The tragedy of war was that it never truly ended. Not really. There was no clean break, no way to sweep the debris—the hatred and resentment—under the rug and start afresh. The mourning never stopped, and neither did the lingering desire, in some, for revenge. It left them foaming at the mouth.
Hermione had read about the deaths of several turncoats at the hands of those embittered. They were seen as the worst sort of traitors to a cause that forgave nothing, and many were killed without recourse. It wasn’t until she read one name, however, that the icy grip around her heart contracted. Astoria Malfoy—and her unborn child—were struck down in the middle of Diagon Alley, after shopping with her mother. It was a message, the cruellest kind. The culprit was shown in photographs covering The Daily Prophet, grinning maniacally at the flashing cameras as she was dragged away.
It may have been a war, but all Hermione could think was that no one person could be expected to absorb that much loss and bear to walk the earth. Alive and alone. She thought, though she would never say it aloud, that the living were the victims. Death brought peace to all who suffered it, and the weight of their loss hung like chain around their loved ones' necks.
The second time she walked the white stone path to the vast gates of the Manor at Wiltshire was the day of his wife’s funeral. He hadn’t invited her, but she had felt the need to come all the same. The intent behind her actions, and the desire to be there, was beyond what she could divine. It was that pattern again, creeping into her life and tying her to him. Even though she knew she was somehow succumbing to it, she knew that she had to hold up her end. Whatever that was.
He was blinding white amid the sea of grey faces and sombre black attire. Her eyes unfailingly watched for every tick that moved across his face; the image of mourning was somehow morbidly fascinating to her. An urge, unwelcome though it was, to move through the clambering figures and to reach up and smooth fingers across the fair planes of his face, welled within.
Though his gaze never once moved from the engraved marble, she knew he was aware of her presence. When the droves of people left, clasping firm hands on his shoulder and whispering words of sorrow in his ear, she moved to stand beside him. They stood for an eternity. And it wasn’t until the heaven’s outcry, a deluge of rain that fell around them, had soaked them to their skin that he headed back indoors. She followed.
When they shivered by the fire, drying charms having stolen the moisture from their bodies but not alleviated the chill, she looked at him and felt her heart thump in her chest. Perhaps it was some innate desire to relieve him of something she could recognise, or perhaps it was because she knew that someone had to and there was no one else, not for him. All she knew was that the invisible threads that had bound her to him had cinched her ever closer.
It was like a renewed sense of purpose she hadn’t felt in a long time: a distorted dream she half remembered. She only knew that for all the times he’d saved her, she would save him back. She would sit by the fire and fill up the silence with her presence, so that it wouldn’t be empty. He didn’t deserve that sort of emptiness. It seemed absurd that they had come to a point in their lives in which she thought him deserving of anything. Yet there they were.
It was a while before he seemed to truly acknowledge her continued presence in his house, to come out of himself enough to rudely request she leave. She wouldn’t though. He spent his time in a sea of pain-dulling liquor, and she spent hers in finding new ways to hide the bottles. She also whiled away the hours in wandering the corridors and sneaking glimpses of the ornate rooms of the Manor, and in reading by the hearth.
The day he put down his bottle, albeit momentarily, and turned to her to speak, she felt her stomach squeeze in response. She wasn’t surprised by the words he spoke, the demands that fell from his entitled tongue. She had been expecting them, yet hoping somehow that he was a stronger sort of person than she. As it turned out, no one was. Not in the face of such temptation.
Hermione had hidden the book, snuck into the extensive library one afternoon and prowled the shelves until she found it. The little book in its worn leather casing: the one that still made her heart thump with remembered yearning. It was a phantom desire, brought on only by the memory of the pain that was, at the time, so piercing in its quality.
She could see it in his eyes, the way that burning need engulfed him. He had been the one to make her see the truth, the danger of the secrets held within its pages. He had been the one to sit with her, to make her stay among the living and not dwindle into sorrow and dance with the spirit of her loved one. He couldn’t see that now though, couldn’t see the logic and the truth. He wanted only to have the chance to look upon the pale arch of her neck, and see the way his wife’s eyes gazed upon him. Hermione hated to be the one to tell him no. In the end it didn’t matter. He found it on his own.
And she found him on the hill, in the early hours of the morning. His eyes were trained on the narrow space between the two charred mounds of wood, remnants of the fires. They were watching for movement, for the ghost of her, but there was only smoke and wind by then.
‘It’s not real,’ she told him. His vacant gaze seemed to stare right through her.
The problem, she knew, was that regardless of reality, it felt real.
In the early days when she watched him it was like willing life into a corpse. It made her wonder if she was like that, impervious to reality and the outstretched hands of help. Her suspicion that she had been became one of the primary reasons why she refused to give up on him. It didn’t matter what her friends said about it, in tentative voices that showed their fear of her relapsing.
She wouldn’t though, for she’d found solace in another. And day by day she breathed life back into his vacant shell. He didn’t ignore her anymore, but seemed instead to expect her presence, bustling around and telling him what to do. The day he stopped accepting it, and raised his voice to cow her own was the day that her heart quivered anew and her knees began to buckle. He was there, chipping away at the walls around him and letting the light peek through. It wasn’t every day, but it was some and with each new one she fought tirelessly for another. And another.
When they argued, she laughed. It was a foreign sound in the vast house, and almost unrecognisable to each of them. It was a rich and uncontrolled sound that rose higher and higher, causing his now sentient gaze to narrow. When she laughed, he shouted and told her to leave. She wouldn’t and he tried forcibly to make her. A firm grip around her wrists, his nose pressed firmly into hers.
Go. The whispered demand. Never. Her solemn vow.
Each time the shared breath, and the heat that jumped from him to her and back again, was like a red flag. Something in Hermione wanted to charge ahead. But he always released her tender wrists and backed away to his corner, the tucked in safety of his mind. Her memory always haunting.
It wasn’t until fingers pulled hard at the length of her hair, and his lips bruised her own that she realised it was precisely what she wanted. No. Needed. Her hands clawed at him, pulling him closer so that his chest braced her own and the thudding of their hearts created a tempo that pulsed right through her. It had started the same way it had every other time, when the threat of crossing the line and giving in was there, but somehow harnessed. It wasn’t on that particular evening; it was unleashed with a fury that left them both shattered and spineless on the expensive rug that lined his entry hall.
It formed a new pattern, more binding than the last.
When they came together it was a roaring deep within, a volatile collision of broken spirits and hunger-fuelled bodies. The crescendo made them forget. It made them rise up together and drown in the thick and luscious cloud of each other. It was relief and punishment all at once. The rise before the fall. And they always did. With a crash.
When she was alone with her thoughts they were like barbs pricking into her skin and the memory of Ron. Her sweet Ron. It seemed a crime, when she was away from the pull of it all, to drown her sorrows in him. And yet, though she could never forget Ron, never not love him, she suffered through it.
Somehow it was necessary. Like breathing.
She wasn’t certain when it had begun. At times she thought maybe it was at the very beginning, when she would look at him in the dark corridors, walking alone, and wonder. Or perhaps it was more recent, a gradual breaking down of preconceptions about the person that he was, whoever he’d become. She hated to think that person was lost to the grief. She could save him.
Perhaps it was the justification she needed in order to come undone in his eyes, to feel the warmth of a body against her and the steady thrum of a heartbeat. Because when they came together with a crash, he wasn’t the only one who came to life. She did too. All senses seemed to snap and the burn of oxygen in her lungs and the singing of her blood made her feel no longer bound to earth.
After a while they stopped pretending they didn’t want it or need it. After a while he wouldn’t leave the room, revert back into himself. He would let her lie with him and accept the gentle touches of her hand on his bare chest. After a while, she rather thought he came to need that too.
Transference was what the healers called it. At least that was what Harry told her gently when he finally voiced his long harboured concerns about her time spent with Malfoy. Apparently the fair-haired beacon in the blackened fabric of her days was nothing more than a replacement for Ron. A vessel to fill the void. The accusation was both agonisingly true and so completely wrong all at once.
Malfoy did fill her hours, her thoughts, and her very world with his presence. He ate slowly at the space filled up with memories of Ron and other times, happy times. He had become a primary concern. That did concern her, but not enough to stop.
Yet, though he did all these things, he was not and could never be a replacement, she knew. They were so inherently different, Ron and he. She revelled in those disparities. Perhaps that was because she was different too now. Altered by the war and things she’d seen and done. She wasn’t made for the kind of rosy-hued and youthful purity of the love she’d had before. Hermione Granger was a bit too broken for that. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to soar with the wind and dance in the sun. She wanted to watch the yellow light gleam across his hair, and his lips to curve upward when he looked at her.
She thought that, maybe someday, they would.
Hope was the crusher of spirits. She’d never been a pessimist, because in the world she lived in—with what had loomed ahead—hope was the only thing that had kept them going. Now it seemed only to torment her with what she couldn’t have.
As the days crawled closer to that night, when the sky seemed to fill with the blood orange aura of Samhain, she grew ever more restless. So did he. She hoped fervently that she was enough, though they never put their relationship into words, it was enough for her. It was everything to her.
But he always held back. Even when he looked at her at times, she wondered at the direction of his thoughts when his pupils dilated and he seemed to be somewhere else. Hermione constantly worried that she wasn’t enough, that she would always be to Malfoy what Harry was so convinced he was to her. A vessel.
Yet there were other times when he would look at her, his gaze washing her in clear and knowing grey. She knew then that he saw her and her alone. And she wished that she could bottle up those moments, trap them in her chest and make them the truth.
As it happened, her fears were the only sort of truth that lingered in the vast halls of the Manor. When the last night of October did arrive, and she lay wrapped in sheets and him, she let her eyes fall closed and her breathing ease. And when he thought she was finally asleep, she felt the shifting of limbs as he moved from the bed.
She was bereft; lungs burning and old wounds coming undone at the seams.
It seemed so appropriate that the first time she went to the pretty green knell on the far reaches of the property surrounding the Burrow that spring was with her. It filled the air with that light floral scent called optimism, the scent of a future. And, if one was feeling particularly hopeful, a happy one. She wanted that.
In the years since Ron’s death, the only time she had come to visit him here, where he now resided, was at his funeral. And she had blocked out that memory with a fierceness that still made the day hard to recall. She was letting go. Not forgetting, never that, but she didn’t want him caged within her, struggling to be free.
The flowers around the pale stone marker were blooming, bursts of scent erupting from within the safety of their petals, like a welcoming hello. The light wind tickled her hair and wrapped her in its earthy embrace. And she felt light, like the barest of feathers floating on the back of the breeze. There was something of peace in being there, and it made her wonder why she’d never come before.
It was human psychology, she supposed, because even when she had known he was never coming back, had truly acknowledged it, the act of seeing his grave was beyond reckoning. She’d thought for so long that she was fine, that she could reach into the dark parts of her and find them healed. It wasn’t strictly true. She could only hope that now there would be a chance, a gleaming beacon of light in the future towards which she could stride.
Denial about the trajectory her life had taken meant that she’d spent the last few years cloistered away, feasting on imagined truths. But now, she knew, was the time for the sun. Now was the time to walk bare foot on the grass, with the yellow light blindingly bright against her eyelids. She’d walk it alone, she knew, if she must.
She didn’t want that though. She wanted a strong pale hand around her own. She wanted to revel in the glory of that mercurial gaze that made her heart start beating once again, well before she’d known it could. She wanted Draco Malfoy in the sunshine with her, away from the dark and festering corners of his home where everything they did together was a secret and a shame.
It took small steps, Hermione knew. Little ones that lead from here to there and back again. And though she was ready to leap into oblivion, she’d tread softly and surely for him, if that was what it took. She told herself that she would wait. A while. But not forever.
October 31st 2004, Present Day
She’s dreaded this night, knowing that it will be the one that answers the unspoken questions that she has. And she wonders if he knows that too.
Her eyes are closed to the vision of him leaving. But she can see, behind closed lids and formed of familiarity, the curve of his back and the bunched muscle beneath a sheath of white skin. She knows the lines of him perfectly, knows them like she knows her own.
When she feels the warmth of his breath on her cheek, and the firm pressure of his kiss, she thinks her heart breaks again. Not the chip, chip of before. This time it’s ragged and red and pulsing. She’s a mass of poorly sewn parts in that moment. And she knows now that she’s not enough. Not for him. Because she’s not her. The pretty witch that was his future, now his past, his present, his every thought.
He spares none for Hermione.
She knows this because if he did, after all of this time, he wouldn’t be leaving their bed to go to that sacred place and watch the pearly white face of another. If he did he’d wrap Hermione closer still, kiss her shoulder and remind her that she’s the one. She’s flesh and blood and his. And that it’s enough. They’re enough. They are for her.
His footsteps barely creak on the highly polished floorboards, and the door hisses open and closed to signify his departure. Her eyes, dark and wide, fly open and fall upon the cold light of the moon which casts its glow across their bed. His bed. It’s not hers any longer, and maybe it never was.
Hermione’s just a presence in his house. A person who was never invited and who hasn’t left. She’s nothing more than a balm to his wounds, a distraction until the time comes to see the one he does love. The one that’s a canker to his soul, eating him inside then out. She never likes to think badly of the dead, but she hates that transient smoke of memory that is his wife, and how she taints every room of this house with her presence.
Ice clutches around her heart and she tries to ignore the bone-locking chill. She pushes her hair from her face and sits up, her shoulders pushed back with the righteousness they barely recognise. She’s not infallible, it seems. And though she’s stubborn, she knows a lost cause when she sees one.
Her feet are cold as they tip onto the floor. Her movements are rigid and her fingers are numb, uncooperative. She gathers her things with a haste that has been absent for some time. She wants to do this quick, like a splinter in his thumb; she wants to remove herself entirely. Stave infection. When she’s clothed and her eyes have had their fill of the room, she walks with purpose through the corridors and down the sweeping staircase. Hermione wonders whether he’ll come for her. She doesn’t want him to, and yet she does all the same.
Her attention is caught by the sound of movement in the library and the glow that seeps like a golden liquid from beneath the closed door. She wants to leave now, to turn her back and be stoic. She’s not though; she never was. When her fingers brush the door it falls open with ease.
And he’s there. A vision of light in the otherwise darkness. His face is turned away from her, but he tenses at the sound of her entrance.
‘You’re leaving ... I wondered when you would.’ The cadence of his voice, low and rough, acts like metal grating her open wounds.
It’s quiet, but for the crackling at the hearth and the sound of it is familiar. The light it casts across him is also. It makes her think of beginnings, back when the pattern forged and he started to mean something important. He’s not merely important now; he’s the life she knows. It’s not really life though. It’s another form of death, murky dark and hidden. And she won’t live like that any longer.
‘I’m not her,’ she says finally. ‘I’m not Astoria.’
He turns to look at her then, his brow furrowed. Hermione isn’t certain what she should think about him being here. There’s that wretched thing, hope, which niggles in her veins like a poison, polluting her resolve. It means something, the fact that he’s sitting here and not where she thought he was, bare feet in the grass and gaze staring through the fog for another.
She feels her feet moving toward him without her permission. She craves to run her curious fingers across the high arch of his cheek bones, to press into the fine corn silk of his hair. She wants to run her mouth on a quest across his shoulders, to taste the salt of his skin on her tongue. Mostly she wants to hold him, stroke him and whisper softly in his ear. She wants him to whisper back. Hermione. Her name sung sweetly around words of reassurance and promise. He doesn’t make promises though; she knows this and yet the fervent wish has never abated.
‘I know,’ he whispers back. It cuts like a blade through her skin. She always thought she was hard, like armour from her battles. He’s made her realise she’s not. She’s soft and malleable.
She doesn’t know what to say to that, so she turns to leave because she must. He’s beautiful in the eerie light of the library. It casts him in its ethereal, pearly glow. Its familiarity makes her ache, and the knowledge of her goodbye is pain. Not the sort of pain she felt when Ron was gone, because she has her memories of him, untainted and untarnished by his death. But Draco is different. She knows that when she walks the cobble-stone paths that he will be somewhere with his feet treading the earth as well.
His hand catches hers as she turns, and she stops. She can feel the swirling motions his fingers make in patterns on her palm, and she wants to read stories in their shapes. She turns to watch as his firm lips press against her wrist. Her breath catches in her throat.
‘You’re nothing like her,’ his mouth tells her hand. ‘Soft. Warm. That’s the thing about you that …’ He pauses, and so does her breathing. ‘You need to go now … if you are. I won’t watch.’ There’s a crack in his voice which cuts through the layers of entitlement that colour his words.
The sound of her throat swallowing seems to fill up the room with noise. Hermione turns to go because she knows she should. Despite the pretty words he almost spoke, and the hint of a promise that lingered there, she thinks it won’t change. They’ll descend back into the murky undertow that never ceases to capture them. They aren’t healthy; they aren’t functional.
It’s ironic. After all, she struggles to breathe when she thinks of walking out the door. She thinks dysfunction is life without him. A sorry state of affairs.
She can only blame the little things: the stepping stones that led from there, that time when they were disparate and he was a stranger, to here. Small gestures. A blanket thrown over her form in the cold, dark room. The choice: her life. His firm grip hauling her from the flames. Her standing next to him in the rain. A voice in his ear, comforting whispers. Lips and teeth and hands and tongues. Words, soft and loud. Laughter in the silence, then tears. Her name. His name. Burning lungs and thudding hearts.
Her fingers caress the door knob, and the air steals from the room as it opens in her wake. And then she closes it again. It is enough, after all. For him. For her. They’re enough.
His face is still turned, and she sees the shudder that ripples through him at the closing of the door. She’s back then, and her fingers reach down to where he’s sitting to brush a streak across his cheek. His eyes, as they turn to hers, are wide and open, and then they narrow as he speaks.
‘I’m not him either.’ And though the words are harshly spoken, she understands his meaning. He brings her close then, wraps her up and pulls her to him. His skin is warm, the pulsing of blood, heated in his veins. Alive. Her fingers push and pull at the fabric of him, and she wants to slip inside of him, swim and revel in his skin.
Her lips frame his, and she kisses away his fears. She wants to tell him that she knows he’s not, that she doesn’t want him to be. And though she won’t tell him today, she knows there is tomorrow. And maybe she’ll tell him then.