A/N: In this chapter there is a letter, parts of which have been crossed out. Because this site does not allow for 'strikethrough' to be used, words within this: =example= will be used to denote words and sentences which have been struck out.
The Atrium, The Ministry of Magic, London
The Atrium looks slightly different to how it had last time Hermione had been here, with Harry and Ron. It is still a huge, cavernous space filled with a throng of harried people, but the statue of the Muggles crushed beneath wizarding feet is gone. Wiped away; just like magic. Instead a series of rectangular granite pillars stand in a circle, water sheeting down them into the shallow pool that they ring.
"In Memoriam " hovers written in white flame above the pool, and its slick granite pillars, and Hermione flinches from that. On the pillars' outer surfaces are engraved the names of everyone killed in this past war, she realises. There are so many. She wonders if it is just magical folk who are listed, or whether her parents' names are there too. It strikes her like a bolt of lightning, sealing her to the ground.
Hermione stops abruptly - a lone, still figure in the endless tide of people - and stares, clutching her handbag tightly, her throat suddenly feeling strained and raw. People jostle her and bump her, and then the crowd begins to part around her, going on their way unbothered while she stares at the engraved names blindly.
She doesn't see Ron's name. She doesn't want to see Ron's name. Carved there as though everyone is entitled to a piece of him, and they aren't. They aren't. The people who love him know that he's dead - they don't need a Merlin-damned memorial to remind them of it. It hurts her, like a knife to the belly, and she wants to double over, to scream, to rage, as she stares at silently, fingers bone white from clutching her bag so tightly. She doesn't do any of these things.
With a shuddering breath, Hermione drags her gaze away from the pillars and makes for the lifts, feeling dazed and ill and swamped by memory. It's a struggle to breathe, her breath dragging in shallow and ineffective, until she feels dizzy, emotions a maelstrom of grief and horror as she remembers. She reaches the lifts without being aware of how she got there, grabbing at an empty piece of wall and clinging to it.
It takes a while for the rush of nightmarish memory to ease, and Hermione breathes through it with her back to the wall. She may end up late to meet with Kingsley, but she's unable to face the idea of being squashed in a lift with other people just yet. Hermione stares at a clock on a nearby wall, counting her breaths and thinking determinedly about nothing other than the minute hand slowly slipping forward.
Gradually the attack passes by; leaving her shaken and hollow. They have never affected her this badly before, the memories. But then she has never been back here before, and she has never truly thought of Ron and her parents and all the others as names to be chiselled into granite, before. Lists of the dead.
But she is here for the living, not the dead, and Kingsley was expecting her two minutes ago, to speak for Malfoy as no one else will. She has business in the here and now to attend to, and she will not shirk it because of her pointless, seemingly unending grief. Hermione lifts her chin and pushes off the wall, determinedly getting onto the next available lift and ignoring the fear and sick memories that swirl in her belly.
Kingsley Shacklebolt's cubicle, Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Ministry of Magic
"He was unprofessional, malicious, and sadistic!" Hermione says stridently, voice tight with fury as she points at the doorway, toward the man she'd walked past out there not five minutes ago. "He deliberately made the experience of questioning painful and humiliating. Malfoy may be no angel, but he was a victim of severe abuse, and what Thorn did was cruel, and inexcusable."
"No!" Hermione glares at Kingsley, near vibrating with the force of her anger. "I can't believe you sent him, Kingsley! You could hardly have sent anyone worse if you'd been trying." Her voice cracks and wobbles. "Did Thorn trick you so easily, or did you want Malfoy to go through that? Did you want me to have to deal with that?"
Kingsley looks sorry in his own way; apology and sympathy both evident on his features, in his tired dark eyes.
"Everyone in the department has good reason to hate Draco Malfoy, Hermione," he says low and careful, and full of sympathy. It's really not good enough for Hermione. That is not an apology but a justification - an excuse for what happened. Kingsley may himself have no reason to care about Malfoy's well-being, but he does have reason to care about Hermione's - or so she had thought. They aren't exactly terribly close, but despite the generation gap they are friends, in a way. They have fought together, and that forges a bond that can't easily be broken.
"I realise that, Kingsley. But you agreed to smooth the road for me in this. I thought you wanted me to be Malfoy's keeper. That was the distinct impression I got, at any rate," she says in weary bewilderment, sitting down finally as the anger runs out of her, replaced by exhausted frustration.
"He was awful, Kingsley," she tells him, trying to get him to understand; she feels so disillusioned. So disappointed in the people who are supposed to be on the right side - who are supposed to be fair, and just, but instead only seem to want revenge. "Truly cruel. I understand people have reason to despise Malfoy, but Healers and Aurors should be able to behave professionally and ethically regardless of personal feelings."
Kingsley sighs, looking very weary himself, suddenly. Buried away down here, in a windowless cubicle in a half-empty department, his desk piled with stacks of paperwork.
"I know, Hermione, and I agree. Thorn's behaviour, from what you've told me, was unacceptable. But right now the department is short-staffed and overworked - not only are well over half the pre-War Aurors dead or unable to return to work, but we're stretched thin trying to mop up those of Voldemort's side who survived the Battle of Hogwarts, of which there are many. Why do you think I have been so hopeful you will accept my job offers?" He gestures at the scrolls and parchment stacks on the desk, lifting a sheaf of papers and waving them in example, before tossing them back to the cluttered surface.
"I'm drowning in paperwork, the Ministry structure itself is still a shambles which doesn't help, and I'm trapped behind a Merlin damned desk, when I want to be out in the field, doing my job." His expression is tight and eminently frustrated at the predicament he's caught in. And Hermione can imagine how he feels; Kingsley has never been a paper pusher, before now - always out on assignment in the field, usually undercover. He must be chafing horribly at being to stuck down here, in the drab offices and corridors of the Auror Department, organising others.
"I sent Thorn because he's one of my most level-headed Aurors not assigned elsewhere, and he was one of the few who didn't immediately volunteer for the job in the hopes they could torment Malfoy. Aurors don't exactly feel kindly toward Death Eaters, Hermione. My options were limited." He sighs again, a heavy sound, sitting back in his chair and rubbing a hand across his forehead. Guilt niggles at Hermione, digging under her skin. She has become so isolated within her little bubble of solitude the past few days, that she's forgotten other people have their own problems. Even people like Kingsley Shacklebolt, who have always seemed stoic and unshakeable, can have difficulties coping with what life has thrown at them. She feels dreadfully selfish and short-sighted all of a sudden.
"I didn't realise that the situation was that bad, Kingsley. I'm sorry," she says and means it. "But Thorn was incredibly unprofessional. Thorn badgered Malfoy about the abuse he suffered in St Mungo's until he was in a complete state - on the verge of breaking down completely, which isn't good for him right now." Hermione paused as she thought of Malfoy with a wince; thin and sickly, and so brittle both physically and emotionally. How anyone could take pleasure in being cruel to someone so wounded, she had no idea. It was unthinkable, to her.
"I thought Thorn would be neutral enough to do a fair job, and I told him beforehand that I strongly recommended Malfoy stay with you. In fact, in his notes, he does say that you seem a suitable keeper," Kingsley says, scooping up the clipboard that lies to one side on his desk. "She seems capable, and her care and security are both more than adequate," Kingsley reads aloud from the parchment. "So he likely would have authorised you to take custody of Malfoy, had he been able to finish his visit." He raises a dark brow, and Hermione huffs indignantly.
"Are you trying to say I should have just bitten my tongue and sat through his dreadful, abhorrent interrogation?"
"Yes," Kingsley says bluntly. "As it is, now I'll either have to reassign someone even less neutral to the case, or I'll have to come out and do the inspection myself. Neither of which will look good to the Minister when she reads the report on the case, and signs off - or not - on the Auror recommendations."
"But -" Hermione begins to protest, feeling uncomfortable and hot, and thoroughly chastised.
"I said I would smooth your way as much as I could, Hermione, but I am limited in my powers. There is only so much I can do, and for the rest, you simply need to shut up and work with the system."
"The system is cruel, and unfair!" Hermione burst out, furious and frustrated, and on the verge of tears. "I understand the sense in what you're saying, Kingsley, but I couldn't stand by and let Thorn treat Malfoy like that. I couldn't. And if I did, that would make me no better than Thorn. Malfoy has been party to terrible things, yes, but that doesn't give anyone a free pass to treat him inhumanely, and I shan't stand by silently while they do!"
Kingsley looks distinctly unhappy. "If the pre-war regime was still in effect, Malfoy would be in Azkaban with Dementors for company regardless of his condition. Most people likely feel as though the Ministry is already being too lenient with Malfoy."
"The Ministry being less monstrous than it was isn't leniency! It's just...achieving a minimum standard of decency. Why can't people see that Malfoy - that nobody deserves to be treated so harshly?" Hermione demands, inwardly wondering how she had managed to ignore the Ministry's severely punitive system for so long, and feeling ashamed for her apathy.
It wasn't like Hermione could have changed anything, but she'd never let that stop her from trying to stop injustice before. She had fought for House Elf rights, but not the rights of convicted criminals? No. She'd been content for people to suffer unimaginable tortures, so long as they were people she didn't like. And she was from the Muggle world, where accepted punishments weren't half so harsh and she'd still barely questioned the cruelty of the wizarding system.
Hermione understands suddenly why the general wizarding public might feel Malfoy is getting off easy, and why they might want to hurt him.
"Hermione, do you think it is possible that your gratitude toward Malfoy for saving your life is compromising your judgment? I know that you feel you owe him a debt, but - he is still a Death Eater, and a war criminal, who took part in abhorrent crimes.
Hermione stares at Kingsley helplessly for a moment, speechless, searching for words that sift through her fingers like sand.
"I - I -" Hermione begins, shaking her head 'no', because the problem is not her judgment. And then she finds the words, and they flood out of her as she sits forward on the edge of her chair, her hands curling hard into fists. "I can't believe you would ask me that, Kingsley! No, my judgment is not compromised because I want Malfoy to be treated humanely! It is less compromised than anyone else's, evidently! Yes, Malfoy has committed crimes, but his situation had extenuating circumstances which is precisely why he was sentenced to only three years - to be served either in care or in Azkaban, depending on his health, if I recall correctly." She hesitates, arching a questioning brow at a silent, expressionless Kingsley, who nods; she is.
"I think that the fact that I have reason to be grateful to Malfoy, makes it impossible for me to view him as most others seem to; a thing. Others see him as they want to; a criminal, not a person - a Death Eater, not a human being with thoughts, and feelings, and vulnerabilities, and regrets. He - he's different now, Kingsley. Malfoy been changed by this, by the suffering and the pain and the - the abuse. But they want him to be a scapegoat. A punching bag that they can take their rage out on. And I know that feeling, I do, but...but when I see him in pain he can hardly bear, drugged to the gills and still trembling, with no control over his body, at the mercy of others, wounded and nearly weeping..."
She breaks off, swallowing hard and trying to compose herself, her eyes wet and her own hands trembling now. Kingsley is still silent; a statue across the desk from her, his features grave and sorrowful, and intent on her words; he is listening, not brushing her off as a silly girl as everyone other adult seems to have done up until now. He moves suddenly as she sniffs, breaking his stillness to pull a box of tissues out of his top desk drawer and pass it across to her, face still just as grave. She thanks him with a nod as she pulls out a handful, blotting carefully at her eyes before the tears can spill over.
"Malfoy saving me, and the gratitude I can't help but feel, has affected my judgment," Hermione admits quietly after a moment. "I do know that. But I'm glad for it, if my gratitude has kept me from treating him as abhorrently as most other people seem to want to. Because he doesn't deserve that. No one does, no matter what they've done. But especially not Malfoy - he is suffering enough already."
There is a long, long silence. Hermione looks down at her hands, crumpling the wad of tissues between them and resisting the urge to shred it into tiny pieces, nervous and strung taut with anticipation. And then Kingsley nods, satisfaction blooming on his face.
"Well said, Hermione. Very well said indeed. You've convinced me." He smiles faintly, and Hermione wonders suddenly - bewilderedly - if all this, all Kingsley's reluctance, was some kind of test. "Seeing as Thorn did mostly complete the part of his investigation related to the transfer of custody, I'll have Thorn sign off on it now, and rather than send anyone out to interview Malfoy and take his statement, I'll have you do so. So long as he signs it to swear to the statement being truth, it'll be enough to go on with until it goes to a hearing, if indeed it does."
"It should," Hermione can't resist saying, rather pointedly, and Kingsley nods.
"That's fair. I understand your feelings, Hermione. But the fact of the matter is, that it will be very difficult to gain any kind of conviction for what happened to Malfoy at St Mungo's. You need to think about the fact that he will be put through the stress of multiple interviews and cross-examinations, legilimency, having memories taken to be viewed in a pensieve by officials -"
"Where they will see what happened!"
"Yes, they will. But then they will look at whether the Healers can be held fully responsible for their actions, whether or not it could be considered provoked by temporary insanity in the case of the one who inflicted most of the harm, and in the end, I doubt they would get anything more than the minimum sentence. It will be weeks upon weeks of Malfoy having his crimes dragged up and shoved in his face, his abuses put on display for all to see...all to achieve a slap on the wrist for his abusers." Kingsley pauses sympathetically. "It isn't fair - it's extremely unfair, in fact - but it may not be worth it for Malfoy to pursue the matter, Hermione."
Hermione sits for a brief moment, processing Kingsley's words and feeling numbness and helplessness slowly strip her of the righteous anger she has been cultivating. He is right, and she knows it. Malfoy has no recourse that won't traumatise him all over again. She takes a deep breath, and nods.
"I understand, Kingsley," she says quietly, because there is no point in getting angry at Kingsley - it isn't his fault that the bureaucracy works the way that it does, and he's doing everything she can. She knows that. "Thank you, for arranging the transfer of custody. I know it can't be easy for you to bend the rules."
"It's no trouble, Hermione," Kingsley says, warmth entering his voice. "I do believe the best place for Malfoy right now is with you, and I will make sure the Minister sees it that way too. You should be owled the official documents within a week - you'll need to sign both copies, and owl one copy back to the Ministry for filing."
Hermione nods, standing. "I will. Thanks again, Kingsley." As she turns to go, he speaks up once more, stopping her in her tracks.
"Oh, and by the way, I received an owl from Harry, just this morning." Hermione spins to face Kingsley, tension seizing her. Harry had written to Kingsley? But not to her? What... "It took me threatening to send an Auror out to check on his well-being unless he wrote back though. He said he's alive, safe, and he hopes to return soon. It wasn't a very long letter. More of a brief note, really," Kingsley amends, as if he can see the hurt blossoming sharp and painful all over Hermione's face as she clutches her handbag to her, staring frozen at Kingsley, mind churning.
"I - I haven't heard from him yet," she says stupidly, the hurt crashing over her in a brutal, crushing wave. Kingsley seems to wince very slightly.
"I'm sure he'll contact you, Hermione - I shouldn't think he'd owl me, and not you and Ginny Weasley. I'll let you know if I hear from him again, but I'm sure you'll get a letter from him first."
"Yes, of course," Hermione says, nodding fast, swallowing down her emotion, and trying not to burst into tears. Today has been far too stressful, and she doesn't know how much longer she can hold it together for. "Well, I'll talk to you later, Kingsley. Take care."
"You too, Hermione."
Hermione holds in her tears until she is out of the department, turning down an empty side corridor on the way to the lifts and slumping against a wall, her shoulders shaking as the strain of the day's events overwhelms her.
Draco's bedroom, 12 Grimmauld Place, Islington, London
There is a quiet knock at the door of Draco's room, and he rolls his head toward it with difficulty. The morphine, combined with his potions, has left him drifting in a dreamlike world while Granger has been gone. He has drifted in and out of sleep as time passed - staring out the wide windows at the treed back garden and the sky above it - clouds skidding across the dulled blue, mostly hiding it from sight, the sun nowhere to be seen.
A head pops around the door; thick brown hair, and red-rimmed eyes, with tear smudged cheeks to match. Granger. A stab of fear prods at him, but is muted by the morphine. If Granger is crying, things can't have gone well at the Ministry, Draco thinks muzzily. She wobbles a smile at him though as she comes into the room, sitting down on the wooden chair by his bedside.
"Are you all right? Do you need anything? Did Kreacher look after you all right?" she asks without pausing for answer, concern on her face as she fills the 'No-Spillz' sippy cup with water. Draco smiles weakly.
"F-fine, Granger. I m-managed all right," Draco assures her, the warmth and worry on Granger's - exhausted, tear-streaked - face making him feel...good. Cared for, in a way he didn't think he ever would again. "Kr-Kreacher was h-helpful." He'd taken Draco to the loo, and assisted him in drinking some water, but stayed scarce unless Draco had called for him, which was what Draco had wanted, really. He wants to be alone - or at least, not with the House Elf.
"H-how did it g-go?"
"Good, I think," Granger says, screwing on the sippy cup lid, plumping up Draco's pillows, and handing it over. Draco has enough coordination now to take it - it tips in his hand and automatically he expects a flood of liquid, only to have not a single drop spill. Humiliating as it might be to drink from a Muggle infant's cup, it was nice not to have to worry about spilling his drinks all over himself. Granger goes on: "Kingsley will have Thorn - the Auror we saw - fill in and sign off on the transfer of custody, and it'll be owled out to me. Once I sign it, everything will be sorted - I'll be your official keeper."
"R-really?" It's hard to believe after how things went this afternoon with Thorn, that Draco is actually going to be able to stay here, with Granger. That he will be safe. It feels like a pain in his chest, but the good sort. Like a release of tension that has been so crushing, so consuming, that letting it go is like feeling the circulation return to a cold-numbed limb. Pins and needles and the need to gasp and close his eyes against it. "Really?" he asks again, in a voice that is shaking and alien to him, it's so tight with the strain of holding himself together.
His hands tremble on his cup, which nestles now in his lap, and Granger nods again, looking as close to falling apart as he feels - although even in his morphine haze, Draco expects her reasons are different.
"Really, Malfoy. You're staying here with me," Granger tells him, distracted and nervy, and Draco wonders idly what's wrong. What's happened to break her down into tears and shakiness; surely it can't be what happened today, with him. Fear crawls around in the back of his head; spidery thoughts scratching like some many-legged beast - what happens to Draco if Granger falls apart? Nothing good; that much he knows, to his dread.
"G-good," he breathes, the relief still suffusing him but soaking in now - dissipating as his sluggish mind adjusts to the knowledge, tempered by his worry about Granger's mood. "Th-that's good, r-right?" He sounds pathetically hopefully; a dog begging pitifully for scraps and reassurance. Granger smiles weakly.
"It is. I'm sorry, Malfoy. I am pleased. It's just...been a long day. Between what happened with Thorn, and...personal issues, I need a drink," she admits wryly, treating him like he is a friend, almost. Not a patient, or an animal, or a burden, but a fellow human being. It's still shocking, in a way. "And I'm worried about - about what Kingsley Shacklebolt said about pursing criminal prosecution with the Healer at St Mungo's, and others who abused you."
Draco's cheeks flush hot and red at Granger's words. She knows now some of what had been done to him; she knows how degraded and used he had been, how he had been a helpless toy for the hospital workers to take out their anger on, in small, sadistic ways. It makes him cringe and want to sink into the bed, and through it - down into nothingness and obliteration. It makes him feel so ashamed. He tries not to let it eat him up, but avoids Granger's eyes.
"O-Oh?" Draco comments, trying to sound casual even as his clotted mind races in a bumbling rush - falling over itself and tangling up, confused and bewildered. He doesn't expect Kingsley Shacklebolt will have said anything good; even if Granger's demeanour and tone when speaking of it wasn't enough to make that obvious, it was what Draco had expected from the Ministry. "Wh-what did h-he say?"
"That it might not be worth the stress of trying to get a prosecution," Granger says angrily, gnawing on the corner of her lower lip before going on. "That all it will achieve is you having all your...crimes, dragged up, your, erm, abuses splayed all over the wizarding media for all to -"
"L-laugh at," Draco spat out, rage and disgust - at himself, mostly - making the words grind out, thick and twisted. "L-laugh at h-how I g-got s-o hurt, and hu-humiliated, and - and h-how d-disgusting I am, and -"
"Malfoy." Granger's hand settles on his bare forearm - thin enough that she could nearly encircle it with her slim fingers. "Malfoy, you're not disgusting. Stop it. Stop -" She breaks off, turning her head away and pulling her hand back to smudge at her eyes embarrassedly.
"Anyway," she says after a long pause in which she stares at her hands, and Draco watches her bowed head and feels his arm tingle where her warm hand had been. "As I was saying, Kingsley expects anyone you accuse will only get a slap on the wrist, and only after you've been...re-traumatised, was the word he used, I believe." Her jaw tightens.
"I still think you should do it, because slap on the wrist or not, they shouldn't be fucking allowed to do that to you -" the swear word comes as a shock, as does Granger's vehemence on his behalf, sending an odd feeling through him "- but it's entirely up to you, Malfoy - I'll help you and support you in whatever course you decide upon. I - I can understand wanting to go either way. It might be easier to just...try to forget, and that's all right, if you want to do that."
Draco bites his tongue for a moment, trying to steady himself with the sharp pain before he risks speaking, because there is a funny ball of emotion all knotted up in his chest. He doesn't - he doesn't know. It's clear what Granger wants, and he wants to - Merlin, as pathetic as it is, he wants to make his keeper happy, that old fear that if he doesn't she might hurt him, lingering in the recesses of his mind. But for all that he wants to do what Granger will approve of - and for reasons that comprise more than just her approval - he doesn't want to be mocked and humiliated in the papers. To know that people are getting pleasures out of hearing about the abuses inflicted on him.
He recoils from the thought; it causes a visceral sickness in his belly, makes him feel clammy and nauseated and shakier than usual. But that is what the people who bother to take interest in the case will do. They will find his pain amusing, deserved - just like it is, isn't it? Isn't it deserved? How many people has he hurt, or aided in hurting? How many are dead because of him? How loathsome is he, in the eyes of the wizarding public? In his own eyes. They will laugh, like Auror Thorn, and it will kill him; not that they do it, but that they have reason to.
"I - I don't...I d-don't know," he all but whimpers like a frightened, snivelling wretch, eyes on the cup in his skeletal hands and not Granger's face - anywhere but her face. He can't stand to see the pity in her red-rimmed eyes.
"Oh god, Malfoy, you don't have to decide right away," she says, tone surprised and deeply sympathetic. "There's plenty of time to decide. Right now, you should just focus on getting healthier. And speaking of...I had Kreacher prepare afternoon tea. How do scrambled eggs, toast, some fruit, and orange juice sound?" She is forcing herself to be cheerful - he can tell when he looks up at her. Her smile is pasted on and her eyes are wounded, and Draco wonders what else Kingsley told her. What would leave these marks of hurt.
"R-really g-good, thanks," he stammers, nodding weakly, wishing he could reassure Granger the way she tries to do for him, except that he doesn't know what's wrong and he's too afraid to ask in case it annoys her. It's none of his business, and she might not want him to know. So he just sits there silent and awkward and she smiles lopsided and gets up with a pat to his knee through the blankets.
"I'll be back in a moment. Drink your water, Malfoy. You need it."
Hermione's bedroom, 12 Grimmauld Place, Islington, London
She kicks the door shut with one foot, and in privacy now, tears the envelope open with eager, fumbling fingers. The owl had arrived just as Hermione was giving Draco his potions, after he'd finished his afternoon tea. When Kreacher had showed her the envelope and she'd seen the handwriting, her heart had constricted in her chest and she had barely been able to force herself to finish settling Malfoy comfortably for another nap - he sleeps an awful lot. It is his body healing, she supposes.
She sinks onto the edge of her bed as she extracts the envelope, crumpling the previously perfectly smooth cream and silver striped bedspread beneath her. Tucking one foot up under her other thigh, Hermione tosses the envelope aside onto the bed, and unfolds the sheet of parchment, smoothing the creases flat over her thigh, devouring the words on the page. God, Harry's handwriting is awful still, she thinks half-hysterically, hand coming up to cover her mouth, muffling her teary, gasping laughter.
Some of it is splotched and smeared a little, as if by tears, and some words and lines are struck out with several thick, black slashes of ink, but Hermione squints and deciphers it all, every word, slowly and painfully.
I'm sorry that I left. And I'm sorry that it's taken me so long to write to you. I feel awful for leaving you and Ginny and everyone else when I did, but =I just couldn't= =I needed time= after I felt like everything was over. Like I was empty. A pumpkin with all the seeds scooped out, and I didn't know what the fuck to do, anymore.
I couldn't even FEEL anymore. Do you know how that feels? I guess you probably do, after losing Ro= so many people you love. It's hard to feel when all there seems to be is funeral after funeral and no matter how many times people tell you that they're there for you, you're still all alone. You grieve alone.
Anyway, I had to get away. I don't know why, but when Voldemort died, it was like something snapped loose in my head. I know how stupid I sound, Hermione, but I don't know how to explain it.
Maybe it was the loss of the horcrux in my head. Or losing =Voldemort= what had been my purpose in life for so long. It was like the floor fell out under my feet, and I needed to get away to somewhere else to figure out =if I have a life without HIM= what I'm going to do with my life now.
So I ran away to Nepal, like a coward. I know that's what I am. A coward. You are far better than me, Hermione, to stay, and stay sane. I don't know how you do it. =You make me feel ashamed=
But, to be fair, I have spent my whole life =being the boy-who-fucking-lived= doing my best to be strong for people. And not just being strong, but being some destined last, only hope, and when do I get a break? Shouldn't I be allowed one now?
It's not that I want to be away from YOU, Hermione, or anyone else (because I don't,) it's that I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know who to BE. =I think sometimes that I should have stayed dead= I feel like I'm lost. And a magical monastery? It seemed like the kind of place to go to find myself, you know? I just need...to figure it out, if I can, before I come home to you =and Ron= and Ginny and everyone else.
I know that doesn't excuse the hurt I've probably caused you, but for what it's worth...I'm sorry. Really.
I love you, Hermione. You're my best friend.
Please forgive me.
Hermione only realises she's crying after a drop of wetness lands on the parchment, blurring Harry's scrawled name. Her hands are shaking nearly as badly as Malfoy's, her pincer grip on the side of the parchment enough to send crinkles radiating out from it, and whiten her knuckles. She draws in a slow breath as she wipes away her tears with the back of her free hand, and then lets it out again in a wobbly whoosh. She scans the letter again, eyes lingering in certain places, her heart caught painfully by the barbs of his lost grief.
Like I was empty...you grieve alone...if I have a life without HIM...a coward...the boy-who-fucking-lived...should have stayed dead...
Hermione can feel his pain like a physical thing clawing at the centre of her chest - wrenching and crushing and awful, and she presses the side of her hand hard against her mouth as she tries to hold back tears. You're my best friend. When she reads that again... The simple statement of fact and feeling, which has been sent in ink and paper over thousands of miles, and yet still strikes into the heart of her, as deep as if Harry had wrapped his arms tight around her and whispered it into her ear.
Time passes, while Hermione sits and stares blindly at the black scrawl; Harry's heart laid bare before her, and his inner crisis is so achingly sad. She folds the letter back up with care, and stands unsteadily, moving to tuck it safely in her bedside drawer. Later, when she has had some time for her turmoil of emotions to settle, she will read it through again, with a clearer head this time. And then she will write back - although what she'll say, she has no idea. She's still angry with him for leaving, though; she knows that much. She is just as lost and hurt as Harry is, in her own way, but she isn't abandoning her grieving friends to run off halfway around the world in an attempt to find herself.
Hermione understands Harry's feelings - painfully so - but the way he's reacted...she understands that too, but she doesn't think it's the right way. Running away from the people who love you is never the right thing to do.
Hog's Head Inn, Hogsmeade, Scotland
"How can you find yourself somewhere that you've never been before?" she asks Ginny morosely, a hint of anger threading beneath the words as she shoves her glass of Berry Ocky Rot back and forth across the dirty table they're tucked away at, right near the back wall of the Hog's Head's front room. Hermione had fire-called Ginny shortly after she'd pulled herself together, to see if she'd gotten a letter. She had. And they'd agreed to meet at the Hog's Head, and share the contents - after Ginny had assured Hermione there was nothing improper in her letter.
And now after having swapped letters and read them through - both very similar - they sat here together in the dingy Hog's Head, trying to drink away some of the misery and confusion, and failing. They've gone through the sympathy stage, and are now heading into the angry phase, Hermione is fully aware. She lets it happen anyway. She carries on: "I know it sounds overly literal, but really. Finding yourself isn't a matter of location. He could have just as easily found himself in Grimmauld Place, or the Burrow, or, well, within the bounds of bloody Britain!"
"It's us," Ginny says, a tired sort of resignation in her words. "He says it isn't, but obviously it is. Because if it wasn't, he would find himself here." Hermione winces, feeling immediately terrible for making it worse for the redhead, who has already downed two and a half bottles of Daisyroot Draught in the short span of half an hour. She should be trying to cheer Ginny up, not wallowing in misery and discontent and bringing the younger woman down further.
"At least he wrote..." she offers, and Ginny grimaces, taking another dedicated gulp of her Daisyroot Draught before answering, a little scathing.
"Yes, after months and half a dozen letters. And from the sound of it, it wasn't even me threatening him to bloody well write that got him to, it was bloody Kingsley." Ginny sighs. "I know...I know how hard it is for him - and I know because it's hard for me - Ron and Fred..." She breaks off, and Hermione reaches out across the table, tears filling her own eyes. They cling, hands twining together hard and desperate, grounding each other with wordless comfort. And then Ginny heaves a deep breath and goes on, withdrawing her hand and taking hold of the half full bottle of Daisyroot Draught, peeling at the label with her thumbnail.
"It's hard for me. And I know it's not the same kind of thing, I know that it must be worse for him, but we're all..."
"We're all lost," Hermione finishes when Ginny trails off, unable to finish. "None of us know how to pick up what's left of our lives, and knit them back together into some kind of coherent whole. We're all just...limping on, as best we can. And trying to help each other, as we go. It's not a feeling entirely unique to Harry. Everyone who's survived this damned war feels the same way, to some degree."
Ginny nods, eyes sorrowful and wet, and filled with a grief that ages her well beyond her years. "We all have holes in our lives, and holes in our selves. We're Swiss cheese, most of us," she says with a little huff of half-laughter, tucking her hair behind her ear. "But - but we have each other, right?"
Hermione isn't entirely sure, really. Harry's words rush back to her as she sips at her Berry Ocky Rot to stall for time - no matter how many times people tell you that they're there for you, you're still all alone. You grieve alone. She shrugs a shoulder. "We try. And it's not enough to fill in all the holes, but..." And she thinks of Malfoy, and feels something bittersweet and good melt through her, like the glow the wine is giving her. "But it helps. A lot."
Malfoy helps. Neville was right, Hermione thinks ruefully.
"Harry doesn't think so, though," Ginny says bitterly. "This is the second time now, that he's just run off and left me when things have gotten hard. Like he doesn't trust me. Like he thinks that I can't handle it." Ginny looks up at Hermione, anger and strength in her face. "I'm not a child. He doesn't have to protect me."
"I don't think he's trying to. Not this time, anyway. He's...protecting himself, maybe. Trying to figure out whether he can put himself back together, like he said," Hermione offers, and she knows intimately the desire to just flee it all, to try to leave the mourning behind with the fresh graves that fill wizarding cemeteries across Britain. But it wouldn't have helped her; she's not that type of person. All she can do is hope that it does help Harry. "And he will, of course. Perhaps he just needs the solitude, and to get some distance, to figure out...what he wants, now that such a big part of what used to drive him is...gone."
"Maybe. But as his girlfriend, I'm sort of sick of him needing distance from me. Maybe I need closeness to him, but does he ever think of that? No," Ginny gripes, venting her feelings as she scowls at her bottle of drink. "I know things have been tough for him, but they haven't been easy for any of us, and right now...I could really do with my boyfriend's support." She frowns down at the grubby table top, and Hermione aches for her. It's not fair on Ginny, for Harry to do this. But then, it wouldn't be fair on Harry to force him to stay, either.
"I just want him to come home, Hermione. I - I lost Ron already, and - and Fred, and I just can't...it feels like I've lost Harry too, and I bloody hate him for that sometimes," Ginny cries suddenly, slamming her bottle to the table in emphasis. The redhead's face is a mask of frustrated, impatient anger and hurt, and all Hermione can do is make a grimace of sympathy, and nod weakly.
"I know. I'm hurt enough by him buggering off, so I can't imagine how much worse it must be for you," she empathises, and then listens as Ginny vents on, letting it all out. Hermione supposes that with Ginny's parents and George grieving the loss of their sons, Bill and Percy not living in the house, and Charlie off halfway around the world again, Ginny doesn't get much of a chance to talk about her feelings for the living. She's trapped in a house of mourning, and while Hermione envies her the company of her family - the presence of people who care, she understands how conflicted Ginny must feel. Daring to cry for the living as well as the dead, while her mother and father grieve two sons lost, and George misses his twin like a hole clean through his heart.
So she sits and sips at her Berry Ocky Rot - switching out Ginny's Daisyroot Draught for pumpkin juice once the younger woman gets tipsy - and listens, and nods, and sympathises as Ginny pours out her pain. It is easier to focus on Ginny's hurt and bewilderment, and her fear that she and Harry won't work out, than it is to focus on her own confused feelings. Hermione does find herself wishing wistfully several drinks in that she could talk to Ginny about Malfoy - that they could share their troubles equally - but of course that can't happen.
Ginny would not easily accept that helping Malfoy was a good thing, and besides the fact that she wouldn't likely be supportive, Hermione doesn't want to risk driving a wedge between them. She has too few friends left alive to risk losing any more. And Ginny doesn't deserve to be upset like that, like Hermione knows the younger woman will be, if she finds out the truth. Malfoy safely ensconced in Grimmauld Place, being cared for by Hermione herself? That would hurt and infuriate Ginny beyond all reason. So Hermione holds her tongue, and keeps her secrets locked away.
The evening drifts by slowly and eventually, pleasantly, in a haze of alcohol and shared memories. Hermione loses track of the time, and it's not until the alarm she has set - to remind her of when Malfoy is due for his potions - goes off that she realises it's nine pm. She stops in the middle of a sentence, and then tries to cover her slip by beginning it again, flustered and stumbling. The alarm is a ring she wears on her right hand that tingles and buzzes very oddly when it goes off, distracting Hermione dreadfully. She twists it twice around her finger to stop it, smiling apologetically across at Ginny, who has arched one auburn brow at Hermione's odd behaviour.
"Sorry, I - I suddenly don't feel entirely well," Hermione tells her, grimacing slightly. "I think perhaps I've drunk too much, and not eaten enough, and it's only just hitting me now." Ginny seems faintly suspicious, and more than a little disappointed, but Hermione makes her excuses swiftly, getting up and hugging the redhead goodbye before Ginny can protest or question her. She squeezes her very tightly. "I'm sorry to leave so abruptly," she apologises to Ginny, meaning it, wishing she could tell the witch why she had to leave. "Owl me, though - we need to catch up again before the week's out."
Hermione leaves in a flurry, coat over her arm and handbag slung over her shoulder, out of the smoky warmth of the Hog's Head into the cool, dark evening. The breeze is chill tonight, biting at her alcohol-pinked cheeks, and she wedges her handbag between her thighs as she swings her coat on, and then finds her wand within the depths of her overstuffed bag. Hogsmeade is dim-lit around her, all sparkling, golden-orange light, and the presence of people going about their evening business - talking, and laughing, and unafraid. It feels so good that Hermione has to soak it in for a moment.
A beautiful evening where no one is screaming, or dying, or hiding, or walking fast with shoulders hunched against danger.
This is what they all fought for.
This is what - what they died for.
Hermione's breath chokes in her throat and she shuts her eyes against the sight of Hogsmeade, unable to stand it anymore. She pictures Grimmauld instead - the narrow, dark hallways and small warm-lit rooms, Kreacher skulking benignly through the place, Malfoy sleeping fitfully in his bedroom - and spins on the spot.
A/N: Thank you to everyone who has been reading and reviewing! I find your feedback incredibly motivating and helpful, plus I also just love it immensely, you wonderful people ^_^
Also, just a quick note for anyone who read Crumple - due to all the requests for one, I shall be writing a sequel to the fic - although how soon I'll begin working on it, I have no idea yet.