"Hermione," he says, and she can hear the ending in his voice. There's an ache in the four syllables of her name, a finality that makes her chest tight. She can't bear to look at him. She doesn't want to see that ending in his pale grey eyes as well as hear it in his words.
She closes her eyes and turns away from him, wrapping her arms around herself to hide the tremble in her hands. She moves, pacing restlessly beside the carved marble railing of the long gallery that spans the width of the Manor. She walks to the end, her dark, loose curls lifting in the breeze that blows over her each time she passes another in the line of pointed arches that look out over the gardens and the mowed fields beyond.
At the last arch, she stops and puts one hand on the side of it. The warmth of the faded sun is still in the rough edges of the stone, and she hopes that warmth can soak into her body, straight to her bones and into the chill in her blood. The sky still has traces of rose and saffron in it, lilac and tangerine and salmon and peach all tinting the narrow ribbons of cloud that drift and curl over the land. A pair of songbirds swoop past the gallery, chirping and twittering in a dance that spirals up and away. Somewhere in the gardens, amongst the tall yew hedges and banks of flowers, one of the white peacocks lets out a raucous, harsh shriek.
Hermione leans against the arch, the peacock's voice seeming to take the crushing pain in her heart and make it real. "You couldn't do it," she says, her voice thick and slow. "After all your talk, all your promises, you couldn't do it. You couldn't stand up to him. You swore to me, Draco. You swore that you'd stand up for this. For us."
He crosses the gallery, his boots making dull, muffled clicks on the wide planks. A thousand years of Malfoy descendants have crossed that polished floor, Hermione knows. And she knows that she is one of the first Muggle-borns to walk it. She is certainly the first to be welcomed into the house by any resident in generations. And now, she thinks, she will likely be the last. Her breath catches and she grinds her teeth together to hold back the sound. If she must walk out, she will walk out with her chin high.
"Hermione," Draco says in a low voice as he nears her. She doesn't move from the arch. He lifts his hand and touches her shoulder, strokes his fingers down the length of her arm to brush over the back of her hand. The silk of his long robes is softer than the breeze and he stands so near to her that she can feel the warmth of his body. His breath stirs the small, tight curls at her hairline when he ducks his head to murmur close to her ear. "Hermione, you've been right about so many things during our relationship. You were right, at the beginning, when you said you were willing to give me a chance. When none of your friends would even look at me, you were willing to let me try to make my own way. You were right when you said I was changing, that I was becoming a better man. You were right, every time. No matter what anyone said or how anyone argued, no matter the pressure you faced or the protests that were raised, you were strong, and you were right. You've been right about everything."
He pauses, exhaling with a tremble, and Hermione closes her eyes shut as he laces his fingers in hers. She takes a deep breath and holds it, waiting for him to say it one more time. She waits for him to tell her that she is right again, that this is the end. Draco dips his head and kisses the hollow beneath her ear, his lips moving gently over the sensitive skin. His free arm slips around her waist and he pressed close to her, holding her with such familiarity that she shivers in his embrace.
Draco's soft mouth and the heat of his breath travel up the curve of her ear for another kiss to the shell. "You've been right about everything," he says again, his voice barely as loud as a whisper. "But you're wrong about this."
He squeezes her fingers, and for the first time she notices that something is different about the feel of his hand in hers. Slowly, she opens her eyes and turns her head to look at their joined fingers. His hand covers hers entirely, and she tries not to think of all the times his hands have explored her body, of how he can be gentle and strong at the same time when he caresses her. It takes her a moment to realize what has changed about his touch.
"Your ring," she says, the words barely more than a breath. His signet ring, the Malfoy signet ring, made of thick, dark metal, has never left his hand once in the years she's known him. The square emerald in a setting formed to look like a snake's fangs is as much a part of him as his bright hair or the faded black brand in his arm. Now, it's missing. Even in his pale skin, she can see a paler line where it rode for so many years. His hand looks oddly naked and vulnerable without it. "Draco, where's your ring?"
He curls his fingers, wrapping her hand in his. He nuzzles into her hair, lips soft against the back of her neck. Hermione can feel him trembling now that she's focused, now that she's not feeling overwhelmed with the fear that this is the end. She turns in his arms and leans against the ledge of the arch. He keeps his head bowed, his lashes lowered, preventing her from seeing his eyes. Hermione knows that he can hide his emotions and block his thoughts with an expression as still as a statue, but he has never been able to disguise his reactions in his eyes. Not from her. If he's trying to keep his eyes from her, he's trying to protect her. He's trying even harder to protect himself.
Gently, she caresses his cheek and brushes her thumb across his lips. "Draco," she murmurs. She slowly loosens her hand from his and slides both hands up his chest. Even through his robes, she can feel his heart pounding beneath her palm. It's hard and fast, racing She cups his cheeks and holds her gaze steady on his face. "Draco, where's your ring?"
"I talked to him." Draco's voice is soft and shaking and he won't lift his head to meet her eyes. Hermione doesn't move, doesn't release him. She waits for him to continue. He has to find his own way, she knows that. He can't be forced. If she pushes too hard, he'll pull away. That was a hard-learned lesson for her, but one that she kept close to her heart. Hermione waits, breathing slow, keeping her hands on his cheeks so he can feel her support.
"I talked to him," Draco says again. "My father. I finally, actually talked to him. About this. About us. About what's happened so far and about what's going to happen. And he ... he gave me an order. He ordered me to break it off with you."
Hermione feels the muscles between her shoulder blades tightening. Lucius Malfoy has never accepted her relationship with his son. He is never shy about telling Draco to 'get over this ridiculous fancy', to experiment if necessary but not to allow emotion to overrule sense, responsibility, and duty. She hears their arguments every time she sets foot in the Manor. The one concession Lucius has ever made is to avoid speaking that way in her presence. He tolerates her, she knows, but it is nothing more than tolerance.
She keeps her breathing steady, keeps her hands calm on Draco's cheeks. Slowly, he reaches up and wraps his fingers around her wrists. "He ordered me to break things off with you, to leave you," he says in a low voice, his lashes quivering against his cheeks. "And I told him.... I told him...."
Draco swallows hard and presses his lips together. Hermione can feel a muscle jumping beneath her hand, can feel the tension in his jaw as he grinds his teeth. Draco inhales, and it sounds almost like a gasp. "I told him that I have never been happier than when I'm with you. That I can't breathe, that I can't feel my heart beating unless I'm with you. That the world is grey and empty when you're not around, but when you're near, I can see all the color and life that exists."
Now that he's speaking, he can't seem to stop, and Hermione can do nothing but cling to him, watch his face, and listen to her blood racing wild and hot through her body. "I told him," Draco says, "that I would walk into hell for you. With you. That I would rather spend eternity alone, as a drifting ghost, than spend it without you. That I would rather be lost forever than give up what I found with you. I told him that I would give up everything for you."
He lifts his head and meets her eyes. Hermione's throat tightens at the pain reflected in his gaze, at the deep ache in his eyes, dark as granite with emotion. Draco gently pulls her hands from his cheeks and kisses each of her palms, kisses the pads of her thumbs and the ridge of her knuckles. "You thought I wouldn't stand up for you, Hermione? You were wrong. I stood up for you. For us. And I gave up everything. Blood, gold, lineage, family. I've given it up. For you. Because I meant it. I've never been happier, and you're worth the world to me."
Hermione squeezes his hands, tears stinging at her eyes. The trust and love he's providing to her, that he's offering to her, is more precious than anything she could have ever imagined. She can't comprehend how difficult it must have been for Draco to make that decision, but it humbles her. She loves him, and she's never doubted that he loves her. She simply hadn't realized that he loves her this much.
She draws his head down and kisses the corners of his mouth. She kisses him fiercely and holds him close. "You didn't give up everything, love," she whispers. "We'll have everything. We'll stand together."