Author's Notes:

As promised, here is the second half of that last chapter, split into 2 chapters, because I received a number of PMs and reviews asking me for smaller chapters that came faster. The next chapter won't be up for a few weeks, however, as this fic goes back into my WIP rotation schedule.

Please review!


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: All In

Raithlin Island, Northern Ireland

Tuesday, October 31, 2000 (half-past four o'clock P.M.)

The sun was nearly set when Ginny and those who'd escaped The Fortress with her had arrived at the pier on Raithlin Island. Immediately, they'd been corralled by Pansy Parkinson, Cris Warrington, and Parvati Patil into a line and escorted to a series of cottages at the end of the main street. Bedraggled and exhausted, they'd all fallen into line without any fuss.

Not that the others could talk to create a stink, because they'd all been Silence'd since last night.

Passing through the front door of the house that had been allocated for their use, Ginny had felt strong protection wards envelope them. On the other side, it was clear an Anti-Apparition spell had also been set-up in advance as well; there would be no getting in or out of the cottage without permission from Malfoy, Parkinson had informed them.

"It's for our protection," the woman had reiterated. "Once you're cleared by a Legilimens, you'll be free to join the rotation around here. Until then... relax and enjoy the beds. They're soft with clean linens. Granger wanted to make sure you were comfortable." As the woman had headed out, she'd called over her shoulder, "Someone will be by with supplies so you can make dinner in about an hour. In the meantime, there are some snacks we found in one of the local stores earlier. It's not much, but they're on the kitchen counter for you. And try out the showers. You've got three bathrooms in this cottage, and we got them all to produce hot water."

There was a mad dash to the bathrooms after that, and Ginny had had to step up and make a queue so there wouldn't be a riot. There were only ten people left to be cleared, but they were ten filthy, exhausted, and hungry people who had been Mort's prisoners for Merlin knew how long. Their flight to freedom through the castle and out through Hogsmeade, their trek across the Irish moor in the dark and through the mud, and their re-incarceration once they'd discovered the rebel encampment in Wicklow had made most of them foul-tempered. They were a group on the edge, who needed some comforts, if there was to be no resolution to their predicament any time soon.

Apparently, Hermione had considered all that when she'd set up this cottage, as it was cheerful and warm with bright colours and a roaring fire already going in the hearth, roomy enough to keep three to a bedroom without crowding, and neat as a pin. There were closets full of Muggle clothes to change into (obviously abandoned wardrobes by the former renters or owners of these houses, but no one cared about that really), and every bed had been made, just as Parkinson had promised. The water had been as hot as pledged, and there had been a cake of soap and small travel bottles of Muggle shampoo left for them to use. The towels had not been fluffy, but they'd been soft enough and clean. The snacks had been only a little out of date, but they hadn't been stale. The water from the tap had been clear and cool, and there had even been left out for them a kettle and a small selection of teas. Using a Replicating Charm, Ginny had been able to produce enough mugs for them all to have a cuppa.

By the time Julie Parkes had come with Terry Boot to their cottage door with a bag of confiscated groceries in hand, most of the group had washed up, changed clothing, and were sitting in front of the fire either on the sofa, in a cosy chair, or on the rug on the floor, huddled close together as survivors of horror were known to do.

Despite their recent freedom and the comforts they'd been gifted here at their new residence, there remained a dull, haunted expression across each face, Ginny noted. She was struck by how desolate each of these strangers looked, and she wondered what exactly they'd seen and experienced to make them seem so fragile. Death, most assuredly, but what other horrors had they faced?

Having been relatively isolated from the brutality for the last two years as she'd been in California with her family (aside from her time within The Fortress with Phil, obviously), Ginny was sure she could barely relate to the kind of tragedy this group had endured here in Britain. She hadn't been tortured, she hadn't been raped (what Phil had done to her to keep their cover from being blown had been done with her permission and had all been an act, so she didn't consider it non-consensual), she hadn't been forced to commit atrocities against the innocent or against her will. She'd suffered death of loved ones, yes, and she'd undergone a very hard pregnancy and labour, and she'd used the Killing Curse for the first time, which still left her cold to the core when she considered it, but overall, she hadn't endured anything she couldn't bounce back from, given time. These people, though... they looked broken, hopeless. They looked like all they were living for was revenge.

She hadn't planned on being a leader, but suddenly, she understood what it meant to be thrust into such a position and to have to rise to the challenge. She got now why Hermione and Malfoy were doing what they were for the cause.

Looking around, she located some objects that no one would miss were she to transfigure them into other things. She created several decks of cards, a static chess set (because animating the pieces to be semi-sentient required a skill she didn't have), a backgammon set, and a set of non-magical Gobstones with a board.

The ruse worked. Her people withdrew from their inner, dark thoughts and began focussing on the distractions she'd provided. Cards were shuffled, table surfaces cleared, and boards were laid out. The hum of returning interest in life, and the relief from boredom filled the air. Partners for the two-player games hooked up with simple nods, and the others participated in team play Gobstone matches or in a round-robin game of Rummy.

It was a quiet party for the next hour as Ginny helped Parkes and Boot fix dinner. The occasional knock on table tops to indicate a turn ended, or the whistles to catch someone's attention or to tell them to hurry up and make a move were the only sounds besides the crackling fire and the noises of cooking.

Ginny watched her group through the doorway of the kitchen, as she helped fix a simple dinner of pasta with canned greens and pieces of dried beef mixed in.

"They'll be all right," Terry encouraged, washing up a series of bowls he'd found in one of the top cabinets. He used a Replicating spell on them when done. "It was the same for us who escaped The Madam's House. If they can do this, they'll be okay."

"I know," Ginny said. "They volunteered to come here and fight, rather than run. There's heart in them still." She finished draining the pasta in a colander transfigured from a pot, as Julie used her wand to open cans of green beans and tomatoes. "It's reminding them that there's more to live for than revenge that's going to be hard." She sighed, feeling the weight of such responsibility upon her small shoulders. Is this what 'Mione felt like every day?

Terry patted her on the shoulder. "You're a Weasley. If anyone can give them a new family to belong to, it's your lot."

Boot was right. Weasleys were known for two things: never giving up, and always making people feel welcome. Squaring her shoulders, she firmed up her courage. After all, if her mother could raise a good, loving family of nine (seven of them men of the most stubborn and wild natures) on a limited budget with few resources, in a small, rickety house that had required constant magical maintenance over the years, then Ginny could do this. She would give hope to this group, and when they'd been cleared and were able to have wands, she'd help incorporate them. She'd give them a reason to fight, and to live, just as her brother, Bill, had done for her.

There came a knock on the front door, and a voice she recognised offering a 'Hello' to everyone. As Ginny was wiping her fingers on a Scourgify'd hand towel, Phil stepped into the kitchen. Immediately, she stepped up to him, offering him her kiss. He took it without delay.

"Missed you, Freckles," he said with a bright smile for her.

"Missed you, too. You here to help or to eat?"

"Both," he cheerfully agreed, slapping his hands together and rubbing them enthusiastically. "Put me to work, and hey... what's on the menu?"

As Ginny conscripted him to help with the dinner preparations, it occurred to her how comfortable she and Phil were with each other, despite having been together for only a short period of time. They fell into a natural rhythm as they manoeuvered around the kitchen and dining area; she'd duck under his arm as he'd stretch for something on a top shelf in a cabinet. She'd dish out a bowl of food and he'd take it to the table. He'd reach around her to pick bits of food out of the pot, and she'd slap his wrist with a wooden spoon and tell him to stop being so greedy. It was like they were made for each other.

She went all warm and gooey inside at that thought.

"You good, baby?" Phil asked, noticing she'd stalled in the middle of levelling another serving of food into a bowl.

Embarrassed that she'd been caught daydreaming like some silly, little girl with her first fancy, Ginny stammered out some reply that everything was fine, and finished up her duties with a more concentrated effort.

As she sat down to dine at Phil's side, she kept glancing at him from the corner of her eye, studying his profile, the way he ate, and the little expressions he adopted while shovelling food into his mouth. The more she looked, the more she realised she liked what she was seeing.

When he touched her inappropriately under the table, while pretending to listen intently to whatever it was Boot was saying, Ginny knew she was in serious trouble of falling in love with Philip Cadwallader. She was already dangerously in lust with the man, but everything he did seemed so... perfect. Unlike with Harry, there was no shy fumbling, no nervous twitching or overly-sensitive, careful responses. With Phil, it was like she was free to be herself.

And therein lay the scary part... because all she wanted to do was to introduce Phil to Little "H".

But their relationship was still new, undefined, and there was a war on that threatened its continued existence. And honestly, she wasn't sure how he'd feel about hooking up with a woman who had a kid. She'd been told by Fleur that most men under the age of twenty-five ran screaming for the hills at the idea of commitment, and taking on another man's offspring was as big a commitment as there could be when it came to relationships. What if Phil couldn't handle the idea, especially knowing Little Harry was Harry Potter's child?

One thing was certain: she couldn't keep this secret for much longer. Bill and the other cells they'd been in contact with from across the world were on their way soon to get ready to bring the fight to Mort. Her older brother had predicted it would be over by Christmas, which was a mere two months away. After that, if she and Phil survived and they were still together, he'd discover the truth of her status as a single mother. If she didn't tell him in advance, he would feel she'd lied to him and tricked him, and that would guarantee him walking away.

Worrying her bottom lip, she considered when the best time would be to lay down all her cards.

By the time supper was ended, and she and Phil retired to the single bedroom allotted to her to christen her new bed, she'd decided to tell him about Little "H" within the next few days - as soon as she'd had a chance to talk to Charlie, to check up on Fred and Angelina, and to see Hermione. Being with her family and best girl friend again would bolster her Gryffindor courage enough for her to tackle anything.

X~~~~~X

Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

Tuesday, October 31, 2000 (half-past six o'clock P.M.)

Charlie held onto Fay's hand and stroked over her aura with his own, wanting to ease her nervousness. By the light of his wand, he watched as she caressed a hand over her abdomen, as if trying to reassure herself and their baby that all would be well. Night had crept over the forest, and beyond the boundary of their Illumination spells, it was pitch black. Nothing stirred, except a small wind that softly whistled through the trees, and the lack of animal noises was eerie.

"Ready?" he asked their group, wanting to get away and into a nice, warm bed as soon as possible. Even for a man who loved the outdoors as much as he did, he'd had enough of sleeping in tents for a while. It would be nice to rest on a proper mattress again.

His sister-in-law, Angelina, was supporting his brother, Fred, who was under the influence of a potion that kept him unconscious. A strong woman with some height on her side, she was able to easily hold his little brother up. "We're good," she let Charlie know with a smirk. "My fool of a husband is down for the next eight hours. You couldn't wake him even with a Stinging Hex to his privates."

Charlie chuckled at that, admiring Angie's spirit. Fred had chosen well.

Theodore Nott was helping Severus Snape to his feet, a blanket wrapped tightly around the sick man's shoulders. It seemed a struggle for their former Potions Professor to stay upright. "Hurry," Theo advised Charlie, a note of anxiety in his tone.

Penelope Clearwater had a similar hold on Neville Longbottom, who was so drugged out on potions, his eyes were rolling around in his head and his mouth was slack. Charlie doubted the poor man even knew where he was right then. "Some help here," Clearwater groused. "He's heavier than he looks."

In an instant, Granger stepped out of the darkness and was at their side. "I've got him."

She must have timed her Apparation to coincide with the last group to port out, because Charlie hadn't heard the crack of thunder signalling her arrival. Sneaky witch.

Zabini started swearing, and tightened his hold on McLaggen, whose hands were bound behind his back, and who was still magically Silence'd and blind. The man's head jerked in Granger's direction the moment she'd swooped in, Charlie noticed.

"What are you doing here?" Blaise impolitely asked Hermione. "You were told-"

Even as she slung Longbottom's free-swinging shoulder over her own, she glared at Zabini. "Shut it. I'm doing my bloody job." She looked around at the small group, the last to leave Wicklow. "Who's got the Portkey?"

Charlie held up a blue-striped kitchen towel that Cornfoot had handed him earlier. "Here."

"All right, let's move," she commanded, helping her charge take the several steps closer to reach Charlie's side. "Everyone else is already eating dinner."

Holding out the towel, Charlie prepared the Portus spell in his mind. "Everyone grab hold."

With help, everyone had a hand either on the Portkey itself or on someone who had a firm grip on it.

"On three," Charlie said. "One-"

In a move no one had suspected, McLaggen suddenly, wandlessly and non-verbally, transfigured himself into a wolf. Zabini's hold on him completely let loose, and Cormac's clothing and the ropes securing him went slack, freeing the Tracker. His eyes, which had been blinded in human form, were no longer white, indicating he'd broken that spell as well.

"Shit!" Blaise shouted, as McLaggen took off through the trees at a speed none of them could match on foot. Strangely, he stopped at the very edge of their wandlight and looked back at Hermione. She turned, took a step in McLaggen's direction…

Charlie reached out and grabbed her arm, stopping her from doing something truly foolish. "Longbottom and Snape need you here," he firmly reminded her. "McLaggen's made his choice. Leave him to his fate."

Coinciding with Charlie's declaration, Severus began hacking, the prolonged exposure to the cold harming his lungs. He collapsed to his knees, and it took Theo precious seconds to get the old man back on his feet.

Indecision warred on Hermione's face, and for a moment, Charlie really thought she'd go running after the Tracker – especially when the little blighter turned to stare at her straight-on, as if inviting her to come after him. When she turned back to the group and reaffirmed her grip on the Portkey, though, Charlie knew she'd made the right decision.

"Keep counting," she told him, refusing to look back over her shoulder at the wolf that continued to wait for her.

"Okay," Charlie said, backing her play.

Her jaw was tight, a gleam of sweat dotted her upper lip, and her dark eyes were pained, but she nodded in agreement. "Draco's this way," she said more to herself than to the group, indicating the Portkey.

"Right. On three," Charlie began again. "One, two, three. Portus."

Right as they were tugged away by the spell, Charlie caught Hermione glance back over her shoulder at McLaggen. "Goodbye," she whispered.

A mournful wolf's howl followed them away.

X~~~~~X

Raithlin Island, Northern Ireland

Tuesday, October 31, 2000 (a few minutes later)

Deciding to leave Cormac behind had been one of the hardest things Hermione had ever done.

The moment he'd transfigured himself into his wolf form, the female wolf within her had enthusiastically responded. The pull of Cor's Alphaness had been so strong it had nearly buckled her knees. When he'd stopped at the tree line, and looked back at her, the silent call had come for her to follow him. He'd put everything he'd had behind that lure, and Godric help her, Hermione had almost caved. Charlie's reminder of her injured, helpless friends needing her help was all that had stopped her from going to the former Tracker's side, of taking off with him through the forest on four legs, of forgetting who she was and letting him take her as his mate.

Merlin, she'd almost deserted! She'd almost betrayed her feelings for Draco! The thought of how close she'd come to doing both terrified her.

Hearing Cormac's plaintive goodbye distressed her even more as they'd ported out. The echo of his lamenting howl followed her down the magical tunnel as they left Wicklow behind forever. She had to shut her eyes against the urge to turn back.

The moment she and the others touched down at Raithlin, she opened her eyes to see Draco waiting on the pier for them. His anger was hard to miss; it appeared as a living, writhing aura, surrounding him, black diamond shapes sparking and disappearing in random patterns throughout. It was darker than even the night that closed in around them.

Ignoring the others, his fury was completely focussed on her, as she'd expected. She had disobeyed his direct order not to go back to Wicklow, after all.

Gathering her righteousness around her like a cloak, Hermione met his anger head-on, refusing to apologise for having snuck off. She'd made it clear earlier that day exactly what she'd intended to do, and how she'd had no intention of letting Draco's orders interfere with her plans. She'd also made it clear that she wouldn't be his bitch to whip. She met his cold, iron stare with one of her own, tilting her chin up in defiance.

"McLaggen got away," Zabini reported to his superior, stepping between his Captain and his friend. Clearly, the man understood a confrontation was in order between his two commanders, and was doing his best to distract from it. "He non-verbally Transfigured himself into a wolf and ran off before I could Stun him."

Draco's fury whipped out in front of him as tendrils of inky, black smoke that shot forward, knocking Zabini clear off his feet, and launching him twenty feet into the air, dumping him into the ocean.

"Oh, my God!" Fay cried out as Blaise fell with a splash into the freezing ocean.

Everyone stopped for a moment, too stunned that Malfoy would do such a thing to react.

Quick on his feet, Charlie whipped out his wand a beat later and levitated Blaise back towards the pier, as the man sputtered to the surface and paddled around.

Hermione rounded on Draco, incensed by such a show of cruelty. "What the hell is wrong with you?" She ducked out from under Neville's arm, and indicated that Fay was to take her place. Dunbar hurried to their Housemate's side and took up the slack, even as Charlie directed a soaking wet Zabini down on dry land a few feet away.

Stomping up to Draco, Hermione pointed her wand at him. He remained glacial in the face of her threat, completely unfazed. "I don't know what's gotten into you lately, but enough is enough! You and me, we're having it out once and for all!"

Draco stared down the length of her wand, his iron-hard eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. He reminded her of a real dragon just then, weighing in on the halfling that had annoyed him.

"Yes, we are," he agreed.

Taking hold of her arm in a fast, strong grab, he Side-Along Apparated her with a 'pop'.

They landed in a semi-dark, unoccupied bedroom inside a house. A fireplace against the far wall emitted a flickering, orange glow that cast most of the room in shadow, but there was enough light for her to see a freshly-made bed nearby, and a dresser just beyond. She recognised it as the bedroom she'd set up for him in the designated Command Centre.

Before she could demand answers, she was shoved against the wall and Draco's large body was pressed against hers. He lowered his mouth to her ear, and hissed at her, clearly irate. "You were tempted by him. When he changed, you were tempted! You almost went to him," he seethed. His breath blew hard against her throat, and his whole body shook with repressed rage.

"I-" she began, but he cut her off with a snap of his teeth.

"Don't think to lie to me, Granger! Even though you were so far away, I felt you answering his call. It tore at my heart. I nearly went out of my skin to get to you to stop you, but by then I felt you coming back here." He gripped her arms and shook her once. "This game you're playing with me, it's driving me insane, witch! Don't you see what you're doing to me?"

"What I'm doing to you?" she shouted back, pushed to her limits. She let her anger have its way with her mouth. "It's not me who has the problem here, Draco. It's you. You've changed. Something in you has changed. Don't you see it? There's something wrong with you!"

He growled, and it sounded more animal than human. "You're right. Something is very wrong with me. It's this... caring for you! This needing you! It's eating me up inside. I don't know how to handle it!"

"Oh, well, if I'm that much of a burden to you-" she challenged.

"You don't get it," he snapped. "The last person I needed was my mother. When she killed herself, I swore I'd never be that vulnerable again. Then I ran into you hiding in Amberley Castle. Two years, Granger. That's all it took for you to dig under my skin and invade my peace." He gripped the sides of his head and mussed his hair. "You're in my blood, witch. You're behind my eyelids. You're everywhere I look or think or breathe! You've changed me. I hardly feel like my old self anymore."

Offended, Hermione got her back up. "As if that was a person to aspire to! Or perhaps you've forgotten how truly rotten you were to everyone back then? Shall I remind you of how much you tormented me?" She shoved him back. "Maybe this is your Karma come for you at last, Malfoy. Maybe this caring that's supposedly killing you is exactly what you deserve for all the years you could have cared less about others." She moved past him and headed for the door.

She managed three steps before Draco grabbed her arm and stopped her.

"We're not finished."

Trying to pull away proved impossible; his grip refused to be shaken off. "Let go," she warned, raising her wand to her chest level, the threat clear.

"No," he braved. "No more running away from me. I've had enough of seeing your back."

He stepped into her, cupping the side of her cheek, and stared down at her as if torn between fury and anguish. "I nearly went out of my mind with worry when I realised you'd disobeyed and gone back to Wicklow, but then to feel your desire for that twat, McLaggen - to know you wanted him to take you, to mate you..."

He shut his eyes for a moment as the shaking in his body took up once again. He was like one of those old wind-up toys whose gears had gone bad.

"I've barely slept or taken food in months, ever since Kirkwall. Every day you were gone, I'd wake up feeling hollow inside, as if a part of me was missing. I never gave you up, though. I searched everywhere for a sign that you were still alive. I ran myself into the ground looking for you, Granger. When I finally do find you, what do I see? You've got that fucking bastard who raped you touching you, pretending to be your knight in shining armour!" His fingers shifted, tangling up in her hair, holding her head captive and forcing her to meet his accusatory glare. "And you let him! You let him take that position, despite everything he's done to you, because your bleeding heart wants to help him find redemption. As if he could ever be forgiven for what he's done!"

She stared him dead in the eye as she handed him his arse for dinner. "I forgave you with that same bleeding heart, Draco. You did plenty of despicable things in the past, too. Don't think I haven't forgotten that you were the first person to call me 'Mudblood", or how much you tormented me, Harry, and Ron as children, or that you let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts, or that you attempted to kill Dumbledore. And yet, I forgave you for all of it."

He seemed torn. "I've never understood why."

"Because in your heart, you are a good man," she explained. "I saw it that day in Amberley, and I've seen it every day since. You've made a few bad decisions in your life, but you've done what you could to make up for it. It's the same for Cormac."

Just mentioning the other man's name got Draco's hackles up. "The difference is I've never hurt you like that!"

"No, you just stood back and let your Aunt hurt me instead."

It was a low blow, but she figured as long as they were being completely honest with each other…

He flinched. "You stink of lust for him," he snarled in accusation, going on the offensive. "I can smell it all over you, so don't bother denying it!"

"Merlin's bloody bones, you are such an arse, Draco Malfoy!" She screamed behind her teeth in frustration. "I don't want Cormac McLaggen any more than you want Astoria Greengrass! It's the wolf transformation, you bloody idiot. That's all it is!" She reached up and poked him in the shoulder. "And the last time I checked, I'm not the one with the illegitimate child conceived under the sway of such magic, so don't you dare go around tossing stones about lusting after someone you don't want to want!"

That gave him pause. He looked astonished, in fact, as if the thought never occurred to him how similar their situations were.

"Do you think it was easy for me to have heard that you'd fucked Tori? What do you think that knowledge does to me? Do you think I want to imagine your mouth on her, your body inside hers, your baby growing in her womb?" Her chest hitched with pain. "She gave you her virginity of her own free will. I'll never get that chance."

Now tears gathered and wavered before her eyes, as the truth of her own jealousy ripped into her.

"Do you know how much it hurts to know that while I was doing my best to keep it together, waiting for you to come home to me, you were lusting after another woman?" She scrubbed at her face, embarrassed by the moisture that fell unchecked down her cheeks. "Our situations were the same, don't you see? The only difference was, I held out against temptation. But I also know now that it would be wrong to blame you for being weakened by such magic, because I finally appreciate how hard it is to ignore what happens with animal Transfiguration. I didn't understand before. Now I do. It was a mistake to have ever used such a spell."

Which is why Falco Aesalon invented the Animagus spell to begin with. Based on the same type of magic as the Patronus spell, rather than on an actual Trans-species Transformation spell, the Animagus magic creates no confusion between the human and animal part of your brain, as you wholly retain your own emotions and are not impacted by an instinct that is not your own. Hence the reason it's a more difficult spell to master, if you've the ability at all.

"Do I feel sorry for Cormac? Of course," she forcibly continued. "He didn't ask to be reprogrammed to do evil. So, I've had to learn to forgive him for his trespasses against me, for my own peace of mind." She stared up at him with defiance, despite the tears blurring her sight. "And yes, I felt Cor's powerful pull tonight, and it was very hard to deny it, but I did reject it, Draco. I turned it aside and took the Portkey. I'll always come back to you. To you."

Her words had been the exact right thing to say, apparently, because Draco's anger simply dissolved like a curtain of fog before the parting of the clouds. His tense posture relaxed and he went totally loose against her. His shaking dissipated. Still, he sounded tortured and unsure when he asked, "Is that a promise I can count on?"

Hermione closed the distance between them, dropped her forehead to his chest, and sighed. "'Three times proved – call a thing true'," she repeated the ditty she'd learned in Advanced Arithmancy back in school. She entwined her arms around his neck and held him to her. "Three times I've left your side, and three times I've returned to it, Draco, so I think it's safe to say that if I'm ever lost again, I'll find my way back to you, no matter what. So, yes, it's a promise."

Draco wrapped himself around her, clutching her to him as if he'd never let go. "Nothing and no one holds me to this life as you do, Granger. Everything I am and do is for you. Don't you see that?"

She held him a little closer to her and with a firmer grasp, his sentiment touching her deeply.

Malfoy wasn't much for flowery prose or romantic gestures. He wasn't much for talking about his feelings. He acted on them, yes, but he rarely expressed them with words. That he was letting down his guard finally, sharing with her his vulnerabilities… it made the bond between them even more profound.

"You want to know the truth? There are days I want to give it all up and run from the responsibility," he confessed, sounding weary. "It feels like too much. The enormity of what we're up against… I'm tired of planning people's deaths. I'm tired of burials, and scrounging for food, and sleeping in tents. Sometimes, I feel as if I have no hope left."

Hermione nodded against his chest, letting him know she could intimately relate.

"A few years ago, I'd have tucked tail and gone into hiding." He tightened his hold on her and pressed his face into her hairline. "Now, I can't even contemplate the idea, because the thought of you fighting this goddamned war on your own…" He panted hard, as if pained by the very thoughts in his head. "Don't you get it, witch? You hold me here, because I can't stand to see you hurt or afraid ever again! The thought of it shreds me inside and out."

"We're in the middle of a war, Draco," she said, reminding him of their hard reality. "Getting hurt or worse is a very real possibility for both of us. You can't prevent that from happening by chaining me to your side. You have to give me the freedom to do what I must – to be your partner in this fight."

He heaved a heavy sigh. "Don't you think I know that? But… 'three times proved', you said. Well, three times you've been badly hurt on my watch. Three times I've failed you." He sounded bitterly forlorn about that fact. "All three times, all I could do was watch you cry, Granger. That guilt eats me up inside."

Hermione surmised he was referring to the three specific incidents where he'd witnessed the absolute worst of her pain: the day she'd been held captive at his Manor House and tortured by his mad Aunt, the aftermath of being raped that first time by Cormac, and the mental breakdown she'd had that night on the beach in Kirkwall, when he'd held her back and kept her from attempting suicide by drowning in the ocean. It never occurred to her that Draco had suffered along with her during those times, feeling helpless to ease her suffering.

In her arrogance, she'd been so convinced that he'd viewed those three separate episodes as her weakness that she'd never once stopped to consider that he might have thought of them as his as well.

Suddenly, his ridiculous decrees from yesterday and this morning now made a whole lot more sense. They were still wrong, and she intended on setting him straight in regards to them, but at least now she had a better idea as to why he'd been such an intolerable control freak: he'd been afraid for her safety.

"Draco, I don't see it that way. Bad things happen, sometimes to good people, and it's not fair or right, but it happens nonetheless. It's what you do after tragedy that matters the most." She reached up and stroked over his cheek. "Three times you've comforted me. Three times you've lent me your strength and helped me to find my courage again. The day you found me on the ground after I'd been…" She still found it hard to admit what had been done to her, and swallowed around the lump in her throat that manifested at the thought. "You gave me your cloak and let me cry on your shoulder, and then you challenged me to get up and move on. Every day you reminded me that I was only a victim if I chose to be. You gave me the strength to recover. You did it again that night on the beach in Kirkwall. You brought me in, warmed me, and held me while I slept. The next day, you remember what you said to me? You said, 'You are never weak. I won't let you be.' And you didn't. You were there to get me up and to remind me that I could be tougher."

He shook his head to refute her, but she cut him off, before he could spoil her intentions of highlighting his Gryffindor tendencies.

"And then you gave me Sning." She held up her hand between them, showing the little snake ring on her finger. "He's protected me, and he's been my companion off and on since. So, you see, you didn't fail me. You were there when I most needed you." She stroked over his jaw with a light touch of her fingertips, even as another round of tears escaped down her cheeks. His gaze was heavily lidded as he looked down upon her and listened, but she could have sworn she saw a glimmer in his eyes, too. "I know you think of me as your greatest weakness, but I think of you as my greatest strength, Draco. I want us to be both to each other, for now and always."

The declaration left no room for doubt as to her feelings. She held her breath, waiting for his response.

The very air shivered with anticipation and hope as his mouth parted and he lowered his face towards hers.

"I love you, Granger," he whispered the instant before his lips touched down upon hers.

Hermione's eyelids fluttered shut as she went loose and accepting in his arms, and... oh, it was such a sweet, reverent kiss! She returned it with a little eagerness, tightening her grip on his shoulders. His tongue was soft as it parted her mouth and slipped inside to stroke against hers. She gave a little moan of delight.

A brusque, loud knock sounded on the bedroom door, abruptly shattering the moment and breaking them apart.

"What is it?" Draco demanded, his irritation returning in a flash. He ran a hand through his shaggy, messy hair again, clearly frustrated. "This had better be good," he growled under his breath.

Zabini's voice came from the other side.

"Drake, I hope I am totally interrupting your 'Business Time' and have now completely ruined the mood for you, you bastard, because you'd deserve it! Sorry, Granger! Anyway, I just wanted you to know that everyone made it inside safely. Pansy and Weasley are assigning watch duties. Clearwater and Dunbar are working with Morag, Johnson, and Daphne on making sure Snape, Longbottom, and Fred Weasley are stable and resting. Theo's decided to take the empty room next to Severus' to help the girls out. She-Weasel is keeping an eye on the newbies from The Fortress along with Cadwallader, Boot, and Parkes, and Pucey's back in the kitchen, grumbling about people rearranging his spices. I'm going to take a shower now, because I'm fucking freezing my nads off, and there's kelp in my trousers and that just doesn't feel right! You're welcome, you arsehole!"

With that, he stomped off, his boots thudding away down the hall making squishy noises.

Hermione had to bite back a giggle. "You're going to owe him a big time apology."

Draco sighed. "I know, and the sooner the better. If he stews over it, I'll pay twice as hard tomorrow." He glanced at her, regret in his eyes for having to leave her.

"Duty calls," she murmured with her own sigh. "I'm starving. Think I'll go and talk Pucey into hurrying it up with dinner. Have you eaten?" He shook his head. "Come have dinner with me in half an hour?"

He nodded, and gave her a smirk that was actually playful. "It's a date."

With that, he headed out, leaving the door open behind him.

The sudden sound of people returning to conversation and action filtered in from elsewhere in the house, and for the first time, Hermione realised that her people had been listening in on her rather heated discussion with Draco. They'd heard the shouting parts, obviously, and were most likely putting it together in their wicked, little heads what the quiet parts had meant. She'd need to remember to cast privacy spells in the future, especially in light of what had just been confessed and where it might lead.

Running her fingers over her lips, she smiled.

Draco loved her. He'd finally admitted it!

Nothing would stand in the way of her having him now. Not his jealousy and stubbornness, and not hers, and most especially not interference from outside parties. Viktor, Astoria, and Cormac were gone, and although she worried for them and wished them well, she wasn't going to let their ghosts haunt her relationship with Draco.

From now on, she would live in the present, rather than the past, and she'd plan for the future - a future that included Draco at her side, Harry saved, and the war finally won.


TO BE CONTINUED...


Author's Notes:

Well, things are heating up for our main couple at last. I bet that relieves some of you. You knew we'd get here, eventually, right? Right?

You just need to trust your author, dearest readers. :)

'Business Time' is in homage to Flight of the Conchords' song of the same name. I've been dying to use that reference somewhere in a fanfic. ;)