Minor edits made 1/4/2016.

Written for the DramioneLove's Love Fest 2014.

Prompt: Hermione & Draco are reunited through a PTSD program at St. Mungo's after the war, forced into going through rehabilitation together.
Warnings:
Profanity, Mild Sensuality, Mental Health Issues (PTSD)

The prompt I was given practically begs for heavy angst, but I have chosen to go a different route. I know all too well how dark life with this disorder can really be – my hubby was diagnosed with PTSD a decade ago – and I did not want to focus too much on that side of the issue. Instead I've attempted, to the best of my ability, to portray the disorder accurately while also presenting the positivity of healing and humour.

Also, thank you to my amazing beta, Naeryna, my ever-faithful sounding board and friend! I have tweaked a few things since she last saw this, so any remaining mistakes are mine alone.

Disclaimer: "Harry Potter" is the property of J.K. Rowling. I am merely playing in the sandbox she has created. I am most definitely not receiving any monetary compensation for my child's play. Also, I do not own the movie, Bandslam, which I referenced for the chapter titles.

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[ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: ]

a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed
a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened;
also known as PTSD, shell shock, or battle fatigue.

Or, in terms relating to Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, an unwelcome, forcibly-mutual slice of hell.

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. ~ [ Onset ] ~ .


"Are you feeling alright?" Harry asks, an edge of concern in his voice. "You're looking a bit green."

"Merlin! You're right, Harry," Ron says. "She doesn't look well at all, does she? Hey, Hermione. Warn me if you're going to get sick, yeah? I'll move my lunch out of your way."

Dropping the letter held in her hands, she releases a sharp breath, incredulous. Disbelief and confusion wrinkle her forehead and, after a few long seconds, the lines deepen in anger. Hermione levels a malicious look at the offending piece of paper. The Healer in charge of her examination must be incompetent. It's the only logical explanation.

Hermione stands and begins to pace behind her desk, ignoring the curiosity and muttering of her friends. There has to be a way to correct the course this error of judgment has placed her upon. Surely someone, someone with the power to intervene, will see just how grossly exaggerated Healer Cooke's findings are. All she needs to do is find the right person to petition and–

"Hermione?" Harry speaks up hesitantly. "What is going on?"

Rather than answer him, Hermione simply hands him the letter and continues her pacing. It doesn't help her, though. She has lost her train of thought and, most likely due to her distress, she can't seem to pick it back up. Giving up for the moment, she collapses into her chair. Further rumination will have to wait until her nerves calm down a bit. Instead, she turns her attention back to the boys.

Harry's eyes are twinkling and his lips are curled in a crooked half-smile, while Ron appears to be barely repressing his mirth. Hermione glares at the redhead and crosses her arms. At that, Ron bursts out laughing.

"What? You have to admit, it is a little funny."

"Ronald Weasley, I cannot believe you! This is a serious matter!"

"Yeah, but it's kind of ironic. One of the biggest supporters of that 'Post-war Mental Health Initiative', or whatever the bloody hell you call it, is now on the receiving end of it." Ron chuckles. "Besides, you scared off two werewolves last week. Werewolves, Hermione. You should have seen their faces as they left your office."

"I–"

"It'll be fine," Harry interrupts, reaching out to take her hand. "Really. Go to the meeting. It won't hurt to just try it out."

"But–"

"Trust me. I've been through it, remember? The programme has helped a lot of people, and it's okay to be one of them. Nobody will judge you for it." Reluctantly, she nods her head, his kindness deflating her anger. Harry squeezes her hand and grins. "And Ron's right, you know. They were positively petrified."

Hermione pulls her hand from Harry's grasp and smacks him upside his head. When Ron starts to guffaw at her antics, she cuffs him for good measure.

"Ow! That hurt, Hermione," Ron says, holding his arms up to block further attacks.

"That's the least you two deserve for poking fun at a friend's suffering."

"You're a violent witch, Hermione Granger. It's no wonder those werewolves fled your office like their tails were on fire," Ron says. "But they're the lucky ones. Harry and me, we're stuck with your abuse."

"You have been applying your slaps a bit liberally lately," Harry chimes in, rubbing at the growing knot on his head. "Not to mention your birds."

"Shit, Harry! Don't remind her!" Ron says as he clasps a hand over his best friend's mouth. "I hate those little buggers."

Pushing her hair back from her face, Hermione lets a small smirk form on her lips. "Fine, you win. Cheeky bastards."

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. ~ [ Consultation ] ~ .


"Congratulations on successfully completing the terms of your house arrest, Mr. Malfoy," she says, her dry monotone anything but congratulatory.

And here I thought she'd be jumping with joy to see the last of me. Of course, that would mean that dear old Claire actually had a heart or emotions.

Draco has made her job as difficult as he possibly could without breaking any of the conditions of his sentence, but he has yet to see her blasé countenance crack. Not that it matters anymore. He's finally free – from her, from the damn Ministry, from being a prisoner in his own home – and for the first time in months, he feels something akin to happiness.

Claire McAvoy, the wiry old bag that the court has appointed as his parole officer, shuffles her neat stack of papers and then slides one of the sheets to his side of the desk. Draco skims the information the parchment contains, and suddenly all the pleasure he'd previously felt seeps out of him. He slams his hand over the damning words, wanting nothing more than to tear them into tiny pieces and burn them, and curses the Ministry under his breath. His companion's only reaction to this outburst is to yawn and continue organising her paperwork.

There was a time when my displeasure would have been enough to have her shaking in her cheaply-made boots, he thinks with no small measure of dissatisfaction. Stupid new-fucking-world.

"We will now be moving on to Phase Two of your sentence: rehabilitation. You will be required to attend the group therapy classes at St. Mungo's until a certified Healer signs your release papers. If we have reason to suspect that you have attempted to manipulate the system in any way," Mrs. McAvoy warns, her voice hard and unwavering, "your case will be put under review and you may be subject to further punitive action. Any questions?"

"What if I refuse to take those classes?" he asks, his voice full of disdain.

Mrs. McAvoy grins, wide and wicked.

Well, what do you know, Draco muses in triumph, the old hag can smile.

"I'm sure the Ministry can still wrangle up a Dementor from somewhere." She primly folds her hands and leans forward in her chair. "So what will it be, Mr. Malfoy? Will you sign the agreement or not?"

The taste of victory sours in his mouth as he inks his quill.

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. ~ [ Symptom: Flashback ] ~ .


Hermione arrives early, before even the facilitating Healer does. It isn't a deliberate act, the degree of her over-promptness. She merely wants to avoid the stares that tardiness seems to elicit. Self-consciousness is already plaguing her – the 'brightest witch of her age' needs a Mind Healer, of all things – and the last thing she needs is to have those insecurities magnified by a bunch of strangers.

Hanging on the wall just outside Hermione's destination is a bronze plaque, the bright metal engraved with a dedication to the founders of the newly appointed ward. Above that, an elegant frame displays a large group of triumphant people, taken on the day the Wizengamot had passed the Initiative for Mental Health Resources.

Until recently, most mental health issues had been simply written off as personal eccentricities; only abnormal behaviour caused by spell damage was considered for treatment. But thanks to the new department at St. Mungo's, patients now have access to counselling, group therapy, and Mind Healers whom have been specially trained to deal with mental health issues.

In the aftermath of the war, many Muggle-borns and half-bloods began to realise that while health care in the wizarding world could perform miraculous feats, it was still lacking in the area of mental health; there was no recourse available to those who'd had more than just their bodies damaged by battle. Their outcry sparked a movement, one that Hermione was all too happy to join. It took countless hours of research, several public education campaigns, and luck in finding the right Healer to head up the project – a senior Healer who had also received a degree in Muggle medicine – before the Wizengamot would address their concerns. But for those involved in the Initiative, it was worth it. The victory had been hard-earned and was one that, rather than spreading the devastation caused by battle, would be for the good of all.

And at this moment, she knows she should be grateful. But Hermione looks at the picture, and the sight of her own face smiling at her from behind the glass and her name written on the plaque causes her stomach to flop. Suddenly, she needs to be somewhere, anywhere, but here.

For lack of any other option, she elects to enter room and sit down. That simple decision quickly becomes problematic. The area is small, though not quite claustrophobic, and there is only one door through which to enter or exit. A large circle of folding chairs takes up most of the available space, leaving only just enough room around its perimeter for a walking path. From a logistical standpoint, it's completely adequate. From Hermione's perspective, it's an exercise in personal safety.

If she goes for the chair nearest to the back wall, she'll have a clear view of the door and everyone in the room. There is an issue with that, though. That location puts several obstructions – chairs, other people, and the limited space for manoeuvring – between her and the exit. Unfortunately, the position that will afford her the best escape route will also put her back to the door, hindering her ability to properly assess any incoming threats. As she contemplates her choices, her respiration rate begins to increase.

I'm quick and I do have both my wand and my wits, after all, she reasons. The chair at the back will do just fine.

So Hermione sits and wills her nerves to settle.

People start to filter in as the established meeting time draws near. Some of the faces are vaguely familiar to her, like the Healer, one of her referring physician's colleagues, but they don't belong to anyone she actually is in contact with on any kind of personal level. That makes the situation easier, if only just marginally. Hermione is used to facing the judgment of anonymous others. It's only when it comes from those she knows that it becomes something solid, something that can cause pain.

The clock chimes out the hour and once everyone takes a seat, she can see that there are eight others in the room, in addition to herself. One seat remains empty.

"Hello everyone," the green-cloaked Healer says cheerily, making eye contact with each of participants. "I am Healer Patella, but during our meetings you may call me Irene. Before we begin, I'd like to set a few ground rules–"

The door opens, interrupting Irene, and Hermione freezes.

To her horror, it is Malfoy that walks in, his usual swagger dulled by a pervading aura of sullenness. He opens his mouth to speak – nothing good, no doubt – but stops when he catches sight of his former schoolmate. Turning to fully face her, he crosses his arms and sneers. Suddenly, all she can think of is the day that she slapped him and how he is wearing the exact damn expression that infuriated her back then. He continues to stare her down as he reaches a hand into the front of his robes. But then, as he starts to pull his hand back out, Malfoy adds a grin to his glare.

The gesture is not a friendly one, infused as it is by an air of hostility, and Hermione snaps. She's seen that look too many times, in too many eyes, behind too many masks,and it never seems to bode well for her. Her wand is out and an incantation past her lips before he has time do more than dodge her spell.

A small slip of paper flutters to the floor, forgotten in the ensuing chaos.

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. ~ [ Diagnosis/Treatment Plan ] ~ .


Irene leans back in her chair, the squeak of the wood overly loud in the heavy silence of the room.

To her right, Draco Malfoy is examining his nails and trying very hard to appear indifferent. She knows otherwise, though. There is a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead, in spite of the coolness of the hospital air, and there is a telling twitchiness to his movements that speaks of anxiety.

On her left, Hermione Granger has been wavering between two courses of action. At the moment, she is wringing her hands as she looks at Irene, her expression contrite. But just seconds prior, she had been glaring daggers at young Mr. Malfoy, holding her gaze steady until he glanced her way. At his attention, Miss Granger had scowled most ferociously before turning away with a huff.

Interesting.

"Look, I'm going to be frank," Irene says. "In light of the disaster that occurred at the group therapy session last night, which the pair of you initiated, you are lucky that there are no charges being brought against either of you. I–"

"Charges?" Draco scoffs. "I was merely defending myself from an immediate threat."

Hermione rolls her eyes, arms tightly crossed. "Yes, because a person could giggle and guffaw to death when hit by a Tickling Charm. Besides, you were reaching for your wand to attack me. I would have never drawn my wand otherwise."

"If I had known that all it took to terrify you Gryffindors was a slip of paper, I'd have employed that tactic long ago." Draco sighs over-dramatically, clutching his forehead. "All this trouble over my referral letter."

"You actually expect me to believe–"

He buffs his nails on the sleeve of his robe. "I don't really care what you believe."

"Then what was the point of all that sneering?" she asks, her tone demanding. "And the glaring? And that grin?"

"I don't know, Granger," he says, drawing his words out slowly. "Maybe I just don't like you."

"Well, Malfoy, the feeling is absolutely mutual."

"Good."

Hermione shifts in her chair, turning away from him as best as she can in her current position. "Fine."

Irene, who'd been observing the exchange in fascination, clears her throat. "As I was saying, it has been decided that rather than press charges against either of you, the underlying issues that lead to this situation will be addressed. It is now apparent that the severity of your conditions, and the extent to which it effects your daily lives, has been underestimated. As of today, you have both been remanded into my care for an intensive, three week therapy camp, at the end of which I will assess your progress. I have already made arrangements with your employer, Miss Granger, and your parole officer, Mr. Malfoy. You have twenty-four hours to make any other arrangements that you deem necessary. And, as I have already said, you will be gone for three weeks. Please pack accordingly."

For a moment, there is only silence as Draco stares blankly and Hermione's lips move, open and shut, without releasing any sound. Then they both erupt.

"Excuse me?"

"Are you sure there's no other recourse? Surely–"

"Fuck–"

"I'm not entirely convinced that the punishment fits the offense, so–"

"Fuck. I'm just trading one prison for another–"

"And some of us have lives and jobs that we can't–"

"Of course, I get stuck in the same fucking therapy group as that damn, bushy-haired menace. It's all–"

"Besides, you can't blame me for being proactive with my safety. When you look at it that way, it's all–"

"It's all her fault!"

"It's all his fault!"

Irene takes in their outraged countenances and smiles beatifically. "The incident injured five people, reversed the hard-won mental progress of two others, and caused several thousand galleons worth of damage to both the room and the connected corridor. All of that destruction was possible because you chose to break the rules. Both of you brought a wand into an area that had been clearly marked as a 'No Wand Zone', and what's more, you chose to use them.

"Neither of you can use ignorance as an excuse. Miss Granger, you were one of the creators of the policies we use in the Mental Health Ward. And you, Mr. Malfoy, are not allowed to carry your wand outside of your own home without prior authorization, as per the stipulations of your current sentence. So," the Healer pauses, letting what she has said sink in, "I believe that the authorities are being more than lenient with the both of you. But if you would rather choose the alternative consequences, then by all means, please do."

Draco slumps forward in his chair, running a hand roughly through his blond hair. "May I ask what the alternative is?"

"Of course," Irene says brightly, picking up a small scroll. "According to this, you would be sent to Azkaban for a minimum of six months for breaking the terms of your sentence. And you, Miss Granger? Would you like to know your options?"

"No, that won't be necessary." Hermione chokes out her response, having the good grace to appear ashamed. "I will be… happy to be under your care."

"Very good." Irene turns back to Draco. "And you, Mr. Malfoy?"

"Not much of choice, is there?"

"No, I suppose not." Irene gives a short, sharp nod, conceding the point. "Well, unless either of you have any more questions or concerns that you'd like to discuss, you are dismissed. We will meet here tomorrow at 10:00 am, sharp."

Draco practically runs out the door, grumbling as he goes. Hermione stands to follow, but instead lingers beside her chair.

"Healer Patella?"

"Irene," she corrects Hermione, not unkindly. "Please just call me Irene."

"Oh, of course. Irene." Hermione fidgets, once again wringing her hands. "Is Mr. Henfler alright? I didn't mean to– Well, I didn't know he had a heart condition. Not that it should matter. Even if he was perfectly well, I still wouldn't purposely have– It's just that he got in the way. Merlin, that didn't come out right. What I mean to say is that I wasn't expecting him to protect Malfoy like that. I just– Could you tell him that I'm sorry? I've been told that his family does not wish for me to see him."

"You hit an eighty-five year old man with a very strong Tickling Charm, Miss Granger."

"Yes, I know."

Irene looks at her, one eyebrow raised. "In the arse."

Hermione nods, swallowing audibly.

"Don't worry too much. The family may be a bit uptight, but the old man told his nurses that it was the most fun he's had in years." Irene smiles and motions for her guest to leave. "I'll pass your message along. You've got twenty-three hours and thirty-seven minutes of freedom left. You best get going."

The door clicks shut and Irene breaks out in a fit of laughter.

Oh, the fun I'm going to have with those two!

Her fingers slide over the paperweight on the corner of her desk, a miniature replica of a Seer's crystal ball, and her giggling shifts into a wide, devious smile.

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. ~ [ Implementation ] ~ .


Hermione arrives, luggage in hand, and stands outside the office door. She's nervous, to be completely honest. Irene hasn't given them any information about what the next few weeks will entail, and Hermione isn't comfortable being at the mercy of another's whims, especially if those whims also include one Draco Malfoy. She closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath, wiping her sweaty hands on the front of her jeans before grabbing the door handle.

"Sometime today, Granger," a voice calls out from behind her, causing her to jump.

Damn him, Draco has taken her by surprise. Lost in her head as she was, she couldn't help but start, but she hates herself for it just the same. His chuckling doesn't help matters. She throws him a heated glare over her shoulder and opens the door with a haughty toss of her head.

"Right on time. Very good," Irene says, standing up behind her desk. "Don't bother to sit down. We've a ride to catch, so please do keep up." The woman grabs a handful of Floo powder and throws it into the modest fireplace in the corner of her equally modest office. "The Leaky Cauldron!"

At Irene's sudden departure, she and Malfoy turn to each other, eyeing one another suspiciously.

"After you. You might not exactly be a lady, but unlike some people I know, I was raised to have manners."

"Oh please, Malfoy, don't make me laugh." Hermione gestures to the fireplace. "You first."

He merely crosses his arms in challenge. The seconds begin to tick by and still he doesn't budge. Grudgingly, she decides to give in, knowing they'd wait until the end of time if she didn't. Let him have this small victory; she'll get her own in good time.

Stepping towards the fireplace, she grabs some Floo powder. "Fine, I'll go first. But for the record, you're being ridiculously childish."

"I know," he says without any shame. "But it got you to do what I wanted, didn't it?"

"You're repugnant." Her face twists into a look of disgust as she walks into the flames. "The Leaky Cauldron!"

When she reaches her destination, Hermione steps away from the fireplace. Malfoy arrives hot on her heels and Irene motions to the pair of them.

"You're late," the Healer says. "Come now, the car is waiting."

They make their way out to Muggle London, where there is indeed a car waiting for them. The driver, a burly, middle-aged man, wordlessly helps them secure their luggage in the small transport before returning to his position behind the wheel. Irene takes her place beside the driver, forcing Hermione and Draco to share the back seat. Once they are situated, both sitting as close to their respective windows and as far from each other as they can get, the car takes off.

As they travel, Irene drones on and on, having a one-sided conversation with the driver, while Malfoy sits stiffly beside her. The atmosphere between them is awkward, stifling, and Hermione would give nearly anything to be somewhere else. Sure, she's been forced to be near him in the past, what with sharing a classroom at Hogwarts and all, but never quite to this degree. She can hear the choppy rhythm of his breathing, the rustle of his clothing as he shifts to stretch his long legs, and smell the lingering scent of his soap. The physical reality of their situation, of spending weeks in close proximity to Malfoy, rapidly becomes overwhelming.

Perhaps Harry and Ron were right to be worried, she frets. I can't do this. I can't–

"Merlin, don't you have a book to read or something? All that damn tapping is giving me a headache."

Hermione stills her foot. She hadn't even realized that she'd been doing it. With wide eyes, she looks over at her companion, but he's ignoring her, watching the scenery fly by outside. As tersely as his advice may have been given, he is right. A book would calm her nerves considerably. Unfortunately, all her reading materials are packed in her suitcase and she is unable to access them. So after a long exhale, Hermione also turns her attention to the countryside.

She is surprised to find that the tension that had threatened to crush her has dissipated.

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. ~ [ oOo ] ~ .

"We're here!"

Hermione awakens with a jolt, the side of her face plastered against the glass of her window. The car has stopped in front of a quaint little cottage, situated in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, and the rest of the passengers have already stepped out of the vehicle. She gathers her wits and her luggage, moving to join them as they approach the house.

"I must say, the drool improves your look quite a bit, Granger," Malfoy says when she catches up. "That must be how you attracted those two strays you call friends."

"Did you just compare me to a dog?"

"Well, if the shoe fits…"

"I take back what I said about you acting childishly. You are a child," Hermione replies scathingly. "And that doesn't even follow the metaphor."

"What?"

"Drooling, strays, and a shoe? Really, Malfoy, I expected better from you."

He opens his mouth to speak, but quickly closes it when he realizes that Irene is watching their interaction.

A point for me, Hermione gloats inwardly. Now we're even.

They reach the door and Irene unlocks it, stepping inside. After a brief inspection to make sure that everything is as it should be, she pays the driver and sends him on his way.

"Well, come in, you two. I'll give you a few minutes to unpack before we get started." Irene guides them through the main floor and up the short flight of stairs to a pair of nearly identical bedrooms, separated by a tiny, yet well kept bathroom. "You can decide the room assignments among yourselves. I'll see you downstairs shortly."

Hermione quickly steps into the room on her right, the one closest to the stairs, and begins to unpack. She half expects Malfoy to follow her, claiming the room as his own to cause her grief, but he doesn't and she is grateful. There has been enough clashing of their wills for one day.

It takes little time for Hermione to organise her room, maybe a quarter hour, and then she makes her way downstairs to the sitting room. She could have dragged out her unpacking a bit, she supposes. But her innate curiosity is getting the best of her, not to mention her nerves, so she'd like to get some details as to what exactly Irene has planned for them.

Hermione is the last one to arrive. Two comfortably upholstered chairs are already occupied, one by Irene and the other, much to Hermione's surprise, by a fully-dressed house-elf. The only seat left is on the sofa, next to a scowling Malfoy. Whether he's still put out about her one-upping him in their verbal spar earlier, or if his attitude is just due to the situation at hand, she doesn't know. She steps towards him, but stops when his foul expression deepens. She briefly considers the benefits of remaining on her feet, but the Healer gestures for her to sit. Malfoy's muscles go taut, his body language speaking volumes in the way he shifts deliberately away from the spot where Irene is pointing. But Irene repeats her non-verbal request, smiling in expectation, so Hermione reluctantly takes a seat.

"Let's get straight down to business," Irene says as she stands, her wand held firmly in her hand. "Accio wands!" The woman is soon in possession of three additional wands, only one of which is Hermione's. She raises a dark brow in Malfoy's direction, but he just shrugs. Irene doesn't press the subject, just tucks the extra wands away into her traveling bag.

"Now, I believe introductions are in order. This is Tippers," Irene says, acknowledging the house-elf, "and she will be staying with you for the duration of your time here. She will be happy to help you with anything you need, within reason, of course, as long as your requests are politely made. She will also be my eyes and ears while I am away. Should any situations arise that need my immediate attention, Tippers will notify me. If–"

"Wait, wait, wait!" Hermione protests. "Do you mean to tell me that you plan to leave the two of us alone? That the only thing standing between me and him will be one small house-elf? What kind of therapy–"

"Are you completely daft?" Draco says, speaking over her. "That blasted Gryffindor is liable to kill me, and receive a medal for it to boot!"

"Oh, I've thought about, believe me. But we both know that the opposite is more likely."

"Don't flatter yourself, Granger. As if I'd risk going to Azkaban for your sake."

Irene waves her wand and both Hermione's and Draco's jaws snap shut. "Oh yes, that's much better." Irene sits down, nestling comfortably into her chair. "Now where was I? Oh yes, explanations. Well, this particular aspect of the programme is meant to be tailored to the patient's individual needs. After reviewing each of your files, I feel confident that the best course of treatment for each of you is each other.

"Miss Granger, you have surrounded yourself with supportive people who, unfortunately, coddle and enable you. They have helped you avoid your triggers rather than letting you face them, which is why your healing process has stalled. It is that environment which has allowed your condition to progress to this point. I am confident that Mr. Malfoy's presence will provide both the proper stimuli, considering your shared history, and the accountability you need to move forward.

"On the other hand, you, Mr. Malfoy, have no support system at all. Your father is incarcerated and your mother, in trying to counterbalance the harshness of your new reality, is too lenient. Due to the actions of your family at the Battle of Hogwarts, most people despise you – some for turning your back on Voldemort, some for not making a stand sooner. You are in desperate need of some middle ground. Miss Granger, with her well-documented sense of justice, is a good candidate for the job.

"Look, all I'm asking is for both of you to give this therapy a chance to work. Yes, you will be spending a majority of your time without my supervision, but you're both adults; I doubt you'll actually kill each other. Besides, I will be coming by weekly to check on your progress. I will also be giving you weekly tasks that will help focus your efforts. If by the end of the camp, you still haven't made any headway, I'll turn your cases over to another Healer and you can be done with me." She waves her wand again, releasing them from her spell. "Are my terms acceptable?"

"Fine." Draco grumbles, throwing his hands in the air. "It's better than sharing a cell with my father, at any rate."

Hermione continues her silence, but nods her head in the affirmative. Irene has given her a lot to ponder over, in regards to both herself and Malfoy.

"Then I shall be leaving you in Tippers' care until the next time I see you." The Healer stands and prepares to Apparate, leaving them with one last piece of information. "Your assignment for this week is to disclose and discuss one thing that scares you. Good luck."

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. ~ [ Symptom: Avoidance ] ~ .


Draco opens his door a tiny crack, peering into the hallway. "Are you sure it's safe?"

"I's sure, Mister Draco, sir," Tippers says with an enthusiastic nod. "The missy is in her room. Told me she was being ready for a nap, she did."

"Finally." He sighs, careful to keep his voice low. "That woman is a bloody menace."

It's been three days since he was unceremoniously dropped into this Ministry-sanctioned hellhole – three fucking days – and Draco is already going out of his mind. It isn't the near solitude or the fact that he is essentially quarantined that is driving him batty. Spending the past few months on house arrest at the Manor, with only his mother and house-elves for company, has already acclimated him to those conditions. It isn't even the further restrictions on his freedom or the lack of the luxury to which he is accustomed.

It is her.

Once they had been left to their own devices, Granger began to organise and micro-manage every part of their shared 'experience' that she could. Before the afternoon was over, the cottage had been littered with colour-coded charts and graphs and tables and lists. If there was a way to exhibit information in a visual format, she'd employed it. Nothing had been safe from her meddling. He'd been appalled and amazed in equal parts that she's even thought to bring her organisational supplies to their extended therapy session. But that was before she'd made a schedule for when he could take a shit. He'd ripped it in half right in front of her face and had taken great pleasure in doing so.

Of course, that had started a whole new bit of trouble, as she had lectured him on and on and on about respect, feelings, and a bunch of other such nonsense. In return for her harping, Draco had walked through the house and shredded every piece of paper he could find. Then he had retreated to his room, slamming the door in her sanctimonious face.

Draco has been steadfastly avoiding her ever since, while Granger has done her best to dog his steps, looking for opportunities to corner him. He hasn't let her close enough to have a proper conversation – or more likely in their case, an argument – but he's pretty sure he knows what she's after. There is an assignment hanging over her enlarged head, one which she specifically needs his cooperation for, and the scholar in her is itching to complete it. Unfortunately for Granger, he's not ready to oblige just yet. Watching her growing panic is just too much fun.

Besides, vulnerability is for saps.

Draco sneaks his way down to the kitchen with Tippers in tow, checking around corners before entering into each new area. Nothing impedes their progress, much to his relief. He is starving and bored out of his mind, having holed himself away in his room all morning. Sure, he could have asked Tippers to bring him a meal and keep him company. But with nowhere to sit in his sparsely furnished room except for his bed, he had dismissed the idea. Certain standards must be upheld, even if one's guest is a mere house-elf.

"Tippers, I'd like you to teach me how to make a meal," he says. "Something easy, mind you. I'm not used to such plebeian tasks."

"Of course, Mister Draco." She claps her small hands. "I's know! How's 'bout a sandy-witch? It's very easy, and tasty, too!"

He nods his approval, and Tippers begins to gather the needed ingredients, humming as she goes. Smiling, Draco shakes his head at her antics. It's been a long time since anyone has felt relaxed with him, felt like they could be themselves around him. Being free from that atmosphere of tension, if only just for a moment, is liberating. But it also reminds him of just how lonely he is. His own mother has a hard time holding a proper conversation with him these days. She puts so much effort into avoiding difficult subjects, but that is all that is left in their lives now and so they have nothing of substance to talk about. Even that is better than dealing with the fear that is laced through the words of his house-elves, though. He may not have inflicted the cruelty upon them that his father did, but he'd done nothing to stop it and they are quick to remember that shortcoming.

"Mister Draco? Is you alright?"

He swipes the back of his hand across his eyes and coughs, trying ease the tightness in his throat. "I'm fine."

Tippers hesitates for a moment, as if she isn't quite convinced, but then she is pointing to various items and babbling out instructions for him to follow. It doesn't take long for him to be caught up in the flow of her enthusiasm, even if he doesn't quite share it.

And this is how Granger finds him: elbow deep in ham whilst chatting happily with the hired help.

"You sneaky, selfish bastard! Do you know how long–"

Hermione scans past Draco to zero in on his companion, and her scolding immediately falters. Her bloodshot eyes shift from Tippers to Draco and back several times, and all of her angry bluster seems to slowly melt away. She glances down at the floor, nervously twisting her hands. Draco can't help but think that she looks so very small, so vulnerable, and dammit, he really hates that fucking word.

Hermione looks back up at him, her expression now carefully blank, before she straightens her shoulders and begins to speak.

"Sometimes I feel like I don't have anyone I can talk to." Her voice is softer than he's ever heard it, lacking the confidence that is normally there, and that change stills the scathing remark at the tip of his tongue. "Not about the things I actually need to talk about, anyway. I can't burden Harry like that. He carries so much guilt as it is and I don't want to add to it. And Ron… he's just, well, Ron. While he is a good friend sometimes – most times, actually – he just doesn't want to listen. He's left all the things that we went through and all the horrors we faced behind him. He doesn't want to rehash that dark history and I respect his wishes.

"So you see, there's no one else I can talk to because they weren't there. Not Ginny or Neville, not even my parents. Not any of them. So how can they possibly understand? And how can I make them understand when it hurts too much to explain it? So I'm stuck alone in my head with all these demons I need to purge and I just can't do it... and I probably never will." She pauses to swipe at the moisture running down her cheek. "That's what I'm afraid of."

Then Hermione turns on her heel and leaves Draco staring at her retreating figure.

He hates her in that moment, though not for any of the many prejudiced motives he'd previously felt were valid. Her admission hits far too close to home and Draco doesn't want to have anything in common with her. He doesn't want to understand her or relate to her plight, doesn't want to be moved by the sight of stoic tears. But dammit, he is moved and he does relate.

After all, he's lonely, too.

.
. ~ [oOo] ~ .

Draco drops the cloak and dagger routine, but he still doesn't see her with any great frequency. Hermione takes to spending more time in her room, though he can't say that it is because she is avoiding him. She continues to come and go throughout the cottage as she pleases, without any regard as to whether or not he is around, just as she had before the incident in the kitchen. The only difference now is that she is no longer trying to nag at him about the assignment. It unsettles him. He's never known Granger to leave work unfinished or her curiosity unsated. Her confession must have rocked her more than she'd like to admit.

Three and a half days pass, making it nearly a full week since they've arrived, and she still hasn't pressed him to complete his half of their therapy homework. Irene is due to arrive in about an hour, and Draco can't take it anymore. He tries to tell himself that it's all because he wants to keep his arse out of Azkaban, or that it's because he pities her after that depressing display of emotion, but deep down he's knows it's not true.

Fuck, he thinks, I'm as pathetic as she is.

From his spot on his bed, Draco hears the shower turn off and decides it's now or never. Before he can rethink his course of action, he's pounding repeatedly on the door, waiting for her to open it.

"What the hell, Malfoy?" Hermione frowns as she exits wearing her bathrobe, steam rolling out the door with her. "I was barely in there for ten minutes. You really couldn't hold your bladder for that long?"

"It's you."

"I don't see how I'm responsible for your bladder control, Malfoy," she says, snorting with derision as she tries to push past him. "Has what's left of your insignificant brain leaked out of your ears while you slept?"

"No, dammit." Draco steps in her way, rolling his eyes. "I mean, it's you. Your voice, actually. The shrillness of that nasal, know-it-all pitch. It haunts my most terrifying nightmares, if you must know. I still wake up with cold sweats."

Draco delivers his admission with a heavy dose of sarcasm. He just doesn't have the courage to exhibit the same degree of transparency Hermione had shown him. But his words are truthful. Her scream, twisted in pain by his aunt's dark curses, does regularly feature in his night terrors. Dread, cold and heavy, drops to his stomach as he waits for her reaction, hoping that she doesn't see through his pretence.

"All right," she says, a smirk lifting the corner of her mouth. "I'll give you points for creativity, at any rate. Your answer is, surprisingly enough, within the realm of plausible. I was actually expecting you to say something like you were afraid of heights or the extensive mass of my hair, or something else equally as ridiculous."

In relief, he returns her smirk with one of his own. "Well, your hair is truly horrifying, but I was trying to be polite."

"You, polite? To me? Merlin, this must be the end of the world."

Draco's smirk stretches into a genuine smile. "Yeah, Granger, I think it just might be."

.
. ~ [ oOo ] ~ .

Irene finally shows up and Draco lets Hermione do most of the talking, only adding to the conversation when directly addressed. In that matter-of-fact voice of hers, Hermione succinctly relates their findings and, much to his surprise, she does not include his uncooperative attitude in her report.

Irene doesn't stay long, but while she's there she smiles brightly. She asks a few questions and compliments them on the fact that they managed to work together without any resulting injuries. When Hermione badgers her for some more substantial feedback on their progress, the Healer merely states that they are exactly to the point that she had previously expected, giving them no further details. The session is all so basic and impersonal that Draco feels perversely dissatisfied by the whole thing.

But as Irene leaves, he catches her wink at Tippers. The little creature nods, her lips curling up into a knowing grin, and Draco wonders if maybe the two of them are not quite all that they seem.

.

.