April 21, 2015
Author's Notes: Thank you so much for reading and reviewing! I have another story I'm going to start posting very soon. n_n Reviews appreciated!

Eleven: Real or Not Real?

The first time Ginny had visited Diagon Alley after leaving St. Mungo's, she'd been filled with both relief and regret. All evidence of the attack had been cleaned up, the apothecary had been repaired, and the shop was back in business, just as it ought to be. She had half-expected to walk out of the Leaky Cauldron to see the neighboring business gaping open like a wound, still steaming and fresh, it's wreckage spilling out into the street.

The apothecary had a brand new face, and Ginny was glad to see business booming. However, without the physical evidence of the attack, she felt disconnected from it. She remembered the woman drawing her wand, remembered Draco pushing her to safety, but the memory was a blur thanks to the shock and adrenaline. She'd already been face down on the ground by the time the apothecary had exploded, so she didn't have a memory of the destruction.

She tried not to dwell on the attack. The best lesson she'd learned from her dream while in the coma had been to move on from bad memories. Ginny couldn't change what had happened to her during her first year at Hogwarts, the war, or the Diagon Alley attack. So she focused on the present instead.

Presently, she stood in front of the apothecary, three months after her release from St. Mungo's. Moving on with her life was all well and good, but she couldn't help but stop and spare a thought for how her life had changed thanks to one horrible incident. She'd changed after all the incidents in her life, of course, but she hadn't noticed until now. Or maybe she hadn't allowed herself to change until that very moment, standing in front of the apothecary.

The crowd bustled around her, jostling her as she stood in the middle of the road. It was nice to feel the reality and vitality of a crowd. Even if it had been imagined, when she remembered her isolation in St. Mungo's, she felt cold to her bones and immediately lonely. She needed this sometimes, to just visit the busiest place in wizarding London and feel... real. Alive. Free. Sane. Safe.

When someone shoved into her shoulder, Ginny couldn't even muster any anger, but she spun around to see who had been so rude and froze in shock.

He was still too thin, his face stretched and gaunt, purple smudges under his eyes. But he was standing, and his eyes were open, and there was a bit of a smirk on his face, which was a vast improvement from his disposition the last time she'd seen him at St. Mungo's. Ginny wanted nothing more than to throw her arms around his neck and squeeze the life out of him—joyously—and she almost did, but she managed to control herself. She couldn't stop the grin that spread across her lips though, so wide it nearly split her face in two.

"You should watch where you're going," Draco said, the smirk falling into a scowl.

She should have been angry that he was blaming her for his rudeness, but the elation overpowered any other emotion she could possibly feel. "You bumped into me, Malfoy. I was standing in one spot."

"That's the problem, then," he answered, crossing his arms in disapproval. "This is a road. You're meant to walk on it, not block the path of people who actually know how roads work."

"Let's walk, then," she said, gallantly gesturing down the street in invitation.

"Has anyone ever told you that you're cheeky?" he asked as he kept up with her leisurely pace. They walked where the crowd directed them, moving like a leaf drifting on a current in a stream, destination unknown.

Ginny shivered, but she wasn't sure why. "They don't have to tell me, do they?" she replied in a cheeky tone. She shivered again, a tingle of deja vu overwhelming her. The weird familiarity reminded her that this Draco was not the one she'd dreamed about, and her smile descended into a disappointed frown. She hadn't really needed reminding, but the thought sobered her anyway. There was no point feeling excited that he was conscious and well; they were no one to each other.

"No," he replied, the corner of his lips twitching upwards for a moment. "I suppose you would be aware of your own cheekiness, and that in itself is quite cheeky of you."

"I'm glad you approve." She rolled her eyes and stepped to the left to avoid an active child running helter-skelter and unchaperoned through the busy street. "Is there a reason you bumped into me today, or were you just looking to start an argument?"

He shoved his hands in his pockets as he mulled the question over, his lips puckering in thought. "I wasn't trying to start an argument at all. I was just wondering if you were real."

"Real?" she repeated, her eyes cutting over to him. Ginny could hear every beat of her pounding heart over the cacophony of Diagon Alley shoppers, like a bomb ticking down the seconds to an explosion. Nothing else mattered except for the muscle in her chest pumping blood through her veins: not the people around them, not the way her breath caught in her throat, not even their history—and lack thereof. She didn't dare read too far into his words, but she couldn't stop her mind from latching onto them.

He shrugged. "Apparently I was in a coma for a few months. After I woke up, I was isolated in a private ward—the best that money could provide—so now..."

She knew exactly what he meant even if he didn't have the words to describe it, and her pulse quickened even more as she realized that he understood how she felt. "So now," she continued for him, "you don't know what's real and what's not. Maybe you're still dreaming."

His shoulders sagged in what had to be relief. Since he'd bumped into her, he'd been too collected, too composed. He had been afraid, just like Ginny had in the weeks after she woke up, that the dream hadn't ended.

"Did you dream, too?" he asked, his voice low.

Her cheeks warmed, and the heat spread throughout her body within a matter of moments. "Yes," she admitted. "It was terrifying."

"Do you wish you were still asleep?"

His eyes burned into hers and Ginny shivered again. Perhaps he was using Occlumency now because his expression was unreadable. She wished she had his skill to hide her true feelings.

"Sometimes. In a way it was easier than... this. Than real life. And there were parts of my dream that I enjoyed." She stared at the back of the man in front of her, afraid to meet Draco's eyes lest he see the full truth about the enjoyable parts of her dream. "But I never want to feel that lack of control again. That was the worst part."

He nodded as if he understood. And maybe he did. His mind had also been trapped inside his unresponsive body for months. Maybe that lack of control had manifested in his dream, just like it had in hers.

"What do you know about the woman who attacked us?" he asked.

Ginny was relieved about the change of topic, and she tugged him down a side street, an offshoot of Diagon Alley, as she answered. "She was captured, tried, and sent to Azkaban. Someone died in the attack and a lot of people were wounded. She'll rot in a cell for several years. That's all they reported in the Prophet. I still don't know why it happened."

"I do," he said, and her head turned quickly to meet his gaze. He placed a hand on her arm, stalling her. "Let's take this conversation somewhere a little more private."

Talk of the attack had caused the October chill in the air to settle in her bones. While she did feel secure in the middle of the crowd—because it meant she wasn't imprisoned in a hospital room anymore—part of her still felt unsafe, like anyone at any moment could pull out a wand and start firing off spells. It would have been so easy for her to adopt dream-Draco's paranoia and turn into a recluse after being released from St. Mungo's. But that wasn't the kind of person she was. She didn't run from difficult memories; she faced them and conquered them until she was the one in control.

That didn't mean she didn't have her limits, though.

She nodded at Draco in response. "Where did you have in mind?"

He offered her his hand, an eyebrow arching in question. Ginny had no reason to trust him at all, but she gave him her hand anyway, and then he Disapparated with her in tow.

Ginny had never had the misfortune of visiting Malfoy Manor, but she'd heard about it from Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Their description of the imposing gates and the massive house had been weak compared to the reality in front of her. She did a double-take as a white peacock strutted past the gate. They must have kept them for the aesthetic. Ginny certainly couldn't imagine the Malfoys caring for the birds as pets.

With a wave of his wand, the iron bars opened and Draco gestured for Ginny to follow him through.

Ginny wondered what it meant that Draco Malfoy had taken her to his home. She wasn't afraid, and maybe that was folly to trust him so blindly, but she was nervous. There was an awareness between them, a tension that begged to be recognized. And Ginny felt a sadness for the potential of the alternate universe in which she'd lived while unconscious. She'd become pretty adept at reading the Draco in her dream, and they'd been something like friends before she'd woken up. This Draco was practically a stranger—a stranger she'd hit on just before they'd been attacked and he'd saved her life. Did that experience make them something to each other?

A pang reverberated in her rib cage as she thought of what could have happened between them if her dream had been real. She remembered how he'd pulled away from her that last night before waking up. He'd physically and emotionally withdrawn, so perhaps their relationship would have been just as it was now: a strained product of happenstance.

Draco broke the silence after a few moments, but his gaze stayed focused on their destination, leaving Ginny to absorb his words without his scrutiny. "Her name was Victoria Beckett. She contacted me with a business proposal, but it was clear soon into our meeting that she wanted a handout. Don't get me wrong," he said with a quick glance at Ginny before he turned his head away. "I make charity my business, but Mrs. Beckett didn't make a very good case. She told me the sum she'd thrown at me was her due, but she wouldn't tell me why. She stormed out of the pub, but I suppose she thought a different tactic would work when you and I had the misfortune of meeting her on the street."

A swift chill coursed through Ginny's body as she put Draco's information together with her memory of the event.

By now they'd reached the front doors of Malfoy Manor, and here Draco paused, his hand on the elaborately decorated door handle as he met Ginny's eyes. "I'm sure you know my father was sentenced to Azkaban after the war?"

Ginny nodded, and flashes went off inside her mind, flashes of alarm or deja vu or foreboding. Maybe all three.

"He died soon after arriving. He was murdered by a guard, a man named Beckett. I wouldn't be surprised if the two Becketts were related somehow."

He opened the door, but Ginny couldn't make her feet move to follow him inside the manor. Her legs were shaking too hard; her feet were numb.

"Was it..." she began, licking her dry lips as her mind raced. He stopped and turned around, his face blank. "Was it poison? The way your father was killed?"

His brows knit together in confusion. "How did you know? The Ministry wrote it off as an accident, and my mother did what she had to to keep news of his death out of the Prophet." He took a step closer to her, his hands clenched in twin fists. "How did you know he was poisoned?"

He'd told her so. In her dream. On their failed-escape first date. But she didn't tell him that. Instead, she shook her head and stepped through the door. "A guess," she replied. "What happened to the guard?"

"He was fired. Mother made sure of it. Besides that... I don't know. I can't imagine he was punished too harshly for getting rid of my father. Come on."

Draco beckoned her down a hall and through a set of double doors that led to a parlor. He gestured to a stiff chair that looked more decorative than functional before he slumped onto a settee, bonelessly exhausted.

"How long have you been out of St. Mungo's?" Ginny asked as she took a seat, perching delicately on the chair. It seemed impossible not to ruin something so fine, but she was determined to leave the furniture as unsullied as she'd found it.

"A couple days," he answered, one hand over his eyes. His breathing was aggressive and loud as he sucked in lungfuls of air. He tried to regulate his breathing, to hide the severity of his gasping, but it was clear how much of an effort it was. He reminded Ginny of she and Ron as children, racing each other up the stairs in the Burrow and trying not to sound winded when they reached the top.

She jumped back up. "What are you doing wandering around Diagon Alley if you've only just been released? You need time to recover! Just because you can stand and walk doesn't mean you should. Honestly, what were you thinking?"

"I was thinking," he said, his hand dropping from his face and his tone neutral, "that for several months, I dreamed I was isolated and confined. For the last two months, I've been stuck in a hospital room recovering. I was thinking that I wanted fresh air; I wanted to be around people; I wanted to make sure the dream was finally over." His gaze bored into her, and she waited with bated breath for what he would say. "I wanted to see the damage that had been done, and instead I found you."

The intensity in his eyes burned her, and before she could stop herself, her secret fell out of her mouth. "I dreamed about you," she said. Her heart was racing, and she imagined the vibrations from her pulse shook the admission right out of her. She turned her head away from his piercing gray eyes, too afraid of what she'd see there.

Draco sat up a little higher, his arms keeping his body steady. "Pardon?"

"I dreamed about you," she repeated. She scratched at the surely expensive material of her chair idly, picking at a snag in the thread with a fingernail. "We were locked in the Janus Thickey Ward together. Just you and me, alone without answers. We didn't have magic and we kept... slipping. The isolation, the confusion, our pasts, they ate at us until we were broken. We had only ourselves to build each other back up again."

Movement from the settee made her head swivel back in his direction. His limbs shook, but he stood up despite the muscle-deep exhaustion, and his face—oh, his face. Occlumency didn't hide the shock in his eyes or smooth the crease in his brow that Ginny was so familiar with from her dream. She began to tremble as soon as she saw his expression, and the trembling increased as he moved closer to her.

Her body was shaking so much, she could hardly form words, but she pushed them out, unsure of how to stop what she'd started. "W-we played pranks on Healers that didn't care about our health, and we d-drank potions without being told what they were for. We escaped—twice—but we were caught and returned both times, and I shared my secrets with you and you... you shared yours with me."

Now Draco stood directly in front of her. When he dropped to his knees, Ginny wasn't sure if the last of his strength had finally left him or if he only wanted to be on her level, so he could see into her eyes with ease. His hands lay on the chair next to Ginny's thighs, his fingers curved as if searching for purchase in the silk.

"What kind of secrets did I share?" he asked, his voice rough. His eyes were impenetrable, but that didn't stop Ginny from staring into them, looking for the man she knew. He was there. She knew he was.

"You told me about your line of work and how you invest in your family's future through charity and businesses and people who will speak well of you later. You told me about your paranoia and how you've been a recluse since returning to England. You told me about your father." Her voice lowered. "About how you blame him for what happened to you during the war."

His hands slid on top of hers, stilling her scratching, and the heat of his palms burned her all the way to her stomach.

"And you told me," he began, the corners of his lips lifting so slowly, "how much you hate losing control. How your family was too involved in their own grief to notice the contributions you made during the war and how you suffered. How Potter saw a perfect life with you that you no longer saw with him."

It was a wobbly thing, but she smiled back at him, not daring to hope but hoping anyway. She lifted her hands to her lap and flipped them over, palms facing upward, so that instead of him simply grabbing her, they were holding each other. She saw him now in the gray depths of his eyes, the man she'd come to know over the course of four months of imprisonment and isolation. The only Draco Malfoy she'd ever known. Her Draco Malfoy. She squeezed his hands tighter, testing—just as he'd done earlier when he'd bumped into her in Diagon Alley—whether or not he was real. She almost couldn't believe it was him.

"You know, the strangest thing happened about a week after you left," he continued, his gaunt cheeks stretched by his blossoming smile. "I was sitting in one of the chairs, pulling out my hair because the room was too quiet, and all of a sudden, I heard a voice. Your voice. I'd thought I'd finally lost it. After weeks of edging into madness, I'd finally crossed the line. But your words pulled me back into rationality and gave me the strength to keep going.

"You told me that I was more than I thought I was and more than what everyone else thinks of me. And you know what?" He startled her by laughing.

"What?" she asked, puzzled by his sudden mood.

"You were wrong. I had the strength to keep going because I wanted to tell you how very wrong you were. I know who I am, and I'm exactly what everyone thinks of me. You don't have to paint me in a favorable light just because you see something in me that deserves better. The world isn't black and white like that. I've done terrible things in the name of my family, just like my father did. He didn't get a free pass for the things he'd done, and neither should I, but that doesn't mean I can't try to change."

He struggled to rise, and Ginny held his arms steady as they combined their efforts to move him so that he was sitting on the edge of the settee again, with Ginny now perched beside him. His smile fell as he tried to catch his breath, but he waved away her attempts to soothe him.

"I thought I wanted to be around people. That's why I went to Diagon Alley today. I didn't want to be alone anymore, just me with my mother as my sole companion. But when I got there and saw that there was nothing to see at the apothecary, I began to panic. There were too many people, and I'd already been attacked once, just as I'd always feared. Then I saw you, and no one else mattered. Because..."

He dropped his hands and looked away, his face suddenly becoming impassive in that way that told Ginny he was using Occlumency. It was a defense mechanism. Not only was he trying to hide his feelings from her, he was also trying to hide them from himself.

She grabbed his chin, turning his haggard face back to her until their eyes met. "Because as long as we're together, we can make it through anything. Just like we did in the Janus Thickey Ward. You and me against the world."

His head jerked downwards in a nod. "You see, I'm a bit of a self-serving coward, and I'd rather face the world with you than be stuck in a dream or this manor alone. I can't do it without you."

Ginny smiled to herself and tugged him closer, her lips hovering a hairsbreadth away from his. "We're moving a bit fast for a second date, don't you think? Maybe we should wait until the third before having this conversation."

His smirk came back out as his hands slid up her arms to cup her face. "Has anyone ever told you that you're cheeky?"

"They don't have to tell me, do they?" she answered before finally, finally pressing her lips against his.

His lips crushed hers with such gentle insistence, as if he thought she would break if he pushed too far, as if he thought he'd dreamed her. But Ginny wasn't fragile anymore. He had shown her that she was strong. She retaliated against the very idea of fragility until she'd pushed Draco down on the settee and she was poised over him. She pulled away to look into his eyes again, and he stroked her cheek as he delved inside her mind, skimming the surface of her memories of their shared consciousness, just enough to know the truth for certain.

She felt both his fingers on her face and the flutter in her head as they relived their nightmare, and when he closed the mental connection, she laughed. Those four and a half months had been just as real as anything Ginny had experienced in her life. He was real. She didn't understand how or why, but it didn't matter because it was all real.

And their future? That was real, too. As Ginny pressed her lips against Draco's again, she couldn't wait to see what the world had in store for them.

The End

Sunny's Prompt #1:

Basic premise: Ginny Weasley never expected to find Draco Malfoy as a fellow patient of the Janus Thickey Ward.
Must haves: Post-Hogwarts. A kiss. It isn't obvious at first to Draco and Ginny what the other is hospitalized for, and it takes some time before they learn or figure it out. In the course of the story, one of them ends up being cleared for release while the fate of the other is unknown.
No-no's: Entirely fluff or comedy.
Rating range: Any.
Bonus points: (1) If they sneak out of St. Mungo's and spend a day together before getting caught and taken back. (2) Alternating Draco and Ginny POV. (3) If one of them or both end up being significant for the other's healing progress.