Author's Note: I own no person, no place, no thing – except the plot! If you recognize it, it probably belongs to Ms. Rowling or some other awesome super-human.
Chapter 32 Swept Away
Draco shook his head in disgust as he watched the arrogant prick wade out into the surf, despite his wife's protests. "Look, girl, the bastard's completely disregarding the warnings and his wife. He's just asking to get bitten on the arse by a shark, or worse."
"What was that, darling?" Hermione asked absently. Draco looked over to see that she was buried in her newest Holmes and Russell detective adventure that he'd picked up for her shortly after Christmas. He was fairly certain she'd already read it at least twice, and had prattled on extensively to him about the author's depictions of 1920's India as seen through the eyes of a young British feminist. Hermione's travel-lust was only increasing with every book she read. Fortunately for him, they were both young and healthy and had long lives ahead of them to quench her lust for adventure.
Just as Draco's mind started to wander in the decidedly pleasing direction of the topic of lust, Hermione looked up at him, and quirked her eyebrow. Draco noted that her nose was a tiny bit sun-burnt from their morning in the outdoor market. They'd had a fantastic lunch at a café that overlooked the sea – well, it had been fantastic until that prick had shown up with his wife. Draco didn't know if the man was drunk or if he was naturally just a brash, vulgar person, but the wanker had his waitress in tears before they'd gotten their meals.
The arsehole almost deserved to get zapped by a man-o-war or dragged away by the massive waves for casually disregarding the warnings now. No one else was in the water, and people were packing their bags and leaving the beach in droves as the ocean churned itself into a fury. The man's wife was begging him to leave off and return to her so they could get back for some appointment they had.
That reminded Draco that he wanted to pop up into the hotel's lobby and speak to the concierge about the club he'd mentioned. It had sounded like the perfect sort of location for an evening meal and another bloody attempt at a marriage proposal. He realized belatedly that Hermione was still gazing at him with her eyebrow cocked, waiting for a response, and shook his head quickly.
"Sorry, it was nothing really, love. I was just passing judgment on that idiot in the water with a death wish. Look, I'm going to run up to the hotel to talk to the concierge about dinner reservations, do you need anything from the room?" Draco asked as he carefully stuffed his feet back into his trainers and tugged his shirt on. His stitched foot wasn't particularly happy about the sandy beach, but Hermione had helped him wrap it securely earlier to keep any contaminants away from his healing injury. It was a pain in the arse to keep his foot clean and bandaged when they were always on the bloody move, especially in this seaside resort area they'd chosen to spend their last days of their holiday in. Every time his foot twinged, though, Draco was reminded of what had led him to cut his foot, and he couldn't find it in himself to regret the inconvenience.
He leaned in to press a lingering kiss against Hermione's bare shoulder even as she shook her head in the negative and turned her eyes back towards her book. Hermione's happy hum of approval and murmur of, "love you," sent him on his way to their hotel. With only two days left until they returned to the U.K., he was running out of time, and he didn't want to feel any more pressure than he'd already put on himself. Tonight had to be the night. Like Blaise had said, he had to stop being a pussy and just do it.
After a brief conversation with the concierge and a firm discussion with himself, Draco steeled his spine and returned to the beach to collect his lovely soon-to-be fiancée. It had barely been an hour since he'd left Hermione, so he hadn't expected anything to have changed about her, especially since she had one of her King novels, but it was an entirely different Hermione, and an entirely different beach scene he returned to.
Tears streaming down her face, Hermione held the wailing wife of the arrogant prick who'd disregarded the dangerous waves and his wife's pleas.
He was gone.
Shock, immediately followed by profound guilt, swamped Draco. The man had been behaving like an arse, no doubt, but he hadn't deserved to die. Draco sent up a fervent prayer that the man would be found, but judging by the state of the low churning clouds and the frothing anger of the incoming waves, chances were more likely that he was halfway to Africa.
Patrol boats were searching the waters as far as a kilometer offshore in several different directions, and a uniformed officer was attempting to ask the traumatized woman details she wasn't capable of answering.
Draco caught Hermione's eye, and she nodded her head towards the officer. Draco nodded in affirmation, and stepped in to help translate, as it became clear that the officer only spoke Italian and the woman only spoke English. With a little gentle prodding, Hermione was able to encourage the woman to give Draco and the officer access to her beach bag, which had her husband's identification inside. As the sun set over the churning, raging sea, the uniformed man and Draco worked through the woman's muffled cries to decipher the answers to the variety of questions needed by the local authorizes. Hermione, natural care-taker that she always had been, rocked the woman in her arms as her wails turned into hair-raising howls. She patted the woman's back even as she rubbed the salt tracks away from her own cheeks as the howls broke off into keening sobs.
Once the officer had what he needed, Draco and Hermione helped the woman make a couple of calls back to the States to break the news of the man's disappearance and to get assistance from their family members.
It was very late by the time they were free from the nightmare on the beach. They stumbled to their room, far too late for dinner, and far too grief-stricken and traumatized to consider anything but the solace of each other's arms. Draco crashed his lips against Hermione's even as their bodies crashed against each other, desperate to reassure each other that they were both, indeed, still alive. They dropped into their bed and tangled their limbs together as the wind and rain howled outside their windows. The spring storm that had closed the beach and ripped the under-current of the ocean had finally met the shoreline, and beat against the windows furiously as Draco clutched Hermione's body on top of him. She tilted her head back and wailed as her orgasm ripped through her, then collapsed bonelessly on top of Draco as he surged inside of her, crushed her to him, and let go in a rush of heat that knocked him out almost immediately.
Draco dreamed of drowning. The waves beat at him and tried to drag him down, and he was helpless to fight against the utter endless eternity of them. Powerless; he was powerless to lift himself, to free his limbs...and they were locking up...his muscles were seizing. His lungs burned; his chest was heavy as if a great weight was pressing on it. His face went under, and he drew a mouthful into his throat and choked. Salt water spluttered out of him, but salt water was all around him, dragging at him and burning his eyes and his nose and the cracks at the corners of his lips…
Why was he even in the ocean? He would never be so foolish as to have set foot in the water with the raging state it was in. Had he fallen in? Had some accident happened?
Where was he?
Another wave swamped him and dragged him completely under, and he lost his fight against the pull of the tide.
Oh, God, where the hell was Hermione?
Draco had never felt so helpless in his life. Not as a child being abused by his nutcase father, not as a slave to Voldemort, not when he'd been tied up and tortured. Even as a wandless, magic-less Muggle, he'd had Hermione at his back; and they were so strong together. They could do anything together. She meant the world to him; she was the only real, tangible valuable thing in his life. There was no way he would have walked away from her intentionally and gotten himself into this wretched, shit situation, so it must have been some kind of terrible accident.
Bugger and fuck-all. Hermione.
Draco's lungs ached as the current pulled him further under, and regret burst through him in sharp heaves. He lurched in spasms of horror and life-leaving disgust as agony ripped through him. He clenched his jaw and screwed his eyes shut hard and shouted mentally, 'NO! I'm sorry! Five minutes! Fuck it, thirty seconds! God, please! Hermione!'
Draco, in his infinite pessimism, had considered what would have happened if that fucker Sutton had hurt or even killed Hermione months before when he'd attacked her in the park.
Not even a question. Life just wasn't worth living without her.
The Malfoy fortune wasn't worth shit with as tainted as their reputation was – hell, it was the primary reason why he was so bloody nervous about asking Hermione to marry him. In his short life, he'd seen too much, and been put through too much hardship, to think that money or social standing could secure him any kind of happiness. Going through the war, and coming out, not as a hero, but some sort of naughty rich boy with a slap on the wrist and a boot in his arse, had been expected, but still disappointing.
Even now, as well settled with their friends as they were, if something happened to Hermione, and she died, Draco would happily find himself a tall cliff and jump off of it. He wouldn't waste any time about it either, he'd just write a note, signing everything they owned over to Ginny and Jamie, and be done with it.
But he'd never honestly considered what would happen to Hermione if something happened to him. Not that he considered himself invincible, but because he just bloody refused to leave her side. He was so damned careful to be aware of their surroundings that he thought he was capable of responding to any kind of attack on them. But for fuck's sake, it never occurred to him that an accident could take him from her. And here he was, getting sucked to the bottom of the fucking ocean, with no idea how he'd gotten there, and she was nowhere around, and he'd never just…fucking told her that he wanted to marry her. All she knew, and all she would ever know, was that awkward, bullshit fight they'd had, and that he'd had a ring that he'd never given her.
Lacking oxygen sucked, and being swamped with an ocean of regret sucked even more. Draco's heart gave out with a sickening thunk as the weight of the water slammed him into the seabed. Grasses and weeds tangled across his arms and neck, and he clawed at his face in an attempt to push the masses away so that he could open his eyes one last time before he died.
What would she do without him? Hermione wasn't the type to suicide over a lost love, no matter how much she adored him. She felt so much responsibility for her parents that she'd broken with her magic, and she spent her Sundays in penance at their church over her role in the war. As much as Hermione claimed to love playing her violin, and as therapeutic as the routine of socialization and healthy companionships had been for them both, Draco knew beyond a doubt that Hermione spent so much time prostrate before God because of her overwhelming guilt over her time as a soldier. She felt pain over every blade of grass she bent, and seriously thought that she'd upset the balance of the earth in her role in the war. There was no way she'd add to her debt by committing another murder – her own.
"But none of this is would mean anything to me without you here. You're the last good thing I have left in my life, the one unspoiled part of my existence. I just don't think I have it in me to start over again if I lost you."
Hermione's words from just days before washed over his stuttering mind as he finally peeled his eyes open. Everything was starting to malfunction. His mind…what?
Pacing the shoreline. Wringing hands.
Draco, Draco, where are you?
I don't know. I honestly don't know. And…I'm so sorry. For…everything.
Draco's diaphragm seized violently, and he couldn't fight it anymore. It burned, and it would end him, and he was shocked that drowning had taken this long, but he opened his mouth, and the water and weeds rushed in before his screams could claw their way out. He choked and gagged and fought and jerked, but the weeds were covering him now, tightly binding him to the floor, winding their way down his throat and into his nostrils and covering his eyes-
Draco wrenched himself up, gasping for air, and tore at the grass and weeds covering him. Not seagrass, but hair. And it wasn't the weight of the ocean pressing on him; Hermione had fallen asleep on top of him after they'd made love, and her beach-scented, salt-crusted hair was wild and loose, and bloody attacking him in his sleep. Her hair was tangled in between his fingers, wrapped around his wrists, and had tangled itself around his entire head as she'd nuzzled into the side of his neck while she slumbered.
His wild movement and frantic pulling jerked Hermione out of her sleep, and she tumbled to his side as Draco tried to detangle himself from her.
"Owww," Hermione groaned.
Draco finally got his fingers free, and smoothed her hair away from her face. "Sorry, sorry," he gasped. He kissed her hurriedly, too damned grateful that his nightmare was over, and too fucking freaked out by his nightmare in general, to be anything beyond overwhelmingly comforted by her presence.
Hermione blinked a few times and reached up to rub at her scalp, then muttered what sounded to Draco like "tried to eat me," before she closed her eyes and snuggled further into him. Draco scooted up and gathered her sleeping form into his lap and tucked her into his arms. The storm outside had abated somewhat, but it was still the dead of night, and nowhere near a decent hour to wake her. But he needed her warmth, needed to express to her, even in her sleep, how desperately he loved her.
Shit, what the fuck was he waiting for? Flowers and a perfect bloody sunset? The ice to settle around a splendid bottle of champagne? These things were not going to alter the outcome of the answer to the question he needed to ask her.
And, fuck it, he didn't need to ask her a question so much as he needed to let her know, as soon as possible, that, given the chance, he would willingly bind himself in every way possible to her. If something happened to him tomorrow, he didn't want her wondering fucking 'what if's'; he needed her to know that he considered her to be the only woman who could possibly complete him in any way. At all, period. In a sense, her answer didn't even matter. He just needed to tell her how he felt so she would know.
And just like that, Draco couldn't wait any more.
He kissed Hermione's forehead and rubbed her arms, and whispered, "Hermione, hey, love, wake up," until she woke again with a yawn.
"Oh! Hey, what's wrong? Are you all right? Oh, I had the worst dream…" she murmured as she snuggled her arms around his neck in a sleepy hug.
"Hermione, hey, don't fall back asleep yet. I need to talk to you," Draco whispered.
"All right," she responded lazily, and stretched in his arms, then turned her head to blink at him.
"Marry me," he blurted, and his rushed confession blew across her face, puffing at the tendrils of hair that dangled around her cheekbones.
Hermione's sleepy eyes flew open, and her gaze sharpened as her mouth dropped open in surprise. "Wh-"
"Marry me, please. I'm sorry I couldn't figure out how to say it before, and I'm sorry I'm doing this in the middle of the night after the shit day we had, but I couldn't wait anymore. There's nothing else in the world, no one else in the world, that I need except you. You're absolutely right, girl; nothing's worth anything without you. Please marry me." Draco tried not to beg and plead, but there was no way to keep the desperation of the dying out of his voice. Faced with his mortality, he had no pride to hide behind on this matter.
Hermione's forehead scrunched and her mouth bowed in a frown. Draco's heart stuttered as he prepared to be utterly wasted by her answer, but then she nodded her head and said, "of course, Draco. Of course." She kissed him softly, and then clambered off of him and flopped listlessly, facedown, onto the bed beside him.
Draco stared down at her, a little gob-smacked by her completely anti-climactic response. Was she just bloody falling asleep after his gut-wrenching confession? Did she possibly think she was dreaming?
Suddenly Hermione's left arm shot up in the air. "Want my ring now, please," she mumbled, and turned her head from her pillow to gaze at him expectantly.
Draco could do nothing but gape at his nude girlf- wait, no, fiancée, for a moment, before she yawned and said, "Pretty please? I know you have one in your rucksack."
"Are you sure you're awake, love?" Draco asked. He leaned out of the bed and snatched up his bag, then dug out the velvet box that held the tiny issue that had kept him so aggravated for so long.
"Yes," Hermione sighed. "I'm somewhat awake. I'd like to sleep some more though, and I really did have a dreadful nightmare. I'm glad it's over. This is much more pleasant."
Draco popped open the small box and grasped the ring delicately between his thumb and index finger, and then turned back to Hermione and took her outstretched left hand. He slipped the ring on her finger, and then closed his eyes and blew out a sigh of profound relief.
"You've been waiting a long time to do that, haven't you?" Hermione asked in her sleep-filled voice as her fingers curled around his.
"Ages," Draco murmured. He slid down in the direction that Hermione tugged him, and curled himself against her warmth.
"I'd have waited forever, you know," Draco heard Hermione mumble as she stroked his hair with her newly bejeweled hand.
Draco huffed out an exhausted breath. "I didn't want you to wait forever, love. I didn't want you to wait another second. I love you, and I want to marry you."
"Mmm, me too," Hermione whispered, and her left hand ceased its movements as she drifted into pleasant dreams.
Draco, for his part, remained awake and watchful for several hours. He clung to his…well, his fiancée, as the storm outside made its way along the coast, and prayed for the poor, foolish man that had been dragged to the bottom of the Mediterranean. He was surely halfway to Africa by now, and Draco couldn't help but choke a little at the remembrance of the feeling of the ocean slamming him to the sea floor, and the grasses scraping against his face and tugging at his limbs. How long had the man lived, swirling there in the depths, before his soul fled? How many regrets had he been able to ponder in his final, panicked moments?
Draco hoped to God it had been a quick ending. No one deserved to die as badly as his dream had tortured him with. He thought of the man's wife, and how she'd howled in Hermione's arms. Draco shuddered. He never in his life wanted to see Hermione brought that low. He tightened his arms around her, and rolled over onto his back, dragging her with him as he contemplated their future, and how desperately he needed to protect her from the horrifying fate of the couple they'd seen that day.
Hermione sat on the edge of the bed and gazed at the new ring adorning her left hand. It was breathtaking, utterly breathtaking, Hermione absently thought at she stroked her index finger across the gleaming surface of the center stone.
"Do you like it?"
Hermione startled slightly as Draco's sleep-roughened voice broke the silence. She nodded quickly without turning away from the glittering play that shattered across her fingers as the morning light caught on the diamonds surrounding the dazzling and oddly colored focus of the ring. It flashed through a variety of shades of green that shifted to teal, then purple, then finally red, as Hermione tilted her hand back and forth in the sunlight.
"It's so pretty," she whispered in awe.
Draco's quiet cough distracted her moments later. "Are you going to sit there staring at your hand all day, love, or are we going to discuss this at all?"
Hermione tore her eyes away from her new jewelry to look back at an apprehensive Draco, who'd pulled himself into a sitting position in the bed. Her eyebrows puckered as she took in his wary posture. Comprehension flooded through her as disjointed memories of their conversation from the night before surfaced in her mind.
"Marry me, please."
She'd been shocked out of a nightmare and into a waking fantasy, but then she'd woken this morning to find the ring still on her hand, and Draco – he'd asked her to be his wife. He hadn't even asked, really, he'd begged her.
"Of course, Draco. Of course." What other answer was there? He could have asked her the first time they'd made love and she'd have said the same thing. They were made for each other; that much was clear in every touch and caress…from the first moment he'd pressed his lips against hers.
With a jolt, she realized she needed to be touching him, and launched herself at his prone form. She pressed her forehead against his even as their hands clasped together between their two bodies.
"We're getting married," Hermione closed her eyes and whispered, suddenly shy.
Draco sighed as he squeezed her hands in his. "We're getting married," he murmured in agreement.
Hermione opened her eyes to find Draco staring at her. "Really?" she asked.
"Really," he confirmed.
"All right," Hermione said, her confidence returning.
Draco's head cocked to the side, and an eyebrow shot up. "All right? You can't agree now, when you already agreed last night, Girl. Regardless of how you feel today, you are wearing my ring, which is as good as signing a betrothal contract in blood. You are irrevocably stuck with me whether you like it or not."
Hermione grinned happily at her new fiancé. "I like how that sounds, you know."
"What? Signing a betrothal contract in blood? That's a bit disgusting, and completely unnecessary," Draco said uneasily.
Hermione chuffed and rolled her eyes. "Draco, honestly, only Wizarding families of the creepiest sort would do something so barbaric. Really, I was just thinking that being irrevocably stuck with you sounded lovely."
Draco's head shook from side to side as he commented, "that really makes me doubt your sanity, thinking being tied to me for better or worse is a good thing. You must be glutton for punishment."
Hermione hummed as she pressed herself happily against Draco's warm body. "Nonsense, Draco, it just makes me really, unbelievably lucky."
Draco hissed and grabbed Hermione's hips as she rubbed against him. She gasped as he bore her back and down into the pillows.
"Speaking of lucky," he murmured as he insinuated one leg between hers.
Hermione closed her eyes and let Draco's talented hands manipulate the sensations that poured over her, and streaks of green, purple, teal, red, shot across her closed lids.
When their two bodies crashed together, Hermione's head jerked forward as her body pulled taut against Draco's, and he huffed indignantly and pushed in agitation at her hair.
"Keep that…damned bird's nest….unnh…away…from me. Fuck!"
"Wha? Oh! Why?"
"Nnngh…not now…so fucking…good. Later…love. Promise I'll tell you later but now I've got to-"
"I think I'm ready to go home now."
"Hmm – oh, really? We've still got another day here before we head back to Rome."
"I know, and I don't want you to think I'm not grateful for our time here, but I miss home. I miss the puppies. As beautiful as this place is, it's not the fortress."
"Possibly. I'm more than a little horrified by what happened yesterday, obviously. But I really am ready to get home and get back to our regularly scheduled programming."
"Regularly scheduled…what, you mean where I go to work while you laze around, read three books a day and play 'ladies who lunch' with your girlfriends, week-in and week-out?"
"Yes, that's precisely what I mean, darling. I simply adore our life together, don't you?"
"Oh, God yes, Girl. You're absolutely right. Let's go home."
Hermione sat in the hotel's small atrium-cum-café, sipping delicately at a cup of heavenly espresso as she gazed at her new ring. The center stone was still a bit of a puzzle to her. Admittedly, she just wasn't up on her gemology, and she wondered if it wasn't some odd family heirloom that he'd given her – but surely any heirloom of Draco's family would have hurt a Muggle – or even a woman of Muggleborn status, if he'd given it to her when they both had their magic. So it must be something new.
"I've always found it amusing how even the most intelligent of women can be brought to glassy-eyed silence by the presence of one sparkling piece of jewelry. Tell me, love, what is the square root of seven thousand, two-hundred twenty-five?"
Hermione blinked. She dragged her eyes away from the beguiling play of light across her fingers to look up at her smirking fiancé as his question sank into her brain. "Um, eighty-five. Why?"
Draco's eyebrow lifted in bemusement. "Just checking to make sure you hadn't turned into complete mush in there. Our car will be here in a few moments; are you ready to go?"
Hermione patted the seat next to her. "Just about. Sit with me for a moment. Draco, what is this?" Hermione asked as she indicated the odd center stone of her ring.
Draco snickered. "Well, that's an engagement ring, love."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I realized that already, despite your avant-garde proposal. I still can't believe you just decided to wake me up in the middle of the night to do this! After all that fussing and planning you did…just…poof! 'Hey, Hermione, wake up. Marry me? Great, thanks, goodnight!'"
Draco sighed. "Laugh all you want. It's the thought that counts. Well, more accurately, it's the end result that counts. You said yes, and you've accepted the ring. Now you're stuck with me forever."
Hermione nodded. "That works out remarkably well for me, because I really do like this ring. Seriously, Draco, what sort of stone is this? It's not like anything I've ever seen before."
"Ah, my dear, you must study up on your gemstones then, because this is Alexandrite, which is harder and rarer than any mere diamond. This also happened to come from my family's personal mine in the Ural Mountains in Russia, which has long been known for their high quality stones. Alas, all of the known Muggle mines there stopped producing many, many years ago, but the ones held by old Pureblood magical families, the Blacks being among them, still produce some rare beauties. This lovely adornment you now wear was hand-picked by the jeweler on the high street back home. I sent him to Russia with my key and instructions as to what kind of center stone he should choose from the Black vault. Personally I think he did a fine job, as the ring is neither large nor unbalanced looking on your hand."
Hermione looked at him sharply. "Draco, how on earth did you keep access to a vault from the Black family if you were blocked from everything that wasn't in your personal – oh, for heaven's sake, you mean the Wizengamot didn't check your Gringott's vault before they made you liquidate it?"
Draco shook his head. "Nope," he said. "And let me tell you, Mafalda and I were quite puzzled by that, as my mother had just passed away, leaving her only heir quite the pile of papers, properties, jewels and mysterious keys. But since they were Black legacy pieces, not Malfoy, there were no restrictions or enchantments to keep them from me." He lifted her hand and kissed the knuckles closest to her new ring.
"But really," he continued, "despite my, as you put it, avant-garde proposal, are you happy?"
Hermione nodded. "I get you, and really, that's all I want."
Draco nodded in return as he rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand, and then said quietly, "so, Hermione Granger-Malfoy?"
Hermione shook her head. "No, Draco. I'm not going to hyphenate."
Draco looked at her quizzically. "Surely you don't intend to just keep Granger, do you? It's not so much that I mind, I had just hoped…"
"Oh! Not at all, Draco. I'm all for equality between the sexes, but I'm also pretty traditional in some ways. I'm marrying you by choice, and even if your surname was Ninnyheiney, I'd take it."
Draco groaned in relief and dropped his head to the table. Hermione laughed as his forehead thunked against the smooth wood.
"So you like that I'm going to take your surname?" Hermione asked cheekily.
"Oh, hell yes," Draco's muttered reply came from the surface of the table. "I fucking love it. I can't even begin to tell you how much I despise the whole Granger-Malfoy title. As soon as we get home, I'm calling the vet and getting the pups records and tags changed to say Malfoy. And I'm calling the records office to get your deed for the fortress changed to say Malfoy as well. All of the household bills, everything. Malfoy, Malfoy, Malfoy." He sat up and grinned at her.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I hardly think that's necessary, Draco. I just said I'd take your surname when we marry, not that you could re-label our collective property as soon as we get home."
Draco snorted. "Your knickers say otherwise, my dear."
Hermione flushed at the mention of her Property of Draco Malfoy underpants, and what the sight of them perpetually did to her new fiancé.
Draco opened his mouth to say something, but then his eyes drifted across the room, and his mouth turned down into a frown. Hermione followed his gaze, and saw the woman from the beach the previous afternoon. She was embracing two younger people, and the three were openly crying.
"Those must be her children," Hermione said quietly.
"Right," Draco muttered.
"They look to be close to our age," Hermione commented.
"Probably," Draco returned, and then sighed as he turned back to Hermione as he rubbed at the side of his forehead. "I feel bloody awful for them. I mean, their father made an unbelievably stupid mistake, and they're the ones left to pick up the pieces."
"He was dying, you know," Hermione murmured.
"What?" Draco asked sharply.
"The man who drowned, he had colon cancer. His wife and I were talking just as he started to swim. It seems that swimming here was part of his so-called bucket list, as it was something he'd done as a child with his father. She told me he didn't want to miss his chance, as they were supposed to be leaving to head to Naples today." Hermione sighed as she took in the widow and her children.
"They were already preparing to say goodbye. I wonder if this will be easier or harder for them, having him taken while doing something he wanted, rather than seeing the cancer waste him away," she speculated as the widow clutched at her son, who couldn't be older than eighteen, as he led her to a seat not unlike the ones Hermione and Draco sat in.
Draco pursed his lips as the woman's daughter settled next to her mother and burrowed into her arms. The widow pushed her daughter's curtain of dark hair away from her forehead to kiss her temple, and Draco ached for them as they sought solace with each other.
"Do you think," Hermione asked quietly, "that it's possible that God will give us a break? That we've lost so many loved ones, and survived through so many hard times, that we can just…you know…live happily ever after?"
Draco groaned, "God, I hope so, Little Girl. Happily ever after sounds bloody wonderful." He turned his gaze away from the mourning family and caught Hermione's newly bejeweled hand up so that he could kiss her knuckles. "I know that after all those years of insanity and war, I've come to appreciate our regular, quiet life like a man in the desert appreciates an oasis. You'd have to drag me away from our little world kicking and screaming like a bloody banshee, because I'll never be so careless as to take it for granted. I'll never do better, never be happier, anywhere or with anyone else, and there's nothing I wouldn't give to protect it."
Hermione's eyebrow went up. "You're awfully earnest this morning. After all those weeks of pent-up aggravation over proposing, you've suddenly become...at ease with your decision. Are you sure that…well, this," Hermione twitched her ring finger on her left hand, "isn't some panicked reaction to yesterday? I told you last night, I'd have waited forever. I love our life just as much as you do, you know."
Draco shook his head and chuckled morosely. "No, love, I'm definitely ready for this. I was just waffling for so long because I wasn't thinking right. And while yesterday's events, combined with the bloody wretched dream I had last night were hideously traumatic, proposing to you wasn't a spur-of-the-moment idea. I just needed a swift kick in my…hmm…mental reasoning and priority processors, to get my head out of my arse."
Hermione's face broke into a grin. "You dreamt about getting kicked in the bollocks? Poor you. It's too bad I didn't consider that method to get you thinking straight back in Third year. Think of how much better our lives would have been."
"Oh, har har. I don't like where your mind is going, so just kindly never consider that an option to get me to do what you want." Draco winced and held his hands up defensively to keep Hermione away from his person. She simply snickered and finished her coffee.
"Well I think I'll check in and see about our car. Surely it should be here by now," Draco said, and rose to leave the table. Once outside, he looked for the valet he'd made arrangements with earlier. Seeing the man disappear just around the corner of the building, Draco set out to catch up with him. Once around the corner, Draco came to an abrupt halt, because the valet had indeed, disappeared. A young, dark-haired woman stood in the open area with her back turned to Draco, so he called out to her, "Pardon me, did you notice which way the valet-"
But then the woman turned, and Draco nearly lost his footing as he tried to scramble backwards away from one of the last people he ever expected, or wanted to see again in his life.
"Hello, Draco. It's been so long," the young woman said smoothly, and Draco shuddered in horror and self-revulsion as he realized that he had just run into a trap.
Fucking witches! Not two minutes ago he'd claimed that he would never do something so stupid as to throw away his life with Hermione – yet, here he was, good and bloody screwed. His body snapped backwards as he suddenly was pinned to the nearby wall.
"Well, aren't you going to say anything to your own cousin, and soon-to-be sister-in-law? Come on, Draco, I'm sure living amongst the Muggle riff-raff has been hard on you, but have you entirely lost your manners?" the woman simpered as she paced closer to Draco.
He was fucking frozen. How had she done that? The Greengrasses had never been overly astute students, and were notoriously weak spell-casters. He could still speak and function, but his arms and legs felt impossibly heavy and stiff, as if they were buried in the mortar and brick of the building. Fuck!
"Daphne," he finally spat, when his struggles proved fruitless. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Daphne Greengrass laughed throatily, and stepped right into Draco's personal space. "Oh, my dear cousin, I think it's more appropriate to ask what the fuck you are doing here, isn't it? After all, it's highly improper, if not illegal, to enter into a marriage contract with one woman, and a dirty Mudblood of all things, when one is quite well and bound to another. My sister will be heartbroken, I'm sure, when I tell her of this new development. And, of course, there's your father. What will he think of Hermione Granger's shiny new ring?"
Draco blanched. "For fuck's sake, Daphne, it's my bloody life to live, not my father's or anyone else! I don't know how you found me, but for Christ's sake, I am begging you, please, forget that you did! I just want to be happy, that's all."
Daphne pouted, and reached out with her wand to stroke the side of Draco's temple, where the x-shaped scar from his mugging the previous summer snaked across his skin. "Oh, but Draco, what about my family's happiness? Daddy's been waiting so dreadfully long to hear from you, and he simply must get you married into our family so that we can all benefit from your…hmm…benevolence," Daphne purred as she tilted her wand against his temple, in the appropriate angle of…
"Goddammit, Daphne, get your wand away from my head!" Draco hissed in horror. Oh, fuck, she was going to Obliviate him. He was fucking helpless, and she was going to wipe out his mind. Everything he loved, all of his hopes and wishes for his and Hermione's future together, would be swept away like that poor bastard in the surf the previous afternoon. Draco squeezed his eyes shut as Daphne dug her wand into the side of his head and whispered, "Oh, Draco, think of how much happier you'll be when you're safely back within society. But of course we can't parade you around while you're a wandless, useless Muggle, so I suppose you and my pathetic sister can just trot off to one of your family's homes in France – which is exactly where you were bloody supposed to be, you bastard," Daphne crooned against his ear as she tilted her wand further.
"I don't want France, or your sister, or your family, you psychotic witch. I just want Hermione, and the life I have now. Leave me the fuck alone," Draco panted. Daphne's hot breath against the side of his head was aggravating as well as nauseating, and fear licked its way up his spine as he desperately flicked through his very best memories of his new life.
Watching Hermione sing and play for the very first time, with passion in her every move and a golden glow from the sun all around her.
Spending all night talking about everything and nothing, learning everything they could about each other and becoming closer than he thought two former rivals ever possibly could.
Making love, the first time and every time.
Hermione, rubbing noses with one puppy as he tried to get the other to stop licking his face.
Feeling truly safe for the first time in his life as they combined blood and magical charms with the Weasley brood to cast ironclad protection over their home.
Arguing, and making up, and arguing some more, because no one understood their minds like the other did.
Hermione, glassy-eyed and rapturous as she kissed his face and declared that they were, indeed, getting married.
Christ, that was just this morning.
"Oh, Draco, I simply can't do that. After all, you're the Malfoy heir, and you, and your entire estate, belong with our family. It was written in the stars, don't you think?" Daphne murmured.
"No, you stupid bint, it was written in blood by our fathers, and it had nothing to do with me! I didn't choose your sister, and I never will."
"Come now, Draco, don't be so cruel. After all, it's not like you'll have to tolerate the twit forever. Just get your heir and let us take care of everything else. How does that sound?" Daphne asked.
Draco's eyes popped open. "Fuck, this is just about the money, isn't it?"
Daphne shrugged one elegant shoulder. "Can you blame us? The war was very expensive for Daddy to support, and coming out on the losing side certainly didn't earn him any favours within the Ministry. And after all, it is an awful lot of money. Anyone would get a little…persistent…if they found out their chance at security was being stolen away. Why would you steal from us, Draco? You belong-"
"The fuck I belong to anyone, Greengrass!" Draco snapped. "Fucking what do you want?"
Daphne tutted condescendingly, "Draco, Draco, Draco…I want what every self-respecting Pureblood witch and wizard in Europe wants. Your money. Do quit acting so surprised and just accept that there is absolutely nothing you can do to change your destiny."
Draco flinched, and scowled. It was that same damned fight that he'd been struggling to win since he'd decided to slough off his father's choices for his life. His father, the bastard who was responsible for this shit situation he was in right now. His father, who was rotting away in Azakaban, and still able to wield so much power over Draco's future.
Fuck that man, and fuck everything he ever wanted to bequeath his son. Hadn't Draco just spent the past several days considering all the things he would happily toss away, including the entire bloody Malfoy legacy, if it only meant that he and Hermione could continue in their lives as they currently lived them?
Considering that poor man who'd been lost at sea, what would he have given up to have a chance to live as he chose with his family, instead of having his desires snatched away from him, first by the threat of terminal cancer, then later by a horrible accident? What worldly and material items would his family happily toss aside to get their father back?
'Well,' Draco thought, 'here's my opportunity if there ever was one to make a complete and final break. And good bloody riddance to it all.'
"Greengrass," Draco cleared his throat and looked the witch in the eye, "I have a one-time only proposal for you that I believe would make the both of us unbelievably happy."
Daphne cocked her head to the side in contemplation. "And what is that, darling cousin?"
Hermione was starting to feel very awkward and fidgety as the minutes ticked by with no sign of Draco. It wouldn't be wise for her to drink anymore coffee, as they had a long drive ahead of them, so she couldn't even use the soothing comfort of holding the warm porcelain cup to distract her. The grieving family had vanished into the depths of the hotel, ostensibly to make arrangements for their lost patriarch.
Just as she made up her mind to go outside and search for her fiancé, a haggard looking Draco suddenly stormed through the front doors and made a beeline towards her. She stood to greet him with questions at the tip of her tongue, but they were squashed as Draco stepped right into her, grabbed her face in his hands, and kissed her roughly.
Hermione broke away with a gasp when the need for air swamped her desire to continue their physical reunion. "Blimey, Draco! What's gotten into you? And what took so bloody long? Is something wrong with our car?"
Draco shook his head emphatically as he wrapped his arm around her waist. Hermione quickly leaned down to grab her day-bag as he tugged her towards the exit of the hotel, where their car and luggage waited.
"Nothing at all is wrong, Girl. In fact, for the first time ever, everything is one hundred percent right. This is the first day of the rest of our lives, yeah?"
Hermione nodded hesitantly as Draco passed her into the passenger seat.
"And you're ready to go home, yeah?" Draco leaned in and hovered his lips just above hers.
"Of course, Draco. I can't wait-" Hermione was cut off as Draco crashed their mouths together one final time.
He pulled away from her confused face and said, "you know I love you more than anything in the world, right?"
Hermione blushed. "I know you do, Draco."
Draco nodded tightly. "Good. Let's get the fuck out of here."
To Be Continued…
Mega-huge thanks and hugs to every single one of you that checked on me over the past few months. If you're hanging out with me on Twitter, you've seen what's been going in my world. Kids, life, stuff, stuff, stuff. Yeah, I know it was ridiculous, the amount of time between the last few chapters. I got a very adorable case of writers block that left me pouting for at least a good two months, and then another two months passed as I fought with this chapter – which, incidentally, did not exactly turn out as I'd long planned it to. But, hey, it's done, and we are getting the hell out of Italy. Back to the UK, and good riddance to writers block. Blech. I'm on vacation right now. It's awesome. I'm writing again, and that's awesome too. I figure the very valuable lesson I've learned is to no longer make update promises, because each time I do, massive bad juju happens in my head and my life. So, while I am writing happily away, no promises. Ick, that's cruel, isn't it? Sorry.
Who's the best beta-reading super-star ever? Phnxgirl! She has been a super supporter and a super-great friend (she got Kevin Hearne's autograph for me!), and if anything this update would have been put off another month or more without her help.
I hope you all like this chapter as much as I do. In the meantime, don't hate on me too much. I missed you guys, and hope you missed me too!