A/N: I am so proud of myself for two updates in a row. Let's hope for more!
Also, just a fun little insight into my, uh, writing process—I lay on my bed for a while in the same position as Hermione, so I could see what stood out as the most uncomfortable parts. Yes, I felt silly doing it.
Chapter 12: Neither Up Nor Down
Her neck was bent at a horrid angle, and it was hard to breathe with his weight crushing her chest against the mattress, but she forced herself to calm down. She had to make him believe that she'd stopped fighting. If he'd been more alert, it probably wouldn't have worked, but she felt him relax along with her after he activated the Portkey. His hand switched from holding her down to stroking her hair, and he readjusted his stance so his legs weren't pressing so painfully against hers. She flexed her muscles in turn, feeling out her range of motion as inconspicuously as possible, getting a sense of where her limbs were in relation to the bed.
Either a five or ten second delay would be standard. She counted down from five to be safe, and she was ready when he backed off her. Her lithe frame became an advantage: in one fluid motion, she dropped the Portkey, leveraged her body against the bed frame with both feet, and drew her wand as she leapt toward the headboard. It used up all the adrenaline she had left. She placed herself in a defensive stance against the pillows and kept her wand trained on Draco as the crystal shattered on the floor.
He swore and covered his face in despair, and she almost regretted her decision: now their only lifeline was gone, and he might be so furious with her that they'd be back to where they started. She'd felt nothing when he insulted her a moment ago, since she'd known his motive, but it might break her if he fell back into the habit. Everything else was already too much.
She stared at him with her wand arm shaking and flinched when he met her gaze. There wasn't anger, though.
"I tried," he said, nearly whining as his features twisted into agony. The way his bruises trapped the shadows made his face look skeletal. "Just remember that I tried to save you."
"That's right," she said. He buried his hand in his hair as his head slumped forward. "It's my fault and my choice that I'm still here. So, you can forget about feeling guilty for me, all right?"
With the Portkey out of commission, there was no reason to keep him at wandpoint. She lowered her arm and hugged herself, folding her body even tighter. Draco stayed put for a moment, breathing heavily and shaking his head, before he showed his face with a dreary smile. "Has anyone ever told you that you're literally too stubborn to live?"
Her effort must have looked as tragic as his, but she tried to smile back anyway. "More times than I can count."
He shuffled to the bed, then collapsed forward on his chest with his arms spread wide and his face buried in the blankets. His voice came out muffled and strained: "Now what?"
"Well, what were you going to do without me?"
"Sleep," he said emphatically. "Then eat and shower. There's food here."
"Then that's what," she said. "The difference is that you won't have to do it alone." He nodded his head, rubbing his face against the bed, as she tried to decide whether she was more hungry or exhausted. "What sort of food?"
He turned his face to the side and considered it. "Chocolate frogs, pumpkin pasties, some Butterbeer and pumpkin juice, probably a couple of Sugar Quills."
Not too nutritious, but it was better than nothing. "Where is it?"
He lifted his arm to indicate the trunk at the foot of the bed. She crawled over and opened the latch. The trunk was charmed cold inside, and she grabbed some of everything for each of them. By the time she turned around, Draco had managed to drag himself upright, propped up on the pillows against the headboard. He touched his cheek experimentally and winced. "I think your pain-killing spell's wearing off."
"See? You're lucky I'm still here," she said, taking the opportunity to gloat while he was too worn out to answer back. She reckoned he'd earned at least a little bit of shaming, for hitting her if nothing else. "You'd have scarcely been able to eat by the time you woke up."
She climbed onto the bed and spread the food and drinks in front of him. She situated herself on the opposite side and recast the spell on his jaw. Dishonest as it was, she laid a glamour over it to spare herself the sight. He shrugged his shoulders in slow motion and let his head fall to the side with his eyes closed. "Well, what's done is done," he said. "Don't have the energy to dwell on it."
"Do you think you could eat something before you fall asleep?" She nudged one of his limp hands with a pumpkin pasty, and he didn't respond. "Come on, I've been listening to your stomach growl for hours."
He made an ambiguous noise of dissent, already drifting off, and she made the decision to do something strange; even in their current state of hopeless exhaustion, it felt uncomfortably odd. She pushed aside the rest of the snacks and crawled forward over his leg to kneel beside him, cupping his chin in her free hand.
"Open your mouth," she said. It reminded her of babysitting—trying to make a child eat his vegetables.
"I—" She cut him off with the food, and he bit down reluctantly, chewed, and swallowed with his eyes still closed. "Let me—" Again, she forced the pasty into his mouth, and this time he stopped resisting. Bite by bite, she fed him the whole thing. "Good enough?" he asked pathetically.
He was so far gone that perhaps he'd wake up and think this had been a dream; if so, she wouldn't correct him. "Yes, good enough," she said. "Now you'll feel better when you wake up."
He mumbled something incomprehensible, then allowed his body to slide down until his long limbs were splayed across the whole bed. She took a pumpkin pasty and two chocolate frogs for herself and perched beside him. As she ate, she calculated the geometry of available bed space. There was nowhere she could lie down without touching him; even in the best case scenario, she'd be partially on top of him.
She considered the guest room down the hall, but she knew the Lestranges had slept there when they and all the others had taken over the house. The echo of her on the same pillows and sheets would have been too much to bear.
She also noticed that in his sleep, Draco appeared no more peaceful than usual. The creases in his brow never smoothed, and the tense muscles along his jaw and around his eyes twitched randomly and with great intensity. He was grinding his teeth so hard she could hear it, like iron rods dragged over rock, while his lips moved to form quiet disjointed fragments of speech. She could only imagine what he was dreaming.
She'd been riding a wave of unnatural energy—the kind that could possess a body only in times if desperate need—and it was wearing off now as quickly as it had come. All she could do was push the rest of the food onto the floor and curl up on the largest expanse of empty bed, on Draco's left side, with his wrist under her neck and her legs slung over one of his. The position was awkward but still more comfortable than she'd been in days.
As her conscious mind faded to black, her last thought was of the walls—how they bubbled as if boiling, how the bubbles bulged like the eyeballs of a strangled man, and how she could live a hundred more lifetimes without ever forgetting what she had seen in this house.
The walls collapsed on her as she began to dream. Those black writhing spiders advanced until, close up, she saw that they weren't spiders at all but tiny black hands—hands with greedy fingers, searching, touching, grabbing on, and picking her apart like a child methodically pulling legs off an ant. One by one.
No, not fingers—even closer now, and they were tentacles, all connected to the same incomprehensible beast, and the suckers on them had concentric rows of microscopic needle-teeth. And inside those hungry mouths were long tunnels filled with acid and enzymes for digesting prey, and the tunnels led to one irresistible black hole at the centre of it all, and that was the end.
There was nothing, without need for the concept of nothingness because something never had been, except that somehow there was still Hermione. She could still think without a brain, still feel without a body—the cells that once gathered to make her whole had split up and broken down into atoms, down into protons and neutrons and electrons, down into quarks, down into particles too small to have names. The particles spread out in the void, wider and wider apart to where the edges of the universe would have been if there were any such thing. And then, all at once, the particles broke down one more time, and they no longer existed. She watched herself stop being. She ended.
She didn't have time to find out what it felt like to be as she watched herself not being, for the process instantly reversed. The particles spun back from the farthest reaches of space and found each other and reformed, each one in its proper place. Quarks became atoms became cells became human, and her human self moved backward through the acid-drenched tunnels and past the spinning rows of teeth until the mouths became suckers and then fingers and then hands and then spiders and then walls.
Draco was moaning in his sleep beside her, but she was wide awake now. Other sounds were all around her, rustling and popping and grinding. She turned her head, seeking the sources, but they were impossible to pinpoint: the noise came from all directions at once. It was the walls themselves. New quivering bubbles emerged, each larger than the the last, breaking and reforming like primordial ooze. Tendrils reached out, bending and twisting. She shook herself and looked down at her prone body to make sure she wasn't dreaming anymore. Above her, the ceiling began to descend at the middle, slowly caving in.
She could only clutch fistfuls of the blankets, wide eyes staring straight up, but the bulge stopped growing. It was about a metre above her face when it stalled, and then smaller blisters and tentacles came forth and reached down as if they could sense her presence. So captivated by the sight, she didn't realize she was screaming until she heard her own voice, and it didn't echo. The sound soaked into the walls. The room was eating it.
Draco woke and hit her in the back of the head when he pulled his arm away. He nearly kicked her off the bed when he moved his legs, and by the time she caught herself, he was upright on his knees, pointing his wand forward at nothing.
"What?" he cried. "What is it?" His arm moved frantically in all directions—there was nowhere to aim.
When he was fully alert, he let it fall limp at his side. As she clung rigidly to the bed in a fetal position, she watched him take in the whole of it. She could just barely move enough to breathe.
Draco looked down at her. "Granger?"
He put his hand over hers, and she blinked. She had seen how this all ended. She could almost feel her cells beginning to fall apart, one by one. Draco's hand moved up along her arm and over her shoulder to cradle the back of her neck.
"This is it," she said. An odd serenity hummed within her, calm as a cloudless sky. Does a beach at low tide miss the waves? It was no different: she would not miss herself when she was gone. Does a fallen leaf miss the tree?
"Calm down," he said, which was ironic. Hermione was calmer than she had ever been before, although she was aware that she didn't look it. "It's just the wallpaper—the pattern's made of magic, but I don't think it can get out."
"It doesn't need to," she said. "We're already in. All it has to do is contract." Draco swallowed hard. "You'd understand better if you could hear it. Would you like to hear it?"
"No," he said immediately. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "This is not it. This is not how we die, all right?"
"I wish it wasn't," she said, but this was exactly how and where and when. She had seen it both forward and in reverse. The ceiling creaked as it dipped closer, centimetre by centimetre. A long-forgotten quote came to mind: every man dies alone. It wasn't true, though. She was the reason that Draco wouldn't have to. Her sacrifice had already been made—no un-ringing that bell—and so she soothed herself by embracing the importance of what she had done. "It would be terrible if I hadn't stayed."
"What?" He shook her again, harder this time, and she made no effort to resist the motion. "Snap out of it. We have to get out of here." He jerked his head sideways to look out the door into the corridor, where the walls were expanding slowly but steadily. "If we don't get out soon, we won't fit through."
She placed her hands over his on her shoulders. "There isn't anymore 'out.' I know you don't want to believe me, but I've seen it, and there's only deeper in."
"What do you mean, you've seen it?"
"I saw everything. Until it was nothing."
His expression wavered between misery and fear. "You're not making sense."
"You're in denial." She leaned closer, looking at his face. She knew it by heart already; it felt like forever since she'd seen anyone else. "The only choice we have left is whether to die here or in the corridor, and I don't have a preference."
His facial muscles contracted grotesquely, and he closed his eyes as tight as possible, but tears escaped anyway. She would have joined him, but she'd already done her crying. "Please," he whispered. "I don't know if I can carry you right now. Even a levitation spell—I don't know if I have it in me. I'm so tired, Granger, and you aren't supposed to be the one who gives up!"
"I'm not giving up." She paused, reconsidering. "Actually, I suppose I am. I've finally learned when to fold."
He leaned forward until his forehead was resting against hers, then brought one hand to the back of her head. "Not yet. Not now."
"At least we don't have to die alone." Before he could respond, she kissed him goodbye.
First he was motionless, but then he kissed her back with breathtaking intensity. He grabbed her waist and crushed her against him, his rough hands roving over her body. He wrapped his fingers around her thigh and squeezed so hard it hurt. The unnatural serenity receded, and she began to feel many things at once. "Wake up," he hissed against her mouth.
He bit her lip, and she tasted her own blood, and it made her think of all the other blood in her body. Her heart was racing with terror and fury and desire. She opened her eyes and saw that his were open, too, but the black tunnels of his pupils didn't lead to despair. She stared into his eyes with their faces mashed together and blood running down her chin.
Not all paths led to nowhere. She was not a dry beach or a fallen leaf or a subatomic particle suspended in a void, and she was not ready to die.
She pushed him away, sucking at her broken lower lip, and he laughed with hysterical relief. Shame was the first honest emotion she felt, now that she was back from wherever souls went to hide when they were done fighting for good, but she forced herself to focus on the present. She looked around, reorienting herself with reality, and turned her body to get off the bed.
Draco jumped off first and helped her steady herself until both feet were planted on the floor. When she let go and stood on her own, she rejoiced in the fact that she still could rejoice, utterly consumed by the euphoria of being.
"Are you ready?" he asked. His face showed uncertainty and compassion and concern.
She stood on tip-toe and kissed him again, quickly this time, because no words could have expressed her gratitude in that moment. He looked shocked after she pulled away, and she could only nod her head. Yes, she was ready.
Before she could even take two full steps toward the door, he grabbed her wrist and hurried her along, picking up speed. Running hurt so badly that she thought she might pass out, but there was no more stopping. She concentrated on Draco's hand and the link between them—not alone.
Along the walls, the massive blisters had stopped popping before they reformed. Now they built on each other and stayed whole. The corridor was only wide enough by then for one person to pass through at a time without touching the sides. She wondered what would happen if they did—would the blisters pop? If so, what would be inside? She shuddered to imagine.
There was a crash ahead, and then everything went almost completely dark. Draco stopped cold and lit his wand; over his shoulder, she saw that the walls had expanded far enough to knock over the end table that held the nearest lamp, which was now just a useless pile of broken glass. She lit her wand as well, and they stepped carefully over the mess, past the remains of a crystal vase and the magically-preserved flowers it once held. They'd been pathetic from the start—a tacky illusion of life where there was none—but now, scattered on the floor in the dark, they took on a whole new sadness.
Is nothing alive in this place?
As her mind wandered, a more belated but relevant thought occurred to her. "Draco," she asked, "where are we going?"
"Away," he said, without stopping.
"Is there a room in this wing without enchanted wallpaper?" She struggled to catch her breath and tugged at his hand, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Broom storage loft," he panted, "but we'd be trapped. Can't go there."
"Then why run?" She pulled his hand harder, and he slowed to a walk.
"To be honest, I was afraid you'd shut down again if we stopped moving."
"I promise I won't." She shone her wand behind them, and the growth didn't seem to be speeding up; it built steadily, but this appeared to be its maximum speed. Despite the time she'd wasted in Draco's bedroom, they still had a few minutes to think. They stood back to back, holding hands, getting their bearings.
She watched her shadow move back and forth along the floor as Draco searched ahead with his wand, but he couldn't possibly be hoping to find much. With the Portkey gone, the only exit was the magical staircase, which would be suicide. Suddenly, he started walking again and took her hand with him.
"Where are we going now?"
"Hang on," he said, pulling her along. She tried to look over his shoulder, but there wasn't a good angle to follow his line of sight. A moment later, he stopped and exhaled heavily, as though he'd been holding his breath for days. "Look."
He stepped aside and beckoned her forward, and she saw it: a door-shaped piece of wall that wasn't bubbling. Under any other circumstances, it would have been invisible; the wallpaper had the same pattern, but it was only a glamour to camouflage the passageway. "Did you know that was here?" she asked.
"No." He pressed his hand flat against it, but nothing happened, and he swore under his breath. He turned toward her next and held his lit wand in front of her face, looking at her mouth. "Try your blood."
She touched her forefinger to her split lip and then to the door. Again, nothing happened. She remembered what he'd told her about the secret passageways, way back in the South Wing—some took Muggle blood, some took Malfoy blood, and others took a password. Her breath caught in her throat as he unlit his wand and placed it against the palm of his other hand. He muttered a piercing spell and dragged his wand tip across the skin until a line of blood appeared above the surface.
If this didn't work, then they might run out of time after all. He looked at her once more before he tried, and she could tell by his face that he was thinking the same thing.
He put his hand on the door again, and she couldn't contain the gleeful noise that escaped her when it opened. It felt nothing short of miraculous. Draco held his lit wand inside, but all she could see was unadorned stone. He stepped in as the walls continued to grow around them. She followed and closed the door behind her.