A/N: Hello readers! This is the very last chapter, which is depressing. Thanks to everyone who's reviewed this story so far, and thanks to Dramionelover123 for betaing! I've been having a bit of a bad week, and reviews would cheer me up immensely. So, review? *sadeyes*
Everything after the divider is an indeterminate time later (just in case anyone gets confused). It's really more of an epilogue.
"Well... I'd better be going," Hermione tried. She didn't think the evil blond was going to let her escape so easily, but it was worth a try. He obviously had something planned and she wanted no part in it. Things he planned tended to get out of hand quickly and her day had been packed full of enough excitement to get her through the rest of the year already.
"Stop right there, Princess. You're not going anywhere."
She cringed; nope, he wasn't going to just let her escape. "What is it you wanted?" she sighed.
He stared at her hard for a moment. "You're really going to make me say it?"
Completely lost, Hermione raised her eyebrows in invitation. She wasn't sure what the 'it' was, so yes, she was going to make him say it. Malfoy was either imagining things or she'd missed something over the course of the day.
"We need to talk about... us," he said, looking like he'd swallowed something unpleasant.
Hermione was so shocked she wasn't able to answer him immediately. She didn't think those were words he said very frequently. Judging from his obvious distaste for them, those words had probably been said to him on a few occasions, and, knowing his lifestyle, the conversation hadn't gone well.
When she managed to regain her voice, it was a little squeakier than normal. "I wasn't aware there was an 'us'."
His face closed off and his eyes flashed a hurt look that he quickly smothered. "Why would you think that?"
"What do you mean 'why would I think that'? Not so long ago you asked me to make sure that the gaggle of strippers locked in your house got food! You're not exactly sparing with your... affections."
There, that was relatively diplomatic. She briefly wondered if strippers travelled in a gaggle or a herd... possibly a flock. Hermione shook her head to dismiss the thought; she had more important things to attend to at the moment.
"Oh, that," he waved a dismissive hand. "That's when I'm drunk. I'll attach my lips to anything that moves when I'm drunk. Hell, I kissed Snape once when he found me drinking in the common room." As if realizing what he'd just admitted, his face darkened. "That information doesn't leave this room." He shook his head sharply, whether in horror or in an attempt to jostle himself back on track, Hermione didn't know. "What I'm trying to say is that no one's had any expectations of me besides failure since sixth year and then you come along all swotty and bossy as all get out, but you expected me to get my act together. And then, when you needed help, you depended on me."
When she'd been suspended high above the ground and slipping, his name had been the one she'd called for help. She supposed she had depended on him to save her life.
"I'm someone you have to watch out for, not someone you go to for support, and yet you did," he finished.
Well wasn't that something? All it took to warm the cockles of his blackened heart was to give him a chance to redeem himself.
"Well apparently, that's all you needed to become someone dependable." Her not splattered state attested to that. He had grabbed her and brought her back inside to safety, not to mention jumped out the window to chase Percy when he knew she couldn't.
"Does that mean you're willing to give me a chance?" Malfoy asked. It was amazing how someone so seemingly arrogant could sound so vulnerable. Where was all that infamous Malfoy pride?
"I thought I'd never be one of you conquests?" When he had told her she'd never be a conquest, Hermione had assumed it meant she wasn't pretty enough for him. She was almost short compared to those other girls, her breasts weren't near as large and her hair was a disaster. How was she supposed to compete with beauty queens and glamorous strippers?
Malfoy looked confused. "You won't. I don't want you for a one night stand; I want you around for a while."
Oh, that changed things then. She smiled at him, choosing to answer him with actions instead of words. Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. This time, the both of them were sober and neither had just experienced a near-death experience, so there was less distracting from the sensation. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to get lost in the feel of him.
He suddenly pulled away from her stared down into her eyes almost lovingly. Hermione waited, horrified he was going to say something he hadn't known her long enough to mean and then expect an answer.
"Strippers travel in droves, not gaggles," he said. His mouth was once again on hers, not allowing her time to dispute him.
Hermione sat in the front row, watching her replacement as Malfoy's assistant got more and more frazzled while the blond muttered angrily. Draco didn't like speeches, but he was required to make one since the party they were attending was in celebration of his company's merger with another big company.
She was glad it was someone else's job to keep him in line during work hours, the stress from continuing her job with him would have given her an ulcer in no time. Sadly, the job seemed to give a number of people ulcers as well. In fact, five of the thirteen assistants he'd had since she'd left Malfoy Industries had left due to 'health reasons' that later turned out to be ulcers. Two of those who left had claimed sexual harassment and four had experienced tearful breakdowns, while the rest had just told him to go to hell and stormed out of the office.
Her job at the Ministry, on the other hand, was wonderful. She'd been promoted to Percy's old job but with a few changes to the position. Instead of an assistant, she'd taken on the role as something of an advisor to the Minister. It seemed that Kingsley had tried to ask Percy's thoughts on things and allowed him chances to give input, but he had quickly come to realize that asking Percy's opinion made his big head even bigger until it was unbearable to be around the man.
Percy worked best as an assistant. Too bad he'd been fired from the Ministry and currently worked for Fred and George at their joke shop. Hermione knew he only had the job because Molly had insisted. She also knew that the twins were on the verge of firing their brother, no matter what their mum said to threaten them. It was nearly impossible to sell Dung bombs while Percy was standing there with a disapproving stare and a scathing voice saying, "I hope you don't plan on using those." One poor child had left the store in tears after he had attempted to purchase a fake wand and Percy had told him the dangers of whipping out the wrong wand should he ever need to defend himself. The boy had been eleven; he had only owned his real wand for a few hours, never mind known how to use the thing to protect himself.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Malfoy said to get their attention. He was standing behind the podium up on the stage looking stunning in his dark business suit. His silver eyes glanced down at the notes he'd been holding in his hands.
Hermione was impressed that his new assistant had actually talked him into preparing in advance for a public appearance. Usually, Malfoy depended on his charisma alone to get him through anything involving public speaking. Well, charisma and alcohol. He was getting much better with his drinking, it helped that Hermione refused to be near him when he was under the influence.
"I'd like to extend my thanks to every who took time out of their busy schedules to come here and show their support for Malfoy Industries," his attitude made it apparent that he was reading word for word what the cards were saying. Hermione knew that he hadn't written the speech; Malfoy would never think to thank people for coming, he believed they should be thinking him for the privilege of attending.
His polite smile faded as his eyes ran over the next line. He glanced up at the audience and still with that bland smile on his face said: "If you'll excuse me for a moment." He grabbed the anxious-looking assistant by her elbow and towed her off the stage and out a door off to the side.
Worried about the poor girl, Hermione slipped from her chair and followed them through the door. She knew how Draco could get when he was tense, and nothing made him quite as tense as speaking in front of so many people he disliked.
Out of the public eye, Malfoy was free to let his displeasure show. He had a thunderous scowl on his face and the poor assistant he was looming over looked like she was about to cry.
"Malfoy's are not humble. What in Merlin's name made you think it would be acceptable to put that foul word in my speech?" He stopped snarling when he saw that the tears had overflowed from her eyes and were streaming down her cheeks as the girl sniffled quietly. "I have no idea how they thought you'd be able to keep me in line, you just cry whenever I put my foot down and yell." His voice was disgusted.
Hermione was about to interrupt, but he spoke instead. "And don't you start yelling at me about mistreating her, Granger. I can feel your disapproval from here."
She hadn't thought he'd noted her entrance, but that was a silly assumption of her. He just hadn't wanted to interrupt his little fit to greet her.
"I wouldn't disapprove if you treated your employees better," Hermione said, coming up beside him and taking the cue card from his hands. He didn't resist, merely crossed his arms and waited for her to read it, seeming to think she was going to agree with him.
The line he seemed so offended by said: I'm humbled by this overwhelming show of support. Her eyes went to his. "Is this really so bad?"
"YES it's 'really so bad'! First you make me attend this thing sober, now you're trying to make me humble? I'll only be one at a time and we've already agreed on sober for this blasted event." He ripped the cards in half, threw them to the floor and stormed out of the room, presumably to resume his speech.
"He's not like this all the time, you know," Hermione said to the crying girl. "He has a kind side, it's just... buried a little deeper in him than in most."
"That's easy for you to say; he likes you." She sniffled some more and knelt on the ground to collect the pieces of card scattered across the floor. "If I wore tight skirts like you did, I'm sure he'd soften right up," the girl muttered under her breath, not intending Hermione to hear.
The brunette turned and headed towards the door. She wasn't going to help the ungrateful girl if she was only going to be criticised for her effort. Sometimes she completely understood why Malfoy was so horrible to people.
Her hands smoothed over the skirt she was wearing. It had been a gift from Malfoy and it wasn't actually very tight, it was however, very flattering. She wouldn't wear the thing to church should her grandmother ever make her attend again, but it was one of the more conservative outfits in the audience.
The assistant got up to follow, but Hermione stopped her by throwing an arm out. "Wipe the tears off your face, your job is to maintain his reputation and going out there looking like he made you cry isn't going to make him look very good," she snapped, all patience or pity for the girl gone.
Just as the door was about to close behind her, she heard the assistant mutter, "She's just as bad as he is, no wonder she's the only one who can stand him."
Hermione chose to be the bigger person and ignore the comment. It helped that she was distracted by what Malfoy was saying on the stage.
"I see many faces I've come to know well – half of you I'd rather not see again. Hell, a third of you are only here because I felt obligated to invite you since I've seen your wives naked at some point in the last few years."
She quickly cast a stinging hex at him, making him jump and immediately glance over towards her, knowing she was the only one who would have done something like that. He flashed a smile that said 'trust me; I know what I'm doing'. Hermione was doubtful, but she didn't storm up there and pull him from the stage. She'd give him a chance, and then she would remove him from the stage and start the damage control.
"What I mean to say is thanks for coming and enjoy your evening," he said with a dazzling smile. When Malfoy really decided to be charming, there was just no staying mad at him. She didn't know how he managed it, but he'd just told a room of men that he'd seen their wives without clothing and still managed to get applause as he left the stage. Sometimes she suspected there was more to that Malfoy charm than just charisma; sometimes she thought it may be an actual spell in his blood that made him likeable when he tried.
Speech finished, he paced off the stage to Hermione's side, grabbing her hand. "Was that acceptable?" he asked.
"Not really, but it looks like you're going to get away with it – again," she grumbled.
Just then, the music started up and people began heading for the dance floor.
Malfoy smirked and looked down at her. "Would you care to dance?" he asked, purposely making his voice overly formal as he tugged on her hand.
She followed him out onto the dance floor and placed a hand on his shoulder while raising their still-joined fingers to her side in a proper position.
"None of that now, Granger," Malfoy murmured. He shook his fingers from her grasp and put her hand behind his neck with the other one. His own hands went around her waist and pulled her against him.
The next song began and Malfoy started swaying them to the music. He had enough of a height advantage that she was forced to stand on her toes if she didn't want to lean against him. Hermione wanted to lean against him and relax, but she couldn't seem to forget the hundreds of eyes resting on the both of them. She felt like they were just waiting for her to do something wrong so they could pounce.
Her whole body stiffened when Malfoy rested a hand on the back of her hair and tucked her head under his chin. "Relax, Granger. You care too much what people think," he said, kissing her temple.
"One of us has to; you care too little."
He scoffed. "Nonsense, I care just enough."
"Which is not at all?"
"Exactly, now relax before you make the both of us tense."
Hermione once again tried to relax, she really did, but she just couldn't in front of so many people.
His hand moved to the small of her back, where he started to rub small circles that would have relaxed her if there hadn't been so many witnesses to the small gesture. She could feel them dissecting her motives for dating Malfoy and the meaning behind his obvious affection for her.
Malfoy sighed when she remained tense, the breath making her hair shift. "If you can't relax, I'll do something that'll really make you uncomfortable, and neither of us wants that; I have something important inside my jacket that'll vanish along with our clothes."
Unsurprisingly, that statement didn't relax her at all. Something about him threatening her with public nudity just didn't calm her down – it didn't help that she wouldn't put it past him to make good on his threat.
"Why are you so set on getting me to relax?" she asked, hoping to distract him from her continued rigidity.
"Because I don't want you uncomfortable for what I'm about to do."
Confused, she watched him reach inside his jacket and pull out something smallish and square. Before she could take it from him, he'd unscrewed the top and taken a long drink from his flask.
"What are you doing?" Hermione hissed. She tried to take the flask from him, but he was faster, slipping it inside his jacket just as she brushed it with her fingers. "I thought you were cutting back on your drinking."
"I have been, love, but I need the courage for what I'm about to do."
Hermione ripped herself from his hold and crossed her arms. "And what is it you have to do that's so terrifying you need alcohol? Your speech is done and the only other thing planned for the night is dinner."
"Not quite," he said.
Once again, he reached his hand inside his jacket. Hermione prepared to pounce on him the minute she saw the flask again, but it was something else he pulled from the inside pocket. A small, black velvet box was resting in his palm.
"That better not be what it looks like," she said, her voice a squeak. There were so many people watching and that little black box was making even more people notice them. She knew there was a reporter somewhere in the crowd, so whatever happened was going to be spread across the papers in the morning.
"Nope," he said with a grin. "The look on your face is priceless though."
He offered her the box.
Hesitantly, more than aware that they were the centre of attention, Hermione accepted the box. She ran her fingers over the soft velvet for a moment before opening it. Her mouth dropped open at what she found inside. It was the most beautiful pair of diamond earrings she'd ever seen. Completely transfixed, she didn't notice Malfoy reaching inside his jacket again.
"They're beautiful," she whispered, stretching out a finger and running it along the cool edge of one of the diamonds. Had she not been completely mesmerized, she probably would have objected to how much they must have cost. He would have argued that it wasn't like he couldn't afford it and then insisted she accept it. They had the same conversation every time he gave her jewellery and she usually ended up keeping the gifts.
"They'll match perfectly with your engagement ring," he said.
That caught her attention. Her eyes snapped to him to find that he had another box in his hand.
He kept his gaze fixed firmly on her while he offered her the ring. It didn't surprise her that he wasn't willing to drop down on one knee – lowering himself to his knee in front of a large audience of his peers just wasn't a Malfoy thing to do.
"Are you going to answer?" he asked impatiently. Her shock and wonder was flattering and all, but the waiting was bothering him. Malfoy's don't wait for people. She was the only one who didn't rue the day she had ever made him wait.
"You haven't asked me yet," she said quietly.
His silver eyes widened in surprise. "I thought the engagement ring was kind of self-explanatory."
Hermione gave him an irritated look. "Humour me."
"The things I do for you," he sighed dramatically, smiling when her irritated expression morphed into a scowl.
Abruptly, his smile faded and his face turned serious. "Hermione Granger, will you save me the money on hiring a new assistant to keep me in line and marry me?"
That was probably as good as she was going to get...
She took a slow step towards him, staring into his eyes and taking a hold of his jacket. Just as he was leaning down for a kiss, she plunged a hand inside his jacket, grabbed onto the flask and stepped out of his reach.
Hermione took a big gulp of the burning liquid; he wasn't the only one who could use the courage. "You're still hiring a new assistant," she said, moving close to replace the flask in his pocket and kissing him for real this time.
"I haven't even been fired yet," Hermione heard the current assistant complain.
Malfoy pulled his lips away from Hermione. "I assumed your complete uselessness would have tipped you off. You're fired."
The girl gasped and once again started crying, but no one was really paying attention to her. The focus of the room was on the embracing pair in the centre of the dance floor. A few cameras flashed, ensuring that they would be in the papers in the morning. Draco had managed to get Hermione to relax after all.
"Don't think I haven't noticed your avoidance of answering the question you insisted I formally ask," Malfoy said against her lips.
"You did a half-arsed job of it."
"You're infuriating, you know that?" he grumbled.
They had put some distance between their faces to allow for conversation but were still standing what Hermione would have considered indecently close in front of such a large audience.
"Give me on good reason to marry you."
He didn't hesitate. "I'm rich, good looking, charming, amazing in bed-" he would have listed more along those lines, but Hermione raised eyebrow stopped him.
"And I love you with all of my shrivelled, black heart. I happen to have it from reliable sources that you love me as well. Now say yes before the nice reporters start to think I've been rejected. It would completely ruin my reputation."
"I actually think the sympathy from female readers would improve your reputation," she said.
His eyes narrowed into a teasing glare. He wasn't worried that she was going to say no, but it had become a game to get her to admit she was perfectly willing to marry him. He leant his head down so that his mouth was nearly touching the shell of her ear. "I have everything I needed out of my jacket now, there's nothing stopping me from vanishing our clothes."
Hermione shivered at the tone his voice had taken, but it wasn't from fear. "Since charges of public indecency would negatively impact my career, I'm going to have to say yes."
He grinned. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Oh, shut up."
"Gladly," he said, kissing her again.