Disclaimer: Harry Potter and his world belong to JK Rowling. I write to learn. No money is being made.

Chapter 36 - - The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

The next morning, Draco returned to the Manor before breakfast. He wanted to be sure he spoke to his parents before Cassie's anticipated arrival, which was scheduled for eleven.

As he walked through the house toward the dining room, where his parents would be just sitting down to breakfast, he fingered the box in his pocket. Selecting a stone the day before had been easier than he'd imagined, and he'd forgone any additional charms. He knew there were already many spells woven into the setting, and Masterson had admitted that he could not improve upon the work already done.

The ring—and the conversation he wanted to have with Hermione—now weighed on his mind, but Draco pushed those thoughts aside. He needed to focus. His parents were sitting together quietly, Narcissa sipping tea while reading a book and Lucius perusing the paper.

Draco knocked on the door jam, alerting his parents to his presence. "Good morning."

"Morning!" said Narcissa brightly, marking her place and setting her book on the seat beside her. "I'm glad you're joining us."

"Don't I always?" Draco asked, taking a seat across from his mother.

Narcissa glanced at Lucius. "Yes, of course. It's just … with Hermione, we're never sure if you might decide to spend the time with her."

Draco nodded and poured himself a cup of tea. The room remained silent as he took a few sips. Then he set the cup down and drummed his fingers on his knee while he gathered the words. "I've noticed there's been no official announcement about what happened here the other night. I ran into Greg and Pansy earlier, and I almost mentioned Cassie. I stopped myself in time, but I was wondering …. What happens now?"

Lucius folded the paper and turned his full attention to his son. "Excellent question. We wanted to wait until after Christmas to break the news."

"All right." Draco folded his hands on the table and stared at his father, waiting for elaboration.

"Your mother and I have already prepared our statements for the Daily Prophet. Arrangements have been made for a reporter to come to the Manor the day after Christmas and interview us, along with some of the key figures in the final raid the other night." Lucius clenched his jaw. "Potter included. The story will appear in the next edition."

"What about Cassie?" Draco pressed.

"She's part of the story," Narcissa remarked. "We'll introduce her to the reporter and therefore the world. She'll be the subject of scrutiny and attention for awhile, but hopefully not too long. She knows what to expect."

Draco shook his head. "It's so much, though. She's only eleven, and she'll be an instant source of ridicule, speculation. At such a young age, it's not fair."

"That's true," agreed Narcissa. "But it's bound to happen no matter when we bring her home. And better to include her existence with the story of the final roundup of Death Eaters. Hopefully, some of the attention will be focused on that instead of her."

Draco sighed. "I hope so. For her sake."

"As do we," said Lucius gravely before picking up his paper again.

"I'd like to be present for the interview," Draco remarked.

"Naturally." Lucius didn't even glance up. "You are part of this family, and we're doing this together."

Narcissa smiled at Draco and resumed her breakfast.

He sat very still for a few moments, then put a few scones on his plate and a dollop of lemon curd. But he wasn't hungry; the box in his pocket seemed to be calling to him. Without any fanfare, he removed it and put it on the table, far enough from his plate to indicate that he wanted his parents to see it.

"I bought a stone."

Narcissa looked at him first, her eyes smiling. Then she nudged Lucius, who peered around the paper, his eyes slowly following his wife's gaze until they rested on the ring. He raised one eyebrow at Draco and put the paper down again.

"When was this?" he asked, his voice void of emotion.

Draco pulled the box back to himself. "Last night."

Lucius cleared his throat. "It's final then?"

"No, I haven't … asked Hermione yet." Draco swallowed hard, his heart pounding. He was just waiting for his father to say something horrible, something derogatory about Hermione, something … anything.

Lucius grunted inelegantly. "I don't suppose anything can be said to make you reconsider."

"No, Father. I'm sorry you don't approve, but—"

"It isn't a matter of approving or not," Lucius interrupted. "I simply wonder if she's the best choice."

Draco rolled his eyes. "That's essentially the same thing."

"Not so. I find Miss Granger … agreeable enough, but is she really what you need?" Lucius absently tapped the side of his teacup with a long finger. "You're going to be running the company someday … again … and you'll need someone—"

"I can't imagine anyone better to help me with a business than Hermione. She's smart, logical, thorough—"

"But can she handle the additional duties of being a Malfoy?" Lucius demanded firmly. "She doesn't strike me as the type to play 'dutiful wife' when necessary."

Draco groaned in frustration. "I know all of that," he snapped. "Don't think I haven't asked myself all of those questions and hundreds more. But … the truth is … I want her in my future, and I'm simply not concerned with the rest. It will work itself out. I don't know what she would do, but frankly, I don't care, either. She and I can discuss that issue if she agrees."

"I would hate to see her unduly burdened by the role." Lucius spoke carefully, each word chosen with precision.

Draco could only shake his head as he took a deep breath. "I believe Hermione is equal to the task, but if she isn't, then I'm sure she'll simply reinvent the role."

He expected his father to protest further, to spend the remainder of breakfast attempting to talk Draco out of his decision, but Lucius surprised him. He merely set his jaw, gave a resigned sigh, and returned to the paper.

Draco stared at his father, waiting for … something, anything. When nothing happened for a few minutes, Draco turned to his mother. She smiled but shook her head, a silent request that he not say another word on the matter.

Thoroughly confused and suspicious, Draco had a hard time participating in the rest of the meal. Narcissa talked at length about how excited she was for Cassie's homecoming and about all of the plans she had for her Christmas holiday. He answered any questions directed at him, but couldn't shake the odd tension in the air. What bothered Draco the most was that he couldn't decide if the tension was real or if he simply expected it to be present and was therefore imagining it.

As soon as Lucius set his paper down and drank the last drop of his tea, Narcissa leapt out of her chair as though she'd been sitting on a spring. "Do you have everything you need, Lucius? What about the paperwork they requested, did we get it all signed? It's much colder here than in Paris, be sure to take that heavy wool cloak with you. She'll need a hat and scarf—I've got a few sets wrapped for gifts, but what if she needs one today?"

Lucius calmly put a hand on his wife's arm. "Cissa, she won't be setting foot out of doors in England, you know that. It's straight from her boarding house to the International Floo and then here. I'm sure her cloak is sufficient for a Parisian winter."

She smiled fretfully, wringing her hands. "You're right, of course, darling. It's just that—"

Lucius interrupted by pulling Narcissa close and gently kissing her forehead. Draco looked away, not for the first time feeling as though he was intruding on something intimate between his parents. These moments were so rare—that he saw, at least—that they made him slightly uncomfortable. The tenderness didn't mesh with his perceptions of his father.

"Everything will go smoothly," Lucius assured his wife. "I'll be back before you know it, and Cassie will be home for good."

Narcissa sighed quietly. "I know. I can't wait. Thank you, Lucius."

"Of course, my dear. She's our daughter. I would do anything for her."

Draco couldn't help but glance at his father at those words. Lucius was looking straight at him, and something strange happened inside Draco: he believed his father, and he knew Lucius wasn't just talking about Cassie. He'd said that last bit for Draco's benefit.

"I'm going for a walk," Draco muttered. "Fetch me when you return."

Lucius nodded and Narcissa smiled. Draco hurried out of the room and out of the house.


The Malfoy grounds were extensive, though Draco had been forced to sell off some of the outlying acreage in order to pay the blackmailer. The property line was still far enough from the house that in all directions, all one could see belonged to the estate.

There was an extensive garden behind the house, and a large, open field beyond that which extended to a small forest that surrounded the property. There was a lake with a small lake house, stables, pastures that weren't used anymore. Near the lake there was a large, old tree that looked to be at least two hundred years old. Draco used to climb the tree when he was a boy and he'd spent many hours there, usually following disagreements with his father.

Draco stared at the snow-dusted tree, wondering if he dared climb it now. It amazed him that as a child, he hadn't hesitated. As an adult, he was more coordinated, more sure of himself, but the thought of climbing the tree was daunting. Despite the fact that he should be more adept, the years had also added their share of caution.

He sighed and cleared a spot on the ground to sit, leaning against the massive trunk. He took the ring out of his pocket and stared at it. Telling his father had gone better than he'd expected. Lucius almost approved—well, not approved, exactly, but he was at least resigned and hadn't argued too much. He'd said nothing Draco hadn't already considered. All that now remained was to talk to Hermione.

That prospect worried Draco more than telling his father. He had no clue what her reaction might be. Sure, she'd picked him over Charlie Weasley, but that didn't mean she wanted to marry him. At least, not so soon. When he thought about the ring and all that it meant, it definitely felt too soon. They'd only really been together a month.

And yet, at the same time, it felt right. Exactly right; not too soon. It seemed the most natural thing to happen next in his life. He didn't need more time—but maybe she did.

His thoughts turned to the different ways he might broach the subject of marriage, and continued down each path to the varying conclusions.

Soon his mind wandered to other topics, and before he knew it, Chippy appeared beside him with a pop!

"You is being requested at home," he squeaked. "The Mistress is arrived."

Draco jumped up, brushed off his robes, and Apparated back to the Manor. He rushed downstairs and ran through the halls in search of his family. He finally found them in one of the front rooms.

Narcissa and Cassie were sitting together on a sofa, talking animatedly, barely pausing between sentences. Lucius stood nearby, an unguarded smile on his face as he casually inserted comments that went largely unheard. He didn't seem to mind.

Draco watched the scene for a few moments and something tightened in his chest. His parents, Lucius especially, were behaving much differently toward Cassie than they ever had with him. He'd known this to be true, but actually seeing it was something else. He thought he'd been prepared for it, but it still hurt. The scene was sweet, joyous and tender, everything such a reunion should be. But it felt as though he were watching a film, not his own parents.

Draco cleared his throat and strode into the room. Lucius straightened immediately, and his expression adopted the familiar hardness Draco was accustomed to seeing. It made him sad. Narcissa didn't bother trying to school her features. The smile she turned on Draco was one of the warmest he'd ever seen from her. Change would start with her, if at all.

Cassie's eyes lit up, and she leapt off the sofa and ran to him. "Draco!" She flung her arms around him with more force than he'd expected.

"Whoa!" He took a step backward as he returned his sister's hug. "Hello, Cassie."

She beamed at him. "I can't believe I'm really here! With you—" She turned around. "And you. My entire family all in one place."

Narcissa rose gracefully. "We are thrilled as well, my dear."

Lucius merely watched. Narcissa looked at him, then back to her children. "Draco, why don't you show Cassie around. We'll meet on the veranda for tea."

"All right," Draco agreed. He glanced at his father, a knot forming in his stomach. Lucius stood stiffly, his expression a cross between a grimace and a smile.

"I can't wait to see the library," Cassie said, clapping her hands together.

The action reminded Draco of Hermione, and he smiled at his sister. "We'll head there directly." He put his hand on Cassie's shoulder to steer her from the room.

As he turned, Draco's gaze fell on his mother. Her eyes said a silent, 'thank you.'

Draco quickly showed Cassie the front rooms, all designed for welcoming guests of various status and purpose of call. When he was certain they'd walked far enough from his parents, Draco slowed his pace.

"What did you think of that exchange?" he asked.

Cassie smiled knowingly. "Papa … changed when you walked in."

Draco sighed. "I'm anxious to see how this goes. Father had always been a certain way with me, quite different than he's been with you."

"He can't always be switching back and forth," she remarked.

Draco nodded. "I wonder which version of him is truer—or at least, which will win out. I suspect that he is happier with the way he is with you. But his relationship with me is much … older, more solid. He may be too set in his ways to change toward me. Merlin knows he can be stubborn."

Cassie frowned. "Do you really think so?"

"I've given it some thought. I had wondered how he would behave with both of us in the room, and though it was just a small glimpse, my suspicions were confirmed." He shrugged. "There's no way to know what he'll do."

Cassie didn't say anything. She took a few steps away from Draco, then turned toward him. "I thought we were heading for the library. Directly."

He chuckled. "You are right. Shall we?"

Draco showed Cassie all of the house, starting with the library—where they dawdled for some time—and ending at his own bedroom. He even showed Cassie the closet he had transformed into a sitting room for his purposes with Hermione.

The whole time, Cassie had a strange smirk on her face. When Draco asked her about it, she looked dramatically around the room. "You still live here. At home."

Draco playfully narrowed his eyes at her. "Do you have an opinion about that?"

"How old are you?" she asked, leaning against his dresser.

He crossed his arms. "Twenty-five."

"You live at home. With your parents." Cassie's smirk grew.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "I live in a very large manor where until recently, only my mother also lived."

She merely nodded as though she knew a great secret and he was slow to catch on.

He shook his head. "You'd best watch yourself, my dear. You're treading in dangerous territory. It is not uncommon in certain circles to remain at home until marriage."

"Oh, speaking of that. How is Hermione?" She grinned smugly.

Draco rolled his eyes. "She is well. Was there anything else?"

Cassie gave him a pointed look but said nothing.

Draco shifted his weight. "As it happens, not that I need to defend myself to you, but I am planning on moving out of the Manor after the New Year."

"Oh?" Cassie's eyes sparkled. "Where are you moving? Will you be living with anyone … in particular?"

Draco chuckled. "Hermione lives at Hogwarts, and she'll be there until after the school year ends. However, she bought a house in Hogsmeade, and I'll be renting a room in that house."

"Ah-hah!" Cassie smirked. "So in the summer you'll be living with her."

"Perhaps," he conceded. "Until then, I'll be living with a friend of hers. He's my age, and also still lives with his parents."

She laughed. "Good for both of you."

The clock over Draco's dresser caught his attention. "We should head out back. Mother and Father will be waiting."

She nodded, and together they walked through the house. Lucius and Narcissa were already seated, Lucius with the paper and Narcissa fiddling with her napkin. When Draco and Cassie opened the door, Narcissa glanced up expectantly.

"There you are," she said. "We thought you'd gotten lost."

Lucius gave her a patient look. "Yes, I was so worried," he said sarcastically.

"Well, come join us." Narcissa patted the seat beside her, and Cassie obliged happily.

Draco took the remaining chair.

"The house—I mean Manor—is amazing," said Cassie pleasantly. "Very intimidating. It will take some time to get used to living here, to feeling as though this is my home."

Draco watched his parents. Cassie was refreshingly open with her feelings and opinions, and he wanted to see how they would react. They didn't; which made sense when he thought about it. Narcissa had been spending time with Cassie her entire life, and Lucius as much as he could. They were used to her by now and didn't find her manners extraordinary.

"Whatever we can do to make it more comfortable, just name it," said Narcissa.

Cassie shrugged. "I doubt there's anything that can be done," she said with an encouraging smile. "I simply have to get used to this place as my home."

At that, Narcissa smiled easily. "There's plenty of time, although I do hope it won't take long."

A calm but heavy silence fell. Draco thought of Hermione, but only briefly, because thinking of her led to another thought.

"Cassie," he said. "Where will you be attending school after the holiday?"

She exchanged a brief glance with Lucius, who nodded slightly. "Dad said I can decide where I want to go. Either Hogwarts or Beauxbatons."

Narcissa's brow furrowed slightly. "But darling, you've already established yourself at Beauxbatons. You have friends there; your classes are going well."

The look Cassie gave her mother told Draco that this was not a new topic of conversation.

"I know all of that, mum." Her tone was exasperated. She looked at Draco. "Mum thinks I'll have a hard time at Hogwarts because of my name."

Draco tried to picture his sister at the same school he'd attended. It seemed too soon for there to be a Malfoy at Hogwarts again; the wounds might be too fresh. He frowned. "She has a valid point."

Lucius folded his paper and set it aside. "Cassie will do well wherever she chooses."

Narcissa still fretted. "Remember the last time we discussed this? I asked you a question. Have you considered it?"

"Of course," Cassie replied. "Why do I want to go to Hogwarts? I live here now, don't I?" Narcissa nodded emphatically. "So I want to go to school here as well. I don't want to grow up and not know any of the other witches and wizards my age in England. I want to go to school where my parents went. And my brother."

Lucius smiled proudly, but Narcissa wasn't convinced.

"There's a lot of history with our family here," Draco commented. "Very negative history. However, after what happened the other night, some of that might be forgiven."

Cassie beamed at him.

Narcissa wasn't convinced. "You know how cruel children can be, Draco. Always playing pranks on each other, firing spells in the halls, name-calling …."

"You needn't remind me, mother," he said tersely. "I was one of the cruel children. Though, if those are your only requirements, then most children at Hogwarts would fit the description."

"See?" said Cassie impatiently. "That sounds like fun! Everything is so proper at Beauxbatons. I would like to shoot a spell at someone in the hall if I get the mind to."

Lucius laughed. "You'll be in Slytherin, I've no doubt of that."

Even Narcissa cracked a tiny smile. "Well, there's no need to decide right now. You've got time. Let's get through Christmas, at least."

Cassie nodded somewhat reluctantly, and the conversation moved in another direction. Draco contributed when he had something to say, but he enjoyed watching his new family interact. It wasn't long before Cassie had Lucius softened, and Draco thought he saw some of what Cassie admired in her father. It saddened him briefly that he and Lucius would never have the same kind of relationship, but then he realized it was possible to start over, if they were both willing.

Narcissa and Cassie had plans for the afternoon that involved Cassie's bedroom suite. Draco wanted to visit Hermione, so he excused himself before anyone could ask for his time.

Once he'd stepped through the Floo into Hermione's suite, he let out a long breath. He had no idea he'd been so tense until he was away from his family. The day had gone remarkably well so far, but he'd been on edge the entire time. Just being away from the Manor for a little while would do him some good.

Soft, vibrant music was playing from somewhere in the suite.

"Hermione?" he called.

"In here!"

He found her in the sitting room, on the floor, brightly colored paper, ribbons, bows, and all manner of wrapping accoutrements strewn around her. A half-empty glass of wine sat on a nearby table. She grinned, radiating joy. Draco felt all remaining tension melt away, and he sat down on the edge of her mess.

"Having a good time?"

"I love wrapping presents," she explained, adding a bow to her most recent package and adding it to the finished pile.

"I would have thought you'd have done this already," he remarked. "Christmas is just a day and a half away."

She shrugged. "I like to wrap everything at once, and I only just finished my shopping this morning."

"Oh?" he said, surprised. "I thought you were finished."

Hermione bit her lip. "I … had one more person to buy for." She gave him a slightly put-out look. "What do you get for someone who gave you a house?"

He felt a tinge of regret, then waved a hand dismissively. "You don't need to get me anything."

She raised an eyebrow and gave him a hard look. "Don't be ridiculous. I wanted to."

"I mean it."

"Well it's too late. I wrapped yours first because I didn't know when you might be popping in." She smiled again. "I want to hear about your morning while I keep working."

Draco sighed and obliged her. When he got to the discussion about Cassie's schooling, he paused. "Hermione?"

"Hmm?" She had a tape dispenser in her mouth.

"How do you think Cassie would do at Hogwarts?"

After finishing a package, she put down her supplies and took a sip of wine. "She's a smart girl, and she's only missed a few months of her first year. She can't be far behind, if at all. I'm sure she'll do fine."

"I don't mean in her classes." He rested his elbows on his knees and furrowed his brow, willing Hermione to read his thoughts and know what he was asking without him having to say it.

"She's friendly, pleasant to be around, and laughs easily," Hermione supplied. "I don't think she'll have any problems making friends."

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "No, I mean …. She's a Malfoy. A surprise Malfoy, at that. I'd always imagined more time would pass before another Malfoy would be a student here. I'm not sure it's been long enough for the forgiveness of time."

"Oh." Hermione stood up and sat beside him. She put a hand on his arm. "Hogwarts now is very different from the school you and I attended. There are still some old sentiments, but for the most part, they aren't tolerated the way they once were. I am sure she'll be all right. Besides, she's a Malfoy." She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "That lot has a way of surviving through just about anything."

Draco chuckled darkly. "More than you can imagine."

She raised an eyebrow. "I don't think I want to know." Then she sighed. "What do your parents think?"

"Mother wants her to return to Beauxbatons. Lucius isn't worried."

Hermione went to her stack of wrapped presents and pulled one free. She held it out to Draco. "Would you give this to Cassie when your parents aren't around?"

He accepted the gift and shook it gently. It was heavy, even for a book. "What is it?"

"I … I thought Cassie might like to read about her new school."

Draco laughed. "You bought her 'Hogwarts: A History'?" He smiled when Hermione's cheeks pinked slightly.

"It's the newest edition," she explained defensively. "Not even available for purchase yet."

He smiled. "I think she'll love it."

She eyed him warily, as though waiting for him to laugh. When he didn't, she relaxed. "I hope so. Remember, not around your parents."

"I know," he assured her. Then he cleared his throat. "Speaking of Christmas … have you decided about tomorrow night? Mother asked about you, and I didn't know what to tell her."

Hermione returned to her spot in the middle of her wrapping supplies and picked up another package. "I'll be joining your family for dinner, then going to my parents' for dessert."

"And Christmas Day?" he pressed. All he wanted to hear was that she wanted to see him, that it was important to her. It was a silly desire, but he wanted to know that it meant something to her.

She gave him a quizzical look. "I'll be going to the Burrow with my parents, as usual. You're welcome to join me."

He frowned slightly; her lack of enthusiasm wasn't encouraging.

"Now you're fishing, Draco," she remarked, pausing in her wrapping.

The corner of his mouth lifted in amusement. He was indeed. Admitting this, however, was the last thing he would do. Instead, he got off the sofa and held out a hand.

She didn't take it. "I'm not quite finished. I have a few presents still to wrap."

Draco took out his wand and flicked his wrist a few times. The four remaining packages were lifted into the air, and wrapping paper soon followed. The paper folded itself around each gift, excess paper was magically trimmed, and in less than a minute, the task was complete.

Hermione gave him an amused yet displeased look. "I like this part of the holidays."

Once again, he held out his hand. This time, she took it.

"Yes, but you know how impatient I can be," he said, helping her stand and pulling her close. "I hate to be kept waiting."

She pretended to resist. "What makes you think I'm not going to make you wait longer?"

He pressed his lips to hers, gently at first, then more demanding. Just as she relaxed into the kiss, letting go of her pseudo-anger, he pulled away, enjoying the perturbed look on her face. "Because I know you. You aren't annoyed enough. Had I wrapped a few more gifts for you, then maybe. But you've been waiting to hear about Cassie's arrival all day, and you've been thinking about me for as long."

Hermione pursed her lips, then shook her head and smiled. "You're right," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Now, where were we?"

Draco grinned and pulled her to the bedroom.


That night, Draco couldn't sleep. He felt … light, as though all the weight that had rested on his shoulders was finally lifted. If he closed his eyes, he felt he might float away, like a balloon released from a child's hand. It was frightening and exhilarating—he could end up anywhere, blown any direction by the winds of the world.

He wasn't quite sure what it meant. He looked at Hermione, sleeping peacefully beside him, and experienced the same sensation. A sort of emptiness, a hollow feeling, thudded dully in his heart.

It didn't make sense. He was completely happy, he wanted to be with Hermione, didn't want to be anywhere else.

And yet.

Draco got out of bed carefully so as not to wake Hermione. He put on a cloak and went onto her small balcony. The cold air bit at his skin until he cast a warming charm on the cloak.

The world was still and silent, the moon casting a silver glow on the snow-covered grounds around Hogwarts. Despite the charm, Draco could see his breath when he exhaled.

Draco couldn't quite put his finger on the thoughts that were drifting through his mind. They floated lazily, glancing the fore of his consciousness but not sticking long enough to coalesce into anything useful. He sighed and leaned on the railing.

The scene was perfect. His life was … well, certainly not perfect, but good. Maybe for the first time in his life.

And yet ….

He was wide awake, something alive in his blood he hadn't felt in a long time. Draco frowned at the pristine winter landscape before him. He couldn't make sense of his underlying restlessness. It was almost as though he wasn't satisfied, even though he knew he was. He had everything in his life he could possibly want or need.

And yet.

How could he not be content? He had Hermione, a new sister, freedom. His relationship with his parents was better than ever; what was more, he actually wanted a relationship with them. There was a side to them he'd only recently been shown, and he hoped to see more of it. There was no good reason for him to want to leave and explore the world.

But he did, nonetheless.


Hermione closed the door behind her, releasing a sigh of relief. She pulled her heels off and leaned against the solid slab of wood, thankful to let something else support her for a moment.

Elizabeth Granger appeared and smiled warmly at her daughter. "I thought I heard those squeaky hinges."

"Hi, Mum." Hermione embraced her mother tightly.

"How was dinner with the Malfoys?" Elizabeth asked.

Hermione smiled. "I'll tell you all about it once I'm snuggled up on the sofa with my hot chocolate."

Elizabeth smiled. "I'll make us a cup while you get changed."

Hermione nodded and made her way to the guest room. She took off her dress, a fancy garnet silk piece Narcissa had bought for the occasion, and put on her comfiest pair of pajamas.

It was tradition. Every Christmas Eve, after dinner Hermione and her parents would make hot chocolate, get comfortable, and watch "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie carried extra significance after the war, and Hermione used it to remember what she'd done and why. She never wanted to forget that she could have so easily lost her parents to the memory charms she'd cast.

Still, Hermione wished she was with Draco. He'd never seen the movie, and she wanted to share it with him. She wanted to share a lot with him, which was frightening. She'd been ready to accept a marriage proposal just five days earlier that hadn't come. And it had been on her mind ever since.

Hermione grabbed the blanket she'd brought and went into the living room. Everything set up, the movie queued, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate waiting for her. Her parents were talking quietly, and they stopped when they noticed her.

Richard looked up at Hermione. "Hey, sweetie. Join us."

A lump formed in Hermione's throat, and she was hit with a strange realization that this could be the last time it was just the three of them like this. Tears threatened as she took her place between her parents. She didn't look at them, afraid she'd lose her composure. Hermione's mum handed her the mug and started the movie.

Even with Charlie, Hermione hadn't felt the way she did now. She'd believe she belonged with him, would marry him, and yet she'd never experienced the bittersweet realization that things would change. It was further proof that she'd made the right decision, that the way she felt for Draco was different, better than what she'd felt for Charlie.

She smiled and forced herself to stop thinking and enjoy the time with her parents.

After the movie, Hermione's father gave her a hug and retired for the evening. He claimed he was tired, but Hermione suspected he wanted to give her and Elizabeth time to talk.

"Well?" plied Elizabeth as soon as her husband was out of earshot. "How was it? I've been thinking about you all night."

Hermione sighed and pulled the blanket around her tightly. "It went fine. The Malfoys were very gracious hosts."

"Even Lucius?" Elizabeth asked.

Hermione nodded. "He was very talkative, unlike previous times I've been around him. He asked me a lot of questions. Even wanted to know about you and dad—what you do, what a dentist does." She didn't tell her mother that Lucius seemed especially curious about the social and economical status of dentists in the Muggle world.

"And how was Narcissa? Draco?"

"Narcissa was the perfect hostess, very welcoming." Hermione smiled at the thought of Draco. "He was … a bit subdued, didn't speak as much as usual, but then …." Hermione wasn't sure how much, if anything, she was allowed to tell her parents, but she saw no harm in it, either. The whole wizarding world would know very soon.

"But then …." Elizabeth prompted.

Hermione told her mother about Cassie. She left out the darker details and answered Elizabeth's questions as best she could. When Hermione finished, her mother sat in silence with a thoughtful expression on her face.

"That poor woman," she said finally.

Hermione frowned. "Who? Narcissa?"

Elizabeth nodded. "I can't imagine being separated from my child for so long."

A pang of guilt washed over Hermione, but a kind look from her mother quieted her discomfort.

"The circumstances were very different," Elizabeth reassured her. "And we agreed to the separation, the magic. Narcissa only consented because she had to. And at least we didn't remember what we were missing. Narcissa was away from her baby almost from the moment of her birth. No parent should have to go through that."

"It must have been hard," Hermione agreed. "Narcissa is very happy to have Cassie back in England."

"And how is Draco faring in all this?"

"Well," Hermione said, "He's had some time to get used to the idea, and he's a good brother. He loves Cassie. He's older, mature, so he won't be hurt or jealous of the attention she'll be getting."

Elizabeth remained silent.

"She's not much like the other Malfoys," Hermione remarked. "I think she'll do wonders for the entire family and for their standing in the wizarding world. It they're willing to be so visible, so vulnerable. They are terribly prideful. Lucius especially."

"I look forward to hearing how the news is received."

Hermione yawned. "I hope the fervor dies quickly so they can get settled into a normal family dynamic." She chuckled. "As normal as the Malfoys can be."

"Hopefully they've learned from their mistakes with Draco."

Hermione nodded. "I know they have. Cassie is stubborn like her father, but she's kind and fair. And growing up away from their poison has made her very generous and unaffected. I have high hopes for her. She won't be easily swayed to their opinions on blood superiority, should they attempt it."

"Especially if her sister-in-law is Muggleborn."

Heat crept into Hermione's cheeks. "Mum, there is no need to talk like that. Draco and I are a long way from taking such a step."

Elizabeth's eyes sparkled. "If you say so."

Hermione narrowed her eyes speculatively. "I do say so. And on that note, I think I'll go to bed. Before you can bombard me with more of your baseless insinuations."

Her mother smiled. "Of course, dear. Good night."


The next day, Hermione opened presents with her parents. She got books, a quill, socks, and a new scarf and hat. Then they all made ten pies to take to the Burrow. An anxious feeling settled in the pit of Hermione's stomach and she couldn't shake it. When they arrived at the Burrow, she was so on edge that she just wanted the day to be over. But she had no idea why she felt that way.

As they did every year, Hermione and her parents arrived early. It wasn't long before Hermione was so busy with getting the meal ready that she forgot her nerves. However, if she paused even for an instant, they'd hit her again.

When everything was essentially ready, Hermione was released from kitchen duty. She went outside to the magically heated garden and sat on a bench.

After a few minutes, someone joined her. She knew him without looking. The way he sat down, the feel of him beside her were so familiar. Maybe those impressions would forever be ingrained in her mind.

"Hello, Charlie," she said with a soft smile.

Charlie put his arm on the bench behind Hermione and slouched in his seat, the picture of comfort. "Where's Malfoy?" he asked.

Hermione didn't respond; she knew he wasn't really interested in the answer. "Happy Christmas, Charlie."

They were silent for a few minutes. A few of the kids ran past them in a spirited game of tag.

"You're going to marry him, aren't you?" Charlie finally said.

Hermione sighed. "That subject hasn't been broached by either of us."

Charlie stared directly ahead and tapped his foot agitatedly. "But if he asked, you'd say yes."

It was a statement rather than a question, and it made Hermione's heart pound. "I would," she replied quietly.

He nodded, then chuckled. "That's what I thought. I just wanted you to know … I'm … giving up."

Hermione opened her mouth, but he cut her off.

"I still care about you, still want you, but I can't keep dwelling on it. On you." He took his arms off the back of the bench and leaned forward, resting his arms on his legs. "Planning, plotting … wishing. I need to move on."

Blood rushed in her ears, and her palms were sweaty. She almost reached out and took his hand. Part of her heart threatened to protest, and it took her a moment to recover. She shouldn't be surprised at her reaction, really. Charlie had been a huge part of her life, and she'd once believed she'd marry him. It wasn't unexpected for her to be a bit sad at the news he would no longer want her.

She fidgeted, wanting to take his hand in friendship but knowing it wouldn't be kind. She did nothing. "I wish you all the best."

He sighed. "As do I for you. I only—" He stopped himself, took a breath, and restarted. "If wishes were thestrals, right?"

She couldn't suppress a laugh. "What a different world it would be."

A few more moments of silence reigned.

Charlie clapped a hand on his leg. "Well, enjoy dinner. I'm leaving in the middle. I got word this morning about an escaped dragon in China. Not sure how long I'll be away."

Hermione could tell he wanted her to ask questions, to worry, to miss him. And she did want to know more, but they needed some closure, separation. Space. "Have fun," she said lightly.

He grinned, pain just barely visible at the edge of his eyes. "As always." Charlie stood, shoved his hands into his pockets, nodded once, and turned away.

When he disappeared around a corner, Hermione let out a relieved breath. She imagined Charlie going to China and falling in love with a Chinese witch. A single pulse of sadness darted through her—not solid enough to leave an impression—the barest hint.

So it was done, all well and truly over with Charlie. It had been for her part for a while, of course, but … there was something kind of nice and safe about knowing he still wanted her. She still cared for him, just not the way she once had.

Hermione was lost in thought until Harry found her.

"Hey," he called, coming around the house. "Glad I found you. It's time for dinner."

She started at his voice, then chuckled to herself.

"All right?" Harry asked.

"Yes. Just … thinking." Hermione stood and followed him.

"That's so surprising for you," Harry joked.

Hermione elbowed him lightly.

Two large picnic tables were in the garden, set for twenty-four people. All of the Weasleys, Hermione's family, Draco, and some of Arthur's coworkers without families had been invited. The Weasleys were extremely generous.

It took Hermione a moment to realize that Draco was already there and talking to Ron. He looked as though he were trying his best to appear at ease but not quite managing. His shoulders were tense, but he kept trying to force himself to relax.

The fact that Draco hadn't come looking for her immediately upon his arrival was surprising. It pleased her, to know that he was making such an effort to be on good terms with her friends.

She joined him and Ron. They barely greeted each other before they were called to sit and eat.

All through the meal, Hermione's unease seemed to grow. Her stomach fluttered every time she made eye contact with Draco, almost the way it had when she first started having feelings for him. It was strange, delightful, and unnerving. She decided she was nervous because she didn't know how he would like her gift and what it meant. She hoped she'd get to give it to him soon after the meal.

Finally, the pies were distributed, and Hermione and her mother received the usual chorus of approval and praise. This was followed by a few minutes of silence while the desserts were consumed, and then talk of the next Quidditch game started.

Harry encouraged Draco to play, and it appeared he would, to Hermione's disappointment. But then he seemed to think twice and told Harry he'd join the next game.

Harry nodded and ran off, calling out instructions as he went.

Draco took Hermione's hand and gave it a light tug. She followed as he led her to a secluded wooded area just beyond the garden that was still covered by the warming charm. In the middle of a small clearing sat her orange sofa.

She let out a nervous laugh. "My sofa! I thought Ron had it."

He shrugged. "He did, but I guess he brought it here. I asked him for somewhere private but also comfortable to talk to you, and he directed me here."

She grinned. "So you admit it's comfortable."

"I never said it wasn't," he said playfully. "I can't tell you how many times I thought about you and this sofa."

Hermione quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? What about me and this sofa?" He laughed, and she felt much of her tension fall away.

"Give me two minutes with wards and I'll show you." Draco smirked, then led her to the piece of furniture.

She thought he meant to make good on his teasing, but instead he sat down awkwardly beside her.

"I wanted to give you your gift," he said, taking a long, thin package out of his pocket.

Hermione's stomach twisted like a school of angry fish, and she inwardly groaned as the ball of nerves returned. Gingerly, she accepted the simply wrapped present and opened it, trying to keep her hands from trembling.

Inside the wrapping was a box. Hermione opened it to find a thin, delicate silver chain. Whatever she'd been expecting, this wasn't it.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, partly from surprise, partly from the beauty of the chain. It was simple in design but expertly crafted.

"You hate it," he concluded.

"No!" Hermione assured him. "Not at all, it's stunning. It's … perfectly me."

Draco looked at her intensely for a moment, studying her eyes. Eventually, he nodded. "I'm glad you like it."

The entire exchange felt forced, awkward. Hermione wasn't sure what was going on, but there was something most definitely out of sorts.

"Do … you want your present now?" she asked.

He pinked slightly. "If you'd like to give it to me."

Hermione felt like screaming. She wanted to shake him by the shoulders and demand that he tell her what was going on, but something in his demeanor stopped her. He was on edge too, as though he'd started on a course of action that couldn't be altered but he wasn't sure of his direction.

She took his gift out of her bag and handed it to him.

Draco turned the box over a few times, stared at is quizzically. Then he looked at her and smiled. It was tight but genuine, and she relaxed a little. "What is it?" he asked.

"Why do people always say that?" she said, a little exasperated. "You're not supposed to know what's in the box until you open it, not before. That's why it's a present. Just … open it." She waved a hand at the package.

"It's not a book," he stated, pulling at the ribbon.

Hermione watched as he attempted to open the gift without tearing or creasing the paper. Then he handed her the trimmings and studied the box with great focus.

"It's … a camera?"

Draco was so puzzled that Hermione couldn't help but laugh. "Yes, it's a camera, Draco."

He examined the box for a few moments. "It's Muggle."

Hermione sat up straight, the teacher in her coming to her rescue. "It is. The only Wizarding photos I've ever seen are of people, and of course they move. But there are things in the world you might want to capture that don't move. You might want to capture a building, a mountain, a tree. This is a top-notch camera." She swallowed. "I thought you could use it for your trip."

Draco stiffened and frowned at the camera. "My … trip. You're still thinking about that."

She sighed. "Yes. I still think you should go."

He nodded slowly, still frowning, and was silent for a long moment. "Me too."

Hermione almost gasped. It felt as though someone had sucked all the breath from her lungs. Her heart started pounding. "You do."

Draco stretched his legs. "I've been thinking about it. I think you're right. That should please you." The smile he gave her was easy, as though the strangeness of the preceding moments had never existed.

She tried to smile. It sort of worked. "So you're going? When?"

"I'm not sure. After the new year."

Hermione couldn't settle on how she felt. She'd been telling him to go on his adventure since their working relationship began. She truly believed it would be best for him, but she was also afraid of what it might mean for their relationship. He'd been denying his need for the trip, telling her he wouldn't go for so long that she'd started to believe him. Now that he was talking about it, planning to go, her fears returned.

"I'll still pay my part of the rent."

"Don't be ridiculous." Hermione had to force her voice to remain steady. "You're not paying for a space you're not occupying. I can find someone else to live with Ron until I'm finished with school."

"I said I would," he stated. "Besides, I don't want to have to kick someone out when I return."

She looked at him sharply, too much going through her mind. But before she could begin to piece together a question, he spoke again.

"I need to know what this means. For us." He took her hand and held it fast, meeting her worried gaze.

"You tell me." Hermione chuckled nervously. "You're the one who's leaving."

Confusion flashed through Draco's eyes. "I thought you were okay with it."

"I am," she blurted. "Of course I am."

Draco frowned and put his hands in his pockets. "The thing is, Hermione, I'm not sure how to do this."

Now her heart was threatening to burst through her ribcage. She'd never really given much thought to what would happen if and when he left, but she'd assumed they would stay together. Maybe he'd realized he wanted total freedom after all, or he was no good at long distance relationships. That wouldn't surprise her one bit.

"Do what, exactly?" she asked deliberately.

He removed his hands, but now he was holding something. She couldn't tell what it was; it was too small. But he looked at it for a few minutes, turned it in his hands, and finally answered.

Draco handed her a small velvet bag. "I know we haven't talked about this, but it's what I want."

The bag was very light, and Hermione couldn't guess what was in it. At least, she couldn't quite believe that what she wanted to be in the bag might possibly be in the bag.

"You already gave me a Christmas present," she said flatly. Her hands were frozen.

"I know. This … goes with it. But it's very much not a Christmas present."

"What is it?" she asked a little too harshly.

Draco smirked. "You have to open it."

Hermione nerves were spinning. The bag contained something to go with the necklace, so it must be a charm of some kind. Perhaps something magical, a way for them to keep in touch while he was away? She fumbled with the drawstring but finally got the bag open.

Then she hesitated a moment before dumping the contents on her palm. She refused to get her hopes up, refused to think about what this might or might not be, what it could mean, what—

Draco grabbed the hand holding the bag and turned it over so that the object inside fell out. "You think too much," he grumbled. "Now open your eyes. Merlin, you're making this hard."

Hermione did as instructed and looked at her open hand. It wasn't a charm; it was exactly what she hoped and feared it would be: the most beautiful ring she'd ever seen.

She gasped. "Draco!"

"I've thought about this a lot," he said, releasing her hand and standing to pace the ground in front of the sofa. "I know it probably seems sudden and maybe even too soon. But I hope you'll want to wear it."

Hermione waited, expecting more, but she quickly realized he was finished. She turned the ring over in her hand, amazed that she was holding an engagement ring from Draco Malfoy. He wanted to marry her! She smiled briefly, her eyes on the ring.

"What were you not sure you could do?" she asked eventually, glancing up enough to see that he'd stopped a few feet away from her.

"Give you the ring, when I'm going to leave. Ask you to wait." He shifted his weight. "I thought about Charlie, how he left you, in a way, and never came back, even though you were expecting him. I don't want to do that; I want you to know I'm coming back. For you. Never doubt that."

Hermione tried to speak, but he held up a hand to stop her. "Let me finish. I've been going over these lines for days now."

She nodded.

"For months, you've been telling me to go on this trip, to get it out of my system, and I didn't think it was necessary." Draco resumed pacing. "But now, with everything over, the dust settling, I find I'm drawn to go. To get out of England, away from my family and from the eyes that have been on me since I was sixteen, to be anonymous. I want to buy lemons without the checkout person double counting my change. My parents and Cassie are telling the world about everything tomorrow. They need time to settle into their new lives.

"I've only been thinking this way for a few days, but the pull is powerful. Yet I couldn't imagine leaving you. I was afraid that if I did, we'd fall apart. Maybe this wouldn't last, maybe it's only worked because of the intensity of what we've been doing. Maybe it would disappear when I did."


"My mother gave me that setting only a week ago, but it made me think. Here was a way I could assure you of everything I've been saying, even though I have to go. I'm not asking for an answer now. Take your time, I know you like to weigh your options before acting. You can even wear it on the chain instead of your hand, if you'd like. I don't know how people would react to hearing about us engaged but me off traveling the world without you.

"If you want to give it back, I'll understand. I don't know how long I'll be gone. It could be two weeks, it could be a year."

"A year!" she exclaimed.

He shook his head. "It won't be a year. My point is that I don't know. But if you return it, I'll just keep it safe so that I can give it to you later." He finally stopped and looked at her.

Hermione held his gaze for a few seconds, then looked at the ring. It didn't surprise her that Draco had put a lot of thought into this. She considered scolding him for doubting the strength of her attachment, but then she realized he probably didn't know. She'd never really shared with him the depth of her feelings, preferring instead to be in the moment and not worry about where things were headed.

There was no doubt in her mind what she would do, but she appreciated the silence to think anyway, to solidify her answer before giving it.

She held the ring out to him. "I'll need you to put this on for me. I'm rather traditional when it comes to certain things."

Draco stared searchingly at her, then closed his hand around hers. He sat on the sofa beside her and took the ring from her. "So you believe me."

"Absolutely," she said without hesitation. "You will fulfill this promise."

"And you'll wait for me?" He held the ring between two fingers.

"Of course."

He nodded once, then slipped the ring onto Hermione's finger. Her eyes went immediately to her hand, wanting to admire the new addition, but Draco had other plans. He took her face in his hands and kissed her tenderly. It was full of everything Draco, passionate yet sweet, intense but light, the perfect kiss for the moment. Tears pricked her eyes.

"You're going to be my wife," he said when he released her.

She shivered; he could probably turn her on just by reading the dictionary.

Draco's eyes burned, and he kissed her again. This time there was nothing light about it. He wrapped an arm around her gently laid her down.

"I put up so many wards it would take a team of Aurors, trained dragons, and probably a crystal ball to find us," he murmured.

Hermione laughed

There were a number of objections she could have made—they were a mere thirty feet from the Weasleys; her parents were close by; they were in the middle of the winter woods—but nothing really mattered.


As they lay nestled together on the orange sofa, Draco ran his fingers through Hermione's hair. She was breathing softly, her hand making slow circles on his chest. He hadn't expected her to say yes so quickly, so easily. He feared she would doubt him, since she'd always been so sure that he would go on his trip and want to stray.

Maybe she finally understood; she was brilliant, after all.

He was finally free.


End Notes: Thank you for reading! Thank you for your patience. I can't believe it's actually finished.

I started writing this story in 2008 while living in France. I'd planned to write the entire thing and post once it was all done, but I got trigger happy in 2009 with 7 chapters left to write. I figured, hey, I can write 7 chapters in 8 months, how hard can THAT be? (nervous chuckles) And here we are. I posted chapter 35 in December of 2009. Then in January 2010, I had a baby. And now it's February 2011! LOL.

This chapter was literally written all year long. I'd write a sentence here, a sentence there, a few paragraphs in the car. The mental energy it takes to devote oneself fully to a story is incredible but nothing compared to a baby.

More than anything, I wish I'd finished before the baby came. I had NO idea how it would turn my world upside-down and inside-out. I hated having an incomplete story just sitting on the internet, waiting … waiting …. I'd always said I would never not finish a story, and I always intended to finish this. It just took much longer than I'd ever imagined!

Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed during the last year. Even the annoying ones, prompting me for an update, were motivational—if only to make them stop! Just kidding. I got a review from Kyra Jack midway through December that said "I suspect that we may have lost you to motherhood" and my first reaction was "NO, NO! I am not lost to motherhood!" While I adore being a mom, and I treasure my little girl, I am still me, and I still love writing. I'm just on loan to motherhood right now!

However, it was that review more than any others that got me going. I wrote 2/3 of this chapter since that review. LOL.

Now, who else to thank? My betas, of course: drcjsnider and somandalicious. Thank you for making me think and question and look at things from a different perspective. Manda for being the godmother of my story, for whipping out the claws when the occasion required it, for cheering me, correcting me, encouraging me, and hanging out with me. And the beautiful header on the floofics comm.. ILOVEYOUGIRL! Inadaze22 for the LOLZ, for the playlist, the cheers, for trying to think of titles of chapters (I FAIL AT THIS ESSENTIAL SKILL!). ILOVEYOUTOO!

Thanks also to everyone who did art for this story: melia_eothria, silverotter1, pink_martini2, waterytart_11, arthicule, marmaladefever, itsbeenvery, moonjameskitten, 75marshy, kalina_blue, liltinybee, Scarlet Lady, kryptiq, sb123, maaiker, cemicool, draconis23, _vintagebomb, drcjsnider, and riptey. Wow, that is an all-star list! Check out the art gallery to view all the fantastic images for this story. Truly, I love art almost as much as I love writing, and artwork for this story is beyond fantastic. I can't thank you enough!

Finally, I want to assure you that this story ended exactly the way I'd always meant for it to end. This wasn't a cop-out ending, a quick-wrap-it-up-and-get-it-done ending. From the start, this was the end. There will not be a sequel. There probably won't be an epilogue. They probably end up together and happy. They won't always be in love, but they love each other fiercely. And that is what really matters.