Author's Note: All right, a couple things. First of all, this is dark. Second of all, as becomes evident very quickly, it's AU. Third, I wrote it in fits and starts, though the format is deliberately disjointed. Fourth, I'm sorry, darlings, but I'm not on the ball on the final part of 'Her and Me' just yet, so please keep your horses held just a bit longer.

Fifth and last, I'd love to know if anyone would be interested in the idea of commissioning me to write fics. Because that would be HARDCORE AWESOME, if it struck enough fancies. Let me know in a review or a PM or whatever you like if you might theoretically want to take part in such an exchange, and I'll see if there's enough interest for me to work on that.


RATIONALITY

I'll tell you how I did it. Not because I think you have a right to know, or because I think you'll learn a lesson, or even because I think you just ought to, but because I want you to.

I won't tell you why.

Imagine a day, an afternoon, with a brisk wind, the leaves shriveling, clinging to the ends of branches like withered fingers, curling in on themselves as if seeking warmth. Imagine a girl with her thick hair in disarray, with the wind yanking mercilessly at it as she gazes over the wrinkled lake, and imagine a boy running towards her.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Hermione!" an unfamiliar voice shouted.

The sky above the lake extended upwards, a tumult of misty gray that might well have gone on forever. The grass hissed softly, whispering secrets into listening ears, gossiping shamelessly, breaking confidences like so many pine needles underfoot.

Hermione Granger turned, her hair whipping about her ears, stinging her eyes, making her long for an elastic hair-band.

Hair-bands of all varieties were forgotten, however, when she saw that it was Draco Malfoy.

Of all people in the world for it to be, it was Draco Malfoy.

"What?" she prompted, impatiently at best.

He stood panting, bent a bit, one hand pressed over the place where a heart might just have resided, the other against his thigh to hold him up, and there was something foreign in his wide eyes and his forlorn little gasps. He had run here. There was an urgency to his bearing and a desperation in the set of his features. His pale hair danced around his paler face like an unsteady halo.

"I need your help," he said.

She stared at him.

"I need your help," he repeated slowly, a plea swelling soft and breakable in his eyes, "Hermione."

She eyed him coldly—it was easy, given all the practice she'd had. But something about the way his lips had sounded out her name, something about the current of it on the surging air that slid over and between them indifferently, struck a chord deep within her.

"What do you need?" she asked him curtly, holding her ground, folding her arms, ignoring the hair that tickled the edges of her scowl.

He merely looked at her for a moment, breathing heavily, his gray eyes so vast and unassuming that something in her started in surprise. "I can't do it," he told her weakly. "I can't do this anymore. I can't pretend to be something I'm not, some sort of—of creature, some sort of murderer, some sort of slave…" He trailed off helplessly, looking to the lake as though it might offer sanctuary, shaking fingers brushing blindly over the sleeve that they both knew hid the mark. His eyes sought hers again, probing at them, seeking entrance, craving permission. "I can't do it," he whispered, barely audible over the wind in her ears and the rippling of waves on the lake surface. "I just can't."

"I suppose you're going to tell me," she responded stiffly, "that you've suddenly realized that the prejudices you've been propagating your entire life are drastically misguided."

His smile was brittle and slightly bitter, and he lowered his eyes. "You make it sound like moral and emotional epiphanies happen every day."

"Legitimate ones don't," she countered.

He sank to his knees, and his white fingers disappeared in the waving grass. He watched them for a moment, and then he raised his eyes to her again. "What do I have to do?" he asked. "What do I have to say? How much of the hurt do I have to show you before you'll believe me?"

"Why not go to Harry or Ron?" she inquired pointedly.

His fingers delved into his hair now—slender, sure, elegant aristocrat's fingers. The fingers of a piano player. Of an artist. Of an actor.

"They wouldn't listen," he told her, "even if I tried. They wouldn't hear. They hate me on principle, and they'll stick to it. It's ritualistic now, for them to hate me. They'd leave me to die, given half a chance." He fell silent, his hands still again, his gaze on the grass. He was at her feet.

"And I wouldn't?" she prompted.

Slowly he looked up at her. "You wouldn't," he confirmed quietly. "You're rational. You can push through the old animosity long enough to see me as I am, not as I was. You can learn. And you can adjust your notion of the truth when the facts change."

"What's changed?" she demanded, hearing a note of annoyance in her voice. It made her uncomfortable, having him there—kneeling, bowing, bending, breaking. It was unsettling, and she covered her nervousness with exasperation.

He knitted his hands together and stared up at her, and he gave her ample time to take in the sight of him before he spoke—the swathes of darkness beneath his eyes like bruises with the wind fighting to steal his silky hair away, his shoulders slumped, his lips parted just slightly, his eyes mournful and a little bit afraid.

"I have," he said.

- - - - - - - -

A whirlwind of movement, vows, promises, and apologies, a month of repentance and regret, brought him right into the Order. Even as the blur of it rushed around him, even as all the pieces fell perfectly into place, it seemed too easy. He almost doubted it.

Maybe that was what being one of the "good guys" meant—expecting that human beings would do what was right. Accepting that some of them wouldn't, but most of them would damn well try.

But for all their warm and capacious hearts and homes, these people talked too much. They talked about everything. They calculated contingencies, predicted losses, adjusted and amended, considered the possibilities until every one was accounted for. They drained their brains onto the table, stirred the mixture, and peered into it, praying that something useful came out. Draco felt like his soul was being squeezed out through his toes, painstakingly slowly, and it was driving him insane.

He was beginning to understand why Harry Potter had a rather deadly tendency to run out into the middle of the perilous night and bare his bosom to the thunder-stone.

When Molly Weasley, who still didn't like him, and who probably never would, said something about not wanting to put the children at risk, Draco snapped.

"Look at you people!" he interrupted. "Look at you all, sitting here, vacillating about this and that, about what's safer than what! What are you doing? The longer you wait, the more time you give him! You can't afford that!" He slammed his clenched fist down on the table, rocking the half-empty glasses, his littlest finger tingling as it received the brunt of the blow. "He gets stronger every day," he told them, darkly, "and you get weaker. You stay in your chairs a little longer, playing with potentialities. Isn't that why we're so damn deep into this in the first place? Because no one was willing to act when they weren't certain? What good is certainty in a world like this one? At a time like this?" He tried not to sneer looking at Molly. "Save the children? Please, woman. Save your children, you mean. Let me tell you something. They're hardly children anymore. They've signed up for this, same as you have, and if they're willing to fight and die, you'd be wise to let them. The Dark Lord's got a whole host of friends lined up, and he gathers more of them as he goes. You'd best take every spare hand you can get. It's still not going to be enough."

Molly's face had gone an angry pink, and her husband looked about ready to pull out a confiscated shuriken and decapitate a meddling Malfoy upstart with a single flick of his wrist, so Draco shoved his chair back and left.

He sat on the cold ground in the gray backyard and stared at the sky, fuming, for a good three minutes before the footsteps approached.

Hermione sat cross-legged next to him, exactly twelve inches away.

It figured.

She allowed him to get comfortable in the silence, allowed him think she'd leave it that way, allowed him to believe that she was capable of letting it be, before she broke it.

"It's a very brave thing that you're doing," she said.

He snorted. "Doesn't take too much guts to betray somebody."

"It takes some," she replied quietly. There was a pause, and then she added, "I don't know that I'd be able to do it."

"Doubt you have to worry," he responded, considering what to do about that rough spot on his shoe. "You aren't stupid enough to get yourself into that situation in the first place."

There was another pause. "Thank you," she said.

He raised an eyebrow.

"For helping us," she explained. "Even though you must be aware that there's quite a likelihood of retribution."

He gave a twisted little smirk. "My pleasure," he told her. "I love putting my head on the chopping block to help a bunch of jackasses who want him to pull the lever."

Hermione was quiet. She was quiet a lot, he'd noticed.

"They're not jackasses," she corrected at last.

Ah, correction. That, at least, was a familiar Granger activity.

"But they hate me," he noted.

She looked to the sky. "Some of them do," she answered.

He shrugged. "I'd be disappointed if they didn't." He got up, brushed the creases out of his slacks, and went inside.

He glanced out a window later, and she was still sitting there, looking at her feet.

- - - - - - - -

She had learned to recognize his voice, such that she could flee from it. There had been a time when he was a challenge, when sparring with him was an opportunity to test her mettle and try out prototypes of barbed insults. As time went on, though, the allure of the game faded. No one really won after a while, and more important things demanded her energy. She'd come to avoid him whenever possible, in order to save her strength for bigger threats.

Now, she moved towards the sound. There was just… something… about it. About him. About his sudden and irrepressible nobility, about the heroism tainted with a quiet hopelessness. He drew her nearer.

Wicker creaked out on the balcony, audible because the double doors had been left ajar.

"Evening, Professor," Malfoy said.

Hermione could hear the smile in Remus's voice. "I'm not technically a professor anymore, Draco, and you're perfectly welcome to use my first name."

The faintest rustle of clothing whispered through the air, and Hermione snatched a glance into the space between the doors. Malfoy had drawn his knees to his chest and settled his chin on them.

"Well," he decided, "it's more respectful."

Remus looked at him for a long moment. "Thank you," he said softly.

Malfoy smiled shyly, and seeing it was like getting a red hot fire poker straight through the heart.

- - - - - - - -

It was hard to be nice to these people. But it seemed to be worth the effort.

- - - - - - - -

She was sitting in the yard first this time, letting the wind tug at her clothing, and it was he who joined her now. The winter sun was weak, and it leached the color out of everything—the dirt, the weeds, his cheeks. Skin like ivory in warm lamplight looked gray now. Gray like his eyes; gray like the shadows; gray like the prospect of the future.

He sat down heavily and knuckled at his eyes. Even if she hadn't helped to plan his departure and see him off, she would have known where he'd been.

"Do you ever think…" she heard herself begin, tentatively. "I mean, what if you get caught? What'll they do to you?" She cringed, but the mutinous thoughts articulated themselves before she could stop them. "What'll they do to your parents?"

He looked away—up at the watery blue of the diluted sky. "I try not to think about it," he answered. A long moment passed, he watching that sky, she watching his hair whipping around his face, waving soft fingers against his cheeks, darting mischievously into his pale, steady eyes. "It doesn't work too well," he said quietly. "Trying not to think about it." His eyes hardened. "But it's better than nothing."

She wanted to put a hand out and touch him, but he might pull away, or swat her hand down, or turn her to stone with his glare.

Or she might not be able to reach.

- - - - - - - -

Black robes swirled melodramatically as they walked. Snape had always had a bit of a histrionic streak when it came to his attire.

The alleyway yawned before them, threateningly, or perhaps just out of boredom.

"You haven't the remotest idea what you're doing," Snape hissed, "and it would be dreadfully inconvenient if your persistent ignorance got you killed."

Suppressing the urge to simper, "I love you, too" was a close thing. Especially since Draco knew quite well that this was, indeed, Snape's way of expressing concern.

Well, something in the approximate emotional range of concern, anyway.

"'Inconvenient'?" Draco repeated.

"The Dark Lord seems to be inexplicably attached to you," Snape remarked, glancing at him, and Draco flattered himself to think that he might be the only person alive on the planet who could see the worry in it. "But that doesn't mean he always will be, or even that he won't sacrifice your life quite despite said inexplicable attachment when something better comes along."

They turned a corner, Severus's heels smacking sharply on the paving stones to punctuate each smooth stride, and were beleaguered by the cold damp of the thick air. Draco breathed wet into his lungs, feeling it settle like white fog over a moor.

Then he heard Severus's step falter.

At the end of the alley, like a black blood clot, loitered a collection of Death Eaters—some of the Dark Lord's favorites.

"Good evening," Severus greeted them stiffly.

Walden Macnair smiled, which was the most worrying thing yet.

"Good evening," he replied.

The others drew their wands, but Macnair wordlessly hefted his axe. The silence gushed.

Draco hit the cobblestones, his hands scrabbling to protect his head, which incidentally was spinning wildly. It was only after his heart had slammed once, twice, three times against the slick stones, dully and with dizzying force, that he realized that Severus had pushed him down.

Spells sizzled overhead, crackling like lightning, and sparks flew; shouts rang out and reverberated against the close walls of the alley and inside Draco's ears. With his cold fingers clenched in his hair and his eyes squeezed shut and his knees curled up to his chest, he lay trembling, the dankness of the cramped passage seeping into his clothes, dotting his gooseflesh-ridden skin with frigid kisses. There was a strangled cry, and the whoosh of displaced air, and a thump lined with squelch. Something wet—hot and wet this time—sprayed over his back, and then there was silence but for panting.

No, he thought, weakly, numbly, dumbly. No, no, no, no, no.

A boot nudged his ribs.

"Up," a coarse voice ordered.

In disgrace and disarray, Draco obeyed. He stood shivering, his arms around himself, looking into the twin horrors of Macnair's oblivion eyes to avoid seeing the crumpled incompletion of the body on the ground, the new corpse with its widening ruby-red halo.

They were demanding, those eyes.

"Wh—why—?" Draco managed.

They blinked.

"He was a traitor," Macnair answered calmly, the axe dribbling onto his glove.

No one seemed to notice that Draco trembled harder at the word.

- - - - - - - -

"It's not your fault, Draco," she told him, hearing the edge of insistence and desperation in her own voice. "There was nothing you could have done…"

"I could have done lots of things," he whispered, barely audible around the hands that hid his face. "I could have done something… anything… something else… I could've thought of…"

She set her hand gently on his arm, expecting him to pull away, but he didn't move. "Draco," she persisted, squeezing his shoulder cautiously, "it's going to be all right."

He looked up at her, then, with haunted eyes. "You really believe it," he said softy. "Don't you?"

Before she could rearrange her sputtering into a coherent response, Molly Weasley's maternal instincts overcame her lingering misgivings regarding Draco's character, and she bundled him into a blanket and ushered him into the kitchen, all gentle warmth and comfort.

Unnerved and thoroughly unsettled, Hermione drifted around the house, looking for a straight answer. Voices emanated from the living room.

"Jesus, I've been such a bastard."

"Sirius."

"Oh, shove it. It's indisputable."

"Maybe. But I think he knows you didn't really hate him."

There was a pause.

"But I did. I hated him like that Dudley kid hates a diet."

Remus attempted to disguise a laugh with a slightly obvious fake cough.

"If it's any consolation," he managed, "I don't think he was terribly fond of you, either."

Sirius snorted. "Miserable, sullen little bastard."

"There you are," Remus replied contentedly. "You two were more similar than you knew."

"Shut up," Sirius muttered vindictively. "Bastard."

"We should start a club. We can call it the Bastard Society. Then it'll even abbreviate to—"

Sirius heaved a melodramatic sigh, and ice clinked as he swirled his glass. "How can you possibly handle this sober?"

Remus laughed lightly, not bothering to conceal it this time. "What on Earth makes you think I'm sober?" he inquired.

Hermione rubbed her eyes. Sobriety was sounding less and less viable.

- - - - - - - -

She was walking down the hallway the same way she did everything—blithely, assuredly, and with perfect innocence. He envied that more even than her intelligence.

He grabbed her arm, and she suppressed a squeal and wheeled on him. "Draco!" she squeaked, indignant now, a drastic flush lighting up her cheeks. "What do you think—"

"I want you to get out of here," he told her.

She shut up abruptly, the better to stare at him. "What do you mean?" she asked slowly.

He glanced down the hall and tugged her further into the charitable, clandestine shadow of his alcove. "He's—it's—it'll be soon. And—" He checked the corridor again, largely just so that he wouldn't have to look at her. "And… I don't… want…" What he wanted was to slap himself; he sounded like a stuttering fool. "You need to get out of here. You need to go to your parents, wherever they are—"

"Australia," she said, slightly faintly.

"Perfect," he replied. "You need to go to Australia, and you need to hide there, because it's happening soon, and for the love of all that is good, Granger, don't be here when it does."

In the silence, he glanced at her again, and she caught his gaze and held it unrelentingly. He realized that he hadn't taken his hand from her arm. It was too late to withdraw it now, since he'd only look like more of an idiot if he did.

"Are you getting out, then?" she inquired, levelly, her eyebrows darting upwards so subtly that he might have imagined it. When he shook his head mutely, one quirked higher. "And why not?"

He smiled a thin, slightly brittle smile. "Because I can't," he answered.

A line appeared between her dancing brows. "And why's that?" They rippled again, this time with a hint of mischief. "Why can't the formidable, twice-traitor Draco Malfoy wriggle his way out of a tight spot?"

He let his hand fall from where it had rested on her arm. The gesture looked natural enough.

"For the same reason," he said, "that a pillar can't wriggle out of a house." Oh, good God, what a miserable metaphor. It shouldn't have mattered, not here, and now, but it did. He knew it was stupid and inconsequential, but it made all the difference in the world. "Because I'm entangled in this. Entrenched in it. Because I'm integral to its workings and so deeply invested in it that I can't just disengage and disappear. It doesn't work that way. The whole structure would start crumbling, and someone would be bound to notice and compensate appropriately."

An eyebrow darted again, though there was a genuine fear in her eyes now. Good. The more afraid she was, the better.

"Did you practice that?" she asked.

Hell. This was why a man should stay far away from smart women. "Once or twice," he muttered.

She smiled, because he wanted her to. "I'm not leaving," she said softly.

He had kind of known it all along.

He raised a curled finger, touching his knuckle to her cheek, because… because it was right.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She smiled again. "So am I," she returned.

- - - - - - - -

Days passed. The sensation of his skin on hers faded, and the memory grew fainter until it hovered on the edge of disappearance. Pretty soon, she was convinced she'd imagined it.

Hermione Granger had always been much more imaginative than most people gave her credit for.

Accordingly, as the cold air squirmed through the crack where the warped windowpane fell short of the sill, she lay on a creaky mattress, hands behind her head, and imagined all the words she ought to say.

Of course, imagining and doing were entirely different things. Entirely different worlds.

There was a soft knock at the door, and she sat up and murmured permission.

Ron sidled in, smiling gently, undertow worry stirring in his ocean eyes.

"How are you holding up?" he asked softly, moving towards the bed as if approaching a wounded animal. "You've been… We haven't seen much of you lately."

She wondered where he'd read to use "I" instead of "you." You knew things were dire if Ron was researching.

That was the thing, though, wasn't it? They both knew that Ron didn't want to be here, didn't want to be tripping over stumbling block words, stringing them together into fetters that cinched around his ankles. Hearts weren't Ron's strong suit.

But he was here anyway. In spite of it and his better judgment, because he cared that much. And that spoke volumes, volumes like the ones she'd read trying to figure out other people and herself.

Hesitantly he perched next to her on the bed, and she slipped her arms around his neck, and he held her just tight enough.

The memory dwindled away.

- - - - - - - -

It was stiflingly sentimental, and he knew it. Stupid, you might say. But that didn't make it any less irresistible, and that was why Draco found himself pressing his ear to the door to Hermione's bedroom, his fingertips flirting with the doorknob. Gently, gingerly, he pushed the handle, levering his shoulder cautiously against the door. With a soft crik of protest, it gave, sliding over a carpet compressed by decades of feet to offer two inches of leeway through which Draco could peer inside.

He watched her sleeping, straining his ears to attend her delicate breathing for a few long minutes, but he couldn't convince his lips to form the word "Goodbye."

- - - - - - - -

The next morning dawned with a stunning sunrise tainted by the whisper of destruction that rode the breeze coasting through yellow-tinted streets.

Hermione's eyelids snapped open like magnet poles suddenly reversed. There was a smashing, and then a scream. Glass shattered. Wood gave way. So did skin, and muscle, and bone.

"They've found us! It's over! It's over—they're coming—" She couldn't even tell who owned the voice; she fought the sheets and leapt up, threw on a bathrobe—

"Somebody led them here—"

"Hold the door!"

"Who—"

They were coming. They were coming; this was it; this was the end; it was over; it had been over before it ever really began—

Someone had betrayed them. It was the only rational explanation.

"Where's Draco?" she cried. She looked, fervently, frantically, her hair swirling around her face, strands stabbing at her eyes, catching in her mouth—

He wasn't there.

He wasn't anywhere to be found.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The bodies piled high that night. It was my job to count them the next day, as the morning fog curled its fingers possessively around the corners of the houses. As the sun hid its face for shame.

If you're looking for a eulogy, you're not going to get one.

Not here.


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