Author's Note: Final chapter! I hope you all have had as much fun as I have. Enjoy!
The Prophet covered Lucius' death almost as extensively as they had covered Dumbledore's. The front page featured the obligatory obituary, including a brief synopsis of Lucius' life, his involvement with Voldemort, and his sentencing. It concluded with vague details of his manner of death, a short paragraph on Narcissa, and a longer paragraph about Draco.
Pages two and three delved into the how of Lucius' death with intense detail. After the Ministry had captured Dennis Creevey, Potter himself came over to debrief Draco and his mother. By the end of the interview, he had the distinct impression that no one was to know about what had happened in that rundown Muggle warehouse, his reason being some rot about the memory of a fallen hero. Well, Draco didn't give a flying Niffler about any of the Creeveys, but he was more than happy to keep his involvement in the mess quiet.
Being a strictly confidential matter, it was no surprise when the article mentioned "traces of Polyjuice Potion found in Creevey's blood" and how "Malfoy's illegal Portkey creation" had saved his mother. Draco could count the number of people privy to those details on two hands. It was obvious now: there was a leak in the MLE Office. How else could Laurier have known that he was in a no-name town in Canada, or the nature of the wards surrounding Malfoy Manor? He should have figured it out much sooner. In fact, he was embarrassed that it had taken him as long as it had taken the Ministry. According to the Prophet, an investigation was "ongoing," whatever the fuck that meant. Draco didn't think he would ever learn the identity of the leak, which was probably a good thing. He entertained dark fantasies about what he would do to the man if they ever crossed paths.
Half of page four was dedicated to a lengthy and far more detailed biography of Lucius and included speculation on Narcissa's future. The other half of the page was devoted to Draco. His questionable past, where he had been, what his role was in this latest catastrophe, what his responsibilities were now that Lucius was dead, and what – exactly – was the nature of his relationship with Hermione Granger, who had been there that night, and, if the article spanning pages two and three was to be believed, had been saved by Lucius.
The rest of the paper was the usual riffraff, a mixture of gossip, truth-laced lies, and Quidditch scores.
Draco crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the bin. Not even the Quidditch scores could interest him today. He put his elbows on the leather blotter of his father's – rather, his – large desk, and put his head in his hands. Sunlight filtered through the curtains behind him, warming his back and neck. Still, he shuddered.
He had to bury his father today.
The reality of it crept up on him slowly, making him pause during breakfast, as he walked the Manor's hall, as he entered his father's – no, his,damn it – study.
Already, things were changing: the Manor had recognized and accepted Draco as its new master. Nowhere was this more obvious than the study, where Draco had spent the majority of his time. The curtains at Draco's back – now sheer beige – had been thick, dark, and brocade green during his father's tenure. The mahogany desk and bookshelves began to lighten to a rich cherry, the rugs slowly shifted from complicated Oriental patterns to simpler, more modern forms, and celestial beings, which had been locked in fierce battle upon the study's ceiling since Draco's youth, began to fade, giving way to a real-time reflection of the sky above, an homage to the beloved Great Hall at Hogwarts.
In most areas of the Manor, however, Lucius' presence lingered like the smell of smoke after a fire or the feel of Dark magic after a terrible curse. The walls were dark and decorated sparsely, creating the feel of privacy and security even in the largest rooms. Where Narcissa typically lingered, Lucius allowed the Manor to abandon its isolated motif in favor of a light, elegant styling, decorated with the restraint only women of good breeding possessed.
Maybe all of that would change, too. Maybe the Manor would remain in a state of flux until Draco died. It would take him that long to feel settled again.
He felt Narcissa's presence at the door and looked up. She was dressed in all black, as befitted a widow, her robe high necked, simply cut, and unadorned. A black birdcage veil, pinned to her hair with a large, black flower, obscured her face from forehead to chin. Still, Draco was able to discern the alarming paleness of her skin and her red-rimmed eyes.
They stared at each other in silence for a moment.
"It's a beautiful day," she said quietly. "Flying weather."
Draco did not have to look outside to know it was the truth; he felt it in his bones. He and his father were similar in that way. When Draco was younger, they would only have to exchange a look over breakfast, and Narcissa would sigh, knowing that the day was lost to flying. Those times became rarer and rarer as Draco grew, as Voldemort fell, rose, and fell again. Draco never appreciated those moments as he should have, and now it was too late.
He stood and brushed invisible dust from his impeccable robes.
"It's time, I suppose?"
Narcissa nodded. She clutched a balled handkerchief in her left hand.
Draco nodded back and stepped forward to offer her his arm. She took it, and her hand felt small and frail. He placed his hand over hers.
"We'll get through this, Mother. One more day of this circus, then they'll all leave and we can…"
He trailed off. What would they do? Survive, he supposed. Living seemed like too optimistic a word.
They walked through the Manor in silence, making their way toward the western exit. The doors opened for them, and Draco squinted as he stepped into the sunlight. The Malfoy burial ground, or The Acre, as his family had named it, was a ten-minute walk from the Manor, and they were both wearing black. They would be roasted and sweat-soaked by the time they arrived.
Draco twisted his wrist, and his wand shot into his palm. His fingers closed around it automatically. He smiled and then winced, thinking of his first few tries using the holster and the witch who had given it to him. The witch he hadn't seen since his father had saved her life.
Pushing the bitter thought from his mind, he cast a cooling charm on his mother, then on himself. Narcissa shivered and thanked him with a squeeze of her hand. He stowed his wand and focused on his feet, on matching the length of his footsteps to Narcissa's.
"You've done well this week."
Draco jerked his head up in surprise. The Acre lay ahead, settled in a valley just on the edge of the dense forest that ringed their property.
"Thank you." He paused for a moment. "It's… I'm not sure if what I'm doing is correct, if my ideas even make sense. There was so much more he had to teach me, and I don't know if I can –"
Narcissa stopped. He turned toward her and closed his eyes as she laid her hand upon his cheek. "I know you can," she said. The confidence and pride in her voice made his eyes sting with tears. "I know it."
"Will you…" He cleared his throat, pushing away the sob that threatened to overtake him. "Will you help me?"
"Of course I will, Draco. But I promise: you won't need it."
He nodded, and she swiped her thumb beneath his eye, wiping his tears away.
"We must be strong," she whispered. "One more day, yes?"
Draco exhaled a shuddering breath.
"Yes," he repeated. "One more day."
Narcissa released his arm as they reached the cemetery's edge, and Draco stepped forward. A frisson of magic shot through his arm as he touched the forbidding iron fence surrounding the graveyard. Then, with a spine-tingling screech, the gate opened.
The warm, sunlit day disappeared as soon as Draco crossed the threshold. The Acre was not so much a place as a placeholder, a way station between corporeal existence and the one beyond. The strange, red-orange sky was muted, as if a film that filtered out the sun's brightest rays had been laid across it and forgotten for centuries. In fact, there was no sun in this place. There was no wind, either, but the black branches of sentinel yews, brittle and bare, swayed as though there were.
Draco took Narcissa's hand, and together, they wove through The Acre, avoiding the mounds and small cairns that signified family members buried and forgotten. The long, grey grass rustled against their robes, but that was the only sound. No birds, no insects, nothing besides his and Narcissa's steady breathing. Malfoys were the only creatures who could survive in this place, and, even with the protection of their blood, they could not survive for long.
Narcissa gasped as Lucius' corpse, shrouded in black silk and wreathed in rowan, cypress, and asphodel, appeared before them. The grey grasses had disappeared beneath and around his body, leaving the dark brown earth bare and ready to take him.
Narcissa knelt on Lucius' right side; Draco knelt on his left. Narcissa held her hands in front of her, over the body, and Draco mirrored her motions. Their gazes locked and, after a long moment, Narcissa nodded. Their hands descended slowly, coming to rest atop Lucius' shrouded form.
Draco let them rest there for a second and closed his eyes, remembering what was best about his father. The times they flew, the times they laughed. The lessons he taught – both good and bad – and the rare glimpses of pride that Draco would always treasure. The relief and joy in his father's eyes when he finally returned home, the wry twist of his mouth as he considered Draco's choices, his determination, his resolve, his nobility, his acceptance of fate, both his and Draco's.
Draco began to cry, and as the tears fell, he began to push.
The earth was unyielding at first, but its resistance was only a test – one that Draco and Narcissa could not fail. After a moment, it moved aside, parting like warm water, accepting Lucius into it, drawing him in and down, and covering him completely.
In less than a minute, it was done. Draco opened his eyes. A small mound of bare earth was the only evidence that Lucius Malfoy's burial had ever taken place. Then, small shoots of grey grass began to appear. Narcissa sobbed.
It was a good burial, Draco knew. Lucius had been accepted, and his magic was now part of the ancestral power that kept Malfoy Manor and its occupants safer than traditional magic ever could.
Draco looked up as the red-orange sky grew darker. The sentinel yews loomed larger, turning a deeper shade of black, and fear stirred in the pit of his stomach.
"Come, Mother," said Draco, rising to his knees. "We have to go. This place is not for us now."
He stepped around Lucius' grave, which was covered with inch-high shoots, and tugged Narcissa upright. She leaned on him heavily, and he guided her out of The Acre as quickly as he dared, taking care not to tread on any graves.
He touched the iron fence once more, and the magic that shot down his arm stung. It was a reminder. Grieving was a luxury for which a patriarch had little time. He had to focus on the future.
They passed the walk to the Manor in absolute silence, Narcissa eventually finding the strength to travel on her own. She crossed the marble portico and hesitated for a minute before stepping over the threshold of the east doors, which waited open for her. He saw the steel in her spine and knew it was because she did not want to do what protocol dictated she must: host the grieving party.
He did not want to do it, either. His company's council members would be all insincere grief and measured questions. They did not need to grieve because they did not miss his father. They wanted what Lucius had had – control of the company – and they would use these four hours in the afternoon to gauge Draco's ability and assess Narcissa's vulnerability. A few would even try to con her into marriage.
She was smarter than that, of course, but anger seethed within him at the very thought of one of them trying. He clenched his jaw and lifted his chin. He would protect his family, and he would begin with the only family he had left: his mother.
The task was as odious as Draco had imagined. Once the guests had filtered out of the public tea room, he shrugged out of his robe, tossed it onto the couch, loosened his cravat, and poured himself three fingers of bourbon. He leaned against the window and glared out at the western edge of his property. The sun was just beginning to touch the forest's tall trees.
"I'm glad that's over," Narcissa said wearily. Draco heard the clink of glass and the soft sound of liquid pouring over ice.
"Same," he said, taking a sip. "How many marriage proposals did you receive?"
"Four. One each from Priggins and Palmly, and two from Davis, who seemed to think I hadn't heard him correctly the first time he asked."
Narcissa narrowed an annoyed look at him. "Wives can be disposed of more easily than you would ever expect. I don't have to tell you to watch out for these men."
Draco laughed darkly. "No, Mother, you certainly don't. I'll arrange meetings with all three next week and remind them of why they want to remain on my good side."
Narcissa laugh-sobbed, and Draco knew why: in that moment, he was purely his father's son. He stared at the signet ring on his finger, smiled a sad smile, and took another sip.
"I did not expect to see the Potters," she remarked after taking a minute to compose herself.
"Potter never misses an opportunity to flaunt his kindheartedness," Draco said with a dark chuckle. "The git."
"I was surprised, however, that –"
Draco glanced over his shoulder at the house-elf.
"You has a visitor."
"Send whoever it is away," he said with a sneer, turning back toward the window. "Visiting hours are –"
His words died on his lips and the blood rushed from his head. He whirled around, nearly sloshing alcohol down his front, just to look at her.
Hermione stood at the threshold. Her black dress was modestly cut, fitted through the bust, flaring out at her hips, and ending at her knees. She wore low black shoes, a pearl necklace, and matching earrings. Her hair was down, and curls spilled over her shoulders. She held a potted cactus and a wrapped package.
Her eyes flitted to him briefly, taking in his crisp white shirt and black dress trousers, but they did not linger. Draco momentarily hated her for it. Momentarily hated her for a lot of things, in fact.
"Narcissa," she said softly, taking a step forward. "I –"
"You're late," he accused.
Two sets of eyes swiveled back to him, one pair furrowed in confusion, and the other narrowed in anger, practically barbequing him for his rudeness.
"How did you even get in here?"
"I named her a Trusted," Narcissa said icily, rising from her seat on the couch. "I updated it immediately after…"
Narcissa trailed off, leaving Hermione to pick up the conversation before the silence could fester.
"I know I'm late. I'm so sorry, and I'll leave if you want me to, but I didn't want… I had to come to…"
She turned to Narcissa. Even from ten feet away, Draco could see tears brimming her eyes. He nearly tripped over himself standing still. He wanted to go to her, but didn't. She had abandoned him, had left him alone and answerless after his father took a curse for her. After he had died for her. He couldn't forget that, and wasn't sure he could forgive it, either.
"What is that?"
Narcissa nodded to the cactus. Hermione looked down at her hands.
"Oh," she said with a sniffle. "This is your wand." She handed over the wrapped package. "It was finally released from evidence."
Narcissa hefted the wand for a moment and closed her eyes, remembering that day, or maybe trying to forget it. She set it on the side table.
"And the other?"
Hermione looked back down at her hands, silent for a moment as she considered the plant.
"Draco told me about you," she started hesitatingly. "About you, and Lucius, and his trouble with orchids."
Hermione looked up at Narcissa beseechingly, as if willing her to understand. Narcissa did – Draco knew she did – but her expression gave the young witch no help. Hermione looked back down at her hands, growing more uncomfortable by the moment.
"You suggested he raise a cactus instead. I thought… Well…"
Words failed her, and she pressed the plant into Narcissa's hands. The plant came to life, fueled by the magic in Narcissa's fingers. Buds sprouted from its pointed limbs, elongating and blooming into orchid flowers that were the color of sunrise over still water.
Narcissa stared at the plant for a long moment, then set it down, and looked at Hermione with an expression that could not be anything but forgiveness. Hermione rushed into her arms with a wail, stuttering apologies between her gasping breaths, and Narcissa looked beatific throughout, crying, and smiling, and stroking Hermione's hair, murmuring reassurances and giving her all the comfort a mother ought to give an inconsolable child.
Anger burned in Draco's chest. Hermione didn't deserve that comfort. She didn't deserve anything his family had to give.
He stalked past them and slammed the door. His pace quickened as he wound through the Manor, and by the time the east doors opened for him, his shoes were clacking on the hard marble of the portico and he was nearly out of breath.
He Summoned his broom with a violent flick of his wand. There was a crash in the distance – the broom shed door breaking apart – and Draco held out his hand. His broom slapped into his open palm, stinging his skin. He ran three steps, spurred on by the pain, and leapt into the air off the portico's edge. He swung his broom underneath him and shot into the sky.
His rapid acceleration stole the air from his lungs and ripped tears from his eyes. He leaned closer over the broom handle, pushing it faster, flying it harder than he'd flown any broom. It was reckless, the way he flew. Almost suicidal. He climbed so high that his vision started to fade from lack of oxygen. He dove and pulled up so sharply that the broom shuddered and a few tailpieces snapped.
It wasn't working. He was still angry, still unreasonably bitter, still wanted to wring Hermione's neck for allowing Potter – fucking Potter – to be the one to tell him that Creevey had been captured. He had so many questions about that night, and only she had the answers.
And damned if he wasn't going to get them. He swore aloud and circled back toward the Manor at the same ferocious velocity he left it. A small, brunette figure waited for him on the portico, her black dress a stark contrast against the white marble. He bellowed another curse – he was too far up for her to hear – and dove straight for her.
Anyone else might have flinched if Draco had been coming for them like that. Anyone else would've recognized his bared teeth and his hard eyes as threats, and rightly so.
Not Hermione. She stood in the path of his broomstick, unflinching, her hands at her sides, fidgeting with the hem of her dress. She looked contrite but defiant, and Draco realized she was daring him. Daring him to hit her and hurt her. At that moment, he felt like he could.
But as the distance between them closed and her eyes narrowed in a wince, Draco realized it was not a dare, but an invitation. It was her way of admitting that she didn't deserve the comfort Narcissa had been so quick to supply, but the punishment Draco was keen to serve. She would allow him to hurt her if he wanted to, and Draco knew that, no matter how many broken bones their collision gave her, she would not resent him for it.
He yanked back on the broom handle and leapt down before it came to a full stop. He tossed the broom aside. It hovered nearby, which was for the best. If the look in Hermione's eyes was any indication of where this confrontation was heading, he might need it soon.
"You stupid cow!" Draco marched toward her. "What the fuck were you doing?"
"I need to talk to you."
"I could've run you down!"
"No, you couldn't."
He bared his teeth at her presumption, though of course she was correct. "Oh, how little you know," he seethed. "What do you want?"
"We need to talk."
"The hell we do," he said, remembering just afterwards that they did, in fact, need to talk, and that he was the one who had decided they would. Fortunately for him, she saved him the embarrassment of calling her back by not giving an inch.
"Narcissa told me you'd be out here."
"Bully for her."
"I was afraid you might have…" She trailed off and looked at her shoes.
Draco's voice was clipped and sharp. "Left?" he supplied. "Run away?" He scoffed and looked at her in disgust. "What a charming opinion you have of me, Granger. Truly flattering. Tell me, have I always been spineless scum to you, or did that come about after I returned to England to protect my bloody parents?"
"Well, technically, you weren't supposed to come back to England at all," she muttered.
That was it. Draco clenched his fists in an effort not to strike her and spun around. He took three steps away from her, pivoted, and took four steps back. He grasped her shoulders hard, digging his fingers into her soft skin.
"So this is my fault?" he bellowed. "It's my fault my father is dead? If I hadn't come back to England, they never would have taken me, and my father wouldn't have taken that curse. Tell me it is, Granger. Tell me!"
"It's not!" she yelled. Tears streamed from her eyes, dripping quickly down her cheeks. "It's not your fault! It's mine! I shouldn't have ever involved your family! After you were taken, Dennis sent a note. Narcissa came straight to me, and I just… Oh, Draco, I just panicked! You were in trouble, you were hurt, and I couldn't think… Your mother was so afraid. Your father was livid," she choked, making a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh.
"I'm no good in the field," she continued more quietly. "You knew it, and now you've seen it firsthand. I should've gone straight to the Ministry with the note. Harry, Ron… They would have known what to do. But I didn't. I accepted your parents' help, and now one of them is dead."
She raised her glassy eyes to his and brought her hands up, laying them on his forearms.
"It should have been me," she whispered, as if it were a secret and not a fact. "It should have been me, but it wasn't, and now I owe your family a debt I can never repay. I'm sorry, Draco. I'm so sorry for what I've done to you and your family."
He let go of her shoulders and stepped back, careful to keep his expression impassive.
"What happened after we left?"
Her chin quivered, but she bit her lip and held herself together. She dashed tears from her eyes and took a shuddering breath. Exhaling slowly, she opened her eyes again. She looked composed, but her voice still shook when she spoke.
"Dennis and I continued to trade spells. He doubled over a few more times, then collapsed. The Polyjuice had worn off. I disarmed, Stunned, and restrained him. Harry arrived shortly after to take Dennis into custody."
"Why couldn't you do it?"
"I had to go to St Mungo's."
She gave him a puzzled look. "I was hurt."
"That's not really rele –"
"Where?" His question cracked the air like a whip.
"My side," she said with a grimace. "A laceration hex. It was shallow, but bloody." She cut off his next question. "I'm fine now."
"When did Mungo's let you go?"
"A few hours later. They released me directly into custody."
Draco inhaled sharply. "Custody?"
"My suspension hadn't been lifted yet. Technically, I had gone rogue – a compromised agent interfering with a Ministry affair. I spent two nights in an MLE holding cell. Yesterday, Ron extracted a confession from Goyle. Harry got one from Dennis a few hours later. Bates reviewed my case with them, and with Baker and Dell. I was fined for breaking protocol, but that's it. As of last night, I'm fully reinstated."
That changed things. She hadn't abandoned him. She hadn't intentionally avoided him, or sent Potter to him because she wasn't interested in him past her involvement with the mission. She'd been arrested. She hadn't had a choice in the matter.
That changed… Well, fuck, almost everything. But Draco was not ready to let go of his anger quite yet; that would be too easy for them both.
"You had a Floo call."
"Whenever a witch or wizard is arrested, they get a Floo call. A single one. Why didn't you call me?"
Hermione's eyes filled with tears again. She shook her head. "Why didn't I call you?" She repeated the question as if it were gibberish. "Your father had just given his life for me."
"And you didn't think it would be important for me to know whether or not his sacrifice meant anything?"
She opened and shut her mouth, swallowing thickly. "I thought… I should be the last person you wanted to talk to. You needed space, time to process –"
He rolled his eyes and said with a growl, "Again with the presumption. Who are you to dictate what I do and don't need? When did that become your decision?"
"It's not," she backpedaled, her voice firm. "I did what I thought would be least painful for you and your mother. Being reminded of my debt –"
"Fuck your debt," Draco spat. He waved his hand dismissively. "I absolve you of it."
She gasped. "Draco, you can't –"
"Granger, I swear to Merlin, if you try to tell me what I can or cannot do one more time –"
"It's not that simple. I owe your family my life."
"And I owe you mine. We're even."
"It's not the same."
He nearly shouted in exasperation. "It's exactly the same! You barreled into my sad, pathetic little world, shook it to pieces, and got me back to where I should be. My life for yours. Now you can bugger off and go save someone else's life."
She took a step backwards. "Is that what you want?"
No, it wasn't. That was the very opposite of what he wanted.
"Isn't that what you want?" he challenged instead, narrowing his eyes. "Weren't you assigned to this case? Didn't you have a choice in it?"
She bit her lip. "I… I wasn't assigned," she finally admitted. "I volunteered."
Draco lifted his chin. "And why would you do something like that? Curiosity, I'm sure. I was just a question you wanted the answer to, correct? What else should I expect from Hogwarts' biggest know-it-all?"
"I was curious," she admitted.
Draco rolled his eyes and sneered, turning his head away from her. He knew that was her answer. Why did it hurt him so much to hear it?
"And are you satisfied with what you've found?"
Their eyes met, and Draco was surprised to see fear reflected in her gaze. Was the truth really so terrible? His chest constricted, his breaths coming shorter and shallower. Suddenly, he did not want to know.
"I'm not satisfied."
Her hand shot out, caught his wrist, traveled down so that her fingers clutched his.
His heart stuttered in his chest.
"I'm fascinated by you, Draco," she repeated, taking a step closer. "I may hum when I cook, but do you know you whistle when you grill? It drove me insane until I actually listened to it. Like my humming, it sounds familiar, but I can't place the tune."
A cool breeze, uncharacteristic for the still, summer day, swept over them. Draco inhaled deeply, caught up in the swell.
"You're a gifted dueler," she continued, twining her fingers with his. "Your reaction time is on par with Harry's. I know you compare yourself to him, but you shouldn't. You're just as good as he is. And you're one of the most magnificent swimmers I've ever seen. You can hold your breath for a full minute, but you're trying to push yourself for longer. You scared me a few times," she said with an embarrassed chuckle. "I thought you had drowned."
"You watched me swim?"
Hermione ducked her head, but not before Draco saw the blush he loved so much.
"Once or twice," she admitted.
Draco let out a weak laugh and pressed hand to his forehead, willing himself into composure.
"What a pair we make, Granger," he said, his voice cracking.
He removed his hand and stared at her with fresh eyes, trying to uncouple what he knew and what he felt. It was a useless exercise. She would always carry with her the sacrifice his father had made for them, and he would always see it on her. She would always be a reminder of his darkest days.
But she would always be a reminder of his happiest moments as well. She would always be the promise of better days, of sunshine and lemonade, of fights in the grass and sweets at sunset.
His father had been right to save her. He would tell her that one day, when the wound of Lucius' death was not so raw. He would tell her that, even though it wasn't her fault, he forgave her anyway, and that he was grateful for Lucius' sacrifice. His father would be remembered best for his final act – for saving a war heroine and the love of his only son. It was the greatest thing Lucius had ever done for his family.
Now was not the time for that, however.
Now was the time for cultivation. For building a base and creating an environment in which they could grow, and learn, and love together.
"Are we doing this, Hermione?"
They locked eyes again, and she nodded.
"I would like to."
He held his hand out to her, and she took it. He pulled her close, and she wrapped her arms around him, automatically, instinctively, as if her body was finally where it needed to be. They clung to each other, and he buried his face in her curls as the stark lines between them blurred and disappeared into a golden haze.
In an instant, their relationship, which had never been anything but wrong, became wholly and inarguably right.