A/N: I own nothing!
So this is it! Ack! Hope it doesn't disappoint you.
Thank you, likethegaiaphage, for beta-ing. Thank you to all who have read and reviewed. Sometimes it was the only thing that kept me from finishing this sucker.
I still haven't finished answering all my chapter 19 reviews. I am close though. And I'll get to all the chapter 20 ones too. Promise!
Alright, here we go!
Unfortunate Event Thirteen:
The End, Part Three
Seconds later, Draco appeared, landing gracefully on his feet. He spun around, eyes wild until he spotted Hermione. 'That was a very stupid thing to do. You could have been gravely injured,' he said slowly, as if each word required a great deal of restraint.
Like he really cared. Hermione ignored the hand up he offered her, brushing the grass from her dress as she stood to her feet. 'Where are we?' she demanded.
Draco looked over at the house, his brow contorted in confusion. 'I don't know.'
'Do you think I'm stupid? Of course you know! That bag of Fizzing Whizzbees was a Portkey and those have to be registered with the Ministry of Magic. Now tell me where we are.'
Draco folded his arms across his chest and begrudgingly admitted, 'We're in France, at one of my family's properties.'
'France is only an hour ahead. It shouldn't be this dark outside.' Hermione's train of thought was thrown from its tracks by a more pressing matter. 'Why did Sharon have a Portkey to this place?' Her ran wild, conjuring possibility after possibility, each of them increasingly salacious. 'Is this where you've been? Rendezvousing around the globe while I've been nearly sick over you?' Hermione's throat suddenly closed up on her.
'Of course not!' Draco hissed, his cheeks flushed with anger.
'Less than a minute ago you lied to me about knowing where we were. Why should I believe a word you say?' Not waiting for an answer, she turned her back on him and tried to assess the situation. International Apparation was out. That she'd made it all the way home from Capri had been a miracle in itself, and she couldn't bet on being granted another. The last thing she needed in her life was to leave part of her body behind with Draco. After all, she'd recently given him her heart, and look what poor care he'd taken of it.
Though she couldn't Apparate, she could walk away. Having resolved on that, she hadn't even taken one step when a strong hand grabbed her elbow. She spun around, ripping her arm from Draco's grasp.
'Where do you think you're going?' he asked.
'Away from you,' Hermione snarled, raising her right hand to slap him. One of his pale brows arched in derision, as if to say, 'Really?' Curling her hand into a fist, she held it against her leg, digging the knuckles into her thigh.
'What's wrong, Hermione? Tired of hitting me? Or is it just this side of my face?' He turned his other cheek towards her, tapping his index finger against his jaw. Taunting her.
'I should slap you, but right now I can't even stand to look at you, let alone touch you.'
Draco blinked, but the show of vulnerability quickly disappeared. Straightening to his full height, he sneered down at her imperiously. 'Then by all means, run away. Again.'
Hermione lifted her skirts, ready to comply when a sharp crack split the air.
'Master Draco,' an overexcited House Elf squeaked out, then jumped back as if startled when he saw her. 'Mistress Hermione!' he gasped. The House Elf, one she'd never met before, bowed low before her. 'Snotface is pleased to meet you. He is so happy you and Master Draco-'
'Not another word, Snotface,' Draco barked. More calmly, he added, 'And get off the ground. You look ridiculous.'
The poor creature scrambled from the grass, curtseying and bowing as he tugged at his long ears and wrapped them over his eyes. His lower lip quivered under his spindly nose. 'Snotface is sorry, Master Draco,' he warbled, his voice thick with the agony of disappointing his owner. 'Snotface did not mean to make Master Draco angry. Snotface got everything ready, just as Master Draco wanted.'
Hermione looked over sharply at Draco, her stomach sinking. She almost couldn't bring herself to ask what the House Elf was referring to, since it obviously hadn't involved her. As usual, masochism won out. 'What were you preparing?'
Draco uttered a stream of curses she hadn't heard pass his lips since Hogwarts at least. After nearly a year with Draco, she no longer believed him capable of thinking, let alone saying, anything so vile. At least around her.
The House Elf whimpered, but Draco was not finished. 'Merlin, help me, but if you do not leave now I'll really give you something to cry about.' He accompanied his threat with a step toward the trembling beast.
Hermione rushed in front of Draco. 'Stop it!' she commanded.
With a mournful wail loud enough to cover the crack of Disapparation, Snotface vanished.
And then there were two. Hermione and Draco stared one another down, both breathing as if they'd just been chased by a Nundu. His eyes drifted to her mouth, and his body swayed towards hers. For a second, she thought he was going to kiss her, but his mouth twisted into an ugly sneer. 'You can't possibly believe I was going to hurt him.'
'You did hurt him. That was a cruel thing to say. He was only trying to please you, though I don't know why. You certainly don't deserve it.'
'I wasn't going to hit him, but if I did, who are you to object? After all, weren't you just about to slap me?'
Hermione raised her chin stubbornly, but could say nothing.
Draco took a deep breath. Through clenched teeth, he gritted out, 'I was angry. Forgive me. Sometimes when people are upset, they do things they don't mean.'
'Obviously,' she said, recovering her former sense of outrage. 'But your anger was disproportionate to whatever he did. He was only following your orders. There was no need to scare him.'
Draco shook his head. 'I'm not going to argue with you about Snotface, especially since the House Elf isn't the real reason you're angry.'
'What are you talking about?'
'Clearly, you are upset about Sharon, and you are using Snotface as an excuse to argue with me.'
'Whatever, Draco. I don't care anymore. When can we leave?'
Draco drew out a chain from his suit jacket and consulted his pocket watch. 'We have another three hours before the return Portkey will activate.'
Three hours! Well, she'd find something to do. 'And where is the Portkey?' she asked.
'I'll show you when I'm good and ready,' Draco huffed.
Hermione gave him ten seconds to stop acting like a child. When his time was up, she announced, 'Alright, you have fun waiting.'
Not having a compass on her person, Hermione set out in the direction of 'anywhere but Draco.'
The sound of footsteps rustling through the grass followed her. Company, and most unwanted at that. Gathering her skirt in her hands, she kicked off her Kneazle slippers and picked up her pace. But Draco stuck as fast as a shadow, practically breathing down her neck.
'Where are you going?' he asked.
'As I already stated, away from you.'
He even had to ask? To her, it was plain as day.
Hermione suddenly stopped, nearly causing Draco to run into her. A warm breeze fluttered around them, toying with the hem of her dress, but she felt cold all over. She wrapped her arms around herself, staring off into the distance, unable to look at him as she told him, 'I don't think this is working.' Her voice barely registered over a whisper, but she knew Draco heard everything.
'I disagree,' he said, but all the fire had deserted him. 'We need to talk.'
He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. 'I don't want to talk.'
'Hermione, you just can't...' Any weakness she'd heard in his voice turned to steel, and he coldly informed her, 'You're overreacting. This isn't up for debate.'
'Gods, Draco, why must you always be such a jerk! I am so tired of this. Look at me!' She held out her hands, which were visibly shaking. 'I haven't slept well in days, I've lost my appetite, and I couldn't even concentrate on the simplest tasks, because my head was so full of you! And today, when I finally get to see you again, I find you with Sharon's hands all over you. And you don't even seem to understand why I would be upset. If you want to be with her, then just say so.'
Crossing the distance between them, Draco hauled her into his arms, bringing his mouth to hers. At the last second, Hermione turned away, and his lips grazed her cheek. Did he really think he could just silence her doubts with a kiss? A tear trickled out of her eye. Then another. Soon a whole collection of sorrow had spilled across her cheeks.
'Don't,' she said, her voice cracking.
With a muttered curse, he pulled back. His fingers brushed her cheeks, slipped into her hair. 'Hermione...Love. Don't cry.'
She sniffled, really trying to keep her tears in check, but not for his sake. Unwilling to acknowledge the sadness in his eyes, she turned her face away from his searching gaze. 'I was so happy to see you, and then to find you with her—' Hermione choked back a small sob.
'Hermione, listen to me. I do not like Sharon. I have never liked Sharon. I have never been here with Sharon or anywhere other than the Ministry of Magic, and that was only once for the purpose of securing this Portkey.' She still struggled against him, wanting to run away. His hands moved to her face, gently forcing her to look at him. 'The reason I got this Portkey in the first place was because I had planned something for us.' He brushed away a tear from the corner of her eye. 'I'm in love with you and you only.'
She blinked at him, uncertain whether she should believe him.
'You can't honestly think I'd love someone other than you? Virtually all my free time is spent with you. There is no room left in my life for anyone else.'
'But what about this past week? Sharon was there in your Floo. And just now in that study.'
'Hang Sharon! She's a stupid cow whose only significance to me is fetching my coffee and making you jealous,' Draco said, his voice almost at a yell.
Hermione shot him a betrayed look. Draco amended, 'I swear to you I have only spent time with Sharon in a professional capacity. I would have fired her long ago, but my father hired her as a favour to her family, who are old friends of ours. And since Capri, I have not tried to use Sharon to make you feel jealous. That she happened to be in my Floo and in that study was only because I had her working on a project for me.'
'Project? You never told me about any new work project.'
'Doesn't matter anymore. The entire venture has been sabotaged. What is important, however, is that you believe that I love you.' Draco stared at her, eyes imploring. 'I would never do anything with Sharon, and I would never intentionally hurt you. You do believe that, don't you?'
The hard set of her jaw gave way, and she hung her head in shame. 'Yes,' she admitted, sagging against him, no longer able to hold herself up. Burying her face in his shoulder, she cried in a muffled voice, 'I'm such a mess. Why do you even want to be with me?'
'It was a simple misunderstanding,' he stated calmly.
'That's no excuse. I should have trusted you. It's just she's...she's so beautiful and, and I, uh, I know she has her eye on you, and I've been such a spazz. Not always, but ever since I started liking you, it's like I've gone crazy. I don't know how to-'
Draco covered her mouth. She kept trying to speak, to explain her incomprehensible idiocy, but she finally gave up. Her mind's workings were too convoluted, anyhow.
'I don't know what I'm trying to say.' Embarrassed, she tried to wipe away her tears, but he caught her hands in his grip.
'Yes. Because even though you could never be in love with such a pathetic loser like the Weasel, I wanted to kill him when I saw you getting weepy over his engagement to that girl.'
'So is that,' Hermione sniffled, 'is that why you left the room and didn't even speak with me?'
'More or less.'
It's as she'd guessed, only seeing Sharon with Malfoy had caused her to question everything. Hermione sniffled again. Wretched nose! 'Can I have one of my handkerchiefs, please?'
Draco reached into his pants pocket to retrieve one. Much to Hermione's confusion, he shoved it back into his pocket and grabbed the hot pink square from his groomsmen suit. 'My apologies,' Draco explained, 'I had to use your handkerchief to clean up something Blaise spilled on me.'
Since she already had the pink kerchief in her possession, she didn't think it necessary to point out that he could have Scourgified the dirty one. Besides, she'd already given him enough trouble for one lifetime.
'That's alright.' Hermione turned the pink square over in her hand; the letters H & G were missing but it served its purpose valiantly. Hermione dabbed her eyes, forcing out a hoarse giggle she didn't really feel. 'I don't know what it is about you, but I only start crying when you're around.' From the frown on his face, Hermione guessed that Draco found that fact as amusing as she did.
'Are you still angry with me?' Hermione asked.
'I was never angry with you.'
'Then are you upset that I've soiled your lovely pink kerchief?' She held out the soggy piece of cloth, which now looked rather forlorn. 'I can get you a new one.'
'That won't be necessary.' He glared angrily at the ground, though it had done nothing to him.
'Draco, what else is wrong? I can tell you're still upset.'
He must have realized how stern he looked, because the next instant his gloomy countenance disappeared, replaced by a smile, albeit a tense one.
'When I left the banquet hall, I didn't mean for you to think I was angry with you. Truly, I'm not upset with you, and I apologize for giving you that impression.'
Hermione shrugged. 'As you said earlier, it was a simple misunderstanding. Though for both our sakes, I think we should make a rule. No more bringing other people along on our dates.'
'I didn't bring Sharon. And please don't make light of this,' he said softly.
Taken aback by the mild rebuke, Hermione flinched. 'Alright. I'm sorry.'
It was as if he hadn't heard her apology. He tucked her hand in the crux of his elbow, then led her to a path that cut through the large front yard of the house.
'You may want to leave those here,' Draco said, gesturing to her Kneazle slippers. Intended for use in Malfoy Manor, the comfy shoes had little business on the pebbled lane. 'Right,' she said, toeing them off and leaving them behind.
Draco kept to the side of the path, so that Hermione could walk in the grass. They had not strolled far when they drew near a rose garden. The lovely fragrance wended its way to her senses, but the romance of the scene was entirely lost on Hermione, who had yet to put to rest a certain niggling doubt that grew larger and larger with each passing second. Finally, she couldn't take it any longer and blurted out, 'Draco, do you really think this is the best idea?'
'This,' she said, pointing back and forth between them. 'Us.'
'Just a few days ago you told me you loved me. Do you not anymore?'
'Yes, I mean, no.' Hermione stammered. Taking a deep breath, she clarified, 'That is to say, yes, I do. I do love you.'
'And you still wish to be with me?'
'Yes, it's just...' Hermione took a second to compose her thoughts. Even with that extra time, it didn't make it any easier to say. 'We make such good friends. In fact, I've never felt closer to anyone as I have with you. Not with Harry or Ron or even Ginny. And the very idea of losing your friendship, of losing you, hurts.'
'Well, then, don't lose me, and we'll be fine.' The smile he gave her did little to distract her from the worry in his eyes.
'You know it's not that simple. Ever since Capri all we've done is fight and misunderstand each other. At this point,' Hermione took a deep breath, 'maybe it's best for us not to date. Maybe we should just remain friends.'
Draco pressed his lips together, turning the pink flesh white before he spoke again. 'Is that what you really want?'
Hermione shook her head. It wasn't what she wanted at all. 'But it makes sense.'
She grimaced, expecting him to blow up, but he watched her quietly under the moonlight, his eyes open and considering. 'You're right,' he said after a few moments. 'But this,' he took her hand in his, held it to his chest, 'this makes even more sense.'
'You're just saying that because that's what I want to hear,' she mumbled unhappily.
'And what's wrong with that? Hermione, I have never been half as good as I am as when I'm with you. You have forced me to be a better person, made it easy for me, because loving you is the right thing to do. And I know I've done the same for you. Admit it.'
She couldn't deny it. Hadn't she come to that same inescapable conclusion that soggy night on Harry's front porch? Over the course of their relationship, she'd learned to relax. Have a life outside of work, laugh until she thought she might die. He provided the environment in which she thrived, and the support and encouragement she needed to let down her guard. Of course, when she realized how important he was to her, she had nearly destroyed their friendship with her insecurities. But that was her fault, not his.
'I know you have.'
Draco laced their fingers together, let his forehead rest against hers. 'Gods, Hermione, I'm so in love with you.'
'Me too,' she whispered.
'Then why are you fighting this so much?'
Hermione took a step back, wanting to see him, to reason with her best friend. 'I'm scared, Draco. Half the time I am elated that you love me, and the other half my heart feels so battered because I think you don't want me. What if this doesn't work? If we ended this now, I could learn to resign myself to just friendship with you, but—'
'I won't,' Draco interrupted harshly. 'You speak of ideas that physically hurt you; I can't even countenance the thought of sharing you with someone else. I refuse to, and if you end this, I will do everything in my power to convince you that you are wrong. I will make you change your mind.'
The roughness of his voice, the haughtiness of his pronouncement twisted her insides, but she ignored it and continued with what she had been going to say. 'If we ended this now, I could recover. But if I were to fall even more in love with you, which I know I would, and it were to end, I couldn't handle that.' Her voice wobbled as she concluded, 'It would hurt too much.'
'And what about me? Have you considered how I would recover if you were to end this?'
That had never crossed her mind. It seemed a given that he would easily pick up the pieces and move on. 'No.'
'That's because you're too busy fixating on your insecurities. Did you know I've been in love with you since before Christmas? Ever since you stood up for me in that Bagshot woman's shop. And I liked you long before that. For nearly a year I've been waiting for you to figure out your feelings for me. And now you want me to pretend this never happened? How do you expect me to go back to how things were before? I won't.'
'Draco, that just proves my point. Think how much harder it will be if months from now we break up.'
Draco stared at her as if she'd suggested that Aquavirius Maggots would make ideal house pets. 'Why would I assume that we'll break up?' he asked impatiently.
'We have to be realistic. Not every relationship lasts. Look at Ron and Lavender...before they got engaged,' she finished lamely.
Draco's loud burst of laughter frightened off a bird resting in a nearby tree. 'You're mad if you think I will ever compare our relationship to theirs. In fact, I find it insulting that you can draw any kind of comparison between me and that bumbling idiot.'
'Ron and I used to be best friends too,' Hermione said quietly. 'And I think the only reason we're still such good friends now is because we ended things before it got too serious.'
Draco shook his head, unwilling to accept her logic. 'You didn't love him. And I would never let you go.'
'How can you know that?'
Draco opened his mouth, ready to answer, but closed it just as abruptly. When he spoke again, he said, 'I just do.'
Hermione waited for him to elaborate, patiently watching Draco as he deliberated over his answer. A muscle in his jaw tensed, and Hermione held her breath for his decision, but when he next spoke, it was only to say, 'Let's keep walking.'
Hermione sighed in exasperation, but if he weren't willing to talk about it now, what could she do? 'Fine, but this discussion isn't over.'
'Of course it isn't,' Draco mumbled under his breath.
Placing her hand in his offered arm, they followed the path in silence, making their way towards the back of the estate. As they turned the corner, a large pond came into view, much like the one at Malfoy Manor. Its glassy surface reflected the light of the moon, and fairies rested on the numerous lily pads scattered across the water, causing the plants to glisten like stars. A group of swans and their downy offspring paddled about the water, gracefully weaving through what looked like the heavens come down to earth.
Hermione gasped, walking a few steps ahead of him to have a better look around.
Draco pointed to something on the other side of the pond. 'See that?'
Hermione tore her gaze away from the pond and squinted in the direction he pointed, but all she could see was a bunch of lights in the distance. 'What is it?'
'Dinner. Snotface prepared our meal. We are to eat it in the gazebo.'
'Is that what you were planning?'
Just her opinion, but a ruined dinner date hardly justified his foul mood.
As they followed the path to their meal, more of the intricate decorations came into view. Fairies sat in the lattice work of the gazebo, causing it to shimmer in silver and gold. White flowers were also laced into the gazebo's frame, their unmistakable jasmine scent confirming their identity. Jewel-bright hummingbirds in every hue of the rainbow flitted about, sipping nectar from the star-shaped flowers. If things had not been so tense between her and Draco, Hermione would have laughed with delight. Draco, on the other hand, walked right up the steps, completely ignoring the beautiful atmosphere he'd had a hand in creating.
There were no tables or chairs, just an elaborate carpet that covered the Floor on which Draco deposited himself. With a sigh, he reached for the bottle of wine in the bucket of ice next to him. 'At least one thing hasn't been ruined tonight,' he muttered. Then louder, 'Care for some Ca'del Bosco?'
'Draco, what was that failed venture? You keep referring to it, and I know it's not just dinner. Otherwise you wouldn't be so upset.'
He handed her a glass of wine, then drank straight from the bottle in an unusual show of bad manners. When he'd finished, he said, 'I'm not going to discuss it, so let it go. Just enjoy the meal.' Then he took another swig from the bottle.
Needless to say, dinner was a tense affair. Draco's mood deteriorated into a permanent state of sullenness, while Hermione worried over what was to become of them. She nibbled on her food, too nervous to enjoy the lovely feast Snotface had prepared. After she ate but did not taste her dessert, she decided she'd had enough and escaped the confining space to go to the pond. A stone bench resided near the edge of the water, and she perched herself on the cold slab to watch the swans glide about and feel sorry for herself.
The grass scratched against her bottoms of her feet as she dug her toes into the wet ground, soaking the hem of her gown. What a difference half a day made. She'd so carefully prepared herself, paying extra attention to her dress and hair, wanting to look beautiful for Draco. The hair she'd so meticulously charmed was somehow both bumpy and flat, and her makeup was either smeared or completely cried away. And the new dress she'd purchased, the one that looked so pretty on her she couldn't pass her mirror without admiring her reflection, was covered with wrinkles and water-spots. But that was nothing to the damage done to her insides. Everything was supposed to be perfect. She'd fallen in love with her best friend, her ideal match in every respect, and yet everything had gone wrong. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin there and trying not to cry again.
'May I join you?'
Hermione nodded her head.
He sank gracefully down beside her, close enough that she could feel his warmth, though far enough away that he didn't touch her. He sat perfectly still, his elbows resting on his kneecaps as he stared out over the pond. Under the light of the moon, his pale skin shone like alabaster. Only the bobbing of his Adam's apple along the column of his throat proved he was human and not a statue.
'I had intended to start our relationship in a very different way. I think if I had, you wouldn't be so worried,' Draco said.
'What do you mean?' she asked, her voice as raw as her nerves.
'Well, first off, nothing would have happened in Capri. We were just supposed to go there for business. But then you kissed that wretched scar on my chest. You were standing there in the moonlight absolutely drenched and gorgeous, like the first night I saw you at Andromeda's house. I couldn't stop myself from kissing you. I'd been waiting so long.'
'And then I slapped you,' Hermione said, horrified. 'I am so sorry, Draco. I never meant to hurt you.'
'I deserved it,' Draco said, his brow wrinkled with frustration. 'It never would have happened if I'd said "I love you" first, like I should have, like I wanted to. Then you wouldn't have been fretful about my answer, because you would have already known how I felt. When you said those words, I wanted you to be able to enjoy it, not crippled with anxiety about whether or not I'd reciprocate your feelings.'
Hermione twisted her hands in her lap, wanting so much to reach out to him. But she forced herself to hold back. 'I can't believe you thought of that,' she said, her voice thick with emotion.
Draco shrugged his shoulders, as if the fact that he seemed to know her and her needs wasn't important. 'Of course I had to bullocks things up. I knew that kissing you like that would frighten you, but I did it anyway, and then I was stupid enough to be offended when you acted exactly as I predicted you would.'
'Don't beat yourself up. That's my job.' Hermione laughed miserably. It was so much worse now, knowing that she'd slapped him when the whole time he'd been so cautious of her and her feelings. Draco, who had never struck her as the most patient of people, had been walking on eggshells the whole time, accommodating her skittishness. His steadfast ardour made her vacillations over whether or not she even liked him seem even more heinous.
He gave her a lop-sided grin. 'Like I said, I deserved it. And that night wasn't wholly awful. You did, after all, kiss me back. And you taught me that Muggle healing ritual.' He stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye and rubbed his chest. 'I could use it right now.'
Hermione's heart beat faster, and unknowingly she inched closer to him.
'From the moment I saw you at Andromeda's, I was attracted to you. I knew you didn't feel the same way, or if you did, that the idea would disgust you so much that you'd dismiss it before really considering how good we'd be together. So I befriended you and then sent you mixed signals. I didn't want you to treat me like Potter or...any of your other male friends, but I knew if I went too far you would retreat. So I flirted with you, but then pretended what I was doing was something utterly natural in a male-female friendship, when it wasn't. I also did things to try to make you jealous, like talking to those girls at the mall. Or letting you think I was interested in Sharon.'
'So that whole time, you liked me?' she asked, dubiously.
'The whole time. Is it really that hard to believe?'
'What do you think?' Hermione rolled her eyes and pushed him on the shoulder, but he pulled her towards him, so that their faces were only inches apart.
His brow furrowed, but his eyes were full of longing. He looked so young and vulnerable, like the man of 21 that he actually was instead of the Draco of her mind, who had the self-assurance of a forty-year old.
'I think...Hermione, I think you're wonderful, and I think you should reconsider.'
She opened her mouth, but no words came.
'You aren't the only one who's scared. It's just that my fears are different than yours.'
'What do you have to be afraid of?'
'I'm in love with the perfect girl, which if that were not intimidating enough, I spent years tormenting and degrading her. And I continue to do things that hurt her.'
'Nobody's perfect. Certainly not me.'
'You come pretty close.'
'B-but, but you always seem so...put together,' Hermione stammered. 'Where as I...' She gestured down the length of her body, starting from the top of her ruined hairdo, down her wrinkled and spotted dress, to her bare feet. All products of her ridiculousness. 'I have the relationship acumen of a Mountain Troll. I don't know how to stop over-thinking things.'
'Actually, I'm quite certain no one would ever accuse a Mountain Troll of over-thinking.'
Hermione growled in exasperation. 'You know what I mean! We haven't even started dating, and already I'm worrying about us breaking up.'
'That won't happen.'
Hermione sighed, hating that as always, she had to be the annoying nag. 'You keep saying that, but how can you be sure? Are you willing to lose everything we've gained for a relationship that might not work out?'
'Hermione, you're my best friend too, probably the only real friend I've ever had. Your friendship is worth more to me than anything I possess. I would never risk it, or ask you to risk it, unless I was certain everything would work out in the end. Instead of worrying about how badly things could end, try to imagine how happy we'll be together.'
'We're already happy,' she pointed out half-heartedly, not even sure she believed her own arguments any more. 'Or at least we were.'
'And we have the opportunity to be even more so.'
He took her hand, tracing the lines of her palm. 'Picture it. You could teach me to drive, love half-Kneazles, and treat my employees with respect, including the ones that are so hideous even you can't tell if they are male or female. And in return I could teach you to fly a broom, appreciate Quidditch, and ride down a slide without having a panic attack.'
Hermione closed her eyes, trying to focus on her answer and not on the way her skin tingled wherever Draco touched it. 'We don't need to be dating to do those things.'
Draco lifted her hand to his mouth, ghosting his lips over the veins in her wrist. 'But what if I want to hold your hand? Run my fingers through your hair? Or kiss you on your mouth? Can friends do that?'
'Draco...' Hermione pleaded, feeling what little resistance she possessed start to crumble.
'And don't you get tired of having to say good-bye? If we were together, you'd never have to leave, since we'd already be home. We could read or watch movies. Have family dinners with my parents and yours. And eventually with our own children who'd look just like Teddy, but more adorable because they're ours.'
Hermione heart ached so painfully for everything he talked about she could hardly breathe. And then she realized, either way she would hurt. If their relationship ended, as she feared, she'd be shattered. But if she never tried with him, how would the terrible emptiness that was threatening to consume her ever go away? Could she live, knowing that she had happiness in her grasp but had settled for a half-life? A diminished life, for surely that is what a life without Draco would be. Could she watch as Draco moved on from her? See him share their perfect life with someone else? The thought leeched all the warmth from Hermione, as if she'd been caught in a Dementor's grip.
'Yes,' she whispered, tightening her hand around his as if he might disappear.
Draco inhaled sharply. His pupils dilated, and his breathing sped, stirring the hairs around her face. 'Yes what?'
'Yes, I want that. I want all of it, but mostly I want you.' Hermione bit her lower lip, unable to look him in the eye. 'But I don't deserve you. Not after all of this.'
'You're the only person who believes that. After all, who would ever think that Hermione Granger, brightest witch of her age and champion of the downtrodden, could condescend to love the spoiled Death Eater who demeaned her for years and did nothing as his aunt tortured her? Hermione, do you realize what an idiot I was? I thought I knew everything, simply because I could regurgitate all the ignorance and vitriol I heard spoken around me.' Draco ran an agitated hand through his hair. 'So much time wasted. Instead of insulting you, I should have been kissing your feet.'
Draco slid from the bench, dropping to his knee. The action so surprised Hermione, she nearly fell off the bench herself. Draco grovelling? She couldn't picture it. Besides, if anyone should be kissing anyone's feet, it should have been her kissing his.
Putting her arms under his, she tried to pull him up. 'Please, Draco,' she urged. 'It's in the past. I already told you I forgave you. And anyway my feet are incredibly dirty from walking around barefoot.'
Draco laughed, but refused to stand from the ground. 'I love how you can be brilliant and oblivious in equal measures.'
'Well, I don't love how you can be stubborn and infuriating in equal measures. It's actually quite annoying,' she said, not annoyed in the slightest.
Draco laughed again. 'You are going to regret insulting me.'
'No, I won't.'
'Alright,' he said, raising his eyebrows in challenge. Sticking his hand in his breast pocket, he pulled out a small, black box and opened it. Nestled inside was a very shiny thing that looked an awful lot like an engagement ring.
'Oh, Merlin...Oh, Merlin!' Hermione covered her mouth before she said it a third time.
'Hermione Jean Granger, you are superior to me in every way, and I have no right to even ask this of you, but since I am a stubborn and infuriating git as well as a selfish and possessive one, I want to marry you, monopolise all your affections, and keep you forever. May I?'
Hermione's ability to communicate had shut down, temporarily blinkered by the overwhelming happiness pulsing through her entire being.
'This is where you answer "yes,"' Draco prompted.
'Are you serious?'
Draco shook his head, rubbing his temple. 'That or this is the most elaborate practical joke I've ever pulled.'
Hermione pressed her hands to her stomach, stilling their trembling. 'If I say yes, you don't get to change your mind,' she said breathlessly.
'That's the general idea. Otherwise they'd call them marriage suggestions instead of marriage vows.'
'I'm not kidding, Draco!'
'You silly girl. After going through so much trouble to get you, do you really think I'd change my mind?'
Hermione extended her shaking left hand and Draco slipped the platinum band on her finger. Rotating her hand, she examined the ring from all angles, delighting in the way it sparkled like trapped moonlight against her skin. What she loved most, though, was the way Draco looked at her. His mouth curved in a tender smile and his eyes seemed impossibly bright, and all because she'd said, 'Yes.' If this is how he felt every time he made her feel happy, no wonder he kept doing it. It was as if she'd scored 'O's on all her N.E.W.T.s, liberated House Elves everywhere, and discovered an original hand-written manuscript of Professor Garino's Hogwarts, A History.
Draco settled on the bench beside her. Dragging her to his side, he hid his face in her hair. 'Can you believe it?' Hermione whispered in awe. 'We're getting married.'
His nose moved against her cheek as he nodded. Hermione turned her face to meet his mouth, slowly brushing her lips against his. First the lower, then the upper, and of course she could not neglect the enticing corners, which would quirk up whenever he found himself particularly amusing or someone else exceedingly stupid. She kissed him all the ways she'd wanted to since they'd stood next to each other by the pond at Malfoy Manor, dragging her lips unhurriedly over her fiancé's lovely mouth. She had time, didn't she? Now that he belonged to her and always would, there was no rush, and she set about to learn as much about him as possible.
It seemed Draco was of the same mind. Pulling her into his lap, he looked up at her, his head resting against the back of the bench as her hair fell around them in a slightly rumpled curtain. He swept it back, tucking it behind her ears. 'No more hiding.'
'OK,' Hermione sighed, trying to keep her eyes open as his hands trailed down her shoulders, then sides, before stopping at her knees. His fingers ran over the material of her dress, up then down over the sides of her legs. When he did it again, the silk caught on his fingertips, and Hermione shivered as she felt Draco's warm palms caress her bare skin. 'Nice dress,' he informed gruffly, and Hermione clutched at his shoulders as he kissed hers.
Everywhere his hands and mouth touched was like fire, and even though she was almost unpleasantly warm, she needed to be closer to him. Just as important, if not more, was the need to make him feel as good as he made her feel. Not really knowing what to do, she acted on instinct, dropping tiny kisses over his face and neck. 'I love you,' she said without thinking, uttering the thought foremost in her mind. Draco sighed against her throat, and she felt her arms and legs cover with goosebumps as he lowered them to the bench.
She repeated the words she couldn't say enough. Each time she said it, his fingers dug into her skin, pulling her closer to him until she could not tell where she began and he ended. The puzzle of limbs was too complicated to solve with her mind so full of Draco. His hands gripping hers as their hearts pounded against the other's. The smell of his cologne as she rubbed her face against his neck. The rushed breathing and small sounds he made as she tasted the wine on his lips.
A loud honk startled her, and she broke away, blinking down at him in confusion. 'That wasn't me,' Draco panted. He pointed toward the lake, and after a few hazy seconds she managed to follow the line of his finger. A few sparkling lights floated in the air amidst a group of swans, landing and taking off on their bills. But if the fairies wanted to pester the swans, so be it. Tonight it was not her problem.
Hermione dropped her head against his chest, sucking lightly on his collar bone. With a groan, Draco smoothed down her dress, which had ridden up most immodestly and moved his wayward hands to a more appropriate place at her shoulders. He began to sit up, slowly untangling their limbs.
'What's wrong?' Hermione asked, as he wrapped his arms firmly about her person.
'Absolutely nothing. But you have a nasty habit of disappearing on me. When I say what I'm going to say next, I don't want you to go silly and Disapparate without me.'
'It happened one time. That is not a habit, nasty or otherwise. And I think you should know, I have no plans of ever leaving you again.'
'I'm very glad to hear that, but we should stop, or I won't be able to stop. Do you understand?'
Hermione toyed with the open edges of his shirt, running her fingers over each of the buttons before slipping her fingers inside. The ridges of his stomach muscles jumped in a terribly fascinating manner as she traced them. 'No.'
Draco closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the bench. 'We can't,' he whimpered.
'Hermione, look around. We're completely out in the open. On a stone bench.'
'You only say that because you're on top. This benc is about as welcoming as Crookshanks.'
Hermione opened her mouth, ready to switch places or suggest moving into the house, but before she could voice her offer, he covered her lips with his hand. 'I'm sure you have any number of solutions, but I want to do this right. For once.'
The promise of greater things to come made her shiver again. He'd already been planning their first time together too? Not that she put any store by house affiliations, but there were certain advantages to the schemes of Slytherins. However, there was something to be said about the spontaneity of her own house.
'We could get married tonight,' she said, touching her lips to the hollow of his throat.
For a second, she thought he truly considered it, but then he shook his head vehemently.
'No. My parents would kill us. Not to mention your parents. The last thing I need is to upset your father anymore than I already have.'
'What happened with my dad?'
'Let's just say he didn't appreciate waiting for me to show up looking like I had thoroughly snogged his daughter. Thankfully, your mother already likes me, but for a while there, it was touch and go.'
'You met with my parents? When?'
'That night when Sharon poked her head through the Floo, right after you told me you loved me. She was reminding me of my dinner with your parents.'
'Why were you having dinner with them?'
'Initially to ask for permission to court you, but after what you did, to ask for your hand.'
Hermione's eyes widened, and then she burst into laughing. 'What is with your family and having permission to court?'
'You wouldn't know this, having grown up Muggle, but it is standard practice for a gentleman to seek the approval of the lady's parents. Certainly for her hand in marriage.'
'I know that much. But is it standard practice for the girl to receive permission from the boy's father to be courted?
Draco chuckled. 'No, that was just my dad being a bastard.'
'Ron never asked my parents to date me,' Hermione pointed out.
'As I said, it's standard practice for a gentleman.'
'Why do you always pick on Ron anyway? I haven't even liked him in years.'
Draco threw his arms into the air. 'After tonight, you need even ask? He is the reason I stormed away angry and ran into Sharon, which threw you into a tizzy, and almost made you think that we shouldn't be together. I should kill him for that alone. And he ruined my proposal.'
'But you've been picking on him long before tonight,' Hermione said, rubbing him behind the ears like she did to Crookshanks when he was particularly cranky. 'You're jealous, aren't you?'
'Of course not!' Draco said with disgust.
'It's completely understandable. After all, he was my first friend. First boyfriend. And he even had the bright idea of getting engaged before you. He's beaten you to everything, and he's not even a fraction as smart as you.'
Draco tightened his hands around her waist, but didn't say anything.
'You did beat him to one thing, though,' Hermione pointed out generously. 'You broke Seamus's nose first.'
Draco rolled his eyes.
'Besides,' Hermione delicately cleared her throat, 'there are other firsts that will be yours.'
Draco raised his brows innocently, a perfect contrast to the sensuous curve of his lips. 'Such as?'
Hermione blushed. 'You know. And stop looking at me like that. You're a virgin too, remember? Even if you act like some self-assured, Slytherin sex god.'
'What did you call me?' Draco nearly choked. 'A Slytherin sex god?'
A horrible thought occurred to her. His admission in the elevator had come months before he fell in love with her. What if... 'You are, um, still a...you know, right?'
'Yes, but if we keep talking about this, neither of us will be by the end of the night.'
'As I recall, you were the one who had a problem with that.'
'And I stand by those objections.'
'For how long?'
'Well, that depends. Who do you want to screw over more? Because if we wait until next year, Zabini loses the bet. If we wait until next May, your Ginny will lose as well.'
'You knew about the bet?'
'Zabini told me.'
Hermione ran her finger down his breast bone tracing over his scar. 'Zabini offered me a percentage of his winnings.'
Draco dragged in his breath with a hiss, concentrating all his attention on some star in the sky. 'I may have told him that if he agreed to hire Sharon, I would make sure he won,' he said, breathlessly. 'I think he plans on sending her to India to oversee a recent purchase of his mother's. Some aquatic hatchery for Shrake or Grindylows or something ugly and slimy?'
'The Ramora?' Hermione asked.
Draco shrugged. 'Don't care.' Funny, neither did she.
'Ginny never stood a chance.' Oh well. She hadn't exactly been worried about Hermione when she stole that last bathroom stall and left her to confront Sharon by herself.
'She'll live,' Draco said unremorsefully. 'Though I might die if you keep touching me like that.'
'Die? Surely not?' Hermione continued to run her fingers over his stomach, then traced the elaborate buckle of his belt. 'See, you're still here.'
Draco bolted upright, then jumped to his feet for good measure, pulling her up with him. 'Is a month enough time to prepare?' he said, sounding awfully like he was speaking in Mermish. She almost couldn't decipher the high-pitched screeches.
Hermione waved away his concern. 'I've been thinking about this day since I was a little girl. I already have my grandmother's dress. Your mom offered to let us use the Manor, though I think I'd rather marry here. And our parents knew this was coming, right, so there won't be any surprises,' Hermione surmised.
'Yes, though I may have given your father the impression that we wouldn't marry for at least five years.'
'Why would you do that?'
'It was more his suggestion than mine. I just went along so he'd say yes.'
'I don't think we even need a month. We could do this in two weeks.'
'Two weeks,' Draco said resolutely, fists clenched at his sides. 'I was willing to wait until May. I can wait that long.'
Hermione took a second to look at something other than Draco. Funny, the moon hadn't moved the whole time they'd been here. 'Speaking of waiting, what time is it? Can we return to England yet?'
'We can return at any time, so it doesn't matter.'
'But you said—'
'I may have lied about the Portkey to keep you here.'
Hermione shoved Draco. 'You're terrible.'
'Would you rather I had let you go?'
'That's what I thought,' Draco said, distractedly checking his pockets for the return Portkey.
'And that's another thing, if we're in France, how come it's already so dark?'
'As for the darkness, I cast a spell on the estate. Otherwise you wouldn't have been able to see the fairy lights. Aha! Here it is.' He pulled out another bag of candy and waved it at her triumphantly.
'Fizzing Whizzbees? Again?'
'You are always harping on me to share them with you. Now, since you are my fiancée, I believe that entitles you to everything I have, including my Fizzing Whizzbees.'
She reached for the bag, but he quickly held them back. 'Uh, uh, uh. This is a momentous occasion. You are the first person I've ever shared my Fizzing Whizzbees with, so instruction is required. First you must remember, Hermione, that Fizzing Whizzbees are a confectionary delicacy and must be appreciated with the proper–oof!' Draco doubled over from the elbow she prodded into his rib, relinquishing the bag of candy into her waiting clutches.
The instant she touched one of the candies inside, she felt her insides twist and seconds later, she lurched into Draco's bedroom, with him following right behind her. Laughing, they tumbled into his bed, and the mattress groaned under their combined weight.
'You have got to stop doing that. Now come here, you merciless tease!' With a growl, Draco pounced on her and started nibbling on her neck, causing her to shriek and flail. But the tiny bites quickly changed into searing kisses, and pretty soon Hermione was staring up at his ceiling, sighing happily. 'If I didn't know better, I'd say this was a dream.'
'How do you know it isn't? Aren't you in the habit of dreaming of me, Hermione?'
'That depends. Do you dream of me?'
Draco leaned down, his lips hovering along her jaw line. 'Every night. Scandalous dreams that would make you blush to the roots of your unruly hair and have your father lock you away in a tower,' he rasped, his voice rife with insinuation and mischief.
Thankfully the dark of the room disguised the heat suffusing her face. 'Is that so?'
'Yes, although in my dreams, you go by the name Hermione Grangeen, break my secretary's quills, and pay me surprise visits in the nude in an invisibility cloak.'
He lifted his head from her neck, then chuckled outright at the look of horror on her face as she shoved him away.
'She told you!' Hermione didn't have to specify the 'she.' The rancour in her voice gave it away.
'Actually, she told my father who then told me.'
'Your father knows!' Hermione mourned, covering her face with her hands. 'I didn't even mean it.'
'Neither did I. The idea of you naked in anything of Potter's makes me ill.'
'The idea of you speaking with Sharon Vernus makes me ill,' Hermione snapped back.
'We shall soon have our remedies. On Monday, Sharon will be Blaise's problem, and I will have received the invisibility cloak I ordered from Borgin and Burkes.'
Hermione laughed. 'Be serious for once.'
'I am serious. I have orchestrated the complete ruination of Weasley's designs to have my blond, Slytherin babies, which is only fair, since he ruined my proposal.'
'And how do you plan to do that?'
The heat of his mouth pressed against her neck again, making her skin spark. 'I think between the two of us brilliant individuals, we'll come up with something. But for starters, it will involve you and the invisibility cloak,' he murmured in a low voice. 'Followed by lots and lots of practice.'
'Perhaps,' Hermione shrugged noncommittally, though her stomach was still flip-flopping its way down to her feet. 'But only if you're good.'
'Oh, I'll be very good. I promise.'
A throat cleared, and it wasn't Draco's or her own. Hermione stopped moving, though from the way Draco was still pawing her, he must not have heard the noise.
Turning her head, she saw the last two people she expected to see standing in Draco's doorway.
'Mum? Dad! What are you going here?' Hermione squealed, trying to sit up and straighten her dress. Draco's hands did not interfere with the process. At the mention of her father, they'd fallen away from her as if her skin had suddenly sprouted Bubotuber boils. The guilty pair quickly scrambled off the bed.
'Narcissa invited us over,' Allison replied, beaming at Hermione and Draco, then at Hermione's ring. 'It would seem some congratulations are in order. I can't tell you how long I've been waiting for Hermione and you to start dating. And then to suddenly have you engaged! I'm so happy!'
Richard merely stood there, his left eye twitching.
'I apologize for the short notice,' Narcissa's bell-like voice floated across the room, 'but I had so wanted to meet your parents, and as we were expecting you and Draco to return soon, we asked them to come celebrate your engagement along with a few of your closest friends. And that nice reporter from the Prophet.'
Hermione's eyes darted towards the front door, fearful that Pansy would rush in to destroy them all.
Seeing her concern, Narcissa said, 'The reception ended a half hour ago. Everyone who was invited to our get-together is waiting downstairs to congratulate you.'
Stepping out from behind her, Draco strode toward her parents, hand extended. 'Mr. and Mrs. Granger, thank you for coming.' Richard's eyes bugged out as he advanced. From behind her husband, Allison discretely pointed toward Draco's chest. With a curse, he realized his shirt was still unbuttoned. 'So sorry,' he said, turning around to try and button up his shirt. 'Hermione and I, er, I mean—'
'Yes, I saw,' Richard grumbled. 'More than I ever needed to.'
'Easily remedied,' a droll voice said from across the room just before a jet of pink light zipped across the room, and pulled the sides of Draco's shirt together. Rather than slipping the buttons into their respective holes, though, a pink ribbon appeared, lacing the shirt from the bottom to his chest, where it ended in a loopy bow.
'Thank you, father,' Draco said flatly.
'Don't mention it. Now come along. We mustn't keep everyone waiting.'
With a flounce of black robes and white blond hair, Lucius left the room, Narcissa on his heels. After a forceful prompting from Allison, Richard left the room, throwing an accusing glance over his shoulder at Draco.
'Well, that was interesting,' Hermione said, fluffing the bow on his shirt. 'Now don't you wish you'd listened to me? We could already be married and doing more exciting things than chatting with our friends.'
'You've gotten me in enough trouble. I won't be able to look your father in the face, which will make the wedding a bit awkward.'
'I'm sure my father will come around. Eventually.' Hermione walked over to his closet and got out another shirt. 'Here, you may want to change.'
'If I know my father, I won't be able to undo this bow for at least an hour,' Draco groused. 'And if I know you father, he will storm the stairs if don't show up in the next minute.'
Hermione didn't think it worthwhile to mention that her mother wouldn't allow her father to do such a thing. Besides, it was probably best she kept quiet. If Draco knew, they'd never make it down, and she was very curious to see what a bona fide wedding night with Draco actually entailed.
Draco stood before her, crowding her body with his large one and distracting her from her imaginings. She grinned up at him as he played with her hair. 'You realize we will be despised for making everyone feel like crap because they will never be as happy as us.'
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. 'While that is unfortunate, it's not my fault that their relationships are, at best, only poor imitations of ours.'
Draco chuckled, and held out his hand. 'So, future Mrs. Malfoy, are you ready?'
She placed her hand in his without any hesitation.
'Then lead the way.'
Unless I write a mini-epilogue.