Disclaimer: The Harry Potter series, franchise, characters, et cetera, all belong to JKR. No copyright infringement intended.

CHAPTER 7: Breaking Down

"I don't understand it, and I don't like what I don't understand."

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

.


.

There was something sinister lurking amongst the purple pillars, in-between the zombie-like rows of shuffling downcast wizards and witches, and peeping under the polished golden statues that made the Ministry of Magic feel like a completely different place from the place his father worked years before. Be it the new element of dark magic, or even the same fear that he realized was a driving force for his family all these years, whatever it was, was waiting, bubbling fiercely under the polished exterior of the ancient Ministry. It sent shivers down his spine and made his the palms of his hand sweaty.

It was everywhere. Yet it was nowhere at all.

Ministry workers brushed past him hurriedly, not stopping to make eye contact or even glance at the Malfoy heir. A part of him was actually glad that people were not gaping at him as he thought they would, but the disconnect between people in Draco's new workplace seemed even worse to the young wizard. He had never seen so many people who seemed to be in the same place at the same time, but on entirely different planets.

It was almost as if people had stopped caring about others, and started living only for themselves.

This is what a Voldemort victory truly meant.

Everyone was shuffling to where they needed to be, speaking in hushed tones and glancing over their backs every few seconds as if someone was watching every move and listening to every hushed syllable. Maybe someone was.

Draco felt anxious again as he thought of his predicament with Hermione and of Voldemort's warning to him the finial day of the battle.

.

.

"Well, well, well, look who it is," Zabini exclaimed in a tone laced with amusement. "If it isn't the Malfoy heir, back from the dead-"

"Shove it Zabini," Draco hissed, using his shoulder to roughly push past the chuckling wizard. "Not interested in the bullshit today-"

"Bullshit?" Blaise questioned, unsuccessfully disguising the mirth in his voice. " Really? Malfoy, I wouldn't consider noticing your absence as 'bullshit'. We honestly didn't know what happened to you after the war; you basically fell off the face of the planet-"

"Maybe I liked it better that way," Draco muttered halfheartedly, entering the office that he and Zabini had to share.

It was large, about the size of his bedroom at the Manor.

It had a simply layout. Two desks, one with his name engraved on a nameplate and another with Zabini's. Two plush red armchairs sat behind the desks. The chair that apparently belonged to Zabini was twisted outward and the desk was cluttered, with parchments strewn about the surface of the wood and piled gracelessly in all four corners of the desk. Evidently, Blaise had been working for some time.

'But then again,' Draco reminded himself, 'Zabini was always an unorganized twat.'

"I'm just a little concerned, Malfoy," Blaise continued, apparently oblivious to the fact Draco was only half-listening. "You haven't seen me since the battle, and the first thing you tell me to do is 'shove it'? That could have waited until I showed you around a bit-"

"I don't need you showing me around, Zabini," he retorted, setting his leather briefcase on his desk. "Just bugger off-"

"But don't you want to know what's been going on? Rumor has it that you've been locked away at home this whole time-"

"You of all people should know that you can't believe everything you hear."

Even though Zabini was correct in that he had been locked up in his house since the war ended, he didn't want Blaise to get the idea that he'd spent the time at home with his mother. Draco's old group of friends had a history of taunting him for his reliance on his mom, but he figured the insults came from jealousy, particularly because Zabini always had a turbulent relationship with his own husband-hopping mum; however, he still cringed when someone made an underhanded remark about his relationship with Narcissa. "Speaking of which, how's your mother doing? Or rather who's your mother doing?"

Blaise shot Draco a fake look of surprise, and placed his hand over his heart. "Really, Malfoy? Having a go already? You haven't even had your afternoon tea."

Draco stole a moment to observe his comrade.

Blaise was still as slim and angular as when he last saw him with the same tight-lipped Slytherin smirk and dark, hooded eyes. Draco could see stress lines in his old friend's face and dark circles under his eyes. He was exhausted. It was the same expression that he saw in the mirror every morning. Blaise's face did not at all look like the face of a man whose side had won a war a few weeks ago.

"I'll have you know, the last time I saw you, you and Crabbe were running after Potter and his gang into the Room of Requirement. You came out, but Crabbe didn't, " Blaise continued, folding his hands over the knee of his crossed leg. He looked at Draco pensively. "Actually, there was the whole ordeal that followed Potter's death, rather … yes, that was the last time I saw you, mate, and it certainly was not under pleasant circumstances-"

"Exactly why I don't want to talk about it," Draco snapped. "So why don't you just mind your own business-"

"Alright, alright," Blaise quipped, grinning widely and throwing his hands up in surrender. "You always were testy, mate. Just having a go. I should have known you would be upset. I'm just glad that you're alright."

Draco frowned.

Blaise had never spoken to him like that before. He almost sounded concerned about Draco's well-being. The two wizards had the sort of companionship where they knew that they were friends, but they never talked about all the things that went along with that notation. They knew that if anything were to happen to the other, there would be some level of concern that would bound the two together, but verbally saying these things out loud made him feel silly. It was impossible to define. Draco had never been good at having "friends".

He always brushed friendships off as a sort of weakness reserved for people like Granger's clan, but there was some level of trust that he read in Blaise's eyes that was hard to ignore.

Draco was not sure how to respond. He wasn't sure if he even felt the same amount of worry about for other wizard or not.

"Well, anyway," Blaise said, breaking the silence. "I thought you would like to know what people were thinking of you."

"What do you mean?" Draco hissed, and, despite his edgy tone, he was relieved that the awkward moment was over.

Blaise hopped of the side of his desk and slid into his chair.

"I mean regarding what happened after the battle. You know, what the Dark Lord's asked you to do with Potter's mate. Everyone thinks you're a god-"

"Seriously? Right, Zabini, and my mother will be sporting a house-elf smock at the next 'Witch Weekly' summer brunch. Things are not that simple. People probably think I'm scum."

"No, they save that for your daddy."

Draco's spine straightened in agitation at the mention of his father.

"We all knew he was a useless twat, so don't be too hard on yourself because your mum's gone and asked him to sod off. It will get better, trust me; stepdads aren't as bad after the third," Blaise grinned again at his own joke and continued. "But, everyone has been practically worshipping you since Potter kicked the bucket. First of all, you got a special mission from the Dark Lord himself - again - but this time it is so much more honorable. All the Death Eaters, - even I - would kill to be in your shoes. Over the past month, witches have come to this office by the bundles asking if you've come to work yet… I can only imagine why. And this job; think of it Malfoy. Department of International Magical Cooperation? The Dark Lord was not so generous to many of his followers-"

"Zabini don't bullshit me. I know the truth," Draco interrupted darkly. He could feel his emotional barriers crumbling as irritation and disbelief took place. "I'm stuck with the mudblood bitch, and my father disgraced my family. I don't think people have been planning a giant 'wizard of the year' party in these past few weeks."

Yet Blaise's expression remained completely earnest. If he had one redeeming quality that proved him to be useful during his time at Hogwarts, it was his annoying truthful nature. Draco could always tell when Blaise was being honest. He shifted uncomfortably as he realized now was one of those moments.

People were admiring him for having to bed Granger?

"Well, once you get your head out of your arse and start being grateful instead of complaining like a first-year pansy, I'm sure you will be able to see all these things for yourself. I already assumed that you knew, hence why you were locked up all this time in the Manor. Having your way with Granger? I can't blame you Malfoy; get things rolling right away before you start working and surround yourself with all this shit. But I guess I was wrong about you-"

"That's what you think I was doing this whole time?" Draco choked, eyes wide with skepticism. "Shagging Granger?"

"Well, that's what the Dark Lord asked you to do, so that's what- I mean, really, Malfoy? You haven't been?"

"That's not YOUR territory I'm afraid," Draco snarled, sliding off his own desk in agitation.

His heart was beating rapidly, and he felt the sudden urge to deck Blaise in the face.

"Okay, okay, okay, fine, you don't want to talk about her. We won't talk about her then. I just thought you would like to know that your life isn't over. Anyway, let me fill you in on what we've got to do."

As the day progressed and Draco became less agitated with the other wizard's presence, Blaise told him about how the wizarding world was now cowering under Voldemort's thumb.

The Ministry of Magic, St. Mungo's, and Hogwarts were stacked with Death Eaters and sympathizers from all magical walks of life, serving only those who were certified pureblood, and otherwise magically "pure". Voldemort decreed himself Minster for Magic, Head Healer at St. Mungo's, and Headmaster of Hogwarts.

"Triple threat," Draco said jokingly, but Blaise shot up and shushed him. He informed him in a strained voice that people had to be careful what they said no matter who they were.

Voldemort had not yet started murdering muggles, but people were disappearing left and right, in the same way they had been before the war. That was part of the reason none of the Death Eaters were dismayed about his father's absence.

The Muggle-Born Registration Commission and the snatchers units had doubled their efforts since Potter's death, murdering on the spot anyone suspected to be either of 'impure' blood or a blood-traitor, or enslaving them to pureblood families. He even noted that Granger was lucky to be one of the enslaved, to which Draco shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

Blaise also informed him that some unidentified members of the Order managed to escape the battle, and now had hefty warrants out for their arrests.

Their job at the Ministry was simple and straightforward: to make sure that the leaders of foreign wizarding governments remained subordinate to Voldemort's law by any means necessary. Draco was technically third in command to Ferris Deway, a Death Eater who led Voldemort's operations in North Africa during the war. To his pleasure, he learned that Blaise was ranked one step below him, more of an assistant than an equal.

When Draco tried nonchalantly to inquire about the comment Blaise made earlier about witches being interested in him all of a sudden, he laughed and shrugged, claiming that, to pureblood girls, special missions from the Dark Lord, old money, and tall, handsome blond men trumped mudblood mistresses and bad family situations.

Draco didn't know how to feel about that.

However one thing was certain, his job the the Ministry of Magic symbolized a rather large stepping stone in Draco Malfoy's short life.

He was officially part of the very circle that his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on worked tirelessly to manufacture and preserve. His Lord had defeated his childhood enemy, and now his family's dream of having the world racially purified would be reality. He was heir of the Malfoy inheritance since he came of age, and he now had a comfy job at a ministry full of people who apparently adored him and where he could easily snake up the ladder as the years passed. He would have no trouble getting married and maybe one day his pre-war fantasy of having everyone fuck off would be realized.

Even if the 'Granger problem' were a pain in the arse to deal with now, he and his mother would eventually find some way to get her off their hands, and before he knew it, she would be dead.

He should have been happy.

But oddly enough, he still felt like shit.

.


.

Hermione went through the list again silently, pressing the quill firmly under each word as if it was the object itself tossed upon the leather-bound journal.

The Diary.

Check. Destroyed second year in the Chamber of Secrets by Harry.

The Ring.

Check. Destroyed by Dumbledore.

The Locket.

Check. Destroyed by Ron with the Sword of Gryffindor.

The Cup.

Check. Destroyed by her in the Chamber of Secrets with the basilisk fang.

The Diadem.

Check. Destroyed by a combination of Harry, Ron and Crabbe in the fiendfyre in the Room of Requirement.

The Snake.

Check. Killed by Neville with the Sword of Gryffindor before she and Ron ran back into the Great Hall during the battle.

Harry.

She paused and stared at her friend's name etched sloppily underneath the inconspicuous list of objects as if was just another thing to be thrown away.

Just another thing to be destroyed.

Check. Murdered in the Battle for Hogwarts by Voldemort.

She sighed sadly and tried to remain focused, not allowing her mind go back to her tortuous mental list of people and things that she had lost. If she was serious about not letting her friends die in vain, she needed to remain level-headed.

So that left one more horcrux.

Voldemort's physical body.

Herminie squinted and slipped off the edge of the Malfoy's bed in concentration.

From what she could remember from her reading, horcruxes only made a wizard, or in Voldemort's case, a creature, weaker. So there was no way the Dark Lord would be in strong physical condition after splitting his soul into eight pieces and having all but one destroyed. Creating even more horcruxes would only make him weaker, so Hermione logically ruled that option out. However, she knew to never underestimate what Voldemort was capable of.

For all intents and purposes, he was weaker and less human than ever.

As Hermione analyzed these facts, she let a small scrap of hope warm her weary soul.

Maybe things were not as bad as they seemed. All someone needed was one strong killing curse…

She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't hear Draco slide into the room and press his back to the opposite wall, his grey eyes latched to her back like hooks.

"Stop it, Malfoy," she hissed when she noticed his darkened figure, slamming the journal shut. She didn't mind journaling in front of him, but the horcrux business was too important to be entrenched in while Draco was lounging around her room.

"I haven't done anything," he said lazily, admiring the black bookshelf as he sunk into the sofa opposite to the witch.

She turned briefly and shot him a stern look. He was wearing black trousers and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the first few buttons undone. His hair was matted and ruffled, in a way it never was at Hogwarts. In the golden embers of the fireplace, he almost looked serene.

But Hermione knew better.

Even from the dim firelight, she saw the black edges of his tattooed evil on his left forearm, which, at the moment was tossed causally over the top of the loveseat.

Anger boiled in her gut.

This prat lived while Harry didn't?

It wasn't fair.

Maybe it was because she was thinking of Voldemort's divided soul, or maybe it was Malfoy's comfortable demeanor and her quick visual reminder of just how evil he was, but she felt like having a row with the blond Slytherin. Even though she knew he did not want to be in this predicament either, she needed to take her anger out on someone.

It just made sense.

"But you're going to. You always sit here self-righteously every night like you're my father or something, like I'm going to run off again when I thought I already made it clear that it wouldn't happen. And you stare at me like I'm the most interesting thing on the planet. Then when I catch you starting at me, you pretend like you were looking at the fireplace or something equally as uninteresting. But I'm not crazy, and I know you are strangely fixated on me, and don't think that you are hiding it because you are very obvious, Malfoy."

She heard an affronted scoff that was not at all as angry as she expected. He almost sounded as if it were instead the response to an old friend's sarcastic joke.

"Right Granger, and I have a shrine dedicated to you locked up in my room. Maybe I should also mention the fact that I write down the number of breaths you take every night. I've got a chart in the kitchen, you see, to help keep track. I like to follow the Dark Lord's order's very closely-"

"Shut up! Its not funny, Malfoy!" she spat, balling her shaking hands into fists. "You're a sick bastard. Stop staring at me. And for that matter, stop coming here at night; I can take care of myself."

There was a silence as Hermione stared down at the green carpet, her breaths labored from the strain of awaiting Draco's inevitable explosion.

It never happened.

"Nope, sorry Granger," he said, briskly, almost cheerfully, as if he was trying to stifle a laugh.

If there was one thing that Hermione hated, it was when people discounted her emotions as a big joke. And that fact he was Malfoy, only made it worse.

"Got to make sure you don't get into any more sodding trouble," he continued. "I know it likes to follow you and that you like to find it at all costs, so I think its better to make sure you continue to make the wonderful life choices that you have been making recently."

"Selfish prick."

"Stupid mudblood."

"Get new material, Malfoy."

"Go get Potter and Weasley back, mudblood."

"Go get your father back, then." As soon as Hermione said it, she didn't even need to face him to know she hit a nerve.

"You know fucking nothing about my father, so don't you dare open your mouth as if you're an expert on anything that happens in this house-"

"Well I know he is not here. There is a Narcissa and a Draco, but something is missing. I'm sure if he were around, he would have been up here countless times to harass me and throw pathetic insults my way every occasion he got. But I haven't seen him since I got here. He's left your mother hasn't he?"

"None of your damn business, Granger."

"What is it? Is he embarrassed of you lot? Because of me?"

"Granger, I will not tell you again. Do not discuss my father. Ifyou do not chose to stop, I will make you stop," Hermione could practically envision him reaching into his pocket to finger his wand behind her back.

It was her time to scoff.

"So nowadays you are jumping to use magic? Don't you think that would have been a bit more useful when you tried to kill Dumbledore that night in the Astronomy tower? It certainly would have saved you some time. I heard you spent quite a bit of that time crying. If you ask me, you should have cut straight around to the killing curse-"

She was so fixated on soft material of the velvet curtains directly in front of her, that she didn't notice Draco jolt out of the chair and saunter over to her, until she felt his hand grip the back of her neck.

He pulled her up firmly so that they were facing each other eye to eye, and waves of fresh panic coursed through Hermione's body.

Draco looked more infuriated than she had ever seen him, more enraged than their first fight and all of their subsequent fights at Hogwarts combined. A small blue vein in his chalky white forehead was throbbing and his teeth were bared like a rancid dog.

He was still gripping the back of her neck; not tightly, but tight enough to let her know she would not be able to brush him off without a fight.

"If I were you, I would watch what I say," he growled, every word forming a gust of tight warm air against her cheek. "I won't say it again. My father and my past experiences with the Dark Lord are none of your business. You are correct: no, he is not here, but that is all that you need to know. Understand?"

Hermione's breath hitched in fear as she realized a snarky remark would be unwise. She nodded in compliance.

"Good. Will you try to toss around insults about my father or what happened in sixth year in the future?"

Hermione gulped and shook her head timidly. She prayed to Merlin that her eyes would not meet his.

She could feel them on her, invading every pore, every freckle, and every line carefully, as if daring her to say something.

His grip felt like an iron clamp on the back of her neck. It was firm but somehow not painful.

She felt one last breath of warm air before he lowered his hand and shoved past her to return to the loveseat in the same laid-back position as before as if nothing happened.

Hermione's knees were weak. She was shaking all over, and as she tried to regain her balance, she grew light-headed. She could still feel the warm whisper of his breath against her skin and the imprint of his hand on the back of her neck left her feeling flushed.

She promised herself since the day he carried her carefully back to the Manor in his arms that she would never be that physically close to him again.

She was proving herself wrong constantly since Harry and Ron died.

"You're mental," she whispered, so quietly, she didn't think he could hear.

"Institutionalized, " he sneered, throwing his arm back over the top of the sofa and smirking.

Hermione crawled back onto the bed and sat cross-legged directly in the middle, causing the silk sheets to ripple around her.

They both regarded each other for a few private moments.

"You know, Muggles have all kinds of schools of thoughts about people like you," Hermione said, adjusting her body order to sit cross-legged.

"Oh do they?" he mimicked in a high-pitched voce that did not resemble Hermione's at all. "Please tell me more because I am dying-"

"You have all kinds of pathological personalities," she continued inquisitively, resting her chin in her hand. "You know, I really do feel bad for you-"

"Well I'm not the one who is going to be licked by the Dark Lord, so you shouldn't be the one feeling bad, Granger," he said briskly, glaring into the fireplace.

"While that may be true, I just thought you would like to know that you are a completely neurotic individual. I mean, look at any major psychologist, no matter how outdated their work is considered. You fit the criteria for an unhealthy person on all accounts. Freud, Jung, Maslow… oh dear Malfoy, they would have had a field day if they had met someone like you. You are a walking psychological experiment in the flesh. "

"Granger, I don't give damn about your Muggle bullshit-"

"Right, of course you don't. You probably think that the theories are unsupported because they were created by Muggles, and that they can't be applied to wizards like yourself because they are somehow 'Muggle only'. Well, I assure you that human nature is the same no matter who you are, or where you come from."

"Hmm mmmh," he offered halfheartedly, closing his eyes. He looked somehow more tired than he usually did during his nightly visits.

What was he up to?

He leaned back almost peacefully in the loveseat; his demeanor in stark contrast to the fiery outburst he had minutes before.

Hermione shook her head.

Absolutely neurotic.

"You know which theorist's work comes to mind when I think of you?" she offered, narrowing her eyes at his relaxed figure.

"Hmm?" he purred a second time.

Hermione grind her teeth and glared at him.

"Karen Horney. She is one of the most famous Neo-Freudian psychologists of the 20th century. She did extensive research about the neurotic personality. Meaning, she discovered all kinds of research about sick bastards like you. I have been thinking. I think you have a neurosis for moving against people."

Draco said nothing.

"Translation, you are a selfish prick-"

"You already said that Granger," he said in a bored voice, eyes still shut.

"No, let me finish. Horney theorized that people who think this way try to control, hurt, and manipulate others to make themselves feel better about how truly pathetic they are. People like that are so afraid of being hurt by other people that they try to hurt everyone else before others hurt them. They want to be the best and the brightest, and in order to cover up their insecurities, they manipulate and exploit others. I see it again and again in you. You took advantage of all your Slytherin cronies at school to get what you wanted, and you were constantly degrading and harassing my friends to make yourself feel better. You hurt other people to exalt yourself and hide your own fears."

Her short speech left another silence in the air of the spare bedroom.

She realized this silence was due to fact that Draco was actually thinking about her statements, trying to pick them apart in his mind.

He was listening to her.

It made her flush with surprise. Based on his earlier reactions, she assumed he would automatically dismiss her, especially since her whole speech was drenched in examples of his own shortcomings.

Him listening to her was not in alignment with his personality at all.

"I guess if I'm that way," he started slowly, opening his eyes. "Then you're that way too."

Hermione made a terse sound of disbelief.

"Oh come off it. Disregarding the fact that you knew nothing about post-Freudian psychology until I brought it up tonight, calling me a 'moving against people' neurotic is a bit of a stretch. Don't take the blame off yourself and try to shove it onto me-"

"By you labeling me with all this bullshit, aren't you taking the responsibility off yourself and your own actions by instantly assuming they don't apply to you-"

"Well they don't! I do not try to hurt people to make myself feel better, or manipulate people -"

"Is that so?" he snapped. "Then what was all the bitching about when I walked into the room earlier? I wasn't the one who started this argument, Granger. You came at me, wands blazing, like a mad-witch. And you manipulated the house-elf for your escape. You're frustrated about your circumstances so you take it on me, even though you know that I did not choose to have you as much as you didn't chose me! You openly ignore that I have been on my best behavior, apart from times where you have started with me first. And not to mention all this 'don't rape me, don't, touch me, don't look at me funny' shit you keep going fucking on about. Its like you want to portray me as some evil monster and make me feel disgusted with myself before I can actually hurt you. Like you said, neuro-whatever people try and hurt others before others can hurt them."

Hermione's mouth went dry, and for some reason a loose string of forest green silk became rather interesting.

Merlin.

In her entire life, no one she knew had ever done that to her before. Taken one of her arguments and turned it upside down in front of her face. Sirius Black came close during her third year when explaining the circumstances of how he came to he imprisoned in the Shrieking Shack, but this was so different.

So personal.

She reluctantly admired her companion's wit.

Don't let the long blond eyelashes and angular cheekbones fool you anymore; Draco Malfoy is clever wizard.

"I think we can agree to disagree," she said swiftly, climbing off the bed to the side facing the adjacent wall, scooping up her adopted journal.

"Set, match," Malfoy said, and she could almost picture the smirk on his pointy face.

For some reason, the image of his troublesome grin was not as upsetting as it was when she pictured him a few weeks ago in her post-war nightmares.

Something below her stomach burned at the thought of someone outwitting her, yet she couldn't explain what or why that was.

.


.

Things fell into an almost familiar pattern as days turned into weeks and June brought the warmest weather of the year.

Hermione was not allowed to partake in any of the new sunshine other than walking with Sonny about the grounds, but it was better than being locked inside completely.

In the mornings, she woke up, waited until she heard Draco's door slam as an indicator that he left for the Ministry before crawling out of bed and curling into Draco's love seat with a book. She figured if she was going to be stuck in the Manor for the time-being, she might as well make her way through the collection.

She showered around noon and pulled Narcissa's dress robes on, which were now enchanted to fit a few sizes smaller. Not perfect, but a start.

She would spend the rest of her day reading and writing, either on the bedroom floor or outside in the mid-summer heat, trying her best to preserve whatever shred of sanity she had left.

She told Sonny about all her adventures at Hogwarts, her parents, and about the countless things she learned from books.

She tried her best to keep her thoughts off Draco, but images of the blond wizard slipped into her mind during all hours of the day, even before his nightly visits to her bedroom.

What started off as an hour, which started at around eight at night, began to last longer and longer as the pair's heated conversations kept them throwing insults until past midnight on various occasions.

After work followed by dinner with his mother, he would find his way to her room where the bickering would begin, but it never again progressed to the point where he grabbed her. Though they would never admit it, they both liked it better this way.

Things were becoming, as strange as it sounded, almost normal. But they were not going to stay that way for long.

Because on one warm Friday night, Draco pulled open Hermione's bedroom door and wordlessly slipped into his corner next to the bookshelf, studying her profile with pursed lips. He had news.

As he drunk in her flushed cheeks and her eyes, which were concentrated on whatever book was tucked away in her lap, he felt that annoying yet inescapable feeling of connectedness and affection that he had been struggling to avoid since the night she tried to escape.

He scolded himself when he started indulging in these feelings, but inevitably he would find his way back to that hypnotizing weakness in his chest…back to her.

He was caught between wanting to be connected to another person and wanting to be completely isolated from the world.

He hated it.

"Today's my birthday," he said, feeling a strange wave of satisfaction when she jolted in surprise, snapped the notebook shut, and threw it out of her lap as if it were covered in pus.

"Stop scaring me like that," she hissed, giving him a wary look from her spot on the ground.

"I said today is my birthday,"

"I heard you," she responded, shoving a loose strand of brown hair behind her ear. Something burned in Draco's chest, and, for some reason, he wanted to see her do the simple action again. "What do you want me to do, throw a birthday party for you? These are not the best circumstances-"

"My mum gave me a present-"

"As parents tend to do on birthdays. Again, uninteresting-"

"I thought you would like to know because it involves you," he said quietly, watching her eyebrows rise in surprise.

"How so, may I ask?" her tone laced with disbelief.

"My parents have a cottage in the Scottish countryside. They let me have it – no, let me finish," he growled, squashing her approaching interruption. "And my mother seems to think it would be a good idea if we moved there, together, until…well, you know. And I kind of agree with her."

Hermione said nothing.

He was doing it again.

He was saying things in that completely earnest and sincere voice that made her feel almost forced to trust him. How was she supposed to resist him when he talked to her like that? Like they were equals, like he could be trusted?

As disgusting as it was, she would follow him to the other side of the moon when he said things like that. When he talked to her as if blood was not a factor at all, as if she was not stuck here, and as if she was not his property.

It felt right.

But Hermione would never allow herself to say such frivolous things out loud.

"I mean, of course you can stay here with my mum if you like, but I think you would find it more pleasant if you got a change of scenery and all. You know, since this place probably has shitty memories and all."

He had thought about her and her wants?

Odd.

"I mean, it's just a thought," he rambled. "It doesn't mean anything. And it certainly doesn't change anything,"

But it did.

Draco stayed with her as he usually did that night, this time in silence as Hermione was engrossed with her own thoughts. She didn't feel like arguing.

It would be her and Draco, alone in a cottage. As miserable as the image was, something about it still seemed exciting and exhilarating. Considering the fact that her life had been reduced to a reality under the Malfoy's watchful eyes, the option of leaving the manor for the countryside seemed almost like a permanent vacation away from the misery that was Malfoy Manor.

If Voldemort was going to kill her, she didn't want him to do it here. Not within these walls.

It was the place in which she was tortured. The place where she awoke in the first days of her life without Ron and Harry. It was the place she had failed to escape.

Yet it was etched into her skin much like the prejudiced slur on her forearm. It was a permanent dark part of her history. Leaving symbolized a renewal.

The fact that Draco knew that made Hermione start to question some of her basic assumptions, including those revolving around her feelings about him. Anyone that aware of another human being was worthy of, at the very least, her admiration. Maybe more.

When Draco got up to leave several hours later, Hermione was pushed by some invisible force to do something so incredibly out of character.

"Hang on," she mumbled, and, much to her surprise, he stopped.

He raised his eyebrows and eyed her suspiciously.

" Um, Happy… Happy Birthday, Draco," she said. And she meant it.

She wasn't sure if it was just a trick of the firelight, but she thought she saw him smile before clicking the door shut.

.


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Yaay! New chapter! So excited to hear your thoughts!

School has been the bitch from hell so sorry for the lateness! (I thought I would have time to write during Spring Break, but laziness took over).

I changed my summary as well because I realized most of this fic is DM-POV, so let me know if it is okay!

Thanks to arosesinnocence for beta-ing! And for all my reviews so far! 200 plus story alerts and favorites. I am not worthy :,)

-marrymealittle