The next day was more difficult than Draco could have ever imagined. All morning, Granger kept giving him shy glances from under her lashes, sometimes smiling and blushing before turning away.
They were the tenderhearted looks that a girl usually reserved for her sweetheart.
He felt that he didn't deserve this adoration from her. He wanted desperately to accept it, but he could not.
He could not accept it because he had a duty to fulfill, one that he had known about his whole life. Draco's future had been laid out for him from birth. There were many times over the years when he had rebelled against it, become angry over it, or been sad about it.
This was the first time that he was genuinely considering throwing it all away. All because he desired her in a way that he had never felt before. He yearned and ached for her, deep down in his soul.
Yet he could not do it. The thought of discarding his life in favor of a Muggle girl whom he had known for less than two months was utterly mad. It mattered not that Granger was extraordinary in both beauty and brilliance. He could not stomach the disappointment he knew he would see in his father's eyes.
Draco's heart would thrust and his mind parried as indecision warred within him, until at last, he came to an uneasy conclusion.
It was late afternoon and the sky was a dull grey; the air held a misty chill. The days had become shorter, and dusk would be upon them soon. He asked her to take a stroll with him, and she quickly agreed, donning her shawl for warmth.
"You really should get a proper cloak," he chided her.
They walked along a nearby lake, finally ending up on a footbridge that spanned a narrow part of the water. Leaning on the railing, she looked out into the distance. Even in the bleak, fading light and her colorless clothes, she was a sight to behold.
Draco breathed in heavily, the crisp air stinging his nostrils.
She turned to face him with those big brown eyes, and for the briefest of moments, Draco allowed himself one last flight of fancy of staying with her before stifling it completely.
"I have to leave." It came out barely a whisper, but she heard it anyway; if not through his words, then by the look on his face.
The eyes in which he had nearly lost himself moments before became glossy with tears.
"I…" He swallowed as he searched for the right words. "I cannot stay here. It is not where I belong, and I have things to which I must attend."
Always the clever one, Granger somehow read between the lines. "This is because of what I am. Or perhaps more because of what I am not."
How could he reply to that? How could he tell her that her Muggle heritage was an insurmountable obstacle and that he could not be with her because of it? So he told her the truth as best he could without saying the actual words.
"I am a coward of the worst kind."
Granger bit her bottom lip, but he could still see it trembling as her tears made their escape down her cheeks. Turning her back to him, she hid her face so he wouldn't see her cry. Her shoulders hitched, followed by a muffled sob. The sound tore through him.
He couldn't do this.
The thought of his father's disapproval now seemed miniscule next to her heartache. Draco would not forsake his kingdom, but he would not abandon her, either. He would figure out a way to have both. He was the sole heir, after all. The king could accept it or be damned.
"Granger?" His voice held new conviction, but she seemed not to notice.
"I understand, Mal… Malfoy," she stuttered between shuddering breaths. She whirled around to look at him. "I-"
Before she could finish her thought, the bridge railing gave way and Hermione lost her foothold, sending her crashing into the dark, freezing water below.
Malfoy tossed his cloak aside with haste and dove in after her. It felt as though the bitterly cold water was searing his skin. The pain quickly turned into numbness, and his muscles moved sluggishly. He had to find her quickly, before his body gave in to the cold.
The fates smiled down upon him; she had not drifted far. Wrapping his arms around her, Draco pulled her to the water's edge before dragging her to shore.
"Granger?!" His teeth chattered as he tapped the side of her face and tried to rouse her, but she did not wake. Darkness was now creeping in on them, and he could not see the extent of her injury. Pulling his wand out, the magic coursed through his hand as he cast his first spell in nearly two months.
Her face was pale as death, and her full lips, normally a ripe pink, were now an icy blue. Upon further inspection, he realized that her chest was not rising and falling as it should.
She was not breathing.
Panicked, he took his wand in hand again and shouted, "Rennervate!"
Her eyes shot open, and she began to cough up water. Helping her roll onto her side, he cast an Anapneo spell so that she could clear her airway more easily. Once finished, she crumbled back onto the ground, shivering and barely awake.
"Hold on, Granger," he said, gasping heavily from his own exertion. "Please, just hold on."
Draco performed a drying spell on himself and felt somewhat better once he was no longer cold and wet. He turned his wand on her next, but while the spell seemed to help considerably, the heavy wool dress didn't dry completely.
The black robe flew through the darkness and into his hands. Flattening it on the ground, he gently placed her in the middle of it, wrapping the edges snugly around her before picking her up in his arms.
Pressing his lips to her brow, Draco began the trek back to the house, afraid that he would hurt her if he tried Apparation. She was not large by any means, but carrying her dead weight had his arms trembling by the time they reached her room. Placing her with care on the paillasse, he cast an Incendio at the hearth and brought the fire roaring back to life.
Granger's skin still felt clammy and held a sickly pallor that he found worrisome. Choosing her survival over propriety, he slipped his cloak from her shoulders and began unbuttoning her still wet dress. Draco attempted to preserve her modesty by averting his eyes as much as he could, making the process of undressing her rather difficult. But this was not the time to take advantage of seeing her silky smooth skin. He needed to warm her up.
Once she was completely disrobed, he swiftly covered her with a blanket. He then shrugged out of his own clothes and slipped under the blanket himself, wrapping his arms around her shivering form, hissing when he felt the chilled skin of her back press into his chest.
Burying his nose into her hair, he whispered promises to her that he intended to keep if she would only wake up.
Severus Snape had seen many unusual things in his lifetime, but nothing could have prepared him for the sight before him. Two of his former students, one of royal pureblood lineage and the other a Muggle-born sentenced to servitude, lay intimately intertwined. Both appeared to be nude.
As if feeling Snape's eyes upon him, Draco stirred and was startled to see his former teacher in the doorway.
"Your Highness," said Snape, greeting him with a bow. "I see you've met Miss Granger."
"You know Granger?"
"Clearly not as well as you, Master Draco," he replied dryly.
The young man's face darkened with displeasure at Snape's implication.
"Mr. Snape, please do keep in mind that things are not always as they appear. I assure you that nothing untoward has happened. Miss Granger is a lady, and I will not have you insinuating otherwise." Malfoy's tone was authoritative and serious.
Snape raised his eyebrows. He really had not expected that reaction. It seemed that the prince bore some affection for the girl. Had he been staying here all this time?
"Of course, sir. I apologize for my crudeness." His words were sincere.
Draco lowered his eyes in sadness. "She is ill. She fell into the lake last night, and she was deathly cold when I rescued her. I attempted to help her, but still, she does not wake."
Snape's expression changed to one of concern. "I shall Apparate to Spinner's End at once and gather some potions that may help. I will make haste, Your Highness."
With a pop, Snape arrived at his home and began gathering various bottles of potions that he thought might help. He was glancing over the phials one last time when his eyes landed on one made of blue glass. After hesitating for the briefest of moments, he carefully picked it up with a handkerchief. He had a sinking suspicion that he was going to need it.
Hurrying back to the Granger home, he was grateful to find that Draco had dressed and that Hermione was now in a plain white shift. Distraught, the prince looked up at him.
"She has become feverish."
The old tutor knelt on the stone floor beside the paillasse, pressing the back of his hand to the girl's forehead. She was quite warm indeed. With a wave of his wand, Severus lowered the flames in the fireplace and opened the window to allow in the cool autumn air. Pulling out one of the bottles, he instructed Draco to lift her head and shoulders so that he could pour the magic liquid down her throat.
Once finished, the prince lowered her head back down to the bed roll with a careful gentleness that his teacher had never seen in him before.
Draco interrupted his thoughts. "How did you find me?"
"There is a locator charm on your wand. It can only be traced when the wand is used." He looked at the prince. "You've been gone a long time without using magic, Master Draco. Your father has been beside himself with worry. Some have even begun to suggest that you might be dead."
The young man had the good grace to look somewhat ashamed.
"Have you been here all this time?" asked Snape.
"Yes," he confessed. "I had not intended on staying away so long, I just…" He swallowed hard, and his eyes drifted over to the girl still sleeping on the paillasse, whose color was now looking healthier than before. Draco reached out and brushed her cheek with his fingers. "I became very fascinated with the Muggle world."
Observing the look of tenderness and affection the prince was giving the girl, Snape knew that getting Draco to leave her would be a difficult task.
Severus cleared his throat. "Master Draco, can you please hand me the blue phial from my bag?"
"Of course." He left Hermione's side and moved over to the bag of potions in order to pull out the requested bottle. As soon as he touched it, the bottle began to glow. Snape caught Draco's brief look of surprise and anger before the Portkey whisked him away.
Hermione woke up feeling as if her lungs were being crushed. When she tried to take a breath, her chest rattled and caused her to cough until it ached.
A hand cradled her head, lifting it just long enough to pour a liquid into her mouth. It trickled down her throat and warmth spread throughout her chest.
"Welcome back, Miss Granger." The voice was deep and had a familiar rhythm.
With eyes still heavy with sleep, her gaze drifted to the gentleman sitting next to her cot.
"Rest, child. It seems that you've had quite an adventure."
"Malfoy?" Her question was filled with quiet hopefulness.
Snape looked at her queerly. "Malfoy?"
Hermione tried to describe him, but her body was exhausted from her ordeal. She was only able to force out a few words in between labored breaths. "Blond. Boy. Been helping. Sleeping in barn."
His face filled with understanding. "I'm sorry, my dear. Mr. Malfoy had to take his leave."
Her chest began to ache again, but for an entirely different reason. Mr. Snape had no magic potions to soothe this pain. She tried, in vain, to keep the devastation from showing in her eyes, but she did not have the strength to keep up the pretense. Hermione's face crumpled, and tears threatened to be shed.
Snape was stunned. The last time he had seen this girl cry was upon the death of her father. Now here he was again, and he was still unsure how to comfort her.
How had this happened? She referred to him as "Malfoy," yet seemed unaware of his station. To her, he was just a boy who had been helping with the farm. Clearly, he was also a boy for whom she had a great deal of affection, perhaps even a boy that she loved.
Young Master Draco appeared to have shared some of those feelings. He had been fiercely protective of her the night before, and Snape knew he was in for an earful when he saw him next.
Perhaps this was the answer to everything. That is, if this was indeed a love match.
Severus spent the rest of the day caring for Hermione, all the while working on a potential plan that might right a few wrongs.
"How dare you?!"
Snape had only just entered the castle when he had been summoned to the prince's rooms immediately. He had known that it would happen, but he hadn't thought that it would happen so fast.
"Your Highness." He bowed in respect to the younger man.
Draco wasn't having it. "Enough of that! I want to know why!"
"I was under the orders of the king."
"Yes, I know all about that. I've already had that lecture, and I'm bound to the castle until further notice." He paced back and forth like a caged animal. "I want to know why you didn't speak to me first before tricking me into coming back."
"Would you have left her?"
Draco stopped suddenly, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "At least tell me if she is well."
"Miss Granger was in good health when I saw her last."
The blond man sighed with relief and turned to his former teacher. "She was your student."
It was not a question, so Snape did not answer.
"That's how you knew her. That's why she knows so much about magic. She was your brilliant Muggle-born pupil."
"Yes," he confirmed matter-of-factly. "Hermione Granger was once under my tutelage."
"Hermione." Draco breathed her name as if it was the sweetest thing that he'd ever heard. "Why does she not use magic? Should she not be studying at Hogwarts?"
"It is not my place to answer those questions, sir."
"I have to see her again. Right away!"
"Your Highness, you cannot leave this castle again. You've tested your father's patience once already." Deciding to push the boundaries, Snape continued, "Would you risk his anger again for a Mudblood?"
The prince's pale skin flushed, and his face twisted into a snarl. "You will not besmirch her name with that foul word! She is ten times the person that you or my father could ever hope to be!"
The teacher smirked, which only made Draco's blood boil further. He rushed towards the older man and yelled in his face. "Why are you smiling?!"
"I apologize for the slur against Miss Granger, but I had to be sure, Your Highness."
"Sure of what?"
"That you care for her."
Draco paused in surprise and confusion, then narrowed his eyes. "Why does it matter to you how I feel about her?"
"Because, Master Draco, I have a plan that could potentially satisfy all parties involved. However, it is a great risk, especially to Miss Granger. She has had much heartache in her life, and I do not wish to cause her more."
While the prince didn't like to think of his Granger being at risk for more heartache, his curiosity was piqued.
"Tell me this idea, Mr. Snape. What can be done to bring us together?"
Hermione snapped the freshly laundered sheets into the air before allowing them to float down to the bed. The silver was polished, the hearth was crackling with a warm fire, and now the beds were made.
Daphne and Astoria were coming home for the Christmas holidays.
It had been nearly two months since Hermione had seen her bandit. It felt like a lifetime.
She wondered where he was on this snowy evening. Was he warm enough? Had he eaten? Hermione knew that she shouldn't worry. After all, he had made the choice to leave, and he clearly wanted nothing to do with her anymore, but she couldn't help herself.
He was not a very good bandit! What if he had been caught and jailed?
The sound of hoofbeats coming up the drive startled her from her thoughts. Sighing, she pushed her musings aside. Her sisters were home.
Hermione greeted them at the door, and as usual, her stepmother tossed her cloak into her arms without so much as looking at her. Daphne followed her mother's example, but gave her stepsister a haughty look out of the corner of her eye. Astoria was the only one to grace her with her full attention.
"Hello, Hermione." Smiling, she gently handed over her cloak.
"Welcome home, Astoria," she said, as she smiled back appreciatively.
With the girls home, Hermione's workload grew considerably, but she was grateful for the distraction. The days went by more quickly, and she had less time to think of Malfoy.
However, it did sting whenever she heard her stepsisters talking animatedly with their mother about the excitement of school. She couldn't help but feel envious. They were experiencing the joy of learning about magic. How wonderful it must be to attend a school like that: a whole school just filled with it.
What hurt even more was the knowledge that, had she been able to realize her full potential as a witch, then maybe her bandit would not have deemed her unworthy. Of course, her logic piped in to remind her that had she been away at school, she would never have met him in the first place.
One evening, a flurry of excitement came over the house as a result of an unexpected owl post delivery.
"Oh, Mummy!" Daphne happily shrieked. "A ball! There's going to be a royal ball! And we are invited!"
"My darling, let me see!" Daphne handed over the invitation, and Rodmilla read it aloud. "His Majesty, King Lucius of Malfoy, cordially invites you to the New Year's Eve Ball to be held in honor of his son, Prince Draco."
Astoria jumped and danced in the middle of the drawing room. "I got one, too!"
Rodmilla's eyes filled with pleasure at the prospect of her girls being invited to a royal ball. There would be many rich and eligible young men in need of comely brides in attendance. Daphne picked up on her mother's thoughts.
"There was a rumor going around school that the king is pushing for his son to marry. Perhaps that is the purpose of this ball: to find the prince a wife."
Their mother gave a scheming grin. "Well, then I suppose that you and Astoria should put your best assets forward and do your best to secure a dance with him. I'd rather fancy a royal wedding."
They giggled and put their heads together, paying no attention to the girl standing in the doorway.
Hermione's mind was racing. King Lucius of Malfoy? Malfoy? That was her bandit's name. That made no sense. Had he given her a false name?
Then the next part hit her, and she felt queasy. Draco was Latin for dragon. Draco was Mr. Snape's missing student with "family obligations." He had gone missing the same day that she'd met the bandit, a boy who had suddenly had to leave because there were "things to which he had to attend."
Oh no! Had her bandit been the prince?
Hermione covered her mouth with her hand, and her eyes widened in horror at the thought. If he was the prince, she had made him sleep in a barn and chop wood! And he had kissed her!
She blushed with shame.
Then her embarrassment turned to annoyance. If he was a prince, then he had lied to her and conned her into kissing him. All this time she had been worrying about him, and he was enjoying a regal, down-covered life.
Maybe he was a better bandit than she had thought. He had swindled her, after all.
He had also callously stolen her heart.
The Christmas holiday flew by, and before Hermione knew it, the evening of the ball was upon them. The day had been exhausting for her, as she'd had to prepare baths for both of her stepsisters and her stepmother, which mean a lot of time hauling water in and out of the house.
Daphne was the last to require a bath, and even though Hermione's back ached and her fingers were sore, she managed to set one up for her.
Her stepsister seemed less than happy, however, and wrinkled her nose in distaste at the bath. "You forgot the lavender!"
"There is no lavender, Daphne." It was the truth. The bottle that had once held the dried lavender flowers was now sitting empty on her bureau.
"There was plenty when I left for school! What did you do with it?!" She was squealing like a pig.
"I swear, I didn't take it!" Hermione's protests went unheard.
"You did! I don't know why a stupid Mudblood like you would need it, though. You probably took it out of spite!"
Rodmilla stormed into the room. "What on Earth is going on in here? I can hear you all the way from downstairs."
Daphne pointed a finger at Hermione. "She stole my dried lavender flowers! They were here when I left for Hogwarts, and now they're gone!"
Hermione's stepmother looked at her coldly. "Go to your room, Hermione. I don't have time to deal with you now, but you will be punished later."
Hermione knew what punishment would mean and shuddered at the thought.
"Please, Stepmother, I didn't-"
Rodmilla grabbed her arm tightly and dragged her from the room and down the stairs. When they reached the servant's quarters, Hermione was shoved inside her room so hard that she fell onto her hands and knees.
Her stepmother gave her a glare that sent chills down her spine. "I want you to stay in this room while we are gone and think about what I'm going to do to you when I get back."
With that, the door was shut and locked from the outside.
Hermione crawled to her straw bed and cried, trembling in fear at what awaited her later that night.
Severus Snape hid in the shadows and watched as the carriage carrying the Greengrass witches pulled away from the house. He waited until they were out of sight before making his way inside, through the kitchen, and stopping at the door of the room where he knew Hermione slept. Stopping short at the latch, he noticed that it had been barred from the outside.
Furrowing his brow, he performed a quick spell and opened the door.
Hermione scrambled from her paillasse and stood upright, her face still damp with tears.
"Mr. Snape?" she asked confusedly.
"Miss Granger," he greeted, somewhat disturbed by the evidence that she had been crying. "Are you well?"
Still perplexed, she nodded. "Yes, I… what are you doing here?"
Pulling an envelope from his pocket, he handed it to her. "I am here on the orders of His Royal Highness, Prince Draco of Malfoy, who requested that I personally hand-deliver this invitation."
Hermione opened her mouth, but she was at a loss for words and settled for gaping.
"You see," Snape continued, "all witches of a certain age were invited to attend tonight. An invitation had been sent to you, but judging by your surprise, you did not receive it."
She shook her head. He had suspected as much. Knowing that Rodmilla would withhold the invitation from her, Snape had convinced Draco that he needed to deliver one to her by hand.
Hermione stared down at the envelope, on which her name was written in elegant lettering. "How? I am Muggle-born and have not properly learned magic."
"It does not matter. The invitations were all addressed by a spell. The only stipulations were that the recipients were female, between the ages of 15 and 22, and of magical blood."
Taking in what her former teacher was saying, Hermione quickly put two and two together. "So, it is true? The purpose of this ball is to find the prince a wife?"
Not one to mince words, Snape replied bluntly, "Yes. As each young lady walks through the entrance to the ball, a spell is placed over her. Once the prince touches the hand of his true match, the magic will let him know." He stopped to clear his throat. "He has high hopes for you, so perhaps you should stop dawdling and get ready."
Hermione looked down at her clothes fretfully. "I have nothing to wear!"
"Hmm… I suppose a transfiguration will have to do." Pulling his wand from his pocket, he performed a silent spell. Hermione had expected her dress to change, but it did not. Instead, a wooden box floated into his hands. Tapping the lid, the box snapped open.
Nestled inside was something that she had not seen in six years. It was her beautiful vine wand.
"I'm afraid I know nothing of ladies' fashion, so I shall have to leave this to you. I'm sure you can do it. After all, you are a witch."
Hesitantly, she reached forward and took the slim wooden wand from the box, magic flowing through her veins at its touch. It took a few tries, but with her natural talent and the years she'd spent studying texts, she finally managed to transform her appearance.
Her dress changed from drab grey wool to a silvery blue silk. The neckline was modest, but showed a bit of shoulder. Her waist cinched into a bodice that flared into a full skirt embroidered with the tiniest of flowers.
Her hair tightened into smooth curls that were pulled back by a silver comb in the shape of a butterfly.
Snape was never one to outwardly show his sentiments, but he could not deny that she had transformed into a lovely young witch. Master Draco had chosen well.
Hermione looked at him expectantly. Instead of telling her she looked beautiful, he complimented her indirectly by saying, "Prince Draco will be pleased."
Smiling, she walked out the door with her former tutor and forgot about all the nastiness that the day had wrought. No longer was she worried about her stepmother's threats. Instead, Hermione was filled with contentment at having used her magic for the first time in years and hopefulness at the prospect of seeing her bandit-turned-prince once more.
The ball was already in full swing when Hermione walked through the arched doorway with Mr. Snape, who was acting as her chaperone. When the spell was cast upon her, she shivered at the magic coursing through her. The ballroom was decorated opulently in rich greens and silvers. The giant room was octagonal with fir trees in each corner that reached from floor to ceiling. Overhead, several shiny chandeliers floated, swirling in time with the dancers below.
They made their way to the receiving line and Hermione's stomach fluttered with nerves. What if this was the wrong thing to do? What if she wasn't his match? If she was his match, what would his father say?
She watched as wizards and witches decked out in all their finery paid their respects to the king and queen. It was clear where her bandit had gotten his good looks. Both of his parents sported the same flaxen hair that reminded her of corn silk. His father was tall and imposing, holding himself with an air of importance. His mother's features were delicate, her eyes an icy blue. Both greeted their guests politely, but they seemed disinterested for the most part.
Their gazes became more discerning whenever it was made clear that a young witch was unattached. Hermione could not fully see Draco, for he was on the far end of the receiving line, but whenever his hand came in touch with a lady's, his parents would tense. When it became clear that the girl was not the one, they would almost wilt in disappointment.
Had she not been so nervous, she would have laughed.
With one last deep breath, she squared her shoulders and allowed her former teacher to lead her before the magical royal family for the first time. Recalling her childhood lessons in propriety, Hermione curtseyed deeply before the king and queen.
"Please rise, my child," the queen softly commanded. Hermione rose gracefully, but kept her eyes lowered.
In contrast to his wife's voice, the king's was loud and booming. "Mr. Snape, please introduce us to your charge."
"Your Majesty, may I present Miss Hermione Granger. She is a former student of mine."
"Ah, I see. Is she as bright as she is pretty?"
"Quite, sir. Perhaps the brightest pupil I've ever tutored." Snape smiled indulgently. "Prince Draco excluded, of course."
"Now, Mr. Snape," Draco interrupted, and her eyes snapped to his whilst her stomach did somersaults. He held her gaze as he continued to speak to their teacher. "I do believe you're being too kind. I'm sure Miss Granger is much smarter than I."
He reached his right hand out to her. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure."
It felt as though the room were slipping away while everyone held their collective breaths, watching as her hand made its way into his. The skin of her palm touched his, and a small spark crackled between them. Hermione gasped in surprise and squeaked out, "Oh!"
The young prince grinned. "May I have this dance?"
Without waiting for a formal answer, Draco pulled her to the dance floor, ignoring the rest of the receiving line. He paid no attention to the eyes of the crowd or of his parents.
He was also most certainly unaware of a particular gaze that looked upon the scene with the greatest displeasure.
Before she could even comprehend what had happened, he was twirling her around the ballroom in an elegant waltz, smiling at her all the while.
"I can't believe you're here! I knew it would be you."
They glided round and round. Hermione felt lightheaded, not only because of the dizzying dance, but because her senses had been overwhelmed. It was only a few hours ago that she had been hauling buckets of water into the house to fill baths. Now she was at a fancy ball in the arms of a prince!
She stumbled, and Draco caught her around the waist.
"Are you well?" He looked concerned.
"Yes, I…" She smiled embarrassedly. "It has been a long day, and I'm afraid that I am not used to so much dancing."
He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. "Perhaps you need some air. Come with me."
Draco led her from the floor and out onto a large, heat-charmed balcony, snagging a glass of water from one of the many floating serving trays along the way.
Outside, the music sounded tinny and far away. Snow covered the grounds, cushioning the noise even further. He handed her the water. Taking it with her left hand, she sipped it and looked at him questioningly over the rim of the glass as though she was working out a problem in her mind. Clearly, the conclusion to which she came was unpleasant, because suddenly, without warning, she smacked him hard on the shoulder with her free hand.
"You lied to me!"
"Ow!" Draco rubbed his shoulder and scowled at her. "Why are you always so violent? You're the only girl here who would have the audacity to strike me."
"Well, perhaps you need a good whipping every once in a while. It's not nice to go around lying to girls." She placed the glass on a ledge so that she could cross her arms and fully express her anger.
"I had to lie! One does not tell the truth whilst running away. It would defeat the purpose!" He huffed in annoyance. "Besides, you weren't exactly forthcoming yourself."
At that, the tension melted from her body, and her arms slipped down to hug herself around her middle. "I had no choice. I wanted to tell you the truth. I have been forbidden to speak of it for a very long time."
"Forbidden?" Draco didn't like the sound of that at all.
"Yes. I also have to tell you that, though I have magic, I am afraid my training is lacking." Hermione looked up at him, anxiety visible in her eyes. "Does that… does that matter?"
Gazing at her tenderly, he shook his head. "It does not matter at all. I can have Snape teach you whatever your heart desires." He chewed on his lip. "As for your having magic, it will make things a bit easier with Father, but honestly, I wanted to marry you even when I thought you were a Muggle."
"Marry?" she squeaked.
He shrugged. "If you'll have me."
"What about my blood status? Your father will never approve!"
Draco smirked. "The magic approved when we touched earlier. Father has no say in the matter. We have Mr. Snape to thank for that."
"Oh." She gave him a girlish smile and twisted her fingers together nervously.
He stared at her expectantly for a long time. "Hermione?"
His cheeks warmed, and he cleared his throat. "So… will you? Marry me?"
"OH!" Her eyes went wide. "Yes! Of course!"
He swooped in and gathered her in his arms, hugging her tightly before leaning in for a sweet kiss. His lips left her mouth and trailed over her cheek. Kissing her just below her ear, Draco felt her shiver in delight.
"You called me by my name," she whispered.
Pulling back but keeping her in his grasp, he looked her in the eye. "Yes. Hermione. I hear that it is Greek for 'earthly.' I must say that, in this environment, that does not quite fit."
"Draco is Latin for dragon. I am uncertain your name suits you either."
"Well, if need be, we can always go back to life as a bandit and a cinder girl." He gently bumped her nose with his.
"I don't know. I think I may be ready for a new adventure." Hermione grinned up at him, and he returned her smile.
"Then a new adventure you shall have." Kissing her again with much more fervor, he tickled her lips with the tip of his tongue. Hermione opened her mouth and teased back, and he soon found that her passionate personality was evident in her kissing as well.
Reluctantly, Draco pulled back and took in her swollen lips and flushed face. "I must go talk to my father." Merlin, she was beautiful. "But first, one more kiss for luck." He brought his lips to hers yet again.
Several minutes and kisses later, he finally went to find his father.
Looking like a little boy bouncing away, he said, "Do not go anywhere. I shall be right back."
Nodding at him, Hermione promised that she would stay put. Once he was out of sight, she placed her cool hands on her reddened cheeks and giggled. She had thought that she would never be happy again, but now she felt ready to burst with joy.
She heard steps behind her and turned with a grin, expecting to see her prince. Unfortunately, she was very wrong.
"You never did learn to listen to your elders."
When Draco returned moments later, all he found was a wand made of vine wood.
Over the years, Hermione had been made to do many things that she found disagreeable. She had thought it unpleasant to be forced to do things over which she had no say.
However, she had never truly understood what it was like to lose her free will until she had been put under an Imperius Curse. Her body moved like a puppet on a string, while her mind fought in vain against it. It was terrifying knowing that, if her stepmother chose, she could drown herself in a lake or walk right off a cliff.
On her way out of the castle, she smiled at people as she passed. All the while, her thoughts were screaming for Draco or Mr. Snape or anyone at all to please help.
Please stop! Please stop!
Rodmilla escorted her just outside the palace gates before Apparating them straight into the sitting room of the Granger home. In all the years that Hermione had known her, her stepmother had never tempted fate by magically popping into a Muggle area. Rodmilla's anger in that moment was deep and dangerous.
Hermione was truly frightened.
"You disgusting little wretch!" Her stepmother waved her wand, sending Hermione flying across the room. She slammed into an ornate mirror hanging on the opposite wall, then fell to the floor as shards of glass showered all around her.
The fragments of glass were painfully embedded in her hands, and when she looked down at the blood dripping from her fingers onto her dress, she vaguely noted that her beautiful gown had transformed back into her working clothes.
Before she was able to fully comprehend what was happening, Hermione whooshed through the air again and into another wall, her head colliding painfully with the wall. Dazed, she crumpled into a heap on the floor.
"You're nothing but a dirty animal! You taint everything, and now you're trying to worm your way into wizarding royalty?!" Rodmilla laughed madly. "Look at you. Filthy Mudblood. You are a waste of space."
She lifted her wand. "Crucio!"
Hermione's body exploded in pain. She tried to cry out, but the terror and pain suppressed it, and she was unable to make even a small squeak.
Her stepmother let up on the spell, only to repeat it again, laughing maniacally all the while.
Hermione wanted to escape, but she physically could not. Instead, she began to escape mentally. Her body continued to writhe and twitch, but her thoughts ran to her father and how he had used to read to her as a child. She thought of Harry and their childish pranks on Mr. Snape. She even had fond memories of her old tutor and how she had once loved to exasperate him.
Then there was her bandit. Her Malfoy. He had made her laugh and think and feel like no other person had ever done before. Hermione thought of how he could look at her and make her feel beautiful even when she was covered in soot and wearing the shabbiest of clothes. She thought of his smile and how it made her belly flip-flop, and she remembered the tingle of his lips upon hers. He made her cheeks blush and her heart swell.
Her chest ached when she realized that she would probably never see him again. She was going to die.
Suddenly, Rodmilla stopped. Hermione's body continued to spasm, and she felt herself lifted into the air before everything went dark.
"Crooks?" she whispered. A tiny, rough tongue licked at her fingers. In the distance, she could hear muffled voices, but she was uncertain to whom they belonged. She just wanted to sleep.
A furry head butted into hers. Cracking open her eyes, she saw a sliver of light peeking underneath a door. Where was she? Clarity slowly began to return, and she became aware that she was in a closet.
Her body ached all over and her head throbbed, but she put all of her strength into focusing on the voices outside.
One in particular rang out very clearly. "Where is she?!"
Malfoy! He was here! He was just outside that door. She had to get up. She had to get out of here.
"Malfoy!" she tried to call out, but her voice was raw from the strain of attempted screams, and it came out as barely a whisper.
Slowly, she pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, her muscles shaking with the effort.
Get up, get up, get up…
Crookshanks meowed his encouragement, and she shakily gripped the doorframe and pulled herself to her feet. She tried banging on the door, but it seemed that no one could hear her. It appeared that her stepmother had put some sort of charm on the door to prevent sound from trickling out.
Hermione could only think of one more thing to try. She wasn't sure if she had the power to do it, but she had to do something! Gathering all of her strength, she focused on her magic. Waving her hand in front of the door, she spoke the incantation.
She tried again, her voice a little louder.
The door knob rattled that time. Closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, Hermione cleared her mind and allowed her magic to take over completely.
The closet door splintered into a million pieces.
Draco did not know what to expect as he made his way back to the farm that he had called home for a short time. His heart hammered with fear at what he might find. The royal family had been alerted immediately when the palace wards had detected the use of an Unforgivable Curse.
Worried about having left Granger alone, he had rushed back outside, only to find her gone. Upon his discovery, he had sought out Mr. Snape, who had given him a brief background on Rodmilla Greengrass and his fear that she had gone mad.
Her stepmother, a woman who was supposed to stand in place of her mother and take care of her, seemed intent only on hurting her. She had kept Hermione from her education, forced her into servitude, and treated her poorly.
The idea of someone doing this to his Granger, his bright and beautiful girl, infuriated him. Along with Snape and a few members of the royal guard, he busted into the home and demanded to know Hermione's whereabouts.
The woman bowed deeply and stumbled over her words at his sudden intrusion. "Y-your Highness! What an unexpected surprise!"
"Where is she?!"
"I am sorry, Your Highness, I know not of whom you speak." Her lies slipped from her tongue with great ease.
"I think you do know, witch," he spat. "Miss Hermione Granger. Where can I find her?"
"The servant girl, Your Highness? I am afraid I dismissed her earlier this evening. She is a thief."
Draco lifted his eyebrows at that. "I see. And pray tell, what did she steal?"
"Lavender, Your Highness."
The Prince didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the irony. He knew what had happened to the missing lavender, as he had been the one to steal it for Granger's bath. It hurt him to think that she might have been punished for his misdeed.
Without warning, a closet door shattered, sending splinters of wood flying in all directions. Draco ducked as the palace guards threw up a shielding spell, keeping the stray bits from hitting them all. When he stood and looked over at where the door had once been, he saw Hermione standing there.
She looking battered and bruised; blood stained her hands and trickled down the side of her face. She seemed unsteady, and Draco rushed toward her as her knees gave way, managing to catch her before she hit the floor.
"Malfoy," she whispered before succumbing to unconsciousness, her body still twitching under his fingers.
The realization of what had happened sickened him. He looked at Rodmilla in horror. "You used the Cruciatus Curse on her?!"
"She's not fit to lick your boots, Your Highness! She's nothing but a filthy Mud-"
Snape cut her off with a silencing spell. "That's enough of that."
Draco looked at Hermione's pale face. Gently, he placed her on a nearby chaise before turning back to her stepmother, fury burning in his eyes. "How dare you?! The only one here not fit to possess magic is you," he growled between gritted teeth. The room crackled with his magic. "You are a poor excuse for a witch. I should curse you and see how you like it." Trembling with anger, he ordered her onto her knees and pointed his wand at her.
A firm but gentle hand gripped his shoulder. "Miss Granger would not want this, Your Highness," his old tutor said quietly. Draco held his position for a moment longer before releasing a shaky breath. He lowered his wand and bowed his head. Mr. Snape was right. No matter how poorly this woman had treated her, Hermione would not have approved of such a harsh retaliation.
The prince looked at Rodmilla with an icy glare. "You have been spared for the moment. However, make no mistake. You will be punished."
Draco looked over at the guards. "Take her wand away, and throw her in the palace dungeons until I can think of a suitable form of retribution."
With that, he lifted Hermione into his arms and carried her out of the house and back to the palace.
Hermione was dreaming. She was on a warm, fluffy cloud, floating in the sky without a worry in the world. Who knew that clouds were so cozy?
Sighing, she burrowed further into the softness. Beside her ear, she could hear the distinct sound of purring.
"Crookshanks! You always wake me from the best dreams."
Her eyes popped open, but the softness didn't go away. She was on a large, down-covered bed, surrounded by light, flowing curtains that draped down from the canopy. Her eyes traveled around the room. Everything was beautiful and expensive. It was all light blues and ivories with silver accents.
Was she dead? Was this heaven?
When she turned her head to the right, she saw the most beautiful sight of all. Sitting in a chair, with his neck at an awkward angle, was a sleeping prince snoring softly.
Crookshanks pawed the pillow next to her before getting up for a luxurious stretch. He stepped over her and leapt into Malfoy's lap, startling him awake.
Hermione giggled slightly, and Draco's gaze snapped toward her.
"You're awake!" He grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles. "How do you feel?"
"Quite well, I think." She squeezed his fingers. "Where are we?"
"Malfoy Palace, m'lady." He stroked the palm of her hand with his thumb and smiled.
Suddenly, she sat up with a gasp.
Alarmed, Draco asked, "Hermione? What is it?"
"Bessie! How long have I been sleeping? She needs to be milked!"
He chuckled in relief and amusement. "Bessie is fine, my darling. She's living the life of a true lady cow, along with the rest of the royal livestock."
"Oh," she said, exhaling as she fell back into the feathery pillows. "What of my stepmother?"
A dark look passed over Malfoy's eyes, and Hermione became worried that he had done something rash. Her troubled thoughts must have been evident, for his face changed into a more pleasant expression.
"Do not fret, love. I have not maimed or killed her, despite my great desire to do so." He looked at her solemnly. "Why did you not tell me of her despicable behavior?"
Hermione looked away in embarrassment. "I did not think it mattered. I did not think that there was anything that could be done."
Pulling her hand towards him again, Draco pressed his lips to the inside of her wrist. "Something can be done, and it will be. She will be dealt with."
Once again, Granger looked unsettled and bit her lip. Her prince smiled and reassured her. "She will not be dealt with in a manner of which you would not approve."
Looking at him with watery eyes, she sighed and tried to return his smile, but her face crumpled, and she began to cry. They were tears of relief and joy, the kind that cleared the soul.
Draco moved from his chair and sat on the bed, leaning over her so that he could wipe the wetness from her cheeks. "What is it, Hermione? What has upset you so?"
With a sniffle, Hermione laughed. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I have never been happier." Placing her hands on each side of his face, she pulled him down to kiss him soundly.
The prince gazed at her with all the love in his heart shining through his eyes.
There were three things that Rodmilla Greengrass valued above all else: her magic, her looks, and great wealth. In the end, it was decided that she should be stripped of all three.
First, she was given a potion that transformed one's outer appearance to reflect his or her true nature. Not surprisingly, upon consumption, Rodmilla turned into a hideous old hag. Her wand was confiscated and snapped in half; she was forever forbidden to use magic in any capacity. To further enforce this, she was banished to a creaky old cottage in the deepest, darkest forest, which was enchanted to keep her from using even wandless magic. If she so much as attempted to concoct a potion, the wards would detect it, and the royal guards would be alerted.
Her daughter, Daphne, was a spoiled and rude young lady. However, she had not committed any offense beyond that. The prince was concerned that she would follow in her mother's footsteps, but his bride-to-be felt that her mother was exactly why she would not be a problem. Rodmilla's punishment was an example that Daphne would not want to follow. It would be discovered later that Daphne had actually fallen in love with a half-blood boy. In the absence of her mother's watchful eye, she was free to marry him.
In contrast, Astoria had always been kind to her stepsister. To show her appreciation, Hermione made her one of her ladies-in-waiting, a highly coveted position. The two became close and were able to act like real sisters, something they had not been allowed to do as children. One evening, Astoria told Hermione of a red-headed boy to whom she had formed an attachment. He was the brother-in-law of Hermione's childhood friend, Harry Potter, and a couple of years older than she. Pleased with the match, Hermione bequeathed her family home and land to Astoria as a dowry.
Of course, the match most interesting to the royal court was that of the young prince and his Muggle-born bride. The wedding was a monumental event in the wizarding world, sparking a new acceptance of Muggle-borns into society. Of course, some did not change their ideals, continuing to speak ill of Muggles and their magical offspring, but not in polite company and never in the presence of the prince.
Princess Hermione was mostly well-liked by the public. She was seen as a brilliant and powerful witch, but she was also known to be kind-hearted, with an understanding of the lower classes. She had great respect for those who toiled for their livelihoods, from the most powerful of wizards to the lowliest of house elves. Hard work was hard work, regardless of one's station at birth.
Hermione also had a great love of learning and encouraged education in the kingdom. As a wedding gift, Draco had given her a library full of more books than she could ever hope to read; he promised that Mr. Snape would be on hand to tutor her for as long as she wished.
Even though neither had had the opportunity to attend, they also made trips to Hogwarts once or twice a year to hand out accolades to the students.
Their life together was long and prosperous. Things were not always easy. There were arguments aplenty and moments of heartbreak.
But, for the most part, they lived happily ever after.
I have so much to say about this story, so forgive me if I get long-winded. First of all, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to namelessamelie for doing a quick beta and helping me clean up my grammar errors. Her assistance was invaluable.
Also, much love to the Dramione Couples Remix Fest mods for running such a great fest and doubly thanks for bestowing this story with a Mod's Choice Award for the first round! I'm also thankful to all the lovely comments and encouragement I received at the Remix community.
I initially was going to choose another couple that I was more familiar with via another fandom. However, I decided that I wanted to do something totally different. I have a (not so) secret love of alternate universe fanfics and this presented me with the opportunity to write one.
When I chose Cinderella and Prince Charming as my couple, the first thing I decided was I wanted it to feel like a fairy tale. So, I opted to write it in a slightly more stilted and formal way. It was actually very exhausting trying to avoid modern phrases. You all have no idea how much I use the word "okay." Lol.
The other thing I decided was Draco was not going to be a typical Prince Charming. I wanted him to have his own worries and to have an active role in the story and not just show up as Hermione's rescuer at the end.
I was heavily influenced by the film Ever After. If you've seen the film, you probably caught the little nods throughout the story (the stepmother's name is Rodmilla, the younger sister is not so cruel, a father encouraging his daughter to be educated, etc.).
There are even a few winks at the Disney version of Cinderella. Astoria and Daphne happen to share the initials of the evil stepsisters in that film (Anastasia and Drizella), Hermione's dress is a silvery blue, and she gets help from furry friends (in this case, her beloved Crookshanks).
Alternate universe stories can be tricky because while the setting has changed, the characters still have to be recognizable. I hope that I managed to achieve that, even if just a little.
I am more proud of this story than anything else I've ever written. I hope you enjoyed it, too. :)