Well baby I surrender
To the strawberry ice cream
Never ever end of all this love
Well I didn't mean to do it
But there's no escaping your love
These lines of lightning
Mean we're never alone,
Never alone, no, no
- Counting Crows
"The Slytherins are back."
Hermione jolted at the words, nearly dropping the book she was reading. Then she forced herself to calm down and stay very still. Ron looked up at his sister's words, a scowl already forming on his face, whereas Harry didn't even need to fake his indifference.
"About time," Harry remarked. As long as Ginny was here with him, Hogwarts could be populated with a thousand Slytherins and he wouldn't care. "Professor McGonagall only said they could have a couple of days with their families to grieve, and they've been gone a whole week. Are all of them back?"
"Yes," Ginny said, settling next to Harry in the chair. She leaned into him but kept her eyes on Hermione. "All of them."
Hermione put a bookmark in and put the book down, noticing absently that her hands were shaking a little. He's back.
It had been a strange week. The loss of Isabelle had rebounded through Hogwarts, causing people who didn't even know her to mourn her loss on the basis of her having been the Chosen One's girlfriend. In that context, Harry's renewed relationship with Ginny only served to make him look unbelievably shallow, which Hermione had assumed was why they didn't kiss or hug in public – except, according to Ginny, they didn't do those things in private either. Ginny said they still had things to sort out, but she still seemed happy pressed against him.
Much to her surprise, Harry and Ron had immediately agreed to lie about Isabelle's actions. The actual story would make Harry look stupid, and Ron look evil. Ron couldn't have dealt with hordes of reporters asking him how many of his actions had been his own and whether he'd enjoyed what he'd done. As it was, Ron shuddered frequently as more memories poured in, and looked gaunt and wrecked. What good would telling the truth do? There was no one who would be helped by it, and many people would be hurt.
All of them had been offered time at home to come to terms with their loss and refused, while Astoria, Blaise and Draco all accepted. The Headmistress had even forbore to give them detention, despite Astoria and Blaise's illegal presence at the hotel.
Hermione spent all her time with Ron, now. She held him while he shook, talked to him about trivial subjects to distract him, and let him beat her at chess repeatedly. Sometimes it seemed the more she did the tighter he clung to her, though, and Hermione could feel an ache at those times when he looked at her as if she was a miracle. She didn't want to be his miracle. She also didn't want to be his girlfriend, she now knew, and she dreaded the inevitable questions from him as he got better.
One of the things that bothered Ron the most was that the first time he'd had sex, he hadn't been himself. He'd been being controlled by Isabelle and none of it had been real. Hermione had tried to persuade him to look on it as Isabelle had had sex rather than him, but it was slow going.
And Draco had not been here.
"It doesn't matter whether they're back," Hermione said, a little snappishly, "It doesn't affect us either way. They're nothing to do with us."
When Astoria spotted Draco she let out an ear-splitting screech and threw herself into his arms. He staggered back but managed to remain upright. "Merlin, Astoria, what are you doing?" he managed to say. "What happened to your conduct?"
"I don't think she has any," Blaise observed, "Not anymore. Honestly, no wonder her parents like the perfect Daphne so much -" Astoria spun to glare at him, and Blaise finished hastily, "She's a dead bore, just like them."
"When did you two get back?" Draco enquired.
"An hour ago," Astoria replied. "Blaise stayed at my house for the week, since his mother's remarrying again."
"I think this one might last out the year," Blaise said. "Just about, anyway. Possibly."
"So what's the gossip?" Draco said carefully, looking at Astoria, who was hanging on his arm now.
She batted her eyes at him. "I don't gossip, darling. Plus I've only been back an hour." At his level look, she caved. "Fine, but it isn't pleasant. The Weasel is attached to your girl like a malignant growth, and frankly if you want to duel him I'd love to be your second since his soppy looks are making me sick. Apparently he's been there all week – are you planning to get her back?"
Draco just shook his head.
"You should," Blaise said abruptly and uncharacteristically. He was glaring at Astoria as she leant her head on Draco's shoulder and smiled up at him flirtatiously. "You saved all their lives, there should be massive booty-points in that."
"I endangered all their lives," Draco growled, "She deserves better." Draco remembered listening to her when she was feverish – her desperate declarations of love for Weasley. He'd known all along that he would lose her, really, he'd just been fooling here was the confirmation of what he'd already known, like clockwork. Good thing he'd planned for this.
"Yes, better," Astoria said, "Unfortunately instead of that she's got the Weasel. What are you going to do, sit around and watch them get cuddly?"
"I have…other plans," Draco said. "I'm going to go to my room, and we're not going to talk about this anymore. Frankly, anyone as oblivious to any kind of emotion as you two shouldn't be giving advice to anyone."
"What does that mean?" Astoria said indignantly, but Draco was already gone. "Blaise, he was clearly talking to you. You're the oblivious one. What are you oblivious about?"
Blaise frowned. "Maybe he means Ginny. What I feel for her. I mean, that's the only emotion I've got, really, except for the occasional nausea when you make puppy-dog eyes at Malfoy. Maybe I should go talk to her."
"And then you can abduct her," Astoria said, faux cheerfully, "Since she's shown with breath-taking clarity that that's the only way you have a shot. Ooh, or love potion. You could dose her pumpkin juice -" Suddenly she cut herself off. "What do you think Draco meant, 'other plans'?"
"I think I don't care about Draco," Blaise said coolly. "I'm going to go talk to Ginny. I'm not oblivious."
"Fine," Astoria snapped, nettled. "I'm going to go talk to Draco, then." She turned and stalked towards Draco's room.
When she entered, Draco had just opened the bag he'd brought back. He looked up at her entrance. "What are you doing here?"
"We have to talk." Astoria threw herself down on his bed. "About Isabelle."
Draco paused in the middle of putting some clothes in the bag. "No, we don't."
"It's not your fault."
"I never said it was," Draco pointed out.
Astoria rolled her eyes. "More than ten goddamn years I've known you, Draco, and you don't think I know how to read you? You think it's your fault, and I'm telling you, it's not."
"If I hadn't shielded," Draco said slowly, "I would have been unconscious and Isabelle would have lived."
"In Azkaban," Astoria stressed. "Potter would be dead. She'd be arrested."
"She was going to blame it on Weasley, even make him think he did it," Draco said shortly, emptying one of his drawers.
"She would still have been a murderer!" Astoria said fiercely. "And Isabelle – the real Isabelle, under all that paranoia and grief and fucked-up-ness – she would never have wanted that.
Draco allowed himself a small smile. "I don't think fucked-up-ness is a word."
"And yet, it's the perfect one for our dear departed friend," Astoria drawled. Then she returned to seriousness with a sigh. "It's her own fault she died, not yours. She was damaged, really damaged. A very crappy life. But that doesn't give her a reason – that doesn't give her the right – to become a murderer. And she knew that, at the end, didn't she? Refused to kill you, apparently warned Weasley via their link that the hotel was coming down, and didn't even try to shoot some kind of final spell at Potter. At the very end, she did the right thing, and if she had to die for that to happen so be it!" Astoria stopped, breathing heavily.
Draco looked mildly impressed at her outburst. "You seem remarkably… fine."
"Fine? She was my best friend!" Suddenly Astoria burst into tears. Draco, surprised, got up and hugged her, pulling her against him. She was beautiful and attractive and distressed, pressed against him, and Draco felt a burst of affection for her.
"It's okay," he said, holding her close. "It's going to be okay." Astoria looked up, her face covered in tear-stains, and pressed her lips against a shocked Draco.
After less than a second, she pulled away. "I don't think I ever loved you," she remarked, in a tone of discovery. "Except maybe as a brother, of course."
Draco winced. "Don't say that. Girls who say that tend to die."
For a second Astoria looked horrified, and then she started laughing. Draco, unable to help himself, started laughing too. They ended up both rolling around, giggling helplessly at the sheer dark humour of it all. The disturbing wrongness.
Astoria was the first to catch her breath, as something unexpected occurred to her. "Draco…you're supposed to be unpacking. But you're not. You're packing."
Draco nodded soberly. "I didn't tell you because I knew you'd yell at me, but I'm just here to pick up my stuff. It's time to enter the real world at last, I feel," he attempted a smile.
Astoria sat up, her hair messy. "Bullshit. You're leaving because Granger's with the Weasel."
"It's time to move on," Draco said stubbornly, looking away. "I think I'll be happier somewhere else, now. My mother's forgiven me, so perhaps I'll spend some time at the Manor. Or I could travel, I've always wanted to travel. Maybe I'll start learning how to manage all the Malfoy interests -"
"No," Astoria stared at him. "You can't go."
Draco sighed, dropping the act. "I have to. I can't be here, can't watch her – I'll be gone by this afternoon. Actually, I have something for you to give her after I'm gone, a goodbye present."
"I won't," Astoria said, "Give it to her yourself."
"Please?" Draco looked at her helplessly. Despite knowing she was being manipulated, Astoria gave in.
"Fine," she snarled, and he threw her a small package. "You bastard, how can you leave us?"
Draco attempted a smile. "Cheer up, I'll see you in the holidays." He threw some more clothes in the bag he'd brought, and then waved his wand. All of his furnishings disappeared, presumably into the deceptively small bag. "There, done. I have to go speak to McGonagall, and then I'll go."
"Come back here first and say goodbye," Astoria said, choking up, "A proper goodbye. And one to Blaise as well. We deserve it."
"Fine, I promise," Draco said, and gently reached out touch her face. "Stop it, don't cry. I'm not worth it."
Astoria realised that she was crying again, and hadn't even noticed. Everything was changing so fast. Angrily, she dashed away a tear. "You know what I think? I think you don't know what you're worth."
"You're probably right," Draco said, and left.
"Finally alone," Ginny said meaningfully.
"We're not talking about this," Hermione maintained.
"Of course we are," Ginny took the seat that Ron had been in minutes before. "We only have a while before they get back with the chessboard – though, longer than they think, since I hid a Knight. That should buy us time while they look for it."
Hermione couldn't hold in a small laugh. "You're evil."
"Just determined," Ginny said calmly, "And intelligent enough to realise you don't love Ron anymore. Not the way you did."
"You love Draco, and now he's back," Ginny spoke slowly, like she was explaining things to an infant. "So go talk to him. I don't even know why you think you're broken up, it doesn't sound like he broke up with you."
Hermione swallowed, feeling a lump in her throat. "No, he definitely broke up with me. Around the point where he was blaming me for the death of the woman he loved."
"He loves you."
"He was a wreck when she died," Hermione said miserably. "And it doesn't even matter whether he loved her, or in what way, or whether it was more than he loved me. Because he doesn't love me anymore. He thinks it's my fault she's dead. He blames me."
"Maybe he blamed you," Ginny allowed, "That was a week ago, straight after a traumatic event! Of course he wasn't thinking clearly! You have to go see him and find out what he thinks now."
"What for?" Hermione said, "So we can get back together for the fourth time? We've broken up three times, Ginny, and each time…" her voice broke a little. "When I'm with him, it's – it's beautiful. Everything's alive, magical, incredible. But then we break up and it's even worse because he takes a part of me with him. The first time, it hurt; the second time, it was agonising; and the third time – for the last week I haven't been able to enjoy anything. All the fun in my life… gone. I can't care about schoolwork… I can barely manage the energy to care about you, Harry and Ron."
"So get back together with him," Ginny urged.
"Even if I could…" Hermione said heavily. "If something's failed three times, that's a pretty good guarantee that it's not going to suddenly succeed. There's no saying which goes 'fourth time's the charm'. And it hurts so much, so incredibly when I lose him, that I can't handle it happening again. It's not worth it. He's not worth it."
"You don't believe that," Ginny accused.
A voice came from the door. "No, you don't." It was Ron, standing there, stunned. Harry stood behind him looking sheepish. "You love him… I didn't know."
"Ron, I'm so -"
"If you say sorry I'll hex you," Ron warned her. He closed his eyes for a second, dealing with this news. "Okay. Okay. I just needed to… think. And I'm okay with this. I am." He swallowed hard. "I should have known."
"No, Ron -" Hermione had never felt so helpless looking at him. "Listen, I -"
"Hermione, you're -" Ron started to say, his face going red.
"You know what?" Ginny spoke up unpredictably, "Sometimes I think guys are all just idiots, and we're idiots for letting them be in charge of us." She turned to Ron. "Yes, Hermione's moved on. Which is the traditional response to the person you love moving on, like you did with Carly. It's not her fault and she shouldn't have to feel guilty." Ron opened his mouth, and then closed it, shooting Hermione an apologetic look that nevertheless managed to convey heartbreak.
"I'm not in charge of you," Harry said, sounding vaguely offended.
"Really?" Ginny said. "Because I remember spending day after day after day in here, with you expecting me to entertain you. And I'd suggest a whole list of activities until you'd choose one you deemed suitable." She took a deep breath. "And for the record? If we get married – which won't be until at least our late twenties – my job is as important as yours. We might not live in England – just because we're born here doesn't mean we have to die here. And we certainly won't live within a hundred miles of my family, as much as I love them. We will not have more than three kids, and I will never allow you to name a defenceless child Albus!"
"Whoa," Harry said weakly. "Um. Been saving that up for a while?"
"Ever since sixth year when you first told me you wanted to be James Potter version II," Ginny flared, ignoring how insensitive she was being. Ron and Hermione just watched with their mouths open. "About how you'll be a young auror with a redheaded wife, living in a cottage! Listen to me. That's the past, not the future. I want us to make our own way and do our own thing, be our own people." She paused for a second, turning sad. "And if you don't want that… then find someone else to live out your Oedipal fantasies with."
There was a long pause. "That's not my fantasy, Gin," Harry said very softly. "You're my fantasy. I just… it's hard for me to not idolise my parents, since I never met them. But if you want us to – to do things differently – travelling instead of settling down right away, and waiting to get married, and no kids named Albus – then I'm all for it. So long as we get the happy ever after at the end," he smiled at her.
To Hermione's astonished gaze, it seemed like Ginny literally flew into Harry's arms. Their kiss started out as slightly inappropriate in front of their friends, and quickly moved to the about-to-get-naked kind.
Hermione coughed uncomfortably, edging out of the room. "Well," she said to Ron weakly as he followed her, "Looks like they've, uh, sorted things out."
"Maybe we should do the same," he suggested, shutting the door behind them.
"They seem pretty sorted," Hermione said quietly. "I'm sorry, Ron, though. If it's any consolation…"
Ron held up a hand. "Don't tell me things could have worked out," he commanded, "That wouldn't be any consolation at all, to know we could have been happy if I hadn't been an idiot." He hesitated, looking young. "I suspected that you didn't love me when you went to check on Malfoy after we got out of the hotel, but Harry told me I was wrong."
Hermione let out a surprised laugh. "How would Harry know?"
"He was there when you were sick," Ron said awkwardly. "And apparently you kept saying… 'I love you Ron, don't go, I love you'. So we thought…"
"Oh," Hermione said, "I'm sorry. Oh my God!" A thought suddenly occurred to her. "Draco took care of me while I was sick – if he heard that -"
"He must think you love me, or at the very least be hurt," Ron completed her thought. "Maybe you should go talk to him about it… set things straight."
"You're dealing with this awfully well," Hermione remarked cautiously.
Ron sighed. "For more than a week, I had horrible thoughts in my head. And the most horrible thing about them is that some of them were my thoughts, just – amplified. I think she even changed my memories of some bits – I can remember hating Harry, wanting him to die, thinking I should kill him. Hating you, Ginny, everyone. I think… I think I've had enough of those kind of emotions. I've had enough of anger."
"I'm glad," Hermione said softly, "I mean, not glad that you went through all that. But glad that you're… wiser now, I suppose. Accepting."
Ron managed his first smile in a week. "I'm sure it won't last. Now go find Malfoy."
"Will you be okay -"
"I'll be fine here on my own," Ron said. "Go."
Ginny couldn't keep the smile off her face as she skipped down the corridor. She couldn't believe things had worked out so well. She hadn't fully forgiven Harry yet, but she loved him, and suddenly the future she could see was bright and totally uncertain. She could be anywhere in ten years – but while that had always been true, now it seemed possible she could be anywhere with Harry. Instead of just married in a cottage with a toddler.
"Ginny," Blaise said, appearing out of nowhere.
Ginny gasped, her hand flying up. "Blaise, you nearly gave me a heart-attack. What are you doing standing around outside the Gryffindor dormitory anyway?"
"Waiting for you," Blaise said, falling into step beside her. "I think we need to talk."
"Us," Blaise said simply. At her look, he added, "I know there was no us. But maybe that's what we need to talk about."
"We're not right for each other," Ginny said. "We never were."
"I know," Blaise said, "I'm underhanded and lying and I can't play Quidditch, and to be honest, I like all those qualities. I'm a devious bastard, but I did try to change for you."
"I didn't try to change for you," Ginny admitted, "But I already was changed when we were friends, because I was such a mess."
"I think maybe it was a fantasy," Blaise commented thoughtfully. "Big brave hero saves damsel in distress."
"I did want to be saved," Ginny agreed, "But to be honest I'm pretty sick of being the damsel in distress. I can kick ass too you know."
"I know," Blaise said, "And I'm not really cut out to be the hero, either. Too much depth and complexity for me. I value my shallowness. I shouldn't have tried to look for some meaningful relationship."
Ginny laughed. "You oblivious moron," she said, not unkindly, "You already have something meaningful."
"I wish people would stop calling me oblivious and moronic," Blaise said mournfully. "Also, what are you talking about?"
"Remember when we defeated the photographer?"
"No, I'd completely forgotten it," Blaise said sarcastically. "What photographer?"
Ginny ignored him. "After that, I had a broken leg and a Silencio spell on me. But you went and helped Astoria first."
Blaise stopped suddenly. "What?"
"I could have been dying, and she could have had a paper cut, and you still would have gone to check she was okay first," Ginny said, an amused look on her face as she stopped too to avoid leaving him behind. "Like I would for Harry. That's when I realised you loved her."
"You went crazy when she was being tortured," Ginny continued, hiding her tiny twinge of jealousy. It was stupid to feel even a little jealous, but she couldn't help it. "All planning went out the window. Gone. God, Blaise, did it never once occur to you? Myself, I never thought I could like her after all this, but she was brave in that fight, and she has style. I've pretty much forgiven her for her part in everything. I think she'll be good for you."
Blaise just continued standing there, a look of absolute astonishment on his handsome face.
Ginny waved at him and continued on, a spring in her step.
"I'm looking for Draco," Hermione said nervously to the first Slytherin to exit the dungeon. "Can you get him for me, please?" He gave her the finger. "Or, of course, you can do eighteen weeks of detention." The boy scampered back inside immediately.
"Well, well," Astoria stepped outside a few minutes later, "Hello, Granger."
"I'm waiting for Draco," Hermione said shortly.
"To tell him of your renewed devotion to the Weasel?" Astoria drawled, her eyes narrowing in dislike. It was this bitch's fault Draco was leaving, and Astoria had no intention of forgiving that. "I think he got the memo."
"That's none of your business," Hermione said tightly. "Just get Draco for me, alright."
"I can't," Astoria said, "He's gone."
"Gone home," Astoria elaborated, "Left Hogwarts. Quit school."
"What?" Hermione stared at Astoria. "He can't have. He wouldn't."
"He left you a gift," Astoria remembered. She rummaged around in the satchel she was holding. "Open it and get the hell out of here." She passed it over.
"Is he leaving because of me?" Hermione said, her eyes starting to swim with tears. "Because he blames me?"
"Blames you for attaching yourself to the Weasel like a tick?" Astoria snorted. "Not nearly as much as I do. Do you honestly think he's better than Draco? He's not. He's a loser, especially compared to Draco."
"Blames me for Isabelle's death, I meant," Hermione said miserably, staring down at the small package.
Astoria stared at her. "He doesn't blame you for that. He doesn't blame anyone for that, except possibly himself."
"Then why'd he leave for a week?" Hermione challenged. She started to pull at the package, opening it.
"To avoid the sight of you all over the Weasel," Astoria said caustically, "Which is what you have been doing, according to all my sources and some rather disturbing sightings of my own over the past few hours."
"Ron and I are friends!" Hermione flared. The package fell open, but Hermione managed to catch the contents.
It was much better knitting then the scarf he'd made her – clearly, he'd practised. It wasn't perfect – nowhere near – but at least it was recognisable as what it was. A single knitted sock, with button eyes and a cute little nose. Hermione froze, staring at it, and the world slowed down around her.
Screw the risk of getting hurt. He was worth it. Honestly, he might be worth anything. And it was time to make things right. "Where is he?" she heard herself say from far away.
"I told you -"
"Which way did he go?"
"Across the lake to the carriage drop, he's apparating from there," Astoria said quickly. Hermione's expression seemed to have convinced her of something. "Go quickly. No – wait a second!" Astoria disappeared into the dungeons for a second and then emerged. "I Accio-d it," she said by way of explanation.
"Thank you," Hermione said through numb lips, grabbing the broom. To Astoria's obvious surprise, she got on it straight away, even though they were inside.
"Er, do you know how to -" Astoria started to say uneasily, but then Hermione took off.
She banged into several walls and scraped her shoulder badly on her way out the too-small window. Hermione was a terrible Quidditch player because of her lack of flying skills.
Nevertheless, she was on her way.
Draco was standing at the carriage area, trying to gear himself up to Apparate away. It was hard to imagine leaving Hogwarts forever – it had been a second home for so many years. It had contained the greatest friends he'd had, the worst enemies, the most terrible actions and most amazing moments. The grounds and the castle were beautiful, yes, but to him the greater beauty would always be the marvels Hogwarts had contained for him.
He sighed and was about to turn on the stop when he heard a screeching noise. Turning in the direction, he only just managed to duck in time to stop a maniac on a broom from running him down. The broom got lower as it circled around the lack again, sending up a giant spray of water, soaking the rider.
Draco watched as the broom came to a sudden stop in front of him, sending the unfortunate rider staggering into one of the many bushes surrounding the lake edge. He stepped forward to pull the person up and then gasped as he recognised her.
Hermione was soaked to the skin, her clothes bedraggled and torn. Her hair looked like a badly made nest, her face was bright red and scratched by thorns and she had a clear bruise appearing on her right cheekbone. She looked, in fact, like a hobo who'd just been in a drunken brawl that had ended in a fountain.
"Hermione?" he said hesitantly, honestly wondering.
She staggered upright. "You!" she said, dizzily jabbing a finger at him, "You can't leave!"
"I can't stay," he said, reaching out to steady her again. "You'll be fine, you've got Weasel."
"Fuck Weasel!" said Hermione, still giddy. "I mean, except, don't, because he's my friend. He's only my friend. That's all." Finally she managed to straighten up, and return to sensibility. "I'm sorry, this is all coming out wrong. I just need you to know that I - I love you."
Draco let out a harsh laugh, surprising both of them. "Has Weasley gotten another new girlfriend?"
"No, but I wouldn't care if he did," Hermione said strongly. "This isn't revenge on someone this time, Draco. This is real. This is me, standing here, saying that I want us to start something real. Something that lasts."
Draco closed his eyes. "You know, I never wanted to tell you this, but when you were sick you made it very clear who you loved."
"That was ages ago," Hermione said desperately.
"A few weeks ago," Draco corrected.
Hermione shook her head. "No. No. A few weeks can be ages, especially considering all we've been through. I had the chance to be with Ron, he made it clear earlier today, and I turned it down flat. Because Ron isn't you. And what I said while I was sick was just the memories of old dreams – what I feel for you is now, it's real, it's the present. And the future, if you're willing to give it a chance. I love you."
"I love you too," Draco leant forward and kissed her.
There was a whole world in the kiss – a whole future. To Hermione it felt like the lights came back on in her head, and suddenly she could see exactly how happy she was. How happy she could always be, so long as she had him.
They stood there entwined for a long time, until the sun started to dip below the horizon.
"Do I have to?" Draco said, pleadingly.
"Yes," Hermione said sternly, "You have to, especially if you want quid pro quo."
"Fine," Draco sighed. He strode over to the two other boys, who were watching him cautiously from their place at the Gryffindor Dining Hall table. "Hello, Potter, Weasley."
"Hello?" Harry said.
Draco tried to think of a non-contentious topic. None came to mind. Fine, he'd stick with the banal, they'd probably appreciate that. Not that he cared. "How are you?"
There was a moment's silence at the ridiculousness of the question. "How do you think I am, Malfoy?" Ron replied coldly. "Your little friend mind-controlled me into losing the love of my life, nearly killing my best friend, acting like a dick, and having sex with Carly. Who's pretty much stalking me now."
"Oh," Draco said in a cheerful way, "Could be worse."
Harry drew in a quick breath and grabbed Ron's arm to stop him reaching for his wand. Ron let his arm relax, but then stood up confrontationally, dragging Harry up as well. "How could it be worse, ferret?" he said furiously.
Draco pretended to consider it. "Well," he said, drawing out the word for dramatic effect, "She could be pregnant."
Like she was a magnet, both Harry and Ron turned their eyes towards Carly, who was glaring at them from the Hufflepuff table. Then they looked back at Draco. Ron's face was horrified. "Malfoy," Harry said warningly, looking at his best friend in concern. Ron was incredibly sensitive about everything that had happened, and Harry had no idea how he'd take the taunt.
Ron's face turned red, his eyes opening wide and then squeezing closed again in what seemed to be absolute fury. His mouth opened, and he started to reach for his wand.
Then he hesitated, and burst out laughing.
Surprising Harry, Draco, and everyone else in the room that had thought there was about to be a duel, Ron roared with laughter. He nearly collapsed with the strength of the wheezing cackles that burst out of him. Like it was a signal, Harry let himself laugh too then. Even Draco let his lips twitch, which he considered to be a major concession.
"We're not friends," Ron said finally, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "We're never going to be."
"Tough cookies, Hermione wants us to be friends," Draco said, hidden steel in his voice. "Suck it up. So long as we have her in common, we'll be civil." He held out his hand.
After a minute, Ron shook hands with him reluctantly. "Fine, alright," he grumbled. Harry, who had honestly thought there would be blood, let out a silent sigh of relief. "But I still think you're an evil ferrety bastard, and when you hurt Hermione I'll kill you."
"Well, I still think you'd compare unfavourably with a stuffed penguin in the intellect department," Draco said kindly. "And if I ever hurt Hermione, she's quite capable of killing me and knitting my intestines into a fetching scarf all by herself. Your assistance will be not be needed." Draco paused, looking thoughtful.
"Don't call me an idiot," growled Ron.
"You are one," Draco said, abandoning tact altogether. "But on the other hand, you're also the only guy I know who's personally experienced lesbian sex, so you get points for that."
Ron nearly smiled at that, but stopped himself in time. He knew he wasn't supposed to find it amusing, but a week of everyone tip-toeing around him like he was going to be the next Voldemort made him grateful for anyone treating him normally. Even if it was Malfoy. "And you get points for saving my life," he returned, "I suppose I do owe you for that." Draco's eyes gleamed. Ron, realising what he'd said, rapidly back-tracked. "Except, of course, I saved your life twice last year, so you actually owe me."
"No you didn't. When did you save my life?"
"I was on Potter's broom, not yours, and I've already paid him back for that, I saved his life last week," Draco pointed out. "Though, in fairness, pretty much everybody saved Potter's life last week, he was so useless. Even you probably saved him."
"Hey," Harry said, annoyed. "I'm not useless. I would have defeated you when we duelled if I hadn't gotten hit over the head." He thought about what he'd said, and winced.
"Yes," Draco said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Excellent work. You nearly took out an ally but then concussion brought you down. You did good, Potter, it takes real skill to get concussion at the right moment."
"I saved you from a Death Eater in the Battle of Hogwarts!" Ron burst in, suddenly remembering the second time. "You were being your usual cowardly self, begging the guy not to hurt you, and then I knocked him out."
"I remember that," Draco said, nodding. "I was trying to get him to trust me enough to turn his back, and then I was going to stab him."
"I was carrying a knife, all us Death Eaters were." Draco mulled about that for a second. "I wonder where that knife ended up. But the point is, you didn't save me." He thought about it a little more, his forehead creasing. "Were you the one who punched me?"
"That's a story for another day," Ron said hurriedly, eyeing Draco's expression. "Oh, look, here's 'Mione."
"Hi," Hermione beamed, sitting down next to them. Draco slipped his arm around her waist. He noticed the flash of sorrow in Weasley's eyes, and understood it. His rival's mature reaction to Hermione making her choice had surprised Draco, and actually greatly raised Weasley in his estimation. Perhaps he still hoped Hermione would come back to him, or that Draco would break her heart. If so, he was wrong, but Draco was just grateful he hadn't verbally attacked Hermione and broken off their friendship. If hanging out with a gingery dim-wit made Hermione happy, Draco would put up with it.
He turned his head to look down at her, and found her smiling up at him. "You look deep in thought," she said, tilting her head. "Everything okay?"
Draco dropped a kiss on her lips. "Everything's perfect," he said honestly.
"Oh, stop it with the touchy-feely," Blaise said, taking the seat next to Harry. Astoria took the next one, and Draco noticed with mild interest that they were smiling and holding hands. "It's bad enough we're going to have sit next to Weaselette and Potter for the rest of the year."
"What was that about me?" Ginny said threateningly, sitting down across from them. Harry leaned across the table to kiss her on the cheek and she blushed.
"Just that your saccharine romances horrify us," Astoria said so blandly that Ginny couldn't stop herself from giggling.
"Why are you even sitting here?" Ron wanted to know, "We're not friends."
"Sure we are," said Astoria, in the tones of one attending a funeral. "As much as it pains me to admit it. There are some things you can't go through without becoming friends, and stopping a nefarious, murderous plot just happens to be one of them."
"Destroying an entire hotel is another one," Blaise added. He released Astoria's hand to start eating. "Admit it, we're friends."
"I don't want to be your friend," Ron said tactlessly.
"Not exactly keen on being yours either," Astoria said. "But unfortunately, you lot come as a package deal, so as long as I like Weaselette and Granger we're stuck with you."
"What about me?" Harry broke in.
"Stop pretending you're relevant, concussion boy," Blaise said, grabbing a breadstick.
Draco leaned back and watched them bicker, well on the way to establishing a comfortable rapport. There was something beautiful about the simplicity of the moment – a tasty meal, all his friends laughing and squabbling, his arm around the girl he loved.
It was the happy ending Slytherins weren't supposed to get, according to the girl who had, in a roundabout way, gotten him his. It was incredible.
Everything was, as he'd said, perfect.
And they all lived happily, angrily, joyfully, sadly, contrarily, amazingly, and most of all passionately ever after.
So yes, the story is over. I hope you think the ending is good enough, I worked very hard on it.
A Perilous Game started as a highly-predictable Draco-seduces-Hermione-to-screw-with-her fanfiction, but somewhere along the way it stopped being that. Personally I blame all the secondary characters for deciding to get personalities, which is not something I originally intended. However, I loved writing the new story much more than I would have the old one, since I was surprised when some stuff happened too.
Thank you to everyone who's reviewed. I love reviews - whenever I thought 'screw this fic, it's too much effort' I went and read a couple of reviews and was instantly fired up again. Everyone who's reviewed - and especially any of you who've stayed to the very end - deserve massive amounts of chocolate.
Thanks to JK Rowling. That's obvious. I didn't always like what she did with Draco, but at least she made him sound hot.
It's funny I should finish this today, because tomorrow is my college's annual Hogwarts party. My block got Gryffindor this year - I'm hopeful we might even win Quidditch (the snitch is a guy painted gold and greased up, by the way, and we have to tackle him. It's possibly even less safe than the real game).
Again, thanks to you all. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
NOTE MUCH LATER: JarethGirl30028 on here made four very awesome banners for this story, if anyone wants to check them out at www. facebook .com/media/set/?set=a.198659650223636.45855.100002388082917&type=1&l=a4edcc86cf. (delete spaces)