Author's Note: Welp, this is it! Sorry it took so long. This chapter is the product of about three complete re-writes, and I'm much, much happier with it. Hopefully, you will be, too. Let me know what you think! Enjoy!
The St Mungo's Administrative Center was nestled in a modest high rise on the outskirts of Muggle London. The building was brick and a bit decrepit-looking, especially when the weather was poor, which was often. The building beautification committee, composed of three dowdy women and a far-too-motivated new hire from the second floor (Regressive Insurance Sales, Inc. – clearly a dying agency) had attempted to plant flowers near the front entrance. Unfortunately, they had not considered the lack of sunlight, and their effort had resulted in shriveled, greenish-brown patches of depression. That was five years ago; the committee had not met since.
The St Mungo's administrators hadn't been happy to make the move. Their original location had been in Diagon Alley, the beating heart of the wizarding world, just a few streets down from Gringotts, Fortescue's, Honeydukes, and all the other distractions that make administrative work seem more like a worthwhile way to spend one's time. To have been pushed out by more profitable businesses such as joke shops, broom vendors, and pubs had not sat well, and the resulting sense of bitterness and resentment had yet to fade. All that could be said of their new location was that it was that it was well windowed, and even that wasn't much.
The building seemed to have taken on some of the less pleasant characteristics of its inhabitants. The building doors often became jammed and were difficult to open. The lift was slow and, as its doors closed with a low moan, Hermione Granger could not ignore the feeling of dread that settled in her chest.
She withdrew her wand, trying not to think of what awaited her as she prodded the space between the numbers '12' and '14'. The area lit up green and a bland, non-threatening voice asked her to state her name and business. She did so, and there was a brief pause before the lift began to rise. Hermione clasped her hands, closed her eyes, and waited. She thought of her question, of procuring the only piece of information she wanted, the only piece she needed.
Is he alive?
The anticipation of the answer made her hot and cold at once, and an uncomfortable, almost painful shudder lanced through her.
The lift slowed to a halt and the doors slid open. Hermione took a breath and stepped into the reception area.
One way or another, it would all be over soon.
The receptionist recognized her and, with an unnecessary scowl, waved her down the hall to the last door on the left. Hermione walked the path without really looking, automatically closing the door as she entered the modest courtroom. She walked past the three rows of pews to the single chair that sat before a raised bench.
Hermione gave the chair a slightly sour look. Its poor design was intentional, she was sure. The wood base was shaped as if the carver hadn't the slightest concept of the anatomy of a human buttock. The back, with its unevenly spaced and occasionally protruding spindles, was an unyielding perpendicular. The armrests were both several inches too high and too wide for the average human, never mind her relatively petite frame.
She spelled the seat and back with a Cushioning Charm, which enabled her to sit in relative ease. She kept her hands folded in her lap to prevent her shoulders from elevating and demonstrating a tension that she neither felt nor cared to fake.
Almost immediately after she sat, the panel members filed in, and just as quickly, Hermione trained her eyes forward to follow the intricate grain of wood that made up their bench. Hermione thought forward was a rather neutral direction to stare, but the panel members – two witches and three wizards, all well over seventy years old – had made it clear, via a series of pursed lips and narrowed eyes, that this was not the case. One member, Hermione couldn't tell which, though she suspected it was one of the women, had even clucked in disapproval.
Not like it mattered anymore. This was the last day of her hearing. Sentencing day. A full week and a half after she had plunged the needle into Draco's arm and changed everything. A week and a half after she had been dragged from his room, screaming so loudly, horrified as his body stiffened and seized and… Died? Healed?
Is he alive?
She wanted to shout it, but bit her tongue and continued to stare, following a set of swooping, swirling lines that reminded her of blood cells beneath a microscope, of a vomit being flushed away, of life seeping onto a bleached tile floor.
Healer Francis Conroy, the Director of Discipline, cleared his throat as the clock chimed nine.
" We have assembled here on Monday, November 28, 2005, for the sentencing of Ms Hermione Jean Granger regarding the events at St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries on Thursday, November 17, 2005. We have discussed your case most thoroughly, Ms Granger. We have spoken to your colleagues, your superiors, and to the witnesses, and we have reviewed your disciplinary history. Do you wish to address the panel before we begin the sentencing?"
Is he alive?
"No, sir." It was not time yet. An opportunity, yes, but not the correct moment. She would know when it came. She would feel it, had to feel it. She'd felt so little else since that final day.
One of the panel members huffed.
"Very well," Conroy continued. "On Thursday, November 17, you injected Mr Draco Lucius Malfoy, a patient and former resident of St Mungo's, with an experimental treatment for Collier's disease. You did this without performing safety trials, without the consent of Mr Malfoy's Attending Healer, Maurice Thomas Stockell, and without consent of the patient himself. These actions violate the St Mungo's ethical statute, your Hippocratic Oath, and Mr Malfoy's right to informed consent.
"These violations are not to be taken lightly, yet you have expressed no regret either before us or in your written testimony. We must therefore interpret your violation of these rules as willful and intentional. Ms Granger, we must consider you a likely repeat offender."
He paused for a moment to let the gravity of this sink in, then continued in a clear, authoritative voice. "A Healer ruled by his or her emotions cannot be trusted with the lives of others. Every patient deserves a clear mind and cool temperament, especially when the Healer's decisions can determine life and death. You have proven yourself incapable of objectivity under pressure. As such, you are dismissed, effectively immediately, from your residency position at St Mungo's. Your Junior Healer license is revoked, and you are barred for life from reapplication. Your days in Healing are through."
The words brushed over her like dead leaves on concrete: a faint rustle as they passed, a fleeting sensation of circumstances changing, and then nothing. Her insides, which should have been in an uproar after hearing that she could no longer do what she had devoted years of her life to perfecting, were quiet and still.
Another huff from the bench. Now was the time.
Hermione gathered herself and, with a shaky breath, looked up at the panel. She looked at each member in turn, then locked eyes with Conroy and said the lines she'd been practicing for days.
"I respect the panel's decision. But I must know, please: is he alive?"
There was a moment of uncertain silence before the woman at the far end of the bench snapped, "At the request of the Malfoy estate, we are not at liberty to say."
That quickly, Hermione had her answer, and the world ceased turning. She sat back in the chair. The Cushioning Charm had vanished. The spindles pressed uncomfortably into her back, but she hardly noticed. Hardly cared.
"And on a personal note." Hermione started and lifted her eyes slowly, dazedly, back to the panel. Conroy's mouth continued to move, but the words his lips formed – disappointment, high expectations, optimistic – didn't register.
Estate. The Malfoy estate.
Draco was dead.
Was Narcissa dead, too? Unable to live without her husband and son?
Had to be. Estate. It was not a term used lightly.
When Hermione next looked up, she was alone. The panel members had left, and she was free.
Free from what?
She rose slowly, and her legs did not feel like her own. They carried her to the door, which phantom hands pushed open. Sitting there, on a padded bench outside the courtroom, was Ginny Potter-Weasley.
She was up in a moment and at Hermione's side, her hand strong and reassuring as she clasped Hermione's arm. "I was wondering how long they were going to keep you. What happened?"
Hermione opened and closed her mouth, searching for words as the first seeds of her alternate reality – no, her actual reality, the one where she had failed to keep the man she loved alive – began to root. Her knees wanted to buckle. Her palms began to sweat, her heart to race, her breathes to rasp.
And then Ginny squeezed her arm.
She could not break down now. Not here, in a public office. Not here, in front of Ginny. Because Hermione's was a grief no one should see. A grief she had to hide. Her grief was not the pretty kind, solved by a white handkerchief, a few pats on the back, and a platitude about life going on. What would happen – what was happening – was absolutely animal, primal to its core. It was nature gone wrong, every sensor firing, every hormone flooding, every fluid rushing. It was pressure building in a capsule with only one, poorly capped outlet. To let it burst in front of others, when she had neither the desire nor ability to control it, or the magic that would doubtlessly accompany it, would be dangerous, potentially fatal.
Ginny's brow furrowed, and she frowned. "Never mind. It's too soon. Come on. Let's go home."
Maintaining her hold on Hermione's arm, Ginny led her away. With each step, Hermione traveled further from the weak dream she had been living – the one where Draco was alive and still a part of her world – and into her cold future. And with each step, as the pressure built and screamed, she tightened her control, reminding herself to breathe, counting the seconds between each inhale and finding a modicum of peace in her ability to control the pace.
Control. She had not lost it all. Not yet.
She had to survive the next few hours before she could allow herself to let go. A list: pretend for Ginny, drink a cup of tea, pretend for Ron, eat a biscuit. Believably claim exhaustion, usher her friends away with the promises of an early bedtime and a Floo call the next morning. Close the door. Shutter the windows. Ward the flat. Soundproof the flat. Stand with her wand in the middle of her living room.
Only then, when she was alone, would she allow the pressure building within her to escape. Only then would she allow herself to feel every ounce of pain her rejection must have caused him. Only then would she allow herself to think of the final peace she had stolen from him. Only then would she allow herself the freedom of a terrible and gruesome anguish.
Only then. Not one moment before.
Having regained the threads of her slipping control, Hermione worked her way down the list.
Pretend for Ginny.
They were at her flat. Hermione hadn't even remembered being Apparated. She unlocked the door and mechanically stepped aside, allowing Ginny through.
Drink a cup of tea.
No, that would be skipping a step. She could not leave a task half-done, and poorly, at that. She took a seat at the table, folding her hands before her, listening idly as Ginny chattered about Ron showing up with sympathy and where did she keep the biscuits?
It took her a moment too long. Ginny looked at her strangely, and Hermione attempted a smile that felt as forced as it surely looked. She answered with an accompanying vague wave to the cupboard next to where she kept the plates.
A knock sounded on the door. Ron, but too early. Her list… But the solution was simple. A re-ordering. Pretend for Ron, drink a cup of tea, eat a biscuit. All tasks still within her power.
She got up to answer the door, too focused on pretending for Ron that she ignored pretending for Ginny. They arrived there simultaneously, but Ginny moved faster and opened the door before Hermione could do more than stretch out her hand.
The list exploded. The ideas framed by letters and numbers tried to rearrange themselves, but a connection had dissolved and the outcome was nonsense, barely English, unintelligible, indecipherable, and – in the end – unimportant.
Because Hermione no longer needed a list. Because Hermione no longer needed to grieve.
Draco Malfoy stood at the threshold with his hands in his pockets and his fringe in his eyes. He looked thin and serious, but alive (so alive!), and Hermione was sure she was dying because her sight went black and her legs no longer worked and she could hear every sound her body made, from the blood pounding through her heart to the hair raising on her skin.
There was a brief pressure on her arm, and the smell of Ginny brushing past her. There was a faint, "Oi, Ferret!" shouted from down the hall, and the sound of the door closing.
And with his voice, it all came back. In a rush that sent her reeling backwards, her vision returned and the cacophony in her head quieted to its normal buzz and thrum. Her chest heaved, her ribs expanding painfully as she gasped for air, and her stomach churned, threatening to revolt against her esophagus. It would have succeeded if she had consumed more than water and toast in the last twenty-four hours.
"Are you okay?"
The question – and what a question! – snapped into place another level of her slipped sanity, and she laughed, though it came out as a wheeze.
"I," she rasped, "am the very definition of not okay."
The ghost of a grin tugged at his lips, and Hermione burned its wry form into her memory. There was so much about him to remember, and though she knew no amount of time with him could ever be enough to capture it all, she tried very hard to succeed. His almond-shaped eyes, capricious with their color of grey and how much they shone. His Patrician nose above those wry, now neutral, now slightly frowning lips. The strong, angled cheekbones, which jutted out too sharply against his pale and stretched skin, creating spaces concave and tapering on his already narrow and pointed face.
"Why are you here?"
It was a fair question, though she didn't realize she had asked it until he replied, "I've come to serve you with papers." He pulled an official-looking sheath from robes that hung off him and begged to be filled with the muscle that sickness had stolen from him. He stepped toward her, offering her the packet, and her eyes alighted on his hands next.
Her vision blurred with tears. Though the scar was small, she could see where the intravenous needle had been. His hands were so thin now, his skin stretched tightly over his knuckles and wrist, the bones protruding so that she could almost determine their shape. His tapering fingers looked fragile, but they held the parchment steadily enough, so different from hers, which shook and barely supported the packet's modest weight.
"It's a restraining order," he explained. "My advocate's suggestion."
Hermione nodded automatically. The idea of being legally mandated to stay away from him was painful, but it was infinitely more bearable than the idea of him being dead. It made sense, as well. She had broken the law, treated him after he had removed his consent and refused her. In the eyes of the Ministry, and his lawyer, she was a threat to his life.
It was ironic, really, and the thought made her smile the slightest bit. She could appreciate the humor in it now.
"I will look these over tonight and send them to your advocate by owl tomorrow," she said quietly. "Unless you need them sooner?"
"Tomorrow is fine." He stared at her for a moment longer, his brow furrowed, like he was waiting for her to do something. But she did not move. Did not speak. All she had to do she held in her hands, and she had said everything she wanted to before she had broken his trust and saved his life. She would not assume he wanted to hear any of that again, or that he cared to spend more time with her than was necessary. He had achieved his purpose, and she would let him go.
But as he sighed and turned around, her mutinous, selfish heart beat against reason. Why wasn't she fighting for him? She had come this far – disrespecting his wishes, ruining her life – why not take the extra step, which would either sink the final nail into the coffin of their relationship or administer the shot of adrenaline that would temporarily revive it? Their lives had collided since they were children, and each time they were too misshapen to connect. But what if their shapes were finally correct? What if she was his complement as he was hers? Could she let her final opportunity to be with him pass? Could she live with herself, with the regret such a blunder would surely cause? If there was a time to act, to fight for him and what they could have, it was now.
But she had already fought for them, hadn't she? She had fought for their future and won, but his shape had changed because of it. Hers had remained the same. So it was no longer their future, but his and hers, separate and distinct, and she had no recourse but to accept it.
These were the consequences. This was her life after grief, and she would bear it with a grin, because her grief was immaterial compared to his life.
So as he walked away, Hermione counted her breathing, dug her fingernails into her palms, and bit her tongue to keep from giving into her weakness and crying out for him to stay. Though she burned to touch him, to feel his arms and smell his skin and trace his scars and taste his breath, she didn't move, not even flinching when he turned to look at her one last time.
His eyes seared into her, and suddenly, so quickly that she could not help but startle, he swore and slammed his hand against the door.
"Damn it, Hermione! Why did you do it? Why did you save me?"
There was only one answer she could give, though she knew he would not want to hear it. But he had asked, and she no right to keep him from the truth.
"I had to." Her voice shook with emotion she could no longer repress. "I love you."
He swore again and stalked toward her. "You're lying. You're lying!"
"I'm not." Her voice was a tenuous calm against the violence of his tone.
"Yes, you are," he said with a growl, "because if you loved me, you would have respected my wishes. I revoked your consent. I refused treatment. You had no right to be near me that day, let alone touch me!"
"I know that."
"You were supposed to accept it. You were supposed to let me die!"
"Since when has Healing been about the Healer?"
"Is it really so hard to believe?" Her voice shook a little more than she would have liked, and she could not fight the bitterness his incredulity caused.
He barked a laugh. "After sincerely pursuing you for six months and getting nothing out of it but sex? Yes, Hermione. It is hard to believe."
"Well, I'm sorry for that, but I'm telling you the truth."
"But not the whole truth," he said, pointing an accusing finger at her chest. "You threw away your life for me, and that doesn't happen with a love that just springs up out of nowhere."
"No, Hermione! I have been through hell and back because of what you did, and I deserve answers. I deserve the truth! So when did it start? When did your supposed love for me begin?"
"Hippocrates' School," she snapped, her eyes flashing. His anger had ignited her own, and the pressure that had built up over his death had not had a chance to dissipate. It was coming out now, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. "I've loved you since Hippocrates' School, and I've never stopped."
"Hippocrates' School?" he repeated incredulously. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"We were splitting up."
"You didn't say anything because you were afraid it was going to be difficult?"
"I knew it would be."
"You were barely across London. It wouldn't even have been long distance!"
"Distance wasn't the issue!" she yelled. "Don't you remember how it was when we first started? We barely had the time to owl one another, let alone attempt to date! A relationship like that would've suffocated before it even had a chance to breathe."
"What about Mungo's, then? Plenty of time to let it breathe there!"
"By then, it was clear that you had moved on."
"Yes, and I didn't want to get hurt!"
"Moved on?" Draco repeated, stunned. "Hermione, I was mad for you. I asked you out once a week, at least. I was practically begging you for a date!"
"I thought –"
"We were shagging! For Merlin's bloody sake, how in the world could it have seemed like I had moved on?"
Every jealous, spiteful thought Hermione had ever had melted, boiled, and burned up inside her, and she spat the truth like venom: "Because every fucking time you saw Theresa, you could barely keep your hands to yourself or your eyes off her arse!"
That gave him pause, and Hermione watched triumphantly as Draco tried to regain his footing, failing as he spluttered, "What?"
"Theresa," Hermione repeated, snarling around the word. "The curvy witch you flirted with whenever she was within earshot. I thought I was imagining it, but all those looks you exchanged… The way she'd touch you… How she swept the hair out of your eyes… Your laughter whenever she attempted something resembling wit… I saw everything, Draco. I noticed everything. I knew you two had… Connected."
"You're barking," he said faintly. "Positively barking. Theresa and I, that was never… She wasn't… She was nothing to me. Is nothing. You couldn't possibly have thought –"
"What was I supposed to think?" Hermione interrupted bitterly. "That you were just doing it to get a rise out of me?" Patches of pink suddenly appeared on Draco's cheeks, and Hermione sneered. "Stumbled upon the truth, have I? Well, it worked too well. I wasn't going to commit to anything more than sex with you when your interests were obviously elsewhere. I'm not a fool."
"Why did you ever agree to that in the first place if you thought we were involved?"
"You knew you didn't want to work in Midwifery, but you did rounds there anyway."
"That's completely different!"
"It's exactly the same! Midwifery wasn't in your future, but you wanted the experience. It can't be so unbelievable that I wanted the same with you."
It took him a moment to process the information, and when he next spoke, it was slowly, as if he were still piecing it together. "So when you gave me that injection, you thought I wasn't interested in you? That I didn't love –"
"I knew. You had made your feelings abundantly clear by then," she said, remembering too well their row in his room. He shifted uncomfortably, clearly sharing the memory. "I knew we didn't have a future together, just like I knew the consequences I'd face whether or not the vaccine worked. I threw away everything I had – my time, my career, my reputation, everything – to give you a chance. And you lived, and I'm ruined, but I don't care because you were worth it. I don't care that I disrespected your wishes and violated every ethical law I can think of. I'd rather sign that restraining order and never see you again, and have that be your choice, than have allowed you to be taken from me by a virus. I would rather live knowing you hate me than live without you at all."
"You really mean it," he said quietly. She wasn't sure if it was a question or a statement.
"You wanted the truth."
"So I did." He was silent for a minute, allowing the atmosphere between them to settle. Hermione took several breaths, feeling better but for the texture of the restraining order against her fingers. She dropped it on the table and felt an icy hand compress her heart. She looked away from it, away from him, and tried to remain composed. She would deal with it when he left. It may take a bottle of wine and a box of tissues, but she would get through it.
"Your sentencing was today, wasn't it?"
Just like that, her tears reappeared. He always had known what not to say. However, she was too drained to start another fight. "Yes," she said with a small sigh. "It was."
"Mother received an owl." She glared at him; if he knew, why had he asked? She bit her tongue. "Sacked, banned for life… They were harsh on you."
"Yes, they were." Her voice was brittle. "I'd be surprised if Mungo's even consents to treat me. Still, it was," she paused, searching for the word, "fair."
Draco raised his eyebrows in surprise and bobbed his head in uncertain agreement. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then he said, "I've been given a position there."
Her happiness for him was genuine. A position at St Mungo's had been Draco's goal since they started Hippocrates' School. Still, she could not be sure that her smile was completely devoid of sadness. She had wanted a position there, too, and the wound caused by her lifelong ban was raw. "Congratulations. They would've been foolish not to offer it."
"And Reyes accepted my proposal. I'll be his next apprentice."
The ache in her chest deepened, but she smiled still wider. "That's fantastic. He'll be a wonderful master to you, I'm sure."
"I've been approached for a book deal, too."
Hermione really tried not to roll her eyes, but was afraid her control may have slipped when she saw Draco's lips twitch into a gentle smirk.
"Wonderful." Her voice was too wooden, but she could not soften it. "Everything is really falling to place for you."
"I suppose," he said with a sigh, and Hermione dropped her smile. Before she could say something she would regret, Draco continued casually. "It's a pity, though, that they've banned you from Healing. That vaccine could have made you millions."
"It could have saved millions," she corrected. She tried not to think about it more than she had to. Whyte would have confiscated her notebook shortly after her arrest. If she burned it before realizing Draco had survived, then the cure for Collier's existed only one place: Hermione's head.
But even there, the information was about as useful as a leash on a Skrewt. Draco had been so close to death, and she had been out of her mind with desperation. She hadn't been sleeping, hadn't been eating, and she'd had several trials running simultaneously. She remembered bits from each, but couldn't recall the exact formulation that had cured him. Even if she could obtain the proper equipment and the correct permits, a working vaccine was still several experiments away.
If Whyte had realized what her notebook contained, then she had undoubtedly passed it off to another researcher by now. A worm of anger crawled up her spine: no one at St Mungo's had the background that she did, and the thought of them mangling her work, botching the science she had worked so hard to perfect… She shuddered. When she looked up, she was surprised to find Draco staring at her appraisingly.
"It would be another year, at least, before your vaccine could be marketed to the public, wouldn't you say?" he asked lightly.
"Probably that, if not longer. I used your cells for testing and my cells for formulation. The vaccine as it stands could be specific to just you and me."
"Therefore making anything that St Mungo's puts out completely useless."
The idea was vaguely satisfying. It would take them some time to figure that out. "Yes, but I don't see how this is relevant. It's not like they could call me in to consult."
"True," Draco ceded. "So what will you do instead?"
"Government work, I suppose." Draco huffed a small laugh. Hermione bristled, illogically defensive. "They don't seem picky about hiring people with tainted reputations."
"You'll be wasted there, you know." And she did know, but it was too soon to say it aloud. "What if you had your notebook back?"
Hermione shook her head. "It's no use thinking about. My research has either been confiscated or burned."
"But what if it wasn't?"
With a twist of his wrist, Draco pulled her black-and-white speckled composition book out of the void and offered it to her. Her mouth dropped and she reached out to take it reverently, as if it were a first edition of Hogwarts: A History.
"How did you get this?" she asked weakly.
"That is for the Malfoy legal team to decide. You have it now. Next, you have to decide what you'll do with it."
She sat down slowly, feeling lightheaded. Draco's gift felt like a poisoned carrot dangled before her starving mouth. Even though she knew it was laced with arsenic, she was sorely tempted to take a bite. But she wouldn't. When Draco left, after she signed the restraining order, she would burn the notebook, perhaps on her balcony in the company of another bottle of wine. If she were to heal herself, she could not afford the false hope, the nostalgia, or the luxury of what might have been. For now, though, she ran her hands over the cover, memorizing its texture and reflecting, one last time, on everything she could have done.
"If I may offer a suggestion," Draco said, interrupting her reverie. "Mother and I are having a board meeting in a few hours. You're welcome to attend. I see that you're already dressed – that shows good initiative. Maybe we should grab a bite first, though. You look like you haven't eaten in days."
She looked from the notebook to him, her mind blank. He looked at her expectantly, and her feeling of stupidity grew. She felt as if a synapse had failed to fire. "Board meeting?"
Draco sighed and, with a smile, sat down next to her. He took her free hand in both of his; his skin was warm and dry. "Hermione," he began with some gravitas, "I've decided to leave St Mungo's."
Her faulty synapse once again failed to fire, and she gaped at him. "What? Draco, are you mad?"
"Well, it's awfully dangerous, isn't it, working in that kind of environment? I nearly lost my life due to a glaring safety oversight. No one else should have to know that feeling. And if we're going to keep Healers safe, we need to devote some serious resources to the task. Our equipment needs to evolve just as quickly as our diseases. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Yes," she said hesitantly. "Of course, but I don't see –"
"Yet, there's just as much a need for reactive measures as for proactive measures, which is where you come in, my dear." A small, confusing smile played over his lips, as if he were in on a joke that she had not yet been told. "You, Hermione, are the only person in all of Healing who has successfully cured the Collier's Virus. The information to do so again is here," he tapped her notebook with his forefinger, "and here." He tapped her gently on the temple. "You are in an exceptionally lucrative position."
"But un-hirable," she rebutted. "I can't even become a certified Healer."
"I'm not looking for a Healer," he said with a gentle smile. His eyes sparkled, and suddenly, Hermione caught on to the joke.
She tried to draw her hand away, but he held her fast. "You can't be serious."
"Why not? Not only are you a good deal further along in your research than any other Healer on the planet, but you're brilliant to boot. You have broad experiences, you can integrate Muggle and magical technology to great effect, and you're good under pressure. You understand regulations and, aside from a minor ethical violation that I am willing to overlook, you have a stellar reputation for honest work."
"You want me to work for you?"
"No," he said, his smile widening. "I want you to work with me. We'll be partners. We'll have equal stock in the company, a comfortable corner office, so long as you don't mind sharing it with me, and a generous yearly salary. Also, global reach and a way to make a difference to millions of people. All the philanthropy you want. I know how important that is to you," he finished tenderly.
"I still… I don't think I understand. I thought… I thought you hated me," she finished in a small voice.
He stroked her cheek with his thumb, clearing away what remained of her tears. "Hermione, you saved my life. I could never hate you for that."
It wasn't possible. Couldn't be. And yet… "All this… The restraining order…"
"A bluff," he said with an embarrassed sort of smile. He flipped open the pages; each was blank. "Mother was against it, but I needed to gauge your reactions. I had to be sure of you. Now, I am." He paused and smiled softly at her. It was like seeing sunshine after a year of darkness. "You love me, Hermione."
Her heart jumped into a mad staccato. Hearing those words, seeing his smiling, knowing that he understood, that he forgave… She could not find the breath to do more than whisper, "Yes."
"And I love you."
His tone was so final, so sure, that suddenly, there was nothing more to be said. Hermione threw herself into his arms, burying her face in his neck and sobbing with joy as he tangled his hands in her hair, whispering promises, keeping her together as she came undone, vulnerable and wretchedly human in his arms, but at peace and grateful – above all, grateful - for the new life they had been given. Whatever came next, she would not waste it. She would not take a single moment, a single breath, for granted.
She would never let him go again.