A/N: Two years, I know. Major lagging. Plz, no lectures. Well, believe it or not, I had written this right after I wrote the first chapter but had major doubts about it. I found it again just a few days ago, read it, and decided to post it up (for fun). I don't know if it'll make the fic better, or worse, and some of you can just choose to not read this if you thought it was better as a stand-alone.
Major thanks to Lorett, my beta.
Hermione couldn't say exactly what it was they did together, or whether there was any sort of commitment formed that moment she'd held his hand. Maybe there was – a vague, blurry one that they hadn't spoken a word of at all – but ever since that night, she'd felt a startling, tunneled connection to him. With a clear reception of everything and anything, and a disturbing yet calming acceptance of them. But could she call her and Draco a "them," really? Were they no longer just singular nouns in the same sentence, stubborn and far too different and explosive to ever be considered in the same category, but a singular pronoun all in itself? A stubborn, cemented pronoun? With no names involved at all, just that they were fused together and more, to the extent that they were simply called one word: "them"?
Yet, even with her questions and qualms, she still lied to Harry and Ron about her late-night agenda, still walked up those stairs every night when she was not issued with patrol, and still felt that pulsing spot inside her chest, alive and proclaiming haywire messages to the functions of her body when she saw his face. His elegant features were always eclipsed by the dimness of the light-lacking Astronomy Tower when she finally reached him, shading in the most sinister of areas, making him almost seem like a ghost.
But when he smiled at her the ominous shadows all broke away and fled, oh, when he smiled… she felt scorn in herself, a gnawing self-blame, when she wondered why she hadn't made the effort to make him smile before. It was only now she was discovering all of this: bits and pieces of Draco Malfoy's dark past, all told out in an elaborate, whimsical but dark tale, and his smile that made his entire face light up, most especially even that dark hole of emptiness in her heart.
But the thing was, she hadn't even known she'd had a dark hole of emptiness in her heart. It'd never been made clear to her, not even hinted, in her past six years here at Hogwarts. Nobody had ever pointed it out to her and she'd never felt it, not really, thus she couldn't possibly have known. It was terrifying, utterly terrifying, when she realized the lack of substance there, the monstrous void, rotting in her chest, hollow and dusty. But the realization of it grew and grew like a cancerous tumor the more she thought of him and saw him – the more words she heard from him. As if she was bewitched. And soon, however incongruent and nakedly guileless it could ever be, it had been completely unveiled to her.
Surreal. That was the word she reckoned could half explain how it was between them. Sure, the romance was rather below par because he was Draco Malfoy and going about this quite awkwardly for he knew nothing about courtship – let alone a hurried one due to an early-coming death – and was intimidated by romance, despite his haughty arguments. But he had certainly warmed to her. He smiled at her more often now, barely sneered, though the smirks were something she considered indomitable. He talked to her quite comfortably yet she could see that every time she neared him she made him nervous.
She quite liked that.
She never thought she could make any boy nervous, at least, not in that same context. On some level, it even thrilled her. And she began to think that maybe, just maybe, he really did fancy her. A lot. It was a feeling that required some time to get used to, undoubtedly. Mutual feelings of affection weren't exactly her forte and she wasn't accustomed to those spasms in her chest or the violent butterflies in her stomach. Or even the fact that sometimes she found herself dazedly staring at him from afar, across a classroom or the Great Hall. Though she caught herself immediately so that no one else would notice, all the while reprimanding herself for her negligence of open-area staring, most of the time she simply wondered what he was thinking about. If he ever just spent hours thinking about his life and his death. If he ever wondered about what could have been, and if he ever wondered about what he could have done.
In all honesty, Hermione did not know how one could cope with such questions. It was painful for her to think about Draco that way. And so she concluded that perhaps the best way to deal with it – with less pain – was trying not to think of it at all. Maybe it'd seem less monstrous that way.
It worked for a while. During her first month with him all she could do was look at him in intrigue, and sometimes, proving that he was still one in the same: disdain. But it wasn't the same as before. Things had changed. Everything had changed. She couldn't look at him and see the same Draco Malfoy who'd harassed her their years before. Because, somehow, it was as if that perspective of him had been swept away with the knowledge of his death, like scattered seeds in the changing winds. It was impossible to hate him, even when he stubbornly carried on as if nothing had happened: he still taunted Harry and Ron whenever he could, still sniggered when Snape bullied their House. Still smirked the same smirk and drawled the same drawl.
He fooled everyone. He was a master at keeping up pretenses, and proving so, he had everyone looking after him with indifferent feelings. They loathed him. They hated him. It was only Hermione who noticed how slowly his color – what little color he had to begin with, at least – had begun to pale a little more with each week that passed. His hair did not gleam as distractingly as it used to. His drawl wavered – but only so slightly that it failed to disturb the natural order of things. He was still witty, demanding, and insufferable. And that overshadowed everything else: every iota of detail, every strand of hair that was gradually losing its shine.
Hermione understood why he refused to back down. She didn't need to ask him – all it took was one look when he'd glanced at her during his usual Slytherin antics. She'd gotten angry with him at first, condemning his pride for what it made him do, but realized that it was unjustified: the Mudblood jokes had completely vanished. The halls were absent of his stinging words and remarks of her tainted blood and family. He uttered not a single word to her when the sun was up – not even a vowel. He left her alone. They passed each other and they looked, at times catching the other's gaze or simply shooting a discreet glance, but that was how things were. Indifferent – yet not, at the same time.
Things could never be the same.
Everything had changed.
But as three entire months passed, the fine-spun spool of time was now unraveling, glowing a dazzling gold before floating right out of their hands, and no matter how Hermione tried not to think of it, it persisted.
Three months. Three months had gone already. Hermione couldn't help but faintly feel the ties of urgency and desperation, acrid and hot, tightening around her lungs and chest. Sometimes, late at night, she found herself drawing back the velvet curtains of their high-rise windows and just staring out at the sky for hours. Reveling in the presence of the stars, like bright, knowing winks in the far inky distance, and thinking about him. And she couldn't help but wonder if he did that sometimes too; if he ever thought about her.
Harry's voice, clanging through her fuzzy skull and ears like a gritty and unpleasant tintinnabulation, startled her back to reality. Her eyes flickered back into focus from its daze and looked at him.
He was looking at her oddly.
"What about it? Hogsmeade weekend?"
She sighed, feigning a smile. "Thanks, but I think I'll be staying here instead. They've got a new set of books on hermeneutics in the library and I've already reserved them." She forcedly pushed her thoughts of Draco aside; gaining an excited gleam in her chestnut eyes that Ron rolled his eyes at. "I can't tell you how long I've been waiting for those books!" she exclaimed. "They weren't even in print when I requested them!"
"Honestly, Hermione," Ron remarked. "You've really got to get a life. You're going to end up like Moaning Myrtle if you keep going the rate you're going at now." He shuddered, looking at his goblet as it magically refilled itself with pumpkin juice. "All pasty and… mental." He looked up at her. "Did you know that she's been slipping peeks in the boy's toilet? Pervy girl, that Myrtle," he muttered.
Somehow, Hermione got the gist that he was speaking from experience, which caused her to overlook his insult and simply exchange smiles with Harry beside her, who was chuckling into his cup.
But as she simply grinned to herself, picking up another kipper from her plate, she couldn't help but let her eyes rest upon a blond head sitting one table away, within perfect view from her seat. She watched him as he smirked knowingly at Blaise Zabini across from him at the Slytherin table, his pale face molded into an enticingly impish look – flawlessly mischievous from years of trying to master the art, although Hermione had a strong feeling that he'd been birthed looking that way from his mother's womb. Then his silver gaze fluidly moved over to her, his smirk easing into a more comfortable one (though how smirks were ever comfortable, she'd never know) that triggered another bounce of rambunctious commotion within her stomach walls.
Despite her recent thoughts, Hermione couldn't help but feel searing heat creep all over her cheeks as she hastily glanced away, busying herself with the book she had in front of her, Of Wizards and Warlocks by Dauntrice C. Humdingle. She felt like a human torch, flaring alive with siren-like color, and she felt utterly humiliated by the treacherous functions of her body. She furiously tried to calm herself down, trying to somehow cool her face and ward away the redness. Hermione hated it when she blushed. It always appeared scarring on some level for reason that her skin took quite a while to regain its natural hue, which she reckoned had something to do with family genetics or a blood cell imbalance.
I'm never looking his way again, she told herself firmly. Then she gained a substantial amount of scorn and resentment in her thoughts. I bet he's laughing at me right now, she thought bitterly. She didn't quite understand why she'd started to flush so brightly, but lately she'd been teetering on borderline frenzy – and, quite possibly, madness. It was simply just that she'd never really been like this before. She'd fancied blokes before, certainly, for though she was a pariah in just about anything dating or social, she was still a teenage girl with hormones. But she never blushed. Not like this.
She tried to shake away the lingering thoughts of the smirking Slytherin, having enough wit about her to quite possibly reprimand him about it later on, whilst at the same time praying nobody would notice how furiously she was blushing. She felt she could have warmed an entire room with how hot her face had gotten. She opened her book and attempted to duck her face between its pages, trying to seem casual yet not wanting to waste any time doing so.
"Hermione," said a voice, and she jumped. She crept her face nearer to the inside of the book. She felt as if she was on fire now. "What are you doing?"
"Er – reading," she replied, trying to compose herself.
"Yes, I notice, but can you really read with your face embedded into the pages like that?" quipped Ron. "Your elbow's stuck in Harry's jam, by the way."
Now even more humiliated than ever, Hermione peeled herself away from page one hundred eighty-seven and one hundred eighty-eight of her book just a tad to peek over the side, slowly lifting her elbow from Harry's raspberry jam and resting it on the table while Ron began to mutter about her severe abnormalities again and Hermione remembered why she always seemed to hate fancying someone.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Hannah Abbott had caught a ghastly case of the flu and so her duty of patrolling tonight was handed off to Hermione, or so she'd been notified just when classes ended. Realizing the change of plans, she detached herself from Harry and Ron with a plausible excuse about popping by the library and secretively snuck off to the Owlery to inform Draco. She tried to take precautions when it came to their situation (although the definition of their "situation" was still quite vague) because she still wasn't certain whether he'd wanted to keep it secret or not. Though the thought approached her with a sort of pinging pain and resentment, even traces of irrefutable anger, she couldn't blame him. His reputation was all he had now.
Hermione recited mantras to herself about her dignity and determination not to fret about his intentions at all, for he'd been nothing but affable and pleasant towards her these past days. Every night when they met he offered to walk her back to the Gryffindor dormitories in that Malfoy way he did, subtle yet ambiguous, yet each time she waveringly declined. Perhaps it was out of fear, out of the spooling fright she had that they'd be caught in flagrante and everything would fall to miserable ruins, but mostly it was because she needed to rid herself of his intoxicating presence before returning to her housemates. For although her housemates were not the smartest lot when it came to academics and studious matters, she knew for a fact that they had a knack for reading people. And had she returned every night without composing herself, she reckoned that they could have even read her in absolute darkness. After being with him, she often felt as if she glowed.
That was the worst part. She hadn't a single clue how to deal with this – this sickness. She was not supposed to feel this about him at all – then again, she wasn't supposed to be doing anything with him, so there went that feckless argument. They'd been meeting each other approximately every night at the Astronomy Tower, and occasionally sneaking into the library when the Tower was occupied by innately snogging individuals. There they simply talked. Not once had they kissed, and when she did have the feeling that something was to happen, like an electric spark flaring inside her caving body, causing each of her nerves to erupt in a humming burst of flames, she found herself backing away. And so, naturally, he never kissed her.
But even so, she felt diseased.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
There was a stillness about empty corridors that seemed to pacify Hermione's mind. She didn't know what it was, or why, but she simply knew that as she walked through the dim hallways, her footsteps making a supple sound against the shining marble, the pricks and pinches of weariness from her day were rubbed away ever so slowly. Resolute, yet amorphous. Like a chalkboard getting cleared off of all its calculations.
She caught the golden winks her prefect badge gave out when the light reflected off its surface, like the sun's beauty mirroring off of the ocean. A feeling of contentment filled her, but then she remembered who she could have been with right at this second had Hannah Abbott not caught the flu, observing the way his eyes secretively sparkled – as if they held something cunning and brilliant that the world knew nothing about – when he talked to her. And the way he always stood close to her, and she felt his warmth radiating from him, making her heart beat faster and her knees weaken.
Hermione stopped and blinked. She stared ahead of her. A sea of darkness and gleaming marble greeted her. Had she just imagined it?
But as she heard soft footsteps, the softest, she whirled around. She caught a glimpse of hair the color of sun-bleached daisies. She felt her heart die away for a quick second as she saw who it was coming towards her now. The peace of the corridor and its effects on her mind were instantly tided away with feelings of rebellion and winged creatures in her stomach, like fireflies imprisoned in a glass jar, fluttering about ecstatically that it sent her into a quick moment of shock.
"Mal-Malfoy," she found herself saying, her surprise evident in her voice. He stopped a foot away from her, smirking in his weekend clothes. "I-I thought I owled you that I've got—"
"Rounds, I know," he said nonchalantly, his gray eyes like glistening stones. "I'm coming with you. Now, come on." He began to lead the way, his slender body flatteringly welcomed by the muted light as he walked down the corridor.
Hermione, shaking off her surprise and bewilderment, ran to catch up with him. There was a heaviness in her stomach and throat that she could not properly explain. "What exactly are you doing?" she asked him, as evenly as she could. She had a dozen small frogs in her mouth.
"Well, don't play deaf, Granger," he drawled, and as he looked down at her she could see the secretive smile flittering on his lips like a secret joke, and she almost felt herself swoon. "I told you. I'm coming with you. Perhaps then we can get this over and done with quickly. You Gryffindors dawdle too much and it's time-consummating."
"But, Malfoy," she said. "Aren't you afraid that…"
"Afraid that what?" he inquired, and Hermione thought she'd heard some sort of odd twinge in his voice; a pitch she wasn't sure she'd heard before. Almost like a piano key out of tune. He was looking at her now but as they walked the shades of the darkness fluctuated between light and dark, making it impossible to read him.
"Nothing," Hermione said quickly, suddenly feeling ashamed. She looked away to the corridor ahead of her, a dark empty passage, swallowing hard. Yet she still couldn't wash away that metallic taste in her mouth. "Nothing."
"We'll check the Astronomy Tower last," he told her. "We're bound to catch a few there. So save those detention slips."
They checked all of the hallways, the Great Hall, the Room of Requirement (where they found two Slytherins engaged in a rather skin-bearing activity), the library, the entrances to all of the House portraits, after which they had only one more place left to go: the Astronomy Tower. For some reason she could not fathom, but knowing well enough that it was causing all sorts of odd, clenching sensations in her stomach, she was nervous. There had been an unmistakable dark feeling growing inside her ever since she'd seen him, and she found herself bewildered by it. What did it mean, exactly? Why did she feel as if something wasn't right?
She stared ahead in a daze, trying to overcome the horrible feeling, yet even as she persisted, it grew larger. Then two bitter words began to chime inside her head: Three months.
Draco had tried to engage her into some conversation, ranting about the stupidity of his housemates and the relentless mediocrity of Hogwarts, but her answers came sparingly. She felt as if she had swallowed corkscrews. There was something imminently terrible toiling right inside her chest, trickling out, little by little, like a crack in a dam. She didn't even notice the looks he was sending her from the corner of his eye, but his impetuous attitude made sure to make them known only seconds later.
"Granger, what in Merlin's name is wrong with you today?" he asked her, not quite so nicely. Apparently he was rather frustrated. "I've insulted Weasley and Potter four times – hitting all of the right areas: their mothers, their families, their physical appearance, their House, and their lack of mental comprehension. You haven't even threatened to hex me yet!" he exclaimed, as if her not threatening him on behalf of her friends was a sign of the apocalypse. His blond brows furrowed at her, and Hermione surprisingly found herself breathing rather haphazardly as she questioned what it was lurking deep beneath those mercury eyes: concern, or genuine, deep concern. For her.
He was concerned for her.
Suddenly she could not breathe.
All of a sudden, she felt as if she had been seized by something big, monstrous and undefeatable now as she was pooled by his inquiring eyes. It had knocked the breath out of her but had brought her stumbling back into reality, plunging her into a place where suddenly she knew what the dark imminence meant. She felt as if her body was slowly caving inwards.
"Malfoy," she said. Thoughts began to tackle her all at once – vicious thoughts proclaiming vicious realities. Her body hardened but her heart seemed to be caught in the middle of it all: hardening or softening.
Unknowingly – and she got the gist of it now – it had been building inside her all this time. The days, the minutes, the hours, the seconds. She felt panic. Desperation. Fear.
"What?" he asked her. "What is it? What's the matter with you?"
"I-I can't do this," she suddenly found herself saying, and Draco looked at her, stunned. "I can't. I can't do this."
And then she bolted.
She ran down the corridor, turned, and up the stairs. She could hear him calling after her, his voice sending flaming arrows of chills and pain through her charging body, almost tugging her right back to him.
Almost – but instead she kept going.
Because suddenly, she was scared. She was frightened, terrified. The feeling hadn't been nervousness at all, but something bigger and nastier – something, she found herself thinking, inexorable. She should have known this was going to happen, that she couldn't just commit so easily to Draco Malfoy. It was impossible. She was so afraid of herself, and of him, and of what was going to happen.
Three months. Her mind picked apart the two words over and over and over again, dissecting it, trying to uncover what it was that was so menacing and terrifying underneath its surface. She wanted to dig; she wanted to find out why she was running not just from him – but everything surrounding him. She felt her throat clenching, her muscles tensing to give her the discomfort of pain along with the severity of her confusion and fear. Her head felt as if it was going to tumble off her shoulders any moment now; so heavy and filled with so many things, but all she knew was – and this petrified her – that it was all about him. Her thoughts, her worries. They were all about him.
And she was scared.
How many nights had she spent thinking about him? How many times had she reflected on the day he'd told her and felt that tumor of pain in her chest, like a vicious black hole sucking the life out of everything and anything, grow even bigger? Not only had she undone her seams and sewn him in, but now everything was unraveling and every single part of her, every symphony of thread and bond and connection that she'd worked so hard for, every single button and layer, was rapidly untangling to the extent that her every single trait was wavering. Her dogmatic nature and sternness, and intelligence were still there, yes, they were – but for once, they were worthless.
Could it help him? Her intelligence? Could her sternness – could her goodness? Did it mean anything to him? Could she somehow, with her intelligence, find some way to un-work all of this and perhaps make him all better? Because along with her tackling and surging terror, there was panic, and urgency. She didn't want to run from him, but she was, because she wanted to spend every single minute with him because she knew that one day, one day not too far ahead, there would come a time when she couldn't any longer.
And so Hermione reasoned that if she ran away from him, he couldn't touch her. And his death would never reach her. And she couldn't ever feel the loss and the regret and the bitter, scornful shame when she thought about the six years she'd so carelessly wasted.
How could this possibly be fair?
How could karma attack so cruelly and beastly? Here she was, running from a boy, because for once in her life, she was afraid. She'd faced larger monsters before: werewolves, Death Eaters, three-headed dogs. Sometimes she faced them again in her nightmares. But why was it that all she dreamt of now was him? And that her fear was swelling into an even bigger demon?
She didn't want to think about it, yet as she ran, her legs aching now and stabs of cramping pain shooting through her side, it still boomed in her head with such excruciating, sadistic clarity. Her eyes had welled up with hot tears that were now baptizing her face in a shower of revelation and a deep, agonizing sadness and strengthening denial. She didn't want to see him die. She wanted to stay as far away from him as she possibly could. In three months, he would be gone. And in three months, she would still be here. Without him.
But when had she started caring? When had this evolved into something deeper, and bigger? The thought of his death had only saddened her before, but she'd accepted it. So Draco Malfoy was dying. He'd said so that it was karma. He was happy about it. Death was a goal. Death was peace. But she wanted to ask him now, with all of the fire sweltering in her throat, if that was still how he felt. Was he really still jubilant about his release from life? Was he really still thinking that he wouldn't miss anything at all? That he was comfortable with the fact of an unlived life; that dying would have been better than living out his future?
But had his future changed, she wanted to ask him. Had it changed when he'd told her that he was dying, had it changed when she'd held his hand that night? Could it possibly, just possibly, have shifted from being doomed to being decent?
Did he ever think about it?
She found herself leaning against the balcony arm of the Tower, heaving for breath, with tears running down her cheeks. A few droplets fell, spotting the stone. Some landed on the warm skin of her arm, rolling down, leaving a glittering trail of moisture. It shone like stars. It burned her.
The night air was cool against her face, invisibly kissing her. Her eyes were shut tight as she tried to compose herself, trying to subdue the suffocating hammering of her heart, the pulsating shriveling of her failing lungs. When she opened them, her eyelashes were masked with tears; the eventide sky was a soggy painting that had been left out for too long in the rain. The stars were obscured with the entirety of the darkness, and she ached even more.
And then, suddenly, she felt a presence next to her. She turned her head, almost afraid to do so, and her fears were served true. Even through the hideous, blurry sheen of her tears she could make out the magnificent features of his face. She could make them out anywhere. Her mind had carved him in, a perfect depiction, every moon smile he ever shot at her and even the fine strands of his hair. His sneers she did not ever care for, but she remembered those, too. And she felt her heart break as he simply looked at her with his telescope eyes, adjusting them to see far or near, until he saw what he was looking for.
But that was the thing: did he see what he was looking for? What was he looking for?
She felt warmth atop her hand, and she looked down to see his fingers slowly entangling with hers, sending tingles of pleasant yet treacherous warmth through her body. Her entire being hummed when she was near him.
"I-I can't do it," she told him, falling headlong into his molten eyes. The truth came easily to her now, perhaps because somewhere along the way all of the superficialities of life had all fallen away, like dead leaves in the autumn chill. It was all she was holding onto now.
"I'm scared. It's been three months, Draco. Three. And, you're… you're…" She could not utter the words aloud. She didn't want to. All she felt was the strength of his gaze on her and the sob ripping through her throat.
His drawl came to her. It did not seem filtered like everything else, but at the same time, it appeared to wobble. "We've got plenty of time, Granger," he told her. There was no malice, no mockery, but simply seriousness and sincerity. "Three months is loads of time. In fact, you'll be pleading for it to end before it's even over."
She snorted – or she scoffed, she didn't know which it was. "That isn't funny," she told him.
He smiled, and Hermione felt her heart croon. She allowed her fingers to be entangled with his, closing in together, enmeshing. His warmth with hers. His pulse with hers.
"Don't be a coward, Granger," he told her. "You're supposed to be brave, aren't you? You're a Gryffindor. If you cry all the sodding time and run away, then you'd only be shaming your House. Of course, Potter and Weasley and Longbottom do that often already, but you don't want to be added to those bumpkins, now, do you?"
Hermione shook her head. "I want to help you," she said coarsely. "I'll help them find a cure. I will."
"You can't help me, Granger," he said, laughing at her. He was drawing back, his fingers letting go of hers, and she found that he was falling away from her, too. Fast. Just like everything else. Spinning dizzily, smudging hideously into millions of whizzing, running colors. Like Technicolor rain. Falling.
"Yes, I can," she insisted.
"What I meant to say was," he said, "I can't let you. Are you mad?" He was beginning to get angry. "This is how things are supposed to go. Don't—"
Hermione felt a burst of fire ignite within her. "I don't believe you," she fumed, her anger flaring. "Why else would you have told me if you didn't want me to help you? Why else—"
"Must you question every single thing I say?" he asked her, a bit of a snarl in his voice now. His temper made his eyes flash like light upon newly made silver coins. "You can't keep me from dying, Granger – it's going to happen, sooner or later. It'd be no use to hide from death, or avoid it. Only fools do that."
"But you just don't understand, do you?" she suddenly shouted. "All you think about it yourself! Are you really that ecstatic about dying? You want to get out of this world and this reality and this pain – yet you're not thinking of others at all! You're wrong, do you know that? You said that it wouldn't affect me – that it wouldn't matter what I thought – but you're wrong! It is affecting me! It's affecting me in every possible, most painful way imaginable! Can't you see that? Or are you refusing to see that so I won't interfere with your blissful, happy death?"
He was silent. Hermione could see his tensed jaw, his deep-set eyes dark as another tear slipped through her widening, ruptured crevices. Her throat was hoarse.
"Have you ever thought that maybe… just maybe, your future isn't as terrible as you think? That perhaps things have changed? That you'll be able to live a happy life with someone you love? Or do you avoid those things, too?"
She waited for him to say something, perhaps something mean, as she stared up at him. Then she was struck with shock, a hard-hitting shock, as he began to sneer.
He turned away, looking out into the night. There was a frigid stoicism she felt radiating from him.
"You don't know me at all, do you, Granger?" he said scornfully. "It's better if you don't ask anymore questions. I know it isn't all just bliss. Acceptance is hard. I told you once that I'm looking forward to my death. It's a concrete, resolute peace that I reckon I've needed for years." He paused, still not looking at her. "After what I've been through, it'd be the ultimate resolution. I believe in that." Then he silently sighed, as if reluctant, but he kept his eyes on the sky, almost glaring. He seemed angry at something else rather than her now. "But lately it's been… hard. Harder than it should be. But nothing's changed. I'd like to leave you knowing this Draco."
His turned his neck and looked at her, his eyes fierce and glinting against the dark backdrop of a murky castle. "Don't get it, Granger? I've seen what happens to Malfoys once they step out there." There was a grave air about him. His sneer had disappeared, lost amongst all of the elegant lines and vindictive shadows shading in his face.
There was a feeling of jagged tension between them. As if there was something being left unsaid. Something massive and rumbling like a thunderstorm – almost shaming.
Hermione sighed, swallowing hard, yet she found that it did no good. "I have to stay away from you," she told him, her mouth almost not complying. She had to force out the words, and she felt as if she'd forced out a part of herself as well. She took a shaky step back.
"I can't do this. I can't fall in love with a dead person." She closed her eyes tight, as if wishing all of this away, and a single tear dropped onto her lips, where it waited and sizzled. But she never opened them. She didn't want to see that it couldn't be wished away. She tried to imagine how it'd be right now in her fantasy world. A better world. No death. No pain.
"I can't," she said again, her voice cracking and her heart buckling. "Draco, you know I can't."
He didn't respond.
Instead, Hermione, with her eyes still closed and determined on making some childish idea come true, stiffened in alarm as she felt something soft brush against her lips. And before she could protest, she found hands firmly winding around her, snaking up her body and down, fisting into her hair.
He was kissing her.
His lips were soft but fervent against hers, and suddenly, all of the tension and anger and resentment stacking up within her body disappeared. His body embraced her, solid and warm against her own, and it was enough evidence to her that she hadn't wished him away at all. As he kissed her, his mouth heated and sweet against hers, tasting the saltiness of her tears, it was real. This was real. Everything about it. This was not a dead person kissing her. This was not a dead person kissing her at all.
She was launched back into the kitchens. With her rumpled S.P.E.W. letter in hand, feeling disappointed and slightly aggravated. She'd run all the way from her dormitories, and she was flustered and out of breath. She'd been looking for Dobby. And then, as she called out the house-elf's name, whirling around, her eyes met a pair of gray, and she froze. He was watching her intently. He began to walk to towards her, and she stepped back, alarmed, asking him what he was doing in there, and what he was doing now. But then he'd kissed her.
And that was how it all began.
Her moist hands met behind his neck, then ran through his hair, feeling the silk as it whipped against her fingers. He kissed her and she kissed him fiercely, with passion she'd never known she could ever contain. Her blood pounded through her veins but it had transcended into fire, circulating through her entire being, making her skin feverish and her chest erupt into a great burst of flames.
Then he began to slowly pull away. She opened her eyes and found him closely looking at her, her heart beating painfully at what she found swirling in them now. She couldn't pick them all apart – just knew that all of them, over time and intensity, had melded together into something so profound and poignant that it did no good to try and explain it through words. It was bigger than words. Bigger than explanations, or resentment, or fear. It was fear. But it was something else, too. The core of all life, of the air, of Hogwarts, of cherry blossoms blooming in the winter. Inexplicable and great, yet unknown to those who never experienced it.
Then, as her mind spun and she felt his pulse throbbing right underneath her fingertips, just there, a wonderful yet incomprehensible feeling flooding throughout her that she knew he – at this moment – was feeling, too, she remembered something that her mother had said, not too long ago.
It was easy to be afraid. Right then and there, looking at him and feeling something so potent and great, it was easy to run and be frightened. It was easy, awfully simple, to make excuses and lie and step back to avoid attachment, or pain. It was human nature. Along with the primitive brain and impulses and dreams, everyone had been born with it. Anyone could bolt at the sight of risk, especially if it was something of his or hers, something vulnerable and not easily healed, that was at stake.
But it was not easy to stand up to it. To let it overtake her and lead her where she was meant to be led and force her to see what she hadn't wanted to see. It wasn't easy to face new revelations about enemies, and karma, and death. It wasn't easy, not simple at all, to stand there and take it. It wasn't easy to follow after someone, even in love, when it meant having to see their end.
It wasn't easy to look into his eyes, right then and there, and almost at once know for certain that she couldn't get herself out of them, not now, not ever, not even if she wanted to. Or to subconsciously, but strongly, vow that she was going to do whatever it took to make him stay with her that little while longer.
But she did.
And she knew that that made all the difference in the world.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Things carried on for two more months. Hogwarts was still as busy as ever: Professors assigning tedious coursework, Peeves making trouble, Filch barking after Peeves, the notorious Severus Snape bullying Gryffindor House. Their agendas were routine: Quidditch games, Hogsmeade weekends, the occasional feast. It was a raging battle between Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Slytherin for the House Cup. But as Dumbledore reminded them, they still had quite some time to go, and it would be best advised if they kept their heads to a normal size.
But as for Hermione, she received a barricade of knots in her stomach each day she woke up.
Time was dwindling. Fast.
There was one month left, and she found herself at a miserable loss of what to do. She'd been researching relentlessly – had checked out all of the books on medicine and illnesses in the library and had even owled St. Mungo's and her parents for information. Though her parents were only dentists, a majority of their friends were involved in the medical field, and so she reckoned she could get some help from them.
But Draco had told her the truth that night. He wasn't letting her help him. Only once she'd asked just what it was he was sick with, and he'd declined to answer. He just said that it was incurable – it was an ancient wizarding disease. Rare, too. Only a few cases of it over the last century. And then he looked at her with a questionable look, saying nothing else, and Hermione glanced away. She knew she was an open book to him now – easy to read, and she knew that he would have, through and through, had she let him. But she did not want him to know that she was doing all she could for she was afraid he would only force her to stop. He would interfere and tell her it was no use. Or worse: he would pity her, or even laugh at her.
For even though every single day she came up empty-handed from her research, she insisted that it couldn't possibly be incurable. And she stood by that. The wizarding world was ingenious. It was filled with widgets and curios and serums and tonics for every possible condition. They had to have some cure out there somewhere, and Hermione resisted thoughts of uselessness for time was not completely out until he was truly dead. She believed in that.
She'd even asked Madam Pomfrey, but as the aging nurse looked down on her, her cap looming like a menacing white flag above her, she'd only succeeded in sending her a look of curiosity while finally giving into granting her information of no use. After the Medi-Witch had been done talking, Hermione hastily stood up, hurrying out, trying to forget the chills the infirmary's ivory walls and colorless beds had given her.
Then, on this particular day, she had finally worked up her nerve to go to Dumbledore.
She sat in a luxurious velvet armchair, far too big for her that she felt like a child again, sitting on it alone. She traced the swirling patterns on its arms, relishing the smooth feel of velvet against her dainty fingertips, waiting in his office. Then she looked around at all of his shiny curios and widgets. Some were gold, and some were silver, and some were bronze. There were a hefty variety of them. Fawkes was asleep, and Hermione found herself waiting for ten minutes until the door behind her opened and she jumped. The merry wrinkled face of Albus Dumbledore appeared before her, the elderly man dressed in layers of pale blue. His spectacles flashed as he took a seat behind his desk.
"Now, Miss Granger, you said you had urgent business to discuss," he said.
Hermione swallowed hard, nodding. "I do."
Dumbledore's bushy brows perked in curiosity. "And who, may I ask, does this business concern?"
"Draco Malfoy." Hermione could not make out any of the man's feelings as she watched him. There was no bewilderment, or shock, or alarm. But simply a look of indifference. However, as time dawned on them, all of the curios and things mutedly gleaming from where she was now, she saw that what had been indifference had ascended into solemnity.
"I want to talk about his condition, sir," she said earnestly, her fingers anxiously clenching into her palms. Her pink skin had broken out into cold sweat and the minuscule ridges had become soft from the moisture leaking from her pores. Right now she felt like a rubber ball trying to be forced into the skinny neck of a bottle. "I would like to know his illness."
Dumbledore pursed his lips. "I'm afraid, Miss Granger," he said sadly, "that that is confidential business. I cannot give you that information."
"But I want to help him, Headmaster," she said, trying to find some way she could win him over on her side. But it appeared as if she had been squeezed in now, and the glass neck was shrinking in, trapping her, trying to force her out… "I've been researching and reading books and owling doctors and—"
"I'm afraid to say that your search has been in vain," interrupted Dumbledore, holding up his hand. His usually sparkling azure eyes were dark and dull. "There is no cure for his condition. Believe me when I say this, Miss Granger: Mrs. Malfoy has traveled far and wide – all across the world, in fact – in search of one. Even Severus Snape has joined her efforts. But there is no cure."
"I advise you simply take advantage of your time with him, Miss Granger," he interjected again. His voice was not strict, nor commanding, but she did catch the flittering sense as if it was brash. "There is nothing more painful than wasted time. That is one of life's most awful lessons, and I do not wish for you to experience that." He paused thoughtfully, looking at her, and she felt as if he could see right through her.
She froze, her breathing subdued, feeling as if her heart was under close examination.
He continued on. "I've seen a wonderful change in him, Miss Granger. I am utmost happy to say that he is not going to pass away the same boy he once was. That is the most anyone can do for him." He smiled, his eyes gaily crinkling. "Now, if it wouldn't be too intruding, may I inquire why this is of sudden importance to you? I am hoping it isn't for foul play."
"No, of course not," said Hermione, overwhelmed with the disappointment she found in her headmaster. She hesitated. "I… I love him, sir."
His smile vanished. The merry look on his face, the happy squint of his eyes, all fell away. Her words hung in the air, unrestricted, yet heavy and powerful. It was like a mobile: hanging from the highest boundaries, with invisible strings attached that held things that further proved its existence. Its landmark. Things that surrounded it; things that made it what it was. Things that made it stand out.
His voice was instantly grave as he spoke.
"The clock is ticking, Miss Granger."
And that was all he told her.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The next day, Hermione was running late to breakfast. With a boisterous rumbling in her stomach she ran her fingers through her curls in an attempt to compose them in haste, her satchel bulging with her books that the stitches were beginning to come undone. The worn leather strap was slicing into her shoulder. She attempted to ignore it, all the while wincing in pain, as she rapidly walked down the corridor leading to the Great Hall. Her reflection fled after her as she hurried.
Once there, trying to calm her frantic breaths and patting down her hair, she adjusted her bookbag. She felt patches of heat on her cheeks and pressed her cool hands against them. And then she slipped in.
But as Hermione walked through the Great Hall's doors, every single head rapidly turned in her direction. The loud chatter died down so swiftly that her ears rang with the sudden boisterous absence of the din. It was dead silent as she could see all of their stares pointed right at her with a sort of darkness in their eyes that had melded bewilderment, defiance, anger and confusion all in one. She stood frozenly in front of those wooden doors for what seemed like a terrifying eternity, shocked at the alarming reaction to her presence.
Nobody said a word.
Post-A/N: One more chapter to go, though I can't promise on how soon it'll be coming (ANOTHER TWO MORE YEARS FOR AN UPDATE??! J/k, I'm trying to freak you out). But submitting a review would be cool, even if it's the whole WHY R U KILLING DRACO, U MURDERER?! or WHY THE HELL DID IT TAKE U SO LONG?! jig.