"Azkaban or exile."
The words rang around his skull, bouncing through the ridges of his brain matter until Draco Malfoy was certain he was going to simply implode from the pressure of it. His heart thrummed an anxious cadence against his ribcage, as if straining to get through all its last remaining beats before Azkaban began its slow seizure of his soul.
Despite the fact that there were no more Dementors guarding its high walls, the wizarding prison was still no picnic. In fact, Draco had heard it had only grown worse.
Pressing his eyes tightly shut, tension lingering in every nerve of his body, he forced himself to breathe. Not to speak – to beg, Merlin forsake it, for his life.
The worst part? He deserved Azkaban. He was the last Marked Death Eater still walking free, and he knew the Wizengamot would happily make him their last example. It was up to the jury to seal his fate. The cold stares of men and women who had undoubtedly been wronged by his sort had lingered on him throughout the trial.
And now… Draco didn't expect their pity.
Despite that he was only just eighteen. Despite the fact that he'd once, years ago, had other aspirations for his life.
The cards had been dealt. His days had been numbered since the fall of Voldemort in May, and judgement day had come at last.
With bated breath, he waited, unable to watch his own slow dissolution at the hands of others. Until at last, the votes were tallied, and his fate echoed through the courtroom, resounding and austere.
"Exile it is."
Tears broke from his eyes, a great heaving breath tearing from his throat as moisture tracked down his cheeks. Exile. A fresh start. Because that's all he could reasonably see it as. Exile was no punishment, not when it gave him an escape from his current, cold reality.
"Exile," the Chief Warlock repeated, a wicked smile curling his mouth, "and total Obliviation."
Before Draco could speak – before his mind could even process the words and attempt to coil a web of protection over the very matter that comprised Draco Malfoy –
A wave of magic swept through him, washing away all that he once was.
The cold seeped into Draco's bones, but that was nothing new. It was a daily battle, and a daily question – why had he chosen to live here?
As always, there was no answer. He didn't know.
It was one of the gaping blocks in his mind, and he wondered why he didn't know so many things. He had simply woken one morning in the rustic cabin in which he lived, and rose to put coal on the small stove. There was a colony of research scientists nearby, but they were transient and no one ever stayed longer than a couple of months. They had filled in some of the gaps – but no one could understand why he lived there.
How he lived there.
It was, so they claimed, inhospitable.
They called him insane and a madman, and did he seriously not feel the cold?
He did, but he simply didn't know anything else. Every so often, a shipment of supplies was left in a crate just inside his cottage – non-perishable goods, clothes and blankets, and other essentials. On occasion, books.
Never a letter or a note, and never anyone to explain. All they had told him was his own name.
One of the scientists who had left several months ago had given Draco a calendar, and he'd hung it on the wall in his kitchen, diligently marking the days since he had no other way to track the time. And now, in June, the ubiquitous cold was almost more than he could handle.
The baffled scientists offered to take him back home with them – wherever home was – but a screaming voice in the back of his mind had stopped him from accepting the offer. A bitter clenching in his chest. Something he couldn't comprehend required he remain where he was.
But there was something else – a recent development, and he had only been able to pin down the feeling to the fifth of June. A tightness in his chest – a melancholy in his soul. As if he was missing something, or someone, but couldn't place it.
His dreams had become haunted, and he struggled to sleep at night.
It had become just one more gaping question in Draco's life. He wondered, day in and day out, until the very thought of it had become futile, whether any of the questions would ever find answers.
Releasing a long breath, Hermione Granger clutched a hand to her chest. The pain was only worsening, and despite having been to see three Healers, she'd yet to find an answer. But not only was the pain physical, a fragile sort of despair had seeped in, tugging at something deep within her soul that refused to find rest.
No longer could she sleep, and she felt older than her twenty-one years. Something dark had settled deep within her, tugging and drawing something she couldn't give.
It was like a sort of longing. Like she was missing something she couldn't explain.
Grimacing as she swept her hair out of her face, she continued with her task. Out of every Death Eater that had been tried in the aftermath of the war, only one had been granted exile. In an effort to keep the exiled alive, she was responsible for sending a package of goods each month.
And every so often she found herself thinking of Draco Malfoy. She didn't know where he'd been sent, and the only thing she knew about the situation was that his memory had been wiped of all knowledge of the wizarding world and everyone in it.
It would be a terrible way to exist – although she would choose exile, too, if the only other alternative was Azkaban.
She hadn't known Malfoy well at Hogwarts, aside from the cold dimension he had displayed to her and her friends. But she didn't know a soul alive who hadn't been changed by the war, and she couldn't imagine he was the exception. She wondered where he was, and how he was getting on.
Stowing a worn copy of her favourite book at the top of the crate, she frowned, the same intense, insistent sadness tugging at her heart.
"Don't give him too much, now," Herbert Oakley, her supervisor, announced as he strode into the room. The man was corrupt and uncouth, and Hermione didn't trust him as far as she could throw him – which, given his affinity for treacle tart, wasn't far. "A waste of Ministry resources and all that. A bloody surprise the boy's even still kicking."
Hermione frowned, preparing to seal the crate. Oakley would ship it off to its destination once she was through. "What do you mean?"
The man gave a boisterous scoff. "I mean, exile was more than that boy deserved. It's a wonder he isn't already dead, given where he's been sent." Checking his watch, Oakley shook his head. "Hurry up with that. I'll be back in ten minutes to dispatch it."
The man vacated the room, leaving Hermione alone with more questions than answers and a racing heart.
Dead? Exile was supposed to offer a fresh start – a potential rehabilitation. If they wanted to punish Malfoy, why hadn't they simply thrown him in Azkaban with the rest? She didn't know what Oakley was up to – and furthermore, why had the racing in her chest curled into a painful, incomprehensible twist?
Why did she care if Draco Malfoy lived or died? The man had bullied her through her formative years, and fought on the opposite side of a war.
But it was for the same reason that she didn't want to see him rot away in Azkaban. He'd been just a boy. And while his decisions had been misled, they were largely influenced by those with more power and more insight. People who should have known better than to force a teenager into taking on their dirty work at the threat to his family's lives.
Some cold, anxious part of Hermione couldn't reconcile the thought of Draco Malfoy dead.
The pain in her chest escalated, her breathing heavy and fast as she stared at the crate.
Driven by forces beyond her comprehension, she shrunk the contents of the crate. Making certain Oakley hadn't returned, she climbed into the box – it was tight, but the slats along the side allowed for air flow – and questioning her sanity, she sealed the box.
Ten minutes later, Hermione found herself whisked to an unknown location.
A shipment of goods had arrived, and sat awaiting his perusal just inside the entrance of his cottage. Meticulously, Draco drew a red 'X' on the calendar to mark the day, and drew a small image of a box to track the date of his latest shipment.
The first time a box had appeared, he'd been suspicious – and it had taken six months for Draco to accept that they were truly for his own good, but he still didn't know where they came from, and why. Or how they wound up inside, when the door was securely locked.
He collected a crowbar from the small closet that had been sent with the first shipment, and pried the wooden top loose from the rest of the crate.
A girl – a woman – around Draco's age was folded into the box, her expression pinched as she drew herself to standing and clambered from the box, stretching out her limbs. Dumbfounded, he could only stare at her, his mouth hanging open in surprise.
Snapping his jaw shut, he shook his head, blinking several times. "This is an interesting development."
"Tell me about it," the woman groused, peering around his small cottage. "This is where they've got you hiding?" Then she paused, eyes tight as she stared at him, and something in her expression shifted. "Where are we, even?"
A few small items remained in the bottom of the crate, but Draco felt his heart plummet at the thought that his usual shipment had been replaced by – someone.
Recalling she had asked him a question, he said, "Antarctica. We are in Antarctica – or so I'm told." Rubbing the back of his neck, he extended a hand. "My name is Draco."
"Your –" She cut herself off, dragging her bottom lip between her teeth. "Right, of course. You're Draco Malfoy. I'm Hermione Granger."
Her name, her appearance – her wild curls – something at the back of Draco's mind startled to life at the sight of her, and with a sharp intake of breath, his heart began racing in his chest.
"You," he breathed, eyeing her closely. "You're the one."
The girl froze, one hand reaching into the pocket of her jeans. "The one?"
Wincing, Draco forced a smile lest she instantly think him insane. "I've been having dreams… I know that sounds crazy. But you're in them."
She eyed him with a calculating stare for a long moment, as if debating whether she should say something. But then she drew what looked to be a stick of wood from her pocket, and raised her other hand. "Don't panic, okay?"
With a quick wave of the stick, the crate was suddenly filled with goods.
"Shite!" Draco exclaimed, leaping back from his spot near the door. Adrenaline raced through his veins as he stared at her, holding his hands up in surrender. "What the fuck –"
"Don't panic," she repeated with a bit of a scowl. "It means don't do what you're doing."
Swiping a hand through his hair, Draco gaped wordlessly at the crate. He edged close again, something deep within his soul telling him the girl wasn't going to hurt him. "What's that? Are you magic or something?"
"So you remember about magic," she mused, eyeing him thoughtfully. "Interesting. I wonder how thorough the memory charm was. Obviously you still know enough to function on your own out here." Interrupting her own words, she wrinkled her nose. "I can't believe they exiled you to Antarctica."
"Who are you?" he ground through his teeth. This was the oddest experience he'd had – that he could recall. Which, in all fairness, was only the last few years.
Huffing a sigh, she shook her head, setting about unloading the contents of his crate. "We've been through this. Draco Malfoy – Hermione Granger. You've been Obliviated and exiled for – criminal activity. I am the person in charge of making sure you stay alive out here."
None of her words made sense, and as his brain attempted to process even one element of what she had just said, all he could think was that she was beautiful.
"So," he eased, stepping forward to assist her with the contents of the crate. "Assuming I somehow believe that I've lost my memory – which would explain a few things, to be honest – why have I been dreaming of you then?"
Hermione froze, her warm chocolate eyes lifting to meet his. "That part, I don't know." Her fingers lifted to linger against her chest and her lips parted. "I – I can't explain that. But I've been having them, too. The dreams."
"Did I know you before?" he asked, head falling to the side. "Maybe I remember you."
"Do you?" she asked, fixing him with a curious stare. "Remember me. Anything about me?"
Wracking his brain, Draco stared at her. His efforts to recall anything specific were distracted by the fact that he only felt like everything had fallen into place the moment she arrived. As if the longing he'd been feeling and the lingering despair had dissipated.
After a moment, he shook his head. "June fifth. Does that mean anything to you?"
Clicking her tongue, she announced, "That's your birthday. You would have turned twenty-one. It was in your files."
Draco paced to the calendar on the wall, tracking the dates back. "Nearly three weeks. That's when the dreams started."
Hermione Granger stared at him as if she'd not seen him before, which didn't make sense, given she claimed to have known him before. Before he'd arrived here, and before this solitary life he'd been living. Her hand hovered over her chest again, and she edged back, a slow shake to her head.
"I don't know what any of that means." Chewing her bottom lip, she added, "I've been suffering a strange pain. Since June fifth."
He squinted at her. "So have I. Pain, and… something like despair."
"And now?" she asked, eyes bright with interest. "Is it still there?"
"No." Swallowing, he added, "No, it's gone right now."
Huffing a sharp exhale, she whispered, "Shite."
Hermione had regarded Draco Malfoy with caution ever since she'd arrived at his small cabin in Antarctica – of all bleeding places Oakley could have sent him to live out his exile. It was remarkable Malfoy had survived this long in such conditions, and that he hadn't gone clinically insane.
He had been oddly accepting of everything she'd explained, and when she cast a warming charm on his small sitting area, he had gaped but not flinched. Diligently, he had gone about stowing all the supplies she'd brought in careful arrangements – he was obviously well versed with receiving her shipments, but it was strange to see him without the old sneer on his face.
He had actually smiled at her. He'd made light conversation, and cracked jokes. It was a version of Malfoy she had never expected. But on the other side of the coin, she wondered what sort of a man he might have grown into had he not been so oppressed as a boy.
If he hadn't been raised with such prejudice ingrained into him.
He was proper, and polite, and she couldn't wrap her head around the situation. There was something at work between them, and Hermione didn't understand it.
Not only had he expressed the idea that he'd been dreaming of her, and experiencing the same sense of loss and longing that she had – ever since his birthday, a fact that she had carefully stowed away –
But somehow… being here, in his presence, at his side… her own pain had vanished. Not just eased, slightly, but disappeared, as if it had never existed. For weeks, she had struggled with the constant pressure.
She wondered at all of it. At the sensation that had driven her to climb into the crate in the first place.
A quiet voice in the back of her mind whispered something – so soft that Hermione was almost willing to ignore it; but she couldn't deny the truth – there was magic at play.
He didn't remember her – but yet, he knew her. He'd seen her in his dreams.
Malfoy's presence put her at ease, and that was something she never would have considered in the remotest facets of her imagination. Of all the strange things she'd seen since she was eleven years old and discovered that she was a witch – this was officially one of the most remarkable.
It had taken her a while, after initially arriving, to realize that though it was the middle of the day, the sun was not risen. Malfoy had explained to her that, for a few months in the winter – which despite being June, it was winter – the sun simply did not appear.
But that there were periods of time around January where the sun never disappeared.
He'd chuckled at her baffled reaction as she processed the truth of it. Finally she'd gaped and asked, "Don't you struggle to deal with it?"
With an absent shrug, he fixed his gaze on her. "It's all I know."
Swallowing, Hermione said, almost to herself, "I suppose it is."
Given she hadn't particularly considered anything before stowing away in his crate of goods, Hermione hadn't planned very far ahead. She didn't imagine Oakley would be pleased with her for leaving, and especially not for sharing some of the details of Malfoy's sentence with him. But there was something about him – about the way he tugged at something deep within her soul and played her heartstrings without effort – that kept her from growing anxious.
She knew the crate would return, twenty-four hours after appearing, because she'd set the charm on it herself.
So worst case scenario, she would simply return with the crate. But there was a part of her that didn't want to simply walk away and leave him here. Obviously he was living out a criminal sentence, and it was marginally better than a cell in Azkaban – but solitary confinement was one of the worst punishments that existed, and he'd been sentenced to a lifetime of it, largely trapped within the confines of a small cottage.
By the way he'd shared with her, it was rarely warm enough even to go outside.
There was a group of scientists researching nearby, but it sounded as if none of them were there long enough to connect with him. Hermione could only imagine the sort of confundus charms the Ministry had placed to keep his existence here confined and hidden from the rest of the world. And she couldn't help but wonder whether there were other charms on his cottage to keep the cold air out, and to keep his internal conditions hospitable.
But she was reminded of Oakley's cruel words – that Malfoy wasn't meant to survive for long out here – and there was a thick churning of unease in her gut.
Even though she hadn't had enough time to give the situation any real thought since she had arrived, Hermione knew in her heart she couldn't simply return and leave Malfoy alone.
Not with the way his mere presence had relieved the ache in her soul. How the grin she was coming to know after only hours together set off something deep within her that caused her heart to race.
He felt like home, in a way she knew she would never be able to explain.
As they settled into a mediocre meal – edible but not gourmet, the way Draco was used to – he found himself watching his new companion. She hadn't explained very many things, certainly not as many as he'd hoped she might, but there were a few instances when she used magic, and Draco found he was the most curious about that.
"So your magic," he mused, imploring as they relaxed at his small table. "Is that something you were born with? Did you need to learn it?"
She fixed an expression on her face that he might have called sympathetic. "I learned it at a magical academy – it's where we met."
"I have magic too?" Frowning, Draco eyed her wand. "I wish I could remember anything. But all I have is a vague recollection of you existing, somehow, prior to being here."
"Your wand was snapped when you were incarcerated." She winced, offering an apologetic smile. "You aren't a Muggle, so the Statute of Secrecy technically doesn't apply to you, which is why I can talk to you about it."
Draco fell silent, his mind spinning. "I must have done something really terrible – to merit all this."
Her expression shifted, a softness coming into her eyes. "You did – but you weren't the only one. And… I don't think most of your decisions were of your own volition. I think you were forced into it."
Dragging a hand down his face, Draco exhaled a long breath. "Some decisions. And it's cost me the rest of my life out here." Eyeing her, he hedged, "At least it's not as bad if you visit. Will you be able to visit again? It gets incredibly lonely out here."
"I can imagine." Hesitating, she picked at a spoonful of beans. "I'm not sure whether I'll be able to return."
His heart jolted at the thought of never seeing her again. He had so many questions about her, specifically, and why was her face the only one he could recall, if only vaguely? Why did his heart race a little quicker when she looked at him, and why was he so drawn to her?
He admitted, "I hope you'll be able to. You make me feel better – but I can't explain it."
A pretty flush coloured her cheeks as she stared up at him through her lashes. "I think I know how you mean. Like, there's a pull –"
"A pull," Draco echoed. "That's it."
Hermione worried her bottom lip with her teeth for long enough that the tension made him shift in his seat, before she released a sigh. "Look – I can't explain any of this and I don't even know what drove me to climb into that box. But I have this terrible, sneaking suspicion that we're connected, somehow, and that's how you remember me."
"Connected?" he asked, brows lifting. "Is that a magic thing? Fate – or something."
"I think fate is something that transcends magic or any other force in the world," she breathed. "I think it just… is. Maybe you and I were brought together today for some other reason."
Draco wondered whether she could hear the ferocious slamming of his heart in his chest. Tearing his gaze from her, he asked, "So at this school – were we friends?" Chancing a look at her features, his heart fell. "We weren't."
There was a short, fortifying shake of her head. "No – you were actually quite mean to my friends and I."
Silently, he returned to his meal, feeling a churning of shame. Something within him felt broken and lost at the thought of it. "I'm sorry. I can't imagine why, since you seem perfectly nice. I must have… I must have been a terrible person. To have treated you poorly – and to have ended up here."
He wished he could remember. Draco wished, more than anything, in this moment, that he could go back. When her silence lingered, he added, "I wish I had time to make it up to you."
"Do you want to know what I wish?" she asked, finally looking back up at him. "I wish they hadn't taken your memories. Because how else are you going to learn and move past the things you've done? Merlin, you were a teenager."
Draco swallowed, before allowing a teasing grin to come to his features. "Can you restore them? If they were taken with magic?"
Her eyes widened, lips parting with surprise, and he looked away, returning to his meal. "I don't – I don't think I could. Technically, I suppose I could try, but it would surely be an act in contempt of court. I'd lose my job – we would both technically be fugitives –"
"Of course," Draco rushed to say. "I couldn't ask such a thing of you."
"Maybe," she hedged, dark eyes on him, "I could ask them to re-examine your case." Setting down her fork, she folded her arms on the table, leaning forward. "I'll be completely honest, Draco – having seen you here, today, and seeing where they've been keeping you – I'm not comfortable leaving you here. I don't… I don't think this is proportionate to the things you've done wrong."
Staring at the table, he whispered, "I would appreciate that."
Shoulders tensed, Hermione rose from her seat and gathered the empty plates from the table. Rising to stop her, Draco was startled when she levitated the dishes into the sink and set them about washing themselves. Sliding his hands into his pockets, he offered a nod.
"I wonder if you've forgotten your magic," she mused, the corners of her lips twitching. "I doubt it – it's so intrinsic." Mischief flickering across her face, she brandished her wand. "Here – try it. But don't ever tell them I let you use my wand, and for Merlin's sake, don't attack me unless you want to rot out here."
Chuckling, Draco accepted the offer without hesitation. Truthfully, he didn't know he could hurt Hermione even if he wanted to. And he recognized that she was his only potential way out.
What he wasn't prepared for was the way his veins tingled and vibrated, as if running with the magic long unused within him. His mouth fell open as he stared at Hermione, and he was encouraged by the sparkle in her eyes.
With a hint of a nod, she said, "Give it a bit of a wave."
Silver sparks flew from the wandtip as he waved it through the air. Barking a laugh, he did it again, green and gold sparks joining in.
Hermione grinned, but she was thoughtful when her head tilted to the side. "Curious, that my wand was so instantly accepting of your magic." Then she clarified, "That doesn't often happen."
Smiling, he returned the wand, not wanting to jump over the precarious lines she'd drawn between them. "Well if it's true, about there being some magical connection between us…" The words trailed off, feeling heavy and tense in the space between them. Smirking, he mused, "Maybe we're soulmates or something."
The blood drained from her face. Pocketing her wand, she wiped her palms on her jeans, looking away. When she spoke, her voice was quiet but calm. "You say that as if you don't think it's possible."
She gave a nervous titter. "There isn't any empirical evidence, although according to most ancient texts, it's rare but possible. If you believe in that sort of thing, of course."
Swallowing, Draco asked quietly, "And do you?"
"You would have." The words weren't an answer, merely a counter, and Draco waited. "Your family is old magic. It's why we didn't get along – because mine isn't."
"Seems a ridiculous reason."
"But yet…" She gave a nervous chuckle, toeing the soft floorboards. "A war was fought over it."
"War," he said, gaping, before her words settled in and clicked together. Silence hung between them for a long moment, while the words she hadn't said floated through his mind. "So even if it's possible – even if it's true – you'd not…"
Hermione whispered, "I don't know," and swept a finger beneath one of her eyes. But then she straightened, blinking rapidly, and said, "It's all hypothetical, of course, unless I can get you out of here. Any other considerations aside, I don't think you deserve to be abandoned here."
Draco didn't know how to voice any of his other thoughts. That even if he hadn't believed such a thing was possible before…
The way she made him feel – the way the dull throbbing in his chest had vanished in her presence – that she was the only one he saw in dreams from his past…
He forced a nod, shoulders stiffening. "Are you leaving tomorrow then?"
Flinching, she said, "I suppose I will. There's a spell on the crate."
"Good." Pressing his lips into a thin approximation of a smile, he offered, "You can sleep in my bed." Rummaging through the linen closet, he drew a fresh set of sheets and made to change the bedding.
Hermione's fingers on his wrist stayed his motions; a jolt of energy and warmth shot through him at her touch and she recoiled, as if having felt the same. "That's incredibly kind, but I don't mean to intrude. I wouldn't take your bed."
"It won't be the first time I've fallen asleep on the sofa," he assured her.
One time, she had sent a bottle of something called Firewhisky. On a considerably lonely day, Draco had obliterated himself and blacked out, waking up the next day with the most tremendous headache he'd ever experienced.
Hermione's chocolate eyes searched his, and a sudden desire to grab her and drag her closer seized him at her proximity. He clenched his hands into fists at his sides to ignore the urge. She breathed, "Only if you're sure."
He'd never felt so physically drawn to someone he barely knew, although the only people Draco ever saw were the research scientists, and that was only on days he was ambitious enough to venture out that far from the safe shelter and relative warmth of his cottage.
He wondered if she felt it too.
Her eyes darted briefly to his mouth, and Draco swallowed. Voice thick, he said, "I'm sure."
"It hardly seems fair," Hermione whispered; she was still close enough he could have reached out and taken her hand – touched her shoulders, or her hips –
Reasonably, Draco knew about attraction. He understood what went on between men and women, even if he couldn't remember having ever engaged in those sorts of activities. He wished he could remember what he'd said and done to cause her to flinch from his touch.
But then she added, "I suppose we could share."
His throat was dry, voice strained. "The bed isn't that large."
A hint of humour curled her lips, and Hermione said, "I won't do anything improper, I swear it." Even as she spoke the words, she shifted towards him, almost imperceptibly.
Draco wasn't sure he could make that same promise. Despite every bone in his body urging him to sleep at her side – if it was his only chance to do so – he couldn't shake the feeling that the last thing she needed was for him to wrong her yet again.
Before he could deliberate on any more excuses, she huffed, "Merlin, do you feel that?" She was staring at him, her lips parted and chest lifting with each breath; there was a flush to her cheeks.
A wry grin cracked his features. "You're telling me this isn't normal."
"No," she tittered nervously, "this isn't normal."
The energy between them was crackling, electric. Cautious, eyes hesitant, she lifted a hand, sweeping her fingertips along his cheekbone.
Draco's eyes fluttered shut at her touch and he stifled a groan. His body reacted to her well beyond the realm of what felt reasonable, and he pressed his face into the palm of her hand before his eyes snapped open to find hers.
"I find this difficult to believe." The admittance was low and apologetic, even as she didn't draw her hand back from his face. "But yet…"
As her words trailed off Draco summoned his courage, wrapping his fingers around the curve of her hip. A soft whimper escaped her lips and the delicate sound shot straight to his groin. Flexing his hand around the fabric of her jumper, her muttered, "You still think it's a good idea to sleep together? In the bed, I mean."
He watched her lips press shut as she swallowed, and she shook her head. "I don't know what to think about any of this."
"Because I'll never see you again after tomorrow," he concluded.
Anxious brown eyes searched his own as she shifted towards his touch, and Draco pulled her closer, so that her chest brushed against him; all he wanted was to kiss her and touch her and –
"Right," she whispered. "But the thought of that is physically painful."
He understood the sentiment wholly.
The thought that Hermione would leave tomorrow, and the despair would return – because he somehow knew, implicitly, it was related to her – left a preemptive melancholy seeping into his bones with a voracity the cold couldn't touch.
There was an anxious feeling in his chest, akin to desperation, and if this was his only chance to see her…
"So stay," he murmured, forcing a swallow. "Stay until we can figure something out."
When she didn't immediately rebuke the idea, a surge of trepidation chased through him, but she glanced away, worrying her bottom lip. Head canting to the side, she managed, "I can't just… never go back."
With a short, bitter nod, Draco released her, taking a step back in an effort to clear his head from her tantalizing closeness. "Of course. I understand."
Hermione's eyes fluttered shut as she blew out a breath. "I can't rationalize this. And…" her words trailed off as she shook her head, staring at him again. "I don't know how to make sense of this. I can't leave you here, I can't bring you back with me, and Merlin… if you actually remembered me." She released a cold, humourless laugh. "You would not be staring at me with that look on your face."
Her words tugged at something that felt freshly shattered in Draco's chest and he frowned. "I wish I knew what I'd done to hurt you so badly. I wish I could make it up to you."
"This is what I mean," she breathed, a pained expression on her face. "This isn't you. Draco Malfoy hates me."
Shoving his hands into his pockets as he drew a careful, calculating breath, Draco forced himself to hold her hardened gaze. "What if this is the universe's way of giving me a chance to make things right between us?" Feeling lost for words, he only shook his head. "What if… all of this was meant to happen, exactly like this."
"Merlin," she muttered under her breath, "you're talking like a fucking Pureblood now."
He didn't know what that meant, but he took a step closer, curling his fingers around her upper arm; startled, she looked up at him and her lips parted again, her expression shifting and softening as he whispered, "Let me make it up to you. All of it."
Moisture shimmered at the corners of her eyes, and as her shoulders sagged in his hold, Hermione whispered, "Okay."
One thing he had learned throughout his time with gaping holes in his memory was that certain things were instinctive. And when Draco traced the delicate bones of her face, his fingers sliding into her wild curls as he ducked his head, his lips captured hers with what couldn't have been anything but instinct.
Her arms coiled around his neck as she returned the light pressure, and his other hand found the small of her back, dragging her closer to him as heat and energy chased through him in a way he never could have imagined. Her mouth felt like nothing else, her tongue sweet and teasing as it swept his, and his entire being felt alight with awareness of her as he deepened the kiss.
When they parted, breaths mingling, her eyes shone, lips curled with a smile as she stared at him. Draco felt dazed, heart racing in his chest, and cracked a slow smile as his hands played circles on her back.
"We should get some sleep," she whispered, pressing her lips against his once more. "And we'll figure this out tomorrow. Okay?"
Estimating her size, Draco handed her a shirt and a pair of shorts from his dresser that were still too big for her, but she ducked into the loo and shrunk them to fit with her wand before slipping into his bed, her eyes on him.
Dragging a hand through his hair, he prepared for bed and tugged on a t-shirt despite that he usually slept in just his shorts.
Hermione watched him as he slipped in beside her, lips parted with rapt attention. She breathed, "I can't wrap my head around any of this."
Draco could only stare at her. "You're so beautiful."
Blinking at him, she shook her head. "I'd like to see you have your memory returned to you, but… I know you'll regret saying things like that."
"Not if we're meant to know one another," Draco mused, swallowing. "Not if you're supposed to be by my side. Maybe you… maybe this is meant to change everything."
She bit down hard on her lower lip. "Yeah. Maybe."
Discomfort and unease settled in his chest once more at the thought of how he must have treated her in the past, and her eyes shone once more as she forced a thin smile. He needed a chance to make it up to her.
Then she rolled onto her side with a whispered, "Good night."
"Good night, Hermione."
His body churned with awareness of her, and he wanted so desperately to reach for her but feared crossing any lines. Then she shifted, the movement just slight at first, until her back met his chest and she fit perfectly into him as if she were made for it.
Releasing a breath, Draco slung his arm around her and pressed a kiss to her temple.
With her safe and comforting in his embrace, he slipped into a deep, peaceful sleep.
When Hermione awoke the next morning, it took several long moments to remember all that had happened the previous day. The next thing she noticed was that the spot beside her in Malfoy's bed was cold. She'd had a fitful sleep, but not because she wasn't entirely comfortable in his hold.
In fact, she was restless because of how he felt at her side.
He was Draco Malfoy. But the way he looked at her – the way he'd spoken to her the night before – it was as if he were a completely different person.
It wasn't right.
This life he was living, cold and alone – it just didn't sit well. She would go to the Ministry, and to the Wizengamot if need be, and request they revise his sentence.
But if they couldn't? If they refused – could she take that chance?
If Oakley realized what she'd done, which he would when she returned with the crate, there was a good chance he would relieve her of her position with the Ministry. And then she would have no influence over the situation whatsoever.
And the thought of leaving Draco Malfoy in Antarctica alone, waiting out his solitary days until the end of his life, left a bitter, pained twist in her heart.
Rolling over, she saw him working at the small stove, putting on a pot of water to boil. Noticing her stare, he cracked a grin. "Good morning. Can I make you some tea? Coffee?"
Smiling, she stretched her arms out overhead. "Surprise me."
"So," he prompted, as he set about preparing a modest tea service – even stranded in Antarctica, he was a proper British man – and fixed her with a stare that seemed too casual. "What time will you need to leave?"
"Shortly before noon." Dragging her bottom lip between her teeth, she watched his meticulous preparation. "It returns twenty-four hours after arriving."
Malfoy frowned. "Does it? I can't recall noticing that."
"You wouldn't," she mused, "because you're not meant to see magic. So the incident simply wouldn't measure in your recollection."
"You've shown me magic."
"And I could probably lose my job over it." Chuckling, she rose from bed, aware of the way his gaze lingered on her bare legs and she rushed to pull on some warmer clothes in the ubiquitous chill that lingered in the small space.
His hands paused, and he said, "I'm sorry to hear that. I hope you don't."
Shrugging, Hermione slipped into a seat at his kitchen table. "Maybe a few things have been brought to light recently." Mouth twisting to the side, she went on. "I'm afraid if I leave, I won't be able to come back. There's magic on your cottage to keep you from being easily found."
Malfoy's voice lowered as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know how I could handle never seeing you again. Not knowing… what I know now." Mouth curled with a hint of that old smirk she knew, he added, "Maybe you can erase my memory again."
Cautious and quiet, she whispered, "Maybe I can return it."
His spoon dropped with a clatter to the table. "You could do that?"
"Realistically," Hermione went on, "depending on the charm, yes. I'm… rather proficient with memory charms, you see. But if we were somehow aware of one another, even with your memories gone, erasing this encounter won't do anything to help matters."
It was the part that had gnawed at her the better part of the night as she sank into his warmth. If she never found him again, they would never be free of the longing despair. Because despite everything else, she had to believe that there was something deeper between them. Even if it made no sense.
Magic didn't always make sense. It was one of the only constants she'd come to know.
"Right," he drawled, nose wrinkling. "So I'm left to hope I might see you again."
Hermione whispered, "I don't know what else to do." Taking a sip of her tea, she was startled to realize her hands were shaking. "Every alternative involves breaking potentially dozens of wizarding laws. Returning your memory – breaking you free."
Malfoy was silent for a long moment. When he spoke again, his voice was deceptively light. "Did you know that in the winter such as it is now, it is too cold to go outside for more than a few minutes? And even then, I don't know who would want to." He took a careful sip of his tea. "The sun doesn't rise. In the summer – it's tolerable. But then I don't sleep because the sun doesn't set."
Hermione swallowed, fidgeting with her spoon as she stared at the table.
He breathed, "It is fucking miserable here, Hermione. I realize you likely can't help me, but…" Shaking his head, his voice dropped as he said, "I don't know how many times I've considered just walking out into the cold and letting nature have me."
Eyes snapping to his, she breathed, "Draco…"
"I don't want to," he qualified swiftly, holding his hands up. "You've given me a shred of hope, and I don't know how to deal with the idea of going back now."
Anxiety and indecision swept through her, and she huffed, "It isn't simple. I don't know how to handle this."
With a slow nod, he merely stared at her. His brows lifted to his forehead, and he rose from his seat, walking to the front door. Then without warning, he swung the door open.
Screaming wind pervaded the space from outside, and as far as she could see, utter darkness. In an instant, a vicious cold the likes of nothing Hermione had experienced invaded the room, seeping into her very bones, and she released a cry as she jumped up from the table to get away from the door, shivers sweeping across her skin.
Moments later, he closed the door, but the cold lingered.
Huffinf out a breath, Hermione stared at him. Managing a choked laugh, she said, "A little warning would have been nice."
His lips twitched as he approached. "Sorry."
"Right?" His grey eyes were earnest as they found hers, his hands dragging up and down her arms to warm them. "I'm stuck here, alone, at what feels like the end of the world."
She could only stare at him, heart racing in her chest. She fingered her wand in her pocket.
"But then," he whispered, fingers grazing her jaw with soft reverence, "at the end of the world, there's still you."
Tears stung at her eyes. "I'm going to get you out of here." Shaking her head as the tears broke free, tracking down her cheeks, she drew her wand. "I don't know how, and I don't know if it will even work –"
Her fingers trembled as he stared at her, tension in his stance and something she wasn't willing to unpack in his eyes.
"I'll try to restore your memories, and we can modify the charm on the crate to return elsewhere and –" The look on his face nearly broke her. "Do you need to pack a bag?"
He choked, "Now?"
Planting her palms on her jeans, Hermione nodded. "Er, yes. Now. We won't have much time before the crate leaves."
He gathered some clothes and books – the books she'd selected for him with care – and was back at her side within minutes. "Will the charm work? To return my memories?"
Hermione whispered, "I don't know." Forcing a smile she didn't feel, she added, "You aren't allowed to hate me if I get you out of here."
His expression sobered as he stared at her, ducking in to press a lingering kiss to her mouth. With a shuddering sigh, she drew him closer, tasting his emotion and her own tears.
When he drew back, his voice was gruff. "I won't hate you. If this works – I will spend the rest of my life doing what I can to fix what happened between us." His voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "Whatever I did to make you feel so badly. I'm sorry."
If she had somehow misunderstood the charm… if it backfired, Merlin forbid, and she erased the last years of his life – his knowledge of her –
Hermione took a deep, steadying breath.
If she helped him escape, they would both become fugitives. She would live the rest of her life on the run.
Her hand faltered as she lifted her wand to his temple.
Was she willing to give up everything for something she barely understood, with someone she'd always hated? Even if they somehow, in some obscure way, belonged together?
For a brief instant, indecision warred in her heart; her fingers trembled.
Grey eyes searched hers; he whispered, "I trust you," and they fell shut.
Tears chased steadily down her cheeks as she blew out a breath and cast the spell. His body froze, tensed, and his shoulders slumped, his eyelids fluttering.
After what felt like forever, stormy grey eyes slid open to meet hers.