percent certain that Granger had told Potter about them…and that she'd done it while they were in Venice. All the proof he had was a few sideways looks and murmurs, and he made a mental note to ask her about it later on.

"Has she said anything?" Potter broke the silence.

"No, not that I know of."

The wizard looked around. "Oh, well…I brought these flowers for her—erm, them. Three bouquets…."

Three? Buggering hell. He hadn't even remembered to bring one. "So I see," he frowned.

Blaise guffawed.

"Think she'll like them?" he asked hopefully.

A jaw muscle jumped, and Draco bit down on the inside of his cheek, hard. Blaise answered Potter's question with words Draco didn't hear while he looked over his shoulder at the three women. Pansy was kneeling next to Hermione, while his mother stood over them both. Pansy's hand was on Hermione's shoulder and she looked to be speaking to her. And—Draco sighed. It brought everything back into perspective, again.

He was far above a silent pissing contest with Potter, of all people.

Not about some bloody flowers.

Draco found it was easier to not let his dislike for the wanker show. It seemed that spending a few weeks in a foreign country with him had done wonders for Draco's Potter-patience. True, he still hated him, no amount of time in any country could change that, but…he could at least tolerate him. In short spells. On a good day. Oh well, it wasn't like his tolerance with the wizard would last anyway, regardless of the fact that Draco felt bad for the poor bastard. Not that bad, of course. After all, his empathy reserve was tapped out at the moment.

Three days ago, Draco had been in another cemetery, in another country, doing the same damn thing with Potter. And he was fucking tired of death and the effects it had on people. Not only had he stood there and watched as Potter knelt before his son's grave, he had then been required to stand next to him while a set of Venetian Ministry workers exhumed the casket and prepared it for transport.

Potter had drunk himself silly that night, and Draco had felt human enough to have someone send a hangover potion to his room the next morning. He hadn't felt human enough to talk to him about it though.

Blaise looked around. "Why here, Draco?"

"No one will find them here and—" Whatever he was about to say next was silenced by Hermione.

She moved.

They all watched as she stood, then turned to hug Pansy. Granger's cheeks, from what he could see, were a bit red. Nothing serious. While Blaise and Potter exchanged words, Draco watched as the two witches spoke to each other in quiet tones. Then Mother joined them. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but he figured it didn't matter because Hermione had a small smile on her face. And it was then that he understood that her reaction earlier hadn't been out of sadness.

It made him just a bit more comfortable with this strange situation.

"Look alive." Blaise froze.

He and Potter looked at his best friend incredulously.

The wizard cleared his throat. "No pun intended, of course, but here they come."

Draco didn't bother turning his head because seconds later, Hermione was right there. She smiled at Blaise, but blinked when she noticed Potter standing next to him. Clearly confused by his presence, she stammered before saying, "Harry?"

He almost rolled his eyes when Potter awkwardly replied with, "Hey."

"What are you—?"

Potter shoved the flowers towards her. "These are for you…well, not you, them, but—I just came to pay my respects. Malfoy told me to come—"

She turned to Draco, finally, but he was too busy scowling at Potter to notice immediately. He'd specifically told Potter not to bring his name into this whatsoever. But Hermione was blinking wildly, and Draco figured that he should say something.

Too bad she beat him to it. "Did you—how did this—" She took a breath and tried again. "I don't even know what to say. You all have no idea just how much this means to me."

Draco didn't really know what to say.

"Happy Mother's Day!" Pansy smiled widely.

She frowned. "It's not Mother's Day here."

"Everyday is Mother's Day," Narcissa pointed out with a wave of her hand that seemed out of place for where they were. "Which is why we're having a celebration at the Manor tonight. The elves are preparing a splendid Venetian feast; Andromeda and Teddy are already there. I even invited the Weasleys—well, some of them." There was an awkward pause. "I really should get going to make sure that everything is prepared." Before she Disapparated with a tiny 'pop,' Narcissa looked specifically at Potter and said, "Everyone is invited."

Mother definitely needs to work on her subtlety, Draco thought with a roll of his eyes.

Potter looked severely uncomfortable.

It probably had something to do with everyone awaiting his answer.

"I—I have some last minute things I need to do before the move."

"Tomorrow, right?" Hermione asked.

And her question convinced Draco of something that he'd had a tiny inkling about. Granger had talked to Potter more in the past five weeks than she had talked to him, and he wasn't sure how to feel about that. Was there anything he could do about it? It wasn't like he could tell Granger to stop talking to her friend…and it wasn't like she would listen, anyway. The idea was laughable. The two of them would always be tied together in a way that he would never understand.

During their time in Venice, Draco had begun to begrudgingly understand Potter's need to mend the gap…and to stubbornly understand Granger's need to let him. He would never approve, of course, but in the end, it wasn't his place. It wasn't his decision. It wasn't his life. It was hers. Surprisingly, it was a hard concept for him to comprehend. That particular line between him and Granger had been blurred for so long…it was nearly invisible.

"Yeah, which is why I should get going…."

Potter politely excused himself but didn't make it far before Hermione gave the flowers to Pansy and went after him. The two spoke very briefly before he tentatively hugged her…and she embraced him back. When it lingered, Draco shifted uncomfortably.

"Don't worry, mate." Blaise's voice smoothly cut into his thoughts. "She's yours."

There were times when Draco really hated him. And this was one of them.

"I'm not worried."

Blaise snorted and chuckled when Draco glared at him. Pansy rolled her eyes. Almost simultaneously, Potter let her go, nodded as if replying to something she'd said, and walked away. She waited until he was out of sight before walking back to the group.

"Everything okay?" Pansy questioned.

She looked pleased when she replied, "Yes, I do believe everything is just fine." Hermione retrieved the flowers from Pansy and stood in front of him. Looking over her shoulder, she addressed the couple. "I—Draco and I—are going to put the flowers down. So…"

"We'll meet you both back at the Manor?"

And pretty soon, it was just the two of them again. Draco watched as Hermione took her time laying flowers in front of her parents' graves, then Matthew's. Then she stood at his side. Silence fell between them, and it was a silence filled to the brim with memories and their histories combined; it was a silence that knew too much.

"You told Potter about us, didn't you?" His tone wasn't accusing, just matter-of-fact.

Hermione looked at him. "I didn't need to. He already knew."

Draco said nothing for what felt like forever. Then he muttered, "I forgot the flowers."

Hermione looked at him, amused. "Flowers? After everything you've done, you want to discuss forgotten flowers?" He didn't reply. Anything he said would have been incriminating. Folding her arms across her chest, she waited several minutes before saying, "I knew you weren't in Vienna."

The wizard tensed.

"Your story was solid. Perfect, even, but I knew you were lying the moment I saw you."

He just looked over at her, jaw set.

"It snowed in Vienna for the first two weeks that you were away, rained the last two, and yet, you have a little bit of a tan."

The wizard wanted to scowl at her for being cheeky, but didn't. The overly observant Hermione Granger was back, and he found that he liked her. He would keep her on her toes, but she would keep him honest.

They would work. He would make sure of it.

"You did this, didn't you? You—" Her voice broke slightly, but she cleared her throat to cover it and whispered, "You brought my family back home."

"It was a group effort. Pansy and Blaise went to Australia, Potter and I went to Venice. Truth be told, all I did was handle the paperwork."

"Liar." But she said it with a tiny smile playing on her lips.

ooo

Part 4: And torch the part of me that's you.

Hermione feigned fatigue and excused herself early from the celebratory dinner, but didn't return home. Instead, she walked down the outside steps of Malfoy manor to the gardens below and took off around the faux waterfalls, following a foot path that wound around the waterways and led to the rose garden. It was dark there, and eerie with a combination of sounds: the falling water, crickets chirping, and the distant echoes of laughter. But the further she walked, the softer those noises became until it was just the sound of hooting owls and her footsteps crunching leaves on the concrete.

There were still a few things she needed to accomplish, problems she needed to face and overcome—now. Seeing her parents and son that afternoon had made it appallingly clear. It could wait, but for the first time, the fragments of her life were falling into place, mending and healing. It didn't seem right to end the day without fixing everything else.

Still, it was all too much for one person to have to deal with. So she continued walking, simply following the path, thinking and attempting to shake off her worries.

When Hermione reached the outermost edges of the gardens, she looked up at the night time sky, a very starry night with a full moon. Hermione remembered several points in the last six years when she had looked to the skies with a heavy heart. She recalled feeling so small while her problems felt as enormous and vast and complex as the universe.

Tonight, Hermione looked to the sky for a completely different reason.

When she'd returned to London, she remembered feeling utterly alone and riddled with guilt. When she finally told the truth to Harry and Ron, Hermione had felt relief. After convincing Narcissa to put her husband first, she had felt wiser. Later, while watching a mourning Draco fitfully sleep, she had felt vital—important. After talking to Harry, she had felt strangely happy. When Hermione finally confronted Ginny, she had left with a feeling of accomplishment. After she and Draco left the cemetery that afternoon, she had felt like her strength had been renewed, restored. And tonight, as she watched the stars settle and looked at the handle of Ursa Minor, Hermione remembered where she'd come from, and was glad to have survived.

After everything she'd been through, these residual problems in front of her didn't seem so big anymore.

And Hermione felt…peace.

The moments that followed were epic, as vast and overwhelming as the sky above. Hermione pivoted and swiftly walked back for the Manor with the intention of going straight home and setting the last couple of things in order. When her short, jerky steps weren't taking her where she needed to go fast enough, she broke out in a run. Everything was a blur as she ran up the outside steps, slipped into the Manor, and ran for the first fireplace that she could see. She vaguely remembered hearing her name as she dropped the Floo powder and called out her destination, but it was too late.

She was gone.

Draco Malfoy sprang to his feet in alarm when she came bursting out of the Floo, completely out of breath.

"What the—?"

"The colour—sky—wall—papers—I know!" she told him breathlessly.

He looked at her as if she'd gone completely nutters. "What?"

Ignoring him, she went to the sparse colour wall and closed her eyes. Her hands blindly skimmed the wall, then they came together, and rested on one colour sample. Hermione picked it up. "This is it." She flipped it over. "Autumn Berry." Turning around, she presented the colour sample to the dumbfounded wizard. "What do you think? I rather like it."

Draco blinked. "It's…fine?"

"I can see—" Hermione paused. Wait just a moment. She looked down at Apollo, who observed her with his head slightly cocked to the side. Then, Hermione looked at Draco who was giving her a similar look. She finally asked, "What are you doing here?" He fixed his lips to reply when Hermione noticed that something on her table didn't belong. It was a gold, jewel-encrusted ornate box. "What is that?"

"Something my mother thought would be nice to shrink and put into my pocket," he replied gruffly.

"What is it?"

"Old letters from my father."

She nodded with understanding and placed the colour sample on the end table closest to her. Folding her arms, Hermione walked the short distance to him. "I—why are you here, again?" She stood in front of him, just two paces away, mirroring his stance.

"You left early," Draco pointed out. "The Weasleys were worried."

"I was tired."

"You were lying."

Hermione stepped forward. "And you came to check up on me?"

Rubbing the back of his neck, he rested his hands on her shoulders and replied, "I figured it was the right thing to do…"

"The right thing?"

"Well, because I'm your—" Draco let her go. There was a stiffness about him that Hermione was almost familiar with. His jaw and hands were clenched tightly. Draco was wound tighter than a cheap watch and kept looking between her and his feet. Wonderful. That meant only one thing: he was moments from snapping. But what about? And what was he talking about? As soon as the thought passed through her mind, he made a beeline for the table and picked up the box.

And it all clicked for her.

"Just so you know, Draco." He froze when she said his name. "I'm not one for titles," she assured softly. He just looked at her, shoulders as tense as wire. "You know that. They complicate things that are already complex to begin with." As she waited for his reaction, Hermione's stomach was in knots and her lips were tight as she took a shallow breath. "Why don't we hold off on titles for a bit, yeah?"

Shrugging, Draco set the box back down on the table. "If that's what you want, that's fine with me." He rubbed the back of his neck before he added, "It's not the title that I have a problem with."

"Then what is it?" She watched as he walked towards her.

"I don't have a problem. I was just trying to explain why I'm here."

"Oh."

"I'm…more or less trying to be…supportive. Like a partner."

Hermione looked up at him. "Supportive? Because I've had a long day?"

"Precisely."

She stared at him for a long time before she shook her head. "You're silly."

"Beg your pardon?"

"You've been supporting me, like a partner, for a long time. And…" There was much more she wanted to say, but didn't. Hermione wanted to tell him that if it weren't for him, she would still be stuck in the past. Without him, she would still be drowning in her own self-hatred. Without him, she wouldn't know or appreciate what good friends she had. And without him, she would still be trapped in a world where she carried such heavy burdens on her shoulders, a world that was oblivious to her struggles, and a world that couldn't understand.

"And what?" his voice was low.

"If you want, you can stay. I have something I need to do tonight. I considered doing it alone, but I think…I think I need help."

Fifteen minutes and countless trips back and forth from her back porch later, they dropped the last of the newspapers on the grass several feet from the steps of the pier. Hermione sat in the grass and drew her knees to her chest. She could hear Draco's slightly laboured breaths from next to her, but could hardly see the man in question in the darkness. It was nearly midnight, and the moon was partially obscured by clouds. Hermione had purposely forgotten to turn on the outside lights, figuring that it would be better this way. Draco hadn't questioned anything, and for that, Hermione silently thanked him.

"What now?" he asked after he caught his breath.

Hermione stood and felt around for the last thing she grabbed before they walked out. "Matches."

"Excuse me?"

"Since I can't burn them magically, I'm going to burn them…the Muggle way."

That forced Draco to his feet. "Are you trying to burn your house down?"

"Of course not!" she replied, walking around the pile of newspapers to the steps of the pier. Hermione picked up her wand and after a silent Lumos spell, the tip lit up with a faint light. She then used that light to manoeuvre around her yard, looking for something… "Aha!" the witch proclaimed. "It's perfect."

Draco was at her side, wand tip lit. "It's a bush," he drawled.

"Not for long."

Seconds later, the bush was a metal barrel.

"What the hell is that?"

"A rain barrel."

"Okay…and what exactly are we going to do with it?"

Hermione didn't answer him. Instead, with another quiet spell, she Levitated the barrel and carefully walked to the pier. She felt Draco's hands on her sides as she walked up the three steps, but as soon as she cleared the top step, they disappeared. Hermione concentrated on the levitating barrel and carefully placed it right on the edge of the pier. Draco seemed to know exactly where she was going with all this because he walked away and returned with an armful of newspapers. Unceremoniously, he dumped them into the barrel.

It didn't take nearly as long she's anticipated and before either of them knew it, she was preparing to strike the match. "Wait." Draco turned and walked off the pier. A dumbfounded Hermione stared after him in the darkness for several minutes before he returned…with the gold box.

"I don't think you can burn that."

"Of course not," he turned the box over and what seemed like a hundred letters fell into the barrel. She watched with wide eyes as he shook it—to make sure that it was completely empty—and set it down on the pier. "Go on."

"Are you sure you want to burn the letters? They're from your father—"

"Which is exactly why I want to burn them."

Hermione looked at him.

"Just do it."

She struck the match, and for one moment the flame was the brightest thing in the dark night. With care, she picked up a few of the letters on the top of the pile and brought it to the match. The envelopes quickly caught fire, and Hermione carefully slid them as deep into the pile as she could while Draco watched quietly. When the flames leapt through the pile, he mumbled something and left, returning with several sticks. With unhurried care, Draco handed Hermione one stick at a time to place on the growing fire. And in mere minutes, the sticks were crackling and the heat of the flames played across their faces.

Hermione figured it would be a good time to add the very last thing that she'd been carrying in her pockets for the last few weeks.

The letter. Harry's letter.

She had no reason to hold on to it any longer.

"I thought the Weasley girl had it."

"No," Hermione replied as she added it to pile of burning memories. "She sent it and everything else back on Friday."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

Hermione looked over at him. There was a lot she wanted to say to him, but the words clogged in her chest.

Pensive.

It was the word that came to mind when describing the look on Draco's face as he stood there, solemn, intensely watching the flames spread and grow. Pensive, but not troubled or even melancholy. Truth be told, he looked…relieved.

"Think the fire is strong enough to burn everything?" he asked.

"It should."

Draco paused. "Good."

The smoke rose into the air and they breathed in the tang of burning paper and spruce and something that smelled like rotten eggs. The smell didn't matter, not when the meaning behind it was much more powerful. Fire represented destruction, but it also represented something they both seemed to need in that moment.

Purification.

Hermione slowly began to understand just why he'd burned those letters.

It was the same reason why she'd given up Harry's. It would always be there as a reminder of what had happened, what everyone had lost, and what could have been. They didn't need to keep that kind of memento in a box…or burning a hole in a pocket.

"I understand," she whispered.

A heavy silence fell between them after those two words were spoken. It lengthened into peace as the night seemed to contract around them. Darkness silenced everything, except for the lap of water on the banks of the lake, the crackling fire before them, his quiet breathing, and her own pounding heart.

Draco reached for her in the silent darkness, touching her fingers hesitantly. She looked to him in the usual startled fashion, so natural to her whenever he did something unexpected. But this time, Hermione didn't move. Draco's eyes remained focused on the flames, but then they shifted to her. She looked down only to watch his fingers slide through hers. Their eyes met. And while she blinked rapidly, he seemed to look…relaxed.

Silence persisted, but they stood in peace. Hand-in-hand, they watched as their pasts burned until there was nothing left—only ashes.

The end


Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of JK Rowling. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: First, thanks to floorcoaster for betaing this chapter. Second, wow. I seriously can't believe that we've gotten to this end - yes, the end, cause I decided not to do the epilogue because it was pretty weak and didn't add anything to the story. I'm utterly flabbergasted by the amount of support, love, fangirling, and even criticism that this story has gotten. Thank you all. And can you believe that this story came about because of one question and a ton of dishes?? Insane. I think I should immediately say that there will be NO SEQUEL to this story. I can't imagine that it would be any good anyway, tbh...or dramatic. Broken's Draco and Hermione are tired and they just wanna exist...together.

First, I have to thank…everyone. My beta kazfeist, who went back through thirteen chapters when I first started with her…and beta'd everything. My friends and sometimes betas kate04, who really was my head cheerleader, floorcoaster, who did a lot of hand-holding, and somandalicious, who came in right at the end and really helped me power through. I also need to thank thebigdisaster, who is #2 on my cheerleading squad (I want my cheer, dammit XD), softobsidian74, who is #3 and a major ass-kicker, and seanemma4evr, who give the best reviews, evah. I need to thank my F-list on LJ who listened to me bitch and moan about this story and gave lots of encouragement and huggles. I needed the huggles, for sure. I'm sure there are a ton of people I need to thank, but holy shit this is long and sounding much like an Oscar speech.

So, thank you all and adieu, well, until next story.

xoxo