A/N: Thanks to dracosgem for beta reading this chapter. :)
I managed to finish this chapter even though I was studying for my entrance exam, yay me! There are 4 chapters left after this one.
I wanted to thank everyone who's reviewed my story so far – it really means a lot to me to hear what you think about my writing! You guys have no idea how many times you've made my day, so keep them coming :)
Without further ado... Here's Chapter Twelve. Enjoy the read! :)
Warning: An a c t o f s t r o n g v i o l e n c e is mentioned in this chapter.
Disclaimer: I own nothing but the plot.
In Chapter Eleven:
Who was stupid Saint Potter to say he was good enough for Hermione? He could never be worthy of her.
He was no hero. She deserved better.
Dancing with Draco was like heaven. The way he held her... It was like he never wanted to let go of her. She never wanted him to let go of her, either. She could have spent the rest of her life in his arms.
Hermione breathed in his sweet scent. She was resting her head against his chest and her eyes were closed. Being so close to him made her blissfully happy. It seemed that he liked it, too, and he had been the one to initiate their current activity. The thought gave her a spark of hope that drove away some of her insecurities...but not all of them.
Behind her closed eyelids, she could feel the tears burning again. What if it wasn't enough that he didn't want to let go? What if she wasn't enough? Could she ever be enough when she wasn't even that special – she just happened to be friends with The Boy Who Lived. Sure she was intelligent, but how far had that gotten her? She had a nice, challenging job, but she hadn't been in a serious relationship in a while. Whatever little involvements she'd had in the past hadn't been that meaningful, either.
It was different this time, Hermione knew it. She was completely and utterly tired of being alone, and Draco seemed like the perfect solution to the longing she had never voiced. He excited her in ways she hadn't known possible. It was all so unlike anything she had experienced with anyone else. Could he be the one to give her what she greatlyneeded? For more than anything she wanted in the world, she wanted to be loved.
Can't help falling in love started once again from the beginning. She knew it was foolish to rush in, but she was so ready to fall in love with him, to give him everything she had. The magnitude of her feelings for him scared her, but she knew there was nothing she could do to stop them. She could only hope that if she ever mustered up the courage to tell him, he wouldn't let her down.
As the last notes of the third round of the song died down, Draco slowly let go of Hermione. Her arms fell to her sides. She finally opened her eyes to look at him, and the tears she'd tried to fight fell down her cheeks silently.
”Don't cry,” Draco murmured and gently wiped away her tears. ”It'll be alright.”
”Really?” she whispered, looking deep into his eyes in search for an answer.
For a short moment he looked torn, and a flicker of fear coursed through her. She got the feeling that he couldn't make that promise.
He hesitated and looked away from her. ”I... I hope it will be.”
Neither said anything for a while, nor did they look at each other.
”I should leave,” Draco finally said. His tone was strange and somewhat strangled.
Hermione's head whipped up. ”What do you mean, leave?”
He glanced at her, an odd look in his eyes. ”Nothing... I'm just going to bed.”
”Oh,” she nodded. Yet she couldn't help the feeling that something wasn't right.
”Yeah... Well, good night then, I guess.”
The way he looked at her before he exited the room left her unsettled. She really hoped that her intuition was wrong - she had a feeling he might be about to do something foolish.
* * *
The following morning Draco was the first thing on Hermione's mind. She had dreamt about him all night long. There were butterflies in her stomach as she thought about their last encounter and she tried, yet again, to analyse what had happened. She was almost positive that there had been something there...that surely he’d felt something too. But when he left, it had been a little weird. She couldn't pinpoint what was wrong, but she'd be sure to find out what it was when she talked to him.
That's what she needed to do – talk to him. It was unavoidable. If she kept mulling everything over in her head, she would surely lose her mind. She needed some kind of reassurance that her feelings weren't a complete waste of time. There was no need for her to reveal how deeply she had fallen, she only intended to let him know that she might be interested. What happened after that was up to him.
Hermione was full of anticipation as she went downstairs for breakfast, but Draco never showed up. She had two extra helpings of toast to postpone the moment she had to leave the kitchen, but it didn't help. Had he eaten already? It wasn't like she'd slept that late. Maybe he had, though... She positioned herself in the living room in a way that allowed her to see the kitchen door, just in case.
She waited for a couple of hours, chatting with Ginny so that it didn't seem like she was stalking the boy. As she glanced towards the door every now and then, only to find it wasn't Draco breezing through it, she thought about giving Ginny an update on what was going on. She decided against it, however. She figured it would only make her more nervous. Not that it really would have mattered... She was already going crazy.
Finally Hermione got tired of waiting for him. If he wouldn't come to her, she would go to him.
Climbing the stairs to the third floor, she felt jittery but determined. Her hand was shaking like a leaf as she knocked on his door. She waited for a moment, but didn't get an answer.
”Draco, can I come in?” she called, knocking again. No answer. ”Well, I'm coming in, like it or not...”
She opened the door and stopped dead. There were no signs of life in the room, none whatsoever. The bed was made and none of his things were lying around. His bag was nowhere to be seen, either. She drew in a shaky breath and tried not to break in hysterics.
Where was he?
* * *
Hiding in the most remote place he could think of, Draco was deeply ashamed of himself.
He wished he was a real man instead of some pathetic coward. He wished he was good enough for Hermione. He wished he'd never had to do what he'd ended up doing... Yet here he was, sitting in a cupboard under the stairs, hiding from the world and especially from the girl he wanted but couldn't have.
He wished he'd been brave enough to leave. It would have been the right thing to do. If he'd just disappeared, it would have been easier for Hermione to forget about him. But as much as he tried to stay away from her, he realized he couldn't be away from her. He couldn't see her, but at least he could hear her voice as she talked to they Weasley girl in the living room.
Draco knew he couldn't stay in his hideaway forever. Eventually he would have to leave the cupboard, and she would see him. She'd try to talk to him but he'd have to be distant, cold even. It was rude but he had to do it, for her sake. She deserved someone much better than him.
Shaking his head bitterly, Draco swiped a spider off of his knee and prepared to do some more sitting.
* * *
The next couple of days were pure agony for Hermione. She couldn't understand the way Draco was acting. First, he'd been inexplicably gone for half a day and, when he finally showed up at dinner, he had been very unlike himself. He'd been indifferent towards her – his answers were short, and he was clearly avoiding being left alone in a room with her. Overall, his behavior was rude.
She soon found she had to confide in Harry and Ginny. The two were getting suspicious, for her anxiety was hard to miss.
”He's shutting me out,” she told them. ”I think it might have something to do with the other night, when we... Well, something happened, and he's been weird ever since.”
”Something happened?” Harry repeated slowly. He gulped as he tried to comprehend what it meant. ”Do you mean, like... Did you guys kiss?”
”Oh no, we didn't,” Hermione assured quickly. ”We just...kind of...slow danced a bit.”
”Ooh, why didn't you tell me?” Ginny squealed.
The brunette rolled her eyes. ”It didn't seem that meaningful after he started to avoid me.”
The event had indeed lost its meaning for her, or rather she had discovered new perspective to what had occurred between them. She’d thought about it a lot and it made sense.
Even though Draco was physically present, it seemed like he wasn't quite there. He kept their interaction to a minimum. He didn't smile at her anymore or do anything else that signaled thathe wanted to be in her company. There was only one explanation... He knew she liked him, but he didn't want to be with her. He was just trying to let her down easy.
On some level she could hear a voice of protest. After all the times he'd teased her and flirted with her, how could he suddenly not be interested? It was all so confusing. Hermione wished that he would just tell her what was going on, tell her straight to her face – not being able to talk to him simply wasn't good for her. What she felt when he incessantly ignored her was nearing physical pain. One way or the other, it needed to be resolved.
Before she could even think about moving on, she needed to be sure he didn't feel anything for her.
* * *
As Hermione's head swam with dark thoughts, Draco wasn't having any fun, either. He wished he had left instead of being a coward and lurking about. He constantly ignored Hermione in order to let her down gently, and every time he saw the hurt look on her face, he felt so horrible he wanted to hurt himself. But he wasn't brave enough for that, either.
The only thing that comforted him was the idea that, since he wasn't on the run, he wouldn't be caught by Death Eaters. They couldn't force him to drink Veritaserum and spill the beans about where he had been and who he had been with. In a way, he was protecting Hermione and all the people who'd been nice to him despite his heritage.
Draco couldn't believe how much he cared about the former know-it-all. He had only wanted to have a little fun, but she'd turned his whole life upside down. Thanks to her, he'd learned a great deal about himself and what life could be like. How could he cause her pain when he owed her so much? Was it right to stay away if it made her feel bad? Because it clearly did. Was it selfish to tell her that he wanted nothing more than to be with her? Yes, it was extremely selfish. But shouldn't it be her choice to make? If she wanted to give him a chance, who was he to stop her?
Did he even have it in him to say no if she wanted him? Only time would tell.
* * *
It was Harry's birthday.
The safe house was full of people – Hermione had no idea when they had appeared. To her surprise, she also found that the living room had expanded quite a bit and was now at least three time its original size. It hadn't been that small to start with, either. On top of everything, Mrs. Weasley had arrived early that morning and decorated it lavishly with lots of balloons and ribbons. It was a sight for sore eyes and, naturally, all Gryffindor colours.
Hermione had had so much on her mind that she hadn't even thought about getting Harry anything. Thankfully, Ginny had purchased a Quidditch book that was a present from both of them. Hermione had just enough time to make him a nice card, though.
Just as she had predicted a week earlier, there were loads of people she hadn't seen in a while. Naturally, they were all Order members. The whole Weasley clan was there, as well as some Hogwarts teachers. Hagrid smiled broadly at her and Tonks gave her a frantic, jovial wave. As she stood in the doorway in her peachy summer dress, looking around at all the familiar faces, a warm feeling spread through her. She was so lucky to have them in her life.
Her gaze fell on the blonde sitting on a sofa in the far corner of the room. She was happy to have him in her life, too, but whether he wanted to be in it...she wasn’t quite sure. She knew one thing, though – it was time to find out. With determination in her steps and posture, she headed towards Draco. His eyes widened as he saw her approaching. It seemed that he was too surprised to escape, and she was quite fine with that.
”Here's the deal, Malfoy... I've had enough of this cat and mouse game,” Hermione announced as she sat down next to him. ”I think I already know why you don't want to spend time with me, but you just need to say it to my face. I'm a big girl, I can handle it.”
Draco shook his head a bit as if to clear it. ”It's not about you, it's just... I've been thinking a lot. About that whole hero-thing. And I'm just not that guy.”
”What do you mean?” she furrowed her brows. The conversation wasn't going in the direction she'd anticipated.
”I believe I'm missing a very important feature.”
”And what would that be?”
His heart was beating rapidly. He hadn't seen her coming until she'd been ten feet away, and she had successfully managed to scare him into talking. The only thing on his mind had been his reason to stay away from her. Now that he had started on this subject, there was no turning back. He would have to tell her, even if it resulted in her laughing in his face. He had never felt so exposed before, but he had to do it.
”Well, I'm sure you know the funny thing about heroes... They always get the girl.” He paused, shaking his head. ”And I don't think I'm worthy of that.”
Hermione's jaw dropped. That was not what she'd expected to hear. She blinked a few times and tried to regain her composure. ”Excuse me, what? Are you saying that –”
”Wotcher, Mione!” Tonks exclaimed suddenly and sat down next to Hermione. ”It's a nice party, isn't it?”
”I... Yes, it is,” she replied, displeased about the intrusion.
”I think I'll go get something to eat,” Draco interjected and quickly got up.
”Draco, wait,” Hermione pleaded, but he was already gone.
Tonks finally noticed there was something going on. ”Oh boy... I interrupted something, didn't I?”
”Well yes, sort of,” Hermione sighed. ”But don't worry about it. I'll talk to him later.”
It was easier said than done. Once she was done chatting with Tonks, she spotted Draco talking to Mrs. Weasley on the other side of the room. By the time she got there he'd already fled the scene. When Harry opened his presents, the crowd was too thick for her to get to him. Later she saw him by the drinks table, but she was pulled aside by Professor McGonagallon her way there.
After chasing him for most of the evening with no success, she was ready to give up. Draco was nowhere to be seen. Not watching where she was going, she bumped into someone. Someone tall and bearded.
”Good evening, Miss Granger,” Professor Dumbledore greeted her amicably and helped her regain her balance. ”How are you doing today?”
”Oh, hello. I'm doing fine, thank you,” Hermione replied. Yet she couldn't stop herself from scanning the room for Draco once again. ”I'm sorry for bumping into you like that, Professor.”
”I see you have something on your mind,” Dumbledore smiled. ”Is it something you wish to talk about?”
”No, not really. I need to sort it out myself. Thank you for asking, though.”
”You are welcome,” he said. ”But if you don't mind my advice – I believe you will find what you are looking for upstairs.” He answered Hermione's questioning look with a wink. ”That magic eye of Alastor's is quite useful sometimes. I suggest you go find young Mr. Malfoy already.”
”Thank you,” Hermione gasped.
Her thoughts ran wild as she ascended the stairs. Finally, she could talk to Draco about whatever crazy theories he had! He didn't think he was a hero? If saving her from being group-raped by Death Eaters wasn't heroic, then what was? Not to mention all the times he had helped her when she hadn’t the strength to carry herself – he could have just left her alone. But if he didn't think he was worthy of having her, how could she convince him that he was?
At the top of the stairs she stopped to take a deep breath and smooth her dress. The door to Draco's room was open a fraction, so she didn't bother to knock. He was sitting on his bed with his back against the wall. He glanced up as she entered the room and closed the door behind her.
Wringing her hands nervously, Hermione took a few tentative steps and came to a halt in the middle of the room. She was more nervous than she had ever been in her life.
”You've been avoiding me," she stated simply.
”I know,” he sighed. ”I'm sorry about that. I wasn't ready to hear what you were going to say. But now that you're here... Let's hear it.”
”I just wanted to tell you that I... I really do think you're a hero.” Her heart was pounding so fast she thought it would jump out of her chest any moment. ”And I like you, Draco, I like you a lot. If you want me, I'm here. Just say the word and I'm yours.”
She was too afraid to look at him after she finished speaking. To be honest, there wasn't much she could see anymore, for her eyes were welling up with tears. It was one of the scariest things she had done in her life, putting herself on the line like that. It took all she had to not start sobbing.
She heard the bed creak as he got up. His quiet footsteps came closer, stopping right in front of her.
”Hey,” Draco said softly, placing a finger under her chin and lifting it up. ”I'm up here.”
Hermione met his eyes and blinked a few times to see him better. He gave her a small smile.
”Now tell me... Are you sure this is what you want? There's not much I can give you.”
”All I need is you,” she assured him.
”You've had me for a long time... Ever since that day you broke the vase and let me comfort you. When you needed me.” He paused to gently caress her cheek. ”No one's ever needed me before.”
”And I've never needed anyone like I need you,” Hermione sniffed, her voice breaking. ”I can't be without you.”
Draco pulled her to him, holding her close and caressing her hair like he'd done a few weeks ago. She clung to him like a lifeline. He was her lifeline – what could she do if she didn't have him? Her life would never be the same if he wasn't in it. She didn't want a life without him.
He didn't want a life without her, either. How could he ever let her go when he finally had a reason to live, a reason to become a better man? He would never let her go again.
He took her face between his hands, looked deep into her eyes and asked, ”Will you be mine?”
”Yes,” she whispered, smiling despite the tears in her eyes. ”I'll always be yours.”
”Thank Merlin,” he smiled widely, ”because I've waited weeks to do this...”
He lowered his face to her level and nuzzled her nose with his affectionately. Her eyes closed in anticipation, and he slowly touched his soft lips to hers.
She melted into his kiss, and nothing else mattered.