Final Chapter - Reunion
Draco walked towards the stairs, intent on delivering his charge to her own dormitory. Then, his exhausted mind took in the sight of the stairs. Four floors of stairs. And there were likely more of them once he persuaded his way into the Gryffindor tower.
He looked to his left and saw the stairs down, one flight, to his own common room. At about that moment, an indelicate snore escaped from the girl in his arms as her head fell back against his arm.
His very tired arm.
Decision made, he walked down the stairs to his own room.
~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~
A few minutes later, he walked through an eerily empty Slytherin common area. His house mates had either deserted or died in the recent fight, he presumed. In either case, he was glad that none of them were there right now. He didn't need questions regarding his activity, as he was far too tired to suffer their foolish questions. Besides, being detained for any reason was almost unthinkable because the girl in his arms was feeling heavier by the moment.
He moved quickly to his room and deposited her as gently as possible onto his bed. It didn't matter that it was a rather inelegant gesture, since a better description was that she was dropped there simply because his arms couldn't hold her up any longer.
His next task was to remove her from the restrictive bulk of the cloak in which she'd been wrapped and, to her credit, she tried to wake up enough to help him before she crawled under the covers. He watched her sleepy movements and found that he was highly amused.
Now that she was safe, he had been able to appreciate her lack of attire. He did give a brief thought of giving her something to wear but, truth be told, he liked her this way and besides, he was too exhausted to make the effort. In fact, he was quite certain that he didn't have the energy to do anything more than sleep himself, so, he decided there was no harm in leaving her as she was. There would be plenty of time for both of them to put on clothing later.
He stripped down to his underwear and crawled into the narrow bed beside her. Being the first time he'd managed to have her in an actual bed with him and he took a moment to happily appreciate that fact. When he pulled her close, she willingly curled into him, draping her arm lazily across his torso, as her head once again found his shoulder to be an adequate pillow.
He kissed her softly on the lips and watched her drowsily smile in return. Then, they both drifted off into the deep slumber their healing bodies demanded.
~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~
He awoke sometime during mid afternoon, feeling still tired, though marginally better than before. His little nymph still had both arms around him, though now they were wrapped possessively around his neck and she had one leg draped across his lower body.
He loved it.
As he took the time to analyze the situation, he came to the conclusion that he possibly loved it just a bit too much as there was only so much that his hormones could stand. His next thought was to wonder if she'd gotten enough sleep yet and contemplated waking her, since he'd rapidly come to realize that certain parts of him were quickly becoming more awake by the moment. He smiled at the thought.
Unfortunately, the happy moment was quite rudely interrupted by the sound of voices and then his door being opened with such sudden force that he was surprised that the thing remained on its hinges. He looked up in alarm, not having time to even reach for his wand, and identified the intruders as Ron Weasley, backed the the ever-annoying Potter and oh-so-know-it-all Granger. They were likely the three people, still alive, that he least wanted to see at the moment and he took in the sight of the three of them, standing in the doorway, with identical expressions of horror.
Draco suddenly had the profound thought that, if he hadn't used up all his wishes last night to beg for Ginny's life, he might have traded one for a camera right about then.
While he'd been somewhat reformed over the past year, he doubted he would ever be considered an angel, and felt the compulsive urge to use the moment for all it was worth. There were few moments in life that presented such an ideal opportunity, and before he could even think to stop himself, he spoke. "You could have knocked first," he said, a devilish smirk coming to his lips as he made sure they saw him tighten his hold protectively on the girl who was currently in his arms, still quite soundly asleep.
Ron was the first of the three to recover from the sight of the two of them together, as his temper obviously took control of him. He responded by viciously pointing his finger at the couple in the bed, his voice shaking with immediate and barely controlled rage. "What the hell are you doing with my sister?" .
The danger of the battle had long passed and Draco was well aware of the fact that he'd survived hell in the last twelve hours. While he'd had been alarmed when they initially burst into the room, it only took him a moment to realize that they were no real threat to him.
Once the concept had firmly settled in his mind, he simply couldn't help himself. There were just too many years of animosity between them to simply not continue and Draco thought the Weasel's fury was absolutely glorious. All recently formed alliances aside, he came to the rapid and only mildly malicious conclusion that he would never, ever tire of watching Ron Weasley completely lose his temper.
Draco's smile didn't waver. "Nothing yet, but if you had waited a few more minutes, you might have seen first hand. But she needs her sleep right now, so I'd appreciate it if you kept your voices down," he stated rather smugly.
He was quickly rewarded for the remark by the rather amazing sight of Ron's face as it went from red to almost purple. The only thing that gave Draco pause, was when he wondered if the fellow was going to hurt himself and, unfortunately, came to the realization that Ginny wouldn't appreciate it if he taunted her brother to death.
Ginny stirred at the commotion, causing Draco to disregard any other expressions of interest from the intruders as he turned to look at her with affection. She hadn't yet noticed the others and was looking up at him sleepily. He pulled her close, his smile growing wider as she made a small noise and snuggled closer.
"Get. Away. From. Her. Right. NOW!" Ron shouted, storming forward and pointing his wand squarely in Draco's chest. With a mild feeling of regret, Draco came to the realization that his fun time was over.
Ginny pulled away, blinking as she began to awaken more fully and tried to focus on the person who'd just shouted. Granger and Potter rushed to Ginny's side of the bed. Ginny, still groggy, turned and spotted them, her face lighting with joy.
She reached out and impulsively hugged Hermione, causing the sheets to fall away, revealing her bare upper body. Ginny seemed oblivious to the fact, squealing her joy at the fact that her brother and his friends were alive and well.
"God, Ginny! Get some clothes on!" Ron exclaimed, still standing at the foot of the bed, his hand raising to cover his eyes. Potter was blushing profusely and Granger was speechless.
Draco continued to enjoy the show with every fiber of his being, in fact, he fought to contain his elation as the scene played out before him. He truly felt that he couldn't have paid for better entertainment, despite the fact that it had just deprived him of close contact with his naked ex-nymph.
Ron turned back to Draco, "And YOU! Get out of that bed right now or I swear there won't be enough of you left to bury!" Ron yelled.
Ginny looked down and suddenly became aware of her state of undress. She quickly pulled the sheets up to her neck and looked at her friends, her expression and odd mix of happiness and embarrassment.
Draco at the same time, with a wand pointed threateningly at his chest, got out of the bed, finding himself grateful that he'd left his underwear on before getting in the bed. He raised his hands in mock surrender, still working to suppress the grin that he desperately wanted to wear.
"Ron!" Ginny shouted to distract her infuriated brother. "Put that wand down this instant!" Ron looked at her as if he'd completely forgotten she was capable of speech. She sounded just like their mother at that moment and the tone pulled him momentarily from his murderous thoughts.
Lacking a proper outlet for his pent up rage, he turned his frustration on his sister. "We've been looking all over for you. Worried sick, after Bill told us what happened. You were supposed to be in Gryffindor and instead we find you here. With HIM! Like THIS!!!" he motioned to the bed and their obvious state of undress. "You've been missing for months, and THIS is how we get to welcome you back? Mum is upstairs looking for you and is just about ready to have kittens!"
Draco backed away from the shouting siblings, using the distraction to gather his pants as unobtrusively as possible.
"It's not like I've had any chance to talk to anyone. I barely remember anything since last night!" Ginny shouted back at her brother with equal volume and enthusiasm, causing Draco to make a mental note to never allow her to be that angry with him.
But her explanation did little to calm her brother as his tantrum was now well underway. He turned his rage back to Draco, who had only succeeded in getting one leg into his trousers during the distraction. "You drugged her, didn't you?" Ron accused.
Draco paused as he realized that Ron had now focused that wand back to him. Weighing his options, he figured they wouldn't kill a man who was just trying to put on his pants, so he finished the action before he spoke. "No, Weasley, I did NOT drug her. If you listened to Bill, you'll know that we both needed to recover from our particular adventure last night."
"So you brought her HERE? And I don't even want to THINK about how I just saw her dressed... or...er... not..."
Draco sighed. He really didn't feel like verbally sparring with these morons. He was still tired, and hungry, and he had a pretty girl in his bed that he wanted to get back to. Quickly.
Ginny saved him from responding. "Leave him alone, Ron," she said in a quiet but rather authoritative tone.
Hermione, who was still sitting on the bed holding Ginny, interrupted, apparently hoping to make Ginny see their absurd form of logic. "Ginny, honey, we've got to get you out of here. You don't know what you're saying," she said.
Ginny pulled back, staring at her friends. The immediate threat to Draco was over and she was finally awake enough to pull her thoughts together. Most of the events of the previous night came crashing back to her, right up until the instant that she'd darted in front of the curse aimed at Draco. She suddenly realized that she didn't have the answers to what she held most dear, the reason she'd sacrificed so much over the last few months.
She looked away from Hermione's concerned gaze and let go of Harry's hand, ignoring his hurt and worried expression. She turned to Ron, all traces of anger gone as her tone became desperate. "Ron, tell me. Is everyone alright? Mum, Dad, everybody? Did they survive?"
Ron looked down in shame, realizing that his priorities had been misplaced when his temper took over upon entering that room. Ginny stared at him, eyes wide with fear, clearly thinking that she was about the hear the worst news imaginable. It deflated his temper almost immediately, as he responded, "They're all fine, Gin. We all made it, though for the life of me, I don't know how. "
He looked her in the eyes and smiled tiredly, his renewed sense of relief that they'd survived causing his anger to dissipate as quickly as it had sparked.
Ginny smiled at her brother in love and relief. All was right in the world, just as Elora said it would be. Draco watched as the joy lit her face and felt his heart soar with hers.
"That's so wonderful," she said, her grin widening. She leaned back and closed her eyes, appearing as if an enormous burden had finally been lifted from her. She turned and smiled at Hermione, and then, her gaze settled on Potter.
Draco felt his chest tighten. Despite her words last night, he waited to see her reaction. It was her choice, he knew, and he'd accept whatever her decision. Potter was the hero of the world and Ginny had no memory of his and Bill's efforts to save her. It didn't matter, he supposed. He'd rather not have her judge him by that one rash act.
But her reaction didn't answer his question. She looked at all of them lovingly, so he couldn't tell if there was something special or not for Potter.
After a long, awkward moment, where none seemed to know what to say, she broke the silence. "You all look like you need some sleep. I'm afraid I do too. Whatever happened to me was bad, wasn't it?"
"You almost died, Ginny," Harry answered. "Bill said you were close, very close to not making it."
"I thought so," she agreed quietly.
"It was foolish, Gin," Ron interrupted, his righteous anger returning as he thought about the reason why she was there. "You could have died for what? HIM?" he motioned to Draco, still standing by the bed, watching the conversation intently.
"I had to Ron," she said calmly. "I love him."
There, Draco thought. His heart could start beating again. And once again, he found he could amuse himself with the various looks of shock on display in the room. Potter's was most interesting, as his was filled with the same longing and hurt that Draco had been feeling only moments ago. For the first time in his life, he felt a bit of empathy for the git. But he let himself get over it quickly.
Potter continued to linger near her, once again taking her hand, but she kept her gaze on Draco as he pulled on his shirt. He wanted very badly to crawl back into bed and hold her but he knew that wouldn't be possible for the time-being.
"I'll go upstairs and try to explain what I can to your parents," he said. "I'm sure mine are worried about me as well."
She nodded in response and it became obvious that she was still exhausted, barely keeping her eyes open.
"Are you alright, Ginny?" Potter asked, still looking at her in a way that Draco did not appreciate. Something told him that there would be more from Potter before this was over, after all, the git was more than a bit thick but he tried not to let that dampen his good mood.
"I'm just so tired," she responded, smiling at him and holding his hand tightly. "Can I please just go back to sleep and talk to Mum and Dad in a little while?" she asked.
Potter nodded uncertainly, apparently not wanting to upset her.
She looked back at Draco, "Will you be coming back soon?"
"I'm going to see if there's some food to be scavenged around here, after I send word to my parents," he smiled softly at her. "I'll bring you something?"
"Yeah," she smiled as she lay back down, sleep getting ready to claim her again.
Ron took the moment to try to take some control of the situation. This was SO not acceptable in his view. "Nuh-uh. No way Gin. What would Mum and Dad say? And they want to see you, and NOT all of you, like this."
"I'll stay with her," Granger offered. Ron growled in response. He obviously was unhappy with the idea of her staying in this particular room, but was steadily losing the argument.
"She needs more sleep. They warned us that she would," Draco added.
Ginny nodded in agreement. "Draco, can I borrow something?"
"Certainly," he responded, smirking with more enthusiasm than he felt he ever could muster in ten lifetimes. The girl had a way of making him happy beyond reason. He started digging in his bureau for pajamas that he handed to her.
"You can all leave so I can put these on in private, please," she said sweetly. Draco noted how Ron was absolutely shaking with unresolved fury. It took every ounce of willpower to not openly laugh, though, as the last one out, he grinned like the Cheshire cat at his nymph and she smiled softly back.
"I'm sending Mum down here to check on you, so make sure you stay decent!" she heard Ron call out before the door closed.
~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - -
Arriving in the Great Hall, Draco noticed that Granger was not with them, apparently keeping her word to stay with Ginny while they went to fetch her parents. He would have been more annoyed, but he was too distracted by the fact that he was in desperate need of a shower and some food. At the moment, he preferred to get past the ugly task of facing her parents so he could get on with his own business.
They found the Weasley parents amidst the activity in the Great Hall, Draco immediately noticing how her mother was nervously tending to everyone around her in an attempt to remain calm. The healers from St. Mungos had arrived and Mrs. Weasley seemed busy handing out sandwiches and goblets of juice. When the three boys walked over to her, she looked up hopefully, only to have her expression fall in disappointment when she realized Ginny wasn't with them.
"She's in the dungeons, Mum," Ron announced before anyone could voice a question. "She's alright, like Bill says. It just looks like she needs sleep. She barely woke up long enough to say hello to us."
Draco was surprised that Weasley's voice showed no sign of anger or agitation. In fact, he seemed calm and was trying to impart the same calm to his mother. For the first time since, well, since ever, he almost was impressed by the red-headed boy.
Molly turned to Draco in that moment. "You're the boy who saved her?" she said shakily.
He didn't need to look over his shoulder to know that Weasley and Potter were likely staring daggers at him, and would probably hex him to death if he upset the witch. But he didn't need their intervention, this was Ginny's mother, and besides, it would only raise their hackles further if he didn't act the way they expected.
Putting on his most respectful and polite demeanor, he responded, "I wouldn't say that, Ma'am. I never would have gotten her to the ones who could help if it weren't for Bill."
Molly smiled at him, moving forward and wrapping him in an enormous hug, to the point that he wondered if she might be intentionally suffocating him. He awkwardly returned the embrace, eventually pulling away with a very staged shy smile.
As she pulled away, her happy tears still shining on her face, her expression turned a bit more stern. "Bill also said that you knew where she was all this time, and that you were the one who left the note at Christmas."
He heard Ron give a chuckle behind him, apparently, he was treading on dangerous ground if he answered incorrectly. He schooled his expressions carefully as he spoke. "Yes, Ma'am, I found her a few weeks after she disappeared. I would have told you more, but I was sworn to secrecy," he said, looking earnestly into her eyes.
He glanced up to see that Bill had now joined the group and was staring at him with amusement. He continued to focus on Mrs. Weasley, occasionally giving his most earnest expression to Mr. Weasley as well. "I know she missed you, and she talked about you frequently but I assure you she had a reason for staying hidden. I am so very sorry that I couldn't do more, but I think she'd skin me alive if I broke my word, even now."
Molly looked at him and her expression melted with understanding. "I know she can be a bit of a handful. Thank you for looking out for her."
"It was the least I could do, Mrs. Weasley. I'm just glad that she's back now, safe and sound."
He heard a choking sound come from behind him, and was quite sure it was Ron. It took every ounce of skill he possessed to suppress a grin.
"If you don't mind, Mrs. Weasely, Mr. Weasley, I'd really like to send word to my parents that I'm well."
"Of course, dear," Molly said in understanding.
He looked to Bill, "If you don't mind letting me know where they are?"
"I'll tell you on the way to the owlry," Bill replied. "I hope there are a few still up there. I think most flew off in the mayhem."
~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - -
Ginny dressed in the black silk pajamas, and crawled back into the warm bed, feeling more content than she had in a very, very long time. All was right with the world. She was looking forward to seeing her parents and brothers again, so very much. And as she drifted off to sleep, she couldn't help but give a small laugh over how she and Ron had argued as if they'd spent no time apart at all.
She had barely put her head on the pillow, when Hermione walked back into the room and sat down with a book.
"You don't have to stay, Hermione. I'll be fine."
"Ginny, we're in the Slytherin dungeon and, besides, I promised Ron," Hermione answered rather abruptly. Apparently, she didn't really want to be there either.
"Ugh," she replied, but didn't have the energy to speak further, and began drifting off to sleep again. Her mind had just started drifting into some odd dream about flowers growing around the bed, when she was brutally torn from her sleep once again by the sound of people noisily bursting into the room.
Her temper flared. All she wanted was to sleep and she assumed that Ron had returned to nag her further. She opened her eyes, ready to give him a sisterly piece of her mind and saw... her parents, standing there with their mouths open in a mixture of joy and shock.
She knew they were in the castle, as Ron had said so earlier, but her tired mind hadn't fully accepted the fact.
"Mum? Dad? Am I dreaming?" she said, forcing herself awake once again.
Her mother shook her head, tears now streaming unchecked down her cheeks. "My baby!" Molly exclaimed in response, rushing to her daughter's side. Ginny reached out with open arms and caught her mother's enormous hug, as her mother pulled her into her arms. An overwhelming sense of comfort and peace fell over Ginny in that moment.
"Oh Mum, I missed you so much!" she said, her words muffled because her face was pressed firmly into her mother's bosom.
Her father joined them at that moment, sitting on the other side of the bed. Ginny pulled free of her mother's smothering grasp, and hugged her father with equal enthusiasm.
"What happened, Ginny?" her father asked, as he held her, giving her a kiss on the top of her head.
"Oh Dad, it was amazing. I'm so sorry I couldn't tell you, but they said that it was the only way for them to help. I thought it had something to do with the magic they have but it was so much more."
"What magic?" he asked. "Bill said there were people in the forest."
She looked at both her parents, the twins now had entered the room and were standing near the door. She looked up and brightened further at seeing more of her family alive and well.
"Bill said they were women," George said.
"...and that they were gorgeous," the other completed.
The matching grins on the twins faces made her grin as well. She decided it was best to explain at least a little. There would be plenty of time to relay her entire story later. "They were wood nymphs," she explained, "and I seem to recall recently thinking of how the both of you would get along quite well with them," she answered, wiping away the happy tears.
The matched set of idiotically happy expressions on her brothers' faces in response only made her laugh and cry harder. Her father tightened his hold around her and she relaxed in the comfort of his embrace. Only a few moments later, she was once again sound asleep.
When she awoke again, she was in her father's arms in the Gryffindor common room.
"Come, sweetheart," her mother said. "Do you think you can manage the stairs by yourself?"
She nodded, allowing her mother to wrap an arm around her and lead her up the stairs. "We're all rather tired, Sweetheart," her mother explained, as the walked. "Everyone was up all night. We're just going to sleep here for a bit and go home tomorrow."
Leaning her head on her Mom's shoulder, she found herself looking forward to going home.
~ - ~ - ~ - ~
He and Bill walked together toward the owlry, Draco grabbing a sandwich from a table along the way and mentally working to find the proper words to put into his letter to his parents.
"Nice tactic," Bill said, interrupting his thoughts and motioning back to where the Weasley parents were now moving off, presumably to check on their daughter.
Draco nodded between mouthfuls of food, "I got the impression that it wasn't a wise idea to be on the bad side of your mother."
"You guessed correctly. But, oath or not, you will tell me everything, right now." His tone indicated that there was no room for discussion. Had any other of the brothers spoken to him in such a tone, Draco would have found a way to hex them out of his sight, but this was Bill, the one brother who he'd come to respect. Eventually, the story would come out, and it was best to have the opportunity to at least tell it in a favorable light.
So, Draco did, starting with his first venture to the clearing, to the Christmas presents, to their work studying dark magic. He strategically left out all references to their physical relationship, however. Bill took it all in, not interrupting. During the explanation, they sent the owl, and walked back to the Slytherin common room together, Draco collecting another sandwich along the way for Ginny.
Unfortunately, they arrived in his room, only to find it empty. Draco tossed the sandwich on his desk and gave an uncharacteristic snarl as he muttered something about "Potter" under his breath.
Bill interrupted his rant. "Something bothering you?"
"Yes, something's bothering me. She needs her sleep. She could barely keep her eyes open when I left and they had to get all over-protective and force her to move elsewhere. She was perfectly fine right here."
"Hmmph," Bill grunted in response.
Draco looked at the other, finding that he really wished the elder Weasley would leave him alone to sulk, but apparently Bill had other ideas as he was still standing in the doorway, staring at Draco intently.
Draco only raised an eyebrow in question, prompting the Weasley to tell him exactly what seemed to be bothering him.
"What exactly are your intentions with my sister?" Bill asked, seeming a bit uncomfortable.
He should have expected that type of question. Despite the fact that he'd left out all the details of their relationship, only a fool wouldn't think that there was more than a casual friendship between them. He closed his eyes and gave a long sigh, hoping to clear his thoughts before answering. It wasn't something he'd managed to put into words just yet.
"I can't say I rightly know at the moment," he replied, "It's entirely up to Ginny."
"Care to elaborate on that?"
"Not really. I'm not going to try to pressure her into anything she doesn't want, if that's what you're asking."
Bill seemed to consider his words then spoke very deliberately. "I won't mince words with you, Malfoy. Up until yesterday, you were basically at the top of my list of people that I most hated. In fact, I would have gladly killed you myself, at one point."
Somehow, Bill's admission was hardly news to Draco, but he felt it best to not interrupt.
The Weasley continued, "Somewhere in the last day, I've seen a lot of you that I didn't expect. I suppose that Ginny sees that as well, or she wouldn't trust you like she apparently does."
Draco nodded, saying nothing. He was hoping that her brother might at least be open to the idea of him being with Ginny. It would be favorable to have at least one of her family not hating him.
"I guess I'm saying, that I would prefer that you didn't hurt her," Bill finished his expression serious.
He calmly stared back at Ginny's eldest brother and answered as honestly as he could, "I think you know full well that if I had any intention of hurting her, I wouldn't have gone through saving her, or you last night, for that matter."
Bill nodded, satisfied for the moment. He put his hand on Draco's shoulder in a friendly manner. "I think they moved her up to Gryffindor Tower. That's where everyone is staying for now, taking shifts sleeping until things get sorted out. I expect to see you up there after you get cleaned up."
~ - ~ - ~ -
He arrived at the tower as the sun was setting, feeling just a bit strange giving the password to the portrait at the entrance. Aside from Bill, he was quite sure nobody wanted him there, but it was hardly enough reason to keep him away.
The common room was surprisingly empty. Only a single occupant sat in one of the chairs staring emptily at the fireplace and Draco was almost grateful to recognize the person as Neville Longbottom. The tall boy looked up at Draco, only mildly surprised upon recognizing the newcomer.
He stood up and extended a hand toward Draco, giving him a genuine smile as he said, "Glad to see you made out alright, mate."
Stunned for a moment by the unlikely welcome, he was silent for a long moment before shaking the other boy's hand, eventually responding with a simple, "You too."
Neville sat back in his seat, still looking at him, his expression somber. "You've got quite a story, I hear. Harry and Ron are just about beside themselves."
"Yeah," he replied, not quite ready to tell the story again after relaying everything to Bill. "I'm sure we all do."
Neville simply nodded and Draco was glad that the boy simply accepted him and the situation without judgment.
"Is Ginny here?" he asked, not going into more than necessary.
Neville motioned toward the long staircase behind him. "Upstairs, in the girls' dorm. Her Mum and Hermione are with her," he answered simply.
"Him, Ron and the others are up on the other side, trying to get a few hours of sleep. It's my shift to keep watch, I got a few hours in this morning."
Draco nodded, feeling grateful that he would have some peace from Weasley's incessant ranting. Realizing that he wouldn't be seeing Ginny any time soon, he took a seat on the couch across from the other boy, and both stared into the fire, not speaking for a bit, in a comfortable silence.
"Colin didn't make it..." Neville said suddenly, still staring emptily at the fire.
"Creevey? The one with the camera?" Draco asked.
"Yeah, that's him."
"I'm sorry, Longbottom. I don't know what to say..." he responded. The statement was true. He truly didn't know what to say. He didn't know the sixth year Gryffindor, except for seeing him always about with his annoying camera. Yet, the world was now different, knowing that he'd never be shoving that annoying camera away again.
The other boy nodded in acknowledgment. "There's nothing to say. He wasn't ready to be out there. I suppose we should just be grateful that it wasn't worse."
"It doesn't make it any easier," Draco replied.
"No, it doesn't, but I did want to say thanks."
"Hmm?" Draco responded, confused.
"You found the way to end it, and probably saved us from losing more. You did good, mate. Even if you did keep us on a wild goose chase all year."
Draco gave a small chuckle. Somehow, the compliment from Neville meant a great deal to him in that moment and Draco suddenly realized that he actually had grown to like this boy over the months. He was steady, quiet, trustworthy. He had been the one person that Draco had been able to count on besides Ginny over the past year.
"I couldn't have done it without Ginny. And, by the way, she was the one who kept you all looking in the wrong locations. I just thought I was clever about avoiding you."
Neville gave a small smile at the remark, finding that his efforts had been confounded by the very witch he had been trying to find.
He was grateful that Neville didn't go on about anything in particular. They just sat, each with their own thoughts until late in the evening. Draco eventually transfigured a blanket for himself and made himself comfortable on the couch, deciding that it was as good a place to sleep as any.
- ~ - ~ -
He slept soundly, despite the less than optimal bedding and was eventually pulled out of his slumber by the feeling of a soft hand on his cheek. He opened his eyes to the see the room brightening with morning sunlight, and his pretty ex-nymph by his side, staring at him.
"You know that there are plenty of empty beds upstairs," she said teasingly.
"Yes, and your brothers and Potter are in among them. I prefer not to be murdered in my sleep, thankyouverymuch."
She laughed, that light, tinkling giggle that he'd only heard on a few rare occasions. He loved that laugh.
"I'm glad you're here," she said.
He looked about the room, verifying that they were alone and sat up, pulling her up to sit with him. She was still wearing his pajamas and he realized that he wasn't accustomed to seeing her in so much clothing. The thought bothered him for a moment, but then he realized that he didn't want anyone else seeing her in any less. He decided that it was a compromise he was willing to live with.
"I'm only here for you. They smuggled you away from my room," he said, letting his annoyance show at the recent events. He'd been overwhelmingly disappointed that she was gone when he'd returned and was still spoiled enough to voice his dissatisfaction.
She smacked him on the arm, chuckling at his childish display. She'd seen it before and fortunately, had managed to think of it as endearingly cute. "Don't you start," she scolded as she curled up onto his lap. "I wanted to be with my Mum anyway. They haven't seen me in months. You need to learn to share," she finished, poking him lightly on the chest to emphasize her point.
He gave her his best pout, and was delighted when it earned him a kiss.
"The others will be up soon. I've got to get showered and dressed," she explained, attempting to pull away from him.
He stopped her by wrapping his arms around her waist, giving her the impression of a small child who was having his toy taken away. She looked at him sternly, and the memory of her exploding in anger at her brother made him rethink his tactic.
"Are you sure about the getting dressed part?" he asked teasingly, giving her his most intense look, as it had worked on her in the past.
She blushed and hid her face in the crook of his neck. "I'm sure."
He delighted in the fact that his small bit of manipulation had apparently worked. Continuing along that vein, he said, "I'm starting to have very mixed feelings about bringing you back. I'm not sure I like sharing you this much."
One of the doors upstairs opened, the sound making Ginny jump from her cozy position in his lap. The action made Draco scowl as he looked up to see Potter, sleepily walking toward what he assumed was the bathroom. Fortunately, he didn't look down to see them together.
She used the distraction to pull away from him. As she stood up, he could sense her uneasiness at being seen with him, causing him to feel more than just a little annoyed and once again bringing up his insecurity about her feelings for Potter. He said nothing as she stood up, trying to attempt not to scowl at her.
"I'll see you soon, yeah?" she said encouragingly.
"Yeah," he responded grumpily. She kissed him, but even that didn't lighten his mood as she ran back up the stairs to her own room.
~ - ~ - ~ -
He stalked off to find himself some breakfast, finding a few other early risers in the Great Hall. He spoke to none of them, although he got more than one odd look, and an occasional nod of acknowledgment. Most were still in shock over the battle, lost in their own thoughts as they went through their daily tasks.
While wandering through the area, he noticed that lists of those injured and killed had been posted. He stood in front of the parchment for many long minutes, finding names of former friends and adversaries. He was saddened to see that Parkinson's name was there, as well as Crabbe. Despite the fact that he held no loyalty toward them, they had been companions over the years, and Pansy had at least tried to help in her twisted way.
He stopped by his room after that to shower and dress for the day, but found that the Slytherin common room now held an empty, eerie feeling that he hadn't felt before. Thoughts of former friends, now gone, mixed with the realization of how he'd changed over the year, causing him to suddenly feel oddly uncomfortable. He turned his thoughts to his room and the recent memory of waking up with Ginny beside him brought a smile to his face. He was grateful for having one good memory here during the past year or so. With that thought, he turned to leave the common room for the last time.
By the time he returned to the tower, he hoped that he had procrastinated long enough for most of the occupants to have all woken and left. There had been talk during breakfast that everyone was expected to leave the castle by evening, to begin assessing damage and effecting repairs. He would be going home soon, as would Ginny, and he needed to speak with her, alone, before then.
To his great disappointment, he arrived back in the Griffindor common room to find Ginny having an apparently cozy conversation with St. Potter, so deeply involved in their conversation, that his entry went unnoticed. He hung back in the shadow of the doorway to listen.
"Even Neville trusts him, Harry. He's changed. A lot has changed without you here."
"And you've changed too, apparently," he said, his voice slightly bitter.
"Yes, I've changed. How wouldn't I? Think about it. I spent most of the year living in a completely different world than what we have here. It was amazing, Harry. I want so much to tell you all about it."
Draco continued to stand in the shadows, not sure he liked the tone of the conversation but he clenched his fists and forced himself to not interrupt. He was insecure about Ginny when it came to Potter and he was willing to admit it, if only to himself. She had been Potter's girlfriend, after all, and Potter was the big hero. It wasn't right of him to be eavesdropping but he had an overwhelming need to know exactly how she felt. He decided that, if she was going to choose Potter, he'd rather know immediately, and be on his way, rather than face the humiliation of her telling him directly.
"You spent months with him," Potter replied flatly.
She looked at Potter sympathetically, "Yes, Harry, I spent a lot of time with him. As I already told you, he was my... assignment."
Her words hurt. Draco had hoped that they'd grown past that, but upon hearing her words, he began to doubt even more. He watched Potter brighten in hope and cursed silently for allowing himself to have become so vulnerable.
"Well, now your assignment is over. You're back. I'm back. Ginny, you are all I thought about for months," Potter said taking her hand. "You've no idea how much I've missed you. I can try to forget about what happened downstairs, although why we shouldn't kill him for that, I've no idea. You were practically unconscious for heaven's sake!"
She pulled her hand from his grasp, using her hands to emphasize as she spoke, obviously agitated. "Harry, nothing happened downstairs. We were asleep. That's all," she said sounding as if she'd addressed this issue with him before.
"I trust you, Gin. It's him I don't trust."
She dropped her head, hiding her face in her hands, the anguish of her expression far too visible. She regretted it, Draco was now sure. She regretted ever being with him. He waited quietly in the shadows and braced himself for what he now expected to hear her say.
She looked up and took both of Potter's hands in her own, staring at him imploringly. "Harry, please listen to me."
"Anything for you, Gin, you know that."
A tear dropped from her eye, though she didn't bother to wipe it away. "Harry, please understand that you left me."
He saw a look of desperation enter his rival's eyes in that moment, both young wizards now anxiously waiting on her next words.
She stopped him, however, by continuing what she'd started to say. "Harry, you broke up with me, and then you left. You didn't think that I would be of any use to you. Well, I found a way to become useful."
"You did, Ginny, and..."
"...and along the way, I found a new life and I moved on," she finished.
Draco watched as the color drained from Potter's face. He also realized that he himself hadn't taken a breath in quite a while, and fought to suck in air without making any noise.
"What are you saying?" he heard Potter ask, disbelievingly.
"I'm saying that I fell in love with him, Harry."
Potter got up and started pacing, running his hand through his already messy hair. "You can't be serious! I mean... do you have any idea of what you are saying?"
"Yes," she said softly, "I do."
Draco thought about leaving the room, but he really had no place else that he wanted to go. He wanted to be with his witch. He then decided to just make it appear as if he'd just arrived, so they wouldn't think he'd overheard the whole thing, although he was particularly pleased to have been privy to watching Potter get dumped by the most desirable witch in school. It made up for all the times Potter had beaten him in Quidditch...almost.
Walking back to the portrait, he opened and closed the entrance as loudly as he could without sounding obvious, clearing his throat to draw their attention.
As he entered the room, he saw the two of them in a hug, Ginny trying to comfort, Potter looking a bit like his world had just ended. When they broke apart, Ginny greeting Draco with a pleasant smile, Potter looking at him with a mixture of anger and defeat.
"Hey," he said casually, directing the remark to Ginny. "Potter," he said, as neutrally as possible, to acknowledge the other. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything..." he said, trying not to sound taunting. There were times to bait Potter, but this wasn't one of them.
"We were just finished," she said, smiling shyly at him. He gave her his best, endearing smile in return.
Harry cleared his throat to interrupt, looking more than a little uncomfortable at Draco's interruption. Draco forced himself not to gloat, mostly because he knew that it would only anger Ginny. Potter turned to her, sounding like he was looking for a reason to leave gracefully. "I'm going upstairs to pack. We're planning on leaving right after lunch."
She nodded. "Bill's taking me back later. I have some people that I need to find first to say goodbye," she told him.
Potter looked disappointed, giving Draco a curt nod but said nothing as he began to turn to leave. At least Potter had the character to lose gracefully. Feeling generous, he said, "Potter."
Potter stopped and turned back, responding with a half-hearted, "Yeah?"
"Good work last night," he said.
Potter looked stunned for a moment and Draco presumed that the other was trying to judge the sincerity of the remark. After a long moment, he just said sincerely, "You too," and turned again to leave.
Draco turned to Ginny after his rival had left the area. "Say goodbye?" he repeated, hoping that he wasn't included in that list.
"I was hoping you'd come with me. I don't know when I'll be back here and I wanted to say goodbye to Elora and Reya and the others.
"I'd be honored. Did you want to go now?"
"Now would be fine. Mum packed up my things for me this morning. I think she's already planning a welcome home feast. Bill said he's willing to wait for me to Apparate home together."
"Well, let's go then," he said, offering her his arm. "We'd best tell someone though, I don't want to be accused of kidnapping you again."
- - -
Bill waited for them by the lake as they wandered into the forest, each on-guard. The forest was no longer a safe refuge for them, now that Ginny no longer held the power of a nymph. Nevertheless, they didn't feel completely vulnerable. There were friends there, after all, and they felt that, surely, they would be protected while they went to visit.
Entering the clearing, Draco was the first to notice the glimmer of unnatural movement in the trees that signified a nymph in hiding. He pointed it to Ginny.
"You are going to have to tell me how you do that some day," she said enviously.
"Oh no. I have to keep some secrets from you."
She turned to give him a playful glare and by the time she turned back to the clearing, a half dozen nymphs had appeared. She jumped, slightly surprised by the sudden sight, but before she could speak she was being embraced by her friends.
Draco waited patiently while she spoke with the nymphs, the cheerful beings all eagerly relaying their observations about the battle, each also very interested in hearing every detail of Ginny's experience.
The afternoon passed quickly, Draco contributing very little to the conversation, except when asked to relay his own story, but he was fascinated nonetheless. The nymphs were very empathetic creatures, trying to grow in wisdom and experience by analyzing every detail and nuance they saw in others. As beings of peace, they would never experience war first hand, and were particularly intrigued by what motivated each individual in the battle.
He was particularly surprised by the way they blended very conflicting feelings and observations. They had been saddened by the loss of life on both sides of the battle, yet among the chaos they each had observed things that were positive and encouraging.
With the sun sinking lower in they sky, the nymphs began to bid them farewell as they began to disappear one by one into the depths of the forest. Only Reya remained, and he was about to remind Ginny that it was time to go when the red-headed centaur that had threatened him so many months ago entered the clearing.
Draco once again felt his temper rise as he recognized Tenere, but Reya placed a hand quietly on his arm as he watched his Ginny squeal in joy at the centaur's arrival.
"I thought Ginny talked with you about how it is best to rise above petty jealousies," the slender brown-haired nymph said teasingly.
He indulged in a moment of silently cursing the annoyingly wise creatures, remembering his conversation with Ginny about her feelings about him eventually marrying. Eventually he responded, "She was talking about herself at the time. I didn't realize that she had been trying to tell me anything."
Reya gave a gentle laugh at his remark.
He watched as Ginny's eyes lit in joy as she talked to the centaur, holding his hands as she chatted on about her family and such. Thanking him for his decision about the battle. He watched the centaur's gaze soften in affection, as he'd seen before.
"Tenere is quite taken with her, but she never returned his favor. She only ever felt drawn to you," the nymph told him kindly.
He forced himself to look away from the pair to turn toward the nymph, "While that makes me feel better, I'm still not sure that I trust him."
The nymph smiled, teasing laughter in her eyes. Draco realized that they all seemed to have that same look about them, a mixture of serene calm and teasing mischief. Ginny had never really looked like that in all the months he'd seen her in the forest. She truly never belonged among them.
"Nevertheless, she is quite fond of him. You mustn't be jealous of sharing her friendship."
"I'm not, I suppose," he said. "It's good to see her so happy. She never really was before."
Reya looked over at Ginny as she laughed over something Tenere had said, her eyes alight with unrestrained joy. "She had brief moments when she was with you, but overall, no, she would never have been truly happy here. She's with you now, and those that she loves. Her love of the forest never would have been able to match that. She's where she belongs. Everything is as it should be."
He gave the nymph a wry look. "You sound just like Elora."
The nymph bounced a little and giggled with joy, "Oh, thank you!"
He wasn't quite sure why such a comment would make her so happy and decided he'd just ask Ginny about it later. At the moment, he was drawn back to watching Ginny's interaction with the centaur, as she seemed to have finished her conversation and had jumped into his arms to be embraced in an enormous hug. He fought down the urge to feel jealous, as she kissed him sweetly on the cheek before he placed her back down.
The centaur looked back at her with a look of regret and tried to convince her to stay regardless, and Draco clenched his fists as he resisted the urge to pull her away from the beast.
"You all knew how this would turn out, didn't you," he said to Reya, his gaze still on Ginny.
"It was in the winds, yes, but in the end, we could only hope that she had learned enough to follow the proper path. When she made her choice, we all rejoiced."
"And if she didn't, and I died?" he asked, looking at Reya for her response.
"There were many possible outcomes. We would have done our best to help her in whatever way. She would have been cared for. Eventually she would have found peace, if not happiness," she said. "But it is not good to dwell on what might have been," she continued.
He nodded and turned back to see the centaur departing and Ginny bouncing toward him, her eyes bright with happiness. When she reached him, she compulsively threw her arms around him in a warm embrace, which he happily returned, the memory of the centaur rapidly fading from his thoughts. He bent his head to kiss her, claiming her once again as his own. She would always be his little nymph, mischievous and playful and happy, if he had any say in the matter.
She broke away from his embrace to turn and give Reya a warm hug. "Thank you," Ginny said, "for everything."
Reya simply smiled. "We only opened the door for you. You had to make the choice to walk through."
Ginny looked a bit confused by the nymph's words, making Draco smile. He would have to explain later that he'd figured out the nymphs plan for them. Waving a warm farewell to the couple, the nymph gave a final impish smile and darted off into the foliage.
"Will you miss that?" he asked, motioning in the direction that Reya disappeared. "Will you miss all the power and knowledge that they have?" hoping he already knew the answer.
She thought for a moment, giving him reason for concern, before she answered, "No, there are a few things I might miss a little, but overall, I would much rather be back in my own world."
"With me?" he asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
"With you," she replied, smiling.
Her answer finally lifting the shreds of doubt that had remained with him, even after hearing her conversation with Potter.
"That's good," he said, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her into one more kiss before taking her hand to walk out of the clearing for the last time.
As they exited the forest, the sun was setting, casting the area in a fiery golden glow. The castle in the distance was washed in a golden hue against the deep green carpet of the hills in the distance, the contrast of colors making the area seem ethereal.
While the sight didn't hold the magical aura of the Enchanted realm, it was still striking and, in a way, more beautiful. They paused to take it in, neither saying a word as they walked back to their own world together, holding hands, thinking of their future.
~ - - - -
A/N – Hey folks! Thanks for reading this all the way through. I hope you enjoyed it. It took a while, because, as you can see, the chapter is quite long, and I really couldn't find a way to break it up nicely.
The last paragraph was actually quite difficult to get right, and I'm not sure that it entirely captures the image I am trying to convey, so it may get an adjustment later, but I didn't want to hold up the ending just for that, as it's quite close.
I had a thought for continuing the story, as our couple still has some hurdles to overcome. Ginny still needs to finish school – almost two years worth, while Draco is basically done, but they will likely manage without me.
Thank you again. Your feedback and encouragement for this story have been so very, very appreciated. Particular thanks to those of you who have stayed with me from the beginning.