Author's Note: Welp, this is it, friends. The final chapter. I hope you enjoyed the story. I know there were some rough patches and some long, loooong waits, but you stuck with me. I hope it was worth it. I'm humbled and flattered by not only the time you all have taken to read, but also the reviews that a fair few of you have chosen to leave. Your encouragement has pulled me through my own rough patches and your feedback has made me a much better writer. So thank you, truly.
I have to extend a HUGE thank you to my MNFF betas! Lucilla_Pauie beta'd much of "Aversion" and about half of "Resilient", and CoolCatElly picked up where she left off and saw this fic through to its end. I'm fully convinced that these are two of the greatest people in the world. Their advice has been invaluable and their patience legendary. Thank you!
Finally, a few of you have asked for a short piece from Draco's point of view while all this was going on. Well, ask and you shall receive! It's called, "Masks" and should be on my author's page now. I heartily suggest reading it AFTER the epilogue as spoilers will abound. Obviously. Hahaha
Thank you all, again, for everything. I'm sure many of you are curious about my post-"Resilient" plans, and I'm happy to announce that I am working on another chaptered fic, which I hope will be significantly lighter than this one. No idea when it will be done, but whatever. Point being: you haven't seen the end of me yet. ;)
Epilogue: The Forest
The first few days were tense. Dobby reported back to her with nothing but apologies for the lack of new information he had gathered and the promise of severe punishments for his failures, which (of course) she expressly forbade. All anyone knew was that Draco was in critical condition. Healers were unsure of whether or not he would survive. Hermione told Dobby not to worry, that he was doing great, but found it immensely difficult to trust him. Not that Dobby would lie, but anyone talking to him might. It took all of her restraint not to Floo to St. Mungo's and check for herself.
On the fourth day, however, he came to her brimming with delight. "They is telling Dobby that Master Draco is no longer in the woods! The Master will live, they tells Dobby!"
She asked him about how badly he was hurt, about what spell had cursed him, but Dobby had nothing else for her. That information was accessory anyway. Draco would live. That was all she needed to know.
Having that anxiety lifted from her shoulders made her work in Draco's potions laboratory much more pleasant. She had combed through his extensive library and learned everything she could about countering the effects of curses, hexes, and jinxes. She read about antidotes and field amputation – though she doubted she would need either – but there were a few chapters on wound care and dressing changes that she thought could be helpful. She had also found a few recipes for novel healing potions, which is exactly what she wanted. The rest of her days were spent brewing these potions and testing them thoroughly on an unfortunate spider she had found lurking in a corner.
Over two weeks later, Dobby appeared in her laboratory positively skipping. "Master Draco is coming home! They is bringing him to Dobby and Mistress!"
Hermione nearly dropped the vial she was holding. "When?" she asked urgently.
Her heart skipped a beat. Tomorrow. After four years, she would see him tomorrow. Reality hit her hard then and confronted her with the questions she had ignored. But it was still too soon to consider them. She had to stick with the plan. No overanalyzing. Anything that came after… Well, she would slay that manticore when she came to it.
"Just like we discussed, Dobby," she said with a smile that was perhaps a little too forced. Dobby seemed not to notice.
With a toothy grin, he disappeared. Hermione finished the potion she was brewing – luckily for her she had started early – and bustled around the Keep to make her own preparations. She popped into the kitchen to inform the elves, who patiently informed her that Dobby already had and could she please move away from the oven, the bread was going to burn. She grabbed several unused glasses from the cupboard and was soon on her way.
Though the Keep did not have a proper greenhouse, Draco had attempted to keep a small garden. It had not done very well; Hermione suspected that he had little patience for flowers. Despite its dismal quality, it had yielded two decent bouquets, which Hermione artfully arranged in the glasses-recently-turned-vases. She placed both in Draco's room and stepped back to admire the effect.
The tower bedroom was full of sunlight. His bedding was light blue – a welcome change from his usual black and hopefully a nice change from the stark white hospital linens. The air was fresh and lighted scented with flowers and spice – the perfect combination for early summer. She had taken the liberty of rearranging his beside cabinet to accommodate an array of healing potions, pain relievers, and sleeping draughts. She did not know what to expect and so she prepared for everything.
But nothing could have prepared her for the next day.
Predictably, Hermione had not slept, and at sunrise, she showered, changed into a pair of denims and a nice top, attempted to tame the mess that was her hair, and considered and dismissed the thought of makeup. Then she stood in the foyer and waited.
She did not wait long. Just after eight a.m., after she had accepted a glass of pumpkin juice from an insistent Dobby, the Keep's front doors rattled. Hermione set the glass uncertainly on the floor then, on second thought, vanished it. Her heart was somewhere in the vicinity of her throat and her stomach near her toes as the door slowly opened, revealing…
She walked through door backward, propping it open with a slim, lilac-robed hip. "Careful with his head now, darling," she said to Lucius. The Malfoy patriarch, robed in his usual black, was silent as he backed in as well, wand aloft. Levitating behind them both was Draco.
He looked dead. His skin was ashen and his hair limp. His eyes had sunken into his skull and the hollows were accentuated with dark purple bags. The only indication of life was the slow, even rise-and-fall of his chest. Hermione brought her hands to her mouth to unsuccessfully stifle a small scream. Both Narcissa and Lucius stopped in their tracks and glanced over their shoulders in almost perfect synchronicity.
"How is he?" she gasped, stepping forward. Her voice cracked and tears threatened to overflow the rims of her eyes.
"Comatose," Narcissa answered, her tone clipped and even. "Take him to the study while I prepare his room, Lucius."
"There's no need for that." Narcissa paused again to stare at her, but Hermione did not quail. "His room is ready." The older couple shared a glance that Hermione could not read and then Lucius brushed his fingers against Narcissa's hand. She could see the thin, pink scar on the matriarch's palm and gasped again, managing to stifle it this time. She clenched her own scarred palm and looked at the man who shared her mark. Narcissa's eyes burned into her, but Hermione ignored them, watching in silence as Lucius levitated Draco's body up the stairs and out of sight.
"Hermione," she correctly absently, turning toward the petite blonde woman.
Narcissa's upper lip curled in distaste. "We need to have a discussion."
Hermione nodded and walked away, intending for Narcissa to follow. To Hermione's relief, she did, stiffly. She took the time and silence to collect herself. She had imagined this moment for weeks and each time it played out a little differently. In the perfect scenario, Draco was conscious, and she had the chance to talk to him alone beforehand. But life had rarely worked in her favor before. There was no reason for it to start now. The reality was that Draco was in bed, unaware and possibly dying. She would have to be her own strength. After years of self-reliance, it was a task she finally felt confident in accomplishing.
Soon, they arrived at the back part of the Keep to the rarely-used sunroom. Since this was Hermione's first time here in the summer, she had never seen the sunroom until she had passed it looking for the flower garden. It had since become one of her favorite spots. It looked out upon the wide expanse of land behind the mansion that terminated in cliff and sea. The furniture was well-made wicker and padded with light orange cushions. Though it had been bare before, Hermione requested several potted plants be arranged on the floor. Conjured flowers gave the air a light, fragrant tone. Hermione had been unable to coax any more real ones from the pitiful garden, but these did fine for now.
She took a seat and gestured to the one nearest her. Narcissa took the furthest one, positioned directly across from Hermione.
"Ms. Granger, I will not waste your time with pleasantries and so I ask that you not waste mine." A tea tray popped into existence on the table before them. Hermione had to bite her tongue to keep from offering her a cup. "My son has been grievously injured. For weeks now, he has been waiting on death's doorstep and we have been waiting for him to pass through it. Until a few days ago we – my husband, myself, and the team of Healers seeing to Draco – were sure he would not make it. We were prepared…" Her voice broke slightly. She cleared her throat. "We are still prepared to lose him."
Hermione sat unmoving, waiting for her to continue. After a few minutes, Narcissa took a shallow breath.
"The ceremony where the Dar- where Voldemort was killed. Surely Draco told you about the consequences of that day? The union of your blood?"
"We are joined," Hermione answered simply.
Narcissa frowned. "It is much more than that, Ms. Granger," she said acidly. "Surely you felt the change? According to the tradition of our house, you are more than joined. You are together. You are one. Mind, body, and soul. That is what has enabled you to live so comfortably in Greece for all these years. The blood in your veins makes you a Malfoy and grants you all the rights therein."
Hermione sat back in her chair, her expression dumbstruck. Despite the dire condition of the man upstairs, she felt a stab of pain. He had promised. He had promised not to search for her. Had he known she was in Greece this whole time?
Narcissa read her expression correctly. "Did you think my husband was ignorant of the state of his holdings?" she snapped.
"No, no of course not," and she felt instantly relieved. Of course Lucius must have known. "Why didn't you tell him?"
"He requested our silence," she sneered, breaking her eye contact with Hermione and glaring out toward the sea. "You can blame his father for complying."
"Thank you." Narcissa's eyes snapped back on Hermione. "For not telling him."
"I did not do it for you!"
Hermione nodded. "All the same…"
Narcissa continued to snarl. "Being that you two are now one, you must understand our suspicions at your sudden arrival. For four years, you have not recognized the blood bond that ties you. Then Draco is nearly killed – may still die – and here you sit, preparing his room, keeping his house, commanding his elves… Not only recognizing the bond, the fulfilling it. Conveniently timed, don't you think?" She let her statement hang and seemed displeased by Hermione's silence. "Have you nothing to say for yourself?"
It took Hermione ten seconds to puzzle out what Narcissa was implying, but only two to be insulted by it. True, Hermione wasn't sure of her intentions yet. Draco was home, and that was a relief. He was also still unconscious, which was where her indecision struck. She could still leave and feel relatively little guilt about it. She could move away from Greece – maybe even back to England – and try to establish a new life. A world of possibility presented itself, and she didn't know if she wanted to shun it yet.
But of one thing she was absolutely certain: she was not a Galleon-grubbing succubus.
Narcissa correctly read Hermione's horrified expression, but misinterpreted it. She rose to her feet. "Exposed!" she hissed triumphantly. She stared down at Hermione with cold, clear blue eyes and an intensity Hermione recognized well. "You know that you stand to inherit upon Draco's death as long as the bond is fulfilled. Our magic does not recognize time, only strength of devotion, and a witch's devotion may know no bounds when millions of Galleons are in question. Well hear me now, Ms. Granger, and listen well: I will see to it that you get not so much as a Knut upon my son's death, nor a square inch of our ancestral lands. His devotion was deserving of royalty. That he chose to give it to you was a terrible waste."
Frustration and anger boiled up inside of her, but Hermione managed to keep most of it contained as she slowly rose to her feet. Narcissa was slightly taller than she, but in that moment, Hermione stood eye to eye with her, unflinching.
"Hang your Galleons," she said in a hiss not very unlike Narcissa's, "and hang your land. I am interested in neither."
"Then what are you interested in, girl? Why are you here?"
"Because I want to be here. And I will be until I want to leave."
Then Hermione spun on her heel and left the seething blonde woman sputtering in indignation. Narcissa Malfoy had every right in the world to question Hermione, but Hermione had absolutely no obligation to withstand that abuse. The power of the act – of turning her back and refusing to answer – allowed her to stalk through the Keep with her head held high, aware but blissfully unconcerned with the angry set of eyes burrowing into the back of her skull. Defying expectations, making decisions, asserting herself as an individual and an equal… It was intoxicating.
The heady feeling lasted until she reached Draco's door. It was closed and she opened it without knocking, but stopped before stepping over the threshold. Lucius sat at Draco's bedside, looking more worn than Hermione had ever seen him. One hand rested on the bed over Draco's long, pale fingers. His thumb moved gently over his skin. The other hand covered his mouth, where Hermione knew a quavering chin hid. After a tense moment, Lucius started and stood. He dropped Draco's hand and replaced his vulnerability with a poorly-constructed mask of ambivalence.
Good breeding dictated that he greet her quietly. Hermione's cheeks flamed red as his voice cracked and faltered. In that instant, she knew she should have knocked. But she could not apologize for it, not after standing so strong against Narcissa's wrath. She had to stand against Lucius, too, even if his reaction was infinitely more pitiable than his wife's.
"I need to see him," she said clearly with a small measure of force. Lucius's grey eyes widened slightly, then narrowed again as comprehension dawned. For a moment, Hermione thought she would have to fight him, too, and felt oddly prepared for the conflict. But then he looked at Draco – pale, unmoving, so close to death – and deflated. The will to challenge or even belittle her had been stolen from him.
"Very well." Lucius looked at her closely and Hermione returned his stare evenly.
"Thank you," she replied just as quietly. Lucius stared at her a moment longer and then nodded in surrender, or perhaps even acceptance. Hermione was sure Lucius shared his wife's suspicions regarding her sudden reappearance into Draco's life, but she wondered if perhaps she could not sway him to her side sooner than she thought. Honestly, she had counted on having Narcissa's support before Lucius's, but if it were the other way around, so be it.
It was a testament to how strongly Draco's brush with death had affected him.
He looked at Draco one last time and moved past Hermione, shutting the door behind him. Hermione withdrew her wand and locked it with a series of spells – strong but not unbreakable – and warded against eavesdroppers as well. Though she doubted Lucius would listen at keyholes, Narcissa might be desperate enough to try, and Hermione did not want to be overheard. Not the first time.
She approached the bed slowly and felt the strength ebb out of her with every step. It was still unclear as to what spell had hit Draco. All anyone knew what that it was dark, complex, and involved both a physical and mental component. She drew back the sheet covering his torso and slowly unbuttoned his shirt, avoiding contact with his skin. The physical component was entirely healed. No new scars or blemishes marred his chest, just the old ones that she knew so well. The thin line running from his temple to his jaw. The thick, pale pink stripe that cut diagonally across his chest.
Hermione's fingers hovered mere centimeters above the scars. She imagined she could feel a slight tingle of recognition, like her body remembered its other half. She drew away quickly. What would happen if she touched him? Would their blood recognize the bond? Would they feel that raw surge of emotion and understanding, that at once alien and familiar knowing they had shared the night she had left him? She knew the full force of their union was transmittable only by scar-on-scar contact, but his blood – their blood? – infused his body. Ran through his very skin. If she were to touch his arm, for instance, or his hand, would he recognize her? Would he awaken?
She withdrew her fingers, rebuttoning his shirt carefully. Then she replaced the sheet and took Lucius' vacated seat. She curled her hands into fists.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to him, not caring that he was cataleptic. "I'm so sorry. But I'm not ready yet."
He said nothing. She continued.
She told him of life in Greece. How beautiful it was: the summer humidity counteracted by the sweet, ocean-scented Meltemi; the vibrant colors – the verdant green of the trees, the cerulean blue of the ocean and sky, the complex gray of the ancient stone; the altitude of the Spiti and the way her ears popped whenever she visited. She described the lightness of the Spiti compared to the Keep, the hours she spent on the balcony reading and thinking and absorbing the sunshine, and how, despite all that, Greece never really felt like a permanent home.
She told him about the quaint coastal town and the acquaintances she made there. She told him about Homer, about the café, and the unorthodox interview that landed her the job. She told him about the magical shops in Rome. She explained to him about the different wand cores (Pegasus wing feather, minotaur tail hair, and griffon scale) and how long it had taken her to learn Greek: an entire month before she got the basics and then another six before she could hold a conversation without using a pocket guide.
She took him through a typical day – working in the café until Homer sent her home, traveling to the Spiti and sunbathing on the large, private patio, swimming in the modest pool, cooking meals of increasing complexity until she could boast skills to rival Dobby's. She told him about the first and only time she had attempted to make baklava, and how she had sworn off filo dough. She chuckled as she described the view from the balcony, remarking that Malfoys must prefer rooms that overlooked large expanses of water.
She told him how lonely it made her to look out at all that ocean and imagine him one the other side of it. She wondered if he ever stared and thought of her, too. She thanked him again for keeping her wand and Amaris safe, and how she would have gone mad several times over without both.
Then she told him about the scrapbook she kept, how she looked forward to receiving the paper more than anything else in her day, how exciting and fulfilling it was to read about all the good he was going. She told him how proud she was that he had accomplished so much in so little time, how much it meant to her that he was working so hard. How much she respected him for it.
She told him her biggest regret: that it had taken an attempt on his life to bring her back to him. She was ashamed of herself. She should have been stronger, braver. More confident, less selfish.
She cried tears spawned from guilt and fear, and sobbed over his body fiercely and unashamedly until a warm hand descended on her shoulder. She startled and looked up through swollen, red-rimmed eyes, and saw Lucius.
He helped her from the chair. She could not fight even if she wanted to: her body simply lacked the will. She teetered on two feet and the Malfoy patriarch steadied her with another hand. And then naturally, almost as if it was his intention the whole time, his arms widened and Hermione found herself cradled inside them.
She collapsed against him, staining his robes with tears and not caring one bit about it as he held her. Stiffly, yes, but unflinchingly. He whispered meaningless, comforting words to her, and she believed him.
In that moment, something shifted between them. In that moment, he became the support she needed, the shade of the father she had lost.
While they never again shared the closeness they had that night, an understanding grew between them. They had witnessed each other's grief: proof that the great, stony Lucius Malfoy had a heart, and that noble Muggleborn Hermione Granger had no interest in Galleons. He accepted her presence as something that could not be changed. Sometimes, she imagined, he was even glad she was there with them to share the burden of their pain. Narcissa remained unconvinced, but her frosty nature abated somewhat. Hermione knew Lucius was responsible for this. She never found the words to thank him for it.
The months passed slowly. And, just as gradually, the Healers assigned to Draco's care trickled away until there was only one old woman with thick, white hair and a pince-nez. She stopped in once a month and, each month, was barraged with the same question.
"If he's healed, why does he not wake?" Narcissa demanded. "Why is he still comatose?"
Healer Cleary shrugged her shoulders. "His body and mind are sound. At this point, all I have is speculation."
She hesitated. "Since there is no medical reason for his coma, I believe that something else is keeping him under. Maybe the spell damaged his soul, or his heart. Maybe there is more healing going on inside than any of us can realize." She shrugged again. "He will return when he's ready. For now, just be patient."
Though Cleary assured them that Draco's condition was stable, he was rarely left alone. Sometimes all three of them sat at his bedside, still and silent. At other times it was just his parents. But Lucius seemed to have a difficult time seeing his son incapacitated and Narcissa, recognizing his unease, did what she could for him. So mostly, it was just Hermione.
She liked being alone with him. She didn't have to worry about fidgeting around Narcissa, who seemed to take it as a personal affront, and was spared the awkwardness that occasionally arose between her and Lucius. It was relaxing and the silence allowed her to think. When her thoughts became too melancholy, she read to him, mostly Muggle novels from a cache she had discovered in one of his bureaus, but a few wizarding ones as well. Sometimes she even sang to him, though never for long and never very well.
In mid July, Narcissa suggested they move Draco to other areas of the house, thinking that perhaps a change of environment would spark something in his brain and accelerate his healing. They levitated him to the balcony and enjoyed the sunshine together. They took him to the conservatory and played his favorite music. Hermione even persuaded them to visit his potions laboratory, much to Narcissa's displeasure.
Almost nightly, she transported his body to the second floor of his tower. She would lay beside him there, never touching, and just watch the stars. Surrounded by infinity, she could imagine better, less complicated times. To an outsider, it would have looked unhealthy. Unbalanced. Perhaps it was. But Hermione didn't care. This was their secret. Their place. She thought that there was more chance of him waking there than any other place in the Keep.
One day in late August, while Narcissa and Lucius strolled on the beach, Hermione sat vigilant at Draco's bedside. She did not have a book or a song, only silence. And, with that silence, thoughts.
Three months had passed since she arrived at the Keep, uncertain of her choice and afraid of the consequences. After first seeing Draco, she finally allowed herself to contemplate both. Disappointingly, she had reached only one conclusion.
Whatever happened next – whether she stayed at the Keep or left again – would depend upon Draco. And for anything to depend upon Draco, he would have to be awake. She brought her knees up to her chin, arranging her long, white skirt around her legs, and stared hard at his body. After observing him for so long, after listening to the healers and forming her own conclusions, Hermione thought she knew what had to be done to wake him.
She uncurled her fist, revealing her scar, and reached toward his own scarred palm. Slowly, gently, she let her hand rest against his. She felt his consciousness – the knowing, the emotion – but it was indistinct. Fuzzy. With no real power behind it.
Her face fell. She withdrew her hand and sat back in her chair, tears brimming in both eyes. She let them fall as she stared at her open, useless palm. Why had she expected it to work? It was just a theory, no more likely to work than Narcissa's idea of shuttling him from room to room. Blood magic was powerful but even that had its limits. Perhaps he was beyond her power. Perhaps he was beyond all hope.
Then, Draco sighed and – to her astonishment – swore quietly.
"After everything I did, you still managed to die," he admonished teasingly, grey eyes at once bright and sad. "I shouldn't be surprised, of course – after so long of doing what you needed to, you were bound to rebel. I just wished it would have been in some other way." He sighed again. "So how did it happen, Hermione? How did you die?"
Dazed, she shook her head. "I haven't." Her voice did not sound like her own.
Draco looked contemplative for a moment and then nodded. "Yes, perhaps it's for the best that I not know. I'm sure it would spoil the moment. Now the real question is how did I make it to heaven?"
"Draco… Draco, you're not in heaven."
He frowned. "But you're here. Obviously, this means-"
"Draco!" she interrupted, her voice high and excited. "Draco, you're not dead! You're alive! You're alive!" She fell to her knees at his bedside and gripped his hand in her own, scar to scar. The tingling of energy and magic – now sharp and strong – blasted through her cells. But it did not bring pain like all the times before. Instead, there was confusion, and hope. Though the moment was faster than fleeting, she pushed back with everything she could. Reassurance and joy. Disbelief. Love.
He looked up at her with more confusion than she had ever seen, and it was an expression so comical that she couldn't help but laugh. The sound seemed to awaken something in him. His body stiffened and he looked at her as if he couldn't believe she was real.
"Hermione?" Her heart was too full for words. All she could do was nod emphatically and grip his hand even tighter, trying to make him understand what she could not articulate. "You're here?" She nodded again and Draco smiled, a smile so genuine and honest that her heart exploded in her chest.
Just as she was about to crash down with the rubble – a hasty confession almost tumbled from her lips – the Malfoys burst into the room. Hermione launched herself backward out of the chair, wrenching her hand away from his. The severed bond made her stagger two steps, but she managed to make it out of the room, down the stairs, and outside, where she took a very long walk.
She did not come back until late in the evening, when she was sure the Malfoys – all the Malfoys – would be asleep.
The next week was entirely focused on Draco's recuperation. Thanks to potions and magic, it was a relatively quick process. His physical strength had mostly returned and he was as mentally sharp as ever. His magic took longer. He could cast simple spells; he had gone through the entire Standard Book of Spells, Year 1 on his second day of consciousness. Year 4 seemed to be giving him some problems, but he was persistent and very determined to be at full strength with as little downtime as possible.
Hermione received most of this information second hand. Seeing Draco conscious was wholly different from seeing his body in a bed, and interacting with him was difficult. So she avoided him, keeping their contact limited to mealtimes. More difficult than staying out of sight (because, by Merlin, the man seemed to dog her every footstep) was staying out of his tower. She missed the soft grass of the artificial field, the lilies-of-the-valley scented breeze, and the silence of space. Every night, she pressed her hand to the worn patch of paint in the corner of her room and contemplated walking through.
It was a week before she caved.
To her surprise, the bed was scrupulously made and the room empty. Though she would not blame Draco if he wanted a bit of alone time. His parents – more specifically, his mother – had hovered over him since he woke up. It would drive anyone spare, and Draco had always been independent.
She made her way up the stairs to the tower and stopped short at the entrance. Draco was there, lying on the mattress in the middle of the room. Her heart sank and she turned around, but stopped when he addressed her.
"I knew you couldn't stay away for long."
She braced her hands on the door but did not turn around. "It's my favorite spot," she said by way of explanation.
"Mine too. Thank you for sharing it with me."
Now, she did turn. "What?"
"You took me up here. And to the potions lab, and the balcony and the greenhouse. I heard everything. I thought it was all a dream. It couldn't possibly be real, you being here. And then you touched me and something clicked into place. All of a sudden, it was real. You were real."
"That's why you stayed under?"
"It wasn't a conscious decision. But then-"
"You didn't really want to wake up, either."
"You were gone," he said hollowly. "Why would I want to be somewhere you're not?"
They were silent for a while. Hermione lingered in the doorway. Draco sat on the mattress with his head down, staring at his hands. He clenched them into fists.
"Do you want to take a walk?"
"Are you ready for that? It's only been a few days…"
"You sound like my mother," he half-joked, half-sneered. "I never knew she could be so officious."
Hermione bit back a smile. "She just wants what's best for you."
"You try telling her that what's best for me is space," he deadpanned. Her smile broke through. "Please, come with me. I… I still need to show you something." The way his voice dropped made the hairs on the back of Hermione's neck stand on end. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and led the way down the tower and out of the Keep.
The wind gusted as they stepped into the night. Leaves shook and trembled, the surf crashed faintly, insects chirped and thrummed. An owl hooted. A wolf howled. Hermione paused and closed her eyes. She smelled Greece in the air, and the warmth reminded her of the Meltemi. Of change. She inhaled deeply. It would happen again, and it would keep happening. All she could do was adapt. She opened her eyes to find Draco staring intently at her, slightly agape. She blushed, thankful for the darkness, but thought he might have seen her pink cheeks anyway.
"Where are we going?" she asked him, both to break the tense silence and to satisfy curiosity.
"The forest," was his succinct answer. Her breath caught in her lungs and her legs did not move though he walked forward.
The seat of so many unanswered questions. The font of so much foreboding and fear. She stared at the wall of trees and felt its tug, just as insistent and frightening as the first time. But she was stronger now. She could resist it, if she tried. And she was trying. Hard.
Draco's hand on her arm made her jump. "I know what you're doing," he said quietly. "Don't."
"It's dangerous," she parroted. He winced.
"It was, but not anymore."
He turned and walked toward the forest again, not waiting for her. Hermione almost wished he had dragged her with him. Choosing was impossible; that she had been given a choice at all was incredible. She took a deep breath.
The wind gusted.
She caught up to him easily at the edge of the wood. "Part of me hoped you wouldn't come," he said quietly. "But I you need to. Please, don't…" He trailed off and Hermione knew he wasn't going to continue. His hand drifted toward hers and she almost let him take it, but they both seemed to decide better of it at the last moment. Without another word, they walked into the darkness together.
The light of their wands threw eerie, uneven shadows, creating monsters and demons in the dark. There was no natural trail, but the wood groaned and shifted around them to clear a path. Deeper and deeper, swallowed by inky blackness. A black so deep that it stole the sound of the surf and wind, quieting even the insects. Their feet snapping twigs on the forest floor was the only sign of life, and even that seemed too ominous to count.
For ten minutes they walked but they may have well been standing still: the forest did not change. Then, strangely, a tree took a shape she recognized. A familiar stump rotted near an algae-covered pond. A haunting gnarl to her right looked like a melting face. They were memories, but vague ones, like she had only seen them in a dream or a photograph.
Or a Pensieve.
The tree trunks terminated suddenly and the darkness evaporated. A wide, sorrowful clearing spread before them. It was perfectly round – unnaturally so – and in the middle of it grew a Hawthorn tree taller and wider than any tree had a right to be. A thick vine twined around and up it, reaching toward the heavens. The pull on her heart and mind twitched a final time, then fluttered away.
This was what the forest had wanted her to see, what the magic had pulled her toward, and what Draco had shielded her from.
A flashback that was not her own assaulted her memory. A circle of figures clothed in black, ringing a mass grave. Fiery orange hair, stained brown with dirt and dried blood. A pair of round, black-rimmed spectacles, recognizable though perched before lifeless jade green eyes. The bodies of her parents, carelessly added to the heap. Afterthoughts.
She stood before the grave marker, trembling and sobbing and unaware that she had even moved. One hand rested on the tree trunk and the other upon the vine. A surge of magic – almost bordering awareness – unsettled her, and she fell to her knees.
Draco was close behind her, but not close enough to touch.
"There was never a right time," he whispered, his voice thick with grief. "I'm so sorry, Hermione." Then he left the clearing, giving her space and peace, allowing her to grieve.
She did not know how long it took her to stop crying. She did not know the process by which she made peace with the world all over again. She did not know where the strength came from that allowed her to get to her feet and walk away from the grave.
But she did know that a new day was slowly banishing the night. She did know her way out of the forest, despite the long, potentially circuitous path she took to reach its center. She did know, once she emerged from the wall of trees, what brought her to the edge of the cliff.
Draco stood almost exactly where she had, toes hanging over the edge and staring out at the still-dark horizon. She approached him cautiously, but did not bother to stay silent. The last thing she wanted to do was surprise him. Finally, she reached his side and grabbed a fistful of his shirt. Now, if he did anything stupid, he would do it with her in tow.
He was apparently thinking the same way. "Why don't you just let me go?" he muttered. "It would be so much easier that way."
"You're wrong. Is it really so bad, Draco?"
She looked up into his face and saw his silent tears.
"Of course it is. Hermione, I've destroyed you. I've destroyed everything."
"Voldemort destroyed everything," she corrected quietly. "You've done so much more than that. I've been reading the Prophet, you know. Every day. You're fixing it, just like you said you would."
"You asked me to."
"We both know you would've done it anyway. You're different, Draco. You've changed." He laughed derisively again, and it angered her. "Can you not see it? Do you really not know?"
"What I know," he growled, "is that change is an illusion, and I've been fooling myself for too long."
"Am I? I've known you for almost fourteen years, Hermione. For the first six, I hated you and for the next three, I almost killed you. Those aren't the actions of a redeemed man. Those are the actions of a monster."
"What about the final four years? What did you do for those?"
Draco scowled and turned away from her. "Why did you come back?"
Hermione frowned but allowed the evasion. "Because I believe you have changed. You've taken responsibility. You've helped so many people, and seeing that has helped me. I've…" she trailed off, uncertain of how to phrase just what she had done. "I think I've gained perspective. When I saw you get cursed, something in me just snapped. I didn't feel angry or justified. I was scared for you, and scared for myself. I think I always knew I would have to come back here. That we had unfinished business."
"I had forgotten about that, quite honestly. So much else had happened. But thank you." He glanced at her quizzically from the corner of his eye. "For respecting them. For showing them to me."
"I wanted to do it so much sooner," he breathed. "There was just never the time."
She chuckled wryly. "There wasn't, was there? How would I have been able to do half of what you needed me to knowing what you had kept safe for so long?"
"Don't defend it," he said sternly. "If it weren't for me, none of this would have happened. Everything would be different. You would be happy and I would be…"
"Miserable?" she prompted. "Seems to me that you already are."
"It's what I deserve."
His self-loathing was starting to wear upon her. "Is there anything I can say?"
"No," was his simple answer. His voice shook, betraying his torment. "There's nothing. And now that our business is finished, you can go."
Four years ago, this rejection might have driven a dagger through the remnants of Hermione's heart. Four years ago, she would have obeyed him without question, as she had done for almost three years before that.
But this was not four years ago.
This was four years later.
Now, she wasn't the least bit rebuffed. Now, she recognized his rejection as the last defense of a man desperate to do what he thought was right.
And now, she made her own choices.
"I'm not leaving."
This got his attention and, finally, he looked at her, incredulity ruling his face. "What?"
"I'm not leaving," she repeated, more firmly this time. "I tried that once. I thought that, if I left, I might be able to make peace with what happened to me. I thought I'd be able to move on with my life."
"Thought you'd be able to forget me."
"No, and don't put words into my mouth! I left because I thought it would help me. And it did. I'm better, Draco. Not perfect – never perfect – but better."
"Then why did you come back? If you're not okay, why did you come back?" He was nearly shouting now, though he finally stepped back from the edge.
"Because I've done as much as I can on my own. I need you, Draco. You are my unfinished business, not the forest."
He took several more steps backward, wrenching himself away from her. "I don't want you to be here because you feel some sort of obligation to me! I don't need your pity, Hermione, and I don't want it!"
She had reached the end of her tether and what had been a rational discussion suddenly turned into a full-blown argument.
"Have you listened to nothing that I've said, you self-absorbed fool? I'm here because I bloody well want to be! I'm here because I need you! And, quite honestly, the more I hear, the more I think that you need me too!"
"Bullshite. How the hell could you need me after all I've done to you?"
"The last four years, you idiot! Look at what you have done in the last four years! You've respected my wishes: you said you wouldn't look for me and you kept your word! I asked you to take responsibility and you have! You confessed, you went to court, you paid your debt – as did the other Resilience members – and you've taken critical steps to rehabilitate Wizard and Muggle society! That means something to me, Draco, and if you can't figure out why that's important, then you don't deserve credit for half of what you've accomplished!"
"Well, if I've already done everything you've asked, what more could there be? What more could I possibly do for you?"
"Forgive yourself!" she screamed. Draco fell silent and turned on his heel, stalking back toward the Keep. She followed him just as swiftly and grabbed his arm, yanking him to a stop. "I can't move past this if I know you're still agonizing over it!" she yelled, turning him to face her. "I can't live knowing that you're hurting!"
"You seemed to be doing alright for four years!"
"I was not alright!" She had never admitted it aloud before, and her heart felt like lead. "I was frightened and confused and bitter and alone! Getting up every morning was a trial, but going to sleep was even worse for what I saw in my dreams! Nothing about me has been alright, Draco, but now it has a chance to be and damned if I'm going to let it pass! And I know you feel the same as I do! You need to let go, just like I do. It's going to kill us otherwise."
"I can't," he growled. "I can't just let it go. I deserve this, Hermione. What I did to you was unforgiveable."
"What if I said I forgave you?"
"You'd be lying."
"And if I wasn't?"
He scoffed. "We both know you don't. It takes longer than four years to get past what I did to you. You need to leave again, go back to Greece or where ever, and get better."
"I can't," she growled right back. "Not without you. Because I'm stuck too, Draco. I'm just as trapped as you are."
"Who says I'm trapped?"
"I do and I know I'm right. I can see it in your eyes. You feel stuck. Like you're running without moving. And I am too. I've gone as far as I can on my own. But we've been shaped together, Draco. We're twisted pieces to the same puzzle, and I can't put my life together unless you're in it too."
"I don't want your pity," he repeated sternly.
"You ridiculous man," she spat. "I don't pity you! I love you! I've always loved you! It's never been easy, or even right, but it's something I can't change. And I don't think either of us can live a truly whole life without the other. Who else could comprehend what's happened to us? Who else could understand?"
"I don't want you here because you feel like you can't be anywhere else!"
"I'm here because I want to be! Because I need to be! Merlin, how many times do I have to say it? I want to be with you. I want to grow with you. I want to keep trying and, damn it, I want to succeed. I want to help you! I want to change the world!"
"How do I know?" he asked, his voice trembling. "How do I know you won't just leave again?"
"This is how!" She launched herself at him and clasped his hand. The force of their contact nearly knocked her off her feet. Intensity and understanding rocketed through her. His confusion and guilt, his wariness and fear, and his hope. All she had was determination and she focused on that certainty. What was no more than a split second felt more like a decade. The flash was gone, leaving them both breathless and exhilarated.
Draco dropped her hand and took a step backward. He looked astounded. "It's true."
Hermione huffed in annoyance. "You should have never doubted in the first place."
"I'll never deserve you."
"No more of that. You keep talking about what you deserve. You deserve to be happy, Draco. You deserve to live, not to simply survive."
"I'm… I'm a wreck, Hermione. I'm ruined. I don't know-"
She pressed her palm into his again. The onslaught stole her breath. When she next inhaled, she was leaning against his chest, and his arm was wrapped around her waist.
"Let me stay," she ordered him breathlessly. "Let me help you. Let me help myself."
His breath came in hot puffs against her hair. "Yes," he whispered. "Anything. Anything for you."
"For us," she murmured.
"It's not going to be easy," he whispered.
"I don't want it to be."
He shook his head in amazement, but smiled. She met his eyes – shining silver eyes that drank her in, eyes that no longer looked infinitely troubled – and smiled too. She rested her head against his chest and he held her tighter.
They stood together for a long time, bathed in eternity, two souls with one heartbeat and one future, which stretched out before them. It was not a path paved in gold, nor was it a straight course to happily ever after, but it was one which they would walk together, come what may.
Dawn had finally broken, and it was beautiful.