There were a few empty bottles of beer gathered in the middle of the table, like a tiny congregation of useless carcasses – or so Malfoy said. He'd pushed them all in together until their protruding shoulders were touching, their slim necks clustered together, with the warped metal tops thrown in a different pile. Every once in a while he would shift them into a line, or knight them with a leftover fork, or propose a game of Spin the Bottle.
The blaring noise from one room over halted.
"If he plays that fucking song one more time," Malfoy muttered, keeping his eyes focused on his crossword, "I swear to God, I will shove every one of those beer bottles down his throat until he shits glass shards for the next fucking year."
Then – the plucking intro. Harry swore under his breath, putting down his crossword.
"Even Jesus Christ wouldn't put up with this shit," Harry said. " 'Everybody Hurts' on repeat for the last twenty four fucking hours. . . it's making me hurt."
Hermione folded her newspaper and stood up, her chair squeaking against the wood as it slid back.
"And where the hell are you going?"
"Work," she said. "Ever heard of it? It's what adults do when they aren't sitting around doing crosswords and drinking beer."
"No, you can't – that isn't fair," Harry said. Then he paused. "Take us with you."
"God, I hate REM," Malfoy complained. "I didn't hate them before, you know? But now I could really punch that Stipe guy in the face."
"He's heartbroken," she said, tucking the newspaper under her arm. "If you hate it so much, get out of your apartment, or at least turn off the electricity, or throw the record out the window."
"That's not just it. It's the whole vibe he's giving this place, full of gloom and doom. Whatever happened to Harry's Happy Apartment, you know? He's just stinking up the entire damn place with his bad vibes and stupid fucking REM."
"So," she said, heading for the door, "get out."
"Sure," she heard Harry say as she left. "Like it's that easy."
There was a game they played sometimes. It wasn't so much a game that had a name – they'd never acknowledged it enough to give it one. And like all games, there was a goal – a finite purpose, a measurement of victory, a score chart. With this game, they'd never sat down and cracked out a concrete set of rules. The only standing rule was: everything goes, just don't die. And winning was just a matter of never breaking face.
Once he'd pretended to stumble in, drunk, during a wedding and interrupted the couple at the altar under some pseudo-confession of love. Another time he'd shattered the beer bottles and had taken off his shoes and socks before walking across the pathway littered with the shards, barefoot. Another time he'd shaved off all of his hair. He'd fasted, went for a few days eating only jalapenos and tomato juice, and started a fire in a laundry room. Once he'd been trying to hold to balance himself on a beam on the fire escape, and he'd fallen and gotten himself a pretty little cut against his mouth.
"Look at that gorgeous shiner," he'd said to her, pointing at the six stitches crossing into his cheek. Over time it would grow into a tiny smirking dent, one that showed up every time he smiled. "A second smile, don't you think? Think I'd get fucked more if I told women I got it trying to save an old man from the train?"
He wasn't the only one that brandished scars as a way of keeping score. She had a few herself. One on her knee from attempting to jump from a ledge, another one from a wild dog bite. But while he had a penchant for the physical, hers had more to do with humiliation. Things like showing up to a meeting drunk out of her wits, and masturbating underneath her desk as an important client called. She'd drank an entire gallon of spoiled milk, made an omelet with rotten eggs. He'd been there for that one – smirking the entire way, humming Ode to Joy from the base of his throat.
She'd only had to go to the emergency room six times, two of which were particularly serious. And though they'd never really established any rules, he would be the one to wait for her, and vice versa: of the seventeen times he'd wound up in the ER, she'd be the one in the waiting room with a Newsweek. The entire hospital knew his name now, and his health insurance was beginning to skyrocket, which he didn't care about. He'd had carts of money stowed away in his name.
"The nurses and doctors are beginning to think you do this deliberately," she'd said once, when he'd broken his arm. Next door a man had just woken up from a coma, and there was yelling and screaming and loud sobbing. They'd even brought them over two slices of cake.
"That's stupid," he said, wobbly taking a bite of his cake with his free hand. "Deliberately? They're completely overestimating me."
She shifted her weight on her other foot, uncomfortable with the new shoes she'd just bought. She'd been in the hospital so many times she didn't even notice the smell anymore. The first few times she almost couldn't stand it, and the way it rubbed into her clothes and her hair and her skin. Like sharp, harsh bleach and astringent. The fluorescent lights and the solemn, worn faces and the glares off stethoscopes and name tags. It messed with her eyes.
"So what's it gonna be next?"
He looked up at her, his pale grey eyes squinting into a smirk. It's funny how when he wants it to, his entire face smirks – his mouth, his eyes. Like a synchronized motion with invisible strings and levers. He moves one tiny tendon in his face and the rest fall into the motion, like waves in a sea.
The first couple of years she'd known him she thought he looked so smug, like he knew everything – and it was always a question whether he really did or not. But now she realized it wasn't smugness. Or maybe it was – a hybrid of smugness with something else.
He laughs at her, shaking his head. "Are you crazy? I'm not telling you. Would ruin the surprise." Then his face fell flat, serious. "And then the game would be over."
She moved her palm over the icy steel bar on his bed. "Is that a rule?"
"What? No. It's not a fucking rule. Just a strategy. You don't tell your opponents your secrets, otherwise," he said, holding his fork up to her, its tines licked clean, "you lose. Unless you, you know, want to. Lose, I mean."
She hesitated. Sometimes she forgot why she kept playing. The question became glaringly clear whenever she'd had her head in the toilet for days, or had to peel off bloody bandages, or looked at herself in a full-length mirror, naked. She had more scars than she could count on her fingers and toes. Sometimes she forgot for minutes, for hours, for days. But whenever she finally remembered, he would be right there, waiting.
"What if I wanted out," she said lowly.
His face didn't change one bit, and he only shrugged. "Then you forfeit."
"This is stupid." Because it was. From the very first day, it was stupid. And it was still stupid. It was stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid a thousand times over. Funny how sometimes, when she let herself dwell on the word too long, she didn't know what it even meant anymore.
"Stupid," he said to her, "is only a point of view."
She shook her head, then. She might have lost the definition of what stupid was, but if it was anything, she knew it wasn't that. "No," she told him. She then lets go, her palm encased with the form of the bar, and wipes it down on her pants. She hates the smell of metal on her hands. "God. What a load of bullshit."
He only looked at her, smiling a microscopic smile – the one so thin and small it can hide under your fingernails, and get lost in your hair, and crawl into the thousand wrinkles in your hand.
"So. How about it? In or out?"
She only gave him one last look, before walking out of his room. "Go fuck yourself."
He called her from some phone booth somewhere. That's the thing with him. When he wasn't at Harry's, it was almost as if he doesn't exist at all, like he just rubbed away into the air, nothing. And then he called her – never serious, just casual but never saying very much – and he came popping back into existence.
He showed up twenty minutes later. It was dark, and the air was crisp, but it soothed the sore, heavy throbbing on her face.
When he got close enough, his eyes narrowed into two tiny slits. "Christ," he said, and she heard the crunch of wet gravel under his feet. "He did that to you?"
"Funny how women still haven't honed that ability to spot a hitter in a crowd," she said, her hands fisted inside the pockets of her coat. Then she shrugged. "The guy didn't like to be messed with."
"Nobody does, but it takes the scummiest scumbag to hit a woman." He squinted at her some more, and she could tell he could see the indentations where his knuckles had embedded deep into her face. "Shit."
"Good guy, though. Said he'd take me to the opera. But that was, you know, pre-punch."
His face crinkled a little. "The opera? Hell, I could get you to the opera. I wouldn't even have to hit you."
They were silent for a while. Underneath the bridge, there's a black nothingness. She couldn't hear the water sloshing against the foundation. There were no thoughts running through her head – it's strange to say it, but there are moments when her mind is utterly, absolutely blank. Either that, or her thoughts were so unreadable and incomprehensible and so under the radar that she doesn't detect them at all.
He spoke up. "This is the first fucking time I have ever wanted to really apologize."
"Don't. It wasn't you."
"But it's almost as bad, isn't it? One man hits a woman, it's just like. . ." He didn't finish the thought. He didn't have to. "Cruel how the world just accepts things like that sometimes." He was hitting the toe of his shoe against the pavement, scuffing the rubber. "My father used to do that, sometimes. When things got bad. He hit people. Didn't matter who, and it wasn't like he had a target – it was just whoever was around." He laughed, then, and she didn't really know what he was laughing at. "But you don't want to hear that, do you? No." He hopped off the ledge. "You don't. I don't blame you, either. It's bad enough having a man hit you, but to deal with other people's shit?"
"He had a wife."
"Bet he hits her, too." He paused. "God. Fuck it."
He started to leave, turning around and walking down the bridge, right down the middle line, splitting the lane. Then he stopped and said, "Don't do it again. I don't care what the rules say, okay, Granger? Don't ever fucking do that again."
The blame shifted. He was a fair player in the beginning. He liked it when she took it on tough, when it was big, and when there was everything at stake. She'd risk everything, and he'd sing and dance and buy every one a round of drinks. He'd wait for her in the waiting room of the ER, or sneak into her apartment when she was passed out on the floor, and wait for her to wake up. Then he'd pat her on the shoulder, firmly, smiling against her ear. "Good one, champ. You almost got me that time."
Then, like everything else, things started to change. She didn't know it at first, just like you don't really notice it when the leaves start changing until the entire tree has changed – but it changed. Not in a good way, or a bad way – it's just that different was different, and change was change. It was flimsy and turned whichever direction the wind decided to blow that day.
"I don't want to play anymore." This was a fact, so she said it like a fact. She tried to sound as adult as possible, but the sentence – the focus of the word, "play" – made her feel small, petulant. Like a child.
He sat down in front of her, where she noticed a fresh bruise on his collar. "Yeah. Okay. So don't play." He didn't ask her why, and just ordered a vodka, but the way he drank so that she couldn't see his mouth she knew he wanted to know.
"Things are different."
"Are they? Different?" He shook his head as he put his drink down. "I don't think so."
"Yeah? Well, they are."
"I think I'd know if things were different," he told her. "Every single fucking day you wake up, Granger, everything's different. Babies are born. People die. Sometimes they do both, you know? Tragic, but it happens."
She just looked at him, unmoving. "Fine. So I forfeit."
He nodded. "Do you really?" he asked her. He didn't take her seriously when she said she wanted out – because it was a fact, albeit a shameful one: she always came back to the game. And she hated that, that there were no rules. Because that meant she could always leave, and worse: always come back.
"Face it. You like being reckless. You're addicted to it." He put his vodka down. "You like grasping control and then letting go of it, sort of like a catapult – or a swing. You're pushing up from the ground and you're swinging, Granger. There's nothing in life like it, you know. The rush of gravity releasing you for one minute, before pulling you back down. Makes you feel all sorts of funny things, but most of all, it makes you feel alive," he said. " Like you've just come back down to earth again after a brief absence of time."
She presses her lips together, almost into what seems like a smile. "I don't need to feel alive."
He shook his head. "No, see, that is the common misconception. You're alive, hence, you're living. You're living, so you're not dead." He juts his finger out at her. "You don't fool me. You think I'm stupid? You think I don't know? I could point out every miserable fucker in this room who personally can't tell the difference from alive and dead right this second and be right."
She looked him straight in the eye, in what she hoped to be an unflinching stare. "I'm done."
He only smiled. "So you're done. Good for you."
Every morning she woke up she unconsciously counted the days, the hours, and the minutes before she gave back in. She took her pills because even when her body wasn't in pain, it was still, but she tried to fend off remembering why she played for as long as she possibly can.
But it came. No matter what, it came anyway, and she would meet him where they always met: at the bridge.
"Welcome back," he'd always say to her, his hands in his pockets. He picked up a stone from the ground, felt it around in his hand for a little while, before throwing it into the water. He had a mean swing. "It's your turn."
The first summer Harry had come to stay with her was not the first summer she'd broken into the Upper Eastside community playground. The vines had grown thick and strong enough to climb on, and with a bit of upper body strength she plopped down on the soft, well-kempt grass. It was the only place that really ever kept green grass all year long.
"Let's pretend for a second that we aren't, in fact, eighteen years old," he said, catching up to her. "We're a couple of years too old for breaking into playgrounds, Hermione." But he said this with a mischievous smile on his face, peeking through the crevice of his lips. "But I've always been a big fan of irony."
She went straight for the swings. She'd always liked them, maybe because when she was younger, it was the closest she thought she'd ever get to actually flying.
"You know, the thing I like about swings," Harry said, scrambling into the swing next to her, winding his fingers around the conjoined metal chains, "is that no matter how far up you go, you always come back."
The moment she had been supposed to be done with it was the moment she'd ended up in the doctor's office.
She hated those paper gowns they made you wear. The way it crinkled any way you moved; she hated the uncomfortable roughness and coldness against her skin, and the way she always felt so naked under them. She hated lying back and having someone prod and poke their way into her insides when they didn't even know what her favorite color was, or the fact that she'd never seen the Godfather because somehow the experience never fully panned out.
She'd spent enough time in here to have memorized the sad posters on the white walls, and the hospital screensaver they had on every one of the computers. It had images of people smiling and playing, and for a while she'd thought it was the funniest thing in the hospital. In reality, there was nothing funny about visiting the hospital so often, because that meant there was something wrong with you and that, maybe, you were going to die.
She was here for a check-up. That's what they called it, so that's what she called it, because she was never for naming things that had already been named for her.
"It says here," said her doctor, a Dr. Grant, "you had a visit two months ago. Says here you sprained your wrist. And that makes. . ." He shuffled through his papers, silently mouthing numbers. He looked up at her with a look. "Six times you've been in the ER or UC in the past two years."
"I'm unlucky," she said. He was expecting a response, so she gave him one. "I fall down a lot. There's this one trick stair in my apartment – people always complain, but the landlady never gets it fixed."
"I don't think it's that, Miss Granger," he said, shaking his head grimly. "I'm starting to see a pattern. A pattern that's not remotely healthy." He paused, his eyebrows drawing down in a worried furrow. "Are you collecting pain medicine?"
She almost wanted to smile. "No, Dr. Grant. I'm not."
He was quiet for a minute, examining her face. That was the thing with doctors. They know your birthday and your organs and every little physical bit of you inside out, but the important things they never know, things that possibly could make their job easier: that she'd always been a bad liar.
He cleared his throat. "Good. Then, uh, on to the rest of the check-up. . ."
"Your doctor called me."
He was sitting at her kitchen table, with all of her pain medication out on the table. There were six bottles, with their bags and receipts set to one side. He also had a few beers out. Obviously he'd been waiting for a while.
"A Dr. Grant, was it? Seemed like a nice guy. Asked me to do him a small favor, since, you know, doctors can't really break into a patient's house and stuff."
She set her bag down at the counter. "I didn't take a single one."
"I know," he said. "They haven't even been opened. Which is the weird part." Then he stopped, leaning in, his elbows on her table. "What are you doing, Hermione?"
She sorted through her mail, setting her bills aside. She got another postcard from Viktor, who was visiting California. He had sent her a postcard of a beach with the backdrop of a vast, blue sky. On the back she read his sloppy script: Come here before you go anywhere else. The sun is always shining.
"I don't need to take pain medication."
"Right." Then he started to laugh. "Right. Because you're not in any pain, right?"
"Everybody's in pain, Harry."
When she was twelve, her grandmother died. She'd been there at her bedside, at the hospital. They'd had her hooked up to all of these machines, little wires stuck into all parts of her body – she'd almost looked like a puppet, the way she was all strung up. And she'd been heavily sedated because they wanted her to feel less pain.
Her mother had left her alone with her grandmother to get some coffee, and as she stood there at her bedside, feeling overwhelmed by the dark presence of death hanging over her, her grandmother spoke up.
"Don't tell your mother this, but I'm looking forward to passing," she'd said in her hoarse voice, smiling with her dry, chapped lips. "Once you get old, there aren't very many things you can do. Everything starts hurting. You're always in pain. And I may not believe in heaven or hell, but the least I can expect is that death won't hurt as much as living does."
It took a few days for her to pass away, but when she did, there wasn't much fuss. She died in her sleep, or at least, that's what the doctors told her mother. She had a feeling that some doctors – the new ones, and usually the women ones – dressed things a little up sometimes so that the families wouldn't feel so much pain. After all, nothing would change the fact that somebody you loved was dead.
"Yeah," he said. "But not everybody lies about it."
There was once he'd almost crossed the line. She would know – after all, she'd always been one for boundaries. It was in her psychological leaning. All throughout her life, she'd always been about wrong or right, good or bad. For a good chunk of it she was convinced there was no middle – no limbo, as they called it – but she grew up and soon found out that there was, after all.
He'd broken a rib. This was around the fifteenth time he'd been hospitalized, and so after they'd checked his wound and made sure he was okay, they kicked him out.
"This hospital," he said, as he tried to walk out, "is full of dicks."
"They're onto your scent," she told him. "We can get you a wheelchair."
"And ruin my manly stride out of here? You've gotta be kidding me."
She went to his manor. It was a strange feeling to be in there – even stranger when it had no furniture except for a futon laid out in the middle of the living room along with a metal folding chair. Once she'd asked what had happened to all his furniture, and he'd told her, "It got suffocating. Being around all of those fragile, centuries-old bedpans. I needed space. Wide, empty space. So I sold it all."
So he had his space, if not at least acres and acres of it.
"I'm guessing it gets lonely around here," she also said.
"Sure," he answered, as if she'd said something as non-trivial as whether he wanted something to eat. "But I deserve it, don't I? If anything, I mean. Bad men should always end up alone."
This time he'd just carefully lowered himself into his futon. He popped open his bottle of pills and swallowed the recommended dose, before setting it beside him on the floor. Then he looked up at her.
"I could share my futon with you, if you want. I got the double."
"No thanks," she said. But after a few moments of standing, she sat down anyway. She argued whether it would be a bad idea if she laid down with him, because that meant she was implying something. She hated that something as simple as lying down on a futon with a man always had to mean something, even when it didn't.
"You could come closer," he said to her, noticing the big space she'd carefully maneuvered between them. Then, as if he'd read her mind: "Not everything has to mean something, you know."
So she scooted closer, laying her head back. She couldn't remember ever lying down with somebody else for a very long time. When you got to a certain age, when parts of you started growing and you became aware of things like you hadn't been before, lying down with a boy becomes one of those things you aren't allowed to do anymore. It becomes tainted with implications.
"Does it still hurt?"
"Only in the physical way. But I'm on a futon with a girl. That's luckier than I usually am." Then: "Oh, Christ, you don't have to leave, okay? I was only kidding. This doesn't mean anything, Granger. We both know that. This is an innocent thing, even if nothing else is."
So she laid back down, and they were quiet for a minute or two. She could hear him breathing, his languorous deep breaths in and out, although sometimes it hitched in his throat and he would cough a little.
"How's your eye?" he asked.
"It's better. Went back to its normal color a few weeks ago."
"Good," he said. "God, that was an ugly one. I could barely stand looking at it. Made me want to blow chunks every time I thought about it – one of those things that once you get a look at, it never goes away, you know?"
She smiled a little. "It's amazing what you get used to after a while."
"Not that. I'd never get used to that." Then he suddenly went quiet, as if he'd just said something he shouldn't have. "There are some things – some things that I want to stay the same, for as long as they possibly can. It's unreasonable and stupid as hell, but it happens. Sometimes at the weirdest times possible."
Sometimes your brain works alone. Like the times when it comes up with its own questions and answers, and you're sure it wasn't you, exactly. But something else. The question this time was: What about now? But she didn't ask it, because she'd caught it – snatched it by its arm just as it was about to escape from her mouth and banished it to where it came from. There are some things you don't bother asking because you already know the answer. Deep, deep down inside, she already knew the answer.
She began to sit up, her feet sliding back to the floor, off the futon. Back to reality. "I need to go."
And she didn't see his face, but his eyes were already closed. "So go."
Later on that night, she got a call. It was one in the morning, and she'd been lying in her bed for three hours, trying to go to sleep. She didn't get much sleep anymore, and sometimes she felt like she was a lot older than she thought she was. She was only twenty-three, and there was already a pulsing ache in her body.
"I'm sleepwalking," he said when she picked up. "And I need someplace to sleepwalk to."
She was staring up at her ceiling. She saw well in the dark now. "How's your rib?"
"Still hurts like hell, Granger."
"Then you're not asleep."
"You ever figure that sometimes you don't ever have to be asleep to sleepwalk? That you, in fact, can be very awake to do it?" There was static creeping into their conversation. "I'm coming over."
When he got to her apartment, he grabbed a few beers from her fridge and settled at her kitchen table. They drank for awhile, but never too much.
"I have some sleeping pills," she told him. "You could have a few."
He shook his head. "I don't like trying to force sleep. It shouldn't have to be something that has to be forced." He took a sip, before nodding over at her. "You've been up for a while."
She shrugged. "I don't sleep easily anymore."
"Me neither. Sometimes I wonder if it's because I have too much space. When you have too much of something, or too less of something – it throws off the balance. Have you ever realized that? Nothing's ever right unless you strike the perfect balance."
"And what exactly would I have too much of?" She didn't know whether she was asking herself or him.
"Maybe it's not that. Maybe it's because you have too less of something." He thought for a second, before thumping his first on the table. "I got it. When was the last time you were fucked?"
She scoffed. "I'm not going to answer that."
"It helps you sleep, you know. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to get loose in a bar sometime, get talked up by someone. Feel like somebody else for a night."
"I'm perfectly fine being me."
He snorted, taking a swig of his beer. "Nobody wants to always be themselves, Granger. Now that's just damn silly." He rubbed his thumbs against the glass. "How else would we realize we'd never want to be anything else?"
She got up to empty her beer in the sink and throw out the glass. When she turned back around, he was there. He'd left his beer on the table and he'd followed her, only distancing himself by two or three steps.
"Sometimes I wish you'd stop playing." From underneath his shirt she could see the bulge from his bandages, his bottle of pills peeking out of his pocket. "Sometimes I wish you'd just fucking quit already."
She didn't know how to feel about what he was saying, but she felt it anyway: that confusing, blossoming hurt and anger in her chest. She threw the bottle in the trash so that it would make enough noise to startle him. It didn't.
"Why should I quit? Why don't you?"
"Don't ask me that. Don't be stupid." He took a step closer. "Tell me exactly: what do you get from this? I mean, I know what I get from it, but," he said, genuinely interested, "what do you?"
She never answered him that night. She'd wanted to punch him – not in the face, but in the rib. To make him feel pain. Not because she wanted to hurt him, but because she wanted to give him a clue.
She was back again. The hospital. In the starchy paper dress, sitting so that she was taller than everything else. Maybe that was on purpose, why the seat was set higher than everything else – to make you feel better than your circumstances.
She imagined she was on the edge of a cliff. It was easy if she focused on her dangling feet and didn't focus on what was under it.
The doctor came back in with X-rays. Some doctors, the ones that have been around for a while, know how to tell people they're going to die. It becomes unemotional and strictly business, like handing somebody their order. Her doctor obviously hadn't been in the business for very long, because he still hesitated. Fidgeted with the X-rays, fumbled with the best way to tell her. She thought about suggesting some practice, maybe in front of a mirror.
"I'm asking you to reconsider taking treatment. With the health coverage your parents left you, I can assure you that payment won't be a problem," he said. "It would be your only chance."
She didn't say it to be mean. She said it to be honest. "Some people are meant to die, Dr. Grant."
He looked at her, before silently sighing. "Just think about it," he said, scribbling something in her sheet. "You know my number in case you decide to change your mind."
Her last one had to be big – it had to make a splash. So she went to the bridge, took off her shoes and hopped up on the ledge.
It reminded her a little of the doctor's office, being so high up above everything. The moon was out so she could see what was underneath her this time – the sea, with its waves gently lapping. It would be an easy dive if she could make it, and an easy swim if she ever learned how to.
She was afraid of heights and always had been, for as long as she could remember. That's why flying was never an easy feat for her, and why it scared her shitless during Quidditch games. Standing up there, she was petrified. She closed her eyes because she couldn't move any single part of her. She imagined stepping down from the ledge and walking away, doing something else. Something slightly more forgettable.
"So. Are you going to kill yourself?"
It's funny how some people find you right when you need them to.
"Not really," she said. "Just facing my fear."
"Of diving off bridges?" It was cold out, so he was wearing a coat. "Come down from there, Granger. You don't have to prove a damn thing to anybody."
"This is it. My last. Then I'm quitting." She swallowed hard. Was it just her or was the sound of the waves getting louder? "Wasn't that what you wanted, Malfoy?"
"I said I wished you would. Nobody ever gets what they wish for. That's why people wish for the things they do. They know they'll never get them." He leaned against the ledge. "So get the fuck down from there."
"What makes this different from all those other times?"
"This isn't a man finding out you're playing him and punching you in the face, Granger. You're fighting nature here. Nature always wins. It'll swallow you up, and then you'll be gone." He paused, squinting up at her. Then he lit up a cigarette. "Can you swim?"
"So you can't swim."
"I never learned how."
"So then this is different."
"Because since you can't swim, you're going to die. And remember our only rule? You can't die. Nobody dies. So come down from there, damn it."
She opened her eyes. "If I fell, would you rescue me?"
He gently flicked his cigarette, lowly laughing. "I don't rescue just anybody, Granger. You're afraid of heights, aren't you? You'd die before you even reached the water."
Then he reached for her ankle, but she'd already leapt off.
He dove in after her, which wasn't part of the deal. It's always a gamble when you expect people to come in and rescue you. Sometimes you overestimate their bravery. Sometimes they can't swim themselves. Lucky for her, he could.
"Christ, Granger," he said, when he'd locked his arm around her waist and they broke back through the surface. It was a calm tide, so it wasn't too likely they'd drown. "If you want to die, tell me now, because I'll let you go. I swear to God, I'll let you go right now and let you sink to the fucking bottom like fish food. Otherwise I'm taking you back to land and you're quitting. You're fucking quitting, you hear me?" Then: "God, I can't believe you can't swim."
When they both got back to land, they were exhausted. They were soaked, and it was cold. He said it was all her fault, because for some reason she wanted to prove a point to somebody that wasn't around.
"You wanna know what your problem is?" he said to her as they walked out into the street, trying to hail a cab. "You think everything's so damn symbolic. Like everything has this hidden purpose. So you strive to make everything sentimental. That's a problem." Then he suddenly turned around. "If I kissed you, right now, would it mean something to you?"
She stopped, just a step away from him. She was shivering, and there was pain all the way down to her bones. "What?"
"Nothing." Then he smiled, before turning back around. "Let's go, or we'll both fucking die of hypothermia."
He never kissed her that night. He'd come so very close, and he would tell her it was all part of the game. He backed away because maybe he got scared. Maybe he was afraid it would be tainted with implications. Maybe he didn't want the sentimentality that came with it. Maybe he was afraid it would ruin it.
"Do you ever get the feeling sometimes," he asked her once, "that you don't know which is the game and which isn't anymore? I hopped the train and went all the way to the last stop, all the way on the other side of town once. And I don't know why I did it. I think I was hoping I'd get mugged."
When he finally kissed her, it was a shocked kind of kiss. The kind you spend days waiting for that you forget you were waiting for it at all, and are surprised when it happens.
Then she punched him.
"Good. Thanks," he said, wincing as he touched his jaw. Her hand was aching, crumpled into a broken, awkward fist, but something inside her was singing. "I needed that."
For a very long time, they didn't see each other.
She stopped working for awhile – doctor's orders, even though she'd worked long until they called her boss and she was fired. Harry came around and took care of her, even though on some days she wanted to be alone she hid the key and locked him out. He respected her privacy, then. Because he was a good friend, and he knew her well enough to give her what she wanted.
One day, when Harry left, he showed up, and she had no choice but to let him in.
"You know," he said. His hands were in his pockets. "You could've told me."
"Tell you what," she said. "Telling someone that you're bound to die soon isn't exactly the best conversation starter. Want a beer?"
She grabbed him a beer from the fridge, but he just stood there.
"It wasn't like we were strangers. You could've told me. I wouldn't have made you. . . do those stupid fucking things for as long as I did." When he said this he rubbed his face with his hands. She'd never seen him look guilty, and it made her feel worse. Because he was right. Now she was beginning to think this meant something. "Christ. You're dying."
"Isn't like I'm anything special," she said, sitting down. She was in pain and she couldn't hear very well, or breathe very well either, but because she was so sentimental she tried to keep up her strength around him. "Every day we're all one day closer to death. I read that somewhere."
"The least you can do," he said, "is not talk about it like it's nothing."
"Well, I'm not going to cry about it. Neither should you."
"That's not the point," he said then. He sounded frustrated. "We had a rule, Granger. Nobody was supposed to die. Somebody dies, and the game is over." He looked at her, and she'd never seen him so serious before. It was heartbreaking. "You can't die."
"Well, the tests don't lie." She slid the beer closer to his end of the table. "I guess you win. Have a beer."
He stood there for another silent minute, just staring at her. He looked scared one second and then he swallowed it back up another second, before it came creeping back out again. Then, finally, he sat down and drank his beer, plugging his mouth up so that he wouldn't have to talk.
"You know," she said to him, "feeling pain is always better than feeling nothing at all. You can't go through life just sleepwalking through everything."
"Is that why? Why you played?"
"More or less. Mostly because I wanted to see what I could do if I wasn't afraid of dying. A hell of a lot, it turns out." She watched him, lowering her voice to a whisper. "You'll find someone else to play the game with. The game doesn't have to be over once I'm gone."
"No. I won't." He shook his head, laughing bitterly. Then he took a big swig of beer, his face pinched with subtle agony. "It was always and only you."
This time, she asked because she really was curious. "Why?"
"It just is." He rubbed his face with his hand, before laughing. It was a rough, blank chuckle. "Funny, I never thought I'd miss anyone. Especially not you. Never you. Not in a million years, you. The moment I met you, I decided I was never going to miss you." He stared down at his hands, fiddling with his thumbs. "So how come you refused treatment?"
"Because it wouldn't change anything."
Because I would still miss you, she thought. I would still miss you even if I got well again.
He nodded, then. He sat there quietly for a little bit before he got up. "Goodbye, then." He turned around to go, but as he got a few steps from the door he stopped again. "You know, you would've been that girl for me," he said, "that would've made every damn senseless thing finally make sense. It's funny, but it's true. It's completely fucking true."
It was a slow death. It ate her body and her brain until she was just a shell of who she used to be. Some people got to die knowing who they were. They got to die proud, with only a quick flash of the knowledge of pain. She wasn't so lucky.
By the time she was gone, Ron was no longer heartbroken. Harry had hidden away his REM record for good, and Malfoy was nowhere to be found.
When she died, she walked into the light because she'd heard and read enough to know that was what you were supposed to do. She found herself walking into an empty manor with a single double futon laid out on the wooden floor. He looked up when he saw her.
"Don't think this means anything," he said to her. His shoes were off. He'd been waiting for a while.
She smiled. "Don't worry. I won't."
"Good. Because it just means," he said, as she sat down next to him, lifting her feet from the floor and onto the futon, no longer positioning a segregating space between them, "that I decided I never did want to miss you."
She couldn't remember ever lying down with anybody else for a very long time. When you got to a certain age, when parts of you started growing and you became aware of things like you hadn't been before, lying down with a boy becomes one of those things you aren't allowed to do anymore. It becomes tainted with implications. And then there comes that time, that moment, when the implications are just right, and lying down with them is just a matter of whether you're brave enough to or not. Sometimes you had to face death to be brave enough. Sometimes you just had to live.