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CHAPTER FORTY

Hermione rapped lightly on the door, body already half-twisted toward her and Draco's room across the hall. She waited one beat, then another, and lifted her foot to move away when she heard a distant shuffle, then a creak.

From inside the room, there was another shuffle. "Ron?" Harry called from the other side of the door.

Hermione glanced down the hall once more toward the closed-door of her sole sanctuary, still debating whether she had enough time to disappear into it before Harry cracked open the door to see who stood outside of it himself. Of course the space that had once been reserved for her — the natural candor with which his voice would call out her name in easy succession to Ron's, guarded for anyone else — had long since been closed off, swallowed in a cold pit of betrayal.

"It's Hermione," she said, her voice faltering to a whisper as she spoke her own name. It felt like a curse to utter it to Harry's vears. The way he reacted to her presence had barely abated, the revulsion dampened by the necessity of their cooperation as they fought against a greater cause. But in the quiet moments — such as these, where they simmered together in the buildup toward the end — she would catch glimpses of raw disgust gleaming in his emerald eyes.

It was one of many things that kept her up at night.

There was a low tin of metal scraping against metal as the doorknob rattled and then turned, swinging open just slightly enough for her to be able to step inside. She hesitated for a moment before she did, stepping into the low light of the room to find Harry at the desk across from her, his back to her.

"Has Malfoy thought of something else we have to plan for?" he said, his voice monotonous.

Hermione twisted her wedding ring around her finger, her fingers twitching with the movements. "No, I…" She trailed off, eyes flicking back up to where he was still hunched over the desk, seemingly immobile. "I just came to speak with you."

"To speak with me." A shiver rolled through her body at his tone, the sting of his words lingering within her in the long moment after she processed them. Words spoken with a questioning edge, tinged with the confusion as to why she had come to do so. That, under laid with a bitterness that she wondered if they would ever fully heal from.

"I just—" She felt ridiculous even voicing the words she'd come to speak, the rift between them feeling impenetrable despite how close she was to him in the small room. "I never stopped loving you — I never stopped considering you as my best friend, even if it's difficult to believe now."

Silence. Silence that stretched for so long that it pained her to keep staring at his unmoving back. She had suffered through so many of these prolonged silences, each as painful as the last. Perhaps each is deserved as the last, each memory of reminder of the truth of good deeds rarely going unpunished.

It was when she started to shuffle backward, half twisted toward the door that he spoke. "It hurts this badly because I know that what you said is true."

Pinpricks of pain darted up her chest. "Harry, I…"

He stood abruptly, turning to her. His features were softened by the candlelight, yet the unbridled rage that contorted his face was unmistakable. "Because you made a choice. Dumbledore asked you a question, and you made a choice. You're Hermione Granger. You never make a decision without thinking it over a dozen times, and then imagining every potential scenario a dozen more times before you make a decision. But I believe you. I believe you when you say that the meeting happened quickly, that you took only a few moments to make the decision. I believe you when you say that, and that's why it hurts so badly — to know you only needed a few moments of deliberation to pick him over me when you would've taken half a century to decide on anything else."

Hermione's fingers twitched harder as she twisted the ring around her finger faster. She only stopped when Harry's eyes narrowed at it, his entire stature seeming to darken. "It wasn't about a choice. I just knew—" Because she had just known, beyond the logic and facts and urgency of the momentous duty that had been placed before her in that moment— she'd known for reasons beyond what she could articulate that she wouldn't have made any other decision. "I just knew, Harry, for a thousand reasons that I both can and can't explain—"

"Don't lie to me, Hermione—" Harry cut her off, teeth bared as he glared at her.

"I'm not lying. I'm just not telling you what you want to hear."

Harry's mouth had already been opening, and the sound was almost audible as his lips snapped shut, his face flushing with anger.

"I didn't come here to apologize," she said, eyes flicking down to where she now covered her ringed finger with her opposite hand, the large stone digging into her palm. "Somehow I ended up apologizing anyway. It feels instinctual, at this point, for me to do it. It's like putting a plaster over a leaking pipe, but I can't stop. There's a part of me that had hoped that every time I did it would lessen the blow a bit, make it hurt less when you looked at me with nothing but disgust, make it hurt a little less every time you cut me off and treated me like I was nothing for one decision."

"It wasn't just one decision," Harry said. "You're trying to act as if choosing not to help me save our entire population was just one silly decision—"

"I'm not!" Hermione threw her hands up. "I know it wasn't just one decision as well as you know that that's not what I meant. I don't— I don't always say the right thing every time I speak, or the right choices in life. You seem to have forgotten that around your idealizations of the perfect whole you envision the three of us would have made through all of this, had we been together." She softened her voice an octave. "Where would we be, if Draco and I hadn't discovered Bellatrix's horcruxes? Maybe— maybe if things had gone precisely how we wanted them to, then we would have had peace. For how long? The year? Five years? Fifteen years?"

She watched Harry's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed and said nothing.

Hermione stepped forward, unclenching her hand from where it covered her ring tightly. It now glittered in the low candlelight, its beauty is mesmerizing as ever. Harry's eyes were unreadable as they slipped down to it.

Her eyes followed his, landing on the emerald eyes of the snake that adorned her ring finger as a heavily silence stewed between them. She let it stretch on for so long that her voice sounded almost intrusive when she spoke again. "This war is so much bigger than us both, even though it feels like it's all weighing heavily on you. And you know it's not true — that it was easy. You're my best friend. Before we left Hogwarts, you asked me— so many times. If I was alright, if I needed to talk—" Hermione paused, biting her lip hard as she remembered the pleading look in his eyes— "You didn't know why I was falling apart inside over and over again, but you knew. You knew then, just as you know now, that the decision I made wasn't wrong."

Harry's eyes remained fixed on her ring for several beats longer before looking up at her. "If Dumbledore had asked me to marry Ginny— Ginny, who's my—" he paused, sucking in a sharp breath, "I would have stopped. Thought about it, you, Ron—"

"I'm not you, Harry." Her tone was sharp, sharper than she had intended, but it didn't matter. Not when the words themselves cut like a knife, irretrievable once spoken.

"And I'm not you," Harry's tone burned with resentment. "So where does that leave us?"

Hermione stepped back, eyes still holding Harry's. "That depends on you."

X

Hermione pulled the door shut behind her, the low thump of it thudding in time with the way her head pulsed, pain still darting up her chest at the lingering image of Harry's stoic silence as she'd left the room. The pain lingered as it pulsed higher, knotting at the base of her skull—

The pain wasn't solely her own.

Her eyes flew to the closed door to her and Draco's room, heart flying in her chest as she crossed the hall in two quick strides and ripped the door open, pushing into the room. "Draco—"

She stopped short and blinked at the room's other occupant that stood across from Draco, her eyes swinging between where her husband's form bled the terror and anguish that radiated through her skull and back to the woman whose features were a near mirror image of his.

"Narcissa—?" Hermione said, hovering frozen in the doorway. Narcissa's expression was the antithesis of Draco's, a picture of calm in the storm of Draco's despair that clouded Hermione's mind. "I—" she hesitated, fingers clenching the doorknob hard as she fought not to go to Draco. "I'll give you some space." It felt like an intrusion, as if she'd shattered the peace of a moment between mother and son.

Hermione paused her retreat as she caught the way Narcissa's lips curved slightly upward, the movement barely cracking the rest of her features. "You may enter. You are family after all."

The word — family — punctured through the waves of Draco's emotions, startling her eyes away from him and to his mother once more. Family. She'd coexisted on a precipice for so long, teetering on the edge of wife and outsider. The word felt foreign attached to her and the Malfoy name, a lineage that was the antithesis of her very being. And to Draco— the word wasn't enough to convey what he was to her, merely a whisper of what they truly were.

Still, she found herself pulling the door shut, her hand in Draco's a breath later as she crossed the small room in two quick strides. His fingers were limp in hers, the tension that laced his figure all the more prominent with proximity. "Draco?" she breathed. "What's happened?"

He was unresponsive, his eyes still on his mother. It was then that Hermione took in the light travelling cloak that hung over Narcissa's shoulders. Narcissa met the question in Hermione's eyes with a strange glimmer in her own eyes, the look indecipherable.

"I am to return to my husband," Narcissa said curtly.

There was a loud, churning noise in Hermione's ears as she processed the words, the culmination of what they meant cutting through her like jagged glass. All at once she understood the tangle of Draco's emotions in her head, the frozen, stricken position of his frame—

As her mind went blank with shock, the full force of Draco's emotions flooded her. "I— I don't understand—" Her words were choked, forced out around the rawness of Draco's despair and panic that clogged her thoughts. Narcissa couldn't go back. Not after what Hermione had done, the ripple effect of her actions that had ended with their violent escape. "Why?"

Narcissa's gaze was steady as her ice-blue eyes met Hermione's, at once serene and burning with sincerity. "Because despite the circumstances as they stand, I still love him."

Clarity forced its way past the storm of Draco's emotions clouding Hermione's mind as her heart clenched at the woman's words. "You're safer with the Order. If you go back, they'll—" she stopped short as a tremor rocked Draco's figure. She squeezed his fingers, her chest tightening. "Please," she begged quietly instead.

Narcissa's eyes drifted to her son before settling back on Hermione's. "Surely you understand," she said, her eyes glinting with understanding, "after all, what wouldn't you do for your own husband?"

Every response that bubbled to her lips in response felt useless in the face of what she felt for Draco— the way everything in her burned at just the thought of him trapped at the Manor— "What about Bellatrix?" Hermione rushed, desperation forcing the question through although she knew that the woman had long since weighed the consequences. "She got away when you took her from the Manor, and— what if she went back— what if she told him—"

Narcissa let out a low, melancholy sound, reminiscent of a scoff. "I know my sister. Surely she went back. But she would not speak of what happened, either. Not with what I know."

Hermione didn't need to press Narcissa for what she knew, the memory of the woman writhing on the ground under the shockwaves of her sister's torture forever branded in Hermione's memory. A pain she knew herself all too well. She forced back the memories of blinding-hot pain as she thought back to that night, desperate to find a detail that would make Narcissa reconsider, a witness besides Bellatrix and Lucius that would ensure her death upon her return, anything to make her stay for the the sake of—

It hit her then, her eyes flying back to meet Narcissa's as the depth of emotion reflected there painted her a heartbreakingly clear picture. Narcissa loved her husband— but she loved her son more. She would risk everything to go back if it meant saving the Order— and thus saving him — even only seconds. This was the culmination of everything she'd undertaken when she'd accepted Dumbledore's proposal, a decision that she would never deviate from.

Draco knew this too, she realized. It was why his pain pulsed through their bond like an open wound, his grief choking him into a pained silence. Hermione looked up at him, her jaw trembling at the raw emotion his figure bled as his eyes remained locked onto his mother.

"Please," He breathed his first word since Hermine had entered weakly, the word barely loud enough to make it to Narcissa's ears.

"I may survive yet," Narcissa said. Her blue eyes were on Draco, her mask slipping for the breath of a moment as raw emotion shone through, the inevitability of the situation hanging over them. She stepped closer and raised her hand to squeeze his arm. Her hand lingered as she searched his eyes a moment before she pulled him into her.

Hermione dropped his hand and watched him clutch his mother for what may have been the last time. The moment felt suspended in time for the seconds that it lasted, at once so long that Hermione was able to commit the lines of grief marring Narcissa's face, yet also entirely too short, the time between Narcissa reaching out to him and slipping away and through the door gone in the blink of an eye.

The door closed behind her with a soft click, the silence of the void Narcissa left behind stifling in its enormity. Her throat was clogged equally by the thickness of Draco's despair and all the things she wanted to say before they headed into the crux of all they'd been fighting for. It was a heady mixture of catharsis and pain, knowing they would go together when the time came. He turned to her in a sudden swift movement, reaching up to cup her cheeks as he searched her eyes.

"I can't protect her," he said, his voice strained with the torture that leaked from within him. "But you—" His grey eyes burned, bleeding a mirror of the pain she felt and of her love for him that churned in the depths of her stomach, "I won't let this be the end—I won't—" His voice broke, his promises shattered by the uncertainty that hung over them as they were faced with the unknown.

And then he kissed her. The kiss was bruising, the flames that erupted every time he pressed his lips to hers all consuming as she drank him in. Her arms wound tightly around his neck as his found their way to her waist, ducking under her shirt to roam the skin there. She pressed herself closer to him as their mutual need flared between them, propelling their desperate movements.

"I'll do everything," he murmured against her lips as they pulled away, harsh breaths mingling. "Anything to give you another day—" He kissed her again, lips moving desperately against hers, time slipping away with each moment they stole.

"Anything," her voice broke then too, warbled under the weight of what she felt for him for which words would never properly encompass, "anything."

His hands found their way to her cheeks once more, his eyes roving her features as if committing them to memory. "I love you," he murmured back, his lips brushing softly against hers with every word.

"I love you too," she whispered, pulling him down into another kiss.

X

Hermione watched as the slow ripples that made their way across the lake, illuminated only by the light of the moon that hung above them. It had grown warm enough for them to no longer need their cloaks, yet she longed for the comfort around her shoulders all the same.

"It has to be Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem," Harry said. "What I saw in the Room of Requirement might be our best lead, so we start there." He paused, looking over at Draco. "How certain do you feel that we're right? About any of this?"

There was a long silence. "I don't," Draco answered gruffly. "Do you?"

Harry huffed out a single, empty chuckle. "No."

"What you both described fits what I saw," Hermione said. "You saw it yourself. Draco passed it dozens of times. You can't both be wrong. We have to start somewhere, and this is where we'll try."

Harry nodded, quickly turning to look at where the Marauder's map was rolled in his hand. "We'll take the entrance in the cellar of Honeydukes," Harry said. "It'll lead us into the castle. Three of us can fit under my cloak, so one of us will need to stay and keep watch." He ended his sentence with an awkward lilt, and Hermione heard the shuffle of him kicking his boot in the dirt as he cleared his throat. "Malfoy—"

"No." Draco's voice was sharp as it cut into the night, barely an octave louder than her own as she gripped her husband's hand harder, her own snap of the same word ringing with the same finality his voice did.

Harry sighed. "It's not because it's you. We have to be practical—"

Draco shook his head sharply. "No. You need me. Snape—"

"He will not be helping us," Harry snapped. "Unless you've forgotten that he was the one who killed Dumbledore?"

Draco's fingers twitched in hers. "He took an Unbreakable Vow to protect me."

The sound of Harry's mouth snapping shut was nearly audible to her ears, the harsh line of his lips dramatized by the low moonlight.

Ron had been quiet until then, and Hermione watched as he looked between all of them before running a hand through his hair. "Did he know? About—?" He asked, clearing his throat as he jerked his chin between her and Draco.

"He did," Hermione said, recalling the harsh, practiced way the man had officiated their vows. "I don't know why he ki—" she paused, sucking in a breath as she recalled the sound Dumbledore's body had made as it hit the ground— "but none of it makes sense in light of his allegiances. There are good parts of him. Parts that eclipse the others. Parts that might explain some of what he did—"

"It was murder, Hermione—"

"It was supposed to be me," Draco cut in.

Hermione froze, her eyes swinging to Draco. She hadn't asked about what happened that night, banishing the question from her mind any time conversation turned in the direction of Snape. She knew enough of him to know that the scars of what had happened that night ran deep.

"I was tasked with it, when I was still—" Draco's hands curled at his sides. "Before Granger and I. After, he told me that he'd deal with the issue. I was foolish to think he'd find a way around it. The night when he told me I needed to leave, I deceived him, brought them to the Tower before he could. It would have been suicide to try and off them myself, but I was going to try." The words were more than he'd spoken at once in she knew not how long, his sentence ended unfinished as the word until and the events that had followed it lingered between them, unsaid.

"Dumbledore could have stopped you easily, he could have stopped all of it." Ron ran his hands over his face. "But we're to believe that what? He couldn't? If your mother did all of this to save you from that plot, then he would have known."

Draco shook his head. "I only told Snape the details. I thought he would have warned Dumbledore on his own. It was too late when I realized he wouldn't."

"We won't be harmed, then," Harry said after a tense silence. "If we are with you."

"It's best if we don't make our presence known. Anyone else can still harm us if he doesn't find out and get to us in time."

Harry let out a low scoff. "So do you expect us to waltz right into the headmaster's office once we get there, then?"

"Think of it as insurance," Hermione said. "Regardless, if anyone finds us —" her throat went dry at the prospect, "then they're likely to bring us to him first." She left the rest of her words unsaid, the implications of what would happen if the chosen one were to show up in the middle of Hogwarts hanging in the air between them.

There would be no room for mistakes, feeble insurance or not.

Hermione cleared her throat, her voice still cracking as she spoke. "'I'm not dismissing your pain, Harry," she said, looking over at him. "Our pain. I was near. I saw…." She trailed off, pressing her eyes shut in a slow blink. "Snape is bound by a Vow to protect Draco, which means he must protect me from being killed as well. He likely can't reveal what he knows of the Order, either, because of the risk it poses to us, but..." Hermione hesitated, trailing off.

"But." Harry's tone was flat, the word neither a question nor a statement. "But we are still expendable."

"You aren't expendable, Harry," Hermione said. "You're everything we need to win this war."

"But I am," Ron said.

"Ron," Hermione called softly. "It's not…"

"Don't," Ron cut her off. "Not now. I know my role." The light was faint, but Hermione could still see the way his clenched fists shook, the way his voice trembled slightly as he spoke.

"No." Her voice was firmer this time. "You're more than what you make yourself. You're irreplaceable. Integral to who we are, why we fight."

Hermione flinched as she felt a hand in hers, the feel of it so wrong compared to Draco's that she looked up in shock, ready to pull away when she found Harry at her side, his eyes burning as they bore into hers. Her eyes flickered down to where he held her hand once more, her mind stuttering as she tried to recall the last time someone other than Draco had held it.

"I can't lose you," Harry's voice was a low rumble. "Either of you."

Her hand tightened slowly over Harry's, and he squeezed hers back in tandem. She met his eyes and caught the emotion shining in them. There would be time for her to hug him the way she wanted to later. Later. Laterlaterlater, she chanted inwardly, even though she felt any possibility of a later slipping away with each moment that drew them closer to what they'd been fighting towards.

The words were empty, but Hermione spoke them anyway. "You won't."

Draco stepped closer, taking her free hand as Ron took Harry's. Harry nodded at them one last time. "Let's go."