He could say to the month, day, and even the hour when he realized she was someone he could spend the rest of his life with.
It was huge, really. Him. Thinking about life with – with – someone else. Him, who had never before given an ounce of thought to truly sharing his life with another person.
But it was her, and there it was.
They were walking.
Well, he was walking, and she was following him. He did that a lot; walked. He found it helped his nerves, which were always too on edge. Though when walking didn't help, when it wasn't enough to drown out their barbs and their taunts, and their smug grins when they could sense they were getting to him, his walks broke into runs.
When his lungs were burning, and his heart was pounding, and his blood was rushing in his ears, and his feet thumping on the ground, there was nothing. Nothing but the passing of scenery, slowly in the distance and a blur just beside him. Nothing as he ran from that house and their words. Nothing but a cursory realization that he was almost flying.
Today, though, even though he needed to run, he was only walking, because she was following.
Eventually, she got tired of following, and she hurried to walk beside him, arms crossed, and breathing slightly harder than usual. He couldn't help it, he walked fast. She had followed him, and so he felt no inclination to slow down in order to ease her walk. She could go back, for all he cared.
He saw her glance at him out of the corner of his eye while keeping his gaze firmly fixed ahead. He realized she was scowling at him. Well, good, he thought. Serves her right after what they said. Did she honestly expect him to not retaliate?
They'd been trying to force him to explode for months, ever since he arrived there. The Burrow. What kind of name was that, anyway? They'd poked, prodded and needled him. They'd said all kinds of horrible things about him, about his father; he forced their words to roll over him like water on a duck's back.
But today – today, they'd crossed the line.
They'd never before been able to get anything out of him – not a single word. They'd called both him and his father the most wretched names in their ickle Gryffindor vocabularies and still he'd remained silent. So they'd gone after his mother. He'd even seen their hesitation about bringing her up. They'd looked at each other as if steeling themselves, getting one last bit of reassurance before doing it. It only fed his anger.
In a way, he appreciated their attempts to anger him. It gave him the opportunity to practice his self-control. He would sit, and listen, until he was almost to the point of retaliation, but instead of launching himself into the attack, he would get up without a word and leave the house to walk or—should their taunts and barbs have stung especially hard—to run.
At first, he was surprised they let him just leave, considering, but he figured they kept tabs on him somehow.
The first time it happened, he'd only been there a week. He'd walked straight into the woods surrounding the house, and paid no attention to where he went. To be honest, he didn't care if he got lost. He walked hard, away from the house, until the anger subsided, and once it had, he stopped and looked around. The autumn sun was hitting the trees perfectly, making the leaves glow like bright jewels.
He hadn't expected them to attack him again, but they did, and soon it became a weekly event. He knew it was coming when all of them would converge on him wherever he was – the living room, kitchen, his room – staring at him, as if they thought that at any moment, he would blow up on them; curse them, or worse. The longer it went, the more apprehensive they were, and he used their fear to feed his resistance. Sometimes he imagined that he did blow up on them, and it made him somewhat happy.
He never returned toward the house until his anger was gone. That was important.
After the fourth time, he found a tree perfect for climbing. There was a large, thick branch about twenty feet high, next to a hollow place in the trunk. He would climb up there and sit. He started going there to wind down, and he squirreled away any treats he could snatch from the kitchen. It was his tree, and he even carved his initials near the opening to his stash. It felt a little silly; he was seventeen, and still carving things in tree trunks. But it was his tree, and he had nothing anymore. Not his money, his house, his family. Not even his wand; they'd taken that. So he claimed the tree.
Winter passed, and he still returned to his tree whenever they attacked him. Never at any other time, though, for fear they would follow him. On days when he quietly stormed from the house, they wouldn't dare follow him; they were still afraid of him.
"Draco," she called, almost jogging to keep up. "You passed your tree."
He clenched his jaw. "I know that."
"Why didn't you stop?"
"I'm still angry."
She knew him, now. It was April after all, eight months since he'd been sent to the Burrow.
On Christmas day, they'd left him alone. They didn't try to upset him, but then again, they didn't – anything. They completely ignored him. At first, he was thankful, but as he sat in his room, staring at a pile of presents at the foot of his bed, he heard all of them in the halls, laughing and joking, and carrying on.
Not that he wanted to be part of that nauseating, feel-good, family togetherness. Not at all.
Toward dinner – he hadn't left his room all day – there was a knock on his door. He glared at it, willing whoever was on the other side to go away.
"Malfoy," came a tiny voice, and his scowl only deepened. Her.
"Bugger off," he said roughly.
So she opened the door. "Dinner is ready."
He glared at her. "Get lost, Granger. I'm not coming."
She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. "Going to sit up here all day and feel sorry for yourself?"
He was stunned. Since he'd come to the Burrow, she hadn't said one cross thing to him. That, on its own, had surprised him at first, but now he had come to expect it to continue. No nasty tone to her words, no eye-rolls, no snide remarks or rebuttals to his harsh retorts; nothing. He'd quit talking to her at all after only a few days.
All he did was stare at her, so she continued. "I'm not joking, Malfoy. Come and eat."
Her bossy tone snapped him out of his state. "Don't tell me what to do," he sneered. "And leave me alone."
"What are you going to eat?" she demanded, now crossing her arms.
"What do you care?" he spat, and stood up from the bed and went to the door. He tried to close it, but she stuck her foot between the door and the post.
"I don't, but you need to eat," she said fiercely.
"I don't want to eat, especially with you lot. I'll go down later and pick at leftovers."
"Is that the way you really want things?"
He rolled his eyes. "As if they could be any different. Now go away." He slammed the door hard on her foot and she cried out in pain, pulling it away. Then he slammed the door completely shut, hard enough that he knew everyone in the house heard it; felt it, actually.
With a smirk, he turned back to his bed, and the book he'd been reading. He felt a rush of air as the door was forced open, and turned around to see Hermione standing there, wand practically smoking with her anger. She marched into his room and got right in his face.
"Listen here, Malfoy," she said, eyes fiery, and poking him hard in the chest for emphasis. "I could not care less what you do, but the Weasleys are being kind in letting you stay here, so the least you could do is show some respect. It's Christmas dinner, and they want you to eat with them." He opened his mouth to protest, but she rambled on. "And don't tell me I'm wrong, because why do you think I'm here, trying to get you to come downstairs? Harry and Ron and the others aren't going to say anything to you, so just get over yourself and come eat."
During her tirade, he stood his ground, and refused to show any signs of anything. But he couldn't help wanting to laugh out loud. She was almost a foot shorter than he, and much smaller in general, and her hair was as bushy as ever, yet there she was, yelling at him as though she were ten feet tall. He wished he could have seen it from outside himself, watching her poke him repeatedly.
"If I come, will you shut up?" he asked quietly, peering down into her angry eyes.
She hadn't expected that, so she poked him again, harder than before. "Yes."
He smiled and she recoiled as though struck. "You're… unbelievable, you know that?"
She glared at him. "I – "
"You promised to shut up."
She huffed and marched out of the room. He followed her, shaking his head in amusement.
She knew he wouldn't stop until he wasn't angry anymore.
And he was still quite angry. Usually, he thought of other things to take his mind off their words, but today, he kept replaying them in his mind, and thinking of things he should have said. And he'd said an awful lot; they finally got to him, finally got him to react. And then they'd cowered in fear as he reacted.
She kept up with him, to his slight surprise, and they walked in silence.
He hated to admit it, but it was probably her presence that calmed his boiling blood and started melting the anger. He finally slowed, after he'd been walking for nearly five miles, and then stopped. Never before had he walked so far. She stopped beside him a moment later, and gripped her side. He smirked; she must have a stitch.
Ahead of them was a wide-open patch of dirt. It looked dry, at the top, but he knew it wasn't really. It had rained a lot over the last few weeks, and Draco knew the ground was still saturated, especially from the storm the night before.
When Hermione's breathing slowed, she looked up and out over the dirt patch. "You calm yet?"
A fresh surge of rage crashed over him. "No."
"Do we keep walking, then?"
He had to look away so she wouldn't see him smile. She would continue with him until he was okay.
"How can you say that?"
"That – that is your favorite word to remind you of me."
"What's wrong with it?"
"What's wrong with it? You cannot be serious!"
"To start, it's not at all flattering."
"But I like it. No, I love it. It's perfect."
"You're being cruel."
"What? No, I'm not."
"You're making fun of me, of my blood, when you know there's absolutely nothing I can do about it."
"I am not! It has nothing at all to do with that, I promise."
"Then what? My hair? My eyes? If not my blood, then what?"
"Hey, don't get angry. I didn't mean anything like that at all."
"This had better be good."
"Surely you remember. That day? When Potter and the Weasleys attacked my mother?"
"That was years ago!"
"Yes, yes, calm down. Remember what happened next?"
"Well, that was when I first really knew."
"That something – this – was possible."
"How could you have known then?"
"I just did."
After Christmas dinner, things between him and her were different, somehow. He tried to figure it out when he went out to his tree, but he there was no good reason for it. What had happened—when she came to his room to bring him to dinner—should not have been sufficient to change things.
And yet, here they were. She followed him, a few weeks after Christmas. They'd almost succeeded that time by talking about Pansy. Sure, he didn't especially care for the girl, but there was no reason for them to attack her, simply because she'd once gone out with him. And she'd been his friend longer than anyone, so he nearly exploded at them, but Hermione walked into the room right at the moment he'd almost opened his mouth, and he'd simply glared at her and left the house.
She followed him.
He walked past his tree for the first time that day, but he didn't make it far. He noticed as he passed it, and he started thinking about what the tree was, and what it meant to him, and he quickly turned back.
She hadn't expected it, and he saw her, standing right beside his tree. He was immediately on the defensive, thinking she'd come there to continue what they'd started, but as he approached her, he saw that she was leaning against another tree and reading.
"What do you want?" he growled.
She closed her book, and regarded him. "Do you always come here?"
He wasn't angry anymore, but he wasn't exactly in a good mood, either. "What do you care?"
She shrugged. "I don't. You know that." But then she half-smiled, and looked away from him.
He was tired of being all alone. He had no one to talk to, no one to anything to, and despite his efforts not to care, he did, especially when he heard everyone else laughing and happy and oblivious to him. She'd followed him, and now she was talking to him. That alone could have been reason enough for him to open up to her a little, to take whatever interaction he could get, even if it was of their usual variety.
But something had grown in him, too. He was annoyed about it, a whole lot, but he couldn't help himself; he liked her. He thought she was funny. It started in November, when she'd gone off on Harry and Ron, surely and completely putting them in their place. He'd laughed at them, then, and she had smiled at him before leaving her two friends in a huff.
After Christmas, he couldn't help but be drawn to her. Her smile was refreshing, and her laugh a cool breeze.
He sighed. "Yes, I come here." He pointed over his shoulder. "That's my tree."
She looked up at it. "Your tree?"
"Uh, Granger? There's a large obstacle blocking the way."
She tutted. "Oh, that? It's dry. Just walk over it."
"It's not dry. It's been raining for days. It only looks dry on the surface."
"I think it's doable."
"I'm telling you, it's not."
They looked at each other then, and fought a small, silent battle. Eventually, Hermione sighed. "Fine. Do we go around?"
"Only thing to do, really." He started around what he thought was the smaller side of the patch, and Hermione followed behind him. He could sense something from her, and he glanced behind him. Her eyes were sparkling, and she was looking at the dirt.
"Granger," he said, warningly.
Like a shot, she was off, running for the dirt patch. He shook his head and watched as she made it a few steps over the surface. The fourth step, however, she stepped into mud to her ankle, and with her other leg, stepped in mud up to her knee. She stopped then, and looked at him.
"What?" he asked, trying not to laugh.
She tried to pull her left leg out, but her right, which had previously only been up to her ankle, sank in deeper. She hadn't been expecting it, and lost her balance. She threw her hands out in front of her, and they sank to her elbows.
He was laughing now; there was no use trying to stifle it.
"Draco!" she called.
"I told you so," he said, gasping for breath.
"Not a chance! You got yourself in; get yourself out."
She tried to pull an arm out, and the other sank further. Then she tried pulling both arms out, and ended up sitting on the surface of the mud pit, but her arms were free. Slowly, she stood, and pulled up her left leg, straining against the weight of the mud. She managed to put her legs together; then she reached down into the mud.
"What are you doing, you crazy person?"
"I'm wearing loose shoes," she called. "One came off."
"Let it go!" he called, laughing. "Save yourself!"
"I love these shoes!" she said, feeling around in the mud for the shoe.
Draco had to sit, he was laughing so hard. Tears were streaming down his face. She didn't appear to be having any luck finding the shoe. "Come on, Granger. Give it up."
"No," she said, stubbornly.
His laugh subsided as he watched her pitifully searching for her shoe. Then he thought she'd found it. She squealed and made a jerking movement, but the next moment, she had fallen, face first into the mud. He resumed laughing. Slowly she got up, to where she was standing again, and turned around to him.
Her face and all down the front of her were covered in mud. She wiped her eyes, her nose, and her mouth, and proceeded to yell at him as he laughed at her.
"Draco, I'm serious! Please, help me!"
He calmed himself enough to say, "You're the one with a wand, you lunatic."
Even through a face covered with mud, he saw the realization dawn. She scowled at him and pulled her wand out, cleaned herself, then dried the mud around her so it turned into dirt. Then she slowly made her way toward him.
When she was fully clean, she sat down next to him in a huff.
"Thanks for nothing," she said sarcastically.
"No, thank you. My anger has completely dissipated, thanks to you."
"Oh, well, thank goodness. I'm so glad my unfortunate situation was able to bring you up from your pit of despair; that you were able to laugh at me while I could have drowned."
He chuckled. "You wouldn't have drowned. Don't be so dramatic."
"What if I couldn't have got out? What if I'd used up all of my energy trying, and… and… passed out from exhaustion? I would have drowned in mud!"
He looked at her, a small smile on his lips. "Do you really think I would have let you drown?" he asked quietly.
It was as if she got what he meant about the tree without him needing to explain it to her. Which he wouldn't have done anyway.
She started following him sometimes, after they went for him, usually when she thought he'd be especially angry. But those days, knowing she was behind him, his anger left more quickly than the days she wasn't there.
"Want to come up?" he asked one cold day in February. She'd never asked to join him. She usually sat at the base of the truck, not under his branch but to the side, and they would talk, sometimes for hours. He was grateful for any kind of interaction, as long as it was with her.
She looked at him, then up at his branch, then back at him. "Er, no thanks. Nothing against your tree, of course."
"I've got sweets up there," he taunted playfully. "Honeydukes' finest chocolate, Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans, Chocolate Frogs; you name it, I've got it. Plus, hot butter beer."
"Well, it will be, when you charm it to be hot."
"Malfoy," she said and looked up at the branch again. "It's so – high."
"I won't let you fall," he said.
She looked at him. "You don't even have a wand."
He smirked. "You think that will stop me?"
"But – "
"Yes or no. I won't offer again."
"Yes," she said quickly.
"Good. You go first."
She hesitated, then handed him her wand. He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Just in case," she said.
He took the piece of wood from her. It didn't feel right, not like his, but that was to be expected. It struck him that, more than trusting him not to let her fall, she was trusting him not to hurt her, betray her, or run away. Even with someone else's wand, he could do plenty of damage.
She was halfway up the tree before he thought to start up after her.
They sat, side by side, with Hermione practically clutching the trunk for support for the rest of the day, gorging on sweets and butterbeer and talking.
She looked at him then, and he felt a thrill of excitement at the intensity in her eyes. He held her gaze for a few moments, and then she looked away. "Well, you didn't seem too interested in helping," she said, in a much less angry tone. Then she laughed. "I bet I looked ridiculous."
"Yes, you did."
She went to hit him lightly on the arm, but he anticipated her move and dodged out of the way. Determined, she scooted closer and on her second attempt, was successful.
"Especially with the mud all over your face."
She hit him again, this time with more force.
"I wish I'd had some way to capture the moment."
He looked at her and smiled. "What?"
"You don't have to rub it in."
She was very close to him now, and he liked it. Hermione nudged him again, and when he looked at her, she smiled.
"What?" he asked.
He scoffed. "Do I ever?"
"I'm glad you're not angry anymore. I couldn't believe how furious you were."
"If you insist on talking about it, you'll see me angry all over again."
"Oh, right. Sorry."
He picked up a rock and threw it into the mud pit; it landed with a satisfying splat.
"Still," she said, turning slightly toward him.
"Yeah, I know."
Just as after Christmas, things changed after that day. For him, at least. It was small, but it was huge, too. It was life, and he was only seventeen. Almost eighteen, but life was still very much ahead of him, should things go in favor of the Light. He could feel it, and he was okay with it. It didn't mean anything, just that he was assured that he liked her. He had no idea how she felt, but he thought maybe she was a little changed too.
He wasn't involved in the War at all. He'd turned himself in to the Ministry after the incident atop the Astronomy Tower, and was placed on parole and sent to stay at the Burrow for safety concerns. He'd realized he wasn't cut out to be a Death Eater; he had too much of his mother's family in him.
Not killing someone had turned out to be the greatest moment of his life. Until then, he'd always wondered where he truly stood on the issues of the War. He understood both sides, and could see things – most things – from either perspective.
When he'd been given the task of killing Dumbledore, he knew it would be a defining moment in his life, and he was anxious as to the outcome. He knew immediately it wouldn't be an easy task, and he quickly learned he didn't want to kill the old man, or anyone.
But he had to do something, or his parents would be killed, so he kept trying to do it without actually doing it. He wasn't successful though, and he'd never been so happy and so terrified about a failure in his life. When he went to the Ministry, they took his mother too, and put her into hiding.
They – Harry, Ron, Ginny, Fred and George – were awful to him from the moment he arrived. Hermione had been different.
But they left him alone after that day in April.
He didn't know why, and even weeks later, still expected them to attack him again. In a way, he wished they would; he hadn't talked to Hermione much at all since the last time, and he really didn't like that. But he also didn't think he could just talk to her, either.
Not with them always around. Draco was fairly certain Hermione hadn't confided in her friends that she was friendly with him.
"It's still an awful word, especially for someone you claim to love."
"I'm not calling you by it. I always think of you and smile when I hear it. What's wrong with that?"
"It's – I've heard it since entering the wizarding world, and it's never been a good thing."
"It is now. What word do you have for me?"
"Yes. Your hair – it practically glows, you know."
"And you say my word is bad."
"What's wrong with 'shiny'?"
"Might as well call me 'sparkly' or 'glittery' or something."
"Well, it's better than yours."
"No, it's not. Mine has to do with an important time in my life, an important realization. You have no idea what that day came to mean to me. What does 'shiny' have to do with anything?"
"Well, nothing as momentous as yours, apparently, but it was the first word that popped into my head after you told me you loved me for the first time."
"See? My word is from an important even too."
"So do I have to choose a new word?"
"I wouldn't complain."
"But at least this word means something."
"Your new word could mean something too."
"Not as much."
"Honestly? Keep it then."
"You have to believe me; I mean nothing bad by it."
"I believe you."
"Where are you going?"
"Where are we going, you mean."
"Come on, then. We don't have all day."
"Seriously, where are we going?"
"Don't you want it to be a surprise?"
On the first anniversary of his arrival, someone knocked on his door at the unseemly hour of five in the morning. Knocked loudly and repeatedly, until he stumbled out of bed.
When he opened the door, ready to scream at whoever it was, he found Harry and Ron peering at him from the hoods of their cloaks.
"Let's go," commanded Harry, turning to walk toward the stairs.
Draco scowled. "Excuse me?"
"You heard him," said Ron. "Come with us. Now. You have no choice, really. And we'll drag you by your hair if we have to."
With an even deeper scowl, Draco simply obeyed and grabbed a cloak to throw on.
Harry and Ron led him silently out of the house and into the woods, in the opposite direction to the one in which he always walked. Finally, after a mile or so, they stopped. Both of his companions removed their hoods. Draco stood, irritable.
"Okay, Malfoy," said Harry, sitting on a large rock Draco only then noticed. Ron sat on a rock of his own, and Draco looked behind him and found a third. He didn't sit.
"We believe you."
Draco gaped at them, incredulous. "You believe me?"
"Yep. It's been one whole year, and you've been completely unlike yourself the whole time. So, either you're faking it—"
"Which we've ruled out," interjected Ron.
"Or this is you," Harry finished.
"And as we've already mentioned, we know you're not faking."
Draco smirked. "How do you know that?"
"Hermione," said Harry.
Draco stiffened and immediately feared the worst – that she'd told them everything that had happened between them.
"Relax," said Ron, pulling a bag from a robe pocket. "Lemon drop?" he asked, extending the bag to Draco, who shook his head. "Suit yourself," he said, handing it to Harry.
"Hermione told us – enough," said Harry, and Draco had to wonder if he had dabbled in learning Legilimancy.
Still, Draco remained silent.
"Sit," said Harry. "Have a root beer."
Draco frowned. "A what?"
"Muggle fizzy drink. Here." Harry handed him a dark, glass bottle and then gave Ron one and took one for himself. The two of them toasted silently and drank theirs, while Draco stared at the bottle suspiciously.
"What's the matter?" asked Ron. "We bring you out here, apologize, tell you we believe you and trust you, and you won't drink our root beer?"
"You didn't apologize."
Ron shrugged. "Just did, in a way."
"It became a game," said Harry. "And—it was wrong."
Draco finally sat, still frowning at the bottle in his hand.
Ron rolled his eyes. "Give me that." He took the bottle from Draco, opened it with a small pop, and took a swig. "See? No poison." He handed it back to Draco.
He accepted it, but looked at it with fresh mistrust.
"Now what?" Harry asked.
Harry laughed, which completely caught Draco off guard, and Ron scowled. "Trust me, Malfoy. From personal experience, I can assure you they'll do you no harm."
Slowly, cautiously, he raised the bottle to his lips and with one last look at both Harry and Ron and with a resigned sigh, took a drink. It was unlike anything he'd ever drunk before, and it made his eyes water. He wasn't sure if he liked it or not and decided he needed further examination.
"There is the slight side effect of randomly growing sprouts of red hair in odd places," said Harry. "But other than that – "
"Hey!" said Ron, scowling at Harry.
Draco laughed, and the other two looked at him as if he'd spoken in Chinese. "What?"
"You can laugh," said Ron, staring wildly at him.
Draco snorted. "And you are excellent at stating the obvious. Did you really think I couldn't laugh?"
Harry pulled something else out of his robe and extended it to Draco. "Here. This belongs to you."
Draco's breath caught as he gazed for the first time in over a year at his wand. He took it from Harry and ran his fingers along its length, remembering what it felt like. He felt nearly whole again.
"Potter," he said sharply. "Why?"
Harry and Ron looked at each other, and Harry shrugged. "Just didn't seem right for a wizard to be without his wand. Oh, and Molly doesn't know. If she finds out, we'll own up, okay?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "Oh? Really? You'll own that you gave it to me?"
"Of course," said Harry. "What makes you think we wouldn't?"
Harry had a look of pure innocence of his face that made Draco doubly suspicious. He looked at Ron, who wore a look similar to Harry's. "I can't imagine why I'd think that."
Harry and Ron laughed.
"Seriously, Malfoy. You've been friends with Hermione for months now, and haven't at all been the enormous jerk you've always been, as we all expected. We trust her judgment."
"Sun's about up," chimed Ron, taking another sip of root beer.
It was as close as they would ever come to saying they wanted to be friends, or at least, something like friends. But Draco understood, and he accepted it. No matter what they called it, or didn't call it, they were friends from then on.
He sighed and had more of his own beverage. He was thankful that there would at least be a tentative peace between them now, but he shuddered at the thought of what they would say – or do – if they knew he wanted more than just friendship with Hermione.
He imagined he'd come out of it with fewer limbs.
"Good one. Mudsnake."
"Where are we?"
"Where do you think?" he replied.
"Well, it looks an awful lot like that mud pit from a few years ago."
"That's because it is."
"Oh, ha ha. Very funny, Draco."
Hermione crossed her arms. "Why are we here?"
"Now, don't get yourself in a twist." He took her hand and walked to the edge of the dirt patch and positioned her with her back to the dirt. "I need to talk to you, and this seemed as good a place as any."
"Really. We had to come here?"
"Yes." He started pacing slightly in front of her. "We've been together, what? Two years?"
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "One and a half."
"Right. And we've known each other…"
He stopped and looked at her. "Really?"
She pushed him lightly.
"Anyway, our year and a half has been… mostly good, right?"
She smirked. "Mostly; I'd say sixty-five percent."
He looked at her again, a little hurt. "Sixty-five?"
"Okay, maybe seventy-two. And a half."
"Is that really how you feel?"
She laughed. "No, you idiot. Ninety-five or better."
He exhaled, relieved. "Don't scare me like that. As I was saying, I – " He stopped, frowning, his attention turned to something over her shoulder.
"Draco? What is it?" she asked, turning around.
Soon after Harry's and Ron's extension of friendship, everyone left the Burrow except for Molly, Ginny, and him. The War was escalating, and they were needed elsewhere. The hardest part was saying goodbye to Hermione and without telling her, trying to convey how much he really wanted to say.
Like how he needed her to come back because he thought he'd lose his mind if something happened to her. He couldn't say anything like that. He wasn't that kind of guy, but he still felt it.
For the rest of the War, he only saw Hermione and the others once, at Christmas. He spent his days cooking, cleaning, and trying his hardest not to think. He and Ginny became friends out of necessity and a lack of better options, and over the months he came to genuinely like her. Not at all the way he liked Hermione, of course, but she had her own kind of fire. It was different.
And Ginny, being a generally perceptive person, cornered him – literally, in the kitchen, with a knife – about his feelings for Hermione. And because she'd threatened to chop all his hair off, he told her the truth. She nodded once and said she'd thought as much.
Seven months later, in March of the following year, the War ended with Harry victorious. And Hermione was fine – a little weary and beat up, but fine. Things moved quickly then. He was sentenced to house arrest while he awaited the start of his trial and through its duration.
They tried all the big names first, and by the middle of May, finally got to him. He was released on parole again for another three months. He refused all company during those three months, even Hermione's, in order to set his house and his affairs in order. His father remained in Azkaban, so all financial responsibilities fell to him.
Finally, in November, he told her, all full of nerves and stutters and awkwardness, but she only smiled and said she knew. And oh yes, that she felt the same way, and confirmed it most surely in his mind with the most mind-blowing kiss he'd ever received.
"I don't know, look."
Hermione turned around and saw, just a few feet from the edge of the dirt, a sign floating in the air over the mud. It read, "Save me, Hermione!" She turned back to Draco, an amused expression on her face.
"Draco? What is that?"
"Hermione, really," he said, avoiding her eyes and looking very concerned. "You should go see what it is."
She sighed and turned around again. "This is all connected, isn't it?"
"Whatever do you mean?" he asked innocently, looking at her finally.
"I have to go into the mud to get that, don't I?"
"That's the idea."
"You'd better have a really – and I mean really – good reason for this."
"Urgh, Draco Malfoy, you are infuriating!"
"Just go, already."
Hermione took off her shoes and socks and rolled up her trouser legs to her knees. With one last glare at Draco, she started across the dirt. She squealed slightly when she reached the mud and one foot sank to her ankle. The other leg went in halfway up her calf, and she was able to reach the sign. She pulled it up, and there was a string attached.
She looked back at Draco, who was watching her with an odd smile. "What is this?"
"I don't know."
Shaking her head, she returned her attention to the sign and string. She pulled until the end of the string came out of the mud; there was something attached to it, covered in a large glob of mud.
"Draco, seriously," she said, turning to face him.
"Hold on," he said. He'd already taken off his socks and shoes, and he headed toward her through the mud, until he was standing beside her, almost up to his knees. He was just about at eye level with her.
Hermione smiled, but he could tell she was nervous. "What are you doing?"
"Scourgify," he said, pointing his wand at the thing on the end of the string. Hermione watched as the mud disappeared, revealing a ring.
She gasped and looked at him, bringing her free hand to her face. "Draco!"
She looked back at the ring; it was an antique, with a modest diamond set between two green pearls. "I – I don't – what – "
"You know that I love you. Let me love you forever."
"Are you asking – "
Her eyes widened and she looked back at the ring. "I – oh yes, of course!" she said, and put the ring on her finger.
Draco finally smiled and kissed her – it was leisurely but intense, a slow exploration of the taste and feel of her as though for the first time. A few minutes passed – could have been an hour – before they stopped, and only out of absolute need to breathe. He leaned his head against her forehead and took several deep breaths.
"Shall we share the news?" he whispered finally, when he trusted himself to speak.
"Harry and Ron won't believe it," she said, nodding.
Draco took her hand, dried the mud, and pulled her toward the solid ground. "Actually, they already know."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"
He cleaned them both and wrapped his arms around her waist. He knew he was grinning uncontrollably, but he didn't care. "You've said yes."
She grinned back. "I did."
"Now do you see why?"
She groaned, but she was smiling. "I suppose so."
He took her hand and they started walking back toward the Burrow.
Hermione looked at him with a smile. "Mudstone."
"Okay, I like it."
"I love it."
End Notes: Thank you for reading! Thanks to my wonderful betas, Eilonwy and Z, for the excellent work, as always!