Just Breathe

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Story Notes:

Response to Shannon’s request for the HP Ficathon. Hope you like this!
To Shannon, because she loves happy endings and fluffy romance as much as I do!

Originally Posted: August 17, 2004

Hermione woke to the scent of smoke. For a brief moment, the twenty-two year old brunette froze, her eyes watering as she was taken back five years. The smell of smoke, the heat of the flames, the fear, the loss, finding her parents dead and being grateful that they had died from the fumes instead of something more painful. She remembered stumbling through the hallways, barely able to breathe, tears running down her face as she'd fallen and hit her head on the table by the stairs. She had made it back to her room in the attic, grabbing her wand and illegally apparating away from her burning home just as the flames had begun to move up the staircase to her room, barely surviving the fire.

To this day, she honestly didn't know how she had been able to remain calm enough to apparate, knowing that she'd been far more emotional than she’d ever been before that night. To wake once again to the scent of smoke caused a moment of anxiety and pure fear. The Death Eaters were back, they'd found her and were finishing the task of murdering her, that was the fear running through her mind. It took her a moment to calm down and remind herself that Voldemort was dead, the War ending several months before, the majority of his followers had been killed or captured. Besides that, she was in America, of all places, carrying out a mission for the Order and only Harry and Remus knew where she was living at the moment. Just breathe, she told herself, taking a few deep breaths and letting them out slowly.

Relaxing just slightly, the witch sniffed the air and noticed the difference in the scent of the smoke. Burning toast. That's all it was, thank Merlin. At her home that summer day before her final year at Hogwarts, the scent of smoke had been thick and suffocating and painful. A fire started in the sitting room, magically induced by a group of Death Eaters that had stood outside and watched the house burn down, believing that they had killed Potter's best friend and one of the greatest threats against Voldemort. Hermione had been at the top of Voldemort's list for years, knowing the risk and danger of helping Harry but choosing to fight with her best friend because she believed it was the right thing to do.

She had been assured that her parents were protected, that they were hidden and would never be found, that it was safe to be home that summer. The Order had been wrong. By going home that summer, by retreating to the Muggle world for those few weeks to spend time with the family she loved instead of remaining at Grimmauld Place with the Order, she had led Voldemort right to them and they'd been killed in that fire. She'd escaped and made it her mission to see Voldemort and every Death Eater that had been at her house that evening dead.

Her determination and focus had caused her friends to be worried, but Harry understood and they had become closer after she lost her parents. Together with Ron and the Order, they had fought and planned for over four years, losing so many lives on both sides of the War, finally having a battle half a year ago that had resulted in Voldemort's death. She had seen the deaths of those men responsible for her parents' murder, but it had not taken away the loss or the nightmares of that night. Even now, nearly five years later, she often woke to the scent of smoke and felt that same paralyzing fear and sense of helplessness.

Remus said it would get better over time, that she would eventually stop being so afraid and could start living once again. The older wizard was a bit of a surrogate older brother to both her and Harry and worried about them, wanting them to be happy now that Voldemort was destroyed. She had a feeling that he had asked her to carry out this mission not only because she was the only one he trusted with it, as he had claimed, but because he thought getting away might help her heal. To be honest, it had been nice to get away from England and she'd eagerly accepted the assignment in which she was entrusted. However, waking to the scent of smoke was not a peaceful feeling and she knew that she had to get up and find out what he'd done now.

Draco Malfoy. Her assignment. The blond wizard had been a Death Eater, taking the mark shortly after her parents' deaths. Lucius had been released from Azkaban during their sixth year, surprising no one and most likely buying his way out of prison. That following summer, his son had accepted the dark mark and joined Voldemort. She had not discovered that Malfoy had replaced Snape as the Order's spy until two years after graduation, having believed until then that he had willingly chosen to follow Voldemort and that he enjoyed the killing and torture that the Death Eaters considered fun.

Even now, she had no idea what had happened to turn the Pureblood prat against his Father and Voldemort, knowing only that he had supplied vital information to the Order and had risked his life daily to help defeat the Dark Lord. He had never been friendly to any of them, his usual smirk on his lips during the few private Order meetings he would attend, giving no indication to his motivation or explanation to his behavior. He always seemed basically the same arrogant bastard that had spent seven years tormenting her and hating her, Harry, and Ron.

There were times, though, that she had seen a glimpse of something else besides conceit and smugness. She had seen a flash of vulnerability that he quickly hid or a hint of fear in his pale gray eyes as he spoke of Voldemort's latest actions or a sigh in his husky voice as gave them information that he had gathered. She could only imagine the horror he had seen, the things he had been forced to participate in to keep his cover and not draw suspicion, knowing by the final battle that she had no idea who the real Draco Malfoy was or what he was like. She knew only the image that he wished to project, the blond far more private and secretive than she'd ever realized, constantly showing off and drawing attention to himself but never actually sharing anything except that which he wanted people to see.

She hadn't been pleased at the knowledge that she had misjudged him for years, allowing her annoyance at his insults and rude attitude to cloud her judgement where Malfoy was concerned. Hermione honestly hadn't trusted him after learning that he was a spy, years of listening to his snide comments about her blood and Muggles causing her to doubt his sincerity. There had been no explanation to him turning on Lucius and she wasn't one to blindly trust anyone, especially not Malfoy. During the last year of the War, though, she had watched him when he wasn't aware he was being observed and that's when she'd seen glimpses of a man that she didn't know.

Someone who was scared and a bit lost and far more brave than a Slytherin deserved to be and far more complicated and complex than she would have ever assumed. He wasn't just a spoiled Pureblood bastard that enjoyed insulting Muggleborns and loathed Muggles, that being the only Draco Malfoy that he'd ever shown while at Hogwarts. During the Final Battle, he had been hurt, hit with several rare curses by his own Father after Lucius learned of his betrayal during that battle before he had managed to curse Lucius with the Killing Curse before sliding into unconsciousness. Hermione had been the closest to him when he fell, instinctively moving beside his battered body and shielding them until the Battle was over and he could be taken to St. Mungos.

He had been in the hospital for four months, the Mediwitch uncertain if he would regain consciousness even as his body slowly began to heal without the aid of magic. No one was certain which curses Lucius had used upon the slender blond, though it was obvious that they had been dark magic because his normally pale skin had been a ghostly white and he'd barely been breathing, seeming to struggle for the breaths he could make. It had been frustrating, to sit and watch him without being able to do anything to help the wizard that had given the necessary information to finally end the War.

They had not wanted to risk his life by using magic to heal him, fearful that they might cause a reaction depending on the curses that had been used against him. Hermione had spent hours every day in his hospital room, researching the few things she could remember seeing when she had glanced at him and Lucius fighting during the Battle. The brunette witch owed him her life, the Slytherin saving her from a well-aimed curse from the elder Crabbe, and she never forgot her debts.

So she had sat with him every day as he slept and healed. Reading to him from the texts she had found to try to locate some of the spells Lucius might have used. Telling him about the survivors and the changes that were happening in the Wizarding world. Laughing about Harry's annoyance at being considered a celebrity while everyone else that had fought in the Final Battle was often overlooked. Sharing things with the comatose wizard that she had never told anyone, knowing that he couldn't hear her but finding that it did help to talk about things. She told him about her parents and her childhood and her life in the Muggle world, things that he would never ask or care about hearing. But talking about them helped her remember the good times she had, replacing the memory of that horrible night when they had died and she had been unable to save them.

Three months after the Final Battle, Draco had woken up. His first words as he opened his eyes and looked at her, his lips curving into a familiar smirk that she'd honestly missed and feared she'd never see again were that she talked too bloody much. He'd never said whether or not he had heard what she said when he'd been unconscious nor had she asked. Visiting Draco had become a part of her routine, one that continued after he woke up, during the month it took for him to recuperate and be released.

He always made a big show of not caring if she visited or not, but she had seen the look of pleasure in his eyes when she arrived every evening and the look of disappointment when it was time for her to leave. She had also seen the nervous worry when he'd smirk and say that he expected she'd be unable to resist his charm and would be back again the next day, relaxing every time she made some rude comment before confirming that she would be back. She guessed they had become friends, in a way, during that month. He was surprisingly quiet about his private life, never saying a word about his Father or being a Death Eater, though she had caught him rubbing his thumb over the discoloration on his arm where the Dark Mark had once been, now just a faint scar that would never heal.

When Draco's release had been imminent, Remus had called her in for a meeting. With Albus' death shortly after Graduation and Moody's death during a battle a year later, Remus had become the head of the Order. Minerva and Snape had their hands full running Hogwarts, neither wanting the extra responsibility. After the War, he had been offered a position at the Ministry by the new Minister, Amelia Bones, accepting the job and title, now working closely with Aurors in the capture of the remaining Death Eaters as well as continuing his duties as Head of the Order. He had told her that Draco's life was in danger as long as there were Death Eaters around, having heard about threats to the Malfoy that had betrayed them all.

Remus expressed more concern for Draco's safety than even Harry's, bluntly informing her that the blond was still healing from the Final Battle and wasn't yet in a position to defend himself should the Death Eaters find him. It seemed that the minions of the Dark Lord were not at all pleased to find out about him working as a spy, had vowed to find him, and insure that he regretted choosing to oppose Voldemort. They blamed him for their Lord's defeat because of the important information that was given to the Order so it would be extremely dangerous for Draco until the last of them were finally captured.

Her assignment was given. Take Draco into the Muggle world and teach him how to live without magic so that he could hide amongst Muggles until it was safe for him to return to the Wizarding world. Draco had opposed the very idea of hiding, snarling at Remus from his hospital bed that a Malfoy never ran away nor did one cower before the threat of danger. She honestly thought he had been ready to grab his wand and go after any of the wizards that had threatened him despite the fact that he was barely standing for lengthy periods of time. He had reluctantly agreed after Remus casually mentioned keeping him in the hospital until the threat was gone as the alternative.

He had been released from the hospital six weeks ago and they had come to this lovely house in New Orleans to wait. Once Draco felt confident living on his own as a Muggle, she would return to England and figure out what to do with her life now that she knew there was a chance for a future. She had always been hesitant thinking about the future, a part of her knowing that she could die at any time and that making plans that might never happen was a waste of time when there had been more important things to worry about. Now that the blond wizard was learning the Muggle way and seemed to be showing a surprising aptitude for learning and knowledge that proved his high marks had been earned, she was forced to acknowledge that he wouldn't need her for much longer.

That idea bothered her far more than it should. Making a face as she got up, not believing she'd taken a nap for several hours, she shook her head, not wanting to dwell on the strange feelings she was having for Draco. Somewhere over the last six months, she had fallen in love with him. The very idea was ridiculous because she still hardly knew anything about him. He was so reserved and private, having let her in more than anyone else but still keeping so much of his life and thoughts to himself and never sharing. She knew he had nightmares, had woken after hearing a low cry from his room on many an evening. She'd go into his room and watch him thrash on the bed, the covers bunched around his feet, his hands clenching the sheet beneath him as he whimpered softly.

Those nights, she would crawl into bed with him, holding him gently as he tossed and turned until he eventually relaxed against her and slipped into a deep sleep. She would always return to her own room before he woke up, not sure how he would react to her holding him such a tender way when he barely tolerated her presence in his life. Of course, she suspected he must know. He watched her when he thought she wasn't paying attention, curiosity and something she couldn't quite place in his pale eyes.

The night before, she had woken to find him in her bed, holding her tightly against him as he slept peacefully, his face showing marks of fallen tears, something that also happened quite a bit during his worst nightmares. He would cry silently as he slept, his body twisting on the bed as he dreamed. It was the first time he had been in her room, in her bed, and she still wasn't sure why he had sought her out after waking from what had obviously been one of his nightmares. She'd been having one of her own that night, visions of her parents in her mind before she'd drifted into a more pleasant dream of laying on a blanket and looking at the stars. Draco's arms around her as he whispered words of love and devotion that she would never hear anywhere but her dreams.

Hermione had laid in his arms, enjoying the feel of his embrace, for hours before he had woken. As he opened his eyes, he'd looked into her own and simply whispered a good morning before his fingers had brushed a lock of hair from her cheek. It had been a quiet moment, something rare for them. They often debated and had discussions about any number of topics, enjoying the verbal sparring that was no longer cruel and insulting but more playful and fun. They would sit in silence, reading or watching the television, one of the few Muggle things in which Draco had reluctantly expressed a fondness.

He was usually content to make rude remarks about Muggles and their unusual and difficult ways before whining about wanting his wand so he could do things much more quickly and with little effort. But they had only had a few moments like that one, quiet and gentle, so much being said without words, confusing her now just as it had when they'd been at the hospital and he'd given her that same unfamiliar look that had her heart racing and her stomach tingling. She'd almost kissed him that morning, her eyes on his full lips, her head swaying forward slightly. Then he'd gotten up, his fingers moving through his pale blond hair, her eyes moving over his bare back as he got out of bed, lingering on the curves of his arse beneath his boxers.

She'd showered and gotten dressed before joining him downstairs. He was trying to learn how to cook, that being one of the few things he had not yet mastered. The measurements in America were different than in England and both were different from what he knew of the Wizarding world. He had grown up with House Elves, never cooking anything for himself until moving here. He had given her a look when she entered the kitchen, cool gray eyes sweeping over her so quickly she almost wondered if she had imagined it before he had told her he was making breakfast. It had been perfect. Bacon and eggs and French toast, the latter rather complicated and Draco had made it perfectly.

Neither had said a word about waking up together, simply eating and reading the Muggle newspaper and arguing over whether they thought it would sunny or cloudy that day. She had expressed her enjoyment of his meal, commenting that he seemed to be learning how to cook and that she guessed it wouldn't be long until he no longer needed her. Hermione had given him a proud smile, but her eyes had been flat and her voice sad as she spoke. He'd made an appropriately smug remark about being perfect, causing her to laugh softly before she'd picked at her food, her appetite gone at the realization that she would be leaving soon.

After breakfast, they'd gone for a walk then the grocery store, Hermione watching Draco shop, pleased that he had learned what everything was and where it was located. He had paid for their purchases, smirking when he'd informed the cashier of a mistake in the change, obviously proud that he understood the American Muggle money. By the time they returned to their flat, she'd been depressed and melancholy, having seen that he was now capable of going out and blending into Muggle society easily, only receiving a look if it was one of appreciation for his handsome face and muscular build.

The brunette witch had given him a weak smile, seeing the curious look in his eyes as he'd asked her if something was wrong, muttering that she was a bit tired and thought she'd take a nap that afternoon. She'd gone to her room and held the pillow that he had slept on, inhaling his scent as she'd drifted off to sleep. Hermione left her room, the smell of burning toast worse as she moved down the hall. She entered the kitchen to find him glaring at the toaster, a knife in his hand. "Draco, put the knife down!"

"It won't let go of my toast," Draco snarled as he turned his glare from the toaster to her, "I am merely getting the toast out before that putrid scent permeates the entire flat."

"You can't put a knife into the toaster when it's hot and plugged in," Hermione rolled her eyes as she quickly moved forward and unplugged the machine. "Merlin, Draco, you could have been hurt. I warned you about being careful with the Muggle appliances."

"Did you?" he arched a brow and shrugged, "I don't recall that warning."

"Well, I made it," she said crossly, pushing on the lever in the toaster to try to get the burning toast out. She frowned, "I think something's stuck in here."

"Just leave it, Granger," Draco said smoothly, "the smell will fade now. Did you enjoy your nap? I've been bored this afternoon, if you happen to care at all."

"It was pleasant," she replied as she continued to try to figure out what was wrong with the toaster. "And don't call me Granger."

"Granger, Granger, Granger," he repeated with a mischievous smile as he moved to sit on the table, his eyes moving over her tenderly before he shook his head slightly.

"Malfoy," Hermione's tone was threatening, her lips curved into an affectionate smile as she listened to him behaving like an immature first year.

"Damn it, Hermione, leave the bloody toaster alone!" Draco groaned as he got off the table and pulled her away from the annoying Muggle appliance before she discovered his deception. When she looked at him, he sighed, "I guess I'm not quite so clever with cooking as I thought."

"It was just toast," Hermione said patiently, "you know you're an excellent cook. Merlin, you're better than I am at cooking!"

"No, this just proves that I am inept at cooking for myself," Draco insisted, his eyes watching her pretty face, wondering if she had any idea how beautiful she looked after her nap. Normally, he would sooner face Voldemort than admit there was something he could not do, but this was a special situation and it required him to verbalize his shortcomings. Of course, to be quite honest, he had figured out how to cook a majority of the items in the books Hermione had bought weeks ago. He had always been a quick learner, mastering this Muggle stuff after a few weeks. However, if he allowed her to believe that he could manage without her guidance, she'd leave. And, well, that just wouldn't do at all.

He wasn't quite sure when it happened, was still trying to adjust to the knowledge, was a bit lost on what to do about it, but Draco had realized weeks ago that he was in love with Hermione. When he had been in the hospital, it had been so tempting to just let go, to simply fade away and not have to deal with his past and an uncertain future. He had done things that sickened him, carrying out every demand made by his Father, becoming a younger version of the monster that had sired him, and it had never been good enough. Nothing had been good enough for Lucius Malfoy, Draco had never been good enough.

He'd tried. For a year, he had tried. He'd attended meetings and participated in torture and rape and murder, finding it horrible but willingly doing it in hopes that Lucius would be proud. He'd finally had a realization one morning during seventh year that he was doing the one thing he had vowed never to do. He was becoming Lucius Malfoy, losing himself in the process. That was the day he had made his decision to change his life, to take it back and make it his, going to Dumbledore and offering his services as a spy. From that moment on, Draco had finally begun to feel a sense of his self. Learning who he was when he wasn't being Lucius' Son or Slytherin Prince, discovering the real Draco that he had spent years hiding because of his need to please Lucius and do what was expected of him.

Draco had spent years spying, playing the game so well that Lucius never suspected. He had earned a place amongst Voldemort's inner circle, the youngest in such a respected position. It had given the information necessary to pass along to the Order to strike damaging blows against the Dark Lord. It was during the midst of his subterfuge, when he was walking a thin line and having to be cautious about every word said and every action made, that he had noticed Hermione Granger.

He knew her, of course. Potty's little Mudblood, the annoying, bossy, know-it-all that had bested him in nearly every class, hearing her name often when his Father was degrading him for allowing a Mudblood to score such high marks and earn such responsibilities as Prefect and then Head Girl. He knew the name extremely well, lashing out at her often during their school years because of the humiliation he felt every time his Father uttered her name in that smug 'you'll never be good enough, Son, if you let some Mudblood whore best you' tone.

She confused him, always had and still did. He'd been taught that Mudbloods were worthless and pathetic, a waste of magic ability and undeserving of their gift. But Granger, she'd been determined and brilliant and had more skill with her wand than most anyone he knew. He'd disliked her from the start, not just because of her blood but because she had dismissed him rudely on the train to Hogwarts their first year. It had been galling that some bushy-haired, buck-toothed witch had given him a look that suggested she was superior and then proceeded to call him a rude and spoiled boy in that haughty tone of hers.

He'd spent seven years disliking her, constantly teasing her at every opportunity, challenging her for top marks, ridiculing her friends, fighting with her, getting her attention in any way possible. When he'd noticed her maturing into a beautiful young woman, he had sought her out more often, making snide remarks and insuring that she didn't ignore him. Looking back now, he had to wonder if it was possible that he'd always fancied her a bit and just hadn't known how to handle the confusing feelings she brought out in him. But he tried not to dwell on the past so he was content in the belief that he'd always found her an annoying and bossy witch and hadn't noticed her until after graduation.

She had been his hope. When he had been in the hospital so ready to just let go and stop fighting the pain, he had heard her voice. He knew he had been in a coma and that there was little chance he'd actually heard her talking to him, but he knew it was true. It had been dark and endless where he had been drifting, his life passing him by as the days had gone by, but her voice had kept him fighting, given him a reason to live. When he'd finally woken up, he'd looked at her and realized that he cared about her. In the three months since, he had acknowledged that his feelings had developed into something more meaningful. He loved Hermione Granger.

He loved her. It was difficult to explain how those three words had changed his entire life. He'd never believed in love, never experienced the emotion he heard others discuss so freely. His Father had never loved him, never shown him any kindness or affection. His Mum had cared for him as one might a precious keepsake, doting on him but treating him as if he were a belonging, merely another way to show her value in Pureblood society by producing such a handsome and intelligent son. She had spoiled him to avoid loving him, Narcissa having no knowledge of that word love either. Her marriage was an arrangement between two wealthy Pureblood families, the emotion of love never existing between her and Lucius.

He had loved both his parents, as any child should, but had soon realized that he would never have their love and it hadn't been worth the pain of loving them to continue doing so as he got older. Draco had been completely lost at how to deal with his emotions regarding Hermione, used to getting what he wanted without effort, accustomed to having everything he desired with a flirtatious smile and a wink. Hermione couldn't give a knut about the fortune he had inherited from his Father nor did she respond to his flirting or looks like so many other witches. She preferred sitting with him when he looked a step away from death and could barely walk without assistance, looking at him then in a way that gave him hope she might possibly return his feelings.

When he had been told about the Order's assignment, sending them to this Muggle town in America, he'd resisted at first because he hadn't liked the idea of running away from the threat on his life. However, he had quickly realized that it would provide him with an opportunity to have Hermione to himself, to get to know everything about her and possibly give her a chance to develop feelings for him. He had deliberately taken longer to learn things, knowing that the longer it took for him to master living as a Muggle, the longer Hermione would remain with him. It was nearly two months, though, and he'd gotten a bit impatient and begun showing off to her, wanting her proud smile aimed at him.

Last night, he'd woken from another nightmare, only this time she hadn't been holding him. Without any second thought, he'd been out of his bed and down the hall to her room, finding her having her own nightmare. He'd crawled into bed with her, finding comfort being surrounded by her scent and the feel of her body pressed against his. Just being there with Hermione kept the nightmares away. Draco had snuggled against her and fallen asleep, feeling as if everything was finally right in the world by having her in his arms. Upon waking, he'd nearly kissed her, wanting nothing more than to push her against the bed and make love to her, show her what he couldn't find the words to tell her.

He'd finally gotten up, not wanting her to excuse anything that might happen between them as simply lust or desire. After dressing, he had made breakfast, watching her face as she'd made a comment about her not being needed. They'd gone shopping and then she'd taken a nap, looking terribly unhappy and confusing him. It had only been after he'd put away their groceries and sat in the sitting room that he realized she didn't want to leave him, the belief that he no longer needed her causing that unhappiness.

With that knowledge in mind, he had thought up a plan. It was time to tell her how he felt, no matter how scared he felt about putting these unknown emotions she caused into words. With very little effort, he had broken the toaster, knowing the scent of the burning bread would spread throughout their flat and wake her up. Once she was awake, he intended to show her that he did need her, wanting her to realize how he felt before he bungled it all up by trying to tell her. Instead, she'd come in and scolded him for using a knife, rather proud of thinking that bit up to prove that he was somewhat helpless in the Muggle world when she wasn't around.

"Draco?" Hermione said for the third time, watching him shake his head slightly and look at her.

"Sorry, I was thinking," he arched a brow, "you were saying?"

"I said that you're very talented when it comes to cooking. It was just a toaster malfunction, nothing you caused," she repeated softly.

"You are extremely difficult," Draco declared with an aggravated sigh before he turned and walked out of the kitchen into the sitting room.

"What?" she gaped at him, following quickly, "What do you mean, I'm difficult? I was woken from a nap by the smell of smoke, something that does not bring back pleasant memories at all, and I still managed to come in here and console you over the burned toast. How does that make me difficult?"

"Bloody hell," Draco cursed as he faced her, his eyes flashing with regret as he whispered, "I'm sorry, Hermione. I forgot about….the smoke. I didn't think."

"It's not like it was deliberate, Draco," Hermione said, her eyes widening when she saw the guilty expression cross his handsome face. "You burned the toast on purpose? Why?"

"I," Draco started, frowning as the words wouldn't come. His fingers moved through his blond hair as he muttered, "I'm not good at this, Hermione. I don't know how to say what I feel. I tried to show you but I fucked that up royally, too. Merlin, I don't know what else to do."

"How you feel?" she repeated slowly, her expression curious as she watched him lose his infamous poise and calm, looking a bit vulnerable and scared as he stood before her.

"I need you," he spoke suddenly, his eyes catching hers as he realized what he had said. "I mean, I, uh, you, you're important."

"Okay," she frowned when he stammered, believing that was the first time that Draco had ever hesitated when speaking. She was starting to get a headache, not understanding what he was trying to say and wishing he'd stop looking so damn adorable.

"Hermione, I," Draco started to say the word, testing it out, "love." He smiled slightly as he repeated it, "love. love. love. Merlin, it gets easier after the first time, doesn't it?"

"I guess so," she smiled softly watching his face, seeing the look of pleasure in his eyes as he said a word that she found easy to say, probably using it far more often than necessary and thus taking away some of its value. How often had she said I love books or I love school or telling her friends she loved them but never once saying the words I love you to a boyfriend or lover.

"I love you," Draco informed her in a matter of fact tone, watching her eyes widen as she stared at him. He smirked, "If that's all I ever needed to say to cause you to be speechless, I should have said it years ago."

"Draco," Hermione hesitated, not sure if he meant he loved her like Harry loved her or could he possibly mean it in the way that Arthur meant it when he said it to Molly?

"I love you, Hermione," Draco smiled smugly, "and I said it first, if you'll notice. It would seem that I finally bested you at something." His smile faded as he looked into her eyes and asked anxiously, "Isn't this the point where you repeat it? You do love me, don't you? I know that I'm an arrogant prat and you think I'm a spoiled and smug bastard most the time and that I'm not nearly good enough for you, but I need you and want you and love you."

"I love you too," she finally found her voice and spoke up, watching the change come over his face at her words. He looked happier than she had ever seen him, completely unguarded, his lips curved into a real smile as he moved closer and brought his lips against hers in a passionate but tender kiss. She moaned softly as she opened her mouth to him, her hands moving behind his head and tangling in his hair.

Reluctantly releasing her lips, his fingers moved over her forehead and her cheeks, tracing the scar she had received during that horrible night she had lost her parents. He brushed his lips against it before looking into her brown eyes, simply staring at her as if he couldn't believe she loved him and had given herself to him.

""You're wrong, Draco," she smiled gently, putting her fingers against his lips when he started to protest. "You *are* good enough for me. You're intelligent and caring and honest and sexy and quite good looking. Forget what anyone else has ever told you in the past. I love you, all of you, good and bad, and I accept you completely."

"I love you, Hermione," the words becoming easier to say the more often he said them, the blond wizard deciding that he would say them as often as possible to let her know how he felt. Draco looked into her eyes, the voice of his Father fading slightly as he saw the love and admiration in her gaze. He wanted to take her into the bedroom and spend days making love to her, tasting her and touching her and learning every sound she made during the throes of passion.

He then intended to marry her so that everyone knew what a lucky bastard he was for having such a brilliant and beautiful wife. After that, a few years together and then children, lots of children. He couldn't wait to be a Father, vowing to never behave the way that his own Father had, wanting his children to be loved and appreciated and never feel unwanted or inferior or worthless. He didn’t think beyond children, knowing that was far enough in the future for the time being. He wanted everything with Hermione, love, marriage, children, grandchildren, a future full of happiness and affection that he had never had before. For now, though, he just wanted another kiss.

*the end *