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CHAPTER ONE

As Hermione Granger ascended the stone steps leading up to Dumbledore's office, she felt an anxious ache bubbling in her chest, propelling forward her mounting trepidation. Her footsteps echoed in the quiet stairwell, and the ascent felt longer than it had the previous times she'd been up there. She had, after all, never been summoned at this time of night, and never with a letter as mysterious as the one she'd received. It was true that Dumbledore himself was a man of mystery, but even this stretched beyond the bounds of actions she'd come to expect from him.

When she finally reached the top of the steps, she swallowed nervously and raised a hand to give the door a tentative knock. Before she could touch it, however, it swung open of its own accord.

"Come in, Miss Granger," Dumbledore sat at his large, ornate desk across from her. "We've been expecting you."

At that, she stepped into the large, circular room, looking about nervously as she observed the fact that they were very much indeed not alone. The room was all the more imposing at night, a mass of sprawling bookshelves and stern-looking portraits that followed her every movement. On this night, however, the room was made all the more imposing by its occupants. Professor McGonagall flanked Dumbledore on one side, her mouth twisted downward in a slight frown, although she gave Hermione a small smile when she met her eyes. On Dumbledore's other side stood Kingsley Shacklebolt, looking as imposing as ever in his Auror robes. He gave her a small nod, and she gave him a tentative smile back. Professor Severus Snape stood behind them, his expression as dark and brooding as ever.

"Do have a seat, Miss Granger," Dumbledore said, gesturing toward one of the high-backed chairs in front of his desk. As she moved to sit, she started, realizing that the other two seats in front of Dumbledore's desk were already occupied.

None other than Draco Malfoy sat in one of the plush armchairs, his ever-present scowl twisting his features. Moonlight drifted through the tall windows around them, giving his blond hair an almost ethereal glow, a direct contrast to what she knew of his brooding personality. In the chair next to him sat a middle-aged woman with platinum hair in the same shade as Draco's. She was not scowling as deeply as him, but a slight frown lingered on her features as she quietly appraised Hermione.

"You are familiar with Mr. Shacklebolt, I'm certain," Dumbledore said, and she nodded at Kingsley, who gave her a small smile in return. "And allow me to introduce our other guest, Mrs. Narcissa Malfoy," he added, gesturing at the woman.

Hermione turned to give the woman a stiff nod, avoiding looking at Malfoy. "Hello," she said, her voice feeling overly loud in the room.

The woman did not answer, but instead gave her a sharp nod in return.

"You may be quite confused as to why I've requested your presence here this evening," Dumbledore asked.

Hermione nodded, again taking in the expressions on the faces of those that stood behind him. Whatever it was, she knew that it was serious.

"As you are aware, those who stand behind me are all esteemed members of the Order," Dumbledore continued, giving her a gentle smile. "As you are now of age, it is my hope that you still have an interest in officially joining the Order as well," he said.

"Of course," she said, the words coming out instantly.

Dumbledore nodded, an emotion passing through his eyes that she couldn't quite establish. "Then you are also aware that there are many sacrifices that have made over the years, to great difficulty in our personal lives."

Hermione nodded again, feeling a coil of trepidation begin to curl around her heart, clenching it softly. "I am," she answered carefully.

He nodded before steepling his fingers in front of him and peering over his spectacles at her. "And how far would you be willing to go in the name of the Order, Miss Granger?"

Later, she would ask herself what would have happened if she'd paused for a moment, taken time to let the words sink in and answered with a tremble of uncertainty in her voice. Would they have stopped to reconsider their request, re-convened and picked someone, anyone else that could have stepped in in her place?

But instead, her answer was simple: "I would do anything," she replied, her voice unwaveringly honest.

Dumbledore sighed, eyes sliding to where the Malfoys sat for a moment before landing back on her own. "You understand, then, that what I am about to ask of you may test those boundaries." He waited patiently for her to respond, and she stared back, steeling her resolve even as the growing tendrils of trepidation within her continued to clench her heart.

"With all due respect, sir, I am certain that you would not have summoned me here if you did not believe I would be capable of taking on whatever task you have decided to present me with," she said, meeting his eyes and forcing herself not to peek over at the Malfoys once more.

Dumbledore searched her eyes for a moment before nodding nearly imperceptibly. "What do you know, Miss Granger, of ancient marriage bonding ceremonies?"

She blinked at him for a moment before responding. "There were many kinds, most of which involved binding the life forces of the couple involved," she answered, her voice laced with confusion. "They fell out of practice centuries ago when couples kept dying after the untimely death of one spouse, leaving many orphaned children behind," she trailed off as she saw the frown on Professor McGonagall's face deepen. "But what does that have to do-"

"You do recall, I presume, Professor Snape's current position as a double agent for the Order?" Dumbledore asked, cutting her off.

She nodded, looking up briefly at the brooding man. He had barely moved since she'd entered and appeared to be in a particularly dark mood on this evening.

"Yes," she answered, her throat feeling dry as she peeked up at the dark-haired man again, her head swirling with the potential implications of the Headmaster's words. Surely he couldn't expect her to-

"His position with the Death Eaters is very precarious, as you may imagine," Dumbledore continued. "Should Voldemort suspect his being too close with the Order, his position could be terminated at any time." The implications of his words hung thick in the air, and she looked up at the man again as her heart clenched for him, wondering how he had managed to take on such a precarious task.

"I presume that you are also, aware, then, of the Malfoys'...entanglements with Lord Voldemort," he asked, peering over at her once more. At this, Hermione stole a glance over at the Malfoys once again. Malfoy's eyes were firmly trained on his lap, while his mother's icy blue eyes were trained on her. Hermione felt trapped in the woman's probing gaze and only tore away from them when Dumbledore continued speaking.

"Mrs. Malfoy has asked Severus to take an Unbreakable Vow to ensure the protection of her son in the future as Voldemort attempts to bring his plans to fruition. As you may imagine, however, given the precarious nature of Severus' position within the Death Eater ranks, his ability to guarantee that he can uphold such a Vow may not be feasible in the long term. After discussing the options at length with Mrs. Malfoy, she has agreed to take a Vow to bind herself as a spy for the Order, provided that we provide a substitution that demonstrates our commitment to Draco's safety," he explained. "And this is where you may be of assistance," he said, pausing to watch her carefully.

His words swirled in her head for a moment as she took them in. Snape, Mrs. Malfoy... Malfoy. Her eyes widened as she turned to look at him. She swung her eyes back to Dumbledore, then again to Malfoy, whose eyes remained trained on his lap, studiously avoiding the gazes of all the people in the room.

Her heart thundered in her chest as the implication of Dumbledore's words sank deeper into her conscious, weighing down upon her chest. She lifted a hand to grasp her chest, feeling a swell of panic rising within her as the realization of what she'd been called to do swirled within her. Draco Malfoy. Ancient marriage bonding ceremonies. Herself.

Dumbledore started speaking again, but his words were lost to her as her world was reduced to little more than the whooshing sound of her rapidly pumping blood in her ears as panic rose within her. For the Order, she was being asked to inextricably bind herself to Draco Malfoy. She looked at him again, taking in the rigid set of his stance, the muscles of his exposed forearms straining as he gripped hard at the armrests of his chair. It was true that they'd barely interacted this school year so far, and she'd spent most of it trying to dissuade Harry from accusing him of nefarious behavior. Nonetheless, the Draco Malfoy she knew was cold and cruel, often resorting to underhanded tactics to ridicule his classmates.

Her eyes strayed to Mrs. Malfoy, who's own icy blue eyes were once again upon her. They were hard, but not unkind, and an unreadable emotion passed through them as she watched Hermione. She had come to the Order out of desperation to secure the safety of her son, and she was doing it at her own peril by offering intel to the Order throughout the duration of the impending war. She searched the woman's eyes, probing deeper until she saw the inkling of fear and desperation that lingered there.

What could she do to protect the Order? Could she give up her life for them? The second the question passed through her mind, however, she knew the answer. If she did not fight with the Order - for the Order - there was a slim chance that she would have a life past the impending war. Even now, each day she woke with fear clenching in her heart as she realized that the war was looming closer with each minute that passed, and there was no guarantee that she would survive it. Her life was already bound to the cause, whether they won or lost.

"I'll do it," she whispered.

The room was dead silent following her words, an eerie stillness in the air as her words cemented the life-altering agreement.

Eventually, Dumbledore broke the silence. "You may, in time, be able to pursue a relationship outside of what you will have with Mr. Malfoy-"

"I won't," she said tonelessly. "I'll be bound to him, and unable to truly be intimate with anyone but him. You do not have to sugarcoat it for me."

He searched her eyes for a moment. "Very well then," he said finally. "Once you are bound, the Trace will effectively be removed from Mr. Malfoy and he will be considered an adult in the eyes of the law. You and Mr. Malfoy will need to go into hiding once the school year terminates, of course," he explained, still watching her expression. She kept her face carefully blank, knowing that their union was inextricable and that this was one of the many consequences she would carry.

"You understand that the terms of this union cannot be revealed to any of your classmates," he added, his voice gentler. "Nor your parents. It may place them in a potentially hazardous position if they know. You can ensure the knowledge of this arrangement will not leave the ears of this room's occupants."

Her heart thumped painfully as she thought of Ron and Harry, but she quickly shoved the emotions down and nodded. "I understand," she said, hoping that no one else had detected the tremble in her voice.

"We will do it now, then, should you have no objections," Dumbledore said.

She had many, but remained silent, knowing that her objections mattered little in the face of the daunting tasks which lay in front of the Order - and Harry - in the very near future. No, this she could do, her fleeting desires for her own future be damned.

Snape crossed around the desk, stepping over to where Hermione saw that a bonding circle had already been drawn on the floor. He began muttering a series of enchantments, and she watched as the circle began glowing a deep, ominous black.

She stood straight, ardently ignoring where Malfoy stood beside her, watching Snape. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned, surprised to see McGonagall behind her, squeezing her shoulder gently. She met the older woman's eyes, and saw melancholy reflected in them. At that, she felt tears spring to her eyes, knowing that she would be losing the innocence that she hadn't known she'd been clinging so desperately to until this night.

"You may enter the circle, child," McGonagall said gently, urging her forward. She forced herself to tear her eyes away from the woman's gaze, and stepped into the circle.

She looked up to meet Malfoy's stormy grey eyes, and immediately shrank back at the resentment that shone within them. It was nearly overwhelming in its force. She felt so trapped in his gaze that she barely registered Snape speaking to her until he repeated his words.

When she looked at him, he too was glaring at her, but the force of his glare that she'd always thought was so terrifying felt inconsequential under Malfoy's. "Yes?" she said, her voice little more than a squeak.

"Your hand," Snape clipped. She handed him her left hand, then let out a small cry as he immediately drew a sharp-edged knife across it, leaving a dark trail of blood in its wake. He lifted her hand and squeezed it over a chalice in his hand, and watched as he repeated the same for Malfoy. He muttered more low words in Latin, and she watched as the chalice bubbled until it became a swirling dark liquid.

"Drink," he commanded, pressing it to her lips. She wanted to mash her lips shut and run screaming from the room, but instead she swallowed obediently.

After Malfoy swallowed as well, the ceremony passed relatively quickly. Snape told them a series of phrases to repeat, all while twisting his wand around them in sharp, intricate movements.

"You may now seal the bond," Snape said eventually, stepping back.

She'd turned to look at him in question when Malfoy suddenly grabbed her by the chin, dragging his lips across hers in a mockery of a kiss. For that split second of a moment, the circle ignited in flames around them. By the time Malfoy stepped back, both the flames and the circle had disappeared.

"It is finished," Snape said, turning and quickly exiting the room.

She turned to see that Mrs. Malfoy had approached them. She handed Hermione a thick ring made of platinum that was a snake eating its own tail. It was studded with diamonds, save for the snake's eyes that were made of emeralds.

"You must place it on his finger," she explained, gesturing to Draco. Hermione turned to him, swallowing as she picked up his hand wordlessly. When she made to slide the ring down his finger, she jumped back slightly as the snake unfurled itself and slithered down his finger, re-forming once it reached the base.

He grabbed her hand then, brandishing a similarly snake-like ring, but this one was more clearly designed to be worn by a woman. It unfurled itself, leaving a cool trail behind as it slithered down her finger, re-forming its snakehead as a large diamond flanked by two emerald eyes.

"They are the Malfoy family rings," Narcissa explained when Hermione met her eyes. "I had replicas made, so Lucius will not notice." She appraised Hermione for a moment longer, silent and calculating. Eventually, she gave her a sharp nod, turning to Dumbledore.

"We must do the Vow now. I need to return to the Manor and glamour the family tapestry before Lucius' spies take notice."

Dumbledore nodded, then turned to them. "The union must now be consummated," he said, his voice gentler than before. "The Room of Requirement is best suited to your needs on this night," he finished.

Hermione nodded, knowing she would have been unable to speak over the lump that had risen in her throat at his words.

"Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy," Dumbledore called again, and she froze at the sound of her new name. "Do practice your Occlumency," he said finally. "You will need strong shields to endure what is to come."

She looked beyond him, nodding at Kingsley and McGonagall, who nodded back solemnly. The last thing she saw as she stepped through the door was Mrs. Malfoy stepping up beside Kingsley as Dumbledore began reciting the oaths of their vow, sealing their collective fate.

X

The trip to the Room of Requirement was near silent, and Malfoy strode quickly ahead of her as she trailed behind him, her heart thumping loudly in her chest as they rapidly approached their destination. All too soon, Malfoy was pacing quickly in front of the large stone wall, his form as rigid as ever as he made the calculated steps. A door appeared, and he stepped through, not bothering to check if she was following. It was simply decorated inside, containing only a simply made bed, a small fireplace, and a door on the far end of the room that presumably contained a loo. It was dim, lit only by a few candles, seeming as keen to hide her shame as she was. The door snapped shut behind her, plunging them into near-silence, save for the crackle of the fire.

She crossed quickly to the bed and sat on the edge, twirling her fingers nervously as she waited for Malfoy to approach. When she felt his shadow looming over her, she looked up to see him unbuttoning his shirt, defined muscle peeking through where he'd already unbuttoned. Even she could admit that he'd grown to be strikingly handsome, his features sharp with masculine beauty as opposed to the pointiness of his childhood. He no longer wore his hair slicked back, and it fell loosely around his face, its length tickling his ears. It was a cruel beauty, she decided, and in this moment of vulnerability, it terrified her.

He froze when she placed a hand over his, stilling his movements. "Don't," she gestured at his shirt. "Just...only what is necessary," she explained quietly.

He nodded, moving to undo his trousers. "Have you…before?" his voice was hard and gruff, and she realized that they were the first words she'd heard him speak this evening outside of their vows.

"Yes," she answered softly, raising her hips so that she could shimmy off her knickers. She slid back on the bed until her head rested on a pillow, keeping her eyes firmly trained on the ceiling.

A few moments later, she felt the bed dip under his weight. He moved until he was settled over her, bracing on his elbows. She bunched up her skirt to her waist, shivering at the feeling of her cunt being exposed to the warmth of the room, which contrasted sharply against how cold her interactions with Malfoy felt. He shoved two lubrication charm-slickened fingers inside her in a stuttered movement, and all too soon she felt the head of his cock tickling her entrance. He shoved inside in one hard thrust and began pumping steadily over her. He was thick, enough so that she could not help the small gasp that tumbled from her mouth even as she tried to focus on anything but the man that moved above her.

Within minutes, she felt his movements begin to stutter as he pumped himself into her, letting out a small grunt as he finished. He rolled off of her, panting softly as he lay beside her. Without looking at him, she stood, pulling on her knickers. She tore out of the room, leaving her new husband sated and alone while she fought back the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks as she all but flew back to Gryffindor Tower.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The high windows of the Hogwarts library showcased a mesmerizing array of glittering stars over the grounds. A few tables away, a group of fourth years giggled to each other as they pointed out different constellations, drawing them out with their wands in the air between them. Neither Harry nor Hermione paid the view any mind, however. They both had an array of books open in front of them, although the amount Hermione had in front of her dwarfed those that Harry had. She'd roped him into her research on Horcruxes, still to no avail. Malfoy sat alone a few tables away, and she'd barely been able to take her eyes off of him. He'd been hunched over a book for the better part of the hour that they'd been there, ignoring her as studiously as he had before they'd been bonded. It had scarcely been twenty-four hours, and Hermione was still reeling at the sudden swerve in the trajectory of her life, wondering how she had gone from one-third of the Golden Trio to married to one of Harry's most loathed rivals overnight.

A life for a life. Narcissa Malfoy had traded her loyalty for the guaranteed protection of her son, by way of tethering his life to hers. She was Harry Potter's best friend - the Order would do their utmost to protect her, even if just for Harry's sake. She swallowed as she looked up at her husband once more, taking in the angry set of his features. Forever seemed to stretch impossibly far ahead of her as she pictured her life tethered to this man who so clearly despised her.

"...need to find out more," Harry said, looking up at her expectantly. "Hermione?" he prodded after a moment, forcing her to tear her eyes away from Malfoy to look at Harry.

"What?" she asked, blinking at him.

"Did you notice anything?" he asked, slowly. "You've been watching him like a hawk for nearly fifteen minutes," he added.

"No," she said. "Nothing."

"There must be something, I know he cursed that necklace and he's probably planning his next move as we speak," Harry said, narrowing his eyes at Malfoy. "Haven't you noticed anything out the ordinary?"

Yes. He married me, she wanted to say. We got married and I had sex with him just last night - "No," she said instead, sighing. Her glamoured ring felt heavy on her finger, and it shone to her like a beacon although no one could see it.

"I watched him today, on the map," he said, and her blood ran cold. She'd forgotten about the Marauder's Map last night. "He keeps disappearing, and I can't figure out how. Where do you think he's been getting off to?"

She searched his eyes carefully, looking for any hint of guarded suspicion glinting behind his eyes.

But there was nothing, and he continued chattering away, oblivious to her panic. "I have to figure out which parts of the map are missing- perhaps it's a defect. And I need to know what's in that book. The cover's blank, did you notice? It probably has more curses in it," he added darkly.

She sighed, partially in relief and partially in exasperation at her best friend's fixation. "Maybe he didn't curse the necklace-"

"And maybe that book he's reading has something on Horcruxes in it, and you've been so busy trying to convince me that he's done nothing wrong that you've been too blind to see it," he said in an angry whisper.

"I highly doubt that, Harry," she deadpanned. "I've been through nearly everything, including half of the restricted section, and I have yet to find even a hint of the subject. Yet you think that Malfoy would have a book on them, right out in the open?"

"Yes."

"Harry," she said, reaching for his hand and frowning when he snatched it away. "You're letting your paranoia get to you, Malfoy hasn't actually done anything of concern yet, not that we can confirm at least-"

Harry took in a sharp breath, glaring at her. "You might not believe me, but I know he did it," he snapped.

"I've always been on your side, Harry," she said. "You know I have. It's just that maybe this time, you're not-"

"I'm not what, Hermione?" he asked, his voice sharp as he glared at her.

"Maybe you've been focusing on the wrong person, is all," she said, hoping her tone was gentle enough the placate him.

But no, this was Harry Potter, and his temper got the best of him more often than not. He shoved his chair back loudly causing a few curious glances to stray their way. "And maybe you have been in denial for too long," he snapped, snatching up his books and departing the library in an angry huff.

She sighed, directing her books into her bag with a flick of her wand as she stood to leave herself. When she glanced at Malfoy again, she froze, noticing that he was looking back at her, his eyes as dark and Stormy as ever.

She swallowed, ducking her head as she passed by his table on her way out, dropping a note in his lap as surreptitiously as possible before scurrying out of the library.

X

She'd been waiting in the Room of Requirement for only a few minutes when Malfoy burst into the room, advancing on her until she was nearly perched on the edge of the lone sofa that the room had provided.

"Do not mistake our new affiliation as giving you free reign to summon me as you please, Granger," he seethed down at her.

"Don't you mean Malfoy?" she snapped back, crossing her arms.

"You are nothing to me, mudblood," he spat, still glaring at her.

"And I don't care," she snapped back, stepping away from him. "Give me your ring."

"Why?"

"Because in case you have not noticed, we will need a way to communicate when necessary, whether you like it or not," she snapped. "Unless you would prefer your esteemed housemates catch you conversing with a mudblood?"

He glared at her for a moment longer before pulling off his ring and dropping it in her outstretched palm. She deposited her ring beside his, then murmured a quick charm and tapped them with her wand. "The enchantments on the rings are somewhat complex and I don't understand them completely, but I was able to overlay them with a simple protean charm. I assume you know how it works?"

Malfoy scoffed, taking his ring back and making for the door.

"Malfoy," she called, and he paused. "Harry...he's suspicious of you," she said.

Malfoy scoffed again. "I can handle Potter," he spat, turning to glare at her once more.

"I'm serious, Malfoy," she said. "He...he has a way of watching you, and he knows that you've been disappearing to do...something. I don't-"

"As I said - Potter does not worry me," he said, moving to exit the room.

"What have you been up to, Malfoy?" she asked quietly. He did not turn this time, but his shoulders tensed slightly.

"Nothing of your concern," he spat, exiting the room and letting the door slam behind him.

X

A few nights later, Hermione was in the Gryffindor common room thumbing through yet another book in hopes of finding a mention of Horcruxes when her ring began to burn, causing her to drop it suddenly.

"You alright?" Neville asked, looking up at her in concern. Even Lavender glanced up curiously from where she was charming her toenails into different colors across from where Hermione and Neville sat.

"M'fine," she said, clamping a hand over her burning ring. As she stuffed her book into her bag, she slipped it off and let it fall inside, pretending to rifle through its contents as she read the message. RoR. Now, it read.

She mumbled a quick excuse about going to the library, tearing out the portrait hole and breaking into a run. When she made it to the seventh-floor corridor, she froze when she saw the look on Malfoy's face. He looked...stressed. A pale hand worried through his white-blond hair, and his appearance was bedraggled. He was pacing in front of the entrance to the Room of Requirement anxiously, although no door appeared.

"Malfoy?" she asked as she approached. "What's happened?"

His eyes snapped to her as she approached. "I need you to find Slughorn - now," he said.

"Wha-why?" she asked, thoroughly confused at the frazzled look on his face.

"He confiscated a bottle of mead from me while I was on my way here, and I need you to get it back," he said.

Hermione scoffed. "You want me to retrieve your alcohol, Malfoy? Kindly p-" she stopped short as he grabbed her shoulders, gripping them hard.

"Get it back," he seethed, glaring at her with a dark intensity. "It is critical."

She shook him off, although the retort she had prepared died on her lips as she searched his eyes, seeing the fear that lingered there. "What did you do, Malfoy?" she asked, softly searching his eyes.

His eyes hardened before he looked away. "Just get it back, Granger. Now."

She appraised him for a moment longer before nodding and heading back the way she had come. The urgency in his voice haunted her movements until she found herself running through the halls, praying that she would not be stopped by any Professors.

By the time she made it to Slughorn's office, she was panting with exertion. She rapped hard at the door, fumbling for an excuse as she heard the sounds of shuffling inside.

She blinked when Harry, and not Slughorn opened the door instead. "Harry?" she said incredulously.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, peering past her into the empty hallway.

"I could ask you the same thing," she said, peeking into the room past Harry.

"Ron...Ron's uh, had a bit of an accident," he said, scratching his head.

"What kind of an accident?" she said sharply, craning her neck to see deeper into the room. She caught movement behind Harry but could see no more past his tall frame.

"Romilda Vane?" Harry offered sheepishly.

"What about Romilda?" Hermione said, crossing her arms. "I told you to watch out for her, Harry, she's planning something-"

"We're a bit past that now, I think," Harry said. "She left me some chocolates, and he thought they were a birthday gift…"

Hermione gasped. "She didn't-?"

Harry nodded sheepishly. "Don't worry though, I brought him down to Slughorn straightaway," Harry explained. "He's alright now."

"I am going to hex that girl-"

"Relax, Hermione," Harry chuckled. "He's fine-"

"Well hello there Miss Granger," Slughorn said, appearing behind Harry. "What can I do for you this evening?"

"I, uh," she stumbled. "I had an important question about Potions that I was hoping you could help me with-"

The portly man chuckled, giving her a clap on the shoulder. "Ever so studious, aren't you?" he said. "Never mind that now though, we've got some conversations among men to be had on this night," he said, giving Harry a sly wink. "We can have a chat tomorrow, perhaps?" he said, already turning away.

"Wait!" she called desperately, forcing down her indignation at the man's flippant words and casual sexism. "It's important," she rushed as he paused to look back at her.

"Surely it cannot be so important that it can't wait until morning, my dear," Slughorn said. "You may call on Professor Snape if need be, however. Come along, Mr. Potter," he said, closing the door behind them.

She sighed, turning to leave before she paused, recalling the look she'd seen in Malfoy's eyes. She started pacing outside the door as she weighed her options, cursing the man and his damned bottle of mead. She'd raised her hand to knock for a second time when she heard a crash inside the room, followed by fearful shouts. She tried the doorknob, sighing in relief when it opened easily.

When she stepped into the room, however, her determined expression dissolved into one of horror. Ron lay on the floor, convulsing slightly as something bubbled out of his mouth. Slughorn was frozen in horror, while Harry was rummaging through a cabinet across the room. Harry sprang up suddenly, racing over to Ron and shoving something into his mouth at the same time that Hermione found her voice and screamed. This startled the room's occupants, who all turned to gape at her. Save Ron, of course, who lay still on the floor, unmoving.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

By the time they made it to the Hospital Wing, tears had begun to pour from Hermione's eyes, blurring her vision as she hovered around Ron's bed, watching Madam Pomfrey work. When the woman had suggested that she return to Gryffindor Tower, she'd snapped at her until she'd given up, leaving her alone with Ron's slumbering form after even Harry had been coaxed into going up to bed.

It was now early morning, but she still sat beside the bed, holding his hand as he breathed softly, his breaths still too shallow for her liking. Although the room was nearly still, her mind was reeling. Earlier, she'd fallen into a brief, fitful sleep, haunted by the look on Malfoy's face as he'd asked her to retrieve the mead, followed by flashes of Ron's convulsing body until she'd awoken, heaving ragged breaths. She'd barely made it to the nearest rubbish bin before she was heaving into it, emptying the meager contents of her stomach.

Harry had been right. He had been right the entire time, and she'd brushed it off, boiling it down to Harry's own paranoia as she convinced herself that while Malfoy was a bully, yes, he was no murderer. And now...now the evidence of all that Harry had feared lay in front of her, it's harsh truth laid bare by the soft rays of morning sunlight that illuminated Ron's now-ghostly pallor. She choked out a sob, burying her face into Ron's shoulder as she began crying again, reeling under the gravity of her actions. How could she face him now, knowing that she was now inextricably entangled with the man that had nearly caused his death?

She reached up to smooth a hand over Ron's cheek, pulling back when she heard him groan, shifting awkwardly in the bed. She pulled back and stood, making to leave before he could spot her when she heard him call her name.

"'Mione?" his voice was weak and raspy, and she hurriedly tipped the glass of water by his bed to his mouth, letting him drink.

"What happened?" he asked, looking around the hospital wing. "I can't remember…" he said, furrowing his brow.

"You were poisoned," she said, searching his blue eyes. "Twice, actually."

"Wha-how?" he asked.

"You ate chocolates that were laced with a love potion," she explained. "Courtesy of Romilda Vane," she added bitterly.

Even in his state, he grinned slightly at her expression. "And...the second?" he asked nervously, still watching her.

She turned away, unable to look into his eyes. "When Harry took you to Slughorn for an antidote, you ended up drinking some poisoned mead," she explained quietly.

"Don't be sad, 'Mione," he said, sitting up straighter. "It wasn't your fault." She shivered at the comforting hand he placed on her back, wanting to shy away from his touch.

Oh, but how it was. "I know," she whispered instead. "Still...I was scared," she said, her voice breaking.

"Oh," he said, tugging on her sleeve until he pulled her down into a hug.

She sobbed quietly into his shoulder for a few moments before pulling away. "I'm supposed to be here comforting you," she said, giving him a watery smile.

He waved a weak hand dismissively. "It's alright," he said. "I like any excuse to hug you," he added sheepishly, looking into his lap.

There was a time only a few short months ago when such a response from him would have had her blushing profusely. Now, though, it made her blood run cold as she was reminded of their precarious situation.

"Ron-" she started, unsure of what to say. Before she could say anything, however, he continued speaking.

"I'm sorry about Lavender, really," he said, taking her hand and tracing gentle patterns on it. "I-I was just upset, I'd thought that after we-, well after we, you know- that you'd want to start something up, and when you didn't, and I found out about Krum-"

Hermione pulled away guiltily, recalling the night they'd spent together during patrols that now felt so long ago that she could scarcely recall it, although it had only been months prior. "You have nothing to be sorry for," she said. "We- it just wasn't our time, is all."

He scooted closer to where she sat on the edge of his bed. "It could be, though," he said, wrapping an arm around her waist. "I can break up with Lavender-"

"No," she said, springing up. "She likes you. You're happy with her."

Ron scoffed, snatching her back down beside him before she could depart. "No, I'm not," he said, looking at her accusingly. "And you know that - she drives me insane!"

Truthfully, she did know that, but she pressed forward regardless. "You should try with her, she has good intentions, you deserve her-"

"Is it McLaggen, then?" Ron's voice was toneless.

"What-no!" she said. "I promise you, no," she said, shivering. No, it's much so much worse, she wanted to say but kept her mouth firmly closed as Ron's eyes roved over her expression.

"Then who is it?" he asked softly, his voice tinged with sadness.

"It's no one," she lied. "It's just not our time-"

As if on cue, the double doors to the hospital wing burst open, admitting none other than Lavender. She glared at where Hermione and Ron had automatically sprung apart but said nothing.

"Oh, my Ronniekins!" she cried, draping herself dramatically across Ron's lap. "How could this have happened to you?"

On a normal day, Hermione would have melted into the background, rolling her eyes at Lavender's antics. Instead, she swallowed the lump that had risen in her throat as she recalled the reason Ron was there in the first place and turned to leave. At the door, she breezed past where Dumbledore and Snape stood, both of whom had paused to appraise her. One sweep past both of their eyes told her that somehow, they both knew exactly what had transpired and who had caused the chaos. It made a swell of anger rise within her as she realized that there would likely be no punishment for Malfoy, the reasons for which she could not begin to understand. She stormed past them without a word, determined to make it to her four-poster before she dissolved into tears once again.

X

She did not see Malfoy until Arithmancy class later that day. She spent most of the lesson glaring daggers into his back, knowing that he'd deliberately ignored her accusatory stare when he'd breezed in moments before class had begun. She took in the tense stance of his broad back as she alternated between wanting to hex him to tears and wanting to cry for herself. Occasionally, Pansy Parkinson would lean over to whisper in his ear, and even traced a fingernail along his thigh, looking up at him through her eyelashes. It made Hermione sick. How could she sit there, flirting innocently with a murderer?

The man was the embodiment of damnation, and Hermione had damned herself to hell with him.

Her anger flared, and she slipped her wand under the table, tapping it against her ring as she sent a message to him over and over again. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. She pressed her wand into her ring until she had the satisfaction of seeing him grip his table in pain, shooing away Pansy's concerned questions. She continued until he slid it off and dropped it into his bag surreptitiously, a quick glint of silver the only indication there had been anything on his finger at all.

When she spied the finger where his ring had lain, it was a dark, angry red.

X

It was getting late, but Hermione was still in the library, tucked into a dark corner as she searched through the pile of tomes she'd amassed, looking for anything that plausibly sounded like the word Horcrux. She stood, stretching as she finished her latest pile, levitating the books behind her as she prepared to return them to their respective spots. She'd barely made it a few steps down the first darkened aisle she'd turned down when she spotted Malfoy in front of her, perusing a the tomes in front of him.

Before she could stop to register her actions, she had him pinned to the shelf with a flick of her wand, her pile of books abandoned on the ground behind them.

"You almost killed him," she seethed, stepping forward with a snap of her wand that had his head smacking back against the sprawling shelf.

"Put me down," he growled, glaring at her.

"What were you doing with it?" she said, flicking her wand again so his head smacked against the shelf with another satisfying crack. "Answer me!"

"Fuck you," he snapped, which she answered with another flick.

"Answer. Me," she growled.

"I was trying to destroy it!"

"I don't believe you!"

Malfoy remained silent, continuing to glare at her.

"Give me a good reason not to hex you right now," she snapped, keeping her voice low in order not to attract any attention. "He. Could. Have. Died!"

"But he didn't, did he?" Malfoy retorted.

"Is that all you can say?" she said as she stumbled back, horrified. "You almost killed someone...and that is all you can say?"

He took her momentary hesitation as a chance to release her hold on him, lowering himself to the ground and quickly descending upon her. It wasn't until he was nearly upon her that she realized how tall he'd grown, towering over her small frame. "I told you that I was trying to destroy it. I asked you to retrieve it, did I not?"

She shoved him backward. "Do not dare turn this on me," she snapped. "You did this, and you cursed that necklace too, didn't you?" she asked.

When his response was silence, she couldn't help but gasp, clapping a hand over her mouth.

"What else have you done?" she whispered. "Who else have you killed?"

"I killed no one," he said, his voice little more than a low growl.

"I don't believe you," she said, searching his grey eyes for a hint of humanity. She found none. "You deliberately tried to murder two innocent people in cold blood-"

"You don't know anything of what I've done, Granger," he snapped.

"I do!" she shot back. "I was there — both times!"

"You bloody pathetic Gryffindor know-it-all, thinking you know everything-"

"I defended you!" she said. "I defended you, and all this time you were doing it, and Harry was right-"

"Potter knows nothing."

"He knew enough to see plainly what you were doing, even when we denied it and tried to defend you!"

"I never asked for anyone to defend me, Granger," he said. She didn't know when she had let him descend upon her again, but she now had her back to a shelf and was trapped in the cage his arms made around her as he glared down at her.

"You've never deserved it," she shot back. "You are a monster-"

"And you've married me," he smirked suddenly, his eyes dancing with cruel humor. "I wonder, hmm, how that makes you feel. Following Potter around like a lost dog, lapping at his feet while he carries on without a clue as to what you've done-"

"Screw you, Malfoy," she breathed.

"But you have, haven't you?" he said, smirking wider. "What would you do if Potter found out that you let me fuck you-"

She raised a hand to slap him, but he caught her by the wrist before she could complete the action. "Never try to strike me again, Granger," his voice was dark, devoid of emotion. He slammed her arm back against the shelf, causing her to stifle a cry at the pain the bloomed at the force of his action. "You will regret it." She felt a tickle of something in her mind and wrenched her eyes away from his as she realized that he'd taken the opportunity to probe against her still-underdeveloped Occlumency shields.

Rage boiled in her stomach as she was faced with the harsh reality of what she'd been tasked with and the man she'd been bound to. She purposefully met his hard, darkened eyes once more before she reared back and spat in his face.

She had the satisfaction of seeing him blink in confusion for a second before he flushed an angry red and snatched her up by the shoulders, tightly enough that she knew it would leave marks in her skin. A hex was tumbling off of her tongue when the sound of footsteps moving toward them caused them both to freeze. The steps drew closer, and they sprang apart, both still shaking with rage.

"Draco?" Pansy Parkinson stepped around the corner, blinking in confusion as she recognized Hermione. Before she could utter a word, Hermione shoved past her, flicking her wand at the pile of books she'd abandoned on the floor earlier and sending them flying toward Malfoy, hoping that at least some of them would hit their target.

X

Hermione sat with Ron and Harry in the common room, watching them play a game of wizard's chess. They'd slowly sunken into a normal routine once again in the weeks since Ron had recovered, and she'd allowed herself to start pretending that things were normal with them once more. She laughed along with their jokes, ignoring the hollow, empty feeling the echoed in her chest as she joined in on their playful banter. She prayed for their happy attitudes to infect her the way it did their other classmates, but she could not help feeling anything but hollow emptiness as it passed over her in waves, dragging her under for short periods before floating away, leaving her as cold and empty as before.

In her bag lay three books on ancient marriage bonding ceremonies that she'd yet to pick up, fearful at the idea of what else she might find about the bonding magic that inextricably linked her to Draco Malfoy. She looked up at where Harry and Ron exchanged casual banter, wondering what their reactions would be if they found out what she'd done. Harry, she knew, would cut her off immediately, unable to look at her with anything but abject disgust as the depths of her betrayal sunk in. And Ron…

It would break his heart. Truthfully, she knew that she'd been slowly breaking it herself the more she denied his advances but knew that something as monumental as this would shatter him completely. She'd once pictured a future with Ron, knowing that it would have been easy and uncomplicated. He would have treated her well, and they could have been happy together.

"...Malfoy," Harry was saying. At the mention of her husband's name her head snapped up, and she zeroed in on their conversation.

"What did you just say, Harry?" she asked.

"I've asked Dobby and Kreacher to start following him," he explained. "He keeps disappearing off the map, but if anyone will be able to figure out where to, it'll be them."

She nodded, feeling her heartbeat begin to race as she took in the new information. It had been several weeks since their row, and they'd studiously avoided each other whenever they crossed paths. Still, she could not help but feel torn, knowing that she would need to inform Malfoy if he tried to summon her to meet him at any point, lest their secret be revealed. A larger, more vocal part of her wanted the elves to find him and catch him in the act of doing something nefarious, enough so that Dumbledore would not be able to let it pass the way he had Ron's poisoning. If the elves reported something serious to him, Harry would not rest until it was known by all who would listen that Malfoy was a near-murderer.

A near murderer. She'd bound herself to a near murderer, who had only not yet earned the full title due to his attempts having been foiled. If he were to be exposed as a murderer, then he'd surely be sent to Azkaban, wouldn't he? She would die when he died, yes, but it wasn't unheard of for prisoners to live on for years - decades, even - while imprisoned there. But if he were to be sentenced to the Kiss…

If he was sentenced to the Kiss, she knew that she could not guarantee that her own soul would be sucked out of her body, too, leaving her a lifeless presence, alive but not living. She worried at her lip as she looked up at Harry and Ron's smiling faces once again, realizing how fractured their friendship had truly become in the face of her decision. She had to warn him, even if it meant undermining her friends.

"Excuse me," she whispered, knowing they'd barely register her taking her leave. Even when she was in their presence these days she felt like an outsider, hovering in their midst without substance.

She sat up in her four-poster for hours, turning her ring over and over in her fingers as she pondered her options. It was unlikely, after all, that he'd even put it back on after her assault in Arithmancy the week before. Eventually, though, she tapped it and activated the charm, sending a simple note: You're being followed.

As expected, there was no response.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

The weeks continued to fly past and she threw herself into her schoolwork, allowing herself to pretend that her brooding husband did not exist. Harry had figured out that Malfoy had been disappearing into the Room of Requirement but knew nothing beyond that, and her guilt had only continued to grow, festering in her gut like a disease.

Currently, Hermione was sitting in the common room, her mind reeling as Harry relayed what he'd learned about Horcruxes from Slughorn's memory. In his and Ron's eyes, she could see the tendrils of the fear that had been hanging over her like a shadow for weeks slowly creeping in, causing them to face the realization that the conflict that they had been preparing to face for years was now rapidly approaching, whether they wanted it to or not.

She'd been able to avoid Malfoy as much as she could over the weeks that had passed since their blowout, but she knew that as the end the school year approached, their time avoiding each other was rapidly waning as well.

"What do you think will happen, Harry?" Hermione asked, her voice small. She looked up at them, allowing them to see the raw reality of her emotions for the first time in weeks, knowing that they would chalk it up to her fear about what they just learned, unsuspecting of the true origins of her hesitation.

"I don't know, Hermione," Harry said. "But I know that we have to fight this, whatever it is–no matter how difficult it may be to accept the reality of it."

She knew that he expected her to fight with him as she had been non-stop throughout the school year, but instead, she just nodded, turning to look into the fire and letting her eyes drift away as far as her mind had.

She felt to Ron take up her hand squeezing it gently. "We will get through this Hermione," Ron said. "We'll destroy them all, and kill him once and for all and things will go back to normal, you'll see," he said, his voice ever hopeful.

She wanted to cry at the optimism and she saw shining in his eyes, and collapse at his feet as she tried to explain that now things would never be the same between them again, no matter how desperately she wished they could be. She had made an irreversible decision all for the sake of the Order and she could no longer renege on it, no matter how much she felt like she was rotting from the inside out in the wake of her decision.

"I think I'll head up to bed early tonight," Hermione said. "I'll see you tomorrow," she added, picking up her book bag and making her way up the steps to the girls' dorms.

As she dressed for bed, her head filled with an overabundance of scenarios she imagined could explain Dumbledore's reasoning behind choosing her to be bonded to Malfoy. Had he known, she wondered, what Malfoy had done when they'd asked her to marry him? Had the Order known? Had they any inkling of his nefarious activities or had they brushed off any suspicions in hopes that they could secure Mrs. Malfoy's allegiance? If they had known, had it not mattered enough to them in the wake of what was being offered to them? She had always blindly trusted the Order, believing that all decisions they made were to benefit the light, every thought process laced with moral integrity as they weighed the possible consequences as well as the costs and benefits of every decision they made. The seed of doubt that had begun growing and coiling in her stomach since the night of her marriage now felt like tendrils tickling at her logic, forcing her to reconsider all that she thought that she'd known about what equated good versus bad.

She recalled the looks on McGonagall and Kingsley's faces that night as they'd watched her come to her decision, the hard looks in their eyes and slight frowns curling at their lips. At the time, she'd thought that they had been worried for her, but she realized now that they had likely been worried for themselves and the consequences of the decisions they had made. She wondered how long they had debated about whether or not to pose their request her, knowing that such a decision would tread dangerously on the edge of moral ambiguity. She wondered how much it had really mattered to them that she had had no idea of the underhanded dealings of her classmate, equating her life with the needs of the Order as flippantly as one would ask a friend a simple favor.

But that was what it had become, had it not? She knew that her life could not come above the needs of the Order, that her sacrifice, in the grand scheme of things, was nothing compared to what was that stake. She thought of the lives of muggleborns who lived in the magical world and those whose powers had yet to manifest alike, knowing that their survival was what mattered in the grand scheme of things. What was her life, compared to theirs? She knew it was nothing, and that on that fateful night she had decided it was worth sacrificing because there was no scenario that she could envision where she would not do the same, whether it be on the battlefield or by finding her life force to that of the enemy.

X

She was sitting in Potions class when it happened.

One moment, she was adding a handful of carefully chopped herbs into her cauldron. The next, her body was filled with a seeping cold, gripping her heart like a vice. She clutched the table hard, scattering a bowl of pixie wings across her workstation. A few curious eyes looked up at her, blinking at the sudden mess she'd made.

She lifted a trembling hand in the air. "I need to-" she shuddered as the cold grew so severe that it felt like ice was forming in her veins, and she gasped, stumbling out the doorway as she ignored the concerned questions of her classmates and Professor Slughorn alike.

She stumbled to the floor when she was in the hallway, a hand grasping her chest as her heart began to thunder. Something was wrong—very wrong. The moment the thought crossed her mind, she immediately knew that it had something to do with Malfoy. He had been injured–-no, he was dying. Panic coursed through her veins as she forced herself to tear through the hallways, knowing not where her feet were leading her, but somehow knowing that it was it the right direction. She was stumbling up a set of stairs when she doubled over, heaving. Sweat poured from her brow while the cold continued to ravage her insides, and she forced her panic-stricken mind to propel her forward, knowing that she would be too late if she hesitated even a moment longer.

She made it to the sixth floor, tearing down the hall until she abruptly stopped as the feeling disappeared completely. At once, she felt normal again, as if the life-ending doom that had permeated her body only seconds before had never come to pass.

The door beside her burst open suddenly and Harry tore past her, not even registering her presence. She opened her mouth to call out to him when she noticed a steady trickle of water seeping from the door he had just exited. Trepidation began growing in her heart as she stepped forward and slowly pushed open the door, revealing the boys' bathroom within. A sink had burst in the far corner of the bathroom, spurting a steady stream of water that left a shallow pool on the ground. And in the middle of that pool lay her husband, on his back with bleeding wounds all over his body as Professor Snape bent over him.

She gasped, clapping to hand over her mouth. Snape looked up sharply, catching her gaze.

"He lives," Snape said.

She gaped at where Malfoy's unmoving body lay, then back out the door where Harry and exited only moments before. "Did Harry…?" She asked, meeting Snape's eyes.

The man nodded sharply, then turned back to Malfoy. "We need to move him," he said.

"What happened?" She whispered, eyes still frozen as she looked at her husband's prone body.

"He was cursed," Snape explained. "Come," he said, levitating Malfoy's body.

She followed him out of the bathroom and down the hall, where he stepped into engineer hidden stairwell and began quietly descending the steps. She did not take her eyes off of Malfoy's body the entire time, roving over his wounds and watching the shallow, pained breaths he took with every movement. They emerged somewhere in the dungeon, where Snape led them to a small room, that was outfitted with a simple cot, a chair and a small table holding only a jug of water.

Snape bent over Malfoy again, muttering a series of incantations that she did not recognize. She watched him quietly for a long while, eyes trained anxiously on the ghostly pallor of Malfoy's face.

After a while, Snape stood, turning to her. "You will need to continue his treatments," Snape said."I know not when I will be summoned, and it is important that he receive timely treatment. The wounds have now been sealed, but the curse lingers in his system, and will return if it is not coaxed out in a precise manner."

She nodded, still watching Malfoy's body. "He almost died, didn't he?" she asked, meeting Snape's eyes.

"Yes," The man answered simply.

She shuddered at his words, swearing she could still feel the tickle of that dreadful cold seeping through her veins. The consequences of their bonding had to come into sharp focus, and it terrified her. This man's life with tethered completely to her own, and she had no way of extricating herself from it without life-ending consequences.

"Tell me what to do," she said.

X

She did not return to Gryffindor tower until late at night, exhausted after the hours she'd spent coaxing the dark tendrils of the curse out of Malfoy's wounds. He had not yet awoken, but he only whimpered softly in pain as she worked, propelling forward her urgency. She held no affection for the man, but she could not deny the way her heart clenched at seeing him in such a state.

When she stepped through the portrait hole, the common room was empty save for Harry, who sat staring at the fire that burned in the hearth.

"What did you do, Harry?" She asked softly, sitting down beside him.

"He almost died," Harry whispered, his voice breaking. "I almost killed him," he added, his voice so low that she barely heard him.

"Harry–" she started.

He turned to her, his emerald eyes distraught as he looked at her. "You know that I would not have done it if I had known—"

"Known what?" she asked.

"The curse," he breathed. "I didn't know what the curse meant, it's sad to use it on your enemies and I thought—"

Hermione inhaled sharply at his words."You used a curse from that book, Harry?" she asked. She immediately knew his answer from the guilt she saw pass through his eyes.

"I didn't know," he whispered.

"But you should have!" she snapped, standing up as rage coursed through her body in a sudden torrent. "You almost killed him!" You almost killed me, she wanted add, biting her lip to keep the tremble out of her voice.

"You don't think I know that?" Harry said. "Myrtle followed me all the way here, screeching that I am a dirty murderer," his voice was hollow, and she could hear the sorrow and regret in it.

Hermione ran a trembling hand through her hair, unable to look hairy in the eye.

"Hermione," he whispered. "Everyone knows, they think I'm a monster–don't leave me too," he said.

When she looked down at him his eyes were filled with the familiar pleading look fat she always succumbed to in the past. She wanted to scream at him, berate him for what he had done, almost depriving her of her life for no reason other than a fit of anger against his childhood bully. But she knew that she could not do that, and so she let her expression soften, sinking back into the sofa and pulling him into her arms. Almost immediately, she felt his tears wetting her blouse and she squeezed him closer, knowing that she should relish in these moments while they lasted, before she would leave and align her loyalties with her husband, breaking her best friend's heart.

X

She spent her lunches and evening hours tending to Malfoy, precisely reciting the incantations Snape had taught her, watching the dark tendrils of the curse lift themselves from his skin and dissipate in the damp air of the small room.

On the third evening, she'd just finished a fourth round of siphoning out the curse when Malfoy turned and blinked his eyes open. At first, she wondered if he even recognized her. His gray eyes were vacant and nearly unseeing as they roved around the room, focusing on nothing at all. Eventually, however, they settled on her, alight with an intensity she had never seen in them. They looked at each other for a few long moments, and she held her breath as she waited for him to curse her.

Nothing came. Instead, the intensity in his eyes dimmed, and he gave her a weak nod of acknowledgment. And as quickly as they had opened, his eyes fluttered shut again and he fell into a peaceful sleep.

X

It was late, and Hermione found herself in the library yet again, perusing through a pile of books that were scattered on the table in front of her. This time, however, instead of searching for what she could find on Horcruxes, Each tome contained various bits of lore surrounding ancient marriage bonding ceremonies. She had been reading for hours, and she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of types of ceremonies there were. She had looked deep into history, to points where nations had existed only in broken fragments, each culture having its own practices regarding marriage. Most ceremonies utilize blood magic as a way of forming marriage bonds, and many of them - too many - carried the unfortunate consequences of the immediate death of both spouses upon the death of one.

It was maddening. After hours of research, she'd found only a handful of similar ceremonies but not the exact one she was searching for. She ran her finger down yet another page, quietly muttering to herself the Latin vows she remembered repeating on that fateful night. Yet again, the vows she found bore little resemblance to the phrases she recalled. She yawned as she turned to the next page, skimming through the words she saw before she stopped abruptly. In the middle of the paragraph where her finger had stopped, a familiar line stared back at her. She sat up straighter, newly alert as she read the paragraph, recognizing some of the Latin words she had heard her Defense Against the Dark Arts professor speak that night. Further down the page, she saw the words Malfoy had repeated to her and froze, realizing that this was it.

She took a deep breath before turning into the page next to where the vows were written, knowing that the words she had dreaded to read were now in front of her. The name of the type of bonding spell they had used was a long and complicated Latin phrase that she committed to memory before moving down the page, skimming the details of the ritual. "Bonding is done by combining the blood of the intended spouses… once complete, consummation is required in order to make the bonding permanent… dissolution of the bond is impossible, and upon the death of one spouse, the other shall follow nearly immediately… throughout their lifetime spouses can never be compelled to speak of their marital dealings, including by way of magical coercion…"

Hermione froze, re-reading the last few lines. They could never be compelled to reveal their marital dealings, and even outside compulsion as pervasive as veritaserum could not be used against them. The only way that the dealings of the spouses could be revealed outside of their own volition was through Legilimency. Hermione paused, then re-read the sentences again. And again. With shaking hands, she turned back the pages of the book she was reading from, skimming the entries detailing other similar marriage bonding ceremonies as her blood began to run cold with the realization that had begun to dawn upon her. Almost all the ceremonies in the book bound to the intended spouses with blood magic. Almost all resulted in the death of both spouses upon the death of one. Almost all made intimacy with another nearly impossible outside the bond. But only one… only one had this additional trait.

She shoved the book into her bag, standing mechanically as her footsteps let her out of the library and down the hall. Dread seeped into her veins as she neared her destination, all the while thinking of a vast array of reasons that could explain away what she'd just discovered other than the one that loomed at the front of her mind like any imposing shadow, casting everything she'd once seen as light versus dark into doubt.

Before long, she was stopped in front of the gargoyle that guarded Dumbledore's office, her mouth dry and her breaths shallow as she continued to try and reason the situation over her mounting panic.

Before she could make a decision - whether to demand entry or run back to her room and cry, she knew not - a familiar voice spoke from behind her.

"What brings you here at this late hour?" Dumbledore asked, his eyes twinkling in the same way she'd come to know over the years. Now, though, she wondered if what she'd always taken for kindness was simply a calculated look, hidden behind the gentle mannerisms of an aging man who was experienced in the art of manipulation.

"I need to speak with you," she said, hearing the slight tremble in her voice.

Dumbledore looked at her for a moment before nodding, and the gargoyle slid open beside him, revealing the entrance to his office. She followed him up the steps in silence, her trepidation growing with every movement as she neared and closer to hearing the truth she feared from the words of the man she had trusted implicitly for so many years.

When they entered his office, Dumbledore sat at his desk quietly, summoning the steaming pot of tea and pouring her a cup. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Malfoy?"

Hearing her new name come from his mouth sounded like a curse. "Why did you ask me to marry him?" she asked quietly.

He gave her a sad smile. "I understand that Mr. Malfoy can be quite difficult –" he paused as she scoffed at his words. "—but I know that you understood the necessity of your union when we made the proposal to you."

"But why–why did you choose me specifically?" she asked. "Surely there are other Order members as valuable as I–"

"There are many hardships that the members of the Order will have to endure during the upcoming war. I thought you best suited for this particular task."

"I spent my evening researching ancient marriage bonding ceremonies," she said tonelessly. "Do you know how many I found?"

The man did not answer, and she did not expect him to.

"Four hundred and sixty-seven," she said softly. "I found four hundred and sixty-seven possible ceremonies that you could have chosen. Yet, you chose the only one that binds us so completely that we can never be compelled to reveal any of our dealings together. Not by our friends, not by our family, and not by any legal entities either, whether veritaserum or other similar methods are employed. The only method that can be used to extract this information would be through Legilimency," she added the last part in a whisper, recalling his reminder that they strengthen their Occlumency shields.

Dumbledore was quiet as he observed her for a long moment. "There are sacrifices that we all must make," he said simply.

"I am not Harry!" she snapped. "You do not get speak to me in vague references, and expect that I will follow you blindly, never questioning the peculiar ambiguity of your words."

Dumbledore perused her quietly again, his eyes unreadable in the wake of her words. "You are the brightest witch of your age, Mrs. Malfoy," he said.

"What do you mean to have us do?" she asked, fear swirling in her heart as she realized that she knew nothing about the man that sat in front of her. No, she had never known anything about him at all, she decided.

"You made a commitment to the Order, Mrs. Malfoy," he said.

"Stop calling me that!" she thundered, disgust rolling through her in waves at his repeated use of her new name, reminding her of the damning choice she had made.

"it was your decision to take on this name, Mrs. Malfoy," he reminded her, his voice is gentle as ever. It infuriated her.

"I decided to aid in the Order in securing a vital ally," she seethed. "I did not choose to become a part of your—your schemes!"

At this, he said nothing, instead continuing to look at her in silence, his peacefulness contrasting sharply against her outburst.

"You knew I would not refuse to help the Order," she breathed. "You knew this, and you took my loyalty to use me as a pawn—"

"I would never call upon you to do anything that you would not do in the name of the Order," he answered.

She reeled at the implications of his words. She had thought, that in fighting for the light, the actions they would take would show a clear path of unambiguously good intentions towards winning the war. But now, as she looked into his eyes, she felt entirely uncertain about his plans for their involvement in the war. She had not considered that she might be asked to walk a grey path in her attempts to aid the war effort. She had blindly allowed herself to be brought into the schemes of a man who knew exactly how far she would go in the name of the Order. Either they would live, unable to be punished for whatever they would be compelled to do, or they would die together – and their crimes would die with them.

She stood, glaring at the man who seemed somehow keen to rip all purity from her soul. She slammed a fist down on his desk, wordlessly shattering both their cups of tea into a heap of porcelain shards and steaming liquid before exiting the room and slamming the door hard behind her.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE

Change was coming.

Hermione could feel it curling in the air around them, tickling at her as it approached like the tendrils of smoke as she tried to focus on each day, relishing in the quickly waning moments she had with her small circle of friends. Harry continued to voice his mounting suspicions of Malfoy, while Ron had broken up with Lavender and had taken to giving her long, wistful looks whenever the opportunity presented itself. She ignored him the best she could, careful not to lead him on even as her heart crumbled more each day under the weight of her betrayal.

She'd thrown herself into her studies, painstakingly combing through every book she could find that even reasonably related to the concept of Horcruxes and the art of Occlumency alike. She was taking a late afternoon stroll along the grounds, enjoying the sunshine and the beauty of the castle as she wondered how long it would be until she visited the castle next when her ring began to burn, bringing the fact that summer break was rapidly approaching into sharp focus. She looked around for prying eyes before pulling it off, ignoring the hauntingly beautiful way it glittered in the sunlight. RoR, it said simply.

She made her way back to the castle quickly and was soon stepping into the Room of Requirement where Malfoy awaited her, perched tensely on the arm of one of the sofas the room had provided.

"What is it?" she asked, clenching her jaw as she tried to keep her voice even.

"We're leaving. Tonight," he clipped. "Pack your trunk and do not attempt to say your goodbyes to any of your pathetic little friends. We must be discreet."

Hermione gaped at him. "You can't just expect me to—"

His eyes flashed. "Oh, but I can," he said. "Your loyalties begin and end with me now, Granger, or have you forgotten?" he spat bitterly.

They stared each other down for a heated moment, and she wondered vaguely how badly she could hex him without putting his life in danger.

"I hate you," she spat.

"And I don't care," he shot back. "You will pack your things and meet me by the gates by nightfall."

She crossed her arms. "You can't expect me to bend your every whim," she snapped.

He shoved past her, heading for the door. "Nightfall," he said sharply, letting the door slam shut behind him.

X

Hermione sat in the common room beside Ron, one of the many books on Occlumency she'd been studying open in her lap, although she'd read the same line a dozen times over without absorbing it. She sighed, glancing over at Ron who was also staring off into the distance, a worried look on his face.

"What do you suppose he gave it to us for?" Ron asked, twisting of the vial that contained the remains of Harry's Felix Felicis between his fingers.

Hermione looked away, unable to ignore the dread that grew up in her heart as she recalled Harry's words from earlier that night: Malfoy is going to try something tonight. I'm certain of it.

On their way back to Gryffindor Tower, Ron had to try it to reassure her that maybe nothing would happen at all and that it was just Harry's paranoia that had been heightened by the events of the school year. She had wished desperately that she could have told him what she knew, that something was going to happen. She was completely in the dark about the situation, unsure of if any of her loved ones would be safe, relying solely on the idea that they would be safe by virtue of being at Hogwarts. Even the idea of that safety that she'd always assumed what is now overcast with doubt as she recalled her last conversation with Dumbledore, recalling the twinkle in his eyes that she now recognized as the calculating work, signifying that she knew nothing at all of his intentions. He had, after all, allowed several students to come dangerously close to death under his watch this year, and let both Harry and Malfoy off with barely a punishment for their misdeeds.

No, she realized, she knew nothing at all, and the bleak emptiness she felt inside as a result of that knowledge terrified her beyond words. She looked over at Ron again, memorizing his soft features, wanting to reach out and trace a finger along his freckled skin and look into his blue eyes until the memory of them was burned into her soul forever. Her shrunken trunk felt impossibly heavy in the pocket of her robes, and her heart clenched painfully as she looked out the window, seeing the last vestiges of sunset rapidly disappearing over the horizon. It was almost time. It was almost time, and she knew that no matter how much time she had been given, she could never have been ready for this.

She leaned into Ron's side, knowing that her actions were based out of pure selfishness as he looked down at her, surprised. He slung an arm around her a moment later, and she ignored the way that her skin burned with the reminder of her betrayal as he pulled her closer. This she would take, despite how well she knew that the distance she had painstakingly created over the past few months should have remained.

Scarcely fifteen minutes later, the sun had disappeared completely on the horizon, and dusk settled over the castle grounds. It was time.

She looked up at Ron, allowing herself to take in his features once more, including the adoration that shone in his eyes as he looked back at her. He leaned forward slightly, a questioning look in his eyes as they flicked to her lips before meeting hers. For a fleeting moment – the breath of a second – she wanted to lean in close the distance between them, forgetting the traitorous circumstances she herself had manifested, allowing them to be just Ron and Hermione for one last moment.

But at the last moment, she turned her head, giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek before she stood, mumbling an excuse about doing rounds before heading out the portrait hole and letting it swing shut behind her with a finality that echoed in the recesses of her heart.

X

The minute Hermione stepped outside of the castle, she was assaulted by the acrid taste of wrongness that lingered in the air, coating her tongue thickly in its malignant aura with every breath she took. Every step she took felt as though it were synced to the foreboding chime of a death knell, although she knew that she had technically signed away her life months ago.

She was passing just beneath the Astronomy Tower when she spotted two figures flying in, and she ducked into the cover of the bushes at the base of the tower, her heart thundering as she spotted Dumbledore's telltale beard flying around him in the night. It must have been him and Harry returning from whatever he had tasked Harry with on that evening. She was debating whether it was safe to continue towards the gate that loomed in the distance when the shouts started. There were several voices floating down from the tower that rose high above her, and she could not discern what was being said, only that some kind of chaos had erupted.

She wondered what could have possibly been going on in the tower, feeling mounting trepidation as the shouting intensified, wondering about Harry's safety even though she knew that Dumbledore was there protecting him. If there was anything that she knew for certain over her other anxieties concerning the man, it was that Harry mattered dearly to this war and he would not compromise–

Hermione gasped as a lone figure fell from the tower, landing hard on the grass only a few feet before her.

It was a body.

Her heart thundered as she stared wide—eyed at the body that had dropped from the tower and landed before her in a mangled heap. Her body began to tremble as she took a step forward, intending to check if the person could be saved, while also knowing deep inside that no one could have survived that fall. Before she could take a second step, however, her eyes focused on the familiar unmistakable curling beard that she had known for so long that she could have pinpointed it from dozens of feet away.

Dumbledore.

At her realization, she finally found her voice and let out a bloodcurdling scream. The scream had barely started, however, when a hand clamped down over her mouth suddenly, while another wrapped tightly around her waist, pulling her into a muscular chest and back into the shadows she had just emerged from.

She began thrashing against the persons hold, desperately trying to reach her wand with her hands that had been firmly clasped to her chest by the person that held her.

"Stop it!" Malfoy's voice was an urgent whisper in her ear.

When she recognized his voice she only increased her flailing, hot tears pouring down her cheeks as she attempted to gnaw at the hand he had clamped over her mouth.

"Dammit, Granger!" he snapped, holding her tighter as she continued to thrash against his iron grip.

There was shouting then and she saw Harry running behind a rapidly retreating Snape, screaming at the man as he aimed curses at him. She could barely make out the words he screamed as her world has been reduced to the sound of her blood pounding in her ears and the harsh whispers of her husband that barely made it through.

She opened her mouth to curse at him once more when she heard several voices speaking as more people approached. Malfoy dragged her back into the shadows, a hand once again clasped over her mouth while the other trapped her arms. She made to fight him off one more when she heard a sickening cackle that made her blood run cold. None other than Bellatrix Lestrange strode up to Dumbledore's mangled body, kicking it with another gleeful cackle as she turned to her companions. Several other masked Death Eaters followed behind her, joining her cackling and trampling over the body without a care in the world as they strode confidently toward the gates, where Harry and Snape were still shouting, the elder man deflecting the litany of curses Harry spewed at him with ease.

She moved to go to Harry's aid, but Malfoy locked her tighter in his grip. Not a moment later, the Death Eaters – including Snape – Disapparated, leaving Harry alone. Hermione watched with an aching heart as he came back to Dumbledore's body, tears glistening on his face as he searched it, before standing up and rushing back to the castle.

The silence that was left in his wake was deafening.

Hot tears continued to stream down her face, running over Malfoy's hand that he still held tight over her mouth. When she reared back and smashed her head into Malfoy's face, she had the satisfaction of hearing him curse and immediately release her.

"What did you do?!" she shouted, shoving him backward. She allowed herself to peek back at where Dumbledore's mangled body lay, then turned and retched into the bushes beside them.

When she finished, she turned back to face him, shoving an accusatory finger into his chest. "Did you do this?! Did you k–" she stopped herself from saying the word as if it would make the dead body that lay only feet away from them any less real.

"No," he said, glaring down at her.

"I don't believe you," she said, repeating the words that she thought every time she heard him speak.

"And I don't care," he said, grabbing her by the upper arm and pulling her towards the gate. "We have to go."

"I'm not going anywhere – not with you."

"We have to go," he repeated, his voice devoid of emotion.

This time, she numbly let him drag her along behind him as she tried to make sense of the events that had just transpired. Dumbledore. Snape. Death Eaters. Malfoy.

All of her stuttered ruminations on the subject started and ended with the man that dragged her towards the gates. Awareness slammed back into her suddenly, and she made to tear away from him and run back to the castle, when she was suddenly enveloped in the familiar pull of Apparition, helplessly torn away by the man at the center of the horrifying events that had just transpired.

X

They reappeared in what appeared to be a fancy hotel suite, in front of a windowed wall that overlooked the London skyline. On another day— on any other day, truly, that had come before this one —she would have stopped to admire the breathtaking beauty of the view. Instead, all she could see was her hatred and disgust for the man that still held her upper arm in his vice-like grip. She knew that she could hex him within an inch of his life and not feel a thing — it would only be when his life force was actively draining away that she would feel his last agonizing minutes along with him.

Instead, she ripped her arm away, looking up at him and channeling all the hatred she felt in that moment. "You disgust me," she spat, before drawing her own wand and disapparating.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

She landed on the doorstep of her parents' home, collapsing in a heap as sobs began to rock her body. She vaguely registered the door opening, and the confused voices of her parents as they fretted over her. She let them help her up and take her inside, sobbing all the way to the family room where they wrapped her in a blanket and soon placed a steaming mug of tea into her trembling hands.

"Hermione, love," her father asked urgently, his hazel eyes wide with concern. "Tell us what happened –why on earth aren't you at school?"

She opened her mouth to speak, trying to formulate a lie that could realistically encompass her grief. Instead, a fresh round of sobs escaped her, causing her parents to wrap their arms around her as they whispered soothing words into her ear.

They stayed like this with her for hours, letting her cry as they held her in their comforting embrace, occasionally planting kisses along her forehead and hair as she cried. She fell asleep like this, waking up sometime in the middle of the night to find that they had tucked her into her bed. She sat up, shivering even though her room was temperate, reflective of the summer months that they had entered. She cast a warming charm on her sheets, instantly feeling the spell begin to work.

Still, she could not help the cold that seeped through her body, feeling as though it enveloped her entire soul.

X

She was still numb a few days later when McGonagall showed up on her doorstep, looking somber as she took in Hermione's expression.

"How are you doing, child?" The kindly woman asked.

"I should be asking you the same, professor," she said, knowing the woman would detect the emptiness in her voice. She lead the woman inside, moving mechanically as she poured her a cup of tea from the steaming pot she had just set down on the table.

"The funeral will be held at Hogwarts tomorrow," McGonagall explained, searching her eyes. Hermione nodded, staring down into her tea unblinkingly.

"You did not answer my earlier question," the older woman said softly.

"It is because I do not know the answer," she answered robotically, not bothering to meet McGonagall's searching gaze.

"Where is he?" McGonagall asked softly.

"I do not care where he is," she answered tonelessly. "I know what he's done." She thought of all the lies he had told her since they'd married, feeling bile rise in her throat at the memory of it all. She had left him wherever his hotel was, praying she wouldn't have to see him again until whenever the Order designated they were to go into hiding. At the time she'd decided to leave with him, she'd thought stealing away in the night with him was the best course of action for them. Now, she desired nothing more than to have done anything but.

McGonagall reached out to place a hand over where Hermione's rested on the table. "He did not do this," she said. "He was raised in an environment of abject cruelty, but this is not something he was capable of."

"How do you know?"

McGonagall sighed. "It was Severus."

At this, Hermione looked up, shocked. "He–what? I—I don't understand," she asked, looking at her professor with wide eyes.

"I know not the answers to the questions you wish to pose," the older woman said. "I, too, am confused."

Hermione was quiet as she remembered the way she had seen Harry screaming and throwing curses at Snape that night. "What happens now?" she asked, knowing her voice betrayed the fear she felt inside.

"I do not know," her professor said solemnly. "There is much at play here that we do not yet understand."

"Did you know why he chose to bond us this way?" she asked, looking up at the woman.

McGonagall sighed. "I had had my suspicions, but I could not be certain — his reasons for choosing you, for binding you in this way were sound, as much as it broke my heart to agreed to the decision."

"Why didn't he have someone else make an unbreakable vow? He could've chosen anyone else in the Order, but he chose me—"

"Who could we have chosen, Mrs. Malfoy? There are many members of the Order, it is true, but how many would have agreed to bind themselves by way of a perilous Vow that they could not guarantee that they would be able to uphold? Asking them to do so may have decreased their utility in the war, and as you know we have no lives that we can spare, unfortunately."

Hermione looked at the woman who sat in front of her, scanning a face that she had known and trusted for the past six years. She wondered if the woman had known about Dumbledore's ulterior motives - if she had realized, and objected. Or perhaps he had presented the unique advantages that the situation provided, and the Order members present had agreed that it was in their best interest to conceal that aspect of the proposal from her. She no longer knew who she could trust, and it broke her heart.

"Except mine, of course?" Hermione spat bitterly.

McGonagall gave her a sad look over where her spectacles were perched upon her nose. "You know very well of the sacrifices that must be made in times like these. As Albus also pointed out, you are one of the key individuals is that the Order must protect at all costs throughout this war. Who better to choose than someone who is dedicated to the cause and understands the gravity of the situation that approaches us?"

Hermione scoffed. "He gave quite the elaborate explanation, didn't he? Did you know about how completely our marriage has bound us?"

McGonagall reached over and hand and placed it gently atop hers that was clenched into a fist on the tabletop. "I did not– I swear it. As far as I know, only he and Severus were the ones who were aware."

"Regardless of if only they were aware, the Order cannot be unaware of the useful prize that has been played into their hand," she said bitterly.

"The Order would not ask of you anything they know you would not do," McGonagall said.

"You think they would not emphasize the importance of what they will ask of me in the face of the war we must win?" Hermione said. "I know how crucial this war is–I am a Muggle-born. They know that too— do not think it is beneath Kingsley or Moody to guilt me into undertaking missions they wouldn't touch themselves, knowing that if caught we can cover our tracks entirely once we master Occlumency, leaving them with clean hands once this war has concluded. All in the name of the Greater Good." She swallowed, knowing that she had already nearly mastered Occlumency out of sheer desperation to avoid Malfoy's probing in the future, effectively sealing their destiny.

To that, McGonagall said nothing, only continuing to look at her somberly.

Hermione turned to look out the window of her parents' kitchen, observing how peaceful and undisturbed the Muggle world was, in direct contrast to the turmoil that was about to descend upon the Wizarding world.

Eventually, McGonagall broke the silence. "Kingsley would like you to relocate to 12 Grimmauld Place until we've made more suitable arrangements," she said as she stood, making her way back down the hall and toward the front door. Hermione followed quietly, pulling open the door mechanically to let the woman out.

"I do sincerely hope you will be able to attend the funeral," McGonagall said as she stepped through the door.

Hermione said nothing but gave her a small nod as she left the door click shut behind her.

X

Hermione sat in the back row of the funeral, wearing thick shades and with her telltale hair pulled back into a sleek chignon, making herself as small as possible. Thankfully, she did not recognize those who sat beside her, and she spent the entire funeral alternating between watching Harry's shock of black hair and Ron's vibrant red. They stood out to her like beacons in the crowd, spots of vibrancy in the otherwise dreary weather. Even after most had stood up and left, she stayed seated, watching as Harry took Ginny aside, speaking to her in low tones. The girl's stance was hunched, and when she turned to leave, Hermione caught a glimpse of tears glistening on the girl's cheeks.

It was a vicious cycle, Hermione mused, and it all ended in heartbreak. These were the first casualties of war. The blatant grief she saw etched on the faces of the mourners that surrounded her was almost a prophetic vision of the world they loved crumbling around them, leaving a bleak new reality in its wake.

She waited until the crowd thinned some more before making her way over to where Ron and Harry sat, talking quietly amongst themselves.

"Hi," Hermione said quietly as she approached, carefully opting to sit in the seat beside Harry and furthest from Ron.

"Hermione?" Harry said, looking up at her. When she met his broken look, she pulled him into her arms, temporarily throwing down the barriers that she'd erected so carefully over the past few months.

"I'm so sorry," she said as she pulled away. "For— for all of it," she said weakly, looking toward Dumbledore's tomb.

Harry leaned into her shoulder, nodding.

"Where were you?" Ron asked.

Hermione focused on looking at Harry, the grass, the sky, Dumbledore's tomb — any and everything that wasn't Ron as she answered. "I...had things to take care of," she said.

"Like what, 'Mione?"

She could hear the doubt and hurt in his voice, and she forced down her pain as she continued to avoid his probing gaze. "My parents," she lied, knowing she'd continued to put off what she knew needed to be done as the war loomed over her.

At her words, Harry's head shot up. "Are they—"

"They're fine," Hermione reassured him. "I just...have to send them somewhere safe," she finished.

Harry continued to look at her with a wild, broken gaze, and she smoothed a hand over his cheek before hugging him again. "It'll be alright," she whispered, despite knowing that neither one of them knew if that was true. "We will survive this." The lies slid off her tongue with ease. She swallowed back the bitter taste they left, accepting that one day, sooner than she would like, she would drown in them.

X

Hermione sat at her kitchen table, watching her parents as they laughed together, soap suds in their hair as they playfully splashed each other, dancing to the radio that was tuned to their favorite oldies station as it was every Saturday morning. Her bowl of oats had grown hard and cold in the time she'd been watching them quietly, flashing them her widest, falsest smile every time they turned to her.

The two people in front of her were all she truly had left. She counted Harry and Ron as already lost, as she knew that the clock had begun to tick on their relationship the moment this war had truly begun to manifest. Her eyes roved over them, memorizing every inch of their features as she felt a silent tear slip down her cheek. Could she sever this final connection, knowing that this may well be the last time she saw them?

For a moment, a sliver of selfishness burst forth within her, urging her to ignore the desperation that had brought her to this point. It clawed at her, telling her to keep them here, to keep them near, knowing that they were the only ones who would understand the choices she'd made in the future if she even had one—

"Obliviate," she whispered, feeling more tears slip down her cheeks as she watched their bodies freeze, her father's arms still wrapped around her mother from behind in an embrace as she whispered the word that would alter their lives around her existence, closing off the gaps she'd created in their memories until their daughter was long gone from their minds, reduced to nothing but a whisper of the memories that had been stolen from them.

X

It was nearing dark when she apparated to 12 Grimmauld Place, standing on the doorstep for an inordinate amount of time before she finally stepped through the threshold. She stood in the front hall for a moment, running her fingertips along the faded wallpaper as she tried to commit the place to memory. She had once viewed the place as something akin to a prison, but now she realized that it was the closest place she had to home. At least she had been able to return — after stealing away that night with Malfoy, she had anticipated not returning to any of the sanctuaries that she had shared with her friends for quite some time.

She tiptoed past the oft shrieking portrait that despised her so, wondering what insults the shrill woman would have for her now that Hermione had technically married into her bloodline. At that thought, Hermione's eyes went wide as she went quickly into the room she knew held the Black family tapestry. Her heart race as she searched the tapestry, letting out a relieved breath when the space that would link her to Draco was empty.

"We had that glamoured, too," a voice spoke from behind her, startling her.

She whirled around to see none other than Kingsley Shacklebolt perched in an armchair by the fire, nursing a glass of dark liquor.

"Hello, Kingsley," she said stiffly.

"No one should have had to witness what you did," his said. "Are you alright?"

Hermione stared at him, incredulous for a moment as she took in his words. How could she possibly be alright? From the look in his eyes, she could tell that he, too, knew just how useless his words had been.

"I'm fine," she lied.

"We've prepared a room for you on the top floor," he said as she turned to make her way for the exit.

She paused at that, as she had been heading toward the room she had once shared with Ginny. She turned and gave him a soft nod.

"You have taken on a great responsibility, Hermione," Kingsley said. "It will not be forgotten."

She stiffened at his words, wanting to turn to ask him if he had known about Malfoy's activities before they'd elected to have her bonded to him. But she had already caught the weariness in his stance, the empty look in his eyes as he'd nursed his glass. Instead, she gave him another stiff nod before making the long journey to the topmost floor.

It was quiet in the house save for the creaks her footsteps made as she ascended the stairs. By the time she made it to the topmost floor, the weariness she'd been feeling when she'd entered the home had begun to seep into her bones, and she pushed open the door to the room with the sole intention of taking the sleeping potion she had stashed in her bag and drifting off into a blissfully dreamless sleep.

She knew she shouldn't have been surprised to see Malfoy there, sitting on the small couch, but she was.

They stared each other down for a long, tense moment, and her hand was tight around her wand in her pocket as she debated whether she could hex him without rousing the entire household. Before she could decide, however, he stood and went into the small loo, slamming the door shut behind him.

Before he re-emerged, she had already crossed over to the bed that was pushed into the far corner of the room and curled up on top of the sheets, falling into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN

Hermione woke early the next morning, tiptoeing past where Malfoy slept on the cramped couch and letting the door click shut softly behind her. She readied herself for the day in one of the bathrooms on the lower floors, stashing her toiletries at the top of the steps in lieu of returning to the room where her husband still slept.

She crept down to the kitchen and was surprised to hear low voices drifting out of the open doorway as she approached. When the occupants were within view, Hermione was surprised to see nearly all the Weasleys, save Percy and Ginny, Fleur Delacour, Tonks, and Lupin sitting around the table, listening to the instructions that Kingsley and Moody gave. When Kingsley and Moody paused to look up at her, the other occupants of the room all turned to appraise the newcomer.

Most of those sat around the table gave her small smiles, and she smiled back. Kingsley and Moody, however, gave her a small frown and a calculating look respectively.

She crossed her arms are stared back at Kingsley defiantly, scanning everyone's faces. "You're planning something," she said. "Something that's happening soon."

Kingsley sighed. "Hermione–"

She ignored him, scanning the meeting's participants once more. "Something that clearly has to do with Harry, seeing that he's not here."

"We have to retrieve him tonight," Ron said, ignoring the frowns his parents gave him as he easily volunteered the information he was clearly not meant to divulge. "Don't worry though, it'll be an easy pickup and we'll be back in no time."

Hermione looked up at Kingsley, eyes narrowed. "If it's an easy pickup, then why haven't I been included?"

Kingsley sighed again, but Ron spoke before he could.

"It'll be best if you stay here where you're safe, 'Mione," Ron said.

"And all of you are going?" she asked.

"Well, Mum and Ginny aren't, but…"

"How are you doing it?" she pressed. "One would think that having this many people go to retrieve him would attract unwanted attention unless—" she looked at Moody, raising an eyebrow as the man grunted in answer.

"Polyjuice, then," she confirmed, and Moody nodded.

"Aye. Perhaps you should be included," Moody mused, his glass eye narrowing as he appraised her. "Quite the bright one, she is," he added, looking at Kingsley.

Kingsley was silent, still watching her with the frown that had been etched on his face since she'd entered.

She ignored the warning look in his eyes, scanning the people in the room as she counted out the numbers. "Why so many? Are you anticipating an attack?"

"No, not as of yet," Fred spoke.

"Simply being precautionary, you see," George finished.

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Meaning that the risk is low then," she said, looking at Kingsley, who shook his head minutely in warning.

She ignored him, pressing on. "You will be unevenly numbered with the addition of Harry," she noted. "You would do well by allowing me to come."

"Hermione," Mr. Weasley spoke up, hesitating. "The risk, while low, is still there, and we wish to protect as many from harm as we can, although we know that some are too stubborn to be swayed," He added pointedly, looking around at his children and Fleur alike.

"He's right Hermione," Lupin said, frowning.

"You will be unevenly distributed," she said again. "If you add me in, that will be another decoy, even if this is all just for peace of mind. As you have all said, this is for precautionary measures and there is no serious threat of Death Eaters that we know of," she said, meeting Kingsley's eyes. "The only other person who would be willing to undertake such a task is Ginny, and she still has the Trace. He is my best friend, and you know that there's no one better suited to this task than I."

Moody cleared his throat. "All in favor of Miss Granger joining say aye."

There was a small chorus of "ayes" around the room, although a few remained silent. She met Kingsley's dark gaze for a long moment before sitting down, listening intently as Moody continued outlining the plan for that evening.

X

Kingsley found her in the Black family library not long after the meeting adjourned.

"You know that I cannot let you come this evening," he said sharply, his mouth thinned into a hard line in as he looked at her.

"Has she sent word?" Hermione asked, snapping her book shut.

Kingsley's frown deepened. "It does not matter if she has sent word or not. What matters is that until we have secured you a safe location, we have agreed, upon Mrs. Malfoy's insistence, that you are to remain under the direct protection of the Order. We will not have you undertaking anything unnecessarily dangerous before the war has even begun."

But you would after it has begun, wouldn't you? she wanted to ask. "She has not sent word, which means that they are not aware of our plans," she said. "Let me do this — please. It may be one of the last things I get to do for him before I leave him."

Kingsley continued to frown at her, and she met his look with the one that reflected both her pleading and her determination to accompany them on the mission no matter the cost.

Eventually, Kingsley sighed. "If we receive news that there is any hint of even an inkling amongst the Death Eaters, you will be banned from attending– no exceptions," he said finally.

Hermione nodded, giving him a small, tense smile. "This is all I will ask of you," she promised.

He continued to appraise her for a few moments longer before he turned to leave. "You will ride with me," he said before exiting and pulling the door shut behind him.

X

She spent most of the day in the library, continuing her Horcrux research as she tried to stop herself from obsessively checking the clock as nightfall drew nearer. When Tonks found her once it was time to depart, she was already standing, having just been pacing anxiously as she waited to see if there would be news from the elder Mrs. Malfoy or not. She let out a breath when the woman gave her a small nod and indicated that it was time to leave, and she followed her outside, where everyone was mounting their various modes of transportation for that night. She swallowed when she saw Kingsley astride a skeletal horse-like creature, realizing that it was a Thestral. She took a deep breath, forcing down the emotions that rose within her as she was faced with the memory of why she could now see the creature as clear as day when only a year prior she had stumbled and flailed as she tried to mount one.

Kingsley said nothing as she settled herself in front of him, only pressing her close to him as he told her to steady herself. Within minutes, they were all soaring into the night. It was eerily calm, she realized. Up in the sky and free from the constant sounds of London about her, which she had grown so used to, the stillness almost startled her. There was little noise save for the sound of the wind in her ears and Kingsley's breaths behind her. Quickly, sooner than she would have thought, they were all descending and landing on a quiet Muggle street. They were soon knocking at the door of the home Hermione knew that Harry despised, and the man himself opened the door only a moment later, looking surprised to see fourteen of his friends on his doorstep in the middle of the night.

She hovered in the background as the others explained the plan to Harry, then argued with him as he tried to convince them of the risk of their plan. Ron had attempted to stand near her on more than one occasion, and she had quietly— but subtly – shuffled away each time, pretending to examine a few lingering pieces of furniture in Harry's childhood home. It was only when Fleur nudged her, motioning to Hermione to take the flask of Polyjuice that she held out, that Hermione forced herself to focus on the conversation the others were having.

"Come along, 'Arry, we'd best get yeh settled," Hagrid was saying when he stopped abruptly as the sound of the wild tapping noise against the window nearest Hermione startled them into silence.

She froze for a moment as she saw the gleam of a scrap of parchment attached to its leg as it continued to tap frantically at the window. Her heart began stuttering in her chest as she moved over to the window, unlatching it quickly and pulling the parchment from the owl's leg before it took off into the night, leaving as quickly as it had come.

She didn't need to unroll the parchment to know what it said. Instead, she turned her wide eyes to Kingsley, who had approached beside her, plucking the parchment from her fingers effortlessly and reading the few short words that were written on it with a deep frown.

"They are here," he said simply, and the room interrupted into frenzied chaos.

She looked up and met Kingsley's hard gaze, realizing the perilous position she'd placed herself in. She could still try and leave, but the chances of her avoiding the Death Eaters were slim. She would have to polyjuice herself and go back out into what awaited them.

While the other Harry's in the room turned and began to shuffle themselves amongst their designated protectors after giving each other reassuring hugs and squeezes, Hermione got down the bitter-tasting potion, trying to ignore the panic that had risen in her chest as she realized that some of them –possibly including herself– might not survive the night. She steadied herself as the queasiness of the transformation finished, attempting to calm her nerves as she thought of Malfoy, who she had left in the early hours of the morning, asleep and blissfully unaware of the risks she had unilaterally decided to undertake in the name have her best friend.

The others had begun to rush out of the house, and she followed, keeping her eyes firmly on where the Thestral awaited them, feeling the burn of shame on her back where Kingsley's hand gently but firmly guided her forward. She had yet to meet his eyes again, and she had no desire to see the look that she knew must have been clear or obvious in them at that moment. She had increased his duty twofold, and guilt whirled alongside shame in her stomach as she thought of the way she had insisted on attending only that morning.

Within moments, everyone was ready to take off, and when Kingsley gave the signal, her hand tightened around her wand as she waited for the inevitable battle to begin.

The minute they breached the clouds, they were met with chaos. Figures clad in dark cloaks and silver masks dotted the air around them, shooting spells immediately as they ascended. Adrenaline coursed through her veins as Kingsley began to navigate them through the fray, and her world dissolved into nothing but the sound of her racing heart in her ears and the flashes of light erupting all around her as her enemies and allies alike threw out various blindingly bright colors.

A black cloaked figure rose up beside her, and before the person behind the mask could fire out a spell, she screamed out a stunning spell that had them toppling off their broom and into the sky, where she saw another similarly dressed figure snatch them before they fell too far.

Just as quickly as the first disappeared, two more appeared his place, shooting spells that she barely deflected before flinging back her own, mindful of where Kingsley attempted to shoot his own while also helping navigate their mount through the chaos of the battle. She felt a curse slash her upper arm, the sting of the fresh cut burning brightly before she could whip her head around to identify which assailant had managed to land the blow.

"Stupefy!" she screamed, and watched as twin bolts of light from both her and Kingsley's wands hit the Death Eater at the same time, and the person tumbled off their broom, disappearing into the night air until they were reduced to nothing but a speck. When she turned to her other side where the other death eater had been only moments before, she saw that Kingsley had cut that one down, too.

A new figure rose beside them, but when she raised her wand and threw out a defensive spell, it glided off the newcomer's body. When she looked more closely at the cloaked figure that drifted through the air without assistance beside them, her mouth froze open in a scream as cold dread filled her heart.

This floating, disfigured, half-human creature was none other than Voldemort himself.

Terror gripped her heart as she met his snake-like eyes, knowing that she was face-to-face with the embodiment of evil itself.

She steeled her resolve, raising a shaking hand as she tried to steady her wand on his figure. "Stu—" she started, but before she could finish the spell, he abruptly tore away, gliding off into the clouds.

"What—" she started to ask Kingsley when the realization hit her. He'd known, somehow, that she wasn't Harry. He'd known, which meant that–

"Harry!" she screamed. "He'll find him! We have to go back– we have to–"

"No!" Kingsley said, sparing her only a brief glance over his shoulder as yet another death eater rose before them, which he quickly deflected with the spell that sent them spinning away.

Another rose beside her, and she reacted instantly, sending them flying in a manner, not unlike the way Kingsley had sent their companion flying only a moment prior. They continued to fly through the air, and Hermione looked around with wild eyes as she awaited more attackers, although none came, filling her heart with even more dread. She wondered if they had failed, if Harry was already dead, and she had put both her and Malfoy's lives in jeopardy for no reason at all. Her heart clenched as she thought of him, wondering if her hatred of him had been justification enough for her actions while simultaneously knowing it hadn't.

She just barely registered Kingsley pressing a portkey into her hand before she was sucked into the sensation. When they reappeared, it was eerily quiet. She looked around, realizing that they were in a forest somewhere, likely very far from civilization.

"Let me see," Kingsley said, taking up her arm. She looked down at where he held her, noticing that her wound was still bleeding steadily, soaking her sleeve.

"I'm alright," she answered tonelessly. "Let's just go."

Kingsley appraised her quietly for a moment before nodding and pressing another portkey in her hand. This time, they reappeared at the Burrow, landing safely in the Wealseys' yard. Her legs began shaking then, and she felt herself sink to the ground. She vaguely registered Kingsley's grip on her arms as he stood her up straight.

"Hermione, look at me," he urged. "Are you alright?"

She nodded mutely, still trembling as she tried to focus on his words as he continued to speak.

Eventually, he seemed to realize that she was too distraught to respond, and pulled her into the house, where others from their group gathered around a prone figure on the sofa. The moment she saw the others, she counted who had returned, then gasped as Ron materialized, hugging her fiercely.

"Are you alright?" he asked, running his hands over her sides. She let herself lean into his touch, momentarily allowing herself to enjoy the comfort of his familiar embrace. "You're hurt," he said, thumbing over where blood was caked on her sleeve where she'd been slashed by a curse.

"I'm fine," she said, letting him pull her back into a hug. She was numb to the pain after all that had transpired, and it had been reduced to little more than a dull throbbing. Only moments later, Harry joined them, and the three of them wrapped in a fierce embrace.

In the end, all made it back. Moody had been gravely injured, and Hermione's heart broke for the man. Once he had been tended to and it was declared that he was expected to make a full recovery, she stayed up alongside the others as they stayed up late, recounting their experiences and tending to George's injury. It was nearing sunrise when Ginny pulled Hermione aside and lead her up to her room, where they both nearly instantly passed out from sheer exhaustion.

X

The next day, she busied herself by helping Mrs. Weasley around the house, deeming it necessary to keep herself occupied lest troubling memories of the previous evening invade her mind. She stopped only to let Mrs. Weasley tend to her wounded arm every few hours, which turned out to be cursed. The older woman had informed her that the wound was cursed and would continue to bleed for at least another day, ordering her to take blood replenishing potions every few hours.

She continued helping Mrs. Weasley with her tasks for the day until well into the evening when Kingsley stepped through the floo, his expression unreadable.

"You're needed at Grimmauld," he said to her after greeting those who milled around her in the kitchen, his expression unreadable.

Hermione swallowed thickly, then nodded before following him through the floo.

"We will come to seek you in your room shortly," he explained before disappearing into one of the sitting rooms.

Hermione nodded, then slowly made her way up the steps until she reached her rooms before slowly pushing open the door and stepping inside.

Malfoy was standing in the middle of the room, his back to her. His stance was tense, and he did not move as she closed the door behind herself.

"I—" she started, stopping short as he whirled on her.

"Where the fuck were you?" he seethed as he approached, his grey eyes dancing with rage.

She clamped her mouth shut but crossed her arms defiantly over her chest. "That is none–"

"Do not dare lie to me," he snapped.

"It doesn't matter where I've been, Malfoy," she shot back, ignoring the guilt that churned in her stomach as she glared back at him. "Although I thank you for your concern." She was unable to hide the bitterness in her tone, at once burdened by guilt and anger that she had to think of him now as much as she thought of herself.

He snatched her by the arms then, gripping her tightly. She gasped out a pained moan as he clutched her wound that was covered only by her sleeve, grinding her teeth to stop herself from making another noise to prevent him from discovering the true source of her discomfort.

"I know what kinds of reckless things you do with Potter and Weasel," he seethed. "I do not care what you do, only that you do not get yourself killed in to process. My mother has put her life on the line to protect your precious Order, and if you ever do anything that gets me killed and leaves her alone here–" he cut off abruptly as there was a rap at the door, dropping her arms abruptly.

Hermione gave him another glare before crossing to the door and pulling it open. Her eyes widened a fraction as Kingsley stepped aside to reveal McGonagall and none other than Mrs. Narcissa Malfoy behind him, all of whom quickly glided into the room before sealing the door shut behind them with a few select spells.

"Good evening," Hermione greeted and was met by stiff nods from the visitors.

Mrs. Malfoy looked around the sparsely furnished room disdainfully before crossing over to Draco, looking him over quickly before nodding at him and turning to the other occupants of the room.

"Tell me what happened," she demanded, irritation clear in her tone.

"We received the letter once we were already in Potter's home," Kingsley explained. "Nonetheless, it was helpful to have been warned beforehand. I believe that is the reason we were all able to return safely. Alastor Moody was gravely injured, but he is expected to make a full recovery."

Hermione felt Malfoy's accusatory gaze on her but steadily ignored him as she listened to the conversation.

"And what of the safe house?" Mrs. Malfoy asked.

"We are making preparations as we speak, and we expect to have something ready within a month's time," McGonagall answered.

Within a month. She had but a month until she would be forced to go into hiding with Malfoy, a man who was currently glaring at her with a look of such abject distaste that she wondered if he were about to hex her, regardless of their audience.

"Very well," Mrs. Malfoy said, looking around the room before her eyes landed on Hermione.

Hermione froze in the woman's icy blue gaze, feeling as though she was being picked apart by the force of it. Hermione's heart began to race as the woman crossed over to her, eyes narrowed. She met the woman's eyes with uncertainty, trying to read them. She snatched up Hermione's arm suddenly, and Hermione yelped involuntarily before biting her lip as the woman's slender fingers dug into her wound. She looked down to see a telltale patch of blood darkening the sleeve of her shirt, likely from the way Malfoy had gripped her hard only minutes prior.

"You little bitch," the woman seethed, her blue eyes dancing with rage as she glared at Hermione.

Before Hermione could utter a word, Mrs. Malfoy reared back and slapped her clean across the face, taking her breath away.

The room was silent for a beat in the wake of Mrs. Malfoy's outburst, and Hermione's cheek burned where the woman's hand had made contact.

"Mrs. Malfoy!" McGonagall cried, aghast. At that, Hermione could not help but look up upon hearing her new name, looking away ashamedly as she saw the look on her former Professor's face.

"You were there?!" Mrs. Malfoy seethed at Hermione, ignoring McGonagall's words.

Hermione nodded meekly, shrinking back at the force of the woman's outburst. Mrs. Malfoy let go of her abruptly, causing her to stumble back, cradling her arm that now bled freely.

The other woman whirled on Kingsley, advancing on him with a murderous look in her eyes. "Our agreement was that they remain under the Order's watch and protection until proper arrangements could be made!"

"I am aware, Mrs. Malfoy, we–"

"If you are aware," Mrs. Malfoy snapped. "Why was she there when she was to be forbidden from leaving Order custody?"

Hermione wanted to object to the idea of being imprisoned like a misbehaving child but feared the look on her mother in law's face. Beneath the anger, Hermione could clearly see the fear the woman felt at the prospect of losing her child, instantly filling Hermione's body with remorse. Perhaps she deserved to be treated like a child — she had acted irrationally and was now facing the consequences of what had almost come to pass. She shivered again as she recalled Voldemort's inhuman face so close to hers, an aching chill settling in her bones once more at the reminder.

"Her life is tethered to that of my son!" Mrs. Malfoy snapped, pressing her wand into Kingsley's chest. "I entered into this agreement under no uncertain terms — you will protect him as well as you would protect one of Potter's most precious friends or I will find a way to raze your Order." Her voice had gone chillingly even, ringing with promise as she leveled Kingsley with a deadly glare.

Before anyone else could speak, Mrs. Malfoy disillusioned herself and left, letting the door slam behind her.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHT

Hermione spent the next few days at the Burrow, the only other place she had leave to visit since it was now deemed the Order's backup headquarters in the case Grimmauld were to be deemed compromised. Mrs. Malfoy had informed Kingsley that Snape had yet to inform Voldemort of Grimmauld's location, and so he had deemed Grimmauld safe until such a time that they were made aware of Snape having decided otherwise. Precautionary wards had been erected in the meantime, but as of then things had been quiet, and the Order carried on affairs at Grimmauld like normal.

She hid out in Ginny's room under the pretense of research while avoiding Harry, Ron, and her husband alike. After her confrontation with Mrs. Malfoy, the room had descended into a tense silence after which Kingsley and McGonagall had given their apologies to her before departing themselves. She had left to sleep in the library for the night without a word to Malfoy, feeling deeply ashamed yet unwilling to deal with another confrontation with him.

And so she remained stowed away in Ginny's room, poring over books day and night until she was too exhausted to experience the troubling dreams that had followed her since the battle. Even still, during her waking hours, she was constantly reminded of the fact that her husband loomed in her room back at Grimmauld. She returned only to retrieve a change of clothing every now and again, showing her face just enough for him to know that she hadn't run off to do something reckless, risking their lives again before the war had even begun.

He was an inextricable part of her that she knew she could not avoid forever, despite her determination to do just that. Ginny had not questioned the appearance of her new roommate who she knew had her own room only a floo away, instead of welcoming her with open arms. Hermione listened to the other girl's aimless chatter as she returned to the room late at night, allowing herself to drift off to the sound of her friend's chattering as she responded only with small nods or hums of approval.

She knew that Ginny's chattering was her own form of mourning, knowing that it pained the girl deeply to see Harry in and out of the Burrow each day, sneaking off with Ron when he could so that they could make plans for the upcoming war. They had tried fruitlessly on several occasions to bring Hermione into their chats, but she had selfishly made excuses each time, despite the fact that she knew only the three of them were privy to Harry's task of finding and destroying the Horcruxes.

She wanted to make the most of the little time she had left them, but each time she saw the trust reflected in their gazes as they looked at her, her heart broke a little more and she would often find herself mumbling an excuse before stumbling off, forcing herself not to cry. Like Ginny, Hermione too was mourning - preemptively mourning the loss of her friendships as the day she would be leaving them drew closer.

Late one afternoon, Hermione stepped through the floo at the Burrow when Harry materialized beside her, pulling her out into the garden behind him despite her protests.

"What is going on with you, Hermione?" he said when they were alone, casting a quick muffliato.

Hermione sighed. "It's nothing, Harry," she said, shuffling her feet.

"You've been so cold and distant—"

"The battle just took a bigger toll on me than I thought it would, is all—"

"—for months now!" Harry finished.

She opened her mouth then closed it again, feeling exhausted as she tried to search for another excuse. "It's nothing," she repeated, knowing her words would only hurt him further.

"You won't even look at me half the time," he said, his voice sad.

She looked up at him then, her lip trembling as she bit back the words that threatened to spill from her mouth. His bright green eyes shone with equal parts anger and sadness, and she longed to let the words burst forth. I married Malfoy. The Order asked me to. I found out that you were right about the attempted murders when it was already too late. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

"When he died…" Harry said. "You weren't there, Hermione. You were just…gone."

"Harry," she whispered, searching his eyes. He was broken, buckling under the pressure of the burden he had been forced to carry. A lone tear slipped free from her eye then, and she didn't bother to wipe it away, knowing that more were likely to follow.

"Why did you go?" he asked, moving only to swipe a thumb across the tear that had fallen. "Ron— he's been trying to hold it in, but he's hurting, too."

A lump rose in her throat as she thought of the sad longing she'd seen reflected in Ron's eyes each time she'd turned away from him over the months. She bit her lip nervously, averting her eyes from Harry's searching gaze.

"So that's it, then," Harry said. "Are you afraid because we might have to run together?"

"Yes," she whispered, omitting the fact that yes, they would be running together — but not with her.

Harry reached out and squeezed her arm. "If this isn't — if he isn't what you want, you need to try harder make it absolutely clear to him instead of letting him hold out hope," Harry said knowingly. "Not knowing…not knowing is killing him. But…he'll understand. Things will be alright — we need you, Hermione, and we would never leave you behind."

Instead of answering, she drew him into her, allowing her tears to wet his jumper as she let him soothe her gently, all the while completely ignorant of her impending betrayal.

X

After Harry's confrontation, Hermione decided to throw herself into preparing Harry and Ron the best she could for the time that they would be apart. She spent her days either helping with wedding planning or researching and planning with Harry and Ron. She subtly picked at the holes in their plans, ensuring that their plan to run and any contingency plans wear airtight, foolproof to the point that her missing presence would not be as glaringly obvious as it otherwise would have been. It still pained her each time she heard them refer to the three of them as "us", each day bringing her closer to the sad truth that they were no longer a trio. She maintained a careful distance from Ron, rebuffing even his friendliest gestures. More often than not, she caught him looking at her with a pained longing, and it hurt doubly as much when she would catch Harry's sad, knowing looks as he observed them.

She had begun sleeping at Grimmauld once more, but only returned to their room late at night when she was too exhausted to bother arguing with Malfoy. He ignored her as much as she did him, and she knew not what he did during the day besides perusing the bookshelf that she had kept filled since they had been assigned their room. When she returned to the room, he was often either skimming absently through a book or curled up on the sofa, asleep. She suspected that many of those times he was not actually asleep, especially when she woke early in the mornings to leave. She paid him no mind regardless, and the short amounts of time they spent together were usually shrouded in tense silence.

This night had been no different than the dozen or so that had passed since they'd arrived, and she had just come from the shower, dressed in her nightclothes and preparing to go to bed when there was a soft knock at the door. Her eyes widened as she realized that the knock that had come was not Kingsley's familiar pattern. She looked at Malfoy, who had perked up slightly and was also looking at the door.

"Who is it?" she called.

"It's me, 'Mione," Ron answered. "I won't leave until you talk to me — why is your door warded?"

Bollocks. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. She gestured at Malfoy to go into the loo, and he scowled back at her from where he sat on the sofa.

"Please," she pleaded in a whisper.

He scowled for a moment longer before standing stiffly and going into the loo, slamming the door behind him with more force than necessary.

Her heart race as she crossed over to the door, resting her hand on the knob. "It isn't–it just isn't a good time right now," she said.

"It never is with you these days, 'Mione," he said, and the tone of his voice pained her. Her hand tightened on the knob as she debated whether to let him in. In a moment of either desperation or stupidity —she knew not which – she pulled open the door to reveal him standing there, looking lost and sad.

"Ron," she whispered, pulling him inside and letting the door shut behind him. She cupped a hand over his cheek and he leaned into it, closing his eyes as he almost nuzzled into her hand. He lifted a hand to her waist, and she stepped back automatically, eyes downcast.

"Why do you always pull away from me?" he asked.

She bit her lip, still not looking at him. "I don't–"

"You do, 'Mione — every time," he sounded so sad, so helpless, that she could not help looking up at him, only to see the emotions reflected tenfold in his blue eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said truthfully — for once.

"Sorry for what?" he asked. "I understand nothing of what has been going on with you, and when I ask all you have to say is sorry even though I have no idea what is going on."

"For everything," she whispered, knowing he wouldn't understand that either.

"Is it – is it me?" he worried hand through his hair. "Did I muck up that badly with the Lavender thing? If I need to spend the rest of my life begging for your forgiveness, I will," he added sincerely, stepping closer to her.

She forced herself not to step back again but still looked away all the same. "It's not you, it's me," she answered lamely, knowing he would detect the falsity in her voice.

"How could it be you?" he said, stepping closer until he could cup her cheek this time. "You're perfect," he murmured. "You're – everything to me."

She squeezed her eyes shut, unwilling to let the tears that have gathered there fall. "Don't say that," she whispered.

"I speak nothing but the truth," he said determinedly.

She didn't respond, but still — selfishly – allowed herself to languish in the warmth of his hand on her cheek.

"Please look at me," He begged.

She blinked her eyes open, knowing that he would see the unshed tears that had gathered there.

"'Mione," he whispered, stroking her cheek with his thumb.

She felt trapped in the warmth of his blue eyes, knowing that she needed to look away, to send him away, but somehow frozen in her spot. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek where a tear had fallen, and she did not stop him. He began a soft trail of kisses down her face, and when his last kiss landed on her lips, she did not stop that one, either.

Instead, she surged forward suddenly, wrapping her arms around his neck as she pulled him closer. He paused for a moment, startled, before he responded enthusiastically, moaning into the kiss. She could feel a coil of caged heat gathered low in her belly, trying desperately to claw itself free while being suppressed by the magic that bound her in marriage to another. Still, she longed to free it, and she stepped back only to let her dressing gown drop to the floor, pulling Ron's face back down to hers a moment later as she moved them back toward her bed.

"Please," she gasped as they fell back onto the bed in a heap, tugging up her nightgown. She rolled her hips against him, feeling the bulge of his hardness against her core.

"Hermione," Ron moaned, dragging her back into a kiss.

She continued to rut against him, feeling his length rubbing against her quim through the thin layers that separated them. The heat in her belly continued to claw desperately at its cage, aching for release.

She vanished her knickers wandlessly, exposing her bare pussy to the chill of the room. She ran desperate hands down his bare chest after vanishing his shirt, too, hurriedly undoing his trousers as she chased even the slightest spark of pleasure. Ron moaned, moving to kiss her neck as he rutted his now-bare length against her core as she let his cock spring free. She was still nearly completely dry, and her eyes flew open as she felt the discomfort of the sensation. She vanished her nightgown altogether then, desperate for even the smallest hint of pleasure as she pressed her bare skin against his.

She dragged him down atop her as he continued to grind himself against her core, trying to ignore the discomfort. She blinked her eyes open for a moment, then widened them as she saw Malfoy glaring darkly at her from where he had inched open the door to the loo, watching them. He met her eyes then, and she gasped at the dark intensity that swirled within them.

She dragged her hands back to tug at Ron's head from where he had latched onto her neck, tearing her eyes away from her husband's glare.

"Ron," she called. "Ron — stop," she pleaded quietly.

He looked up at her as he panted heavily, his pupils still blown with lust. "What is it?"

"I can't," she said.

He pulled back, his features awash with confusion.

"I'm sorry, Ron, I just—"

He stood abruptly, pushing himself off the bed as he stared at her in disbelief.

"You just what, 'Mione?" he snapped down at her, his usually kindly blue eyes blazing with anger. "Tell me so that I can understand! You talk in circles, then contradict yourself with your actions!" His chest was heaving in anger with his words.

She swept her eyes over him, from the hard planes of his muscled chest down to where his hard, leaking cock hung from his trousers, wishing desperately that she could make love to him again.

"I can't," she said finally. "We— we can't."

This time, Ron didn't argue. Instead, he turned and stormed out, slamming the door shut behind him, plunging the room into silence.

The door to the loo flew open an instant later and her husband stalked out, bearing down on her. His eyes scanned her slowly, and it was then that she recalled her nakedness. She scrambled to cover herself as she summoned her dressing gown from where she'd discarded it on the floor, flushing deeply. Malfoy caught her flush and sneered at her.

"You are a filthy little slut," he spat. "But perhaps this is how you've always been? How many times have you spread your legs for Potter and Weasley over the years? It's no wonder you were so quick to spread them for me as well."

She scrambled into her dressing gown, which barely covered her fully. Since she had taken it off, the belt had been separated from the dressing gown itself and she was left to hold it closed with only her hands.

"Go away, Malfoy," she shot back even as she filled with shame.

"And where exactly do you propose I go?" he snapped. "I've been banished to this bloody room with my whore of a wife for two weeks!"

"And you think that I desire to be here, stuck with you?" she shouted back. "I hate you! The very thought of your presence in my life disgusts me!"

"Do you think that you don't disgust me? You almost got us bloody killed!" he shouted back. "And for what?! Saint fucking Potter?" he spat Harry's name as if it were a curse.

"Don't talk about Harry like that!"

"Oh, shall I talk about your precious lover, then?" he sneered. "The bloody fucking Weasel that you were about to let fu—"

"Shut up!" she screamed. "Shut up! Shut up!" she stood up and shoved him in the chest.

He snatched her wrists, holding them with bruising force as she tried to squirm away. "I told you not to dare hit me, Granger, or I would make you regret it."

"Let go of me!" she snapped, snatching her arms back. "You call me a whore, but you are nothing but a cold-hearted murderer. You did it — I know you did, you tried to kill Dumbledore, too, didn't you? Harry told me you were there, he told me you wanted to do it—"

"You know nothing about me or the things that I've done!" he thundered. He was shaking with rage as he stalked forward, drawing close enough that their chests barely touched. The unbridled rage in his expression caused a spark of fear to rise within her, and she found herself stumbling backward onto the bed, not having realized that he had stalked forward until they were pressed against it.

"You know nothing of me or the things I've done!" he thundered again, leaning forward until his tense, muscled arms were on either side of her like a cage.

He had moved so close that she could feel his warm breath fanning over her face with his words, and she could not help sweeping her eyes over his body as he loomed over her in a fashion not unlike how Ron had been only minutes prior. Her frustration hadn't yet abated since Ron had left, and she now found herself all but arching into Malfoy, the heat that had been building within her having been released from its cage in a sudden inferno, drawing her toward him. She felt betrayed by her body that that had decided to release the torrent of heat that now pooled between her legs, leaving her practically pulsating with want for him alongside her hatred of him. When she looked back up at his eyes, she found them trained on her body, and her eyes widened as she realized that she had once again let her dressing gown come undone during their argument. His eyes slid back up her body until he met hers, and grey eyes met brown for one intense moment.

She broke the moment, scrambling backward and pulling her dressing gown closed, at once both flushing and glaring at him. He said nothing, but turned and went back into the loo, slamming the door shut behind him.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINE

There was a knock at the door then, and Hermione started before crossing over and cracking it open, wary of who could have been standing outside. She was surprised to see that it was none other than Harry, who stared back at her with wild green eyes as he craned his neck, trying to see into the room behind her. She let the door open further, relieved that it was only Harry.

"What happened?!" he asked, eyes roving around the room before they landed on her and he began blushing furiously, immediately whirling around so that his back was to her. "Sorry!"

She blinked, then looked down at where his eyes had landed before letting out a small gasp. Yet again, the tie on her dressing gown had come undone while she'd been distracted, and at that moment she decided that she would burn the blasted thing at her earliest convenience.

"What happened, Hermione?" Harry asked again. His back was still turned, and his voice was quieter than before. "I heard yelling — are you alone up here?"

She quickly summoned her wand and transfigured her robe to make it fit better. "You—you can turn around, now Harry," she said, flushing.

He turned slowly, peeking to make sure that she was fully covered before starting to scan the room once more.

"It's nothing!" she said hurriedly. "I just— got frustrated with a book, is all," she explained.

Harry furrowed his brow. "I swear a heard a second voice though, and it sounded like a man — also, why on earth do you have wards up around your door?"

"No reason," she rushed, cursing inwardly as she thought of the time he'd likely spent calling out to her and trying the knob that she hadn't heard while arguing with Malfoy. "I just prefer not to be disturbed when I'm doing research, is all."

Harry eyed her, and she knew that he was calculating whether her words were believable or not.

"Honestly," she said, walking over and squeezing his hand.

He nodded then, sighing. "I just saw Ron and he's...upset," he explained. "I thought I would come see you, and clear things up—" his eyes widened as he took in her appearance. "Is there...someone else?"

Yes. "No," she lied easily. There was still an uncomfortable stickiness between her thighs, and she shifted awkwardly at the reminder of her encounter with Malfoy only moments prior.

He gave her another uncertain look which she quelled with another fake smile.

"Actually, I should probably head in the shower now," she said, pointedly looking down at her attire.

Immediately, she had the effect she'd desired and Harry blushed deeply before nodding. "I'll see you tomorrow, then?"

"Tomorrow," she nodded, giving him a small, tight smile before he turned and left.

As soon as the door closed behind Harry, she flipped open her trunk and downed a sleeping potion before slipping into bed. She was fast asleep before Malfoy re-emerged.

X

Hermione was sitting in the sitting room that held the Black family tapestry, continuously scanning all the names that were spread across the tree. Generations of aristocratic purebloods, a tree marred by her and Ted Tonks' names. She stared at the seemingly blank space beside Malfoy's name, picturing what her portrait would look like once it was free to be revealed. She wondered if Harry would cast her face off the tree, too disgusted to look at her after her betrayal.

A throat cleared then, and the man himself stood in the doorframe.

"Hullo, Harry," she gave him a soft smile as he entered.

"Huge, isn't it?" he said, gesturing at the Black family tree.

Hermione nodded, watching as Harry walked over and perused the tapestry. Her heart stuttered when his fingers ghosted over the place where her face was, but nothing happened and it remained thankfully hidden.

"Malfoy," Harry said suddenly, and Hermione's eyes whipped up to him.

"What about him?" she tried to keep her voice even despite the fact that her heart was thundering.

"He said some strange things the night...that night," Harry continued. "He kept saying things like 'How can you be sure?' and 'How can you keep your promise?', even as he had his wand pointed, ready to kill him. And...he talked about someone — a woman. Saying that he needed to do it because he had to protect her," Harry mused. He hadn't spoken of Dumbledore's death since his will had been read. Hermione wondered how often these thoughts had been haunting Harry, as he had spoken of what had transpired only when it was strictly necessary.

Hermione's mind reeled as she ran through all the possibilities of what Malfoy's words had meant. A woman? It couldn't have been her — certainly not. His mother, then. Had he needed to kill Dumbledore to protect his mother? None of it made sense to her, and she found herself staring hard at Mrs. Malfoy's place on the tapestry, missing Harry's next words.

"Hermione?" Harry called, and she blinked at him.

"What?"

"The locket," he repeated. "How do you suppose we'll figure out who RAB is?"

Hermione didn't answer for a long moment, eyes still trained on Mrs. Malfoy's portrait. She looked beautiful and serene, entirely unlike the woman who had been burning with rage in her room only a few weeks prior. She hadn't seen the woman since, although Kingsley occasionally delivered letters from her which she left on the desk in their room for Malfoy to find. Her eyes roved the tapestry once again, and she froze a moment later as they landed upon a particular portrait.

"RAB," she murmured, crossing over to stand beside Harry. "Regulus A Black," she said, thinking back on the name she'd seen scrawled in the corner of a few of the books on the shelf in her room.

Harry looked at her, eyebrows raised. "You don't think—?"

Hermione furrowed her brow. "It could be a coincidence, but…"

"We'll need to find out. But how? Who would know enough about the Black family that—"

"Kreacher," she interjected, shivering at the thought of the frigid old elf. Since she'd returned for the summer, she'd oft caught him giving her long, intense looks. She feared that he knew about her marriage to Malfoy, but he had yet to say anything. Yes, if there was anyone who had the information they sought, it would be him. She suspected that he knew much, much more than he let on.

"I'll summon him now," Harry said. "Maybe we can find it by tomorrow—" he was interrupted by Mrs. Weasley's voice calling out for them, likely in search of extra hands to aid with the last of the preparations before the wedding. It would be held in only a few short days, and the mere thought of it filled Hermione's heart with dread.

She followed Harry to the kitchen and was surprised to see McGonagall sitting at the table alongside Mrs. Weasley.

"Harry, dear!" Mrs. Weasley said as they approached. "Come along, I need you to help rearrange the…" her voice floated away as she lead Harry out of the room, presumably toward the nearest floo.

"I would like to speak with you," McGonagall said. Hermione watched as she cast a few spells at the entry to the kitchen, shrouding them in privacy.

"We've prepared a safe house for you and Mr. Malfoy," she said. "I am the Secret Keeper, and only myself, Kingsley and Alastor are aware of its exact location."

Hermione raised an eyebrow at the mention of Moody's name.

"He has sworn himself to secrecy just as we have," McGonagall explained. "We thought it necessary that he be made aware, as both he and Kingsley will be coordinating the Order and its missions."

Hermione nodded. "When must we leave?"

McGonagall gave her a solemn look. "As soon as possible."

Hermione gaped at her. "Just— just like that?" her eyes swung to the doorway where Harry had disappeared earlier, and she frantically tried to recall the last words he'd spoken to her, the last time he'd directed a smile at her —

It could have been the final friendly gesture she'd received from him, and the memory was already slipping away.

She bit her lip to keep it from trembling as she looked down at the table. "Just— give me a few days, please," she whispered. "I don't want to leave Harry right before his birthday, and the wedding…"

McGonagall sighed.

"I will go right after the wedding, I promise," Hermione said, looking up at the woman.

She could see the conflict in McGonagall's eyes and continued to give her the most pleading look she could muster. She was desperate for these final moments with her friends before she betrayed them by leaving, living out the rest of her life — however long it would be — in isolation with a husband who loathed her.

McGonagall nodded then, sighing once more. "I know this has been a difficult situation, Mrs. Malfoy," she said. "I thank you — the Order thanks you — for handling it with such grace."

"Thank you, Professor," Hermione said. She wanted to smile, but she could not muster it. Instead, she reached over and have the woman's hand a squeeze before leaving, intent on filling her day with wedding preparations in lieu of fretting over troubling thoughts.

X

Bill and Fleur's wedding was beautiful. The Weasleys had outdone themselves in decorating the tent that they had erected in their yard, creating an enchanting scene within. Its beauty was all the more enhanced by the cheerful atmosphere that the wedding guests and Weasleys alike emitted. Her heart swelled with sadness as she recalled the tense, somber affair that her own wedding had been. While this bride and groom celebrated with all of their closest friends and family members, her own had been shrouded in secrecy to the point where even her closest friends who sat around the table with her at that moment had no idea that the large diamond and emerald ring, which felt especially heavy on her finger that night, even existed. Her own parents were ignorant of her nuptials, and the thought of them made her grip her arm painfully until the tears that threatened to fall abated. When she finally let go, there was a bright red welt left behind, marring her skin like a physical representation of her shame.

Tonight would be the last night for an indeterminate amount of time that she would see most of these faces that she had grown to love so dearly over the years. She realized that she had no idea if she would live out this war, or if anyone that was currently participating in the festivities under the tent would, either. Everyone had been doing their utmost to enjoy the remaining time they had left before the war that had been brewing burst forth and rendered them unable to put it to the back of their minds any longer. For now, she would force herself to put on the widest, falsest, smile in her repertoire, and file away her final memories of her loved ones so that she might cling to them in her darkest moments.

Currently, Malfoy was awaiting her at her parents' home. She had taken advantage of Grimmauld's emptiness to sneak him away just before the wedding ceremony began, assuring him that she would return for him by nightfall so that they could depart for their safe house once McGonagall arrived to escort them. For now, though, both women were in attendance at the wedding, and Hermione resolved herself to glean as much enjoyment from the night as she could.

Everyone at her table was chattering amongst themselves, and she was the only one kept to herself. Harry sat next to her, creating a buffer between her and Ron, who had yet to speak to her since the incident in her room just days prior.

She looked past Harry to Ron, who paused mid-sentence when he felt her eyes on him. When he looked back at her, his eyes were hard and cold, devoid of the love and adoration and she had seen in them before he left her room. She had broken his heart, and the knowledge of it broke her own in return. She tried to give him a small smile, and was met by him shoving his chair back angrily and storming off, disappearing into the crowd on the dance floor.

Harry gave her a small, sad smile, then stood himself, offering her a his hand. "A dance?" He asked.

She gave him a watery smile and nodded, letting him take her hand. On the dance floor, he twirled her and danced in circles around her until she couldn't help but giggle. The moment he saw her smile, he gave her a beatific smile in return, and she felt her heart crumbling some more as she committed the smile to memory.

"I love you, Harry," she said, pulling him into a sudden tight hug.

He froze for a moment, confused, before he hugged her back with a chuckle. "I love you too, Hermione," he laughed.

She held onto him for a few more seconds, relishing in the feel of his familiar warmth.

"Harry –" she stopped short as there was a sudden lull that fell over the room as a silvery Lynx patronus tore into the room, hovering in the air in the middle of the dance floor just before where Harry and Hermione stood. An ominous chill trickled down her spine as she saw it, knowing that nothing good could have come from it.

"The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming."

In an instant, chaos erupted.

She turned and grabbed Harry, whose wide green eyes were still trained on the spot where Kingsley's patronus had been only a moment prior. "Find Ron!" She screamed, whipping her head around frantically she searched for his familiar shock of red hair. At that moment, however, there were several such heads fleeing and disapparating all around them.

She made to run towards one of the taller heads when her arm was snatched suddenly and she whipped around to see McGonagall gripping her arm. "Go, go now!" she said as she shoved a small pouch into Hermione's hands before running out of the tent.

It was then that Hermione focused enough to hear screams that had begun outside. They were here. She saw a flash of black hair and began charging towards it, fighting her way through the crowd of panicked wedding guests as they screamed the names of those they were searching for. As she neared the person she was heading for, relief slid in before her panic for a fleeting moment as she recognized Harry and Ron standing together, looking around frantically.

When Harry's eyes landed on her he sighed in relief, reaching out to grab her arm. "We have to go —" he started.

She shoved her beaded handbag into Ron's hand, where he looked down at it, then up at her for a confused moment. "No –you need to leave," she said, fishing in the glamoured pocket she had made in her dress to pull out a small bundled handkerchief.

"What–" Ron started, eyes widening as she unwrapped the handkerchief to reveal the small coin she had made into an illegal portkey.

"I'm sorry," she said, before dropping the coin into Harry's hand just as she snapped up Ron's empty one and closed it over Harry's. The last thing she saw before they disappeared were the twin looks of confusion on their faces.

She swallowed back the sobs that threatened to escape before she pulled out her own wand and disapparated.

X

She reappeared in the barren living room of her former family home that was furnished only by a few sparse pieces of furniture that were covered by sheets. She made to take a step forward when she was snatched back suddenly, a hand clapping over her mouth while she was dragged into a dark corner.

She screamed and flailed under her attacker's grip, her sounds and movements muffled by his hold on her.

Her husband cursed in her ear, still holding her in his iron grip. "Stop, it, Granger!" he said in an angry whisper. "We have to be quiet."

She tried to crane her neck and ask him what on earth he was going on about when she heard it. Laughter.

It was not the hearty, joyful laughter that most of her night had been filled with until tragedy struck, but a humorless, bone-chilling cackling that instantly made her blood run cold. Her eyes widened as realized who the laughter likely belonged.

Death Eaters.

She craned her neck as far as Malfoy's grip allowed, and she could see out the large bay window in the living room from just beyond the shadows they stood in. There were several dark-robed and silver-masked figures on the street outside, their loud laughter continuing to float in clearly through one of the cracked windows. Her heart started to race as she knew that it was no coincidence that they had appeared at the home of Harry Potter's best friend on the same night they'd attacked the Burrow.

"Where is the safe house?!" Malfoy whispered urgently into her ear.

She felt numb as she nodded down to the pouch she still clutched in her fingers. She vaguely felt him tearing it from her grasp as she watched the Death Eaters outside laughing amongst themselves, horror creeping into her heart as she went through the many things they could have been preparing to do.

Just then, a jet of flame erupted from the end of one of their wands, flying toward the window in the shape of a snake that jetted through the glass as though it were butter, shattering it. Malfoy dragged her out of the way, and she screamed as she saw the flames immediately engulf the place where they had just been standing. She screamed the second he removed his hand from her mouth, sobbing as he dragged her through the house while the flames licked at their heels. He stopped only to press something into her hand, and before she realized what was happening she felt the familiar tug of portkey travel at her navel.

And then they were gone.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TEN

They landed in heap on the hardwood floor of an unfamiliar cabin. Almost as soon as they landed, Malfoy dropped her arm and began moving about the place, inspecting it. She was frozen with shock, and it took minutes for her to be able to merely crane her neck around the room, inspecting its contents.

It was a small cabin, and they had landed on the kitchen floor near the front door. The kitchen itself was sparse, containing only a few basic appliances and was dominated by a small table and chairs. The wall opposite her was covered in a series of large maps that she noticed detailed the entirety of Britain, as well as many parts of Europe. There was a large desk underneath it, in addition to a tall, mostly empty bookshelf. There was a small living room that had two small sofas in it, and a closed door on one wall that she suspected led to the loo. There was another door on the opposite side of the living room whose door stood ajar, and she spied her husband within.

After hesitating for a moment, she crept up to the open doorway and saw that it was a small bedroom that was furnished only with a bed that could moderately fit two people, a dresser, and a tall mirror. Malfoy stood staring at the bed with his arms crossed.

"You can have the bed," he broke the silence.

"Why did you make us leave?" her voice was quiet but hard.

He turned to her, his eyebrows raised incredulously. "In case you did not notice," he spat, "we were about to be consumed by fiendfyre."

"I know the counter curse! My home was being consumed by fiendfyre!" she snapped back, balling her fists in rage. "That was my home," she added in a broken whisper.

He stepped over to her, bearing down on her in two long strides. "We have to survive this war," he snapped. "And that means that you cannot risk of our lives again for petty things."

"You think that my childhood home is a petty thing?!" she asked, her mouth hanging open in disbelief. "I don't know why at this point, but your utter lack of humanity continues to appall me."

His features twisted with rage. "You know nothing –"

"Then tell me!" She shouted. "Tell me so that I can understand! Every time you give the same answer, and I understand none of it!" She thought of Harry's words about what Malfoy had said the night Dumbledore died, about his denial when she asked him if he had been trying to poison Ron, about why Dumbledore would have tasked her with this — with him, knowing what he had done. None of it made any sense, and her exhaustion with the situation overran her anger as she yearned to know why this was all transpiring.

He was breathing heavily, and she met his eyes unwaveringly. They stayed like that for a long beat, and he did not move.

"I'm going to take a walk," she said finally, turning away and exiting without another word.

It was a small cabin in a densely packed forest, and there was nothing around but the sounds of creatures in the night and her soft breaths. It was a chillier than normal evening, and the low sweep of her dress robes caused the chill of the air to settle across her shoulders and collarbone. She cast a quick warming charm on herself and stepped off the small porch, immediately feeling ridiculous in her heeled shoes on the soft grass.

Sighing, she sat down on the porch instead, immediately basking in the calmness that had descended upon her once she'd removed herself from the tension within the cabin. She contemplated transfiguring them for a moment before unbuckling them and sliding them off her feet gently, looking at the glint of the crystals they were adorned with in the moonlight. She'd borrowed them from Ginny for the wedding, and she had hoped to return them to the girl that night. Now, though, the shoes were one of the last things she had from her, and she decided she would cherish them until she could finally return them. She methodically cast cleaning and preservation charms on the shoes until they glittered as bright as ever before carefully shrinking them and stashing them away in her robes.

She thought of Ginny's smile the day before as she'd presented Hermione with the shoes, insisting that they would match beautifully with her dress robes despite Hermione's hesitation. She had thought them gaudy at first, but once she'd put them on had accepted that they had indeed matched her outfit well. She recalled dancing with Harry and enjoying that last intimate moment with him as she relished in the company of her best friend. And…

She thought of Ron, whom she'd been steadily falling in love with for Merlin knew how long with. She recalled the night last November that she'd given him her virginity so long ago that it felt like another lifetime. She bit back tears as she recalled the heartbreak in his eyes when she'd rejected making love to him, leaving him awash in confusion as he'd left the room, completely unaware of her secret husband who had been lingering only feet away. She had wanted to tell him everything, so many times, and each time the words or the lies she'd thought of to cover up her peculiar actions had always stopped short of leaving her mouth. Every time she'd met his kind blue eyes she'd known that she couldn't lie to him, and so she had broken his heart even further by saying nothing at all.

She slipped a hand into her pocket and clenched it around the parchment inside that was filled with carefully constructed lies which she hadn't been able to deliver to Ron once again before their final goodbye. She pulled it out and unfolded it before carefully siphoning back the inky black words she'd written into her self-inking quill before starting over. This time, she poured out the truth on it in as many splintered fragments as she could, writing her sorrows and apologies, telling him about her secret mission and that she knew not when she would return. She begged him to be happy, to be safe, to find someone deserving of the unwavering purity of his love even though she was not.

Writing it out hurt less than she'd anticipated, and she realized that she'd spent so much time mourning her loss of him since her marriage that she was already nearly completely detached from the relationship they'd once had. She knew that she'd mucked things up badly between them. He would either forgive her or he would not after this, but there was little she could do to rectify the situation now.

She was carefully folding the letter with the intention of heading back inside to face Malfoy once more when there was a crack of Apparition in front of her and Kingsley appeared a dozen feet away, blinking in surprise.

"Good night, Hermione," he said sombrely. "Why are you out here? Has he…?" He looked to the closed door of the cabin.

Hermione gave her a puzzled look for a moment before shaking her head. "He didn't put me out or anything," she said. "I just needed some air, is all."

Kingsley looked at her for a moment before nodding. "I know that has been a most difficult situation for you," he said in his gentle, soothing voice. "I thank you for all that you have done for the Order. I haven't much time, but I came to check on you and see how you were doing."

"I— we're fine," she said, peeking back at the closed cabin door. "How is everyone?" she asked, biting her lip as she feared his answer.

"Everyone is fine," he answered. "There were some minor injuries, but all reported back to headquarters mostly unscathed. We've set up several safe houses for the Order's use, although we are still mostly stationed at headquarters for now." He pulled out a small handkerchief and handed it to her.

She unfolded it to find a large coin within that was nearly the size of her palm.

"It's for communication," he explained. "It was the best we could do, considering the circumstances. It has a protean charm embedded in it that we will use to contact you if needed. You may use it to contact us as well, although I cannot guarantee that all messages will be answered promptly. Nonetheless, we will do our best to check on you periodically. Your fridge should continue to be self-replenishing for a few months, and there is a small muggle village a dozen or so kilometers away should you be in need of anything, but try not to go very often and use a glamour if you do."

Hermione nodded, slipping the coin in her pocket as she thought back to her DA days when she'd fashioned such coins to be used under decidedly less perilous circumstances. It was all a reflection of the stark reality of the situation that had approached them all too quickly. She swallowed as she thought about the distance there was between her and the rest of the Order, and how dreadfully cut off she was from the outside world and the ones she loved. She wondered how long it would take for her to find out if someone close to her were to be killed. Wondered if they would even bother to think of informing her at all in the chaos of it all.

"Would you like me to deliver that?" Kingsley asked, eyeing the folded parchment on her lap.

Hermione bit her lip, hesitating as she wondered if she could revise it. "Yes," she whispered before she could change her mind. "To Ron, please," she said, before pulling out the other that had remained in her pocket. "And Harry," she added.

He looked down at the letters before looking back up at her, a question in his eyes.

"I didn't say anything," she said resignedly. "I know how imperative it is that Narcissa's allegiances remain as secret as possible." The Order had already been betrayed by one of its spies, and there could be no risk of another leak.

Kingsley gave her a sad, knowing nod before he began making his way up the steps. "I will be out shortly," he said.

She nodded, listening to the click of the door as he entered. This was her new reality — her world was now contained to this small cabin and the man within. Draco Malfoy — her husband.

Kingsley emerged only a few minutes later, squeezing her shoulder as he stepped past her, bending down to whisper an address in her ear. "One of the other safe houses, should you need to go there in an emergency," he explained.

"Be safe," he said simply before walking into the grass and disapparating.

Eventually, she sighed, standing and making her way back into the cabin. Malfoy was still seated on the sofa where she'd left him, and she saw a small pile of letters sitting on the sofa beside him, likely having just been delivered to him from Kingsley.

"Malf—Draco," she called softly.

He looked up, quirking an eyebrow at her. "So the Whore of Gryffindor has decided to grace me with her presence once again."

Hermione gritted her teeth. "I apologize for what you witnessed," she said evenly. "It was a rather immature oversight of mine."

"And how many times have you fucked him while I wasn't present, I wonder?"

"Once," she decided to answer truthfully. "Before we were married. How many times did you try to sleep with Pansy after we were married?" she added, raising an eyebrow as she recalled seeing them disappear into the dark stacks of the library together on several occasions over the months. She had even caught them snogging in an abandoned classroom at one point, and her stomach rolled in disgust as she recalled Pansy undulating against Malfoy's near-rigid form. She now understood how much he must have struggled to gain even the smallest hint of satisfaction from their encounters, recalling the nearly painful friction of Ron's body rutting against hers.

He said nothing and only glared at her in response.

Hermione sighed. "I don't — I won't fight with you anymore, Draco," she said. "I meant it when I said that I want to understand. When you're ready to talk…I promise you that I'll listen," she said.

He said nothing still, and she sighed again, picking up her shrunken trunk from where he'd left it on the small coffee table. "You can have the bedroom this time," she said, dropping her trunk in the corner and enlarging it.

"Take the bedroom, Granger," he said, flicking his wand and making her trunk go flying through the open bedroom door. She heard it hit the ground behind her with a loud thunk.

"Malfoy!" she snapped, having just barely ducked to miss getting clocked in the head by it.

"Go," he repeated simply, standing and going into the loo.

X

By the time she emerged to shower the next morning, Malfoy was sitting up on the sofa, dressed and alert. "Hurry up," he said simply as he observed her bathrobe with disdain.

She shifted uncomfortably under his penetrating gaze, feeling naked under his hard stare. He had, of course, already seen it all, and she felt equally ridiculous for trying to hide her body from him. Nonetheless, a blush tinged her cheeks as she hurried into the bathroom without a word, emerging a short while later to find that he had already moved the furniture to make a large, empty space in the middle of the cabin.

"Have you eaten?" she asked, eyeing the kitchen which looked untouched.

"We can eat later," he said simply. He appraised her outfit slowly, his face twisted in disgust.

"What?" she asked, tugging her t-shirt down lower over her leggings.

He grumbled something that sounded distinctly like "muggles" under his breath before whipping out his wand and throwing a spell at her with lightning-fast speed.

She barely lifted her own wand in time to deflect the spell, glaring at him accusingly. "Excuse me!"

"There is no time for hesitation in war, Granger," Malfoy's voice was devoid of emotion as he shot out another spell which she quickly deflected as well.

"You've trained before," he noted. He sounded neither impressed nor dismayed by the observation, and she gave him a quick nod, recalling the countless hours she'd spent practicing outside of the DA or taking self defense and martial arts classes over the summer, driven forward by the sheer terror of the idea that a war was looming, and the person — the creature — at its helm had no other purpose but to eradicate her kind. She shivered as she recalled his inhuman form floating beside her on that dreadful night.

Her rumination caused her to miss Malfoy's next spell, and she found herself flying back into the wall, her head cracking against it painfully. She fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, and when she lifted her hand to where the back of her head had struck the wall, she could feel where her hair was matted with sticky blood. When she pulled back her hand, it was stained dark red.

There was a shadow over her then, and before she realized what was happening, Malfoy lifted her bodily, and she was shocked as she was suddenly pressed against the hard muscle of his abdomen. One of her hands had gotten trapped against his chest, and she flushed at the contact for a brief second before he suddenly deposited her face down on the couch, his long fingers prodding at her scalp.

"Malfoy!" she sputtered, and he ignored her, continuing to prod at the tender spot where her head still throbbed. She moved to turn her head and protest and his rough handling of her, but he held her down with his tight grip as he muttered a series of spells over her head. Instantly, she felt the throbbing ease, and when she lifted a hand to the spot where his hand had prodded only moments before, she was surprised to feel it dry and healed.

He stepped away from her, moving only to vanish the blood that she'd gotten on her hand.

"Thank you," she said when she sat up. "Where did you learn that?"

He ignored her question, assuming the position he'd been in earlier. "Get up."

She ignored him and pressed on. "Where did you learn Occlumency?" she asked, recalling how easily and forcefully he'd entered her mind the night she'd confronted him about poisoning Ron. "Where did you learn how to fight like this? Why—"

"It is none of your business," Malfoy snapped. "Now get up."

"Of course it's my business!" she snapped back. "I am your wife, or have you forgotten?"

He descended upon her then, forcing her to crane her neck as he towered over to her. "You are nothing to me," he seethed. "Do not deign to convince yourself otherwise."

"Despite how much you may pretend that I am not," she snapped, "you will one day come to accept that I am something to you regardless of if you want me to be or not, and that many of the things you do will affect me, too. Forever." She met his glare with one of equal intensity, and they stayed like that for a long beat, neither backing down until he turned and stormed off, slamming the door behind him without a word.

X

Hermione spent the rest of the evening locked in the bedroom, fully intent on ignoring her husband until it was absolutely necessary that she exit. She read and snacked on the dried fruit she'd had stashed in her trunk, the parchment she'd brandished steadily filling with notes as the hours passed. Unfortunately, the time crept up on her quicker than she would have hoped, and she felt herself itching to use the loo by the time late evening descended. Sighing once she realized that she could delay no longer, she pulled open her door with the intent to rush into the bathroom and back into the room without sparing her husband a glance.

She made it only one step out of the door before she froze.

Malfoy stood in front of his trunk and had been rifling through its contents when she had pulled open her door. It would not have been out of the ordinary except for the fact that he was completely naked, his damp towel on the couch and the bundle of clothing in his hands evidence that he had just emerged from the shower.

She could not help scanning his body slowly, taking in the defined muscles that had only ever been hinted at beneath his clothing. Her eyes traveled lower still to where his long cock hung soft and heavy between his legs, nestled in a thick patch of pubic hair that was as blonde as the hair on his head. It had technically once been inside of her, yes, but this was the first time she had actually seen it. It was thick and tinged slightly pink, and she felt a tingling between her legs as she tried to recall what the sensation of it inside her had been like.

It was at that moment that she registered the fact that she was staring at Malfoy's cock, and her eyes snapped back up to his face. He was still as frozen as her. Only seconds had passed during her appraisal, but her face still flamed and she squeaked an apology before rushing into the loo, slamming the door behind her.

By the time she worked up the nerve to re-emerge, Malfoy was dressed in a pair of long pyjamas and appeared to be fast asleep. She rushed back into her room without another glance, her face still flaming and her heart still thundering after what had occurred.

X

Hermione spent the next day exploring their small cabin. The combined kitchen and dining area was small, but it held all of the basic appliances that they would need, in addition to having cabinets filled with food and ingredients. She made a meal for both of them, leaving his on the coffee table in front of where he lay on the couch, thumbing through a book with an unmarked cover. He had a paused only to raise an eyebrow momentarily at her, and she had said nothing before returning to the dining table to resume her own meal.

After lunch, she began unpacking her trunk, folding the few clothes she had into the room's small dresser. It felt strange and almost perverse to be doing something so domestic while she waited with bated breath to hear news of her friends, wondering what sort of chaos was occurring around them while she had been forced into isolation. She paused when she reached the pile of books that she had brought with her, unsure of how to proceed. She had spent as much time as she could before they had left trying to find out as much as she could about Horcruxes, even perusing the Black family library's darkest titles in hopes that she would find something, to no avail. Although she had prepared for them as much as she could— stuffing every possible thing she thought that they could possibly need to run on short notice in her magically-extended bag— she knew that the most crucial thing they needed to win this war depended highly on her, and she had yet to deliver it.

Just as she was bound to secrecy about her marriage, Harry had made them promise to keep what they knew about Horcruxes between themselves, and she had a feeling that even with her gone they would continue to abide by that. Kingsley hadn't mentioned how often someone would return to check on them, but she imagined that someone would be coming periodically if only to drop off whatever letters they received. She swallowed back the sick feeling that rose in her throat at the thought of how–- or if — Harry and Ron would respond to her letters, resolving herself to focus on her research and deliver her newest findings in a letter to Harry the next time someone came to check on them.

She went out into the main room and paused as she saw Malfoy looking at her from where he now sat at the dining table with a quill, inkwell, and parchment laid out in front of him. She gave him a small nod, which he did not return, before making her way over to the long desk against the far wall. She put her books away on the bookshelf, looking over the large maps that consumed the far wall. She wondered where they were positioned, feeling incredibly small in comparison to the vast areas that the map covered. They would be confined here for the indefinite future. Her heart ached for her friends, and Wizarding Britain as a whole, as she wondered how much of these areas would be consumed by the time the war reached its peak.

She set down a book she had already read through dozens of times before, determined to glean something new from it – and from every other book she'd brought — because she knew that peace in all those areas that she could see on the map relied on it. She opened the drawer next to her as she searched for a quill, and was surprised to find a single pouch inside of it instead. She picked it up, feeling several small, hard objects inside. She moved to pull it open when she noticed a small tag hanging off one of the drawstrings.

To St. Mungo's, it read.

Her blood ran cold as she tugged it open to reveal a series of small trinkets–coins, marbles, small toys, among many other things. They were portkeys, she was certain. To St. Mungo's, the tag read. So many of them, which meant that either they would be expected to be making many trips there, or that they would need to be sending others there. A chill ran down her spine as she thought of the reasons for which they would have been given these, knowing that it certainly would not be because of the former.

What do you mean to have us do?! She'd shouted at Dumbledore the night she'd figured out his careful engineering of her bonding ceremony. After he had died, she had held a fleeting hope that the Order would not pick up on the position that she and Malfoy had been played into, and that they would instead be forced into isolation and quickly forgotten about instead. But no, the pouch that felt increasingly heavy in her hands was a clear indication that they hadn't been forgotten at all.

"Granger," Malfoy called, breaking her from her trance.

"Hmm?" she said, surprised to find him standing next to her.

"Something's happening," he said, nodding his head towards the desk as he moved to pick up something. She was surprised to see the enlarged coin that Kingsley had given her was burning to the point where there was a small scorch mark left on the desk as Malfoy picked it up. She watched as Malfoy juggled it in his hands for a minute, craning her neck as she tried to read the message that was on it. When he finally settled enough for the message to read clearer, her eyes widened in shock.

Grimmauld has been compromised, it read, followed by a series of numbers.

"Do they expect us to return there?" Malfoy asked, wrinkling his brow.

She looked at the numbers curiously for another moment before she looked up at the maps she had been perusing earlier. She committed the numbers to memory, then gently took the coin from Malfoy's hand. She tapped her wand to it and sent back one word — Received.

"They're coordinates," she said quietly, looking over the maps as she tried to find the corresponding location.

"There," she whispered, pointing to a space on the map. "They want us to go there."

Malfoy's jaw set hard as he looked at the location.

Her heart had begun to race as she thought of what could be awaiting them there. It was nowhere near Grimmauld, but the implications of the message they'd received meant that what they could be facing could be anything from a battle to the last vestiges of the Order that they would need to aid in relocating.

"I've been near there before," he said. "I can apparate us nearby."

She nodded mutely, looking at him to see if the fear she felt at the unknown thing they were about to face would be reflected in his features as well.

As usual, though, there was nothing, and his features were as stoic as ever.

He crossed the room to pick up his wand before nodding at her. "Are you ready?"

No, she wanted to answer. She knew not if she ever would be ready, but she nodded anyway. She knew they could not delay.

He nodded again, crossing the room and taking her arm. A moment later, they disapparated.

X

They landed in a small clearing, and she was surprised by how quiet it was. Darkness had already fallen outside, and she gripped the back of his shirt with a nervous hand as she followed him into the underbrush. He said nothing of her closeness, and it was eerily silent save for their breaths. Neither one of them dared to cast a lumos, knowing not what lay ahead for them. They walked for several minutes, and she started to wonder if they had come to the right location at all when he stopped suddenly.

"Here," he said, nodding ahead of them. She peeked around his tall form to see what he had nodded at. It was a crudely built shack. It was small, very small, and she had a distinct feeling that the door they faced was the only exit.

Malfoy whispered a quick homenum revelio on their surroundings, revealing that they were alone where they stood. He stepped forward then, gesturing for her to follow. She felt frozen for a moment despite the fact that she knew no Death Eaters awaited them in the shadows. When the neared the cabin, he paused again, repeating the spell.

This time, she froze. It had revealed a lone figure inside the shack, and she knew not what it meant. Was it an Order member who had come to speak with them? Or what is it a hostile death eater, poised to attack the moment they stepped through the door?

Malfoy took her hand and squeezed it in what she thought was a surprisingly intimate gesture until he dragged her forward suddenly, pulling her towards him.

"You need to focus," he said in a low voice. "I will not have you get us killed."

She nodded, focusing on the intensity of his eyes as they bored into hers. "I won't," she whispered.

He searched her eyes for a moment longer before nodding and pulling her forward, gesturing for her to stand on one side of the door while he stood on the other. He lifted his wand and then blasted down the door in a quick movement, jumping inside as the noise pierced the silence they have been shrouded until that moment. She ran in behind him, an offensive spell already tumbling from her lips when she paused, noticing that Malfoy had paused as well.

In front of them was a lone figure bound in a chair. It was a man who was slumped forward, his hair matted with blood. She took a tentative step closer, noticing the purpling bruises and cuts that littered his face.

She looked at Malfoy, whose face was hard.

"We must need to speak with him," she said, still eyeing the figure warily. "Do you…recognize him?" she asked carefully.

He shook his head sharply. "Rennervate!" he said, and the spell hit the figure squarely in the chest, causing his head to jerk back violently under the force of Malfoy's spell.

The man blinked at them for a few moments before he focused on the figures that stood before him. His face appeared even more garish now that he was facing them, and she watched as a trickle of blood dripped down over one of his eyes that had been swollen near-shut.

It was silent as they stared each other down until the man stopped to focus on Malfoy. He laughed then, and the sound came out as a strange, garbled noise that made her skin crawl.

"Draco," he said, spittle that she suspected was mixed with blood flying from his mouth as he continued to laugh. "We've been looking for you."

"Yaxley," he said, his voice hard and devoid of emotion.

"Your father's been trying to get back into the Dark Lord's graces since you went missing," Yaxley continued. "But once you return me, I'm sure your good deeds will not go unnoticed. Although I do wonder how he will take it once he realizes that you do not appear to have been kidnapped by the Order." His voice was smug even as he took sharp, painful breaths that were likely the result of injuries that were hidden under his dark robes.

Yaxley turned to Hermione then, his unswollen eye traveling over her body in a way that made her skin crawl. "And who is this, might I ask? A new recruit?"

"I apologize," Malfoy said, "but you won't be returning to the Dark Lord."

Yaxley's brow furrowed for a moment before his eye sharpened into a glare. "You little bastard," he seethed. "The Dark Lord will have your parents dismembered when he finds out of your treachery!"

"He won't be finding out," Malfoy said, raising his wand.

"Wait!" Hermione said. "Draco—"

"Potter's mudblood," Yaxley said, and when she turned to him his glare was focused on her. "Thought I knew your face, bitch," he coughed hard for a moment, and good dribbled down his chin. "I heard your screams that night," he said when he finished. "I thought you'd burned."

Hermione gasped at his words, her own wand flying up to point at him, her hand shaking with rage as the memory of her home being consumed by fire snapped to the forefront of her mind.

"Where were you when your little friends broke into the Ministry, I wonder?" he continued to taunt her, somehow still managing to smirk despite the swelling in his face. "Those little fools took me straight to your precious Order, you know," he spat out a laugh. "Not even a week since our Dark Lord has finally come into power and you've already exposed yourselves. All so that he could steal a piece of jewelry. Pathetic, the lot of you—"

"We have to kill him," Malfoy snapped. "He knows too much."

"How wonderful it will be to see your mother strung up like the dirty whore she is—"

"Crucio!" Draco's spell hit the man quickly, and the cabin was instantly filled with his agonized screams.

"Stop!" Hermione screamed, dragging down Malfoy's wand.

"He knows too much," Malfoy seethed down at her. "He needs to suffer, and then he needs to die."

Malfoy raised his wand at the bound man, his hand decidedly steadier than Hermione's was as she raised her own again.

"We can't—we can't kill him," Hermione pleaded, even as her own wand stayed pointed steadily at the man. She knew not what she was going to do, only that they had to do something that lay between murder and setting him free.

This, she now knew, was why they had been sent this ominous task. If Malfoy killed him, they would never be found out and could never be subjected to trial. This — whatever occurred here on this night —would die with him.

"We can and we will," Malfoy snapped. "Av—"

"Obliviate!" she screamed before the spell could leave Malfoy's wand.

The spell hit Yaxley hard, and she felt the memories of the day sliding out of his mind and into oblivion.

"What the fuck are you doing, Granger?!" Malfoy snapped. "You know that won't work!"

She ignored him. "Obliviate!" she screamed again. "Obliviate!" she screamed the spell until she was hoarse and the man's head lolled to his chest as he muttered unintelligible words.

She rushed forward, pulling out the pouch she'd shoved in her pocket at the last second before they'd disapparated. She grabbed one of Yaxley's hands and tipped one of the portkeys into his hand, closing his fingers over it. He vanished then, leaving her alone with Malfoy.

"Where the hell is he, Granger?!" Malfoy thundered.

"I sent him to St. Mungo's," she said. "He'll—"

"St. Mungos?!" Malfoy snapped. "We were supposed to kill him and you sent him to a hospital?! That is the first place that will try to recover his memories you bloody fool!"

"They won't be able to," she said, her voice quivering as she thought of what'd she'd just done.

"How do you know that?!" Malfoy was heaving with anger.

She knew because she'd pored over the plethora of tomes on memory modification in Hogwarts' library over the past year as she'd planned out how she would hide her parents when the time came. She had been precise in her actions, so precise that no memory potion or spell would ever recover most of the things he knew. Of this, she was certain.

"I was precise," she answered finally, her voice barely a whisper. "I was very precise."

Malfoy's face was still contorted in rage as she stepped up to him, wordlessly grabbing his arm and Disapparating them.

They landed in the kitchen of their cabin. Malfoy was still glaring down at her, and he snatched her by the shoulders as she turned to walk away. She could feel the heat of his hands through her shirt where they rested heavily against her shoulders as he held her, forcing her to face him. She felt equally drawn in and repulsed by the tingling feeling of his hands on her caused in her body and forced her disgust to take precedence as she took into the rage that twisted his features.

"Listen to me you bloody fool," his voice was pitched dangerously low. "There is no place in this war for your petty morality," he seethed. "It is war. We win, or she dies. And if you are the reason that we lose, I will take down the Order before I kill you. I do not give a damn if I follow."

His eyes were burning with a dark intensity that urged her to shrink back in fear. Instead, she wrenched herself from his grip and stalked over to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Once she was safely alone, she broke down and cried, sinking to the floor in a heap of pain and regret.

X

She wanted to curl up on her bed and cry herself to sleep, but she knew that she could not do so. She had just effectively reduced a man's mind to nothing but a shell of what it once was, but Malfoy…

Malfoy had been ready to kill him.

Only months ago, she'd thought that his actions were driven forward by cold cruelty that was a direct result of years of being raised while entrenched in archaic pureblood principles. But when he'd yelled at her only a short while ago, she had looked into his eyes — finally looked — and seen the desperate and fear that lingered beneath his stoic exterior. Again, Harry's recounting of what had occurred in the Astronomy Tower that night haunted her, and she knew that she looked she'd just seen in his eyes had also been there as he'd pleaded with Dumbledore, wavering as he decided whether to kill the man or not.

Malfoy was broken, deeply broken, and she had been too blind to see it.

She opened the door softly to see Malfoy sitting on the sofa, hunched over tensely with his hands buried in his hair.

"We need to talk," she said.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER ELEVEN

He did not move until she approached closely enough to touch his shoulder.

He flinched away at the contact, leveling her with his signature glare. "Piss off, Granger," he snapped.

Hermione sighed, electing to sit down on the sofa beside him instead. "I don't want to fight with you anymore," she said softly.

"Then leave."

"Draco, I…" she trailed off, biting her lip. "I want to understand you."

He said nothing but continued to glare at her, his rigid stance emitting just how unwelcome she was in his presence.

"Draco," she whispered. "You know we can't go on like this forever."

He scoffed. "Yes, Granger, do continue to remind me that I've been damned to spend an eternity bound to you."

Hermione closed her eyes as she let out another sigh. "I know you want to argue so we can avoid this conversation, but I won't do it anymore. If we are to survive this war together, then we need—"

"—we need to survive, and that alone. You do not need to know me, or understand me," he spat. "We are bound by duty and nothing more."

The long silence that followed was tense.

"The Order…they want us to do things for them," she said softly. "Awful things."

"Brilliant observation, Granger."

Hermione sighed, then fished out the pouch of portkeys to St. Mungo's out of her pocket and dropped it on the table. "These were left in one of the desk drawers," she said.

Malfoy glared at the pouch, the words To St. Mungo's on the label clearly visible from where they sat.

"They...someone left these for us," she said, thinking of who it could have been. She shivered at the memory of the calculating look Moody had given her the morning she'd stumbled upon their meeting, wondering if he had been the one who'd decided to take advantage of the position Dumbledore had played them into. He was cold and calculating, steadily focused on progress and outcomes and willfully blind of the casualties that the road to victory was littered with. No, definitely not Moody, she thought. Perhaps it had been Kingsley — she recalled him nursing his glass of dark liquor in the sitting room at Grimmauld, looking as though the weight of the war rested upon his shoulders. Or perhaps…

Perhaps it had been all of those who were aware of Hermione and Draco's position. She recalled the viciously angry look that had been in McGonagall's eyes after she'd left the room following the confrontation in which Narcissa had slapped her, and wondered if McGonagall had been the only one truly in her corner while they'd argued over the decision. Maybe they hadn't argued at all, and they'd agreed that the advantage Dumbledore had given them was something they could not ignore. Had it been McGonagall who had stashed these portkeys here for them while she'd prepared the safe house, giving Hermione a silent signal that there was a way to complete whichever missions came their way without murder?

Hermione was bright, and they were all aware of it. They had known that she would have figured out the reason for the maps, the coordinates, and the need for them to complete the missions that would be designated to them. And someone — not likely all, no, but at least one — had given her the option of complete obliviation instead of murder, somehow knowing that she would know how to do it in such a precise manner that their victims would be sent straight to the Janus Thickey ward, and that even Voldemort's best efforts would not recover their memories. She tried to recall how many times McGonagall had seen her carrying piles of books on Obliviation back to Gryffindor tower, wondering if the woman had figured out then about her plans for her parents during the war. She swallowed at the reminder of them, knowing that even though she had been as precise as possible, there was still a chance that they would not recover completely when the time came. Complete obliviation was not truly an out, no — in a way, it was a fate worse than death.

"I don't want to kill for them if I don't have to," she said softly.

His head snapped to her. "And that is your problem, Granger," his voice was dark. "You don't get to let your petty morality take precedence–"

"But I killed someone today, anyway," she interrupted him. "I erased everything, Draco. Everything. He won't know his name, or even that he's a wizard. I've reduced him to a shell of a human being that will be sent straight to the Janus Thickey ward for the rest of his life, and that — that might just be worse than death," she rushed, heaving. She bit her lip to stop herself from crying as she recalled the glazed over look that had been in Yaxley's eyes before she'd sent him away.

"It's kill or be killed, Granger, this is war," Malfoy said roughly.

"And you think that I don't know that?!" she snapped. "I am well aware that this is war, and of what the costs of war are. I know that you take me for some ignorant fool who cannot discern necessity from feeling, but I can."

Malfoy scoffed.

"I am a muggleborn!" she exclaimed. "I am a muggleborn, and if we do not win, they will hunt me down and kill me. Kill us," she clarified. "And I will be damned if I let that happen. There is so much more at stake here than just our lives, Draco — the lives and freedom of all muggleborns are at stake here, and I will fight for them with all that I have. But using dark magic—"

"—is what we must do, Granger, no matter the cost—"

"That will bleed us dry before we've even begun!" she cut him off. "If we lose ourselves while trying to fight this, what is the point of any of it?"

"You say that you understand the costs, yet you refuse to see what is in front of us. What if Yaxley had not been bound? What if he had had his wand at the ready, and Adava flying at you before you even have the time to get a pathetic little stunner out?"

"I see it!" she snapped. "I see it, and it terrifies me. But that does not mean that I won't hold out until it is absolutely necessary, because retaining what's left of my humanity requires it."

Malfoy scoffed again. "You are pathetic and blind."

"Have you ever killed anyone, Draco?"

"It doesn't matter what I have or haven't done, only that I do what needs to be done when required," he snapped.

"I'm scared, and I can't just turn it off," she snapped back. "I know what dark magic does to you, it infects your soul—"

"It doesn't matter if my soul is infected if I'm dead, now, does it?" His voice was derisive.

"You're scared too," she said suddenly. "I…I can feel it," she breathed, shocked by the truth of it. It pulsed through her alongside her own fear, exacerbating it and building together until it felt like it was consuming her. Oh. Oh.

It hit her then, why she'd been feeling nearly consumed by her fear until it had seeped into every aspect of her daily life since their marriage. He was stoic on the outside, yes, but when she focused, truly focused within — she could feel it there, as inextricable from herself as her own emotions. He had been there — he had always been there, his lifeforce so deeply connected with her own that she'd barely noticed the strength of his emotions. She recalled from her research on their bonding about how she would be able to feel only his most intense emotions. She hadn't realized how much he had buried under his stoic exterior and his pervasive occlumency shields. No, nothing could hide his most intense feelings from her, although he had certainly tried.

She looked at him, taking in his rigid stance, his hard grey eyes that betrayed nothing of what brewed within him. He had kept his emotions buried, hidden expertly from all but her. But now that she was paying attention — truly paying attention — she could sense them pulsing through him as surely as they did her. His lesser emotions were only just barely hinted at, swirls of indiscernible things that dissipated like puffs of smoke when she tried to reach out and feel them. But his fear — and his anger — were rooted so deeply within him that now that she was looking, they pulsed like a beacon to her. They brewed within her, had been brewing within her since they'd been married, clouding her rationality with their intensity as she'd stumbled through her life as it had been slowly falling apart. She thought back on her actions in the months since they'd married, how the fear and desperation that had been building within her had poisoned her every action—

And with that, she felt him slam his emotions down deeper still, attempting to suffocate them. She could still feel them, but they simmered less vibrantly, their intensity reduced although not to the caliber of the wisps of his less significant emotions.

"Draco," she whispered.

"What do you want, Granger?" he asked. His voice was resigned this time, devoid of emotion.

"I want to understand you," she repeated. She shifted minutely closer to him and was rewarded by his instant stiffening.

He said nothing still, and she sighed.

"I felt it," she whispered. "I felt it all. I thought I was scared when you said we had to leave, that I could actually taste an impending change in the air — but it was you. It was always you. When I felt terrified and guilty during and after Dumbledore's funeral, that was partially you, too. During the weeks we were at Grimmauld, the sadness, frustration, desperation — that wasn't all me, either," she added. "I felt it all, Draco. I still feel it."

She wondered what he had felt from her, if her desperate loneliness had seeped into him while he'd been alone in the hotel suite he'd apparated them to, then at Grimmauld—

Oh. There was so much she hadn't seen before that was now so painfully clear that her heart went out to the man in front of her. There were so many questions she wanted to ask that she did not know not where to start.

"Who trained you?" she asked after a long silence.

"My aunt," he answered softly.

Hermione sucked in a sharp breath, knowing that there was only one aunt that it could have been. "Draco—" she reached out a hand toward him, but he slapped it away.

"Do not touch me, mudblood." His words carried no bite.

"Did she teach you Occlumency, as well?" she asked when it was clear that he would volunteer no more.

He turned to glare at her, his grey eyes swirling with anger and resentment.

"Did he threaten to kill your mother if you didn't kill Dumbledore?" her voice was a whisper, but the words hung heavy in the air between them.

He did not answer, but his silence spoke volumes. We win or she dies, he had said earlier.

The truth had been slowly falling together before her in fragments, and it was now laid bare before her with blinding clarity. Voldemort had threatened to kill Narcissa if Draco did not kill Dumbledore on his behalf. She'd known that the Malfoy family had fallen from Voldemort's good graces after Lucius Malfoy had been imprisoned, and she imagined what it must have been like for Draco to have returned home that summer, facing Voldemort's uninhibited wrath. He had been tasked with the one thing that could absolve his family of Voldemort's ire, yet his mother had decided to turn to the Order for aid instead of letting her son go through with it. But he had been scared, terrified, and he had tried — and reneged — on his plan on more than one occasion before they'd fled. She thought of the way her fear and desperation had felt unnaturally high over the summer, while she had been ignorant of her stoic husband's feelings all the while, equating his increased desperation and fear with her own emotions.

"Draco," she whispered, reaching out to touch cup his cheek. This time, surprisingly, he did not pull away. Instead, she only felt his jaw stiffen under her touch.

He did not move, did not speak.

"Draco," she tried again. "Whatever Vol-" He clamped his hand over her mouth suddenly, and she fixed her wide-eyed gaze on his, frightened by his sudden action.

"Do not say his name," he said, clamping his hand down harder at her answering scowl. "I can't be certain, but there was talk of a Taboo—"

She managed to tear his hand away from her mouth in order to gasp. "A Taboo?"

He nodded sharply.

Hermione's mouth fell closed, and she felt her lip tremble as she thought of Harry and his defiant, unabashed way of saying Voldemort's name aloud.

"I've already informed them. Granger," Malfoy said. "Your friends are safe."

She nodded mutely, still feeling terror curl in her heart at the prospect of what could happen should anyone slip up.

Eventually, she stood, feeling an uncharacteristic weariness settling deep in her bones. Everything that had been revealed throughout the conversation was simultaneously exactly what she needed to know, and entirely too much to comprehend all at once. When she turned to say good night, she found him gone, the sound of the front door clicking shut behind him the only evidence of his swift exit.

X

Over the next few days they fell into a routine, sparring in the mornings and in the evenings she researched while he read or disappeared for a few hours, off doing something she could only guess at. The undercurrent of tension between them had abated somewhat, their habitual arguments having turned into long silences instead.

This particular evening was no different, and she was sitting at the large desk, perusing through the series of tomes she'd brought with them for the umpteenth time when Malfoy came through the door. She'd barely registered his presence until she felt his shadow looming over her, and she looked up, surprised at his closeness.

"What is it?" she asked, perplexed.

He held up a book between his fingers. "You dropped this," he said.

"Oh," she looked around at the pile of open books strewn around her. "Do you mind just putting it in the bookshelf?"

He grunted, and she was surprised by his near-instant acquiescence. He crossed around her and shoved it into the bookshelf quickly, causing a couple of other books to tumble to the floor beside it.

"Honestly—" she started to chastise him, turning to pick up the books he'd made scatter so carelessly when she froze as he picked up one of the fallen books. Its cover shimmered for a moment, changing from a relatively demure title on Herbology to a large black volume with gleaming silver letters. Secrets of the Darkest Art, it read.

Malfoy's eyebrows were raised as he straightened with the book in his hands, giving her a curious look. "What are you researching, Granger?"

She stood, plucking the book from his fingers. She spotted a sheet of paper sticking out from the middle of the book, and she let it fall open to the page it designated.

Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy — I believe you may find this of use, it read in Dumbledore's familiar script.

Hermione's eyes widened as Malfoy picked up the sheet of paper, revealing the words on the page beneath it. Horcruxes, it read, are the darkest of all arts, reserved only to the foulest of beings who reserve no affection for what tethers us to humanity.

"Horcruxes," Malfoy breathed, and Hermione looked up at the tinge of familiarity she heard in his voice.

"You've heard of them?" she asked, eyes sharpening. "What do you know?"

"Why are you researching them?" Malfoy asked, his voice sharp.

She swallowed, feeling an instinctive lie rising in her throat only to shove it back down, feeling ridiculous. There was no longer anything that needed to be hidden between them, after all. "Harry told us that V—that he has been making them. We need to find and destroy them all if we want to kill him."

Malfoy nodded, his features hard.

"What do you know?" she asked.

He did not meet her eyes, but she saw a deep sadness that lingered in his faraway look, and she yearned to know what was going through his thoughts. She felt his fear spike for a moment before he shoved it down deep as he spoke. "I overheard my father mention the word to him once, and I knew that it had to do with murder—" he cut off. "I wasn't supposed to overhear, and it appeared that my father was not supposed to mention the word in his presence, either." His voice was hard, and Hermione wondered what memories he lingered on as he spoke.

"It's how he survived," she whispered. "He would murder people, and each murder allowed him to fragment his soul and store it within an object."

"And so you intend to destroy them," he asked.

She nodded. "It's the only way to truly kill him — of this I am certain."

He nodded, then summoned a chair that screeched to a halt beside the desk chair. He sat down wordlessly and plucked the book from her hands, enlarging it before summoning a quill and parchment as he began to jot down notes on the short passage. She watched him curiously for a moment before joining him, and they soon lapsed into silence.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWELVE

It was quiet save for the occasional turning of pages, and Hermione found her mind starting to drift as she paused to take the last sip of tea in her mug. They had been researching for hours, and evening had descended swiftly. She had lit several lamps around the room, and she watched the tall candle that was lit on the desk between them steadily drip wax down its stem, gathering in a molten puddle at its base. Eventually, he sighed before she stood and stretched, padding over to the kitchen. She quickly prepared two mugs of tea, and was rewarded with a raised eyebrow when she set Draco's down in front of him.

"What?" she asked, crossing her arms. "Are you too good for tea now?"

He said nothing and instead cooled his mug with a quick flick of his wand before lifting it to his lips.

"You're welcome," she grumbled, pulling out her seat with more force than was strictly necessary.

She thought she spied a small smirk grace his features, but he melted back into his usual stoic self before she could figure it out.

"You're this upset over tea?" he drawled.

She looked up at him, eyebrows raised. "You can feel that?"

"Clearly," he deadpanned, rolling his eyes.

She crossed her arms. "It wasn't a stupid question, Draco. You're only supposed to be able to feel your partner's most intense emotions—"

"And you've been intensely upset for quite some time now," he said, stretching. "What else is ailing your fragile little heart?"

His tone was so deeply mocking that she felt a sudden surge of anger rise within her, and she levelled a glare at him. "You think that I have nothing to be irritated about?"

"You've made your bed, Granger," he said simply, turning back to the book in front of him.

She slammed his book shut, seething at him. "I've made my bed?!" she snapped, heaving. Until he'd pointed it out, she hadn't realized how deeply her anger had been festering within her. "Yes, I've made my bed, and you are in it. Do you know how that makes me feel?! I've lost everything," Hermione snapped, her heart shuttering at the thought of her losses in recent months. "I've basically abandoned Harry when he needed me the most, and I don't know if he'll ever forgive me for this. I broke Ron's heart, and then left. And my parents…" she swallowed the sob that threatened to burst forth, taking a steady breath before continuing.

"I agreed to marry you because I thought that you were nothing but a harmless bully who had been forced to comply with an ideal that was chosen for you that no one should have to submit to. And then only days after I do it, I find out that not only was Harry right about trying to murder people, I also find out that the Order, which I had come to trust with my life because I trusted that they would be the only way to save me and my kind from persecution was manipulating me and played me right into their scheming hands as they use me as nothing but a chess piece in this war. So yes, forgive me if I am a too little upset for your liking." By the time she was finished speaking, she was heaving with the efforts of her outburst.

He said nothing, and instead of quirking an eyebrow yet again before turning and calmly opening the book she had slammed shut in front of him. She watched his nonchalance incredulously for a few long moments before she turned back to her own book. Still, it took her only a few minutes of re-reading the same sentence before she realized that she was too flustered to continue.

"I'm not sorry," she said carefully. "But I understand why you did what you did, just as I hope that you understand that I am valid in feeling the way that I do. But… if we are ever to get through this without getting ourselves killed, then we need to work on this," she said, gesturing between the two of them. "We need to learn how to control it or it will ruin us both."

He did not turn until she finished speaking, and when he did there was a glint in his grey eyes as he met hers. It was then that she felt the tickle of him probing at her mind, gently but with purpose. Immediately, she snapped up a wall in her mind, blocking him from her thoughts. Still, she could feel her emotions seeping through invisible crevices in the wall, coaxed forward — although unbidden — by the force of the bond. They swirled like smoke, curling toward him as if beckoned by his mere presence. She tried to pull them back, but they slipped away as she clawed at them. The most burning ones seeped forward quickly — a ball of anger and frustration — while the others lingered behind, hovering but not quite reaching out for him. He probed deeper still, even as she painstakingly pieced together a stronger wall, finally feeling it begin to take shape around her swirling emotions, blocking them in.

She narrowed her eyes, then pressed forward into his mind, feeling his walls come into place similarly to hers, even as his own emotions hovered near the surface, laid almost bare to her. She felt his annoyance swell above all else as he tried to force her out, and she could not help the small smirk that she knew played on her lips as she probed further with ease. Currently, only his irritation and anger flared hard, but she knew his other emotions lay just beneath. She pressed forward, reaching deeper still—

And paused. They were married, yes — but she still felt as though she barely knew the man in front of her. Yet, here she was probing at his deepest emotions, dragging them out even as he tried his damndest to suppress them. She was his wife only in the strictest sense of the word, and these were things she was never meant to be privy to. At the same moment that she pulled back, he pulled back as well, glaring hard at her as she watched him back, neither saying a word.

"You can— be with someone, eventually," she said as she eventually broke the silence. "It will take some focus, but the bond doesn't stop you from loving"— the word felt thick as she said it, recalling the messy end of her relationship with Ron— "someone else, although the, uh, physical aspect will take some focus—"

"I know, Granger," he cut her off, his expression stoic.

He turned away from her then, but she still watched the hard set of his jaw and his clenched fists as he went back to his book, wondering about their future. After the war — if they were to survive it — they would eventually part. And what then? Things were over between her and Ron, and she no longer had lingering feelings for him. But if she were to pursue another relationship in the future, would she be damned to the same messy fate of whatever she and Ron had been? It's felt as though a part of her had been severed when she had been bonded, leaving only a gap of emptiness in its wake—

"Complete destruction," she breathed.

"What?" Malfoy asked.

"We need to sever a Horcrux's bond to its object completely in order to destroy it," she said, scrambling to write down the information that just dawned on her. "The diary — it wasn't destroyed by the basilisk fang just because it was stabbed. It was destroyed because of the venom," she said, scribbling across her parchment.

"So complete destruction entails basilisk venom, then," he mused. "And the only known place where we could acquire said venom would be in the Chamber of Secrets, no?"

"Maybe…" she said, thinking of the school that was now being run by Death Eaters. It would be next to impossible for them to even get into the school undetected. They would need to ask McGonagall for aid, which could possibly in turn leave the information vulnerable to Voldemort's plundering should he ever decide to interrogate the teachers, which was a high possibility. Snape knew very much about the Order, enough that she would be a prime suspect were anything to occur involving them. And if she were to consent to obliviation, the risk still existed that something would occur, potentially leaving the students unprotected.

"Fiendfyre," Malfoy said. "That could work, couldn't it?"

She bit her lip to stop it from trembling as she recalled the fiery snake that had consumed her home in seconds, leaving nothing in its wake. All of her family belongings that she had so carefully stowed away and warded with every spell she knew was just gone— as if she had done nothing at all.

"Yes," she whispered finally. "That would probably work."

She felt him watching her, and she ignored him, opting instead carefully pen a letter to Harry for delivery whenever someone came to check on them next.

X

Several more days of radio silence from the Order passed before the coin burned once more. One moment, they were poring over the texts and their notes, occasionally swapping notes and addressing further points of interest. The next, it burned hotly where they kept it on the desk between them, the scent of burning wood settling in the air between them. This time, the message was simply a set of coordinates. Malfoy peeked at them before tapping his wand at the location on the map, studying it carefully. She was about to send a confirmation of receipt when another message followed the first. Proceed with caution. A tendril of fear curled in her heart as she read the message, and she felt Malfoy pause himself and lean to read it over her shoulder.

When she looked up at him, his face was hard. "Get your cloak," he said, crossing the room to gather his own. She went into the bedroom and pulled it out of her trunk, then hesitated before pulling out a second bundle. She unraveled it as she made her way back to the main room where Malfoy waited, eyebrows raised as he saw what it held inside. She handed one of the knives to him wordlessly, watching the way the intricate details on the sheath glinted in the light.

"I got them in Knockturn before school started. With everything…I wanted to be prepared," she explained.

He nodded. "I've been there before," he said, holding out an expectant hand. She met his hard eyes for a moment as she hesitated, wondering if she would see a flicker of the fear she felt reflected in them. But there was nothing, and the walls he'd built in his mind were firmly in place, not an ounce of his emotions seeping through.

Finally, she reached out and took his hand, and they were gone.

They reappeared in shadows, the darkness around her so dense that she could feel only the tickle of leaves around her and feel the densely packed earth they stood on making soft squelching noises as her feet slipped. Malfoy's form was hard and solid in front of her, and she leaned into him, clutching the back of his cloak as she drew some comfort from the warmth he radiated. He said nothing, only leaning down to nod ahead of them into the darkness of the densely packed trees, urging her forward.

She followed on his heels, slipping twice before she muttered a quick charm to stabilize herself. Still, it did nothing to calm her racing heartbeat as they moved forward, steadily approaching a dim light that shone between the trees. When they got close enough to the light for her to see properly, she realized that there was a modestly-sized cabin that dominated a small clearing. This time, no revealing spell was needed — she would see the shadows of bodies moving past the drawn curtains in the lit windows. Instantly, her hands felt clammy and her throat went dry.

"Wait," she said, grabbing Malfoy's arm and stopping him.

He looked back at her, flinching when she raised her fingers to graze lightly through his hair. "Maybe we should, you know—glamour ourselves," she said, even as the thought of how she'd kept her telltale curls in tight buns and braids since their run-in with Yaxley.

It was so dark that she could not see his eyes, but she knew that his eyes were searching her all the same. "No," he answered, his voice was gruff. "I have a plan."

"To expose yourself?"

"I will be the distraction. You need to set up wards and disillusion yourself to check the premises."

Her hand gripped his sleeve for a moment longer before she released him, her trepidation mounting with each step he took away from her. He stepped into the clearing and turned to her, giving her a sharp nod before he went up to the door and rapped hard. It opened a few moments later, and she stood in the shadows, listening to the exclaims of surprise of the men within at Draco's appearance. There were several voices — at least five, she thought, but couldn't distinguish properly. She hoped it was less. It was probably more.

At this thought, she started, recalling her task. She quickly disillusioned herself, then set to putting up anti-apparition wards around the small area. When she finished, she circled back around to see that the door was still wide open, and Malfoy was leaning casually in the doorframe, likely appearing nonchalant to the men within. She approached carefully, wincing at the small squeak her trainer made on one of the wooden steps.

"—and they've now started rounding up the mudbloods, then, I see?" Malfoy drawled, his tone as casual as ever.

Even now, although she knew it was a ruse, his use of the word still made her flinch, and an unwitting sense of cold dread settled over her.

"There'll be a registry soon," one of the men spoke from beyond Malfoy. The glee in his voice sickened her. "And if they won't register…well, we've found other ways," he said, his voice dark.

"Filthy little creatures, aren't they? And the blood traitors are no different," Another man added, and the others joined his ensuing laughter. These words finally made her unfreeze, and she moved close enough to Malfoy until she could brush his arm, signaling her presence. Malfoy's laugh boomed loudest of all, forcing her to separate her memories of that specific laugh during their years at Hogwarts from the man in front of her. He did not flinch at her touch, but instead causally uncrossed his legs and straightened, and she spied his face melting into his signature haughty look as he stepped further into the room while she brushed past.

It was a small, well-lit living room, and there were five men sitting around, bearing various glasses of liquor that ranged from amber to dark brown. Only one appeared completely inebriated, and he was slouched on a sofa, his slurred laughter echoing louder than that of those around him.

She did not linger, and instead tiptoed over to the entry to the kitchen, peeking inside to find no one within. She spared one last glance at the men gathered in the living room before she mumbled an extra charm on her feet and tiptoed uptake narrow steps, wand at the ready. Upstairs, there were four closed doors, only one of which was ajar that she could see lead to a loo.

She crept up to the first door, listening for the sounds of movement within. Booming laughter still echoed from downstairs, sending chills up her spine and she tried to focus. It was near silent as far as she could tell, yet her clammy hands nearly slipped off of the doorknob as she grasped it. She stepped through quickly, wand at the ready and a stunning spell on her lips when she realized no one was within. It was a sparsely furnished bedroom, and a draft breezed through the slightly opened window across the room. Still, her skin tingled, and her wand did not waver from its taut position as she whipped her eyes around, scanning for movement.

"Homenum revelio," she whispered. When the air shifted in the middle of the room to reveal its occupants, she stumbled backward and clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her scream as well as her sudden need to retch.

In the centre of the room, two bloodied figures were slumped in chairs, arms bound behind them and their legs bound just as tightly by the ankles. It was a woman and a man, and their clothing was ripped, blood seeping through several cuts and wounds that littered the exposed parts of their skin. Neither was moving.

"Reenervate," she whispered at the figures after she disillusioned herself. Only the one on the right side jerked awake, blinking open the eye that wasn't swollen shut to look up at her. The woman opened her mouth to speak, and choked instead, spraying bloodied spittle as she struggled for air.

Hermione quickly conjured a glass on water and tipped it to the woman's lips, her hand shaking as she heard the woman's ragged breaths, sensing that she would soon be reduced to the state of the man's limp corpse that was next to them. After a few meagre sips, the woman turned to Hermione, wheezing something to her.

"My…my…" the woman's voice was a cracked whisper, and Hermione leaned closer, uncaring of the slippery blood that coated her hand as she cupped the woman's cheek.

"You're going to be okay," Hermione said. "We're going to get you to safety—"

But they both knew that she was beyond saving. Even as she spoke, her words rang with the finality of one's final breaths.

"Seamus," the woman said again, her voice clearer. "My…son."

And Hermione gasped. She whipped her wide eyes between the two figures, now noticing the matching wedding rings they both wore. The words of the men downstairs now haunted her impossibly deeper — muggleborns. Blood traitors. A registry. Finding other ways to handle them, should they choose not to comply.

Her foot caught against an object as she stumbled backward, and she heard a loud bang followed by a shattering noise behind her at the same that she heard a long bang from downstairs. She turned horrified eyes to the vase she had knocked over, still hearing the noises of the struggle downstairs. She was out of time.

She flicked her wand at the woman's — Seamus' mother, she now knew — bindings, caching her as she slumped forward. "I'm going to get you out of here," she said desperately, her voice choking over the words. "I'm going to get you back to your son."

She barely heard the sound of the door to one of the other rooms slamming open before the door to the room she was in opened, and she shot out a spell as a burly man burst in, easily deflecting her spell.

"You little bitch," he spat, charging at her before she shot out another spell that made him drop instantly, and made quick work of obliviating him. Her wand was not practiced this time, and she was forceful in dragging out his memories, some of them even spilling out onto the floor in silvery puddles that quickly dissipated as she shoved a portkey into the man's hand. This man would be nothing but a vegetable, and in that moment she had no regrets.

She turned back to Seamus' mother, breathing a sigh of relief as she felt the faint beat of a pulse under the woman's skin, even as she was slumped forward again, looking eerily like the corpse of her husband beside her. Hermione had been about to tip a portkey into the woman's hand when she heard another set of footsteps and another man burst into the room, his dark eyes dancing with rage.

"Cruci—"

"Impedimenta!" she shouted, watching him deflect her spell as easily as she dodged his. He rushed forward and she whipped to the side, tossing out another spell that barely grazed his hair.

The man snarled and charged forward again, deflecting her stunner. Then he paused, and with a wicked smile, aimed his wand toward Seamus' mother. Before Hermione could register her actions, she threw herself at him, causing the flash of green light that erupted from the tip of his wand to hit the already dead body of Seamus' father instead. She grunted as they fell to the ground, and her hand that held her wand got trapped between their bodies. She butted her head into his jaw, causing him to rear back in pain for a moment before he pressed forward again, crushing her beneath his body.

Then, as if in slow motion, he lifted his wand and cast a hex at Seamus' mother that slashed across her stomach, causing her to gasp out a final breath before she slid to the ground in a pool of crimson blood, her eyes open and lifeless.

Hermione screamed, and his free hand fastened around her neck, squeezing the air from her lungs. Her hands were small, so small compared to his and he slammed down a heavy elbow on her forearm with a sickening crunching noise that caused her to drop her wand as she cried out in pain. Black spots started to appear in her vision, and she stopped clawing at his fingers that were latched around her throat, causing a cruel smile to slowly grace his features as he smirked down at her.

His smile disappeared, however, when she whipped her hand back up and swiped her knife across his throat. Instantly, blood spurted out of the wound and spilled over them both. He dropped her instantly, clawing at his throat. Then his body jerked and he fell forward, giving her only a moment to scramble backward before he toppled to the floor, unmoving. Beyond him, Malfoy stood in the doorway, breathing heavily even as his wand stayed pointed at the man as if he was waiting for him to get up. His eyes flicked to her before he crossed the room in two quick strides, dropping to his knees in front of her.

"Where are you hurt?" he demanded, his hands ghosting over her body. "Is it his?" he asked, looking down at where his hands had come away bloodied.

She didn't answer although she knew she needed to. She willed her limbs to move, but she felt as though she was underwater, her body slow to respond while her mind raced, replaying the sequence of events of the night on a sickening loop.

"Granger," Malfoy said, and she flinched when he touched her broken arm. "I'm going to heal this, alright?"

She managed only to blink in acknowledgment and felt a burn of pain as her bone snapped itself back together.

"Granger," Malfoy prodded again, and still she could not find the words to answer. When she did not reply, he gathered her into his arms gently — more gently than she'd previously thought him capable of — and disapparated them.

X

They landed back in the kitchen of their cabin. He set her down on her feet, then quickly steadied her as she buckled.

"Granger," he spoke into her ear as she sagged back into his chest. "You're shaking."

She hadn't realized it, but she was. Even as she noticed the trembling, however, she couldn't make it stop.

"What happened?" His voice was almost soft — concerned.

She opened her mouth, then slammed it shut as the sound of her teeth clacking together took over. She couldn't move. Couldn't think. All she could see was blood. Blood and dead bodies, a dying woman lingering just out of her reach…

"Granger!" Malfoy snapped.

She looked up at him, still shaking, her teeth grinding down hard as she tried to force her jaw to stop trembling. She tried to focus on his eyes, but grey shifted to brown, and she saw Seamus' mother's lifeless eyes looking back at her from where she lay on the ground—

She was jerked forward then, and she dimly registered Malfoy pulling her toward the loo, dragging her inside and shoving her into the shower. The sudden spray of frigid water caused her to shiver more, and this time she let her teeth chatter openly, clutching her arms tightly around her body. Malfoy stepped in in front of her, the water soaking through the long-sleeved shirt and trousers he wore, the dark fabric clinging heavily to his figure.

"You're in shock," he said, gently tugging her chin until she met his eyes.

She gave a shot nod — she supposed she was. She felt powerless to do anything all the same.

"I'm going to clean the blood off of you, alright?" Again, he used that gentle tone that sounded so unlike him that she had to flick her eyes down to his lips to make the connection between the man in front of her and the words she heard him speaking.

She managed another small nod, aware that she was still holding herself tightly and shivering. His hands were as gentle as his words as he raised a rag and began wiping her face.

"I'm going to take off your clothes," he said softly and she gave another small nod, no longer caring about her modesty.

He vanished her clothes a moment later, and she was glad to be rid of them, glad that some of the evidence of what had transpired was gone forever, although she was certain that her memories of it would brand her forever. He cleaned her skin slowly and diligently, taking careful care to wash away every speck of blood from her skin and hair. It was so unlike him — so deeply unlike everything she had ever known about him that her eyes remained fixed on him, trying to reconcile the gentle movements he made as he cleaned her thoroughly with the hard, cold man she was used to. He remained clothed all the while, and she watched him, looking for signs that he was as affected by the night as she was. He had blood in his hair, platinum stained with red, and a spot on his neck that didn't seem to wash away like the rest of it until she realized it was a small gash that he had yet to heal. He paused only when she reached out to touch it.

At her touch, he looked up at her and caught the question in her eyes. "I'll heal it later," he said dismissively, pausing to wring out the rag until pink water flowed down the drain before he returned to wiping her feet.

Draco Malfoy was an enigma. She continued to study him, watching for a break in his facade as dried her and summoned her bathrobe, wrapping it tightly around her. Wordlessly, he carried her to the bedroom and put her under the sheets before turning to leave.

"Thank you," she croaked, watching him pause in the doorway.

"Get some sleep," he answered simply before pulling the door shut behind him.

X

She did not emerge from the room for two days. A few times a day — she could not say when, because she kept the curtains tightly drawn — Malfoy would come in and leave her a plate of food before exiting quickly without a word. She slept fitfully for as long as she could before she would wake up, the images slamming back into her mind as suddenly and as vividly as though she had experienced them only moments earlier. Sometimes she would scream. Other times, she would choke back sobs, shoving a fist into her mouth as she tried to stifle the sounds. Still, Malfoy heard her —and probably felt it — every time without fail, and would enter the room with a sleeping potion at the ready. She knew the supplies she'd seen their cabinets stocked with were limited, yet he did not complain — or say anything, really — and would instead tip the potion to her lips and slip back out, closing the door behind him and sealing her in the darkness she so craved once more.

On the morning of the third day, she awoke in a cold sweat, sucking in heavy breaths as she tried to steady her racing heartbeat. Her mind was overrun with images of people suffering, screaming — dying. But this time, instead of crying out as she so desired to, she channeled her fear into determination. She knew now that this was bigger than her — she now knew firsthand what the costs of war were. She felt herself swing her legs over the bed, and took two steady steps as she stood up. Eventually, she padded carefully over to the door and pulled it open, scanning the room before her eyes landed on where Malfoy was sitting at the long desk, looking up at her with a question in his eyes.

"I'm alright," she said, her throat scratching as she spoke her first words in days. "Thank you," she added.

He nodded and scanned her for a moment before turning back to the tome in front of him.

"I killed him," she whispered brokenly. "I killed him, and—"

"Granger," he cut her off. "You don't need to—"

"—and I don't regret it," she finished. "He…he wasn't human."

Malfoy paused, his gaze intense as he met hers, and she looked back, knowing he could see the truth of her admission, and feel it as she dropped the walls she had built in her mind. "I burned them," he said eventually. "I burned everything."

"Good," she answered. "She—" it was then that Hermione's voice broke, and she bit her lip before looking down. "She was Seamus'— Seamus Finnegan's— mother. His father was already…when we got there." Her lip trembled as the sickening images flitted through her mind once more. She closed her eyes and let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and when she opened them again Malfoy was in front of her, his hands out as if ready to steady her.

She waved him away, shaking her head. "It's alright," she said, and he nodded, letting his arms drop to his sides as he turned to go back to the desk. She caught his hand before he could take a step.

"Draco," she called. "How did you…why did you know where to go?"

His shoulders stiffened instantly.

"I don't— I won't pry, if you don't want to tell me," she said. Still, she continued to grip his sleeve, knowing that he would soon pull away. Still, a long moment passed and he did not pull away, nor did she release his sleeve.

"The Dark Lord…he liked to hold revels," he said. His voice was low, yet she heard the tinge of fear in it that was otherwise hidden by his fortified occlumency walls.

"Revels?" She asked when he offered no more.

"Some referred to them as…learning exercises," he said. She yearned to circle him and search his eyes but knew that he might pull away if she moved even a fraction. "They taught others how to curse people in ways that would make the pain last. They held demonstrations of how to use the Killing Curse."

Hermione sucked in a sharp breath, imagining the horrors of what he must have witnessed. "Did they use…live targets?"

His nod was nearly imperceptible, but unmistakable all the same. "Muggles, mostly. But sometimes…" he trailed off, letting the implications of what was left unsaid hang in the air between them.

"They killed…all of them?" Her voice was a pained whisper as she thought of the horrors he'd had to endure.

"No," his voice was sharp. "Some…some they kept for entertainment."

Hermione froze at his words, letting out a horrified gasp. She pictured her parents in the same position Seamus' had been in the previous night, and wondered if they would have simply killed her, or…

She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Malfoy from behind, feeling her sympathy beating as strongly as her heartbeat and knowing that he could feel it, too. She let her feelings flow, clutching him so tightly that she could feel his muscles contracting under her fingers. He tensed but did not move, and he stood there for a long while, letting her silent tears wet the back of his shirt.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

A spell crashed into the wall behind Hermione, feeling white-hot as it grazed just past her temple. She did not hesitate, wandlessly erecting a quick shield before throwing back a spell of her own. It was a flash of angry red against platinum hair, as it, too, grazed past its target, just missing him as he dodged it expertly. Sweat dripped down Hermione's forehead and into her eyes, its salty sting causing her to blink rapidly. Still, she did not waver and charged forward, whipping out her foot at the last moment so that Malfoy stepped into its path as he went to dodge her. The result was him toppling to the ground, and her landing astride him, wand at his throat. It was only the second time of more than a dozen that she'd managed it this morning, but it was still a victory for her nonetheless. He was looking at her with what almost seemed like respect, and she allowed herself to revel in it.

Her free hand was pressed firmly against his hard chest, and she could feel the rapid thrum of his heartbeat under her hand as he looked back up at her. She watched as his eyes slid down her body until they rested on the hand that was on his chest, where her wedding ring glittered in the low light that filtered through the window. She hadn't bothered to keep it glamoured when they weren't on missions, and it now shone at her like a beacon. Even she could admit that the ring was stunning, and there had been many a moment that she'd stopped to admire its glittering beauty that seemed to both mock and entrance her at once. She looked back up and met his eyes again, wondering what had passed through his mind as he'd stared at it. But as quickly as she thought she'd caught an openness in his expression, his eyes hardened into his usual indifferent mask.

There was a sharp rap on the door then and they both looked up, scrambling to their feet as they both came to the realization that it was an Order member at the same time. She reached the door first and pulled in open in time to see Kingsley's back as he quickly strode toward where the apparition wards ended at the tree line.

"Kingsley!" she called, running down the steps.

Kingsley sighed, turning back to look at her. The grey morning light illuminated his haggard features in a way that felt almost melancholic. Hermione knew that there had been a time where she would have gone to him, her voice laced with concern as she asked if he was alright. But those times were long past, and the distance between them felt as wide as a chasm.

"You look well," he said finally.

"How is everyone?" she asked.

Kingsley nodded toward the door, where she saw a large envelope stuck to it. "Ron wrote you, and he said to send his best."

"And...Harry?"

Kingsley hesitated. "He is as well as can be expected."

Hermione let out a shaky breath, hearing the things he had left unsaid. She could still practically feel the weight of her betrayal reflected in Harry's eyes, and her heart clenched at the reminder.

"He knows that your mission is integral, Hermione," he said. "Worry not for him."

"Will you give him this for me?" she said, handing him the notes she'd made on Horcruxes that had been charmed for Harry and Ron's eyes only. "It's important."

Kingsley nodded. "He informed us that he and Ronald must continue the mission they've been entrusted with by Dumbledore, so they have been in and out of the safe houses for some time now."

She nodded solemnly, swallowing back the painful throb in her chest. "And the rest of the Order?"

"We've all relocated to the safe houses."

"I see," Hermione said, shuffling awkwardly as the man offered no further information and instead turned to walk away yet again.

"Is that all, then?" her voice was stiff as she watched the man pause, his shoulders tense.

"Yes," he answered. "There are other things I must attend to."

Hermione choked out a sound that lay somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Is that what I am now? One more insignificant thing somewhere on your list?"

Kingsley looked away, and she spotted a scar that ran down the side of his neck, the puckered line standing out sharply against his ebony skin. "The bodies of Saoirse and David Finnegan turned up at St. Mungo's a few nights ago, along with three Death Eaters that had been obliviated to the point of infancy," he said. "You have done well." His voice was almost robotic, perverse in the way that he congratulated her for what basically constituted murder. Her heart twisted at the thought, reminding her that she had committed the literal act of murder as well.

"Her veins were black," her voice was barely a whisper, but she knew that Kingsley had heard her. "When I saw her, I knew it was too late— that I couldn't save her. But still, I wanted to try."

Kingsley said nothing, but continued to watch her in stoic silence.

"They killed her anyway," she spat. "And later, in my dreams, all I could see was the peculiar way her blackened veins stood out so sharply against her pale skin. I didn't have to time to stop then, to even fully register it at the time, but after...afterwards, it was all I saw. So I looked it up. They'd cursed her — they cursed her with something so dark, so vile, that she had been slowly rotting until it reached her heart. Her husband was already dead when I got there. Probably long dead, because that is what they do — what they will do if they ever find me." Her voice shook with her pain and rage as she wished to banish the memories from her mind, but knowing that they would be there forever.

"There are sacrifices we all must make," Kingsley said, his words eerily reminiscent of the words she'd heard from Dumbledore months prior.

And just like back then, the words made the rage in that bubbled within her boil over, her words spilling out of her hotly before she could think of reigning them in. "Damn you," she spat. "Damn you, and damn the Order for what you've made me into. Dumbledore orchestrated this scheme, lured me in under false pretenses of securing a spy when this" — she clutched her chest as her heart stuttered at the thought of all that had transpired thus far — "this is what he really wanted. Two assassins, ready to do the Order's bidding," she spat.

"This is war," Kingsley answered simply.

"I know that this is war!" she shouted back. "It is war, so we have to win, or we will die. Yet there are many, many things that are worse than death. We have to— we have to kill, or be killed," her voice broke. "And that's what I've done — what you've forced me into because you know that I truly understand the stakes and wouldn't refuse no matter how desperately I wanted to. I know that binding myself to Malfoy was the best course of action to secure Narcissa's allegiance, just as well as I know that we had to do what we did to those Death Eaters. It could have been my parents in the place of Seamus'. It could have been me, me and my husband, and he would have been tortured to the brink of death all whilst slowly rotting from within because of my blood status. I know, Kingsley. I know it all, just like I know that the part of me that regrets slashing that Death Eater across the throat when I could have wounded him anywhere else is nowhere near as regretful as it would have been only months ago. I have lost myself to this war, and much of it boils down to what you and Moody and even" —she choked on the name— "McGonagall have forced me into. So that— that is why I am almost certain that I hate you."

Kingsley remained silent, as stoic as ever in the silence that followed her words that was pierced only by her heaving breaths. "Just as you said, you win or you die, Hermione," Kingsley said finally. "Remember that." He turned and took the last few steps to the tree line before disapparating, leaving Hermione alone.

She whirled and stormed back into the cabin, slamming the door behind her. Malfoy was seated at the small dining table, a mug of tea paused at his lips as he appraised her.

"Is crying all you're capable of?" he said, taking a long sip of his tea.

She raised a hand and touched her wet cheek, not having noticed the angry tears that had spilled there.

"The night we got married," she said, her voice still shaky, "—or even before then, did you know what Dumbledore had planned? Did you know that it would all lead to — this?" she said, gesturing sharply around them.

His lips thinned into a hard line. "You have always clung to foolish notions, but even I didn't peg you to be as blind of a fool as Potter."

Hermione stalked over to the table and slammed an open palm down on it, glaring at him. "Did you know?!"

He glared back at her, his grey eyes sharpening. "He visited the Manor once," he answered, offering no additional information.

"When?"

"Last summer," his teeth were gritted as he responded, still glaring at her.

She stumbled backward, her mind reeling under the weight of his words. "Last summer? Did your mother—"

Malfoy stood and was upon her in a flash. "He came to the Manor, offering aid of some kind. I overheard nothing more, but have always had an inkling that visit" —his voice was dark— "lead her to choose this. And that is all, Granger. You trust Potter, Dumbledore, the whole bloody Order too much. You need to stop fighting blindly for them and use that supposedly-bright mind of yours to think," he added with a scoff.

"This is not just about them! It's also about all muggleborns, our rights, our lives—"

"You still could have said no, could have told them to piss off and continued on your little crusade—"

"You know that I couldn't have said no!"

"Yes, you could have!"

"If I hadn't, your mother would never have agreed to be a spy—"

"She was desperate Granger!" he snapped.

His words made her pause momentarily as she recalled that night, remembering how the woman had been ever the picture of elegant perfection, not a hair out of place. Hermione had caught only a hint of fear in the woman's eyes as she'd watched her carefully, but she did not doubt that the woman's careful display of vulnerability had been intended to sway her more so than it had been an unintentional drop in her facade. And even if Malfoy's words were true, Hermione recalled the knowing, calculating glint in Dumbledore's eyes. Deep inside, she knew that even if she had tried to refuse, Dumbledore would have continued to maneuver them like chess pieces until they'd ended up exactly where he wanted them to be. And...

Even beyond that, there was a deeper truth that Malfoy was probing at that bubbled near the surface of her thoughts, threatening to burst forth. He knew it, too — could probably feel her turmoil as it drew dangerously close to spilling from her lips — and she could see it reflected in the angry glimmer in his stormy grey eyes.

"You knew it! We all knew it!" Malfoy continued. "So why did you agree?"

And with that, the truth she had been trying to suppress and deny for so long burst forth, tumbling from her lips before she could attempt to force them shut. "I did it for you!" she shouted.

The silence left in the wake of her words was so deafening that it felt as though it had sucked out every sound in the room, save for her racing heartbeat which echoed loudly in her ears.

"I did it because—" she swallowed, letting her eyes flutter shut for a moment before she opened them again, forcing herself to face him, "—I did it because even though I didn't like you, I thought you were worth saving."

"Why?" his voice was low and gruff when he finally spoke.

"All these years...everything with you has been about your father, about pleasing him. But I know...I know how twisted he is, and I thought that you deserved to be free of his shadow. It was why I spent most of the school year trying to convince Harry that you weren't trying to kill anyone, that you weren't a part of any of this as much as subject to it because you deserve at least that much. When Dumbledore asked this of me, I realized that I — that this — could be your second chance." The words that had sat deep in her heart that she'd quelled to a whisper drifted free, the truth now hanging in the air between them despite her long denial of it.

"I never asked for your pity, Granger."

His eyes were stormy, swimming with a dark intensity as he loomed over her, his taller, broader frame feeling like an eclipse. She knew that he wanted her to shrink away under his intimidating stature, but she instead found herself leaning closer into him. He was tense and frozen even when her head finally met his chest, and her arms snaked carefully, gently, around his waist. He did not move when she whispered her next words, either: "It was never pity. I just cared."

She'd pressed her head to his chest for but a few seconds more until he pulled away abruptly, stalking over to the front door. His hand clenched the doorknob tightly as he wrenched it open, and he twisted slightly to spit out one word:

"Don't."

X

It was late, and Hermione was sitting on the edge of her bed, the single letter she'd received from Ron lay on the bed beside her, unopened. She had brought in the letters that had remained tacked on the door long after Malfoy had gone through it, leaving the few he'd received from his mother on the coffee table. The small envelope shone like a beacon to her even in the soft moonlight that drifted in through the window, and she looked at it with mounting trepidation, wondering what it held. There was a small, firm lump that bulged in the envelope, and she wondered if it held a letter at all — perhaps it instead held a single token that encompassed his rejection, his permanent severing of her from his life. She wouldn't blame him if that was it.

She took a deep, shaky breath before she tugged it open, sighing in relief when she spotted a piece of parchment within. You will always be my best friend, it read in Ron's familiar messy script. It just wasn't our time. Be safe.

Hermione tipped the open envelope into her palm to find the small vial of the remnants of Harry's Felix Felicis they hadn't ended up using that night in the castle when everything — everything — had changed. And with that, Hermione clutched the contents to her chest and sobbed, clutching the letter close even as she climbed into bed.

For the first time in weeks, she did not dream.

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Hermione awoke sharply, flying from deep sleep to hyper-alertness in a moment. Her heart fluttered rapidly in her chest beneath the weight that held it down, and her panicked scream was stifled by the hand that was pressed firmly over her mouth.

"Do not hex me," Malfoy said. "We've been summoned." He waited until she gave him a short nod before he disappeared back out the door.

She cast a tempus charm, still blinking blearily as it showed the time to be nearly half past midnight. Several weeks of silence had passed since Kingsley's visit, and they had fallen back into a routine of working and training together, the rest of their time spent in relative silence. It was no longer tense, but the air was not amicable, either. There had been a shift between them — a subtle one, yes, but a shift nonetheless — since that fateful night in the cabin, and she now found it easier to breathe around him despite his cool demeanor. She slid out of bed and dressed quickly in her usual outfit of dark form-fitting trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, stepping out into the living room as she fastened her cloak.

"What did it say?" she asked Malfoy, who was already dressed.

He turned and tossed her knife to her wordlessly, and she felt her heart clench for a moment as she looked at its spotless beauty, no hint of what she had done left on its gleaming sheath despite the fact that it has been branded in her memory forever.

"Reconnaissance," he answered. "They asked that we be discreet."

She nodded, then crossed over and gently fingered his tousled platinum locks. "May I?"

He had stiffened at her touch but nodded all the same. She charmed his hair into a deep chestnut color, then glamoured his eye color to a deep blue. He was still strikingly handsome, and she flushed as she raised her wand again after it had been lowered and quickly cast a charm that caused his nose to grow longer, developing a slight hook.

He raised an eyebrow at her, but she said nothing, instead giving him a short nod as she charmed her own long braid auburn before taking his hand. She tried not to focus on how warm it was, nor on how his larger hand seemed to dwarf her small one while simultaneously fitting it perfectly.

But then his cold, gruff voice broke through her reverie, and she remembered the frigid, detached man to whom the hand that she held belonged. "I've never been there," he said, pointing to the shimmering circle he had marked on the map. "Do you know where to go?"

She let go of his hand, avoiding his eyes as he inadvertently addressed the presumption she'd made, assuming he had been there just as before. She approached the map, her brow furrowing as she analyzed the surrounding area.

"There's an inn that I visited with my parents once a couple of kilometers away," she said, pointing to a spot on the map. "Here. It'll be a long walk."

Draco looked at the path she pointed out and nodded before taking her hand. She envisioned the small, quaint inn and apparated them there. They landed in a shadowed area just outside the main doors to the quaint inn, a short ways from where the tree line began. They pressed back into the shadows as the doors opened, letting out a young couple. Hermione watched as the man lifted his wife's hand to his lips, kissing the rings on her finger as they glinted in the soft light of the lantern that illuminated them. She cupped his cheek and drew him into a long kiss before she whispered something into his ear that caused him to give her a sly grin before tugging her off into the underbrush.

"Let's go," Hermione whispered as they watched the couple disappear into the shadows.

They disillusioned themselves and ran across the gravelly road and into the forest. A few feet away, she heard the woman's soft moan that was followed by a short groan from her husband, and Hermione swallowed, speeding up while studiously avoiding looking up at her own husband.

The forest was soon silent around them, save for their soft breaths and footsteps. It was dark, and the silver of moonlight that shone through the trees did little more than give them a vague sense of where some overhanging branches were. As such, they stayed close, nearly pressed into one another, and the heat that radiated off of his body was her sole source of comfort.

"Malfoy," she whispered after a long while of silence. "We're getting close." She'd stopped moving altogether, and felt him slow to a stop beside her, his arm brushing hers lightly.

"Where?"

"I can't be certain, but the pull of the charm has lessened so much that I can barely feel it now. Only a few dozen feet ahead, I think." Her palms felt slick, and she rubbed them on her leggings as she bit her lip, looking up at where she could barely make out his outline in the dull moonlight. "We—"

His hand gripped her shoulder as he pressed her forward. "Just focus," his voice was so low that she barely heard him.

She nodded, knowing he couldn't see the movement but also knowing that he likely didn't care, either. Her breaths quickened as they moved closer and the trees began to thin, letting and more trickles of illumination shine through. Hermione stepped forward and nearly tripped, and was stopped only by Malfoy's strong grip as he caught her. It was still dark, too dark for them to see what it had been, but a sickening cold had begun to seep through her as she knew that it has been something distinctly out of the ordinary. As if coming to the same conclusion as her, Malfoy cast a low light from his wand, illuminating the ground before them.

And Hermione froze.

Her hand flew up to cover her mouth, and she found herself sucking in short, sharp breaths as she tried to stop herself from becoming violently ill.

There were dead bodies— a dozen at least, perhaps more — scattered along the ground around them.

The one by her feet stared up with cold, lifeless eyes, her dark hair matted with blood. She wore distinctly muggle clothing, as did all the rest of the victims. While some were pale and lifeless, others were covered in blood, their wounds telling tales of their untimely suffering. Hermione stumbled backward, slamming into a tree while Malfoy quickly put out the light.

"Don't look," he said. "We need to move the bodies. Quickly."

She shuddered a deep breath. "Wait," she said, then cast a quick homenum revelio on their immediate surroundings. When the spell showed nothing, she felt her heartbeat begin to slow although the churning in her stomach did not cease.

"Do we have enough portkeys?" Malfoy asked.

Hermione bit her lip. They had dozens, yes, but this was war, and it had no end date that they knew of. How many missions were left? How many more times would they need to use the portkeys? How precious of a resource were they, truly?

"Why are they doing this?" she asked, watching Malfoy's outline shift, presumably turning toward her as she spoke.

"Because this is what they do, Granger." His voice was dismissive.

"I know that," she said back. "But…over a dozen muggles just—" she choked on the word "—slaughtered in cold blood, Draco, it doesn't make sense—"

"It would if you understood Death Eaters," he snapped. "This is sport to them."

The ill feeling in her stomach continued to churn, and she forced herself to swallow it back as she ran through the options of what this could have meant. Even as she spoke, she held the pouch of portkeys in her hand, hesitating as she tried to come to a decision.

"It's just—random, Draco. Why here? Why just leave them? It might be a trap, maybe we shouldn't touch them—" she stopped short, sneaking a glance at where the bodies lay once more as she forced herself not to heave at the sickening realization that had just dawned on her.

"What is it?" Malfoy asked, his voice sharp.

"Inferi," she breathed. "They could be making more Inferi, couldn't they?" She thought of Harry's description of his time spent with Dumbledore in the cave, of the twisted, unnatural creatures that had attacked them…

She didn't doubt that those had been muggles, too.

"If they were, they would have taken them," Malfoy said. "They wouldn't just—"

"Slaughter them without reason and leave them here?" She answered with a humorless laugh. Her discomfort continued to increase exponentially the more time they spent standing there, surrounded by the dead. "It's a possibility, and you know that they're capable of it. They could come back at any moment to…collect them."

She looked up at him, and although his eyes weren't visible in the dark she somehow knew their eyes had met. "We have to burn them." Her lip trembled as she thought of all the muggles that lay before them, slaughtered for reasons she knew they would not — could not — understand.

"Granger," Malfoy broke the silence. "I'll do it."

"No," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "I can do it." Surviving this war would require a strength she didn't know that she possessed, but she knew that this action would at least be merciful. Yes— it was better that they died a final, peaceful death here than be forced to join Voldemort's undead army.

She lifted her wand with a shaky hand, pointing it at where the bodies lay. "Incend—"

Before she could finish the incantation, close by —entirely too close by— several distinct pops of apparition sounded around them.

And then everything descended into chaos.

Sparks of color began littering the air around them as it was filled with a multitude of spells and curses from their attackers. Hermione stumbled backward, tripping over a body as she dodged a spell that hit the trees just behind her, exploding in a shower of splintered wood. She tried to see where Malfoy was, but the plethora of spells exploding around her kept her firmly in place as she casted shield and curses of her own. As a white-hot spell grazed her leg, she sprang up, throwing back a spell of her own, satisfied to hear an answering scream. Then she took off at a sprint, searching for Malfoy's dark head amongst the chaos that was sparks of magic shrouded in shadow.

There was a sudden burst of light then, and the air was immediately filled with a sickening stench that had her earlier queasiness rising back up as the ground was suddenly ablaze behind her, consuming the bodies that littered the ground. The light the fire threw off illuminated several figures littered around them, their faces slightly obscured by the licking flames as they rose higher and higher.

She took advantage of the light to lunge forward, taking down two more Death Eaters with quick, precise movements. She ran past them, throwing out more spells as she dove deeper into the chaos, trying to identify her only ally in a sea of foes. Even as she took down three more in quick succession, she heard several more cracks of apparition as others joined the fight. She whipped her head around frantically as she searched for Malfoy, knowing that their window to escape was quickly closing.

There.

She spotted Malfoy's tall, lithe form a dozen feet before her, the distinctive hooked nose scrunched in anger as he dueled with two Death Eaters, taking them out easily. She rushed toward him, feeling the spreading flames begin to lick at her heels. She cried out, saying nothing in particular because she knew that she could not expose them, but hoping he would distinguish the pitch of her voice regardless—

A hand clamped down on her arm suddenly, dragging her backward even as she was mere feet from where Malfoy had begun dueling three newcomers. "Who do we have here?" A cold, male spat as she tried to wrench herself away, scrambling backward and stumbling over one of the bodies that had yet to be touched by the flames.

The heat was stifling, and the smell of burning bodies burned her senses as she tried to escape the man's iron grip. She shot out a slashing hex that grazed his cheek, causing blood to start pouring from the wound. He snarled, lurching forward as she dodged his next spell. She managed to wrench sideways at the last moment, sending them tumbling away from the fire. The man managed to secure a meaty hand around her throat even as she clawed at him with her free hand, scratching deep gouges into his skin. She managed to free her wand hand from where it had been trapped between them, but as her mouth formed the words of a curse the man wrenched them sideways once more, sending them tumbling in a heap.

Beyond them, shouts continued to sound as spells flew off in every direction, bathing the dark sky in color above the orange-red of the licking flames. This time, the man had managed to twist her in such a way that her wand arm was trapped painfully beneath her while he pressed her face into the forest floor. Her mouth filled with dirt as she struggled to breathe, feeling the man shove her face deeper into it as he kept his firm grip on her head while a knee was firmly embedded on her lower back.

She continued to hold her wand fast with the hand that was trapped beneath her while she started to creep the hand that was only partially trapped towards the pocket of her cloak, her fingertips just barely able to grasp at it in order for her to begin lifting it upward. Each breath she took only filled her mouth with more dirt, and she knew her time was running out. She hadn't much time, and she tugged at the pocket harder until she gripped the pouch of portkeys, grasping it tightly in her fingers. She fingered it open, sliding one of the small, hard objects to the top of the pouch. She needed only to be precise enough to press it against his body without touching it herself. His large frame covered her so completely that her pinky grazed his side as she twisted the portkey into position. She needed only to tip it in a precise enough manner that it touched his side—

There was a sudden blast of light, and two things happened simultaneously. The man rolled off of her, revealing Malfoy behind them, firmly poised with his wand pointed at him. The sudden movement, however, had propelled her in such a way that her hand automatically tightened on the pouch just below the single portkey she had nudged to the top that she had readied to drop on her attacker. The effect was that a single gold coin flew out of the pouch, sailing through the air between them as it twinkled in the light of the flames surrounding them. Hermione's eyes widened as the scene unfolded seemingly in slow motion, attempting to wrench herself away from where the man still held her braid in a firm grip. Malfoy came to the same realization as she did, and he moved forward, a hand swiping through the air a hair too short above where it fell.

It landed directly on the man's chest.

The last thing Hermione saw before the portkey sucked them away was the horror twisting her husband's glamoured features as she felt herself twisting away with a sharp, inescapable tug at her navel. And she was gone.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Hermione crashed onto the hard floor, the impact taking the wind out of her lungs. She coughed, sitting up as she looked at her surroundings. They had landed in a dimly lit stairwell somewhere in St. Mungo's, where a loud alarm blared overhead from an unseen source. The man she had been transported with was on his knees, scrambling forward toward where his wand had tumbled down the steps.

"Stupefy!" Mercifully, Hermione hadn't relinquished her own tight grip on her wand. Hermione's spell hit him from such close range that the man flew forward, tumbling down the steps and landing twisted at an unnatural angle. The stairwell door in front of where the man had landed slammed open, crushing his twisted body against the wall. Instead of a St. Mungo's employee dressed in Healer garb however, a figure dressed in full Death Eater regalia attempted to squeeze through, blocked only by the body that forced the door to remain half shut. Hermione scrambled backward, wide-eyed as she took in the alarm that continued to blare and the man that was trying to squeeze his way into the stairwell.

St. Mungo's was under attack.

Hermione shot out a nasty slashing hex at him as she sprang to her feet, her heart thundering as she tore open the door beside her, stepping out into chaos. Healers ran about, popping away along with various patients as attendants ran past, dropping the emergency portkeys in their hands. Hermione shouldered through the chaos, her heart aching as she realized that she and Malfoy had brought this down on the hospital, on all these weak, innocent people—

It was then that high pitched screams began.

At the end of the hallway, the elevator had opened to reveal a group of Death Eaters who ran out, slashing down anyone who happened to step in their way.

The Healers were disappearing with the patients quickly, but not nearly quickly enough, and Hermione took advantage of the thinning crowd to throw up shields around those who had yet to flee. This, of course, redirected all attention to her. The frenzied crowd was thinning rapidly, and the Death Eaters zeroed in on her, immediately unleashing a litany of curses. She repelled them and threw back her own, the hall erupting into further chaos as spells whizzed around.

Hermione dodged a spell that glowed a frightening green, whispering of death as it grazed past her shoulder. She responded by exploding an abandoned hospital bed before ducking into a doorway, smiling satisfactorily when she heard multiple cries of anguish as the splintered mass flew about. When she stepped out of the room, however, her heart dropped. The door to the stairwell banged open, admitting at least a half dozen more opponents— too many. The hall was empty now except for them, and they all stormed toward her, impeded momentarily only by the blasting hex she threw at the wall opposite where she stood, leaving an explosion of concrete and plaster. She shoved her hand into her back pocket, throwing the small pouch of powder she had inside of it into the hall before exploding it, too.

Instantly, they were plunged into darkness. Hermione stumbled back into the room, biting back a curse as her shin hit the edge of the bed. Outside, she could hear the curses and shuffling of the Death Eaters as they made their way towards her, and she knew she had only moments before at least some would stumble upon the room. She scrambled back further until her back hit the wall, allowing her hands to roam along it desperately as she heard the footsteps outside drawing closer— there.

Her fingers grasped the windowsill just as she felt a spell ricochet through the room in the darkness, barely missing her.

"Reducto!" she screamed, shattering the window into a heap of glass that glittered in the night sky.

Outside, everything was burning.

Tall, criss-crossing lines of flame divided the street, which was dotted equally with fleeing figures as it was with dueling ones. Hermione gaped at the display, watching the chaos in the street as Death Eaters dueled against an unseen target. People fled the scene, their screams echoing in the night amongst the chaos. She looked down, realizing that she was three stories up. Not terribly high, no, but to jump…

A hand snatched her cloak then.

"I've got the little—" the man's triumphant cry cut off as Hermione stunned him.

Knowing that she was officially out of time, she sucked in a quick breath before bounding out the window, stifling a scream as she rushed through the air. As the ground flew closer, she managed to mumble a levitation charm on her cloak and a cushioning charm on the ground just before she reached it. The result was a less than graceful landing, but a landing nonetheless. Her heart continued to race as straightened, reeling about what she had just done. Still, she drew on her adrenaline and let it pump her forward as she examined the scene around her, wand at the ready as she observed the Death Eaters scattered in the street, all furiously aiming spells in one direction. Her heart dropped as she somehow knew deep within her who they must have been aiming at.

Her husband.

She felt frozen as she stood and watched the scene unfold before her, eyes whipping to the scattered Death Eaters, some who struggled to put out the fire while others shot back deadly curses in return. As a patch of fire was put out another sprang up in its place, keeping some Death Eaters at bay while the heat seared them even as others continued to attack him. Her hands trembled even as she clutched her wand, knowing that even if she began to attack from this side, she could not guarantee that they wouldn't both perish.

As the thought crossed her mind, there were several cracks around her as new people joined in the battle. These, however, were not dressed in Death Eater garb, but were instead wearing regular clothing with their faces uncovered. Order members, she quickly realized.

Her relief was stunted with fear as she realized that despite reinforcements, Malfoy was still disguised, and most Order members — even those who knew about them — could easily mistake him for a foe, even despite his lack of Death Eater garb. No, they were no safer than they had been moments prior— she would have to act quickly indeed. She took a deep breath, then pointed her wand at herself before whispering one word: "Aguamenti."

Instantly, water began to spray from her wand, drenching her from head to toe until water dripped into her eyes, blurring her vision.

She took off at a run, grasping at her wand with slippery fingers the best she could as she fired off random curses at the dark-robed figures that blurred past as she charged toward the fire. She no longer knew friend from foe, trusting that any Order members she accidentally stunned would soon be rescued by their peers. Her clothes clung heavily to her, so laden with water that her movements felt almost sluggish. The heat was unbearable as she drew nearer to the fire, her heart racing as she felt herself begin to tremble as she charged closer and closer still—

And then she jumped, flying through the white-hot flames and tumbling to the cobblestone in a tucked roll, hoping to extinguish any flames that she had picked up. Flames licked the air all around her, and she looked up to see Malfoy only a few feet away, his wand trained directly at her even as she caught the light of a litany of spells sailing through the flames toward him. A curse whizzed past her head, and she sprang up, throwing back the hood of her cloak that had fallen over her head in her haste.

"It's me!" she shouted, raising her hands.

He froze, watching as she ran toward him, barrelling into him and clutching as much of him as she could before disapparating.

X

They landed in the main room of their cabin, both still heaving for breath. Hermione's teeth chattered as the cold wetness started to seep into her bones in the absence of the overwhelming heat of the flames, and she had just finished drying herself when Malfoy snatched her by the shoulders.

The muscles in his neck strained against his skin as he shouted, his nostrils flaring with each word as he started to shout at her. "What the fuck were you thinking?!" he thundered, his grip on her arms tightening as he shook her.

"I was thinking that you had trapped yourself in a ring of fire—"

"We shouldn't have been there in the first place!"

"And how is it my fault?" she shot back, throwing her hands in the air.

"Your fucking portkeys, Granger!" he slammed a hand into the wall. "If you had just let the damn things go—"

"And what, start murdering people?"

His nostrils flared sharply as he glared back at her. "They were going to murder you, and they damn near succeeded!"

"You don't even know what happened, and you're already throwing out accusations!"

"What I saw was that damn pouch in your hand, like it always is, as if they would have spared you even a thought before severing your hands to make you drop it."

She gritted her teeth. "That's not all that it's about, Malfoy!"

"Oh really? Because everything seems to be about your bloody morals with you Gryffindors—"

"Or maybe it's because I wasn't trained to be a murderer!" she shouted back. "Has it ever occurred to you that this" —she gestured wildly around them— "was not where I thought I'd end up, what I thought I'd have to be doing?"

Her words had been harsh, she knew, but she couldn't find it in herself to take them back, even as she watched a deeper tension set in his already rigid stance and feel the flare of his anger tickling at her consciousness.

"Is that all you think of me?" he spat out a short, humorless laugh. "That I was raised by murderers, to be nothing but a murderer whose only purpose is murdering—"

"That's not what I meant! You're so— so calm over the idea of just killing people and it's bloody alarming!"

He stalked closer to her, his broad frame looming over her. "Has it ever occurred to you that all I want is to survive this, for my mother to survive this, to see her have the peace she deserves?!"

"There is more than one way to win this war, Malfoy!" she snapped, tilting her head back to meet his gaze evenly even as he continued to loom over her. "Not every method requires that we kill at every turn, and I know that you know that too."

Malfoy scoffed. "I've told you this before— I do not care for your pretty morals."

Hermione's eyes narrowed. "You say that, yet Kingsley informed me that two more Death Eaters arrived at St. Mungo's after the last mission other than the one I sent myself. So do not stand there and pretend that you don't understand this, because you do!"

"What understand is that there are things that we must do even if you don't want to because this is war and our goal is to survive, not save every bloody person that crosses our path—"

"Fuck you, Malfoy," she spat.

They were both breathing heavily, her fists clenched while he was taut and tense, his face still flushed red with anger as he glared back at her. Now that they were alone, she felt the emotions that her adrenaline had suppressed during the battle rearing up— a swirl of fear, anger, and desperation settling in the air between them, a ball of swirling tension.

And before she could register her actions, tell herself to stop this, stop it now, she surged forward and snatched his face, dragging him down into a hard kiss. He was frozen for a long beat before he snatched her up and kissed her back hard, picking her up and carrying her backward while she wrapped her legs around his waist, arching into him as he squeezed her bum hard. Their kisses were rough, open-mouthed and filled with heated breaths and bitten lips.

There was no passion in this, only a pure and almost primal need. When he finally deposited her roughly upon the desk, sending books and piles of parchment alike tumbling to the ground and scattering around them, she tore at his shirt until he helped her drag it over his head, immediately sealing his lips to hers once more. When she clawed at his trousers, he slid his hands up her shirt and into her brassiere, causing her to gasp out a moan as he pinched a nipple while she finally freed his hard, leaking cock. He was thick, enough so that her fingers couldn't close around him as she pumped him steadily.

He pulled back only to tear off her trousers and knickers in one swift movement, leaving her bare from the waist down. He threaded limber fingers through her nether curls, finding her already excessively slick and ready for him from the overwhelming feeling of their combined need that had resulted in an intense heat pooling between her thighs. His fingers came back glistening wet, and he rubbed off the slickness on her thigh before plunging his cock into her without ceremony. She cried out immediately, grasping at the desk around them for purchase. She heard an inkwell tumble over, and even as she felt the wet slickness of the ink on her palm she found that she didn't care, instead opting to grasp onto him, her hand leaving slick black marks across his pale, muscled torso. His thrusts were hard and determined, him chasing his release as she snaked her clean hand down to her clit, rubbing it fiercely as she chased her own.

Her orgasm tore through her not a moment later, and she cried out loudly, biting down onto his shoulder while pressing herself closer, seeking more friction on her clit. He dragged her hips forward suddenly as he started to pound her harder, causing her to slump back against the wall. The room was filled with the lewd sound of skin slapping against skin, punctuated by her moans and his low grunts. He came with a shudder, his cock pulsing hard in her just as she managed to crest another, smaller orgasm.

It was silent for a long while, the only sounds their heavy pants as they both caught their breaths. Malfoy had leaned forward, bracketing his muscled arms on either side of her as he caught his breath. She could feel his release steadily sliding down her thighs, coating her skin and staining the parchment that was still littered atop the desk. When their breaths finally slowed, Malfoy slowly straightened, and she slid off the desk, gathering her clothes.

And without another word, she slipped into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

She emerged from the bedroom in the early hours of the morning, the darkness outside showing only bare hints of the sun that was slowly rising. Malfoy lay asleep on the couch, his pale face looking almost angelic in repose. The sheet he slept with had fallen down sometime during the night, and was currently gathered around his waist. She allowed her eyes to sweep across his leanly muscled torso, taking in his defined abdomen down to the v-shaped dip in his hips that disappeared just below where the sheet had gathered. She realized that she couldn't tell whether he wore pants or not, and she flushed at the thought of him shifting again only to uncover his complete nakedness to her.

Knowing she could linger no further lest he wake, she hurried into the bathroom, hastily getting into the shower as she let the troubling thoughts swirl in her mind. She'd slept fitfully during the few short hours of night that had remained after their tryst, her mind assaulted with memories of what had transpired between them. She hadn't emerged from the bedroom after she'd sealed the door shut, her heart hammering too hard to even entertain the thought of going back out to shower despite the uncomfortable stickiness of his drying release that still coated her thighs. She'd cleaned herself the best she could with her wand, but even now could still the warmth and wetness deep inside her cunt.

Things had now changed between them — irreversibly. She'd let him take her roughly, had wanted it — instigated it, even. Despite the fact that it had now been several hours since the deed however, she still did not know how she felt about what had happened. The memory of the way he'd taken her with rough, practiced strokes made heat pool in her loins, while the remains of his release inside her filled her with a sea of conflicting emotions even as she washed it away, scrubbing herself nearly raw as she tried to erase the memories of her wanton actions. It was true that they'd slept together once before, but that occasion had been fraught with tension and fear, and she'd lain there resigned as she counted down the moments until he finished.

But last night...last night she'd relished in it, savored every second of the feeling of his thick cock stretching her wide as he took her with strong, practiced strokes. She'd clung to him desperately, needing the release and feeling practically every part of her body vibrating with it. Now that the light of day had come to illuminate her shame, she longed to curl up and hide until it ebbed away. But she knew that it would not — knew that it would only continue to grow until it enveloped her, reminding her that the reason behind these feelings lay just beyond the door. One of many doors that they'd constantly been using to separate themselves from each other. After what has transpired last night it felt as though the barriers between them had eroded, and the physical one that she stood staring at as she stepped out of the shower felt false.

When she finally wrapped a towel around herself and pulled the door open, she froze.

He was awake and bent over his trunk, clad only in a towel that was slung low around his waist. She felt her eyes immediately drop to roam over the defined muscles of his back before she forced herself to stop, letting her eyes stray only as far as his tensed shoulders.

"Good morning," she said.

He tensed further then turned, and she held her breath as grey eyes finally met brown. Even though her towel was tightly secured around her chest, she felt There was a long beat of silence as she tried to garner something — anything — from his unreadable expression. But then his eyes dimmed, and his expression was suddenly and startlingly clear.

Indifference.

She had yet to move from the bathroom doorway, and she felt a flare of pain in her hand from how fiercely she had been gripping the doorknob. She knew not what she had been expecting, but it hadn't been this — rejection, firm and unwavering. They were married, but not in the truest sense of the word— this she knew. She didn't know what she'd expected to encounter the morning after, but she'd thought things would be different, somehow. Even as she'd washed away the remaining slickness between her thighs, she couldn't stop the images from replaying themselves in her head.

He moved closer and she watched him, waiting to see if he would say or do something—

Instead, he brushed past her and went into the bathroom, giving her just enough time to let go of the doorknob and shuffle a few steps forward before he pulled it firmly closed behind him.

By the time she made it back into the bedroom and dressed, her swirl of conflicting emotions had settled on one that pulsed beneath her every action — anger. It simmered as she prepared a simple breakfast of beans on toast, begrudgingly dropping down a plate for him as well. She ate quickly while he lingered in the shower, and when he emerged to dress, she stood from the table and went over to the desk, observing the way he'd returned the desk to pristine order sometime in the night. The pages of parchment they'd scattered were settled back into neat piles, and the books were all back in order on the bookshelf. There was no sign of what had transpired apparent on the desktop— the ink she'd spilled had been scrubbed clean, and their quills and a pristine inkwell were lined up neatly next to the parchment.

She heard him move into the kitchen behind her, settling himself at the table to eat the food she'd left out for him. Still, she said nothing, remaining with her back facing him as she fingered the pristine desk. She ran a hand along its edge as she tried to banish the memories of what had transpired atop it only hours prior. When she pulled her hand back and lifted it, she was momentarily surprised to see that some of the ink hadn't been cleaned from where it had gotten to the underside of the desk, and her fingertips came back coated in it. She rubbed it between her fingers, feeling the images she'd tried to shove down fly back to the forefront of her mind with blinding clarity, contrasting painfully against the cool demeanor of the man behind her.

When she finally turned around, fingertips still coated in ink and fists clenched, she found him watching her. His wand was in hand and he nodded toward the area he'd cleared for their daily sparring sessions. He said nothing all the while, but she had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen momentarily in surprise she as she charged forward suddenly, barely giving him time to raise his wand before she was shooting a spell at him. He barely dodged it and had no time to recover as she continued to bear down on him, propelled forward by her rage.

Their duel was like an intricate dance, a series of sharp, calculated movements surrounded by the light of the various spells they threw at each other. He was cold and unyielding while she was driven by her rage, aiming to hurt him the way the pain of his swift dismissal had hurt her. The air grew thick with tension the longer they went at it, and she lost herself in their movements, focused only on striking him as many times as possible while she tried her best to ignore the way his thin shirt clung to his body as his sweat soaked through it, or how his handsome features only looked even more striking when he had that determined glint in his eye—

She found herself suddenly pinned to the ground, Malfoy atop her with his wand pressed into the side of her neck. His body was pressed tightly against hers, and he was propped up on an elbow as he bore down over her. Their faces were so close that they were nearly touching, and their heavy breaths mingled. It felt as if all her efforts at suppressing the memories of the night before had been for naught because they surged forward then with renewed vigor, bursting effortlessly through the mental barriers she'd erected so carefully. She knew the moment he felt it too, saw his pupils blown wide with lust while his cock hardened where she could feel it pressed firmly against her thigh, causing her to grind up against him involuntarily.

Later, she would not be able to point out exactly who had started it. Instead, she would remember only the way they'd gone from glaring at each other to hot, hungry kisses that were broken only long enough to tear one another's clothing off. They were naked within moments and their sweat-slickened skin slid together as they tore at each other. The heat of their bodies combined with the heat of their combined lust had created an inferno within her, and getting closer to him felt like the only solution to put it out.

She barely registered his spell-slickened fingers on her cunt before he was parting her folds and drove into her in one hard thrust. They released a loud, combined moan, and he wasted no time in starting a steady rhythm. He was pressed atop her as he thrust, and she hooked her legs over his hips while she alternated between kissing and sucking at his neck, knowing that there would be marks left behind. He was pressed so securely against her that his pelvis brushed her clit with every thrust, and she gasped and mewled loudly, grasping him as tightly as her climax crashed over her in a wave, drowning her in ecstasy.

His thrusts ended not long after she'd loosened her hold on him, letting her arms fall weakly to her sides. As his length finished pulsing within her he moved to stand, causing her to gasp at the feeling of him dislodging his softening cock. He rolled onto his back beside her, sitting up after only a moment of catching his breath.

Before he could stand up, she reached out a hand and stilled him. "Draco," she called. "Wait."

He tensed, shivering as she ran her hand down his side to where she'd spied a small, puckered scar. It was pink and stood out against his pale skin, despite only being a few inches long. Still, she could tell from the way it had healed that it had been deep — and painful.

"What happened?" Her voice was as gentle as the finger she drew across the raised skin of his scar.

"I fell off of a pony as a child," he spat, turning away from her.

She gripped his arm before he could attempt to move away again, sitting up herself. Normally, she would have been hyper-aware of her nudity, but at that moment she knew she needed to stop him, to talk with him before he sealed himself off once more.

"Stop," she said. "You can tell me the truth."

He glared at her in a manner so forceful that she might have shrunk back months ago. Now, though, it only made her sit up straighter as she met his look evenly. "How did it happen?" she asked again, searching his eyes.

"It was my aunt," he said after a few moments of silence.

Bellatrix. She should have guessed. She shivered involuntarily, thinking of the way the woman's gleeful cackle had cut into her grief as she'd happily looked down upon Dumbledore's broken body. "What did she do to you?" she asked, sweeping her eyes over the rest of his otherwise flawless skin, carefully avoiding his softening cock lest she lose her nerve.

"She trained me," he answered swiftly, volunteering no additional information.

"Trained you how?"

"She trained me to be like her."

The words were few, but the effect of them was jarring. She remained frozen on the floor even as he stood and pulled on his trousers, foregoing pants. She felt about until she grabbed a shirt that hung so low that she realized it must have been his. It brushed her upper thighs but still exposed bits of her mound that peeked from beneath it as she strode over to him and grabbed his arm once more before he could disappear out the front door as he so often did. She let her hand slide down to rest over the scar on his side, ignoring the way he tensed up at her touch.

She opened her mouth to speak and was surprised to hear him speak first. "She told me that my precious, pure blood should never be spilled uselessly. That Malfoy men should never be maimed."

"Did she," Hermione's voice caught as she tried to stop herself from picturing Bellatrix's reaction to the scar, "punish you for this?"

His answering laugh was short and chilling. "No— she did this."

Hermione froze, gripping his side tighter for a moment before she circled him slowly, lifting her hands to run them over the mostly smooth skin of his chest that peppered with a fine smattering of platinum hair that she could barely see. His head was turned away from her, his jaw tense.

"Tell me— tell me what she did to you." Her concern radiated off of her in waves as she tried to get him to sense it, his bare skin clenching beneath her soothing touches. She didn't know if she'd ever seen a moment like this of pure, open vulnerability from him— if she'd ever see it again.

"She attacked me— cut me, maimed me in all the ways she said should never be visible, then taught me to heal them until not a hint of a scar remained. If it did, then I was punished further— severely." His voice was low, but she was so close that she caught every word. Each one cut like a knife, and she bit her lip to stop herself from letting tears fall as she felt his anguish wash over her in a slow wave.

He pulled away then, but did not go to the door. Instead he went and sat on the sofa, elbows braced on his knees as he buried his hands in his hair. She sat down quietly beside him, tentatively resting a hand on his thigh after he was silent for a few long moments.

"She tortured me until she deemed me resilient enough to endure. Then she tortured my mind until she thought my Occlumency skills secure. Sometimes, she would crucio me for hours on end, stopping only to pillage my mind because she thought it necessary to prod when I was at my weakest. My mother— she was able to convince him to let her stop when she tried to have me torture and kill muggles in our drawing room for training. She said that found it unbecoming for such things to occur in her home, and convinced them that I needed many more tutorials before I could partake. She argued it would be best to Mark me once I'd completed the ultimate task to prove my loyalty. They brought me to their revels to prepare me instead. It was no better."

Hermione recalled his description of what he'd witnessed at the revels, shivering involuntarily. She pulled back to wipe away a tear that had slipped down her cheek as he'd spoken, and when she looked up again he was watching her, his eyes dark.

"Does that scare you?" he spat. He has removed his hands from his hair and they were now resting on his thighs, clenched into tight fists. "Do you want to run, now that you know how truly twisted I am? Do you feel sick knowing that you're bound—"

"Draco!" she pleaded. "Stop. Just— look at me," she said. Her inner walls had fallen, leaving her mind as open and vulnerable as the rest of her was while she sat there, nearly completely naked. She forced herself not to cover herself, not to pull away in any fashion even though she rarely left her Occlumency shields anything other than perfectly fortified, and his shirt that she wore had ridden up to the point where her mound was visible no matter how she sat.

She saw it when he finally caught the raw honesty in her expression. He unclenched his fists, letting his shoulders slump forward.

"I'm not here to judge you, Draco—"

"Oh, but you have," he scoffed.

"—not anymore," she finished. "I was unfair in the past. I didn't...I couldn't conceive things from your perspective, not then. But now, after all that's happened, I understand. I do."

He said nothing in response— did not even look at her— but she took a deep breath and continued anyway. "Morality, for me, used to exist on a single plane. Even though I've always known that the line between light and dark was a tenuous and ever-changing construct at best, my belief in the Order has nonetheless always been firmly rooted in the idea that all of their good actions would lead to good consequences with minimal deviations along the way. But now…" she sighed, knowing that she needn't elaborate on the experiences they'd both had up to this point.

"I...I understand why you kill, Draco. It's not because you want to, or have to. It's because if we don't kill them, they'll kill us. Our loved ones. Innocent people. But still—" she swallowed, looking away, "it doesn't mean that every murder I commit isn't a choice. The first— he had no humanity left, of that I was certain. But for others, I can't help but wonder...what if they're like you? What if they'd been forced into it, and are only looking for a way out? It's a choice every time. It's not a decision that you make once, a switch you can flip that makes every subsequent incident okay because you did it the first time. But I know what has to happen, what we have to do, as much as I know that I might lose myself and muddy the lines of everything I'd taken as right and wrong up until this point."

"We do what we have to, Granger. Not because we want to."

"I know," she whispered. "I know."

X

That night as she made her way back to the bedroom after several long hours of silent research, she paused in the doorway, her hand clutching the knob tightly as she hesitated. She turned to see Malfoy sitting up on the couch, looking back at her with a questioning look in his eyes as he caught her hesitation. She bit her lip and glanced down, then carefully met his eyes with a steady look as she deliberately pushed the door wide open. She had stopped denying it to herself, because the events of the past twenty-four hours had made it abundantly clear—

Everything had changed.

And with the light of the main room spilling into the bedroom, she turned and strode to the bed. She slid under the covers just as she heard him enter behind her and close the door softly behind him, sealing them in darkness.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

When Hermione woke, she was alone.

She sat up, running a hand over the empty space where Malfoy had been lying. There was no sign that he had been there at all; a direct contrast to the way the feeling of his warm body sliding into bed behind her had felt only hours ago. She couldn't banish the memory of his radiating warmth behind her, nor memory of the way his hand had felt under hers as she'd guided it to her hip. She'd felt his intentions although he did not voice them. Her skin still tingled where she'd slid their intertwined hands up her thigh, taking her nightgown up with it, and revealing how she was bare underneath. It was only a moment before she'd felt his bare length pressing forward at her entrance. He'd slid inside with ease, setting the pace in a slow grind until she'd turned her head into her pillow, gasping and moaning into it until she'd rubbed herself to completion shortly before he'd shuddered out his own release. She'd managed to keep her eyes from drooping closed only long enough to whisper a quick contraceptive spell before she'd succumbed to the pull of slumber.

Her hand rested on the now-cold space his body had occupied, knowing that the memory of him was seared into the sheets despite the fact that no evidence of his presence remained. She didn't know what she'd expected but couldn't deny that the room felt colder and emptier on this particular morning. It contrasted sharply against the distinct wet stickiness that remained between her thighs; the only evidence that she'd had a companion at all. It was the second morning in a row that she'd woken feeling this way, and the throbbing ache his thickness left behind in her felt more pronounced each time.

When she finally emerged from the bedroom, she found the cabin empty. The only sign he'd been there at all was a plate of food that sat out on the table for her, charmed for warmth. She let her eyes rest on the sofa, noting the signs that he had indeed slept there the previous evening.

With a final look around the empty cabin, she turned and went into the bathroom, determined to wash away as much of what troubled her as she could.

X

When he'd finally returned that evening, he'd paused to look at her when she greeted him. The minute she'd met his eyes, she'd recognized the same shuttered look she'd grown accustomed to. Gone was the raw openness of the day before, buried deep under the barriers he rarely let down. He'd finally answered her greeting with a grunt before he'd settled himself on the couch with his own tomes scattered around him. The distance he'd put between them felt wider than a chasm. She often found herself watching him until his eyes would meet hers, and she'd look away quickly, unable to meet the hard look she often found in them. This time there was no coldness, no indifference, no unambiguous dismissal of her — just... nothing. Not a movement in acknowledgment was made, and he carried on as though as was as it had been before.

Two weeks passed before they slept together again.

They'd been sparring in the middle of the main room, dancing around each other in a way that deliberately left a constant distance between them, thick with the tension that had yet to dissipate. They'd been stalking around each other in a tense circle, shooting spells at each other with intense precision. The circle had slowly started to tighten, drawing them dangerously close together until they'd been at a mere arm's length from each other. After that, everything had occurred in a blur — one moment they were surrounded in an explosion of light, and the next it had felt as though they were literally aflame, a mass of heated tension as they'd all but torn each others' clothing off. This time, he'd taken the time only to tear open a wide hole in her leggings while she'd quickly vanished her knickers, leaving herself bare and open for him. He'd then deposited her roughly upon the countertop before plunging into her. There was no drawing out their pleasure, only frenzied gasps and grunts as they sped towards their mutual release. It was over in minutes, and he disappeared into the bathroom before she could catch her breath.

After that, they began sparring outside.

Outside they were more careful not to let their stray spells damage the multitude of wards that had been erected around the cabin. Their sparring had become more intricate as time passed, and they now met each others' moves equally. Despite the chill, she would grow sweaty quickly, all the while ignoring all of the conflicting emotions that pulsed within her. He widened the distance further for every accidental slip either of them made, the tense air between them feeling more taut with each step.

No matter how much distance he attempted to put between them, she couldn't escape. Impressions of what'd they'd done permeated their environment, drawing her focus at every turn. She would be eating at the dining table when her eyes would land upon that spot on the wooden floor, and she would suddenly be flooded with memories of the way he'd taken her roughly in that very spot. She would catch him after he'd just emerged from the shower, surreptitiously watching the rivulets of water slowly descending into his towel until he'd catch her staring yet again.

It was undeniable that he was everywhere, and what they'd done was everywhere, too.

X

They'd been sparring on the grass for the past hour. The fall air was chilly on her skin, the trees around them having turned the forest's canopy into a sea of muted oranges and reds. For every step she took forward, he took one back, keeping the tense air between them taut. He was little more than a wingspan away, yet she could not deny that it felt much further.

She realized a second too late that she'd let her thoughts drift again, and she ducked to dodge the spell he had aimed at her. She scrambled for purchase on the dew-slickened grass to no avail and found herself barrelling into him, taking him down to the ground with her until they landed in a heap. She met his eyes for a long beat, unable to ignore the way their breaths mingled.

A second later they were upon each other, their kisses hot and hungry as they pulled at each others' clothing. It was only when he'd pulled off her jeans and knickers and had muttered a quick lubrication charm that she'd forced herself to place a hand on his chest, stopping him.

"I— can't." She forced the words out despite the pulsing need at the apex of her thighs and how near he was. Had she shifted just a fraction, he would have slipped inside easily.

He had frozen atop her, his pupils still blown with lust.

"My period," she explained.

She watched as his expression shuttered closed, melting into the cold, hard mask she'd grown accustomed to. He'd tucked himself away and gone back inside before she'd barely moved.

It wasn't until a few weeks later that she realized he was drowning in the after, too.

What were they, beyond their circumstances? She had found herself unable to take off her wedding ring despite the fact that it represented nothing. The intricate, glittering piece of jewelry served only to emphasize how much of a caricature their relationship was. After all of this, what would they be? It was true that they would be husband and wife for the rest of their lives, but that title was only in the strictest sense of the word. Even now, she could not even say that they were friends, let alone lovers. They were… nothing. Simply adversaries forced to co-exist in these tenuous circumstances — near-strangers who went to one another only for release.

For them, there was no after.

He would go. He would leave the second they were free from the suffocating clutches of this war, leading a life that would be seemingly completely unconnected from her own until they one day dropped dead simultaneously. She sat up in bed, rubbing her hands along the goosebumps that seemed to have permanently etched themselves into her skin. The full moon shone brightly through the window — the only source of light besides the sliver that shone through the door that she had yet to be able to fully close.

If she had the choice to return to Harry and Ron and be welcomed with open arms, would she? She thought of the stirring of something that she'd undeniably begun to feel for Malfoy. The thought roused a telltale lurch in her stomach. The feeling was equal parts queasiness and something else that hovered below it, persisting like an itch that she couldn't quite scratch or spell away. It was true that they had both consigned themselves to a life without intimacy with anyone but one another. When they'd made the bargain, it had been shrouded in an undercurrent of if. Neither had expected to survive this war although they never said so. If they somehow did — foregoing physical intimacy with another would be a small sacrifice.

Yes, it was best that they ended whatever this was now and focused on surviving this war, if only long enough to save their loved ones. That was their mission — not each other.

The next time they dueled in the morning dew, it was Hermione who charmed them until she was certain they wouldn't slip again.

X

They fell back into the routine they'd had before. The only apparent change was the way they both steadily avoided even a step too close. He'd taken to doing his research on the dining table while she'd stayed at the desk. The Order called them only a couple of times. Those missions had mostly lead to dead ends; scattered bodies speaking of the horrors that had occurred before the Death Eaters had abandoned the scene.

One evening, Hermione sat at the desk, tracing the scorch marks the charmed coin had left scattered across the desk. Each mission had taken something unexplainable out of her, hardening her further against the carnage. Visions of the mangled bodies she'd seen on missions no longer tore her out of her sleep screaming. Instead, they began prowling the moment she let her eyes flutter shut, lurking until she'd been forced to reach into their small store of potions to take Dreamless Sleep when she could no longer bear it. In her waking hours, she practiced filing the images away, vainly hoping that they would someday begin to stay that way while she dreamed.

As if on cue, the coin began to burn, raising a ring of smoke around where it lay on the desk. Her heart dropped as she watched it for a moment, desperately wanting to ignore it. The visions of all the bodies they'd seen plagued her mind in a torrent, and she forced back her pain.

"Malfoy." She hadn't called him by his first name since the last time they'd nearly slept together. The distance of forming the word felt all too fitting now.

She hadn't needed to say what she'd called him for. He crossed over, reading the coordinates on the coin quickly. "It's in London." He pointed at the spot he'd marked on the map.

They hadn't been anywhere populated on a single mission they'd been on. She recalled the last time she'd been in London, in the sprawling hotel suite with a windowed wall that had overlooked the city. Looking at Malfoy now, she saw the same hard look in his eyes that she'd seen then, knowing that he, too, was burying all they'd seen beneath his own Occlumency walls.

She looked closer at the map, realizing with a chill that she knew the area very well. The Death Eaters were getting bolder. "It's not far from—"

"Diagon Alley," Malfoy finished for her.

X

They arrived in minutes, having only paused to glamour Malfoy with a few quick, sloppy gestures before departing. His hair had come out bright red, but was presently covered by his large cloak that was barely visible in the darkness. They heard laughter echoing down the alleyway, and her hand trembled as she heard screams follow it. They quickened their pace, and she pressed close to him while they rushed toward the mouth of the alley they'd apparated into.

The attackers were upon them in an instant.

A spell struck Hermione in the arm. Pain blossomed in its wake, and she cried out. She flung out a spell at her attacker before striking one of the two that had descended upon Malfoy in the back.

Carnage lay before them.

A pile of broken bodies were scattered in the street. The clothing on the corpses ranged from robes to Muggle clothing alike. Hermione managed only to choke out a horrified gasp before several streaks of light lit the air as a multitude of curses shot towards her. Her shield absorbed only one curse; Malfoy's shield got the rest. The air filled with the pops of apparition as the Death Eaters scattered around them started disappearing.

She charged forward, throwing curses at as many of the rapidly disappearing figures as she could. Most missed their mark, fizzling out into the night as their targets disappeared. A hand clamped down on her arm, and she shot a hex at it that made the man's skin bubble. She left his screams in her wake as she continued to run forward, her trainers pounding on the pavement. She spotted Malfoy dueling with two men ahead and quickly threw a spell that grazed one of Malfoy's attacker's ears, causing blood to begin gushing from the wound. Before she could cast another hex, she heard a scream. She stopped in her tracks, whipping toward the sound.

It was a Muggle woman.

She was bleeding from the mouth even as she choked out strangled shrieks. Her blonde hair was matted with more blood, the crimson liquid almost glittering in the moonlight that shone on the pavement. Hermione made it only a few steps toward her before a boot mashed down on the woman's head. Her screams increased in pitch as the boot dug deeper into her cheek, and Hermione raised her eyes to stare at the wizard. His mouth was curved in a smirk, and he lowered his wand to point it at the woman's head.

Hermione's mouth opened in a frozen scream. She tried to raise her wand, only for a set of arms to clamp around her, trapping her arms to her body. The last thing she saw as she was wrenched backward was a flash of green light that connected with the woman's skull, cutting off her strangled screams.

"I remember you, bitch," the man who'd grabbed her said in her ear. "I'm goi—"

His words were cut off as she reared her head back and smashed it into his skull. His grip loosened just enough for her to twist her wand and press it into his thigh, feeling his blood soak her trousers as it spurted from the wound.

Not a second later, the man crumpled to the ground. She whirled to find Malfoy behind them, his wand still pointed at where the Wizard had stood. Spells continued to light up the air around them, and she managed only to snatch Malfoy's sleeve before they, too, disappeared.

They landed in the bedroom of their cabin. Hermione's heart was still racing, and she still gripped his hand hard. "What is happening, Malfoy? What is their purpose? Why do they keep—"

"It's war, Granger." His voice was stiff. "There is no purpose to any of it — their goal is destruction. Nothing more — or less."

Hermione looked down at where the man's blood still trickled down her trainers, leaving several droplets on the bedroom floor.

"We can let the Order remove the bodies — " Malfoy stopped short as she bent down and began siphoning the blood from her clothes into a vial she'd summoned from the main room. "What are you doing?"

She ignored him, rushing out of the bedroom and over to the desk where she scattered her research notes until she found the page she had been searching for.

"Fresh blood," she mumbled to herself as she held up the vial of swirling liquid in the light. "That was it."

"That was what, Granger?" Malfoy had followed behind her, and she turned to see him staring at the vial with an unreadable expression on his face.

"I think — I think I can track them."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Malfoy's eyes narrowed as he stared at the vial of swirling crimson liquid. "How?"

Hermione scanned her notes again. "I've been working on modifying the tracking spell we've been using so that we" — she dipped the tip of her wand into the vial and watched the liquid start to glow red as the murmured the incantation — "can locate them." She held it over the map and watched it tremble before it hovered over a place she did not recognize in the top corner of the map.

Malfoy's eyes traveled between the place the map had indicated and the crimson glow of the blood, his expression unreadable. He gave her a short, sharp nod before he turned and headed to the door. His cloak billowed behind him with his swift movements, and it took her a moment to gather her bearings before she followed him.

He was already outside the wards by the time she caught up to him. "Do you know this place?"

Another short, sharp nod, and he reached out for her hand. She clutched his back, not missing the way his fingers tensed around hers. They Apparated into a densely packed forest. Its thick canopy blocked any moonlight, and she continued to clutch his hand tightly as he took small steps forward, feeling about in the darkness. His steps were still sure and it took only minutes for them to approach an area where the trees had started thinning enough to illuminate his figure before her.

She let go of his hand and immediately felt it twitch back toward him as she felt an uneasy chill settle in the air around them. "Where are we?" Her whisper was nearly carried away by the soft breeze that swayed through the trees surrounding them. "I felt—"

"The wards have been designed to let you in." His tone was low and curt.

Of course — a Malfoy family property. "Oh." She lapsed back into silence, still following him closely. His frame was more rigid with tension than usual, and she continued to watch him carefully as the moonlight continued to waft through the thinning trees and illuminate his form. It was only minutes before their destination became visible ahead of them. Despite the sense of urgency she felt pressing upon her in the air around them she could not help pausing.

It was stunning. A beautiful, sprawling cottage stood before them. It was nestled on the edge of a lake and surrounded by trees that appeared to have been charmed to maintain their canopy of blossoming leaves and flowers despite rapidly cooling temperatures. It appeared to have only two floors and was sizeable on the outside, but Hermione did not doubt that the inside had been charmed to reflect the Malfoys' taste for grandeur.

She would have taken longer to appreciate its beauty were it not for the Death Eaters milling about. Their dark clothing stuck out like blemishes against the beauty of the property. Each step they took seemed to stamp away the tranquil beauty of the place. At once, Hermione understood the tension that had settled in Malfoy's stature since they had arrived. She turned to him only to find him watching the scene before them with narrowed eyes. His hand was clenched hard around his wand.

"Wait." His eyes shot to hers when she folded a hand over his own. "There are at least a dozen of them, maybe mor—"

She cut off as a loud crack of apparition sounded before them.

It was Bellatrix Lestrange.

Her throat felt dry. She stood only a dozen feet away, so close that Hermione could see the manic gleam in her eye. Bellatrix held a bleeding man by his upper arm. Hermione watched in strangled silence as Bellatrix threw him to the ground in a heap and pressed her boot down on his throat.

"You are nothing," she hissed, grinding her boot deeper into the man's throat. His response was garbled as he grasped feebly at her boot. "You are nothing but a guard!"

The man's leg was twisted at an unnatural angle, and when Bellatrix dragged him up, he screamed as it twisted further. A beam of low moonlight illuminated the man's face. There was nothing but a blackened wound and dried blood in the place of where one of his ears should have been. It was the man whose ear she had cursed off earlier. His mangled body was a testament to the damage they had done to him.

"A pathetic little guard." Bellatrix shoved the tip of her wand against the man's throat. Her manic eyes glittered in the low light as she hissed a spell that made the man gurgle harder before he fell to the ground, motionless. Bellatrix's mouth curved into a smile before she turned and began sauntering off, humming a disjointed tune.

Hermione looked over to Malfoy. His body was nearly trembling with tension. He held his wand so tightly that his knuckles had gone white while his other hand gripped the tree beside him just as hard. He was coiled as tight as a snake, poised to spring forward. The sudden onslaught of fury that washed over her felt almost foreign. She barely felt anything from him, and the sudden wave of it was so overwhelming that she, too, nearly trembled under the boiling tension of it.

Her hand on his chest had him turning to her. His eyes were wide, his entire expression unhinged. Gone was his usual stoic, reserved self. It was as though every compartment he kept his emotions carefully folded away in had been thrown open, releasing a torrent of chaos.

"We can't—" She cut off as he tried to lunge forward regardless, stopped only by her throwing her weight against him. The grass they tumbled down onto cushioned most of the sound of their fall, yet her heart was still firmly lodged in her throat as she clamped down a hand over his mouth. The air was still around them, and she imagined Bellatrix paused mid-step, looking around as she tried to discern whether the noise had been that of a creature or not. She could hear little besides the pounding of her heart and the sharp breaths that Malfoy took through his flared nostrils.

"Please," she begged him silently, her mouth forming the word although no sound came out.

She tried to focus all of her energy on listening for even the whisper of a sound that would signal Bellatrix's approach, but Malfoy wrenched her arms off of him, sending her tumbling down beside him. He lunged up again, and she followed, wand at the ready as she imagined Bellatrix poised before the thick bush that blocked her view.

She spotted Bellatrix far ahead, still sauntering toward the cottage as she had been and appearing entirely unperturbed.

"Please," she grasped Malfoy's arm before he could tear through the bush after her. "We'll come back. I swear it—"

At that, he stopped to look at her. "No." The word was as chock-full of anger as the rest of him, undercut by a raw emotion that she hadn't the time to place.

"There are at least a dozen of them, not including her. We're only two people— we'll be killed. We need backup—"

"Fuck your bloody Order!" His voice raised, and she cut a panicked look back toward the cottage. Bellatrix was barking orders at the men and the sound of her voice that drifted to Hermione had chills settling in Hermione's spine. Malfoy's eyes continued to cut between her and Bellatrix. He was calculating, and she realized she was losing.

She snatched him by both arms. "We'll come back," she said, her voice ringing with finality.

Before he could protest, she disapparated them.

They landed in the sitting room. His rage was all the more prominent in the light, and Hermione realized that he looked almost as manic as Bellatrix herself.

"What the fuck, Granger!" His voice boomed in the confines of the cabin, and she fought the urge to shrink back. "You could have splinched me—"

"But I didn't!" she snapped. "You were about to risk both of our lives!"

He ground his teeth together, still snarling at her.

"I meant it when I said we can go back." She kept her voice even despite the way he loomed over her, a stormcloud of rage.

"You want to call in the bloody Order that'll use nothing but pathetic stunners to take them down!" His pale skin was flushed an angry red. "We have to end this— end them—"

"I know," Hermione answered. "I have a plan."

He stewed silently, but seemed to be giving her an opening for an explanation. "Trust me," she said, folding a hand over where he clenched his wand once again. She met his eyes and held them, not backing away from the pure rage she still caught in them. "Please."

His nod was short and nearly imperceptible, but she caught it nonetheless.

"That night— our last night at Hogwarts— when you-" she forced out the words, not missing the way his expression twitched at the mention. "When you guided them in. Do you still have—"

His eyes sharpened as they met hers. "Yes," he nodded in understanding. "I do."

X

Diagon Alley was shrouded in a silence that she knew could be attributed to something beyond the late hour. Many of its late-night haunts were shuttered, and nary a stray flicker of candlelight illuminating a window could be seen. It was an unsettling feeling that went beyond the ball of tension that near-constantly roiled in the pit of her stomach. This was the true cost of war — silence. Emptiness.

"Down here." She ducked down an alleyway and he followed her silently. When they emerged on the other end, their destination loomed in front of them.

When shrouded in darkness, Weasley's Wizard Wheezes appeared almost sinister. The large mounted mask of a grinning jester that hung over the storefront appeared to be twisted in a cruel smile, looming over them knowingly. The disillusionment spell she'd cast over them felt thin and inadequate in its eerie presence and her neck strained as she kept looking around them, trying to spot anyone looming in the shadows as they rushed to the door.

"I'm certain that they favored traps over complicated locking spells," she said as she analyzed the spells on the door. "We'll need to tread carefully." It took only moments for her to break through the spells and wards, and they were soon stepping into the darkened shop.

Inside was even more ominous than the store's facade. They were surrounded by darkness and the hums and whirs of various gadgets. For a moment, the sounds transported her back to the moment she'd stepped into Dumbledore's office on that fateful night that everything had changed. The noises haunted her with every step she took, a perverse soundtrack to their movements.

Whir. Hiss. Click. She reached out to grasp Malfoy's hand and pull him closer only to find him so close that she could nearly feel his breath.

She spotted him raising his wand and snatched it down. "We can't summon it — they're the type to have the items themselves hexed as well."

They continued to take careful steps forward. Hermione had risked only the dimmest light on her wand that illuminated only what was directly in front of them. The noise of the whirs and ticks felt as though they were dimly growing louder as they moved forward, matching the heavy thuds of her heartbeat. Cloaked in darkness, the store's contents were dark and menacing, looming over them as they passed by in a way that only hastened the chills that ran down Hermione's spine. They were slow in proceeding, and it felt as though a full hour had passed by the time she stopped in front of a display case. She lifted her wand to illuminate the neatly packed rows of pouches within. The pouches were the same inky black shade as the powder contained within them, shining softly in the light.

She cast a spell that revealed a number of hexes and wards surrounding them. Wordlessly, Malfoy helped her dismantle them. They were soon gathering pouches and dropping them into her small satchel. The case was nearly empty by the time they finished and were turning to leave. They took slow, careful steps back toward the exit. Every move Hermione made overly cautious, as if—

The whirring and buzzing stopped.

They both froze, turning to each other with wide, panicked eyes.

The shop burst into a sea of blinding color, the darkness ripped away abruptly. They charged toward the main doors as explosions of light and color shattered around them. The sparks stung her skin as they descended upon her, and a wet, slimy substance poured down upon them from an unidentifiable source. It clung thickly to her skin, and when it stuck to her face she could barely wipe it away from her eyes. She stumbled and nearly fell. She felt around for Malfoy, managing only a strangled noise as the liquid clung to her lips when she opened them. Chaos continued to ravage the shop, descending into ominous vibrations that made her tremble even more violently. Her hands slid and then stuck to what she touched, and she tripped and fell when she blindly tried to scramble forward. She tried to stand again, yelping when she felt an iron grip latch onto her arm and lurch her back to her feet.

"Come!" Malfoy shouted over the chaos.

She felt rather than saw when they stumbled outside, feeling the cool night air on her face. She managed only a few steps before something wrapped around her ankle and jerked her backward violently. She heard Malfoy curse as he wrestled with it while she desperately dug her fingers into the cobblestone and tried to spell away the substance in her eyes. When Malfoy finally slashed at it successfully, she saw a vine of sorts that had slimy and bulbous skin flop to the ground just as she managed to clear the substance from her eyes. The vine leaked a thick yellow substance onto the cobblestone that mingled with the slime that still seeped out of the shop.

There were several cracks of apparition nearby followed by an "Oi!"

Hermione saw only a flash of red hair before Malfoy snatched her arm and disapparated them.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINETEEN

They landed in a forest.

Hermione wheezed in thick gulps of air, the cold feeling razor-sharp as it dragged through her lungs. The pain of it took her breath away and forced her to suck down even more razor-sharp lungfulls. She couldn't stop, and each breath felt deeper and more desperate than the last. The pain only burrowed further with each heaving breath she took, and she clawed desperately at her throat in hopes of reprieve. Images of several red-headed figures assaulted her, their wands pointed at her while their expressions were twisted in masks of hatred and disgust.

Cool fingers locked around her own, tugging her hands away from her throat. "Granger." His voice was an anchor, dragging her out of the clawing darkness. "Breathe."

Breathe. Focus.

She exhaled a ragged breath, focusing on the feeling of the stinging cold on her skin, in her, burrowing deeper—

"Breathe."

This time her breath was shorter, sharper.

"Again."

The next breath still stung but didn't feel like knives burrowing into her stomach. She grasped at his hands as firmly as he had hers, and her fingers were tight but neither pushing nor pulling.

"Open your eyes."

She forced them open on his command. His words wrapped around the invisible vise in her consciousness and tugged at it. She took a long, slow blink; the feeling of it almost lethargic. She took another and then her eyes rested on him. Even in the darkness, his eyes glittered lowly. The sharp grey of them nearly matched the hazy moon that hung high in the sky somewhere above them. She locked onto them, unable to tear her eyes from his. His mouth continued to move although her eyes did not stray, and she followed his directions almost robotically. Breathe. Blink. Focus.

She let herself focus on him. From his searching eyes down to the way his full lips formed each word as he repeated them like a mantra. She took a deep breath and let her eyes flutter shut again, focusing on the feel of him. He was close enough that his steady breaths mingled with hers. The cool air robbed them of most warmth, but she felt it radiating off of his form nonetheless. He still held her hands firmly. There was a sliver of space that was cooler than the rest of his hand, and her eyes slowly opened to settle them upon the weight of his wedding ring on his finger.

"I—" Her voice was raw.

"We were not discovered." He offered no more, but realization washed over her as she swept her eyes over him, taking in his hair that was still charmed a vibrant red. His clothing was still spattered with some of the various substances that had rained down upon them.

She looked around at the dark, quiet forest they stood in. "Where are we?"

He dropped her hands and twisted away slightly, eyes scanning the trees. "Are you able to complete our task?"

Instantly, her throat once again felt as though it was closing. She looked away, opening her mouth and closing it again. Her mind was immediately assaulted images of red-headed figures, except a lone black-haired figure was now in their midst. This time, they were dead. Their bodies were mangled, twisted in ways she wasn't certain if she'd seen before or if she'd conjured herself, dragged up from the depths of her nightmares—

"Yes." The word was the clearest she'd spoken so far, nearly completely devoid of the rising terror that roiled in her gut as she shoved it down deeper.

"Granger."

His fingers were upon her jaw, forcing her to look at him. "I need you—" His teeth were gritted, and she could see him struggling to find the words over the mask of cool indifference he'd rarely shaken. "I need you to focus. If we're going to save anyone, you need to focus."

"I will," she answered, already drawing on her Occlumency to block what she hadn't the strength to do herself. She folded back the images and memories that plagued her and burrowed them deeper into her mind until her mask of blank focus settled into place.

They Apparated away the second her hand settled into his. They once again landed in a darkened forest, their surroundings as dark as they'd been moments before.

A cold sense of dread seeped into her. It settled over her, feeling heavy as she tried to move. She swept her mind clear and folded it away. They there to infiltrate — there was no room for it.

They moved through the forest in air felt only more frigid as they moved closer to their destination. A low mist had settled along the forest floor, compounding the ominous sense of discomfort she hadn't been able to banish completely. They paused only to erect a few wards of their own, and it was all too soon before they were crouched in familiar shadows in view of the cottage. He turned to her and gave her a sharp nod before he disillusioned himself and cast the same spell over her.

She could see the blur in the air where he was but shivered nonetheless when he spoke into her ear. "We need to be quick and precise. We might not have minutes —"

"I'm alright." Her voice was flat, devoid of the emotions she'd buried deep in her mind. "Let's go."

She caught a slight shimmer in the air where he was and nodded back at him, unsure if that had even been his gesture at all. Before either of them could hesitate, she moved forward, crouching as she crept away. When her boots hit the plush grass she felt too exposed under the bright moonlight and picked up speed. She breezed between the two men that were stationed in front of the cottage. Their eyes were sharp as they observed their surroundings, but they nonetheless missed her completely. She knew that she would be but a featureless blur in the air to anyone who focused long enough, but it did not stop her heart from racing as she tore toward the cabin. This close, it was even more beautiful than it had been from afar. Despite the chilly weather the array of exotic flowers that grew around the property bloomed brightly, caught in a magical stasis of mesmerizing color.

She stopped and cast a detection spell that revealed several people moving about inside. All of the figures moved with casual slowness, and all were gathered on the first floor. Certain that there were no prisoners inside, she moved closer and looked up at the first window before her. She admired the beauty of the craftsmanship that had gone into making it appear quaint yet luxurious, another perfect piece of the grand architecture that sprawled before her.

Then she pointed her wand and exploded it.

It shattered into a cloud of fine shards as it blew inward. She heard yelps of surprise from within before another shatter sounded from across the way, sending the room's occupants into chaos. Before anyone could investigate the assault, she tossed a pouch through the broken class before she exploded it as well. She heard the pounding footsteps of one of the guards from the front approaching her, and stunned him before exploding another pouch behind her. The lush foliage was immediately swallowed by the impenetrable darkness the powder created. The inky blackness of it began to rise into the sky, swallowing the stars and parts of the moon as it went.

She couldn't waste a moment. She charged toward the next window and repeated her first assault, doing the same for the next two she bounded toward. When she rounded a corner at the back of the property, she froze as she was met by a wall of darkness. She spun, panicking as she saw her own cloud rapidly approaching. She ran towards the rapidly closing gap where she could still see the blossoming grass. Her boots pounded the grass as she ran. Her heartbeat sped up almost impossibly faster as the lighted area diminished to nearly a sliver. She could hear the shouts of the men behind her — all around her — as they poured out of the house only to find themselves cloaked in the same impenetrable darkness she was in. She whipped her head around as she tried to find Malfoy, desperate to see the beacon of light that he was supposed to be carrying.

When his hand clamped down on her arm, she immediately knew it was him. He looked down at her, the Hand of God in one hand and his wand caught tightly in the other where he held her. The light was a beacon of comfort in the chaos, and she forced herself to take slow, steady breaths. He looked down at her, a question in his eyes.

"I'm alright," she whispered. The shouts around them continued to grow louder. His hand snaked down to catch hers and she followed him forward. They moved as quickly as they dared, ever aware of the shouts of the men around them as they tried to navigate the inky blackness. When one ventured close enough, they shot them down with a quick spell before continuing on and cutting down as many that stepped into their wake as they could. It felt easier, somehow, for Hermione to not have to see the men's bodies as they fell, not to see their bones shattered or their skin rotting with whichever nasty curses she shot at them.

"You." The voice startled her as a man suddenly appeared beside them, the tip of his wand at her throat.

Before he could utter another word, there was a flash of light from Malfoy's wand and he crumpled to the ground, disappearing into the blackness once again.

They took off at a run then, the Hand bouncing in the darkness as they tore forward. The sense of dread she'd been fighting off since they'd returned to the property had only grown more persistent. Her skin tingled with the feeling even as they finally burst into the night.

Without a moment's hesitation, Malfoy turned and pointed his wand at the darkness. A roaring dragon made of flames shot from the end of it, lighting a bright path through the blackness before it burst into a brighter flame as it caught the cottage. She could nearly taste the death and destruction the flames brought upon the air, consuming everything in their wake.

Beside her, something moved in the darkness.

Hermione's head whipped to the movement, eyes narrowing at the darkness and mist that obscured her vision. An unsettling feeling settled upon her chest, comingling with the dread that had only grown stronger with every step they'd taken back into the darkened forest. "Malfoy," she started, eyes still whipping around in the dark, "something's wrong—"

A hand clamped down on her ankle and she shot a spell at it as she stumbled back, stifling a scream. From the mists beyond the first figure rose another. It was rotting skin that clung to bone, its limbs twisted awkwardly even as it moved with surprising swiftness.

Inferi.

Malfoy snatched her hand and started to run. More inferi flew out of the darkness, attacking them from all sides as they ran, their feet pounding on the ground as they charged forward. An inferi barrelled into her from the side, sending her tumbling down into the dirt. It clawed at her with its rotting, skeletal fingers as she felt along the ground for where her wand had slipped from her fingers. Her hand closed around its base when another sprung forth. She blasted them both away before she was dragged upright. Around them, the air had begun to light up with curses as the shouts of the Death Eaters grew closer. They took off again, running desperately forward.

Keep moving, she repeated to herself even as the chaos continued around them. Inferi and Death Eaters alike pursued them as they continued to tear toward the wards.

Just as she cast a detection spell that revealed the wards which stood only feet away from them, a figure Apparated before them. Terror seized her heart like a vise, bringing her heart to a shuddering stop before it resumed in a staccato.

It was Bellatix.

Her lips were pulled back over her teeth as she took deep, violent breaths. Her entire figure trembled as she pointed her wand at Hermione, her eyes wide and wild.

"FOOLS!" she screeched. The sound grated deep, and she shrank back instinctively.

Before Hermione could move, her head snapped back as she was lifted into the air with a violent jerk of the woman's wand. An invisible force closed around her neck, suffocating her. Its force was unrelenting, closing in harder and harder as she struggled. Her vision blurred through the tears that stung her eyes. She clawed desperately against the invisible force at her throat with one hand while she slowly stretched the other, attempting to summon her wand. Behind Bellatrix she saw Malfoy doubled over, one pale hand clutching his own throat as they both slowly suffocated under the force of the spell. She imagined him drowning in the all-consuming cold she'd felt when he'd nearly died all those months ago, the memory renewing the strength with which she tried to summon her wand.

The force was gone just as her wand flew into her hand. She stumbled to the forest floor in a heap, heaving for breath. She stumbled to her feet and found Malfoy with Bellatrix pinned against a tree. The woman somehow looked even wilder, thrashing below the force of his spell. His wand was steady as he held it toward her, his eyes narrowed in a concentration so fierce that she feared it. She'd seen him angry before, but hadn't seen the true depths of it. The rage that was painted on his face now was cold and heartless, devoid of any emotion.

"We have to go!" she shouted. Her words fell on deaf ears and Malfoy only flicked his wand harder. Bellatrix's skin had darkened as she strained under the spell that was slowly sucking away her life force.

She shot down two inferi as they charged toward them. The spells of the Death Eaters grew closer as they began to close in on them, and Hermione threw desperate spells back even as she ran to Malfoy, trying to pull him away. Only she caught the movement as Bellatrix's wand zipped through the air and toward her barely outstretched fingers. Malfoy's deadly stare was fixated upon her, his eyes still unwavering.

She barrelled into him, knocking him over and breaking the spell just as Bellatrix's fingers closed around her wand. Malfoy's eyes were as wild as his aunt's as they met Hermione's. He snarled at her and made to throw her off, the moment pulling them both out of range as Bellatrix sent a flash of deadly green light toward them.

Malfoy's cry of rage was haunting. "Avada—"

Before he could finish uttering the spell, Hermione wrapped herself around him and Apparated them away.

X

When they landed, it was upon the bed. He was perched atop her, looking at their surroundings. His head whipped back and forth, taking in the room. When he turned back to her, his face was contorted with rage.

"What the fuck?!" His bellow rattled her, sending her heart racing as she tried to meet his look with an unwavering one of her own.

"It was too much of a risk. We couldn't—"

"Fuck you!" His hands slammed down on either side of her, his arms caged around her. The light made glaring what has previously been only hinted at under the cloak of night. Every muscle strained against his flushed skin. His eyes were wide and wild as he bore down over her. He looked every bit as manic as Bellatrix had, and in that moment it terrified her.

"Draco." She laid her hands against the tight muscles of his chest.

"Don't."

The word was spat with such hate that she wanted to recoil. Still, her hands stayed steady upon his chest. He was a serpent tensed to strike; her gentle and unmoving hands on his chest the only thing keeping him at bay. His teeth were bared as he continued to glare down at her, and she wondered if he would strike.

He got off of the bed in a movement so quick and graceful that she blinked before turning to where he now stood in the center of the room, his mask of rage unmoved. "You are a fool," he said through tightly clenched teeth.

"I am no fool." She stood and faced him, ignoring the way his towering frame loomed over hers. "She would have killed you before you managed anything—"

"I ALMOST HAD HER!" This time, his words truly felt as though they had rattled the room. The sound caused goosebumps to raise along her skin.

"We couldn't do it, it was too risky—"

"Risky?! What poses a true risk is her roaming free. You have no idea what she's done—"

The elastic of tension that was stretched taut in her stomach snapped. "I was there! I was there when she killed Sirius, I saw her on the night— the night—"

"Say it, Granger." His eyes glimmered with a strangely manic glee, undercut with a fury that somehow seemed to run even deeper the longer they argued.

"The night Snape killed Dumbledore."

He spat out a humorless laugh. "Not that."

She suddenly felt so small under the onslaught of memories that she'd tried to bury, sweeping the shattered pieces of her innocence into the back of her mind. "The night you— the night you tried…"

"The night I tried to kill him," his voice was low but venomous. "I implore you not to forget who I am. Who she made me into."

She couldn't stop her lip from quivering. "That's not you," she said. "It's not—"

His haunting smirk grew even wider. "Oh, but it is." He stepped closer until they were but a hair's breadth away. "We have been doing little but researching Horcruxes and arriving at the scenes of mass murders too damn late. We've done this while the ones we're fighting this war to protect are out there enduring and dying. And you— you stopped me from doing the one thing that could truly change the tide of this war."

He caught her by the chin, forcing her to look up at him as she tried to look away. "I can feel your guilt. I hope it suffocates you."

He slammed the door behind him as he left, leaving her standing in the middle of the room, alone.

X

It occurred to her while she was making tea.

She was standing in the darkened kitchen, lit only by the soft moonlight that filtered in through the kitchen window. She'd spent several fitful hours laying awake in bed. Her mind was plagued with images of a fiery dragon and the wild, evil look on Bellatrix's face as she'd raised her wand. She'd tiptoed past where she suspected Malfoy still lay awake despite his figure being a stiff and unmoving shadow in the darkness. She'd tried and failed to stop the images of what had transpired from assaulting her mind every time she closed her eyes—

Her heart stopped.

When it restarted, it was a stuttered staccato. The sound of her mug shattering on the ground was but a distant stir over the whooshing noise that crashed in her ears. She sucked in sharp, shallow breaths that did nothing to quell the tightness in her chest. She pressed a hand against it, pressing even as the pain sharpened. Her mind was assaulted with images that played in a sickening loop, folding closer together with each repeat. Dead bodies littering the streets. Inferi. The all-consuming rage that twisted Bellatrix's features as she'd tried to kill her.

Horcruxes.

She stumbled across the room, ignoring the pain that flared as her bare feet hit the shards of her shattered mug. Secrets of the Darkest Arts shone to her like a beacon, taunting her. Chills never failed to pass through her even when her fingers merely ghosted over the spine of the book. This time she ignored it, snatching it off of the shelf without a thought of the cold that settled upon her heart as she did. She ripped it open to the page she'd poured over countless times, her blood running cold as she let the words she'd long since memorized sink in.

"Horcruxes," it read, "are the darkest of all arts, reserved only to the foulest of beings who reserve no affection for what tethers us to humanity."

"Granger!" Malfoy's voice cut through the pounding in her head. She snapped her wide eyes to his, her mouth opening and closing uselessly as she felt the chills of the revelation crawling up her spine.

When she finally found the words to speak, her voice held a desperate edge. "Horcruxes—Bellatrix— she's making Horcruxes, isn't she?"

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY

The effect of the words on Malfoy was instantaneous.

She watched as his world tilted on its axis and his body froze mid-movement. Gone was the flush of anger that had been there only moments before. It was replaced by a pallor more ghostly than his natural skin tone, almost akin to a corpse. Hermione wasn't certain that something hadn't died within him.

Instinctively, she reached out to touch him. She was stopped by the way her own limbs still trembled, her movements stunted with shock. "If she is, then tonight we—"

"We likely destroyed one." His voice was hollow but steady.

They stood in silence. Her mind was assaulted with images of the beautiful property burning to the ground under the assault of the blazing dragon.

"We have to—" she cut off with a pained yelp as she tried to take a step forward. She stifled a shriek when Malfoy scooped her up wordlessly and carried her over to the dining table. He dropped her down upon it without ceremony before he snatched up her foot. A wave of her hand had them bathed in light and when she looked around them, she gasped. The ground had a mix of white shards and her bloody footprints leading to the desk. Malfoy was inspecting her bloodied feet. His expression was carefully blank as he siphoned out the shards, sending them to join the neat pile he'd already made of the mess on the floor.

"Do you think she— did she recognize your voi—"

His hair was still charmed bright red, and at some point he'd added a smattering of freckles to the glamour. "No." Malfoy's voice was cold and devoid of any emotion. She imagined him having spent their moments of silence folding away all that her realization had brought forth, leaving naught but an empty slate.

Her hand strayed to the long braid she wore, feeling remnants of the sticky substance they'd been assaulted with earlier still smeared in it. To Bellatrix, they'd likely appeared as naught but the nameless Order members that had been tracking them. Perhaps she'd even suspected that Malfoy was a Weasley—

She forced the thought down, folding it deeper into her mind until she relaxed the way she'd been biting down on her lip. She'd already drawn blood and when she touched two fingers to the wound, they came back smeared crimson.

He worked in silence. The shocks of pain as the healing spells dug deep barely registered to her as she sipped methodically from a blood replenishing potion, staring blankly off at nothing in particular.

When she broke the silence, her voice was small. "Dumbledore. He knew everything. He planned this, all of it from the beginning. From the time he visited your mother last summer, maybe even from before then…" Horcruxes. Bellatrix. Their marriage.

"What will we do?" she asked him in a whisper.

His lips were drawn tight, and she could see his entire form trembling.

"Malfoy." She reached out to touch his arm.

Her fingertips had only barely made contact when he pulled away. Hermione inhaled sharply as she finally looked at him.

He was covered in blood.

His torso was smeared in crude, wet handprints while his hands themselves were slick with her blood. He didn't seem aware of it, and he finished sealing the last of her wounds even as he continued to tremble.

"Draco," she said again, reaching out to stop him. This time she moved quickly enough to grasp at his shoulder. "Draco, please."

He did not move away, nor did he shun her. His jaw was tight as he looked away from her, his teeth gritted. She stepped down off the table and to her knees before him. "Draco," she cupped his cheeks, "look at me."

Slowly, gently, she wound her arms around his neck and pressed herself into him. He was nearly completely rigid, save for the constant tremble of his limbs. His rigidity did not fade the longer she held him, but she did not let go of him regardless. They were silent, and her arms stayed wrapped tightly around him as she yearned to do something — anything — she could for him.

"Draco," she said, pulling back enough to look at him. His face was still turned away from her, and he gave not even a twitch in response. "Draco— come with me. Please." Her hands were as gentle as her voice as she coaxed him to stand.

She was surprised when he acquiesced. He stood stiffly, and the tremble did not leave his limbs. She felt it as she took one of his hands in her own, squeezing tighter for a moment before she tugged him forward. He let her pull him all the way to the bathroom. Under the bright bathroom light, the blood smeared all over him looked all the more gruesome.

She let go of his hand and traced gentle fingers over his chest, watching him carefully as she moved. "I'm going to clean you, alright?" Her voice was as gentle as his had been when he'd once said the same words to her.

His nod was nearly imperceptible. His breaths were shallow as he kept his eyes trained on where her fingers lingered on his chest.

"I'm going to take off your clothes," she said, her fingertips nearly sticking to where his blood-soaked shirt clung to his abdomen.

Another barely-there nod. She vanished his clothing a moment later before starting the shower with a flick of her wand. She stripped herself quickly as the room began to fill with steam and was soon guiding him into the bath before her.

She lathered a flannel and began running it over his skin. The water that flowed around their feet turned pink as she washed him. The smooth and unmarred surface meant so much more now that she knew what Bellatrix had truly done to him. She wondered how many times he'd been maimed and forced to heal himself until it had returned to unmarred perfection.

When she moved to clean his face, she paused as she found him looking at her. Although his mind was still shuttered, the pain that swam in his silver-grey eyes was unmistakable.

It broke her heart.

She let the flannel slip from between her fingers. She raised a hand to his cheek and cupped it gently. He shuddered at the contact, the movement rippling through his entire form as though she'd drawn out the emotion and absorbed some of it into herself. Water cascaded into her face and blurred her vision as she looked up at him, but it did not stop her from stretching until she could wrap her arms around his neck and pull him close.

His breaths were harsh as he buried his face in her neck and pulled her closer, heaving shuddering breaths into her skin. She did not let herself question whether the wetness she felt on her skin was entirely from the water. Instead, she held him as tightly as she could. Take, she wanted to whisper, take what you need.

"Draco," she said instead.

He pulled back and leaned down until his forehead touched hers. His eyes were still tightly shut and his lips were thinned into a hard line. Before she could stop herself, she found herself smoothing a thumb over his lips. They relaxed instantly. The fullness of them under her touch was so soft it was almost striking. She lifted her other hand and traced it from his forehead to his cheek, watching the tension bleed from his features as he relaxed into her touch. He exhaled slowly and his warm breath fanned over her thumb.

He opened his eyes then. She felt caught in them as she met them. It had been long — so, so long — since she'd last seen emotion as raw as what now shone in them. The torture, the anger, the heartbreak she'd only caught trickles of over the months were laid bare for her. The nakedness that shone in them went beyond their physical nakedness, and the sight of it made her heart clench. Before her stood a broken man, and in that moment she knew that she would do whatever she could to take away even the slightest pressure of that pain.

Water continued to cascade down around them, soaking their hair and dripping into their eyes. Still, neither looked away. She let her hands drop to his chest, feeling the steady rise and fall of it under his heavy breaths. He lifted his hands until he cupped her cheeks. His thumbs were gentle as they traced over her cheeks, and his eyes never left hers.

She leaned into his caress and let her eyes flutter shut. She tilted her head until her lips met the skin of his palm. She placed the gentlest of kisses there, and when she spoke her next words they were but a breath against his skin: "Whatever you want. Whatever you need."

His lips caught hers only half a beat later. His lips mashed hard against hers, their teeth nearly smashing together in his desperation. She met his kiss with returned fervor. Her arms snaked around his neck as he pulled her closer until she could feel every inch of his body under hers. He was not gentle — she hadn't asked for it. She wanted only for him to take what he needed, and she let him do so without resistance. A part of her needed this, too — a rough, desperate release of all the tension they'd let build within them until it burst into a maelstrom of tension that rained down upon them as surely as the water that still beat against their skin.

When she felt a telltale hardness against her thigh, she only held him tighter. Whatever you want. Whatever you need. She let him move her until her back was against the tile and her legs were wrapped around his waist. His breaths were ragged as he slid inside of her with a single thrust. She gasped into his skin, letting her moans tumble free.

His thrusts were propelled by a desperate need. She felt trickles of it slip from behind his fortified mind while she let her own emotions wrap around them. When her release crept up and crashed over her, she managed to gasp out only one word—

"Draco."

X

He came to her every night.

Sometimes, he would slip between the sheets without a word, his breath hot against her neck as he slid a hand between her legs. Other times she would already be sitting up, waiting for him. Often, he would find her during the day, placing a hand on her hip as he waited for a gesture of acquiesce before he would take her wherever they were. She never closed the door, and he never stopped coming. He was neither rough nor gentle, and every time he would take her felt more desperate than the last.

He never stayed, either.

Each time he would slip out of the bed and quietly make his way back to the sofa, the emptiness she felt radiated further than between her legs. On this particular night, she sat up and gathered the sheets around herself, watching him pull on his bottoms.

He was already moving to walk away when she mustered the courage to call his name. Even then, her voice was small. "Draco." She scooted to the end of the bed until she could place a hand on his shoulder.

He paused, his shoulder tense under her touch.

She swallowed, then started again. "Draco, I—" she faltered. She didn't know what she truly wanted, only that it was centered on how tense he was under her touch. She didn't need him to stay, but she needed something

She was surprised when his hand closed over hers. He was gentle as he took her hand and set it back at her side. His hand lingered on hers for a moment before he stood.

"Goodnight, Granger."

For the first time, he left the door open as he left.

X

Hermione had managed only to mumble a contraceptive charm and roll over to sleep when she caught candlelight illuminating the open doorway. She pulled on her dressing gown and went outside to find him perched at the desk, staring hard at the open book in front of him. She knew that it was Secrets of the Darkest Art before she approached. It had stayed open on the same page since the night she'd made their discovery. A month, he'd said. A month would be long enough for Bellatrix to ensure that the rest of her Horcruxes were safe and that the attack had been isolated and unrelated. Her ego, he'd assured her, would outweigh any lingering suspicion.

"Draco?"

He looked up when she called his name. "Go back to sleep."

She ignored him and approached, scanning his notes over his shoulder. "Lestrange Manor..." she read before stopping. She swallowed as she felt a sense of dread crawling up her chest.

He gave a short nod. "It's likely that it's…" he trailed off, and she caught a glimmer in his eye before his mask folded back into place, "I think I know what it is."

She nodded, looking at the calendar that hung on the wall beside the map. Thirty-two days had already passed. For a fleeting moment, she wished that she could coax him back into bed and lose themselves in anything else for another month. Another year, even.

"Tomorrow?" she said instead.

His eyes met hers for a long beat before he spoke. Despite her fortified mind, she knew he could see the fear she felt written plainly across her features.

"Tomorrow," he said.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Hermione clutched Malfoy's hand tightly. She could see the puffs of her breaths in the cool night air, but it did not stop them from continuing to sharpen. The Lestrange Estate was an imposing structure that was made up of dark, sprawling towers dotted with blackened windows. Dark vines curled around the structure, adding to its imposing aura. The grounds were shrouded in shadow from the forest that loomed around them. It made Hermione feel almost claustrophobic despite the extent the lands sprawled before them.

"Come," Malfoy's voice broke through her thoughts. "I've checked the wards. She hasn't rescinded Malfoy access."

She swallowed and nodded at him, feeling unable to find her voice. When he started to move forward, he paused as he tried to pull her with him only to find her firmly planted where she stood.

"Granger." He stepped back toward her. "Look at me."

She'd barely noticed that he was but a spot in her periphery until his fingers on her chin forced her to look at him. She swallowed again and stole another glance at the estate that stood behind them before she met his eyes.

"Granger." His voice was soft. The gentleness in his tone gave her pause, and she found herself focusing on the flicker of concern in his grey eyes. It was slight, but it was there nonetheless.

"I'm scared," she said when she found her voice. "The wards— they don't— what if they won't let me in?"

His expression hardened as he looked briefly at the estate before he turned back to her. "They will."

His words did nothing to calm the growing tightness in her chest. "I'm not a pureblood, Draco." she swallowed and looked away. "I've read about it. I know what kinds of magic they would weave into wards to make sure no one of...impure status would be able to breach them. The vile, painful deaths those they deemed unworthy would endure for even trying—"

His finger on her lips stopped her rambling. She watched as his free hand reached down to catch hers. He lifted her left hand into the air, and with a soft brush of magic against her skin her glamoured wedding ring appeared. "Malfoy blood runs through your veins now," he said. "Even a hint of it would let you pass. The wards will not harm you. I swear it."

His eyes burned with his promise as much as his words did, and she found herself nodding almost instantly. This time, when he tugged her hand forward she followed. Her steps were tentative the more steps they took. Her heart raced as she felt the inkling that he'd been wrong growing as they stepped closer to the outskirts of the estate.

"We're through," he said, breaking the silence.

She let out a long breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.

"She hasn't modified the Apparition wards either since she granted me access last summer. I'm going to Apparate us inside, alright?"

He met her eyes and waited until she squeezed his hand and gave him a gentle nod. His touch was soft yet firm when he placed a hand on her back and drew her close. She squeezed her eyes closed and when she opened them a moment later they were inside a dark, cavernous hall.

"I've cast notice-me-not charms as a precaution, but stay close," he said. His voice was low, but echoed around them nonetheless.

She stepped away from Malfoy and looked around. There were high, vaulted ceilings above them that stretched down to tall windows on one side that showcased the darkened grounds outside. On the other side of the room, tall, intricately carved sculptures of sinister-looking creatures loomed over them. As they hurried past, Hermione carefully avoided their glittering onyx eyes that seemed to follow her every movement.

They went down another winding hallway, their way lit only by the dim light at the tip of Malfoy's wand. When they turned into another room, Hermione paused.

The room was filled with timeless art pieces that were carved of metals and other materials that ranged from gleaming bronze to a near-depthless onyx. All featured sinister creatures that were somehow still beautiful despite the cruelty that swathed them. The walls were covered with paintings and tapestries depicting dark scenes that featured participants engaging in acts Hermione did not let her eyes linger on. She'd once thought of Malfoy's beauty as a cruel beauty, but his pale blond head moving among the shadows looked almost ethereal compared to the looming statues around them. She stayed close behind him as he moved, shivering as she felt the brush of dark magic lingering in the air around them. He navigated through the room with ease, moving with a focused purpose.

She sensed it before they stopped. Subtle, pulsing magic curled through the quiet air. It neither beckoned nor repelled them, but the quiet of it thrummed through her unbidden, making its presence known. Her fingers automatically caught his as she stopped beside him.

A bust stood mounted on a pedestal before them. It was subtle compared to the sprawling sculptures and intricately carved vases around it, yet its meaning was unmistakable. It was a carving of the same disfigured face she'd seen flying alongside her and Kingsley in the sky the night they'd retrieved Harry from his home. The same snake-like features that had often played a central role in her nightmares since.

"She's sick," Hermione breathed, unable to tear her eyes from Voldemort's head that was perfectly captured in gleaming black marble before them. The pedestal it sat upon was carved, interwoven snakes that undulated in a pattern that was at one mesmerizing and unsettling.

Malfoy did not answer, but she saw the same tension she felt within herself rolling off of him in waves. The bust was not displayed prominently, yet Hermione could feel the way the energy in the room shifted towards it. She'd felt it since they'd entered the room, but it wasn't until now that she'd been able to place the feeling.

They stood before it for a tense moment. The dark magic that seeped off the bust like a fog felt akin to a shadow looming at the back of her mind, and for a fleeting moment, she wondered how it would make them feel if they had to be around it for much longer than this—

"Your bag," Malfoy interrupted her thoughts. He was looking down at the charmed satchel that hung over her hip.

Hermione cleared her throat. "Yes, I…" She hesitated as she pulled the satchel open. Now that she stood beside him, she could see the way his eyebrows were pulled together. The deep crease between them was the only outward sign of the stress that she knew roiled within him.

She closed a hand over one of his clenched fists. "Let me do it," she said.

She waited until he unclenched his jaw. "I checked it," he said when he managed to speak, "there aren't any...unsavory wards on it."

Aside from what's contained within, she added silently.

She held open her satchel as she stepped closer to the bust. The trickle of magic she'd felt rose to a hum as she drew closer to it, and when her fingers hovered over the surface she could feel the way it was eager to seep into her skin.

When she picked it up, she felt it calling to her. It clawed at the memories and feelings she kept folded away in the deepest recesses of her mind, seeking—

She shoved the bust in the satchel and felt its sinister energy fall into the confines of the bag. Her arm felt weak as she pressed the bag closed, and she stumbled. She barely caught herself from falling by steadying herself with the pedestal before her.

She realized her mistake when she heard Malfoy's sharp intake of breath.

She met his wide eyes a fraction of a second before she looked down to see the snakes that had been coiled around the pedestal slithering toward her. He'd checked the bust. But not the pedestal itself.

You would dare taint us with your filthy blood? She stumbled back, but the dark hiss continued to echo in her head. Your blood is not worthy of being spilled upon us. Even death is unworthy—

Hermione clapped her hands over her ears, but it did nothing to quell the angry hisses of the snakes as they slid from the pedestal and followed her. Malfoy moved in front of her then, so quickly that it took her a moment to register what was happening. He latched onto her with an iron grip, shielding her with his body while he brandished his wand at the snakes.

Before she could open her mouth to form a scream, she watched as a snake lunged forward and he only barely managed to repel it. Others followed as quickly as the first, their movements lightning fast as they set upon their target. He slashed at them as they lunged, and some burst into shards of glittering onyx while others simply recoiled before lunging again. Hermione ripped her wand out of where she'd stashed it in her pocket, gripping it tightly as she pictured their next destination.

Then she squeezed her eyes shut and Apparated them away.

X

They reappeared on a snowy riverbank in almost complete darkness, despite the full moon glittering off the water's surface and Malfoy's bright blonde hair. She could not even make out the outline of her own dark skin until she rested her hand upon his head, where it stopped the light from continuing to catch the silvery locks beneath it.

"Draco?" She ran tentative fingers through his hair. "Are you alright?"

He didn't respond for a moment, remaining hunched over and tense. "I'm fine," he answered.

Hermione paused, hesitating. "Are you sure you're al—"

"Just— get rid of it." His voice was as sharp as ever although he did not move from where he was crouched upon the ground.

She hesitated again before she nodded. "Alright," she said when she remembered he couldn't see her.

She transfigured a makeshift raft out of a broken branch she found upon the ground before she took out the bust and set it down upon the raft. She was careful to handle the Horcrux by keeping her hands fully covered with the fabric of her bag, but it did nothing to quell the dark magic she felt leaking from it.

She waited for it to float a good ways away before she cast a jet of fiendfyre at it. It exploded from the tip of her wand, forming the shape of a falcon. The moment it hit the horcrux, a piercing screech filled the night air. Hermione fell to her knees with her hands clasped over her ears, It did little to quell the grating sound, and it felt like minutes had passed before it ended when in reality it had been mere seconds. It did end, though, and she was quick to put out the fire that lingered, ready to consume everything in its wake.

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Hermione stood, breathing heavily as she looked at the peace that remained in the wake of the chaos. "It's over," she said. "We—"

She stopped short as she turned fully to Malfoy, only to see him sprawled upon the ground, unconscious.

"Draco!" Her scream pierced the silence. She threw herself down beside him, using the dim light from her wand to analyze him. She realized he wasn't unconscious, but he was letting out short, shallow breaths and his skin had somehow managed to pale further.

"I'm...not dying." His voice came out in a wheeze.

It took a moment for Hermione to realize he was correct — she didn't feel the same piercing cold she had the day he had almost died. Still, she was not comforted by this — not when he lay so unnaturally still before her, struggling for each breath.

She Apparated them back to their cabin and quickly spelled off his top layer of clothing. When his right leg was uncovered, she gasped at what she saw. He was bleeding steadily from several wounds scattered along his leg, and she could see a misty grey curse lingering just beneath the surface of his skin.

"Draco, please, talk to me, tell me where else it hurts—" She ran desperate hands over his body as she watched his expression carefully, searching for any other signs of injury.

"I contained it...to my leg," he said through gritted teeth. He was sweating visibly, and she cast several cooling charms over him to quell it.

"We need to get you help," she said, already thinking of the safe house location Kingsley had disclosed to her. She could Apparate them there, but she hadn't been there before. She searched her find frantically for anywhere in the area that she remembered, but she knew that anywhere she could think of would likely be far, too far—

She scrambled for the desk and ripped open the drawer that held the pouch of remaining portkeys to St. Mungos. Beyond it was a much smaller pouch that contained only a single portkey, marked with a simple tag: For emergencies only. She took the pouch and ran back to where her husband lay, still taking harsh, shallow breaths. The mist had already started crawling up from his calf to his knee.

Her fingers fumbled as she tried to undo the drawstring of the pouch. As she started to pull it open, she was stopped by a hand on her forearm.

"No," he rasped. "We can't."

"It's an emergency, Draco, we have to—"

"No." His voice was more firm. "Too many already know about us."

Hermione swallowed thickly. Their bond was already kept on a strictly need-to-know basis. McGonagall, Kingsley, Moody...and Snape. Snape's allegiances were already unknown, and she was certain that his skills as an expert legilimens were the only reason that Voldemort had not yet discovered the truth about Malfoy's disappearance. The more who knew, the higher the risk was that the truth would be uncovered were anyone to be captured. If the truth came out, then—

"My...mother," Malfoy said. "I can't let them find out about her."

His mother… the war. Narcissa was likely the Order's most valuable asset. If they lost her…

"Tell me how to heal you," she said, tears springing to her eyes. "I don't— I don't know enough about healing, you'll have to guide me. But— but I think..." Her next words died in the air between them as she looked down at the curse that was spreading up his leg. They didn't have the resources to reverse this kind of curse, and one look into his eyes told her that he knew the same.

"You'll have to…" he coughed and wheezed, "You'll have to cut it off."

Her tears started leaking freely. "I can't, Draco, I can't—"

"You can." He reached up slowly until his fingers brushed against her cheek. The touch lasted for a breath of a moment before his hand dropped weakly to his side. "You're...bloody Granger."

More tears leaked down her cheeks as he wheezed and let out a sharp breath.

Hermione looked down at where the misty grey cruse continued to creep up his skin. "Let's go. We can use the portkey. Maybe we'll run into Kingsley, or Mc…" she trailed off as he shook his head again.

"The risk is too high," he said.

"You know healing well," she said. "I don't know enough." Her voice grew smaller with her admission. At that moment, it felt like a fatal flaw. She'd always been able to find a way, but now her desperation was centered on one thing that she'd always known she could only learn so much about from books.

"I'll guide you."

"You know healing," she repeated. "I don't."

He placed his hand over where hers was braced on his chest. "You have to listen carefully, because if I pass out from the pain—"

"Draco, please."

He shook his head again. "Just do it. I'll…" his voice trailed off as he gasped in pain.

She looked down at where his hand covered hers. The pressure of his weakened fingers was light upon hers, resting upon her wedding ring. She revealed it with a brush of magic, watching the way it never ceased to glimmer with its own inherent light. She thought of the woman who'd worn the ring before her, desperately seeking a solution to save the man beneath her—

She gave his arm a last look before she took a deep breath and shouted: "Kreacher!"

There was a loud crack as the house-elf appeared. He sneered at Hermione. "The mudblood calls and I must be answering," he said, his eyes narrowing in disgust as he slowly looked her up and down.

"Fuck...you," Malfoy's voice was weak.

Hermione glared steadily at the elf. "I know that you're aware of my marriage," she said. "And you are bound to the Black family, which means you are bound to my husband — and to me." She stepped closer to the elf until she loomed over him, forcing him to look up as her shadow eclipsed him. "Your loyalty may have been given to Harry by Sirius, but you are still bound in blood to us. I know enough about elf magic to know this."

Kreacher's lip curled. "Filthy, filthy—"

Hermione cut him off. "You have power I do not fully comprehend, and much more knowledge than you let on," she said, holding her chin high. "So I command you to save him. Now."

The elf gave her another reproachful glare before he moved before Malfoy. He waved a hand over Malfoy's infected leg and Malfoy jerked. Hermione crossed to Malfoy's other side and took up his hand. It was cold and clammy in hers, but he wasn't dying. He wasn't dying, and she had to hold on to that.

She watched Kreacher work, cringing each time Malfoy convulsed in pain. "Draco," would whisper. "Stay with us. You'll be alright." She didn't ask Kreacher if her words were true or not.

Eventually, Malfoy slept. Kreacher continued to work, and by the time he finished, morning light had begun to trickle through the windows. Kreacher levitated Malfoy to the bed and wrapped Malfoy's leg in a long bandage Hermione handed to him.

"Will he lose his leg?" Hermione spoke her first words in hours, and her throat croaked.

"We is not knowing. Master must rest." Kreacher said simply before he vanished.

Resigned, Hermione set to waiting.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Three days passed before he woke.

She spent the time changing his bandage, cleaning him, and casting cooling charms over him.

That, and watching him.

When she wasn't tending to his every minute change she would lay beside him, analyzing and memorizing his every feature. There was much she hadn't noticed before such as the way his brow never really unfurled, one of many small signs of the tension that never really left his body. She admired the angled sweep of his features, wondering why she'd ever thought them as too harsh and pointy. He had thick lashes that were long enough to sweep his cheekbones in his slumber. When she was curled beside him, she felt just how much larger his frame was than her own. How sharp the contrast of her dark skin against his own pale skin was when she ran her hands over him in the sunlight.

Above all of this, she learned of how much pain he was in.

His eyelids twitched constantly, and his face would often scrunch up in pain before going slack once again. She'd hoped he would have a dreamless rest, but she could easily see it was anything but. In his defenseless rest, she could feel the faint but constant pulse of his pain through their bond. Sometimes she would smooth a gentle hand over his forehead until the tension bled away. It never lasted long enough. On the second night, she took the chance of tilting his head up and spelling half a vial of Dreamless Sleep down his throat. It was the longest period he slept peacefully for.

Late the third evening, she hadn't realized she'd fallen asleep until she felt a shift beside her. She flew upright, wand at the ready, only to discover the cabin empty. Save for herself — and her husband whose silver-grey eyes were affixed upon her. Her wand fell forgotten onto the sheets as she met his look.

Neither one of them moved for a long moment. At that moment, she was transported back to the relief she'd felt when he'd woken up after she'd tended to his sectumsempra wounds. Then slowly, tentatively, Draco — because Draco was who he was to her now, no matter how much she tried to distance her feelings from him by referring to him as Malfoy — lifted his arm until he cupped her cheek in his large palm. He shifted toward her, both of his legs following fluidly with the movement. She let out a half-sob of relief at the action, and let her eyes flutter shut. She took in the feeling of his warm hand against her skin, taking solace in the fact that her desperate plea to Kreacher had worked.

When she opened her eyes again, she saw that he was still watching her. She started to lean forward, watching him carefully as she moved. His hand slid from her cheek and down her arm. She leaned closer still, and—

He met her halfway. Every kiss they'd ever shared had been raw and desperate, and this was no different. Their mouths moved together in a frantic frenzy, each of them pressing closer to one another until she straddled him and he held her firmly to his chest.

She pulled away first. "You need to eat. And you're weak, you need to rest more..."

The look in his eyes stopped her short, making the words die on her lips. The intensity of his gaze as his eyes bored into hers made her protests slip from her mind.

Later, she said to herself as she pulled him back down into a kiss. Later.

X

When she woke the next morning, he was still there.

She froze when she realized she wasn't lying on a pillow, but rather upon Draco's bare skin. She brushed her wild curls out of her face as she examined their position. The sheets were twisted around them haphazardly, doing nothing to conceal their nakedness. Her leg was hitched over his hip where she rested atop him, leaving her bare cunt in direct contact with his half-hard cock. She looked up at him tentatively only to find him awake and looking down at her.

They'd never crossed this line before.

The morning light illuminated both their faces as they watched each other intently. She moved forward slow and tentative as ever, watching him carefully as she did. She further hooked her leg over him until she straddled him fully, maintaining eye contact all the while. She then reached between them and grasped his hardened length. She pumped him carefully, drinking in the way his lips twitched open as her hand moved, and the way he let out a soft shudder when she murmured a lubrication charm to slicken him further. They weren't propelled by intense lust, nor were they rushing themselves to physical completion as they often did. This time, she allowed herself to observe his every movement in a way she'd never taken the time to before.

She guided him inside of her, letting her eyes flutter shut as she pressed herself down upon him. She let out small pants and gasps as he filled her completely. When he was fully seated within her, she felt his hands on her hips. She opened her eyes to meet his, finding his gaze as dark and intense as before. She rocked herself slowly, letting her hips grind against his pelvis just so until she couldn't keep her soft moans from tumbling out.

She let the pleasure she felt pour out from behind her walls and wrap around them. She saw the moment he felt it, watching his mouth fall open further even as his eyes never strayed from hers. The air between them was thick with the tension she let fall free, and she realized that he'd let his own pleasure flow free, too. The combination of the intensity they let flow freely between them coalesced in an inferno, propelling her thrusts faster as they chased their mutual release.

"Draco," she said his name in a shuddered cry as he started snapping his hips up beneath her.

She leaned forward until she was braced above him. Their mouths were so close that their breaths mingled as they each panted out their mutual release. Even when the final aftershocks of her orgasm had faded, she remained atop him. His cock was still firmly lodged within her, and he made no move to extricate himself, either.

Normally when they finished having sex one of them would leave immediately, ignoring what has just occurred. This time, neither appeared in a rush to move at all. Their eyes were still locked, and she could feel his fingers curling lazy circles on the skin of her hip. She leaned forward, watching to see if he would shy away from the movement. When he didn't move and continued to watch her carefully, she leaned forward again—

They heard it at the same time.

Hermione froze atop of Draco, wondering for a moment if she'd imagined it. The front door opening, and—

"Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy?" A frighteningly familiar voice called.

Hermione's wide eyes flew to the door before coming back to land on her husband's. She could still feel his cock softening within her.

"Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy?" McGonagall's voice called again. Hermione heard footsteps drawing closer.

Hermione turned wide eyes to the door before looking down at Draco beneath her. He had risen up and their chests were pressed together as he looked at the door, his eyes also minutely wider.

"Just— just a moment!" Hermione stumbled off of Draco and summoned her dressing gown and robe.

"I'll wait out here," McGonagall's voice sounded back through the door.

Hermione slipped on her clothing and stepped outside, pushing the door firmly closed behind her.

Professor McGonagall stood there, still clad in her traveling cloak. The hood was down, and Hermione couldn't help pausing at what she saw. It had been mere months, but the older woman looked as though she had aged years. Her dark bun was laced with silver hairs that shone in the light. There were a myriad of wrinkles and fine lines across her face Hermione knew hadn't been there the last time they had seen one another. Even her eyes looked tired as Hermione caught a glance at them.

It was then that Hermione noticed that McGonagall was looking at her, too. The woman's eyes were on Hermione's wrinkled dressing gown and the way her robe was still askew. Hermione didn't need a mirror to know that her hair still looked bedraggled, or that her skin was still flushed with the evidence of what she'd been doing a minute prior. Hermione could still feel Draco's come sliding stickily down her legs, and McGonagall's piercing gaze made Hermione feel as though McGonagall could see it too.

McGonagall's lips thinned into a hard line as her eyes rested on Hermione's face.

A wave of rage bubbled up unbidden within her, and before Hermione could stop it she found herself letting it rush free in a torrent through her lips that seemed to move on their own accord. "You do not get to come here and judge me," Hermione said through gritted teeth, "not when you've essentially abandoned us here. You knew— you knew what this war would do to us — what the bloody Order would do to us — and I haven't heard one word from you. Yet you think you have the right to come in here and judge what I do with my own husband?!"

Hermione was heaving by the time she finished, so chock full of anger that the rest of the words could not form over the rushing in her ears and the lump that had risen in her throat.

McGonagall was silent for another beat. "You look tired, child."

The words were simple, but their effect was not. Hermione felt herself crumpling from within under the weight of everything she'd been holding in for months. Her shoulders sagged and she stumbled back into the wall.

McGonagall twitched forward, but Hermione held up a hand. "Please— don't."

Hermione closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. She carefully folded back the memories that had started to unravel as they threatened to burst forth. She focused on nothing but shifting things into place with her Occlumency until she finally opened her eyes once again. McGonagall was now sitting at the table, sipping a cup of tea. Another steaming mug sat in front of the empty seat across from her.

McGonagall didn't say a word until Hermione was seated before her. "Happy Christmas, Mrs. Malfoy."

Hermione's fingers curled around her mug, and she let the heat seep into her skin. "I'd forgotten."

McGonagall sighed. "So had I." She took a long sip of her tea, peering thoughtfully at Hermione over the mug. "You haven't been well."

Hermione let out a short, humorless laugh. "Neither have you."

"Dark times have fallen upon us," McGonagall said. Her fingers twitched on the tabletop as if she meant to reach out to Hermione before she folded them back around her mug instead. "But these times have been especially harsh upon you."

Hermione closed her eyes, feeling the images of death and fear and pain, so much pain try to resurface—

"He almost lost a leg," she said. She'd meant to say I'm fine, and she blinked in confusion for a moment as she processed her own words. She'd let the damn burst, and she felt her eyes brimming with tears. "I'm— I'm—I'm scared. He almost lost his leg, and he was so strong. But I— I felt like I was falling apart because I didn't know how to fix him. I don't know how to fix this, any of this, and I always do, I always have a plan, I always know, I just know, and— it's Christmas and I didn't even realize."

It fell silent, save for Hermione's harsh breaths. McGonagall looked at her patiently, waiting, somehow knowing that Hermione wasn't finished.

"Where were you?" Hermione asked in a whisper. She swallowed thickly, knowing the lump in her throat would persist nonetheless. "I...I can't even ask you that, can I? In the midst of all that's transpiring, we're...nothing."

"There are many things that I feel sorry for," McGonagall started, "but this— this has become a burden that no one should bear. Not even a woman as strong as you." McGonagall paused and studied Hermione. "You've grown into a formidable woman, Mrs. Malfoy."

Hermione said nothing. She continued to stare down into her rapidly cooling tea, contemplating the woman's words. It was undeniable that she'd aged beyond her years. She'd made the transition from Ms. to Mrs., from ambitious student to Order-sanctioned assassin so quickly that her head spun thinking of it.

She looked up with a cloth-wrapped bundle slid into her vision. She looked up to see McGongonall's eyes trained on the bundle.

"I was instructed by Albus to give this to you on your birthday, should he have not been able to himself," McGonagall said. "Happy belated," she added.

Hermione blinked. Her birthday had passed without fanfare months ago. She could barely even remember what she'd done that day. It had passed like any other, the significance of the occasion having been swallowed by the stress and fear of her circumstances.

Hermione pulled open the twine that held it together and unfolded the cloth to find a book nestled inside.

Death and its Deviations, the cover read.

Hermione froze and looked up at where her former Professor was still watching her carefully. A long silence passed between them as the implication of the book that lay on the table hung thickly in the air between them.

"I do not know what Albus tasked you with," McGonagall said, her voice tinged with sadness, "and if I am being truthful, it took me quite some time to find the courage to bring this to you. These kinds of texts...they carry burdens that even I would struggle to bear."

"I…" Hermione screwed her mouth shut, not knowing what to say.

"How can you bear this, too?"

The solemn tone of McGonagall's voice made Hermione's jaw clench. "It was you who left the portkeys, was it not?"

McGonagall's lips twisted downward as she looked away and out the window. "Indeed."

"And what did you expect?" Hermione's teeth were gritted. "Did you think that maiming, oblivation, and sending them to St. Mungo's would lessen the burden of the task we were forced into? Did you think—" Hermione stopped and took a deep breath.

McGonagall said nothing.

"I have barely thought about the portkeys in a long time. I didn't even bring them with us on our last few...assignments. It's become easier, somehow, to simply mask ourselves and cut them down into severe disability instead." Hermione shivered as she thought of the night they'd burned down the beautiful cottage in the woods, of the curses she'd used on many Death Eaters that wouldn't kill them, but would forever have them wishing she had.

"It never becomes easy, child," McGonagall said after silence had fallen for a long minute. "If I could choose...if I had known what it would have come to, I would have sent you away. I would have done all in my power to keep you away from Albus' office, the entire castle, that night…"

McGonagall trailed off as Hermione shook her head.

Although Hermione's mouth remained shut, her silence spoke all the words she could not speak herself.

"Do you regret it?" McGonagall asked.

Hermione's answering laugh was flat and hollow. "Which part?"

Hermione watched McGonagall's eyes stray to the closed bedroom door. "Him."

"No." The word was near-silent but came out with steady confidence.

"Take care of him, Mrs. Malfoy," McGonagall said.

"I don't know how." Hermione's lips barely moved as she whispered the words.

"The way you always have. The way you still are."

Hermione's lip trembled. "He's broken, and I— I don't know if I can fix any of it. I want to, but I—"

She had been staring down at the table, and so hadn't noticed McGonagall move until the woman's hand landed upon her shoulder. "You both are broken, child. But together…"

Another silence fell between them.

"I must bid you farewell, Mrs. Malfoy," McGonagall squeezed her shoulder. "Good day, Mr. Malfoy," she called as she headed out the door. Silence radiated from the bedroom in response.

Hermione watched McGonagall until she passed the wards and disapparated. When she turned, she was startled to see Draco looming behind her. His tense stance spoke of a cold fury of an origin she couldn't place.

"Wh—"

He cut her off. "What am I to you?"

Hermione paused before speaking again, her voice small. "You...you're my hus—-"

He slammed his palms against the wall on either side of her, effectively caging her in. "What am I to you?"

"I— I don't know what you want me to say—"

His eyes flashed. "Am I some pawn to be moulded by your pathetic pity? I've already told you that I have no need for it."

"It has never been pity—"

He scoffed. "Lies. I can see it."

"But can you feel it?" Hermione challenged. "If you would pay attention to what I try to show you, then you would know so. You would know how helpless and sorry I feel at times like when your family cottage burned—"

He let out a short, humorless laugh. "It wasn't my family's home. It was mine."

Hermione paused. "Yours?"

"It was due to pass into my possession the moment I wed."

Hermione trembled. It was... theirs. The cottage with a beauty so stunning that she'd paused and let it take her breath away for a moment despite their perilous circumstances. It was theirs — had been theirs.

The weight of his words suddenly felt too heavy to bear, and she sank into him. She clutched his shirt and sobbed, her face dry of tears despite the weight of everything they'd borne over the months. She sobbed and pressed herself into him until the sounds were nearly completely stifled, and it took her a long while to realize that he'd closed his arms tentatively — awkwardly — around her. Her face was still dry and her sobs began to subside, but she held him tightly as the sounds dissolved into hiccups.

When she finally pulled back, it was to repeat the words she'd said to him months prior: "It wasn't pity — I just cared."

His eyes were intense as they searched hers for a long, nearly breathless moment. She caught the moment when he buckled. She quickly captured his lips with her own, wishing the gesture could take away the weight of the burdens she watched him carry daily. And as desperately as she tried to alleviate his own, she felt him trying to capture hers as well. His hands were gentle as he roamed her body before lifting her easily and carrying her to the bed. His eyes never left hers as she spelled away their clothing, and when their fingers intertwined he didn't let go first, either.

Late that night as they lay in the bed sweaty and sated, Hermione placed a gentle hand on his chest as he moved to sit up. He could have fought her easily, but he acquiesced. She slipped out of the bed, feeling his eyes on her as she slipped out of the room.

When she returned to the room with his trunk levitated in the air before her and settled it down next to hers, he didn't protest, either.

X

Hermione watched Draco as he pored over the book spread open on the desk before him, writing diligently on the parchment before him.

"If this book is correct, one of us should be able to recite the fiendfyre incantation while the other says the counter-spell nearly immediately after. It's all we'll need…"

Draco's voice faded into the background as Hermione continued to hover behind him, taking equal turns at gnawing at her bottom lip and worrying a hand through her hair. Even if she wanted to speak, it felt impossible over the lump in her throat.

She paused and watched the back of Draco's head as he worked. She opened her mouth to speak the words she'd wanted to say for days, knowing they could change everything, everything

She couldn't.

She turned away yet again, still finding herself unable to face him. She couldn't tell him. She couldn't—

"Granger." His voice cut through the loud thrumming in her head. She turned to face him, keeping her eyes averted. "What is wr—"

"What will you do?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, but it was enough to cut him off nonetheless. "After?"

A silence fell.

She managed to force herself to look into his eyes. They were dark and guarded.

"If we survive this," Hermione started again, trying to talk over the dry feeling in her throat, "what will you do?"

"Disappear." His voice was flat. "Somewhere far. Wherever my mother wants to go."

The implication of his unsaid words spread like a frost in her chest. Yet she knew she couldn't expect more from him— their...entanglement was something borne of circumstance. She hesitated to dwell on why ice burrowed deeper in her heart as she contemplated his words, instead opting to fold it away with her Occlumency.

Draco's voice hardened. "What is wrong with you? You've been acting like this for days, and you need to be serious—"

And just like that, she found the words pouring out of her unbidden, past all of the intangible barriers she'd been erecting around them for days.

"I— I think I'm pregnant."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

His anger boiled over his carefully constructed shields in a wave, drowning Hermione in the suddenness of its intensity.

When he spoke, his voice was laced with cold fury. "What did you just say?"

"I might be— I don't know if I'm—" She couldn't utter the word a second time over the lump that had risen in her throat.

"What the fuck do you mean you don't know? You either are or you aren't, Granger!" He turned and ran his hands through his hair. "Fuck!"

She watched as he started pacing and cursing under his breath.

"Draco," her lip trembled as she spoke, "Draco, I—"

He stopped pacing and centered his dark glare on her once again. "You what?" his voice was a snarl. "There isn't a fucking thing you can say right now that'll fix this."

She instinctively curled a hand over flat midriff. "I know," she said. "I know, but—"

"Did you even use the bloody charm?" His skin was flushed red. "Everyone knew it by the time we were fifth years! Or were you too good for hallway gossip?"

"I— I used it every time, but after McGonagall— I don't remember, I can't—"

"You don't remember?!" His fists clenched hard. "Is that all you can say? This is war, Granger. What the fuck are we going to do with a child?!"

Hermione's hand tightened against her stomach. "I know that. I do. But even still, I can't— if I am, I'll do anything to keep this baby."

He froze. "Did you think that I would make you—?" His voice was low and cold as his eyes centered on her stomach. "Who do you think I am?"

Hermione swallowed. "I don't know, I just—"

"Then why the fuck would you say that?! If you had any bloody sense—"

Hermione found her voice in one fell swoop. "Draco!" Her voice cut over his low cursing. "Please just— stop. Just— be my husband, please, if only for a moment."

The room fell into silence in the wake of her words. Hermione's eyes had fallen to where her hands were still pressed over her stomach. When he moved to sit down at the table, she heard more than saw the action.

Draco was the one to break the silence. "Spain," he said.

Hermione looked up to see him watching her stomach intently. "What?" she asked.

"I bought a home there. Secretly. In case my mother ever wanted to live closer in the future."

"Spain," Hermione repeated, her voice only marginally louder than a breath.

"We'll be safe there for now."

Hermione's breath caught. "We…?"

He said nothing but did not contradict her.

"Draco, your mother—"

"How many times have you tried the spell?" he asked, deliberately cutting her off.

Hermione's throat clenched. "Several. Inconclusive every time. If I am...it's too early to detect." Magic could be so powerful yet so fickle, and the fact of it had never felt more devastating than at that moment.

"Do you have any idea why?"

Hermione shook her head. "There are a few reasons that it wouldn't work, but pregnancy...it's not something I've spent a lot of time researching." Or even thinking about, she wanted to add. "I checked our rings, too— while you were asleep. I thought that we'd missed the fertility charms on them, but if there ever were any they've already been removed."

Another silence fell.

"Draco," she started, then hesitated. "Draco, you— if I am— if you come—your mother—"

"I know where my duty lies." His voice was thin and clipped, but their effect was profound. He would risk everything he'd entered into this marriage for in order to protect their child.

If she was pregnant…

Hermione swallowed as she thought of the consequences. She would give up everything to protect their child — do anything to protect it. It would mean entrusting the destruction of the Horcruxes to someone else, and—

"There might be a way," she said, her soft voice still sounding overly loud in the heavy silence that had fallen over them. "A muggle pregnancy test. It might work. If it doesn't…" She trailed off. They would have to risk going to the Order. It was a last resort, but all they had.

"We'll go tonight," he said.

Hermione nodded, ever-aware of the way one of her hands continued to roam over her stomach. She wandered over to the sofa and sat down heavily. The consequences of everything boiled over her desperate attempts tp fold her worries away, causing everything to collapse into chaos like dominoes. She shook as she took slow, deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself — to no avail.

She could feel his presence — his anger — hovering nearby. He was ready to sacrifice it all for their unborn child. To protect her, to be with her and the child after it was born. The burden of what they would lose if she was pregnant was a weight so great that her shoulders sagged under the pressure of it. She felt his shadow fall over her as he paused beside her. It took her a moment to look up, fearful of encountering the lingering wrath she expected to find on his features.

She was surprised, then, when she finally looked up to see the same guarded look she'd grown accustomed to over the months. Now, though, as she watched him longer, she caught the twinges of conflict in his expression. She didn't move her eyes from his as she shifted over, making room for him beside her. She said nothing but knew her expression communicated one word: please.

When she watched him sink down beside her a moment later, she held back the shuddering sob that threatened to escape. She watched his hands clench and unclench on his thighs three times in a row before she reached out tentative fingers and curled her hand around his own.

He didn't push her away, nor did he hold her hand tighter. Still, it was enough.

X

She woke to the feeling of him shifting. It took a few long blinks for her to realize that she was curled into his side. Her hand was on his chest, curled tightly in his shirt. He was sleeping soundly. His chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, and she allowed herself to sink further into him for a moment. When she shifted to get up, she froze as she realized that one of his arms was curled around her side, and his hand was splayed on her abdomen. He was still asleep, but lines of tension showed on his face. Hermione smoothed her thumb over the crease between his brows, watching as it smoothed out.

Her fingers were still lingering on his cheek when his eyes opened. She let her eyes linger on his, feeling locked in the intensity of his gaze.

"We should go," he said, breaking the silence. She didn't miss the way his eyes lingered on where his hand rested on her abdomen before he untangled himself and stood.

They changed in silence, and he stood quietly as she glamoured his clothing and features. When she lowered her wand, he moved to take her hand as he lifted his wand to Apparate them away.

"Wait," Hermione said. She took his hand in hers and touched his wedding ring. The diamonds and emeralds glittered in the low light, and when she raised hers beside it she took a moment to admire their beauty. She tapped them once, glamouring hers into something simple and nondescript with a small diamond and his into a simple silver band.

"It'll be best to let them think we're a couple passing through," she explained. "Discreet. Won't rouse suspicion."

He nodded before curling his hand tighter around hers. Hermione was sucked into the familiar feeling of Apparition before they landed somewhere along the darkened forest line.

"Do you know where to go?" he asked.

Hermione shook her head. "The village is small though. There should be somewhere." She curled her fingers around his tightly as she lead them out towards the main street.

The street was dark and mostly empty. Low noise filtered out of a pub as they passed, and a laughing couple walked out as they passed. Their joined hands swung together casually and they laughed, the contrast of their ease sharp against the way Hermione hung onto Draco's hand with a near-bruising grip.

"There," she said, pointing at a dimly-lit chemist ahead.

A bell tinkled softly as they entered, announcing their presence. A salt-and-pepper haired woman stood behind the register, giving them a warm smile as she appraised them.

"Welcome," the woman said. "Do you need any assistance?"

"No, thank you," Hermione's voice was a croak.

Her heart started to race as she was once again faced with the reason they'd come. She knew that she should have let go of his hand to search the small, sparsely filled aisles, but she couldn't bring herself to let go.

The tests were in the first aisle they went down. Hermione froze in front of the row of tests, all of which featured women cradling their bumps or their newborns. She felt ill. Her fingers twitched at her side, but she couldn't bring herself to pick up a box.

"Here you are, love." Hermione started as she felt the woman press the handle of a shopping basket into her free hand. The woman gave them a knowing look. "It's best to try a few, just to be certain. These will do just fine," the woman said, dropping three boxes into the basket. "No need to worry yourself with all the fancy ones."

Hermione nodded mutely as they followed the woman back up to the cash register.

"I married around your age myself," the woman said as Hermione handed her the basket with a shaky hand. "But not to worry. Children are a blessing — it's best not to forget that."

Hermione bit back the tears that threatened to fall at the woman's words. Her hands worked mechanically as she handed the woman her money and watched her count out the change. This was how they should have been, shouldn't they? A nervous pair of newlyweds overwhelmed but tentatively excited at the prospect of their first child. Any other couple could have taken the woman's words with care, returning to their home feeling somewhat calmed despite their nervousness. Instead, all they did was burrow fear deeper into Hermione's heart.

She was snapped out of her thoughts by the feeling of Draco squeezing her hand. "Let's go."

The sound of his voice spread through her in a wave of calming comfort, unfreezing her legs from where they'd previously refused to move. It was him who pulled her out of the pharmacy and around the corner, and him who Apparated them back to the cabin. It was he who removed their glamours and took out the boxes, reading them carefully.

She barely moved until he handed her a glass of water. "Drink."

She brushed it away. "I can do it," she said, brushing past him and into the bathroom where he'd laid out the tests neatly on the countertop.

She emerged a few minutes later, clutching the tests in a shaky grip. She found him sitting on the sofa, his head bowed and hands buried tightly in his hair.

"Draco," she said, her voice breaking.

He shot up at her words. "What?"

She shook her head. "They're not working." She handed him the tests, showing him the scrambled lines on the small readers that should have been marked with a clear plus or minus. A clear yes, or no. Instead, they had— nothing.

She heard the clatter of the tests as the hit the wall with the force of his throw. "You have to go to the Order."

"Draco, I—" she caught his hand. "I…"

"Go," he said. "McGonagall left us portkey, did she not?"

Hermione swallowed. "She did, but…" She pressed back her fear, knowing the true reason for her fear hung in the air between them nonetheless.

He released her hand and pressed her wand into it instead. "You might not be seen. Go."

Before she could hesitate and decide against it, she gave him one last look before crossing over to pick up the pouch that McGonagall had left them. With one last look at Draco, she pressed it into her fingers and was gone.

X

She landed in a darkened kitchen. She immediately pressed herself into a shadowed corner, scanning every corner of the room for signs of movement. Although she found none, it didn't stop her heart from rising in her throat as she slipped through the shadows. She peeked outside the kitchen to find a small hall. She wasn't even certain that they had a Healer on the premises. Still, she resolved that she would search every room before she revealed herself to anyone unnecessarily. Her footsteps were slow and precise as she stepped into the hall, each step practiced from the months of training.

She froze at the first room she encountered.

It was a small sitting room, dark save for the small fire that crackled in the fireplace. The light of the fire illuminated the figures that were curled together on a small sofa.

Ron.

Her breath caught as she watched the flames flicker across his familiar features. Although he had no visible scars, she could still see the exhaustion that marred his features from where she stood. She bit her lip to keep it from trembling as she thought of the look of abject betrayal she'd seen on his face the last time they'd been together; of the feelings she'd felt him pour out in the note he'd sent her so many months ago. She yearned to go him, to wrap her arms around him and whisper all the apologies she'd dreamt of saying to him for months.

That was what brought her to figure that was curled in his arms. Lavender. Even from where she stood, Hermione could see how fitful the other woman's sleep was. Her breaths were deep and shuddering, and she let out small whimpers as she unconsciously burrowed her head deeper into Ron's chest. It took only a glance downward for Hermione to see why. One of Lavender's arms was severed below the elbow and wrapped in a crude bandage. Even in his sleep, Ron's arms were curled around her protectively, one hand resting gently on the bandage.

Hermione's heart twisted. How much pain and destruction had she missed? How many horrors had the Order endured in this war that seemed to have no end?

Ron shifted and she froze, her heart hammering in her chest. If he opened his eyes he would see her there, standing in the shadows but a dozen feet in front of him. She let out the breath she'd been holding only when he shifted again and let out a small snore. She needed to find a healer before she happened upon anyone else. She crept away slowly, finding only an empty bedroom at the end of the hall with the door left slightly ajar.

She turned the corner to find another, smaller hallway. Soft light spilled out of an open door at the end of it. Hermione crept up slowly until she could peek inside. Inside were shelves filled with rows of neatly labeled bottles and various instruments — amongst medical supplies. The infirmary.

She crept closer still until she was able to see more clearly into the room. A lone woman was bent over a basin, her long blonde hair twisted in a bun at the nape of her neck. When she turned slightly, Hermione recognized her. Hannah.

Hermione stepped into the room, deliberately making a small noise that had Hannah's eyes widening as she recognized Hermione. "Herm—"

Hermione pressed a finger to her lips. Hannah's mouth opened and closed again before she nodded. "How...how have you been?" Hannah asked once Hermione had pushed the door closed behind her.

This time, it was Hermione who opened and closed her mouth as she hesitated.

Hannah gave her a soft smile that didn't quite meet her eyes. "I shouldn't have asked." Hannah brushed her hands off on her robes. "You've been missed, Hermione."

Hermione looked away. "I'm sorry."

Hannah smiled sadly. "We're all sorry for something," she said. "I assume you've come in for a reason, though?" Hannah gestured for Hermione to sit on the small cot that was pushed in the corner. "Pomfrey was called away yesterday and hasn't returned, but she's trained me well."

Hermione nodded. "I…" her voice was a croak. "I need a pregnancy detection spell."

Hermione caught only the briefest flicker of surprise cross Hannah's features before she

smoothed them into a mask of professionalism once more. "Of course. Can you…?"

Hermione nodded and lay back on the cot, rolling up her shirt until her stomach was exposed. "Do you...do you have any idea why…why the spell..." Hermione swallowed as Hannah paused, her wand suspended over Hermione's stomach.

"I...I can't be certain. Are you on the potion?"

Hermione shook her head. "No." Her voice was small.

Hannah nodded. "It shouldn't be necessary. The spell works almost every time, although magic itself can be fickle. I assume your own detection spell didn't work?"

Hermione shook her head again, trying to force herself from folding her hands over her bare stomach.

"Normally, cases where the spell didn't work occur when other magic had interfered, although there isn't much that does. Some marriage bonds, for example, tend to require using the spell prior to relations. Some ancient families have even been known to incorporate fertility spells into wedding rings themselves, although the spell usually cancels them out…"

Hannah's voice was swallowed by the whooshing noise that filled Hermione's ears. Such a small detail that could have possibly changed everything — everything. She normally read and researched everything about everything she could, yet she'd never considered this. Her heart continued to race as she thought of all the times she'd mumbled a contraceptive spell right before she would fall asleep, after when she should have done it before, never having suspected that timing would have had anything to do with it. But timing— timing was that fatal blow to all of this, and because she hadn't known, everything, everything might be ruined—

She was drawn out of her thoughts by Hannah's hand gently stroking her cheek. As Hermione blinked herself back into reality, she realized that a lone tear had leaked down her face and into her ear.

Hannah wiped at it again, smiling sadly down at Hermione. "You'll be alright. No matter what comes of this." She held her wand aloft over Hermione's stomach once again. "You'll feel a cold tingle, but it shouldn't hurt. May I…?"

Hermione nodded, knowing she wouldn't be able to find her voice.

Hannah gave her a small smile before she turned to Hermione's stomach and murmured a spell over it. There was a moment where she felt suspended in the tension of the silence and nothingness, and then—

Nothing happened.

Hermione's heart was in her throat as she waited another beat for the white glow that would indicate pregnancy to appear over her stomach. Instead, there was nothing.

"You're not pregnant," Hannah said.

Hermione's heart stopped, then restarted in a staccato. "Can you— I need to be sure."

Hannah nodded and cast the spell once more. No telltale white glow appeared. "Not pregnant. I promise."

She wasn't pregnant.

It felt as though Hannah's words had sucked up the air in the room, and Hermione felt unable to breathe under the weight of her relief. She wasn't pregnant. She wasn't pregnant. She wasn't pregnant. She could go back to him, and they would be alright. They'd be able to find the Horcruxes. Finish this war, no matter the outcome. She wasn't pregnant. She wasn't pregnant. She wasn't pregnant.

"Hermione, wait," Hannah called.

She hadn't even realized that she'd stood up and started stumbling dazedly towards the door until Hannah's voice cut into her thoughts. Hermione turned to feel Hannah pushing several vials into her hands.

"One every four months," Hannah said. "Pomfrey was able to create it in a higher concentration for those who needed it."

"Thank you," Hermione forced the words out over the lump that still hadn't left her throat.

Hannah squeezed Hermione's hand before letting it go. "There's a back door down the hall to your left. Go."

Hermione nodded and gave Hannah one last look before she cracked open the door and peeked into the hall. It was still dark and empty, and Hermione hurried in the direction Hannah had told her to go.

She wasn't pregnant. The words carried her feet toward the exit, moving in stealthy silence as she approached it—

Someone snatched her by her braid and dragged her backward violently until she was pinned against the wall. A hand slammed down over her mouth before she could scream. When she looked up it was into the face of Harry Potter, his features twisted with rage.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Harry's eyes burned as he glared into hers. His eyes were still shockingly emerald even in the darkness, and Hermione's heart stuttered at the familiarity. The cold fury in his eyes a perfect picture of every nightmare she'd had about this very encounter for months, yet now that the moment was here the pain of seeing him was magnified tenfold.

He removed his hand from her mouth and stepped back, his features twisted with disgust asthe space between them grew wider.

"H—Harry." Her voice was little more than a whisper that nearly dissipated completely over the lump that had lodged itself in her throat.

"Don't." She hadn't realized that she'd been reaching toward him until the venom in his voice stopped her mid-movement.

It was only one word, but it pierced like a knife all the same. Gone was the familiarity, the vulnerability that she had grown so used to, that she had dreamt about one day receiving again. His face was still as readable as ever, and what she saw there had her pressing a hand to her chest in a vain attempt to alleviate the pain that blossomed within her at what she could read plainly on his face.

It felt like looking into a mirror. Before her stood someone who'd been slowly broken over time, the splintered fragments of what they'd once been marred by the burdens that they carried. In his eyes, she recognized the same haunted look that she saw when she chanced a glance into the mirror, spied the same distrustful tension that vibrated through his body as though he were coiled to strike. He was haunted by terrors of the past, any optimism for the future eroded by the bleakness of each day that passed.

"I've thought of so many ways," he spat out a short, humorless laugh, "so many excuses for why you did what you did to me. I'd lie awake at night, wondering why you would spend all of that time planning with us, knowing how much we needed you, relied on you. I thought that you would never have chosen to disappear on some secret mission unless it was a matter of life or death. But then I remembered that Horcruxes—- everything we've been striving to rid ourselves of this war — was literal life or death."

Hermione's heart spasmed. "Harry—"

"— I waited for an explanation, an apology, anything. But when I got it, I realized how much worse your apologies with no explanation were than if you'd just bothered to show yourself—"

"Please," Her hand twitched toward him and she forced it to stay at her side. "Let me explain—"

"And then I realized that the only thing that would make me understand would be if you were dead."

His words were as jarring as a strike.

He moved closer until he was but a breath away. "Yet, when I heard your voice, the first thing I felt was relief. Relief that you'd come back, that you would be able to say something, anything that could explain away why you did what you have done to me. "

Hermione's heart stopped and restarted at a race as she realized the implication of his words.

"And instead— " he slammed a fist against the wall beside her head, "instead I find out that the only reason you came back was for a pregnancy detection spell." He fell silent then, yet the tension that vibrated his body practically screamed.

Hermione opened and closed her mouth several times, knowing that she was expected to say something, anything, and instead came up with nothing, nothing at all—

"Was it worth it?" Harry's voice was low and tinged with venom, "spreading your legs for some bloke while we waited for you?"

"Harry—"

"Don't." His nostrils flared. "Don't speak my name as if — as if words will ever be enough to explain why you abandoned me. Why you promised me time and time again that we would do this together, then left anyway. Don't—"

"Harry."

The low, rumbling voice made them both freeze. She turned her head to see a tall, broad figure standing in the shadows a dozen feet away, blocking most of what little light there was at the end of the hall. Even though his features were barely visible in the shadows, it was unmistakably Kingsley.

Harry tensed before stepping back. "Yes?" His voice was gruff.

"I need to speak with Miss Granger for a moment if you don't mind."

For a moment, it looked as though Harry would resist. He stiffened before he turned and left, not sparing Hermione a second glance. He shouldered past Kingsley without a word and disappeared down the hall.

A tense silence fell in his wake.

"Come," Kingsley said. He didn't wait for an answer, and simply turned and moved off.

For a brief second Hermione debated turning and leaving through the door she'd been heading toward anyway. Her feet carried her behind Kingsley before she could make a decision. It was silent save for the creak of the steps under their feet as she followed him through an open door that lead to a cellar. He stopped when they reached a wide room. It was sparsely furnished with a long table and a few stray chairs. The walls were plastered with maps, notes, and large, blank pages that had likely been charmed for secrecy. The table was similarly filled with maps and parchment.

In one of the seats sat Alastor Moody. His glass eye was affixed upon her as she came to a stop, hovering uncertainly before the table. Kingsley had already stopped and turned, his mouth thinned into a hard line. He was stiff, and his arms were crossed over his broad chest.

"Why have you come here, Mrs. Malfoy?"

Hermione rubbed her forearm. "I...it was an emergency."

"An emergency," he said flatly.

"Yes."

"Do you understand," Moody's voice was a low, dark rasp, "the nature of your mission?"

Hermione met his probing look and swallowed. "Yes."

"Remind us."

Hermione's fist clenched. "To—"

"Stay hidden," Kingsley said. "The most integral part was for you to stay hidden. Do you understand the importance of an ally like Narcissa Malfoy? The wrath of an ally like Narcissa Malfoy?"

She stiffened. "Yes."

"Then why is it that you've come here to take care of your little—" Moody's eye flicked to her stomach then back to her face, "emergency?"

But of course. No one entered an Order safehouse undetected. She'd been a fool for even entertaining the idea that the two men standing before her didn't monitor every portkey, every arrival. By the continued quiet beyond the door she could at least take comfort in the fact that Harry hadn't woken everyone else in the house.

"I had no other option," she said through gritted teeth.

"Options are not something we have been given much liberty with throughout this war, Mrs. Malfoy."

A lick of anger rose in her chest. "What is it that you're implying, Kingsley?"

"Need we remind you of what your duties are?" Moody interjected.

"Duties." Her hands curled into fists. "Duties. That's all you care about, all you see us as — vehicles you can use to fulfill your bloody duties. Tell me," she said, stalking closer to Moody, "does Narcissa know of the duties you've imposed upon us? Upon the son you swore you would protect?"

"Do you think you're the only one who's made sacrifices, Mrs. Malfoy?" Kingsley said.

Hermione's lip curled. "Don't you dare talk to me about sacrifices, as if I don't understand what war is! What it's done to me, what it's done to him, what's it's done to everyone I love — and what's it's done to you," she added, her voice dripping with bitterness. "It's turned you into a thing that's so cold, so detached, that neither of you gives a damn about who you're sacrificing to meet your ends."

"You think like a child," Moody said tonelessly.

"And you think like a cold-hearted bastard."

Moody only gave her a slow look, his mechanical eye whirring as he appraised her. "You've grown more lethal," he said, tapping a finger in a slow rhythm on the tabletop. "No more bodies clogging the hall of St. Mungo's. Instead, you leave carnage behind everywhere you go. Missing tongues, missing limbs, curses that leave them begging for death. How much longer will it be, I wonder, before—"

"Stop." Her voice was a pained growl, the scream she wanted to lash out at him held back by the truth hung between them. "I am not— not your—" Assassin, creature to be used and molded to your will, she wanted to say. But could she? Could she truly say so, when the evidence of the truth lay in the hordes of Death Eaters she'd brought to the brink of death? To the whispers of spells she'd wished she'd never learned that lingered in her wand?

But—

No. There was no denying, just as there was no turning back the clock on what she'd done and who she'd become. The constant reminder of it had manifested itself in her like a jagged piece of glass in her foot, burrowing deeper with each step she took closer to the point of no return.

She whipped her head to glare at Kingsley. "Damn you. Damn you both, and to hell with your duties."

She stalked back up the stairs, no longer caring of the noise she made. She found her way back to the door she'd been headed toward before it had all gone to hell, out into the bitter cold that somehow felt warmer than what lay in the house behind her, back into the dark cover of the trees, back to hiding as she'd been bidden to do.

X

She landed in the bedroom. She felt as much as heard him approach, his stress an almost tangible presence that crept softly across the room as if to consume her. He stopped in front of her, and she watched as one of his hands twitched toward her before retreating stiffly to his side.

"Are you…" he faltered. "Are you alright?"

She nodded with a quick, jerky movement. "I'm not pregnant."

A silence passed before he spoke again. "And?"

"And what?" This time, she held her chin high and met his eyes.

"Something clearly happened, Granger."

Her ensuing laugh had a sharp edge. "That matters to you now?"

His lips flattened. "Yes."

"Why?"

His jaw clenched. "Because we have no room for mistakes—"

"I know that!" Heat flushed through her body. "I know that. I know that nothing— nothing is about me anymore, nothing has been about me in a long, long time—"

"Granger—"

"I look in the mirror, and I don't even know who or what I am becoming—" Her lip started to tremble. "I've been stuck for so long now. Stuck fighting a war because of the family I was born into. Stuck with the Order who sees me as nothing but a pawn—" her nostrils flared as she spoke her next words with a bitter edge, "stuck here with you, somehow holding the title of wife while you treat me as nothing more than a hole to fuck — on a good day."

The tension in the room snapped like a rubber band pulled too taut.

"What the fuck do you want from me?" he glared down at her.

"I don't want anything from you." Some part deep inside of her balked at how rash she was being, but she could not stop the words from coming.

"Really now?" He stepped closer toward her. "Because it damn well doesn't seem that way. What exactly is it that you want, Granger? An apology? A long winded speech about my affections—"

"Damn you!" Her chest grew tight. "Damn you for being so—so—"

"So what?" His lips twisted into a sneer. "Prepared to accept the costs of this war instead of sitting about whining about every person that's wronged me?"

"You do not get to say things like that, you don't know what I've gone through— "

"Good. Because I don't give a damn."

"Have you ever given a damn—"

He moved closer until he loomed over her. "I've never forgotten what I give a damn about. And I haven't forgotten what you give a damn about, either. Do you think I don't know that you would run back off to Potter and company once you got even the slightest whiff of forgiveness?"

"You don't know a thing about me—"

He scoffed. "Because being stuck here with you has given me more insight into your petty afflictions than I would have ever liked."

She opened her mouth to curse at him, to say something as nasty as what stirred in her heart was, but instead all she managed was: "A part of me wanted it."

He watched her in stormy silence, his eyes still narrowed at her.

Her heart constricted as she faced the truth she'd tried to bury, the words pouring out now that it had burst forth. "A part of me wanted it," she repeated, her voice breaking. "A part of me wanted to be pregnant. I wanted— I wanted a way out. I wanted to disappear, and focus on our baby, put all of my energy into something good instead of—" she waved a hand aimlessly. "This."

She was met with silence again, but this time it was more resigned, the thick tension that had permeated the air until it was nearly suffocating almost completely dissipated. "I wanted it, and I hate myself for it," she said, her voice dropping an octave.

"Granger—"

"Why do you still call me that?" she held his gaze carefully, searching for even a flicker of what lay beneath his practiced aloofness. "We've been married nearly a year," she shook her head.

All at once she felt weary, so weary, that she sunk down onto the bed and buried her head in her hands. She heard the sound of his footsteps, and when she looked up he was almost to the door.

"Draco."

His shoulders tensed as he paused. "I don't know what you want from me."

"I...I want you to stay." Her voice was small around the words she'd been feeling too fearful to speak. She waited for him to retreat anyway, watching as the tension didn't dissipate from his stance.

And then he turned. He moved toward the bed slowly, his eyes never leaving hers as he drew closer. She shifted until she was curled under the sheets and left them peeled back at his spot. She undressed under the covers until she was in her underwear, and watched as he stripped to his pants as he approached the bed. She hadn't realized it until then, but she wasn't certain that she could ever go back to sleeping alone again. She shoved down the thought and the fear it brought deep, instead focusing on the man that was somehow the source of her comfort and isolation all at once.

He settled into the bed, lying stiff as she extinguished all the light in the room with a flick of her wrist. Then she let her hand slide slowly across the sheets until she could curl it around his chest. He tensed, but did not reject her, and she curled closer still, taking all that he would give her. His touch was light but there as he curled his own arm around her and let it rest on the skin of her side.

It was only when she was pressed into as much of him as she could that she finally fell into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

The sky was still inky black and netted with a glimmering weave of stars when Hermione awoke some hours later. The bed was empty beside her, the sheets cold where she ran a hand over the place where her husband had lain when she'd finally drifted off.

She slipped out of the bed, her eyes traveling to where the soft candlelight spilled through the slightly cracked door. She stepped outside to see Draco sat at the desk, hunched over the parchment scattered across it. She padded closer, watching the tension in his shoulders and the hard set of his jaw as he focused on what was before him.

"What are you doing?"

If he was startled by her quiet approach he didn't show it. He continued working steadily, the line of tension between his brows deepening the harder his quill scratched away,

She didn't expect a response and instead peered over his shoulder. "Oh," she said, as she recognized their plans for getting into Gringotts. She lowered herself into the seat beside his. She gathered her nightgown and twisted it in her hands, letting the silence stretch between them.

"Go back to bed," he said, his voice gruff.

Hermione's fist clenched around the mound of satin beneath her palm. "Why do you always send me back to bed? Is that all I am to—"

Draco sighed and let his quill topple to the desktop. "I'm tired of having this conversation with you."

Hermione's nostrils flared. "Which one? Because by my count, we barely speak at all—"

His lips curled into a sneer as he turned to her. "Is that all you can do? Wonder why I'm not there to coddle you at every moment you find something new to be upset about?"

Hermione forced away the emotion that bubbled up at the string of his words. "That's not what I'm talking about and you know it!"

"Do I? Am I privy to your every thought?" he laughed derisively. "And to think that all this time you were against me taking even a hint of a peep."

Hermione's jaw tensed. "I'm afraid to discuss anything with you because you've always shut me out, always turned me away when all I want to do is understand you—"

Draco scoffed. "Talk about what, exactly? Our feelings?" He drew out the word as though it were a curse.

Hermione's heart stuttered at yet another reminder of the tumultuous situation their tumultuous relationship was caught up in. She sighed and stood, padding over to the kitchen. She wrapped her arms around herself as she observed the moonlight glinting off the back of his platinum head, drawing out the tense silence.

"We're somewhere between a dysfunctional marriage and the… nothing we were back at Hogwarts, and I don't know how to define it. I don't even dare bring it up for fear that you'll shut me out again, or end up back out here, away from me when I don't even know if I can sleep alone anymore—" Hermione clasped a hand over her chest and sucked in a breath as she caught the tremble in her voice. A lump has risen in her throat, exacerbated by the tension that had arisen in the air and hadn't yet abated.

The longer the silence stretched the further the tight, burning sensation in her chest radiated, yet she couldn't make her feet move from the spot they'd planted themselves in. Finally, the deep breath she'd been holding in shuddered out, and she felt her muscles start to respond—

"Stepping in front of those snakes was a choice, Granger." His words hung suspended in the air, echoing as loudly as though they'd somehow managed to suck out all the other sound in the room. She supposed they had.

She only realized that her heart had stopped again when it restarted in a stuttered staccato. "W-what?"

He stood and stepped into the darkness of the kitchen, the glint of his steely grey eyes still visible as they focused on her. "You think you know everything," he said, stepping closer. "But you don't."

He didn't stop moving toward her until he was a breath away, her chest brushing his with every heaving breath she took. She couldn't find the ability to move even when he lifted her bodily and deposited her upon the countertop, lifting her nightgown to her waist as he went. It was when his tongue swiped expertly across her nether lips that her limbs shuddered into action, her thighs closing around him. He did not complain and instead let his tongue probe deeper, propelled by her gasps and moans as he carried to her a swift completion, the sounds of her pleasure filling the air.

X

She woke the next morning to find Draco walking back into the room, a towel slung low on his hips and droplets of water glistening on his skin. She watched him silently, admiring the planes of muscle stretched under pale skin. It was rare, she realized, to see him at any sort of peace outside of slumber. Now, however, he was almost calm as he spelled himself dry. It was only when she realized that her eyes had strayed to his flaccid length that she snapped her eyes up to see him watching her.

She cleared her throat and forced her eyes to stay on his face. "Morning," she said softly.

He watched her for a moment before grunting a greeting and turning to pull on his clothing. She smiled to herself and stood, uncaring of her own nakedness even as she felt his gaze upon her as she slipped past him on her way to the bathroom. By the time she'd showered and changed, the smells of his cooking had begun to permeate the cabin. She crossed over to the desk and ran a finger over their notes, looking at the long list of potential contingencies they'd accounted for.

"Stop," Draco's voice sounded from behind her.

She turned to see him watching her. "Stop what?"

He jerked his chin toward their notes. "We'll find it — whatever it is. And we'll destroy it."

She relaxed her fists then, not having realized until he'd spoken that her nails had begun to press sharp crescent moons into her palms. She looked into his eyes, seeing the determination she wished she had shining in his eyes.

"Eat first. Then we work." He didn't wait for her to respond, turning and making his way back to the table.

X

It was night by the time she pulled open the front door and stepped outside, seeking fresh air. Instead, she found herself nearly stumbling over a small object, denoted only by the white sheet that was stuck to it, barely visible in the night. She bent down and closed her fingers over it to discover a small radio. She pulled off the small note attached to it and lit her wand to find only a short note: There is no such thing as darkness — only an absence of light. 8 p.m. Phoenix.

Hermione's brow furrowed as she cast a series of spells, looking for some other clue as to what the note — or the radio itself — meant. She twisted the knobs and was met by garbled static, followed by a series of high-pitched screeching noises and low thrums. She looked up at the tree line and back down at the radio, knowing that she'd need to cross out of safety if she wanted to hear anything.

Whichever of the four people who knew their location wanted her to hear, well, whatever it was at eight p.m. — which gave her forty-two minutes to decide. She sat down on the porch steps and toyed with the radio, twisting it this way and that.

At 7:59 pm, her foot crunched in the untouched snow beyond the wards. She transfigured a branch into a small bench and sat down, watching the hand on her watch tick closer to the hour. As soon as the minute hit, she tapped her wand to the radio and listened.

She didn't know how much time had passed by the time she felt a familiar shadow fall over her. She looked up to see a figure she knew was Malfoy, despite the fact that she could not distinguish through the tears that had gathered in her eyes, looking down at her. She gave him only an absent nod before she turned her eyes back to the small radio that they hadn't strayed from since she'd activated it.

He crouched beside her in the snow, and she watched his arm slip into her vision and gently pry the radio from her tight grip. "Is that...Shacklebolt?" he said, nodding down toward the object from which the man's familiar deep rumble drifted.

Hermione nodded mutely, still transfixed as she listened to the voices. "And...Lee. Remus, and… Fred too, I think." Her voice was so quiet that it nearly disappeared on the air.

"Granger—"

"They've made a Muggleborn Registration Commission," she said. "Did you know?" She looked up at him once more. He was clad only in a jumper with sleeves pushed up to his elbows and a pair of trousers.

He was silent, his eyes were focused intently on her. His expression was still slightly blurred behind her tears.

"We haven't gotten a paper in months and yet— yet— I knew, without needing to know, because Seamus' parents—" she sucked in a panicked breath, "And now hearing people I know recite something I've tried so hard to detach myself from, I—" She stopped short as the voices began speaking with urgency. Snatchers. The last location they'd been seen at, and—

"That's all for this evening, I'm afraid," the crackling sound of Lee's voice drifted through after a somber silence. "Friday's password is Meadowes." Another crackle, and silence.

She reached up and snatched Draco's hand. "There are Snatchers in Dorset, in—"

"I know where," he said.

She stood hastily and wiped her eyes. "I— I have to try. I have to do something, Draco. I know Bellatrix, and Hrocruxes, and everything is so much bigger, but I can't—"

His hand clamped down on her arm in an iron grip. "Like hell you are."

Hermione wrenched her arm from his grip. "You don't understand, Draco! You don't know what it's like to have half the people around you want you dead for no reason other than blood purity—"

"And what do you propose doing, then? Go searching through all of Dorset, just hoping to stumble upon a band of Snatchers who would just love to kill you? Brilliant fucking plan, Granger."

She glared at him. "Don't patronize me." She ran a shaking hand through her hair. "You don't need to remind me that my damned life is tethered to yours—"

Draco's eyes flashed. "Is that what you think this is about? Do you even—"

"You don't understand!" Her grip was tight around her wand. "You won't even try to!"

His mouth curled into a snarl. "You don't think, Granger! You bloody Gryffindors never do—"

She lifted her want. "I need some space," she said, trying desperately to think of somewhere where she could be at peace long enough to see through the grief, to think—

She realized too late that his hand had clamped down on hers in an iron grip, the expletives he said lost as she felt the familiar pull of Apparition. She landed in a heap on the soft blanket of snow that covered the forest floor. "Draco?!" Her voice was desperate as her hands scrambled over her husband's prone form. She ran desperate fingers over his entire form, looking for where he'd been splinched, or injured, taking comfort in the fact that she didn't feel that horribly familiar cold seeping through her form.

"Stop." His voice was a wheeze as he sat up gingerly.

"Are you alright?!" She cupped his chin and twisted his face this way and that, still looking for injury.

He pried her hands away from his face. "What the fuck, Granger."

Hermione scowled. "I never told you to follow me!"

"Where the hell are we?"

"We're in Wales—" she stopped short and turned to her wide eyes to meet his. The sound was low, but their well-trained ears had caught it nonetheless.

Voices.

His wand was in his grip, already casting disillusionment spells over them just as hers pointed at him, warping his features into someone unrecognizable not a moment before his arm closed around her waist and pulled her to him. Her heart fluttered in her chest as the voices grew nearer. She prayed that they were muggles, but a growing foreboding in her chest told her that they were not.

Draco's hand slid up and he pressed an open palm above her heart. "Breathe," he murmured into her ear.

The voices approached, growing louder with every second that passed as the approached.

"...Andromeda wouldn't dare try and contact us, but I know she hasn't slept," a man was saying.

"And Harry has barely slept in months, either," another male voice said.

Hermione's head snapped toward the sound, trying to place the voice— because she knew it, she knew this person.

"And neither have any of us," a gruffer voice answered, "so what is your point?"

"My point is that—"

Dean. It was Dean. Hermione's stomach leapt as she craned her neck and tried to see if she could get even a glimpse of his face when she felt Draco's arm tighten around her. It took her only a breath of a moment to realize why: They'd stopped speaking, too.

The air burned with tense energy, teeming on the brink of an explosion as she all but heard everyone collectively hold their breaths—

And then the night ignited.

She and Draco leapt out at the same time. She brandished a shield at the same time as Draco shot off a series of offensive spells. A spell had one of their opponents suspended in the air but a leg, the light of the spells colliding in the air around them igniting their small body. In the midst of the fray, a lone figure stood with a wide-eyed look on his face, staring straight at her.

"Hermione?" Dean said at the same time Hermione screamed, "Stop!"

It took a moment for spells to stop bouncing off shields and the battlezone to freeze to a halt.

"You know her, Dean?" A tall, dark-haired wizard spoke as he canceled the spell that still had his companion — a goblin, she realized — suspended in the air.

"She's— Hermione Granger, and—" he looked at Draco, cocking his head as he took in the misshapen nose and shaggy dark hair that fell into his face. "Who the hell are you?"

"What the hell is going on?" Draco ignored Dean's question, pitching his tone an octave lower than how he usually spoke.

There were two goblins, she realized, among three men.

"We're—"

Dean's answer was cut off as sudden cracks of Apparation sounded from all around them. Hermione caught Dean's face twist into a horrified look before she was whipping around and throwing a curse that burned deep red in the night at the figure nearest her.

It struck the man in the chest, but not before he shot out a killing curse the flamed bright green as it struck one of the goblins dead.

Her next curse severed one of the attackers' legs at the knee, sending him screaming in a heap on the forest floor as the curse continued to burn an invisible inferno of pain through his form.

There was a low growl to her left, and she caught a crouched figure leap through the night and land upon one of the male Wizards. He ripped out the man's throat with ease, pulling back his claw-tipped fingernails and drawing the dripping blood across his lips. A spell whizzed past him then, igniting his face. She'd thought the figure to be a man, but his features were a grotesque cross between man and beast. His long hair was matted with dirt and blood, some dried across the thin layer of fur that covered the skin of his twisted features. He was a werewolf in its wildest form, his humanity having been swallowed by the wolf.

She knew without a doubt that this was Fernir Greyback.

Greyback's eyes snapped to her, narrowing with a predatory delight. Ice encased Hermione's heart as she caught the manic look in them, knowing then that any human features were but a thin facade that barely contained the beast within.

"Granger!" Draco's shout was laced with a horror and desperation so thick that it had her turning to see his face twisted in shock as he looked beyond her. There was a low growl, barely had a moment to turn toward the sound before a heavy figure was upon her.

Hermione's mind went blank with horror as Greyback bared his teeth and descended them upon her, his dirty hand clamping down over her mouth. Her wand pressed deep into his belly as a wordless curse formed in her mind, but it was late, too, late, and she was suffocating in the rotting stench of the man as his fangs glittered in the night—

Greyback was thrown off of her and sent careening across the forest floor. Draco stood over her, breathing heavily with that stricken look still written all over his face. He took a step toward her, but she turned away, scrambling to her feet as she heard another growl. This time, Greyback was crouched to spring at the other wizard, the werewolf's teeth bared as he snapped the man's wand with ease.

Hermione took off at a run toward them, ignoring Draco's shout from behind her. She shot a spell at Greyback and watched his body go careening through the night, hitting a tree with a sickening crunch. She caught Dean moving beside her, clutching his injured thigh as he ran toward the fallen wizard. The remaining goblin followed close on his heels.

The man was still looking at her, his eyes shining with gratitude. "Thank you—"

"Go!" she screamed, watching a spell whizz past their heads and crash into a tree. Only a split second after the three disapparated she was dragged backward violently.

"Fuck!" Draco shouted as he clutched her to him, shielding them from an onslaught of curses that the remaining Snatchers rained down on them.

Hermione lifted her wand and thought of their cabin, the space forming in her mind just as a Snatcher grasped her arm, grinning maniacally.

No, no, no— she thought, trying to tear her destination to anywhere but their home—

It took a moment for Hermione to process where they'd landed, and when she did her mind clouded with terror.

It was the Muggle village.

The Snatcher still held onto her in a tight grip, and Draco blasted him away only to see that his leg had been splinched. Still, five more appeared and surrounded them, continuing an onslaught of deadly spells.

From somewhere nearby, a muggle woman screamed.

Draco dragged her by the arm and started running, cutting down the Snatcher that was on their heels.

The woman's screams stopped abruptly, and Hermione raised horrified eyes to see one of the Snatchers giving her a chilling grin as he stood over the woman's body. There was movement at the window of the building behind him, and Hermione recognized the pharmacy they'd gone to what now felt like a lifetime ago.

The man's eyes followed hers. His grin widened while her mouth twisted open in a horrified scream, watching as a jet of fire erupted from the man's wand and burst through the building in the shape of a flaming snake, consuming the figure in its wake.

Blood rushed in Hermione's ears as her sorrow swirled and coalesced in an inferno within her. She thought of Seamus' parents, of her own, of the look on Dean's face when the Snatchers had appeared, of all the pain, of all the suffering that had led them to this, again—

"SECTUMSEMPRA!" The word formed before she could stop it, the curse bursting past the boundaries she'd forced upon herself to maim but not murder, her anger unleashing itself in an explosion of blood as her curse slammed into the man, ripping him open at the seams.

She barely registered that two of the other assailants had fallen to Draco's wand, her eyes only seeing red as she watched the final Snatcher grasp the bleeding man and disapparate. She didn't move when Draco forced her toward him, his voice low and urgent as he spoke, the words drowned out by the blood that continued to pound in her ears. Her mind continued to replay the way the man's chest had burst open in a sea of red even when they landed back in their cabin. The images did not stop even when Draco tried to move her from where she stayed frozen on the floor.

It was only when his arms wrapped around her that she buried her face in his chest and started to scream.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Hermione woke in the middle of the night to find herself still lying on the kitchen floor. The night was still dark, but what light the bright moonlight gave showed her the outline of where Draco lay beside her. His arms were wrapped around her tightly, half of his form holding her up from lying completely against the hard wooden floor. His eyes were slitted open and he was watching her carefully.

She reached out and ran her thumb under his eye. "You haven't slept," she said softly.

"Are you alright?" he asked, ignoring her statement.

She gave him a soft nod as her fingers trailed up his face, tracing along the dried blood that crusted along his hairline. "You didn't heal yourself either," she said, watching a muscle in his eye jump as she pressed a tender spot.

His hand pressed against her rib cage, and she found herself mirroring his pained cringe. "Still hurts, then." His voice was flat.

"What happened?" she asked, watching him roll up her shirt to expose her rib cage. The skin was tender as he pressed on it and she winced again.

"You were hit," he said, sliding his wand in gentle movements across the area. "Several times. The curse is healed but the discoloration will last for a bit."

Hermione nodded, watching him roll back down her shirt. He vanished his own shirt a moment later, and she watched him press his wand into his own bruised ribcage, hearing the snap of his bones mending under the spell he muttered. Her hand traced after where the bruising slowly faded, feeling every ridge of tight muscle under warm skin as her hand explored him.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry."

He watched her quietly for a moment before nodding, the movement was nearly imperceptible in the darkness.

"I didn't mean—" She swallowed thickly, thinking of the spells that had lit up the air in the night around them, forcing herself to fold away the memories before worse ones could assault her, too. "I never intended to put us in danger. I just— I just needed to breathe, and it was the first place I thought of—"

"You saved him," Draco said, cutting her off.

Hermione exhaled, remembering the wizard with the kindly face, the burning pharmacy...

"Not all of them, though," she said softly.

"The Snatchers would have killed them all if we hadn't been there," he said. "They might have taken one or two to the Manor, at most. Death is preferable." There was a faraway look in his eyes, speaking to the trauma that he kept so carefully hidden away. "We can't save everyone, Granger. This is war."

Hermione nodded, folding away the pain of the memory of the burning pharmacy into the deepest recesses of her mind as she reminded herself of what they fought for — who they fought for.

She pressed closer into him. She couldn't place when he'd become more pliant to her touch, but now the way he seemed to soften under her fingers was evident. He was lying on his back, his face turned toward her as he spoke. He was still looking at some faraway place beyond her, and she found herself trailing a finger up the slope of his neck and along his sharp jaw.

He started to sit up when she pressed a hand to his chest. "Draco…" she said, searching his eyes. The clouds chose that moment to part, allowing a brighter beam of moonlight to illuminate the question in his eyes. "I just— I want to…"

The words died on her lips the longer he looked at her. She lifted a hand to stroke his cheek, feeling the stubble that had begun to grow there. She leaned forward slowly, her eyes not leaving his until she pressed her lips against his. She slid her arms around his neck, her lips moving slowly against his unmoving ones until slowly, tentatively, he opened his mouth and granted her entrance.

She closed her arms around his neck until she was pressed flush against his body, wondering how the sense of utter completion she felt in that moment only seemed to come from him.

She let her mental walls drop slightly, feeling the moment her thoughts reached him when he surged forward suddenly, devouring her as hungrily as she was him. This— this unidentifiable magnitude of something she couldn't place that was somehow everything at once kept her clinging to him, desperate for something, for him

I need you, she said without speaking, clinging harder to him as she felt the emotion consuming her. I need you. I need you. I need you.

He crushed her body closer to his in response, devouring as much of her as she did him.

X

Hermione's eyes opened the moment she felt Draco shift. She watched as he left the room abruptly, still naked, one hand worrying through his platinum locks as he went. She slid out of the bed and followed him silently, watching as he went to the desk and rifled through the pages of intricately detailed plans they'd made for breaking into Gringotts.

She walked up behind him as he sat down, frowning slightly. She'd been witness to every line of stress that had appeared on his features during their isolation, and she knew that she was watching another one start to form.

"Draco," she said hesitantly, waiting for him to try and send her off.

When he spoke, however, the protest in his voice was weak. "We have time before we have to go," he said, eyes still scanning the pages rapidly, "get some more rest."

Hermione shook her head before pausing mid-movement when she remembered he couldn't see the gesture. She watched his tensed shoulders for a hesitant moment before she placed her hands on his shoulders. When he did not reject her, she let them run lower, brushing over his chest down to his abdomen. She felt him shiver under her touch, muscles clenching slightly as her hands roamed before relaxing under her touch. She wrapped her arms tighter around him, pressing her equally naked skin into his back until her cheek brushed his. She held him until his fingers unclenched, letting the notes fall to the desktop in front of him.

"We'll be alright," she murmured into the skin of his neck.

She felt the rumble of his voice through every inch of his skin she touched when he spoke. "And if there isn't one there?" His voice was gruff with tension.

She tilted her head and used a gentle hand to coax him to look at her. "Then we'll keep searching," she said, forcing down the curl of tension in her chest as she thought of what could happen if they didn't. "But you know her. I know you're certain one is in there. Don't let your doubt cloud you."

His eyes searched hers and she looked back at him steadily, feigning all of the confidence she could. He gave her a slow nod, and before she could lose her nerve — or the opportunity — she leaned forward and kissed him softly. She let her lips linger on his a moment longer than she dared, waiting for him to reject her or pull away first.

He did neither.

X

The sun shone brightly above where they landed in the alleyway they'd carefully picked, the view of the busy street barred only by the stacks of crates and barrels of ale that the tavern beside them stored there. Hermione pinched at her blonde braid, her mouth twisting at the sight of the fine blonde strands caught between dainty, pink-tipped fingers.

She looked up to find Draco smirking at her and she scowled back at him, reaching up and securing his cloak with more force than was strictly necessary.

"Testy, are we, Granger?" he drawled.

"It's still Malfoy," she shot back.

Despite the shadow of his hood covering most of his face, she could still see his smirk. "Shall we, dearest cousin?" he said, gesturing toward the opening of the alleyway.

Hermione shot him another glare before turning to look toward the alley's entrance. Even now, she could see a steady stream of Diagon Alley patrons walking past. Her throat went dry as she watched the witches and wizards pass by, trying to recall the last time she'd been here casually. It felt like a lifetime ago. Perhaps it had been.

Draco's hand on her side interrupted her thoughts, and Hermione looked up to see his jaw tense, feeling his hand equally so on her side.

She turned to him and ran her foreign, overly delicate fingers along his cheeks. "We'll be alright," she promised. She pulled her hands away before he could catch the tremble in them and shoved them in the pockets of her cloak.

He nodded at her. "Let's go."

Her body followed his command before she could will it to do so, stepping towards the mouth of the alleyway until she could ignore the nearness of the open street no more. Her heart lurched as she stepped onto the cobblestone, a wave of nausea rising as they neared the crowd—

She felt Draco's warm, firm hand on the small of her back as he fell into step beside her. "Breathe," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

They melted into the crowd, and Hermione quickly realized that their drawn down hoods would garner them no attention. The patrons that floated through the street all moved with focused haste, their steps hurried and hoods pulled low as they passed. The foreboding that lingered in the air curled around the people that walked through the streets, siphoning away the peacefulness and replacing it with a suffocating melancholy.

The snowy-white building of Gringotts loomed ahead of them, a steady wave of patrons filtering out of the burnished bronze doors. Her heart thrummed loudly in her chest the closer they got to the white marble steps she had once upon a time walked up without a second thought.

"Come along now…" A witch said as she ushered her children down the steps past Draco and Hermione, giving them nary a glance. For a brief moment, Hermione's heart panged as she recalled Mrs. Weasley calling to them in a similar fashion before she folded away the memories, locking them in the deepest recesses of her mind.

Draco slowed his steps slightly, pressing two fingers into the small of her back. Her hand tightened instantly around the wand in her pocket, the thrum of her heart growing louder as she caught sight of the two Wizard guards stationed at the entrance, golden probes gleaming in the sunlight as they scanned each patron.

Another tap on her back. Twice this time. In front of her, it meant. They were rapidly drawing closer to the entrance, buffered only by three elegantly dressed witches lined up before them. The fur trim of the robes of the woman before her slid up the steps behind her in a train, its collar stretching high enough to brush her blonde chignon.

Another tap — now. Hermione's fingers twisted in a quick motion at the same time that Draco did the same beside her, masking his movement with a cough. The woman's train moved ever so slightly, catching under the hem of her heel just as a soft gust of winter air breezed past.

"Oh—!" The woman exclaimed as she stumbled, just enough so that she grabbed at the sleeve of the wizard before her who had his probity probe raised high.

The wizard caught the witch, huffing a gruff reprimand as her companions fluttered about her. The second wizard guard paused to dispel the commotion just as Hermione muttered confundus. She heard Draco whisper the spell at the patron behind her just after he said it to the second wizard, while Hermione feigned surprise at the woman's accident and helped her straighten herself. The three women left in an agitated huff, grumbling at the wizard guards while the two men blinked at each other. Hermione and Draco started to slip past when a guard seized her arm.

Hermione froze, her heart thrumming so hard she thought it would burst out of her chest. She started to turn toward him, expecting to see his probe raised high, gleaming in the sky before he waved it over her. Her hand was tight around her wand as she calculated their odds of escape — low, too low—

She turned to see the wizard guard gripping her upper arm tightly, blinking at her.

"What?" Draco snapped at the wizard. He seized Hermione's other arm, jerking her away from the man. "She hardly needs to be demeaned twice." His face was still hooded in shadow, but his voice dripped with a familiar pureblood haughtiness.

Draco pressed her forward without another word, leaving the wizard blinking rapidly as he turned to the next person in line.

Hermione felt her breath leave her body in a low shudder that left her entire figure trembling. Draco's hand splayed wider on her back, rubbing it gently. Then he was pressing her forward, beyond the doors and through the entrance hall. Past the final set doors, and they were stepping into the sprawling marble hall. Her transfigured heels clacked along the floor as they made their way past the rows of goblins. The closest empty teller was at the end of the long hall, and she kept her hood low and her eyes trained lower as she focused on the swirl of her dark robes around her shoes. Draco's warmth radiated beside her, and she resisted the urge to lean into him as they moved.

Finally, they stopped in front of an aged goblin. The goblin peered at them over the spectacles perched low on his nose. "How may I be of service?" he asked.

"I would like to access my family vault," Draco said, his head tilted high despite the hood that shadowed his face. Slowly, he slid back the hood just enough that his pale features showed. He wore an impatient scowl, his lips twisting even more disdainfully as he brandished his wand and held it out casually before him.

Hermione tried to keep her breaths steady while her heart fluttered madly as tendrils of panic curled up her spine.

The goblin's brow raised minutely. "Mr. Malfoy," the goblin said as he thumbed through the ledger. "You have not accessed the vault in quite some time—"

" —and I fail to see how that affects my request," Draco said smoothly.

Draco let out an irritated tsk, making the goblin pause where he had been raising his quill, ready to inscribe the visit in the ledger before him.

"I request the same...discretion you have granted my father in the past," Draco said. "I assume this shouldn't be a problem?" he said, looking pointedly at the ledger before him.

Hermione's heart caught in her throat as the goblin paused, peering intently at Draco. Draco stared back defiantly, the glint in his grey eyes visible despite the hood he'd re-lowered.

"Of course," the goblin enunciated slowly, carefully putting the quill down.

His eyes slid to Hermione, and her chest tightened. "May I see your wand, Madam?"

Hermione forced an aloof expression as Draco tilted back her hood slightly, showing her delicate features and white-blonde hair before replacing it. "That won't be necessary," he said. "She is my cousin from abroad and is my guest. She comes with me - your approval is not a requirement."

Draco's voice rang with an air of dismissive finality, and a short silence fell.

"Very well," the goblin said, his voice tight. "Right this way."

And they were through.

Still, Hermione's heartbeat did not slow as they followed the goblin down a passageway, nor when their cart was zipping down, down, down into the depths of the bank. It was only when she felt Draco's fingers surreptitiously catch hers that she looked up at him. He gave her a short nod and squeezed her hand.

Hermione looked up and froze. Draco had told her about the dragon that guarded the high-security vaults, but it was another thing to see it before her. Its immense form was curled in a low crouch on the ground at the center of the circular chamber as they coasted towards it. Its unnaturally pale and almost flake-like scales undulated in a rhythm, the deep cuts and scars around its body expanding and shuttering in the same pattern. There was a low hum that vibrated the stone around them, and Hermione realized that the beast was slumbering. The cart slid around where the dragon slumbered, the low hums its body made almost drowning out the sound of the cart rolling past.

Hermione listened to the distant sounds of faraway carts rumbling along the tracks, the sounds echoing lowly in the caves. They were far enough below ground in the damp darkness that a sense of unease trickled down her spine. She knew the vault she'd been granted access to by marriage lay somewhere in this chamber, guarded for generations by this beast for families that barely blinked at the cruelty the creature had clearly endured. It felt like a reminder of how much she truly didn't belong, and she felt a lump rising in her throat as she was reminded of all the things that could go horribly wrong.

The goblin cleared its throat, interrupting her thoughts. "Once we've reached the vault, you may, of course, take as much time as needed, Mr. Malfoy. I will wait outside at your leisure—"

"Imperio," Hermione's soft spell spilled out of her lips with ease.

Instantly, the goblin went lax, his eyes glassy and unseeing.

"You will take us to the Lestrange vault," she said carefully. The cart started to slow as the goblin acquiesced, the wheels screeching against the track as he braked.

She met Draco's eyes and he nodded at her. She searched his eyes for a moment and started to nod back when the cart lurched to a stop and Draco caught her from jerking forward. He helped her out of the cart after the dazed goblin who moved mechanically towards the door.

She swallowed and squeezed Draco's hand. "If the alarms go off—"

"They won't." His face was devoid of emotion, yet she knew that fear lurked somewhere in the depths of his hardened gaze. "I know my aunt," he reminded her lowly. "She wouldn't have thought to rescind my access to the vault. We'll get in."

The goblin had unlocked the vault and was easing it open slowly, his small body dwarfed by the massive door. The masses of glittering galleons and trinkets within was overwhelming, the piles towering from floor to ceiling.

Hermione's palms felt slick as she stepped behind Draco. Her panic rose with every step he took toward the threshold. If he was wrong, if Bellatrix had rescinded his access, then—

He stepped through.

Hermione's chest tightened as she waited for the alarms, for the slumbering beast beside them to awaken.

Nothing happened.

She let out the breath she'd been holding, a hand flying to her chest as she struggled to steady her breathing.

He gestured for her to enter behind him. "Touch nothing," he said, repeating the words he'd said to her time and time again that morning, a glint of fear lingering in his expression. "You're my wife. It's alright."

Hermione swallowed and nodded as she stepped inside, recalling the curses he'd told her Bellatrix had placed on the contents, along with the ones she'd considered. "Is it up there, then?" Hermione said, nodding toward where he was looking up at the far wall.

"On the shelf," he said.

Hermione saw it immediately. A glittering necklace made of onyx and blood-red diamonds, glittering brightly despite the low light of the sconces that burned on the walls. It hung out of a golden cup that appeared remarkably nondescript compared to the necklace's beauty.

"And you're certain that's it?" Hermione asked, an image of Bellatrix's crazed eyes as she gleefully kicked Dumbledore's corpse flashing through her mind. The necklace glittered with an almost morbid beauty that sent a shiver down her spine.

Draco nodded. "She was...possessive, over it. More unhinged than usual in how she fretted over it. She never—"

Draco cut off as the ground rumbled as the dragon let out a snore, the vibration causing the items in the vault to tremble. As if in slow motion, Hermione watched, horrified, as a single coin from the pile nearest Draco rolled off the pile, its trail interrupted by Draco's foot. The coin made barely a plink as it fell to the ground. Hermione's breath caught and her wide eyes met Draco's.

An instant later, the room burst into chaos.

The coin multiplied, so quickly that a pile started to flow around their feet. Hermione stumbled backward, her heels skidding as she frantically tried to distinguish what was real and what was not. "Draco!" she cried, trying to reach out for him.

Her elbow bumped into something, and suits of gleaming armour started to multiply around her, overwhelming her in a sea of silver. She grunted as she tried to fight her way out, each touch replicating the objects that drowned her tenfold. They burned her skin as the pile consumed her, drowning her in a sea of riches. "Draco!" she cried again, trying vainly to clear a path.

Draco's hand suddenly slammed down on hers, dragging her out of the pile. He waded desperately through the pile, dragging her out of the vault as it began the fill rapidly with replicated coins and trinkets.

"Are you—"

"I'm okay," she said breathlessly. Hermione did not hesitate to pull out her wand, pointing it at the chaotic scene as the incantation for their backup plan formed on her lips.

Draco beat her to it.

A flaming dragon burst out of his wand, devouring everything in sight as it tore through the vault. Inside the vault, she heard screams that were eerily human-like, the wails so grating that she had to force herself not to drop her wand and clamp her hands over her ears. Hermione screamed the counter curse as Draco's next spell slammed the vault door shut with a resounding boom.

They ran toward the cart, the ground vibrating as the beast beside them started to stir. "Take us back!" she screamed at the goblin, her spell jerking him into action.

They sped through the winding caves at top speed, the wind whipping their robes around them as they all but flew toward the surface. Both Hermione and Draco had their wands at the ready, and Hermione tried to force down the lump of dread that rose in her throat the higher they ascended.

She looked at Draco, taking in his tensed stance as the low light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter the closer they coasted towards it. If they'd raised an alarm— if there were guards waiting for them—

His eyes met hers as the thought arose, her fear seeping through her mental shields. He reached out and took her hand, holding it tightly. The warmth of his skin radiated through her, and her eyes did not stray from him even as he focused back ahead of them. She'd pledged her life for this war long ago, knowing that what it stood for was so much greater than herself. But now— now, as she looked at Draco, his platinum hair gleaming in the low light, a hardened look on his face from the war he'd be thrust into from birth.

She needed to survive this. For him. He needed to know a life beyond the prejudices he'd been born into, a life where—

The cart screeched to a stop.

No one waited for them. Hermione's shoulders tightened as she waited for an ambush from the shadows, for a volley of spells hurled at them from every direction. They stood there for another tense moment, wands poised at the ready. Hermione listened for a noise, an indication of an alert— and instead she heard nothing but the low sounds of daily business at Gringotts filtering through the door ahead.

She blinked in surprise and turned to see Draco obliviating the goblin. He turned to her as he finished, his jaw tight. "They'll notice the mass depletion of— everything," he said, eyes sharp as he scanned the area. "I was authorized to enter, but it won't take long for them to notice the disappearance. Hurry."

And then the disoriented goblin was blinking wildly before ushering them out in a daze as they hurried off, Hermione no longer caring about the noise of her heels clicking rapidly as they moved. Then they were through the silver doors, gliding past entering patrons, then through the gleaming bronze entrance—

They'd made it. Hermione sucked in gulps of cool air as they stepped past the guards, hoods drawn as they hurried toward the nearest Apparition point. His hand was tight on hers as they moved. Warm, alive. Hermione's heart fluttered as they drew nearer, so close to when she would be able to breathe again.

As they were halfway down the steps, a multitude of pops of Apparition sounded in the streets.

Snatchers.

Snatchers, with all of their wands aimed at the people who moved about before Gringotts. Hermione suppressed a scream as the air filled with heat and light, spells flying and hitting screaming people as they scattered. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as she charged forward blindly, the half dozen steps they had left feeling miles away. Her shield burst into a shower of sparks as it was hit from every direction. A curse slammed into her side and she cried out, stumbling forward. Another spell hit her leg, and she felt the bone snap. Her hand slipped from Draco's as she screamed out in agony, falling forward.

Strong arms caught her around her middle, and she caught only a brief glance of the horror twisting Draco's features before stone exploded beside them. Spells shot through the cloud of dust, their cover quickly dissipating. Draco pressed her closer into his body and she suppressed the urge to scream out in pain, watching his bloodied hands clutch his wand hard.

A moment later, they were gone.

X

Hermione bit her lip until it bled as she fought any more moans of pain from escaping. A wispy blue magical film encased the leg as Draco worked, knitting back the bones painfully with practiced movements of his fingers as he manipulated wisps of the film. She'd taken only one potion, refusing the deplete their already dwindling stores any more. Despite the pain clouding her mind, Hermione watched Draco work carefully, her brows knitted in concern. He'd barely taken time to heal several broken fingers on one hand and the gash in his side before he'd set to working on her leg with his good hand. He'd been at it for hours, and Hermione could see sweat gathering on his brow from how long he'd held his position.

"Draco," she called.

He tensed before he looked up at her. "Yes?"

"Stop," she said softly, looking down at his hands.

His lips flattened. "I'm not finished."

Hermione sighed, giving him a small smile. "I know enough now to know that you can stop where you are. You're trying to accelerate the healing process. I'll be okay."

She gently pulled her fingers through his hair, wishing she could smooth away the tension on his face. "Are you alright?" She moved her hands down his arm, probing at the still-puckered surface of the gash that he'd healed earlier. "I know it still hurts," she said. "The Snatchers—"

"—run regular raids on public spaces. It was a risk I didn't account for."

"Draco," she tried feebly to pull him closer, barred by the awkward level at which her leg was hoisted. "We couldn't have known."

Draco's mouth was still set in a hard, tense line as he looked off into the distance. She probed gently at his thoughts, finding them as shuttered as ever. "Please talk to me," she said.

"We don't know how many more there are." His rigid posture remained unchanged.

Hermione fell silent. Even now, the screams they'd heard as they'd burned the vault's contents echoed in her head, replaying in a sickening cacophony. "We don't," she answered.

He raised his eyes to meet hers, and for once she could read the exact emotions reflected in them. Determination. Resignation.

Fear.

She knew the same emotions were reflected in her own eyes as she looked back at him. There was one place that they could no longer ignore, could no longer delay searching.

Malfoy Manor.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

They landed in a dark, shuttered room. It was furnished regally, filled with elegant settees and wing-backed chairs outfitted in rich, emerald velvet. She could feel the thickness of a preservation charm lingering in the air, the heavy feeling of it telling her that it had been in place for many decades since the room had last been used.

Draco's hand was tense in hers. She turned to him, wondering if she would ever be able to ease the tension that seemed to have permanently settled itself in his form. "Draco." She dropped his hand and ran her hands over his chest. She could feel the tension in every ridge of muscle. "We can come back. We can think of a new way. We can—"

"We need to finish this," he said simply, already raising his wand to disillusion them.

She watched the spell trickle over their bodies, watching him slowly disappear before her. Her hands lingered on his chest, his entire form only a ripple in the air before her. Still, she moved her hands up, feeling the skin of his neck to his cheeks. Her lips followed her hands, and she stretched up as far as she could to press light kisses along his skin until she found his lips.

She drew back too quickly, a part of her yearning to be able to keep kissing away the stress and fear and tension that addled him. She looked around the room, reminding herself of where they were and what they were doing. They were in the wing of the Manor that Bellatrix had all but taken ownership of, using it to commit unspeakable horrors.

He gently pulled her hands away from his face, holding one firmly. "Others are forbidden from entering her wing," Draco said. "We likely won't encounter anyone. You still need to stay close. We don't know if she's added detection spells, but—"

"—I will," she answered.

He nodded and painted a makeshift map in the air with his wand. "The most likely places it would be hidden are here and here," he said, tapping two spots on the map. "My mother only managed to create a few Apparition spots without him knowing. Only Malfoy family members can use them, so once we reach one we'll be safe. The next closest one is here—"

A blood-curdling scream cut him off. The scream was drawn out, alternating in pitch as if the victim was experiencing pain that kept multiplying and folding in on itself, burrowing its way into the victim's soul—

The scream cut off.

Draco's hand had gone completely rigid in hers, and she didn't need to look at him to know that those screams— screams that bordered on inhuman, sounds that one would think the human body was incapable of creating— were the result of the cruciatus.

"Draco—"

He moved so quickly that she was jerked forward, dragged behind him as he tore open the door and raced down the hall. The rich tapestries and sprawling windows blurred past as they moved, her heart racing the faster they went. The screams started again, drowning out the sound of their pounding footsteps as he continued to run at breakneck speed. She tried to step only for him to continue dragging her even as she stumbled. She opened her mouth to tell him to stop, to think about what he was doing—

He stopped as suddenly as he'd started.

Hermione nearly slammed into his back, stumbling sideways as she caught herself.

Her eyes landed on the scene, and her hands slammed over her mouth as she stopped herself from screaming.

Tall double doors opened to a high ceilinged room that was nearly completely bare of all furniture, save for the massive, glittering chandelier that hung from the domed ceiling and the plush rug that dominated most of the floor space. Bellatrix stood in the middle of the room, wand aloft and eyes wild as she looked down at the body crouched on the floor below her. Bellatrix's skin was spattered with the blood of her victim, whose pale skin and fine blonde hair was matted with blood. Even then, Hermione could clearly see who it was.

Narcissa.

"CRUCIO!" Bellatrix screamed.

Narcissa's body jerked with the force of her screams, the sound reverberating through the air.

Draco lunged forward. Panic short-circuited Hermione's brain as she snatched the ripple of his figure in the air, whispering "Petrificus totalus!" as she pressed the tip of her wand into Draco's back.

The sound of their bodies slamming into the wall outside the room was drowned out by the sound of Narcissa's renewed screams, the sound amplified in the dome-shaped room. It was a grating cacophony of horror in her ears, each sound akin to a jagged dagger thrust under her skin.

She felt around until she could press her hands over Draco's ears, knowing it would do little to drown out the sound. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice a breath of a whisper as tears leaked down her cheeks, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

The screams stopped.

She pressed a hand to Draco's chest to hold him upright as she peered into the room. Droplets of Narcissa's blood were splattered across Bellatrix's face as she loomed over her sister, all darkness contrasted to the fairness of Narcissa's features.

"You know what he did!" Bellatrix's eyes bulged as she screeched. She bent down and snatched Narcissa by the hair, dragging the woman's head back. "Your son, your filthy traitor of a son—"

Hermione's blood ran cold. She mashed a fist into her mouth to stifle her sob as she swung panicked eyes towards Draco's frozen form, knowing that the horror that bloomed in her chest was magnified tenfold in his own.

Bellatrix knew what they'd done.

Somewhere deep inside of her, she'd known that it would come to this. She'd known that burning the vault was their last resort because of how high the risk of Bellatrix finding out sooner was, just as she'd known that even if they had taken the necklace, they didn't know when she would check on it next. And now the consequences lay bare before them — in the form of Narcissa Malfoy's blood-soaked form.

"I'll kill him," Bellatrix said. "A thousand cuts, starting here," Bellatrix said, dragging her wand across Narcissa's cheek, splitting the skin open in its path. "And when I tell the Dark Lord, he'll have what's left."

Narcissa looked up at Bellatrix, her blue eyes glinting despite the blood that ran down her cheek— and laughed. The sound started as little more than a choked garble as blood dipped from between her lips, intensifying until her mockery was clear. "You won't," she said, spitting more blood onto the floor.

Bellatrix's wand dug under Narcissa's chin as she forced it up, snapping Narcissa's head backward. "You dare think I wouldn't?!"

A slow smile stretched across Narcissa's bloodied face. "You think I don't know why you dragged me here, where no one could hear me scream?" She choked out another laugh. "He did something that your precious Dark Lord would kill you for."

Bellatrix's fair skin flushed red as her figure trembled with anger. "CRUCIO!"

Narcissa's screams filled the room once more. More tears slid down Hermione's cheek as she looked at Draco's frozen form. She had to help Narcissa, but she knew they couldn't risk a duel here. Not when they lay in the midst of their enemy. She didn't know how many Death Eaters there were lurking the halls, and he could be there—

She had only a warning of a small ripple in the air before she was thrown back onto the ground under the force of Draco's wordless finite as he broke the spell.

This time, there hadn't been the cover of Narcissa's screams to stifle the sounds. This time, the sound of her body being thrown onto the ground felt as loud as a crack of thunder in the sky.

She looked up to see Narcissa's eyes wide and horrified as they met hers. Narcissa, and Bellatrix, whose wild gaze was now centered on her exposed form, the cover of her disillusionment spell stripped completely under the force of Draco's sudden finite.

For the breath of a moment, all were frozen, equal expressions of shock painted on their faces.

"CRUCIO!" This time, the spell was hollered from Draco's mouth. Bellatrix barely dodged the spell, and it struck the opposite side of the room, exploding a stone column in a rain of stone.

"Run," Narcissa cried at them. She grabbed at Bellatrix's foot, sending Bellatrix stumbling down.

The move sent Bellatrix's next curse flying off course, where it slammed into Hermione's arm. She gasped in pain as she scrambled away, feeling blood seeping through her shirt. She stumbled to her feet, barely dodging another curse.

Draco stood with his wand aloft, pointing at the tangled mass that was his mother's and aunt's bodies. His expression was shattered, fragments of anger, heartbreak, emptiness, and rage that comprised a fractured whole. Hermione stumbled to him and snatched him by the arm.

"We'll get her, I swear it," Hermione's words were a desperate babble as her blood soaked fingers slid off of his arm. Her words felt empty even as she forced them out, remembering that she'd said them the last time too. She barely dodged Bellatrix's next curse, and it grazed her cheek in a lick of white-hot pain.

Narcissa scrambled over Bellatrix, throwing her weight upon her. "GO!" Narcissa screamed, her voice leaking with horror and desperation.

A lone tear ran down Draco's reddened face before he dragged Hermione backward and took off at a run down the hall. Spells blasted the walls around them as they ran, Bellatrix's angered shrieks following behind them. Hermione's heart pounded in her ears as they drew further from the scene. She wondered if they would soon stumble upon even more Death Eaters before—

Draco dragged her though what appeared to be a panel in the wall, the section dissolving and re-forming as they barreled through it. The sudden silence was almost deafening in the wake of the chaos they'd escaped.

"We can Apparate from here." Draco's voice was gruff and mechanical as he took her arm and forced up her blood-soaked sleeve, revealing the wound beneath. He drew out the curse and started cleaning the wound carefully.

"Draco—" she started.

"I know why you did it." He started sealing the wound with practiced ease.

Hemione choked out a sob. "I'm so—"

"Stop." His hard tone had her mouth clamping shut. He sealed the last inch of the wound before shoving her sleeve back down. He took her hand and looked up— and froze.

He jerked her behind him in a swift move, but not before she caught what he looked at beyond her.

Lucius Malfoy stood quietly in the open doorway across the room.

His handsome features were marred by lines of stress. His once-fair skin had taken on a yellowish tinge, save for the dark, haggard-looking circles under his eyes. His normally coiffed blond hair was askew, falling around his face in matted tangles. His expression betrayed no emotion, showing nothing in response to the sight of his son that he'd thought missing and possibly dead for the better part of a year. His posture still had an arrogant tilt to it despite his appearance.

Hermione sucked in a ragged breath as she clutched Draco's cloak. The silence that had fallen was heavy with tension, the air thick with a thousand unsaid words. Her heart continued to hammer in her chest while father and son stared each other down in silence, the looks on their faces inscrutable as she looked between them.

"Father," Draco said, the single word at once empty and laden with heated emotion.

Lucius did not respond. He continued to stare them down that dark, unreadable look in his eyes, his eyes never straying from his son's.

When he finally spoke, his voice was as dark and commanding as she recalled it. "Come here, Draco."

Draco did not move, and each frozen second swirled and coalesced the tension in the room that grew so thick that it felt like a film on her tongue.

Lucius' look was hard. His lip twitched minutely, and a tense, angry muscle jumped in his jaw. "I thought my only son dead, yet here you stand before me," he said, his voice dark. "Come here, Draco."

His voice echoed in the empty room. An opulently decorated parlour, Hermione realized, under a preservation spell as thick with age as the one in the room they'd arrived in.

"No." Draco's word was simple, yet reverberated on Lucius as swiftly as a strike.

Fury licked across Lucius' features, hot and swift as it consumed him. "No? What end do you see in—" his eyes flicked disdainfully toward Hermione, " —whatever you've been doing? You would risk yourself in the midst of a war for a woman?! Come here, Draco!"

Her father-in-law — and he didn't even know. Hermione clutched the back of Draco's cloak tighter, fear curling in her heart at the look on Lucius' face.

"No." Draco's body was tense, nearly vibrating with the force of his defiance.

Hermione wondered if he'd ever done so before, reminded of the years of instant compliance she'd seen from him. But that — that was what had brought them here, in the midst of this war, father and son on opposite sides.

"Where do you plan to go, hm?" Lucius' voice was sharp, his anger cracking like a whip. "To the Order? Their forces are being decimated each day, Draco. Each day the Dark Lord grows stronger."

There was an edge to his voice that Hermione struggled to place, the word that could encompass the emotion she read there hovering just out of the grasp of her thoughts.

There was a wild glint in Lucius' eyes as he spoke his next words. "Come here Draco!"

When Draco's silence continued muscles all over Lucius' face spasmed at once, looking as though he were wont to explode. And with that, the emotion she'd been on the precipice of identifying became clear as day—

Desperation. A desperation so acute, so broken, that the man's haggard appearance made sudden and complete sense.

When Lucius spoke next, she heard every note of desperation that his tone was laced with. "Each day we draw closer to winning this war— and there is only one side it can be won from." The words weren't spoken with conviction, but with fear. Still, despite the way his voice betrayed him, he still managed to keep an arrogant tilt to his posture. Hermione wondered how long it would take for his pride to break, too.

Draco's silence carried more weight than if he'd spoken. Father and son stared each other down, the looks they exchanged reminiscent of a conversation that Hermione was not privy to. Hermione knew that Voldemort winning the war would be Lucius' only chance at avoiding the Kiss for his long list of transgressions. Draco knew this too.

Hermione opened her mouth and closed it before opening it once more. Hermione looked up at Draco's face before looking back at her father-in-law, wishing she could read the heavy looks that passed between them.

It took another try for her to find her voice. "Please—please—" she pleaded desperately, her voice sounding overly loud in the dreadful silence. "Just let us go."

"He won't stop us," Draco said, his voice steady. "He'll let us go." His voice rang with a certainty that she could not understand, not in the wake of the dark look on the face of the man that stood across the room from them.

Hermione swallowed thickly, her fingers tight on Draco's as she waited for his father to lunge at them, to start throwing curses at them, to trap them somehow—

"You'll come back," Lucius said, his eyes gleaming with anger. "You'll come back when you see the truth of it — if you don't get yourself killed before you do."

The last thing she saw him before they disapparated was the dark, rage-filled look on Lucius' face as he continued to watch them, standing still in the darkness.

X

They landed back in the cabin in silence. Draco dropped her hand without a word, taking two angry steps towards the bedroom before he paused and turned to make his way towards the front door instead.

"Don't," she said, catching him by the arm before he could leave.

She held her breath as he froze, his every muscle vibrating with tension. And then he turned, making his way to the bedroom and closing the door behind him without another word.

Hermione sank down on the couch. She thought of all the times that she had done the same to him, leaving him out here while she stewed alone in the bedroom, drowning in her anger and sorrow. She wondered if he had wanted to go to her back then as much as she wanted to go to him now. There had once been a time where she'd thought of him as nothing more than an ice-cold caricature of a man, devoid of all emotion. Now, though, she saw just how much his mask held in, shielding a broken man from the weight of the pain he carried.

The need to go to him, to hold him, to do anything she could to soothe the brokenness the encounter with Bellatrix had magnified in him, was nearly tangible.

When she'd needed her time to mourn, he had left her for days, only coming to feed her. But she could not do the same for him. She stood and slowly crossed to the bedroom door, easing it open. He was perched on the edge of the bed, his face buried in his hands. She approached slowly until she was just before him.

When he looked up at her, it was with red-rimmed eyes. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and cradled his head against her stomach. No words were exchanged, yet it felt like a thousand had been said.

When his tears began to wet her shirt, she pulled him closer.

X

She stayed with him for two days. They laid in the bed, her arms wrapped around him. He didn't cry again. Instead, he lay in stoic silence, unmoving, save for when she forced him to eat. Neither said anything, speaking only with their bodies. Sometimes, she would hold him for hours as he slept. Other times, he would turn to her with a look in his eyes that made her pull off her shift and climb astride him, making love to him in desperate, frenzied movements until they fell deep asleep, exhausted.

On the second evening, they stepped out of the shower to the smell of burning wood. Hermione turned and brushed her hands over Draco's chest as she looked up at him, a multitude of excuses to ignore it bubbling to her lips.

But the look in his eyes stopped her, and she didn't hold him back when he went to retrieve the burning coin. He circled the coordinates on the map and nodded at her.

They Apparated to a quiet street in Central London. Draco's hand was warm in hers despite the chilly air. It was near silent, save for the distant sound of muggles going about their evening. The cobblestone beneath their feet was slick along with the brick of the buildings they stood between, the taste of recent precipitation lingering in the air.

They moved forward as a unit, stepping cautiously out of the alleyway and searching the equally empty street before them for any sign of danger.

Hermione cast a detection spell and frowned. "Nothing," she said. "Nothing for blocks." She looked up at Draco and saw the same conclusion she'd come to in his eyes.

They'd been too late.

She swallowed, pushing down the implications that her thoughts ran rampant with. She tugged him forward and they wandered the streets in silence for several long minutes, still looking for conflict that appeared to be long gone.

Eventually, Draco stopped them. Hermione spoke before he could, her guilt propelling the words forward. "Maybe we need to search—"

The calm turned into calamity before she could finish as pops of Apparition sounded on the street before them.

An ambush.

"There!" A spell whizzed past Hermione's head as a Snatcher spotted them.

As quickly as they'd left, they landed back on the frostbitten grass outside of their cabin. Hermione's heart was still hammering in her chest as she looked Draco over, searching for injuries. "Are you alright?" she asked.

He nodded stiffly, a hard look on his face. She followed him back into the house, watching him quietly as he sat down at the table and buried his head in his hands. Her steps were slow as she moved, feeling as though she was underwater as her mind swirled with thoughts over what had just occurred.

"We were ambushed," she said.

"Brilliant observation, Granger." Despite his words, his voice was hard, devoid of any humor.

More thoughts filtered through her mind, clearer this time. "Draco—" She started then hesitated, watching him carefully. Her tone made him look up at her all the same. "When— when your father said what he said, about winning the war— did you believe him?"

Draco's eyes were hard, unreadable. "Does it matter?"

"Yes." Her entire body sang with the desperate need to hear him answer the way she hoped he would. "Do you think we can win this war?" Her voice wavered on the words.

He watched her for a long moment. "No."

Hermione's heart lurched. "Then why?"

"Why what?" he answered sharply.

"Why are you still fighting? Why any of this if you don't think we can win?!"

His palms slammed down on the table. "I'm fighting to survive!" His breaths were harsh and ragged as he looked at her. "You think that there is a fight to be won or lost, when all that really matters is survival because everyone loses when it comes to war."

Hermione ground her teeth. "Do you think I don't understand that? This war is about eradicating those born like me! The only reason I'm here is to survive!"

His figure teemed with tension as he looked back at her.

Her heart continued to race. "Would you have chosen this side if your mother hadn't chosen it for you?"

She burned with the need to know the answer to the question, yet the look in his eyes — the jaded, impenetrable look she saw there — answered it before he did.

"I would have chosen the side that would win."

His words burned her so hotly that her hand flew to her chest where her heart was still constricting within. It felt like a fissure was creeping along it, the pain as acute as if she'd been struck by a curse.

"So what are you saying, then?" Her throat constricted around her words as she tried to speak. "That we'd be safer at the Manor than we are with the Order?"

His eyes flashed. "How are we even with the bloody Order, Granger?! We are nothing more than their pawns, and you damn well know it. Fuck them and fuck their protection. Where has anything they've done gotten us? Gotten her?"

Hermione's throat went dry as she met the hard look in his eyes. "So you think us safer in the Manor, then?" Unbidden, an image of them being dragged to the Manor flashed in her mind's eye. Lucius and Narcissa tearfully explaining that the Order had forcibly bound Draco's life to that of a mudblood. Voldemort's snake-like features as he locked her in the dungeons.

Draco's answering silence carried more weight than words.

She pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle the sob that threatened to burst forth. He cursed and stormed away from her, violently dragging a chair back before sitting down heavily. She watched him bury his head in his hands, dragging them over his reddened face.

It hit her then like a switch, like the sudden change of having the lights turned on after a blackout.

She turned and clutched the countertop hard as she took slow and steady breaths, wishing for relief from the pain that only seemed to blossom further in her heart. "I'll make you some tea," she said mechanically, her voice devoid of all emotion as her mind continued to swirl, a thousand ideas forming and dissipating before re-forming once more.

She was silent as she summoned mugs and made the tea. It was only when she set his steaming mug before him that she spoke again.

"Can I trust you?" she asked softly.

Draco looked up at her, his eyes stormy and guarded. He was silent for so long that she wondered if he would even respond. The fissure cracked further in her heart as she watched him, and she clutched her mug tighter to stop her fingers from trembling.

"No," he answered flatly. She watched him take a slow sip from his mug.

Another silence fell between them as he looked back at her. "Can I trust you?"

She didn't answer, instead training her eyes on her own mug, watching the slow swirl of steam rise in the air. "They shouldn't have been able to find us," she said. "The Snatchers. They shouldn't have been able to find us. But they did— every time. We didn't say the Taboo. They shouldn't have been able to. Not unless someone was leading them to us."

Her eyes rose to meet his, her words burning in the air between them.

He watched her as she crossed over to the desk and took a quill to scribble a short note. She wondered if he'd seen the way her hand shook, too. He coughed and cleared his throat behind her, and the fissure in her heart grew deeper.

His breaths were loud now, laboured as he started to struggle to take each one. "Granger—" He cut off with another cough, and she turned to see him rubbing at his throat. Her heart stuttered at the sight, her chest growing tight.

He was as quick as she gave him credit for.

He rubbed at his throat again before his eyes shot to his mug before shooting back to her. "What did you do?" He stood abruptly, toppling his chair to the ground and spilling the contents of the tea across the table.

Her chest grew tighter, constricting her heart as she struggled to breathe alongside him. Tears started to leak down her cheeks as she watched him start to slowly flush red. "The Snatchers shouldn't have been able to find us. We never said the taboo," she repeated. "But they did — every time. They shouldn't have been able to — not unless someone was leading them to us."

Three times now. Three times that the Snatchers had appeared when they shouldn't have. Snatchers only killed known Muggleborns. But others— others were captured.

Captured and brought straight to Malfoy Manor.

"What are you—" Draco swayed as he made his way to the door, ripping it open as he stumbled outside.

"It feels like you're choking, but you aren't," Hermione said, choking out a sob as she followed him outside. Painful fissures sprouted all over her heart more rapidly now, one for every step he took away from her. "You're going into temporary paralysis. But it won't hurt you. I swear it."

His eyes were wild as he looked at her. She wanted to look away, wishing she didn't have to see the emotion reflected in them. She thought of the long, tense look shared between father and son, the silent communication she hadn't been privy to.

"How did you know he would let us go?" she asked, still approaching even as he stumbled backward.

"Who?!" he shouted. She chanced a look into his eyes. It was as if a dam had been broken, unleashing everything he'd kept so carefully folded away all these months.

Hermione sobbed harder. "Your father," she said. "How did you know he would let us go?" He was Lucius Malfoy. He would never have let his son disappear again.

Unless he knew that he would come back.

"He wouldn't have—" her words were more garbled as she sobbed harder, " — not unless he— not unless you—"

"Not unless I what?" Draco stumbled into the trees, ripping off his cloak as he went. His breaths were ragged and shallow, and he stopped to brace himself against a tree.

Hermione sobbed openly now, clutching at her chest as she felt her heart constricting. "You don't think we can win this war." His figure was a blur before her through her tears. "You need to survive— you need your mother to survive— and that means you need me to survive too."

She thought of the look between father and son again, a shared tension — or a shared agreement. Survival could be winning— or conceding. She thought of all the times Snatchers conveniently appeared to capture and take them to the Manor, where they'd be safely contained as the world crumbled around them—

"Why?" His breaths were heavy and laboured as he sank to the ground. He looked— broken. His eyes were wild with emotion as he looked up at her.

"I can't trust you — you said it yourself." She sobbed harder as she sank to the ground beside him. "I need to send you somewhere safe. Somewhere— somewhere where I can know they'll keep you. Somewhere where you can't betray me. Somewhere where—"

She cut off as he tried to speak, his words garbled as the effects of the potion reached his jaw.

She sobbed harder as she leaned over him, watching his eyes searching hers wildly. The one emotion she'd been drowning in was burning in his eyes, unmistakable as she leaned over him.

Heartbreak.

Maybe she'd been wrong. But maybe— maybe she hadn't been.

"I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm sorry." Her sobs grew louder as she leaned over him, pressing her lips to his unmoving ones. "I'm sorry," she repeated. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

When she leaned back, there was a glimmer in his eye, reminiscent of an unshed tear.

She looked away and took out the note she'd shoved in her pocket as she'd followed him out, the few short sentences on it explaining that whoever was on the other side of the Order's portkey needed to keep him— wherever he was going. But the fact that he was Draco Malfoy— she knew that would be more than enough.

From her cloak pocket, she pulled out the second pouch that had been tucked at the far back of one of the desk drawers — a pouch that was tagged for emergencies only. Her heart spasmed and constricted as she looked at him through her tears. Her tears leaked onto his chest as she fumbled with the pouch, memorizing his face one last time before she let the lone coin fall onto his chest.

And then he was gone.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

She'd thought of everything.

It had taken months for her to create her own tracking spell, researching every potential nuance and fine-tuning intricate detail she had come across. Perfecting it had required so much trial and error, and it had only been when she had retrieved fresh blood that they had been able to activate the spell. As few and far in between they were, every report the Order had given them indicated that the Death Eaters had only discovered tracking via taboo. There was no other conceivable way for them to have found them, unless —

She pressed a fist to her mouth to quell the sobs that threatened to start anew. Tears still streamed freely down her cheeks, dripping onto where she held his cloak in a tight fist in her lap. Blood trickled down her arm and dripped onto the cloak from a wound she hadn't even realized she'd gotten. Her hand trembled as she lifted the cloak, unable to stop herself from drinking in his scent that still clung heavily to the thick fabric.

She let her sobs flow free. She wanted to be wrong. She needed to be wrong. She needed — him.

She looked back at the cabin and immediately felt herself seize up. She couldn't go back inside, not when his presence clung to every inch of the space. She pressed a hand against her heart as it spasmed. She'd thought she'd known pain before this — broken limbs, torn flesh. But this— depthless, all-consuming darkness seemed to fold in on itself in a never-ending cycle, drowning her.

She so desperately wanted to be wrong.

The look in his eyes as she'd dropped the portkey on him haunted her. The silver-grey of them bright and glassy in the moonlight, betrayal twisting his frozen features as he looked at her. His eyes screaming the thousand words she'd prevented him from speaking himself. She tried to recall the time when she'd known how to exist without him, trying to pull back to scant more than a year prior, yet feeling it slip away as if it had been decades. His hold on her had crept up slowly and revealed itself all at once in that final moment of suspended silence between them as the coin glinted in the air before falling upon him. She was inextricably his — beyond the bond, beyond that feeling of his presence that lay currently dormant at the back of her mind—

She wrapped his cloak tighter around her shoulders and sobbed harder. She would likely need to return to the Order, face confronting Harry and Ron yet again, and — him. With a shaking hand, she pointed her wand toward where the door to the cabin still stood open. The small radio flew into her outstretched hand a moment later. She clutched it tightly. She needed to hold on to why she'd done this in the first place — for the Order, for herself, and for him, too. She couldn't give up.

She reminded herself of that even as she mumbled the night's password and a familiar voice began to filter through the speaker. Silent tears continued to run down her cheeks as the words filtered through her. He was safe. What mattered was that he was safe. Captive in an Order safehouse somewhere, but safe. Bound by the magic of the bond to not reveal anything he chose not to. Safe. Safe. Safe—

A new voice on the wireless interrupted her thoughts.

"I've joined today to share some somber news with you all," he started. Hermione's throat went dry. Harry—

"—muggleborn allies of ours were tracked across the countryside in Wales," Hermione froze. Dean, the kind-eyed man— "We have managed to shelter them safely, but we've made an unprecedented discovery. Although we'd thought it magically inconceivable, the Death Eaters have manipulated Dark Magic in a way that allows them to track us. They've fashioned small, marble-like objects that they've been slipping onto peoples' clothing during skirmishes—"

The rest of his words went unheard as blood pounded in Hermione's ears. The trees surrounding her started to blur as her world went grey at the edges. Her fingers were frantic and trembling as she tore into the pockets of his cloak. No— no— no—

"Acc—acci—" her voice trembled. "Accio—"

A miniature dark ball flew out of his pocket and into her outstretched hand.

Her heart stopped. She'd been wrong. She'd been so wrong—

Loud cracks of Apparition cut through the pounding of blood in her ears. Her panicked eyes flew from the nearest Snatcher to the open cabin door. She was outside the wards. She screamed a random curse at her nearest attacker and scrambled forward only to be dragged backward by her braid. She was kicked hard in the stomach and screamed as she felt a rib crack. She scrambled at the dirt and melting snow on the forest floor as she tried to crawl toward the wards again. She needed to survive, she needed to survive for him—

There was a sharp pain at the back of her head, and then nothing.

X

There were voices. Angry voices.

She was being dragged. Sharp pains radiated all over her body as she was pulled across a smooth floor by her hair. Her head throbbed, and she felt a slick trail of wetness running down her neck that she didn't doubt was blood. She tried to blink, only to be assaulted by a barrage of stars exploding behind her eyelids as the person who dragged her jerked harder.

Her head was dropped abruptly, and more stars exploded behind her eyelids as she felt her head crack against the floor. When she opened her eyes, there were more stars. Her eyes swam and she blinked again. The stars blurred into sharper focus, and she blinked again. Not stars. A massive, glittering chandelier lit with the light of dozens of candles. It was suspended from a dark ceiling above where she lay on her back. She tried to crane her neck and figure out where she was—

She froze halfway. Bellatrix Lestrange stood several feet away, her head cocked and her teeth glittering as brightly as the chandelier as a cruel smile stretched across her features. Hermione jolted as horror flooded through her and she tried to sit up, fighting to ignore the stabbing pain in her abdomen. Her eyes were desperate as she looked at the wand clutched in Bellatrix's fist as the woman approached slowly.

"Bellatrix," a cool voice spoke from across the room. Hermione craned her neck to see, but she'd known from the second he'd spoken — Lucius Malfoy.

He stood across the room, his face twisted in disgust as he flicked his eyes to her before turning to Bellatrix once more. Her heart lurched. Even from across the room, Hermione caught the glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

"Must you do this here?" Lucius said, his voice tinged with annoyance although his eyes shone with something unreadable.

"You no longer have authority here, Lucius." The words were a hiss, and Hermione swore she saw a brief flicker in his expression before his face was cool once more.

Malfoy Manor. Hermione almost let out a wild laugh at the irony of the situation. Dragged exactly where—

As if on cue, her ring started to burn. Draco was awake. There was a ball of tension growing at the back of her mind, pulsing like a blooming headache. Something deep in her told her that it was him, his presence inextricable despite her betrayal. The burn continued, and she felt her flesh searing beneath the weight of his punishment.

"I've summoned the Dark Lord to identify the prisoners," Lucius snapped at Bellatrix. "Be quick about it."

Her ring burned again. She recalled the time she'd done the same to him what felt like a lifetime ago. Before— before he'd become everything. Her hand curled into a fist where the ring was still glamoured, burning harder against her skin the longer he activated the protean charm.

It was no less than she deserved.

Bellatrix stepped closer to Hermione, bright white teeth flashing behind crimson-smeared lips. "A shame. I so hoped to take my time." She flashed another wicked smile before tipping her wand toward Hermione. "Crucio."

Pain.

Blinding white that was swallowed by endless darkness, dragging deep into a void of fire and ice, invisible yet consuming, tearing at her flesh and burrowing deep within her—

The pain stopped.

At some point, she'd screamed. Her throat ached with the lingering pain of the gesture, her mouth filled with blood from where she'd bitten down on her tongue.

Bellatrix was on her knees beside Hermione, lips twisted in a mockery of a frown as she looked Hermione over. "Not nearly enough," the woman said as absently as though she were brewing a potion. Bellatrix dipped lower, until the dirty tangles of her hair were in Hermione's face, practically choking her as they fell in her mouth. Bellatrix smoothed a hand over her hair and down her braid, curling its length around her fist.

Bellatrix's lips brushed Hermione's ear as she spoke. "I know what you did."

She was thrown into the void of pain once more, drowning, tearing, burning from the inside out—

When she came to, the first thing she registered was the way her ring still burned on her twitching fingers. Draco— Draco— Draco—

She had to survive for him. She had to hold on for him — for his presence that she could feel coiled at the back of her mind, a pulsing ball of tension.

"Where. Is. He?!"

Bellatrix moved over her, so close that Hermione could see the manic glint in the woman's eyes. Hermione barely caught the flash of Bellatrix's hand moving before her head was thrown sideways with the force of Bellatrix's slap.

Her vision pulsed grey as she coughed, spitting out blood. Still, she forced her eyes open far enough to meet Bellatrix's. "I don't know."

Bellatrix tightened her grip on Hermione's braid and forced Hermione to look at her. Her eyes were sunken into a gaunt face, pale skin stretched too far over sharp features. The crimson slash of lipstick she wore was smeared around the edges, amplifying the air of mania that hung over her presence. The color of her lipstick matched the droplets of blood that spattered the woman's face.

Bellatrix snatched Hermione's chin and dove into her head without a moment's notice. Her mental shields were pulsing, weakened by the lingering aftershocks of torture. Still, they held fast. Beyond the walls, the bonding magic reinforced all that protected him, encompassing it in an impenetrable shell that had Bellatrix screeching in rage as she retreated.

"I don't—I don't know—" Another echoing slap that left her head pounding.

"CRUCIO!" An inferno burst through Hermione's body as Bellatrix screeched the spell. Her existence dissolved into a single pinprick of pain, her every nerve ending alive with a blaze that sought only to tear her apart from within. Someone somewhere was screaming, the sound a grating screech that barely managed to pierce through the haze of pain that swirled in her head—

She tried to burrow into a shelter of Occlumency, digging deep into her mind as she sought sanctuary. But the pain burrowed through easily, shattering her refuge and tearing her apart once more.

When it stopped Bellatrix was still perched above her, the tip of the woman's wand pressing painfully into her throat. A steady stream of tears had begun leaking down her face, and her limbs still twitched from the ghost of the pain that still lingered. Somehow, even then, the burn of her ring as it ignited once more against her skin bloomed harder than the cruciatus had.

As the fog lifted, all she could think of was him. She had to hold on. She needed to hold on. She needed to buy time. She had to hold on. She had to endure. She had to gather her strength to resist, to get the wand that she could still see peeking out of Bellatrix's robes. If Bellatrix killed her—

"Where is he?" Bellatrix's words felt like a whisper through the haze of pain that still lingered.

She had to survive. She had to survive. For him. "Who?" Her voice was little more than a croak.

There was a flash of Bellatrix's bared teeth before Hermione's world dissolved into fire once more. It felt as though her lungs were wont to give out under the force of her screams, but still she screamed louder. The pain stopped and started again in an endless cycle of anguish. Between each of Bellatrix's screams, she knew nothing but a void of darkness and pain, and three words: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

She sobbed openly now, babbling the words every time Bellatrix lifted her wand long enough to repeat her question. She knew her finger was blistered with burns from the force of the charm as Draco activated her ring over and over, but she welcomed it, centering herself on the reminder that she couldn't give up, that she had to hold on for him.

Draco. Draco, Draco, Draco—

Bellatrix snatched her arm suddenly, ripping open Hermione's sleeve with a harsh flick of her wand. The woman laughed, the sound tinged with its ever-present manic edge. The glint of a blade was Hermione's only warning before Bellatrix dragged it across her skin.

The curse had been fire. This— this was ice. An ice so cold that it bit and burned, and she found herself screaming again.

There was a horrified gasp from somewhere else in the room and Bellatrix pulled the blade away. Hermione let out as sob as the wound continued to throb as painfully as though the blade was still embedded in her skin. She blinked open heavy lids, trying to identify the new figure that was blurred by her tears. Her babbles had reduced themselves to low sobs, and she tried to lift her still-twitching fingers to wipe at her still-blurry eyes.

"What are you doing?" It was— Narcissa.

Hermione blinked until the woman came into sharper focus. She almost wished she hadn't. The woman's face was a mask of sheer horror as she looked at where Hermione lay. Hermione knew she was still twitching and trembling, and likely still bleeding from the injuries she'd sustained from the Snatchers.

"I don't care about your pathetic rug, Cissy!" Bellatrix screamed.

Of course Bellatrix assumed Narcissa's horror was about the rug and not the woman who lay bleeding out upon it.

"We agreed that you would contain your activities to the wing you were designated—"

Bellatrix hissed. "I take no orders from you." She kicked Hermione in the side and smirked at Hermione's gasp of pain before turning back to her sister. "I operated there out of convenience. I take no orders from you."

Hermione's eyes were focused on where the hilt of her wand still peeked out at her, trying to force her spasming fingers to comply as she tried to sit up.

Lucius spoke through gritted teeth. "The Dark Lord will be here shortly to identify the other prisoners, yet you waste your time on this—"

Bellatrix lifted her wand and turned to her once more and Hermione shrank back, waiting for the pain to begin anew—

An angered screech had her forcing her eyes back open a moment later. Bellatrix's wand was clutched in Narcissa's hand, her entire posture screaming defiance.

Bellatrix's skin was flushed as angry of a red as Narcissa's. Her eyes bulged as she directed her burning rage at her sister. "YOU—"

There was a sound of Apparition behind them that had Bellatrix cutting off and snapping her head to stare at something beyond Hermione. She caught only the rage blooming brighter in Bellatrix's eyes before she heard it.

"Hermione!"

She didn't need to turn her hair to recognize the voice. Harry. Harry, Harry—?

There was another voice shouting her name, a voice that she'd often wondered if she would ever hear again — "Hermione!" Ron.

"Harry..." The sound was but a gargle as she tried to force her trembling limbs to comply, twisting and raising herself to her knees. "Ron—"

There was a small cluster of people gathered around — Dobby, she realized. Ron, Luna, a goblin, a man she didn't recognize— and Harry, Harry who ran toward her with wide, panic-stricken eyes—

Bellatrix seized her by the braid once more, pressing a blade to her throat. Harry froze where he was halfway across the room, his wand trembling as he pointed it at where Bellatrix held her.

There was a crack of Apparition that felt like thunder. The room seemed to vibrate under the force of the new presence that overwhelmed her, a spot of rage burning bright— Voldemort, perhaps—

But the rage intensified as she felt the presence move, and she clutched her head painfully as she was overwhelmed with the force of wild, angry emotions stirring—

It wasn't Voldemort at all.

She forced her eyes open to find Draco Malfoy standing across the room, his expression wild.

Their eyes locked, and time froze for a suspended moment. Her heart fluttered a frantic rhythm in her chest. She looked at him, drinking in the fact that he was there, he was there—

Draco clenched his fist and wrenched it sideways, and an invisible force tore Bellatrix's arm away from Hermione's throat. There was a sickening crack of bone, and the blade clattered to the ground as Bellatrix screamed.

Draco's eyes burned bright with intensity as they met hers once more.

And then he pointed his wand upward.

A crack of lightning burst from the tip of his wand, igniting the room in light. She was blown back by an invisible force just as the lightning struck the chandelier above them, sending it crashing down in a storm of flame and glittering shards. Fragments of shattered crystal rained down over them, bathing the occupants of the room in its jagged sleet. Flames began to lick the floor around the broken fragments of the chandelier, bathing them in warmth.

"Hermione!" She heard Ron's cry and his footsteps as he started running toward her behind Harry, feet crunching over broken crystal.

But her eyes were fixated on Draco. She reached out toward his blurred frame beyond the flickering flames, crawling forward despite the lingering shocks of pain that tried to force her to do anything but. "Draco—"

Behind Draco, she saw Lucius lift his wand. No. Her eyes flew to where Harry was almost upon her and back to where Lucius' wand was pointed steadily. Draco's eyes were on her, and he stood frozen beyond the growing wall of flame. "No—!"

She didn't realize the spell was aimed at her until the force of it threw her back against the far wall. Pain blossomed in her side as she scrambled to her feet. There were shards of crystal embedded in her arm and she brushed them off, wincing at the pain as she spotted Draco.

"Accio wand!" Her voice was hoarse around her scream, and she stretched a desperate hand toward where Bellatrix was straightening.

"You little bitch!" Bellatrix screeched as the wand flew away before she could grasp it, sailing across the cavernous room.

Hermione caught the wand in her fingers in time to block the curse Lucius shot at her through the flames, sending it flying into the wall in an explosion of orange.

"Expelliarmus!" Her spell hit true, and Lucius wand clattered to the ground.

Harry scrambled to his knees, snatching Lucius' wand where it had clattered to the ground before him. "Come on!" he shouted, his eyes wide with desperation.

But her eyes were on Draco, watching him as the flames licked higher between them. She took two desperate steps forward, moving toward him—

Strong arms locked around her middle and dragged her backward. "Are you bloody insane?!" Ron shouted in her ear.

She tried to wrench herself away only for Dobby to catch her arm. "We needs to be going!"

She searched for Draco and froze. The Bellatrix's blade glimmered in her hand once more, shining in the light of the flames. Even from where she stood across the room, Hermione could see the manic glimmer in the woman's eyes as she raised the blade and her arm reared back, the silver shining with orange light.

Hermione had seen the blade — but Draco had seen it too.

He'd seen the tip of the blade as it was aimed towards where she stood — and she'd seen the calculated resolution in his eyes before he moved. Everything felt too slow — her limbs, her scream, the spell she tried to utter — everything except the way he moved—

Directly into the path of where the blade swung down in a low arc. Hermione's entire body seized up as her vision started to blur and the shouts behind her dulled. She saw only him, felt only the way anguish bloomed in that space he occupied at the back of her mind.

The bloody blade fell to the ground somewhere beyond the circle of flames, ripped from Bellatrix's grip by the way it had been dragged across Draco's back. Hermione's primal scream echoed in the room, sounding endless as she watched Draco stagger and straighten. It was only when Narcissa snatched her son's arm that Hermione realized her own scream had been mingled with Narcissa's.

She managed only a blink before Narcissa had snatched both Bellatrix and Draco's arms and disappeared. Another blink before strong arms locked around her once more.

Another, and they were gone.

X

Hermione stumbled to her knees, her world still pulsing with darkness as her limbs locked, frozen with shock as she tried to take in the sandy ground beneath her.

There was no creeping cold feeling growing within her, slowly consuming her life force. He wasn't dying. Even the presence of him that she'd felt throbbing at the back of her mind was nearly as subdued as it had been when he'd kept his Occlumency walls carefully in place.

Still— she could feel it. A low, throbbing pain that flickered at the back of her mind, not quite extinguished by his efforts.

He was hurt. He was— somewhere, and he was hurt.

"Hermione!" A shadow fell over her, but her eyes did not move. They stayed fixated on his dirtied denims. Harry's, most likely. "'Mione?" he said again, softer this time. He descended then, and she soon found herself staring into familiar blue eyes that brimmed with concern.

She stared at him, through him, the image of him blurred by thoughts of Draco's state that appeared in her mind's eye. He was still speaking to her, but the words filtered past her in waves.

"...you couldn't get her, not then...we know you wanted to...heard you screaming from the dungeons...we'll get her next time, I swear…"

Inside, she let out a manic giggle. Of course they assumed it was Bellatrix she'd gone after — her going after Draco was still inconceivable to them.

It was when Ron caught her shoulders and spoke again that she realized she'd laughed aloud. "'Mione?" he asked again. "Are you alright? Of course, you're not alright. You're got scrapes all over you, and you were tor—" he paused and hesitated, his hands tightening on her shoulders. "You've never even fought anyone before, how could she—"

Oh, how little they knew. "Go, Ron." Her voice was harsher than she intended, but she didn't bother to correct herself.

"'Mione—"

"Go."

Something in her tone made him pause. She wondered if he had caught the note in her tone that signaled that she was about to break, to shatter into millions of screaming pieces as minuscule as the sand they were surrounded by. For a moment, he seemed wont to pull her closer, but instead, he stood.

"She's…" Ron hesitated, speaking to someone beyond her line of vision.

"Let her go, Ron," Harry spoke from behind her. "We can come back."

Ron shuffled, and then: "We're at Shell Cottage, Bill and Fleur's place. Dobby's been cursed, so Luna took him inside. He'll be alright though, by the looks of it. If you need anything, just...yeah."

She said nothing in response.

She didn't know how much time had passed while she sat staring out at the sea, the hours measured only by dawn turning to midday turning to dusk. Someone had left food beside her before leaving quietly several times. She registered nothing — nothing except the waves of grief that passed over her as constantly as the waves that fell upon the shore, somehow gaining strength the more hours that passed.

At some point, she'd raised her wand and slowly healed her cuts and bruises using the familiar movements she'd watched Draco use on her a dozen times. Her wand had shaken when she'd gotten to the raw, throbbing wound in her arm, a jagged line with a small knick at the end that still burned like fire and ice. She managed only to quell the bleeding. A cursed wound— a cursed wound that was much longer, much deeper on her husband's back, forcing him to endure twice she pain she was.

Sometime after the sun had disappeared over the horizon, Ron re-appeared before her. "'Mione?" he said softly.

"Yes?" She hadn't known she could answer. Her mouth had moved of its own accord, forcing the hoarse word out.

"We need to go," he said. "Dobby's resting, but he'll recover. There aren't enough beds for everyone here though. We'll need to go to Andromeda's for the night."

"Okay." Another small, hoarse word.

She stood, ignoring her protesting limbs. Each step was practiced, almost mechanical as she followed Ron to where Harry stood several feet away. She met neither of her gazes. Instead, she took in the small, white-washed cottage that stood atop a small cliff in the distance, burning with low candlelight. Once upon a time, she would have called it beautiful. Now, all she could see was the cottage that had been supposed to be theirs, and fire— everything burning to the ground while she stood helplessly among the ashes.

She barely registered when someone took her hand and disapparated them.

X

The home — Andromeda's they'd said — was silent and dark when they arrived. Harry and Ron lit the sconces around the room, revealing a sizable but empty sitting room.

Ron moved over to her when they finished, as cautious as though he expected her to bolt or fall apart in a moment. Perhaps both. "We're going to go out and check the wards. Habit, and all. Andromeda should be back soon— I think at least, everyone's always disappearing off to who bloody knows where these days." He chuckled, and it was then that she caught how it didn't quite reach his eyes, how the troubled look in them spoke more than words could convey.

He hovered awkwardly for another moment before heading out the door.

The wound in her arm throbbed and she closed her hand over it. The burning hadn't stopped — she wondered if it ever would—

She was dragged backward roughly, her back slamming into the wall. She raised shocked eyes to see a rage-filled face that she knew every inch of.

Draco.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Her breath caught in her throat as she looked back at him, wide-eyed.

Draco. Draco—

"Draco." The word came out in a sob.

His eyes burned as he pressed closer to her. His hands were tight to the point of pain as they gripped her shoulders hard, but she couldn't focus on anything but the look in his eyes as he bore down over her.

He was everywhere — his shadow, his scent, every inch of his looming presence closing in around her, drowning her in the guilt she'd already been failing to suppress.

She opened her mouth again, unsure of what she could say that could ever, ever undo the destruction that she'd unleashed upon them, dashing away all they'd been building toward with a mere few drops of select potions from their cabinet slipped into his tea.

He twisted away from her abruptly. Of course he wouldn't want to look upon her face, not after seeing the weight of what she'd done written bare upon her face. There were no excuses, not explanations she could give for what she'd done, because the betrayal has been hers—

"What the fuck are you doing here?" The wave of emotions that was poised over her head, ready to drown her in its deluge, froze. The voice— the voice was all wrong. It was—

Harry. She raised panicked eyes to see Harry and Ron standing across from them, their wands drawn and their expressions murderous.

"Get away from her." Ron's voice was so much colder, so much darker than she'd ever heard it that her heart lurched in her chest.

"Leave. Now." The sound of Draco's low voice felt like a puncture to the chest, the chilling familiarity of it making her ache.

"LIKE HELL WE WILL!" Ron's voice was thunder.

"Do you think we won't kill you, Malfoy?" Harry stepped closer, the tip of his wand steady where it pointed at Malfoy.

"Stop!" Hermione found her voice as she tried to lunge forward only for Draco to snatch her arm in an iron grip.

Ron's eyes blazed as he caught Draco's movement. "Let. Her. Go."

"Petrificus totalus!" Harry's spell followed Ron's words. Draco cast it aside with a wave of his hand before drawing his wand from his pocket with blinding speed.

"STOP!" Hermione shouted as she burst from behind Draco and threw herself between the three of them.

"Get the hell out of my way, Hemione!"

A streak of purple flew from over her head from Harry's wand and hit the wall behind Draco as he dodged it, slashing a hole through it.

"Get the hell out of the way!" Ron shouted at her. "I'll do it— I'll kill you after what your family has put her through—"

Blood pounded in her ears. "I did it to myself!"

"Like hell you did!" Harry's veins stretched against his skin as he all but lurched forward. "Move!"

"I won't." She planted her feet hard, the sole obstruction between them and Draco.

She chanced a look at Draco. His frame was near-trembling with the force of his rage, his focus on the two targets beyond her, on the verge of exploding.

"Just— stop, please. You don't know the entire story—"

Ron's skin was flushed a deep, angry red. "What is there to know?! This is bloody Malfoy! You would defend someone whose home you were just nearly murdered in—"

"It was them! Not him." Her cry was laced with desperation as she caught Harry's rage boil nearer to the point of no return.

She was lurched backward as Draco snatched her from behind and threw her to the side. "Do you honestly believe that I can't take you both?" Draco's eyes flashed.

"Sectumsempra!"

Hermione shouted out a shield as she threw herself in front of Draco once more. "STOP!" she screamed.

Ron paused, staring at the spot on the wall beyond them where she'd deflected his curse to, the wall singed in the aftereffects of the rebound.

She was heaving hard as she stood between them once again. "If you kill him—" her chest burned as she spoke, "you'll kill me too."

"GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY!" Harry seethed, his entire form trembling with his rage.

"HE'S MY HUSBAND!" The words burst from her in a torrent, lingering suspended in the air above them for a moment before crashing down upon them, bathing the room in an irreversible truth.

Her words shattered the thick tension that had been all but suffocating them a moment before, replacing it with a depthless silence. It was as though her words were the precious few they'd had left to speak, each stolen by her outburst and leaving a breathless silence in its wake. Even the expressions on Ron and Harry's faces were like a moment suspended in time, their rage frozen as all they'd thought they'd known was thrown into chaos.

Hermione stumbled backward, the single movement shattering the frozen spell that had held the room's occupants. She felt the heat of Draco's presence behind her, but couldn't force herself to turn and look at him. She could barely do anything, not while she was faced with the expressions on her two best friends' faces that she'd had countless nightmares about for the past year.

She'd pictured this moment in so many ways, so many scenarios, yet none measured up to the devastation of the moment itself. A moment before, their rage had been directed toward her husband, the air itself teeming with tension. But now— what lingered on their faces was something that transcended all that had been directed toward Draco. A hole tore through her chest in tandem with the way six years of memories were shattered, raining down upon them in a shower of broken pieces, each one tearing deep, jagged cuts into her as they fell around them.

Ron's wand clattered to the ground. He stepped backward, his mouth opening and closing before he managed to speak. "What...did you…" his movements were stuttered as he stepped back a few more steps before he froze again, his eyes upon her once again.

This time, the rage was interwoven with a betrayal that burned so brightly that she felt branded by it.

"Husband…" The word came out of Ron's mouth in a way that sounded almost twisted, the word spoken in a timbre that was foreign to her. "Husband."

"Ron," her throat constricted around his name as she watched the heat of a thousand betrayals flit through his expression, "Ron—"

He turned to her, his movements slow and stilted as if he were underwater. "You—" He laughed. The sound was empty and his expression a twisted caricature between incredulity and rage. "I don't believe it. I don't believe that you— you and—"

"It's true."

But it hadn't been her or Draco that had spoken. It was—

Harry.

Harry who looked at her with rage and betrayal blazing in his eyes.

"Harry?" It was all she could say, her body paralyzed with shock.

"Hermione Malfoy." The way her name sounded coming from his lips was akin to a curse, making her stomach turn. "I thought it was a mistake, at first, when I saw it on the Marauder's Map."

Hermione's throat felt like it was closing. She pressed a hand to her chest, trying to quell the panic that rose.

"A secret mission for the Order? One where you can only turn up after months? For a damned pregnancy test?!" He fell silent then, heaving as he continued to give her that loathing look.

"It— it isn't true," Ron's lips trembled as he spoke. "It— tell me it isn't true."

Hermione couldn't speak, could say nothing to refute the truth that had now created a chasm between them.

The longer her silence stretched the more Ron faltered, his eyes searching her expression for any hint of a lie. His face fell as he searched harder and found none.

"Ron," her voice broke. "I—"

"Don't." He turned and tore across the room, through the door and into the night beyond.

"Ron!" she cried. Her feet carried her toward where the door still stood ajar, her heart in her throat as the vicious look he'd given her haunting her.

She was halfway across the room when there was a blur in the corner of her eye, a storm sweeping past. She turned just in time to see Draco disappear up the stairs, a torrent of pent-up rage. Her mouth went dry. She'd chosen. It hadn't been a conscious thought, but she'd done it all the same. Every step toward Ron had been a step away from him.

And then she was moving, across the room and up the steps, following the throbbing pulse at the back of her mind that guided her towards him.

She paused halfway up the steps, having nearly forgotten that Harry still stood in the same place, rage and betrayal rolling off of him in waves. When she spoke, her voice was a whisper. "I'm...I'm sorry for a lot of things. But not him." Not him.

She continued up the steps without another word, not stopping until she stopped in front of the door at the end of the hall that was pulled firmly shut. He was there, right there, yet her hand was frozen mid-air. She knew what awaited her beyond the door — a storm of rage that waited to descend upon her. She forced her fingers to close around the knob, trying to ignore the way they spasmed. Then the knob was turning and the door creaked open slowly.

The bedroom was dark, lit only by the slivers of moonlight that slid across the room. Draco stood in the middle of the room, his back turned to her and his posture rigid. She stepped closer to him, her eyes already blurring with the tears that gathered there.

"Draco," she breathed. "I—"

He was upon her in a second. She slammed back into the door as he crowded her, bearing down on her until all she could see was him. He was breathing heavily as he looked down at her, eyes narrowed and teeth bared.

He slammed a fist into the door just beside her head. "Why?"

Hermione sobbed. "I— I—" What could she say? There was nothing — nothing that could make them whole again, undo what she'd done.

He descended even closer, so near that she could feel his breath upon her, see the veins straining against his skin. "You. Are. Mine." His voice was a low growl.

She was frozen where she stood, her breath caught in her chest as she waited for him to unleash his torrent of anger upon her—

His lips descended upon hers. They were hard and bruising as they pressed against hers. She was frozen for a shocked moment, caught between the heat of his body and his mouth against hers as he kissed her—

kissed her—

And then she was kissing him back. She lifted her hands and pressed them against his chest, only for him to snatch them and slam them back against the door. She gasped against his lips, pressing back against him as she took him in, drinking in whatever he decided to give her.

Tears leaked down her cheek as she opened her mouth and granted him entrance, deepening the kiss. He tasted of everything she'd ever wanted ever needed. The wetness on her face smeared between them as he kissed her harder, and she gasped and sobbed into it, letting him take, take, take— whatever he wanted. Whatever he needed.

His lips were rough as they tore from hers and he made his way down her neck, suckling hard at the skin there and moving his way down, suckling and biting as he went. She gasped as he tore her shirt down the front and continued kissing and biting the skin there.

She moaned. "I—"

He grabbed her by the waist and flipped her around, pressing her hard against the door. He tore her ruined shirt from her frame before he moved to her leggings, tearing the thick material down until she stumbled in her haste to kick them away.

She gasped as he pressed her harder into the door, her cheek thudding into the wood. He was doing this, he was doing this here and now— "Silen—silenci—" she stumbled over the word as he shoved three fingers into her core.

"Stop." His voice was gruff in her ear. She felt the bare skin of his hips against hers before his cock slid inside. "Let them hear." And then he slammed forward, pressing her harder into the wood with every punishing thrust.

"Please, please, please," she gasped and moaned.

His pace was punishing as he continued to slam into her. It was— so good, so much better than she could have imagined, because he was there, and he was inside her, he was everywhere—

He pulled out and dragged her backward, walking them back until he pressed her forward and she stumbled backward onto the bed. The silence was thick with tension as he stood and watched her, eyes dark. She was bared to him entirely, bruised lips and skin, bared cunt and legs splayed wide. He was still tightly coiled, his skin dark in the low light where she could tell that it was flushed as red as the tip of his hard cock that still pointed at her from his open trousers. There was an inferno burning within him, the heat of it focused on her as he stepped closer.

She moved slowly as she raised her fingers to her brassiere, pulling open the front clasp and letting it fall away. She held his gaze the entire time, somehow knowing that if she dared looked away the spell of the moment would be shattered.

She let her mental walls fall. I need you. I need you. I need you. I—

He was upon her again. She fell backward as he pressed himself over her, propping himself up with one arm while using the other to guide his cock into her. His eyes roved over her, growing darker at each strangled gasp she let out as his cock slowly filled her.

"Draco," she moaned. He started to move then, rolling his hips as his eyes held hers. This was no less animalistic, no less possessive — his every movement whispered his dominion over her. The torrent of emotion within her built higher and higher, the waves threatening to crash over them.

She let them.

She let the force of her emotions wrap around them, bathe them, drown them, knowing words were nothing compared to the torrent she unleashed on them.

I need you. I need you. I—

I love you.

Tears leaked down her cheeks as her emotions overwhelmed her. I love you. I love you. I love you.

I love you.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY

Hermione's eyes opened the moment she felt a shift in the bed. The room was hued grey with dulled moonlight, dimming the brightly coloured furnishings. Despite this, Draco's hair still shone brightly as he slid out out the bed, and she longed to run her fingers through it, over his skin, to drink every part of him in because he was here

She froze. There was a gasp tangled in her throat, caught behind the lump that had lodged itself there. A long, jagged scar stretched across his back, the cut shallow yet still as raw as though it had occurred only moments before. She reached out and pressed a gentle finger to the tender skin above the scar. It was hard and ice-cold to the touch, and likely pulsing with the same pain her own arm did.

Her touch lasted but a moment before he wrenched away violently and stood, pulling on his trousers.

"Draco," she called softly. The word was painful as it came out, tearing her throat raw as she forced it out despite knowing how little she deserved to speak it.

The wound almost pulsed as his frame tensed, drawing out the silence. Her fingers curled in the sheets as she pressed her eyes closed and waited for him to start shouting. She deserved it all.

But the silence stretched on, so long that she chanced opening her eyes to find him facing her. His arms were crossed tightly over his chest, every inch of his expression speaking to the storm that lingered in the air between them.

"Speak." His voice was low, carrying a dangerous edge.

She opened her mouth and closed it. Any word that came to her mind felt inadequate, swallowed by the void that had erupted between them.

A vein pulsed in his neck. "Did you expect me to shout? To break things? Scream 'fuck you' until I'm hoarse?" He was upon her then, snatching up her fingers and gripping her glamoured ring hard. The skin beneath it was still raw and blistered, the only part of herself she hadn't tried to heal. "I've done that. Now speak." He threw her hand down and moved away, leaning back against the dresser that stood across the room.

She closed a hand over her ringed finger. Her throat tightened further each time she tried to open her mouth, the weight of what she'd done to them suffocating. "I—" she paused and swallowed, "I— I won't ask for your forgiveness. There aren't any words that can encompass how I feel. I let my doubt cloud me. I couldn't tell anymore. And when we were at the Manor— he's your father, and you were so jaded, and you said I couldn't trust you, but— I don't mean to say it as though I'm blaming it on you because I'm not, I just— I'm sorry. It was me, it was all me, and I should have trusted you— I do trust you because I— I—"

There was a ripple in his posture that brought seeping darkness with it, and she found herself snapping her lips shut. I love you. I love you. I love you, she'd wanted to say. The words had caught and stopped short before the shift in the room, the words lacing her tongue in a treasonous film. She had no right — she probably never would.

Draco shifted again, this time his fists tightening briefly where they gripped the dresser on either side of him. "You think it's because you betrayed me."

The sentence was a twisted amalgamation of a statement and a question. Everything in his posture still bled darkness as he watched her silently, teeming with something that had her trembling as she waited for him to explode.

But the silence stretched longer, and she found herself trying to fill it. "This war— it broke me, shattered everything I thought I'd known," she stumbled over every word, each feeling more useless than the last, "When I did it, I was just— so confused, so scared, but I shouldn't have been. Not of you, because you're—" Everything. He was everything, yet the harder she tried to hold onto him the more she felt him slipping away, sinking through her grip like sand.

He let out a sharp chuckle. "I was there. You were nothing if not clear on your reasoning. I was the one who told you that you couldn't trust me, wasn't I?" His fingers curled briefly before he gripped the dresser harder. "You thought I wanted to go back. I did. But I didn't go, did I?"

"I didn't know," she said quietly. "I didn't—"

Draco's eyes flashed. "It is one thing to think I would take you there— but you knew what would happen if he discovered our bond. He would have locked you in the dungeons. Tortured you. Or worse—" He cut off with a sharp intake of breath. "And yet you what? Love me?"

He threw the word between them and let it linger, festering with a detachment as cold as their twin wounds. Everything had been wrong, so wrong since she'd torn apart the delicate balance they'd built together, leaving it in tatters around them.

"I was ready to leave — ready to give up everything I've been fighting for to go with you and our child if that was what it came down to," he said, his voice laced with cold fury. "I was ready to lose my leg instead of letting any harm come to you. I've set everything on fire countless times because of you. So why?!"

She curled her fists tighter in the sheets to stop them from trembling. "I just— I didn't know— You've been clear from the beginning that your mother is your priority—"

"I have never given you a reason to doubt that I loved you!"

Her fists were tangled so tightly in the sheets that her nails dug into her skin through the thin fabric A deep greyness crept at the edges of her vision, pulsing in time with the pounding of her heart in her ears. The words curled in the air before her, swirling and re-forming as she tried to process them. He'd said— he'd said—

He let out another sharp, humorless laugh as his lips curled. "Ah," he said. "I'd forgotten that you thought me incapable of any sentiment."

He— loved her. There were a thousand things she wanted to say, yet every word felt so useless in the wake of what she'd done to him. "That's not fair," she whispered instead.

She regretted the unbidden words the moment they left her lips, but it was late, too, late, and his face was already reddening further, his jaw grinding as he stared her down. "Fuck you. Fair? You want to bring up fairness—"

"I sent you somewhere safe!" she said. The sheets fell away as she got out of the bed, the cool air chilling her naked skin. "I would have never sent you anywhere where you would have been in harm's way—"

"You thought I would have you locked up," he snapped, cutting her off, "So you did it first. Don't you fucking dare act as though you are some kind of martyr—"

"You looked me in my eye and told me I couldn't trust you!" she said. "I was so confused, so scared—"

"What kind of monster do you think I am?" He crossed his arms across his chest, glaring at her. "How little do you think of me that I would do that to my own wife?!" He spat the word wife as though it were poison. Perhaps she was.

"Did they?" she asked softly. "Lock you up?" Her heart clenched at the thought of him in chains.

He didn't answer. He turned away instead, storming over to the windowsill and bracing himself against it. She longed to walk up behind him and wrap her arms around him, to whisper how sorry she was. How much she loved him.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It isn't enough— not nearly enough to encompass what I've done to us. But I am. I will always be." Something curled in her stomach, filling her with a sinking feeling as the silence in the wake of her words stretched out. "I'll give you some space."

Fear. That was the feeling that had settled in her, radiating through her. Fear of losing him. Perhaps she already had.

She turned and started to gather the tattered remains of her clothing from the ground. She lifted her wand, ready to mutter cleaning and reparation charms when he spoke. It was only one word, yet it was enough to make her jerk and freeze, her heart flying into a staccato.

"Hermione."

She turned to look at him, at a loss. She'd always wondered what her name would sound like coming from his lips, but never like this.

"If you leave," he said slowly, "don't ever fucking come back."

At one time, she would have snapped back, told him to never try and threaten her again. This time, however, she simply stood frozen. She was losing him.

She ran a shaking ran through her hair. "I just don't know wh—" She turned to find him suddenly closer than she'd realized, looming over her with wild eyes as he looked down at—

Her arm.

She sucked in a sharp breath. Her hand slackened and the bundle of clothing fell to the floor. Her opposite hand immediately flew to cover it, but he was across the room in two quick strides, eyes blazing. He snatched her other arm away before she could cover the wound and turned her forearm to the low light, baring it.

The deep brown of her skin was mottled with an even deeper black, the bruising punctured red in the middle by the red of the wound. It was a jagged line with a slight nick at the end.

His hands were tight yet gentle as he twisted her arm toward himself. His fingers ghosted over the wound before he paused and drew them back. "Was it her?"

She'd thought she'd witnessed every facet of darkness in his tone. But this— this had her heart twisting and burning, her body frozen under the sudden force of his rage.

She wanted to lie, but she knew that he'd felt the answer before she put it in words. "I'm alright," she breathed.

His eyes blazed as they snapped to hers. "Do not lie to me—"

"I brought this upon myself," she said. She tried to pull away but his grip only tightened.

A myriad of expressions passed across his features then, each fracturing her heart further than the last. Was this what he'd been holding in all this time? Had this been swimming beneath the walls he'd so carefully erected, only to be shattered by what she'd done to him? Or had it simply been...her? Her eyes traveled from where he still gripped her arm, up to where his wild eyes were focused on her wound. He'd said it, that he—

"Did you mean it?" she asked softly.

He looked up at her, and her chest spasmed at the raw emotion she saw shining in them.

It was gone as quickly as it had come. "You don't realize that every road we could have taken would have brought us to this," he jerked his chin at her arm. "No matter what we would have done, there is only so much running, so much fighting we could do before we ended up exactly where we did—" He cut off, his entire form trembling with repressed anger.

Hermione swallowed. "Draco—"

"You thought the way you did because I'm a Malfoy," he said flatly. "You're clearly too blind to see that everything I've done lately has been me trying to rid myself of everything it means to be a damned Malfoy in the first place."

He dropped her arm abruptly and stormed into the bathroom, closing the door firmly behind him in dismissal.

X

She hovered in the room for a long while, prolonging the cleaning and repairing spells she'd performed on her clothing. He didn't emerge. She left when the rays of early morning illuminated the room, pulling the door closed behind her and looking at the other closed doors along the hall of the foreign space she now found herself in.

A door opened across from her. The kindly-faced man from the forest stepped out, his eyes widening in surprised recognition.

"You must be Hermione Granger," the man said, breaking the silence. "I'm Ted." He reached out a hand, and she blinked at him for a moment before shaking it.

"I— hello," she said.

The man chuckled. "I should apologize — you know little of me. Nymphadora has spoken quite highly of you, however. It was more than well earned — I must thank you again for saving my life."

"I'm sorry that it came to that," she said softly. "It shouldn't have happened at all."

His eyes dimmed. "There are many things we could say that about now, can't we?"

She nodded mutely.

"Are you hungry?" he said, nodding toward the steps. "Please, help yourself. I'm due for an Order meeting shortly, but please make yourself at home."

"Thank you," she said.

He smiled at her again before hurrying down the steps. She hovered for a moment before making her way down the steps, facing the room where the chaotic events of the previous night had unfolded. She averted her eyes and turned to duck through the archway next to the stairs only to pause mid-step.

Two women were seated quietly at the dining table, their eyes on her.

The one closest to her was a perfect inverse of Narcissa Malfoy. Where Narcissa was made of fair hair and eyes the color of the sky, she was dark. Her hair was a deep brown, her eyes an even deeper shade of hazel. She shared the same fine beauty as her counterpart, their difference betrayed only by the laugh lines etched around the woman's mouth.

Narcissa Malfoy herself sat beside the woman, watching Hermione with an unreadable expression on her face.

"Good morning," the dark-haired woman spoke. "I'm Andromeda. I've heard much about you. Please sit."

Hermione's chest tightened as she made her way to the table. "Good morning," she said carefully, her eyes straying to Andromeda for only a moment before moving back to Narcissa. "Good morning, Narcissa," she said, sliding out the only vacant seat, which was next to Narcissa.

"I imagine you both have much to talk about," Andromeda said, taking up her mug of tea and standing. "Do excuse me." She left without another word, leaving Hermione and Narcissa in silence.

It was Hermione who spoke first. "I know what I did," she said. "And I will regret it for the rest of my life. But I will never allow you to strike me again." She held Narcissa's gaze steadily.

The silence stretched for a long moment before Narcissa spoke. "Are you alright?" she said, nodding toward Hermione's arm.

Hermione stifled her surprise and nodded. "Yes," she answered.

Narcissa scoffed lightly. "You are not."

Hermione tensed but didn't argue.

"I am not accustomed to giving apologies," Narcissa said. Her slim fingers curled around her mug of tea, the imitation of the Malfoy family ring glinting in the morning light. "But I wish it had not happened."

Hermione fought the urge to curl in on herself, weighed down by all that she'd been suppressing.

"I was not aware of how they were tracking you," she said. Her eyes glinted. "I thought my son safer by placing him with the Order. Nowhere is truly safe in a war though, is it?"

Regret coursed through Hermione's system, as potent as it had been the moment she'd discovered the small orb in Draco's pocket.

"I'm sorry," Hermione said.

Narcissa watched her for another moment. "Do you know where he went when you sent him away?"

Hermione thought of the way his eyes had blazed as he'd found her the night before. "It was here, wasn't it?" There was a dull ache in Hermione's chest. "I'm sorry that I couldn't save him from anything, in the end," she said.

"War isn't about saving. It is about surviving." Narcissa said. She stood and turned to leave before pausing and looking down at Hermione. "He chose you."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The door clicked shut behind Narcissa, leaving the home in silence. Hermione stood, her eyes straying between where Narcissa had turned as she'd exited and where the stairs were. She could leave. It would be easy to walk away and disappear, to abandon the mess she'd made in hopes that it would sort itself in time.

She twitched toward the steps. She couldn't pinpoint when it had happened — only that at some point her world had detached itself and re-anchored around him. She could try to fool herself into thinking that walking through the door was a possibility, that she could somehow extricate herself from him, but she would never be able to ignore the compulsion that tugged at her belly like a string pulled taut

She was halfway up the steps before she registered that she'd been moving at all.

A half dozen more steps and she was stopped outside of the bedroom door. Another, and she was pushing it open and stepping inside. Her husband was sitting at the end of the bed, his head buried in his hands. He pulled them away and looked up at her as she entered, looking as impenetrable as he had ever been.

She pulled the door shut behind her, carefully holding his gaze. "There have been…" she trailed off, trying to sort through all that she wanted to say and trying to settle for one, " —so many times that I've tried to talk to you. But every time I've run into one of the dozens of walls that you've erected around yourself. Or you explode at me, we explode at each other, and we—"

Her heart stuttered as she recalled how many shouting matches had ended in slammed doors. Slammed doors, and then sex. How many times had they used their bodies instead of words?

They'd always been this broken, hadn't they?

They'd built whatever they had on a foundation of nothing, the ground they'd tried to build it upon crumbled from the beginning. They'd fought and had sex and had sex again, words swallowed by desperate physicality that they'd tried and failed to use to fill the wide nothing between them. Maybe it was what war had done to her — made her desperate to forget, and equally desperate to feel anything other than the crippling reality of what had come upon them.

"We've come to this— this indescribable position we've found ourselves in." She clenched and unclenched her hands tightly. "I love you Draco. And you knew— you knew before I did. It's why you trusted me. And I betrayed you anyway."

His expression tightened.

She crossed her arms, tucking her hands tightly into her elbows to stop them from twitching toward him. "Somehow, you love me too." Saying it out loud sent a shiver through her, the words slow as they came out as she still tried to process the truth of them. That, and the many other truths that lay bare between them, hovering untouched. "But you— you have filled me with so much doubt."

The few feet between them felt like a chasm, widening with every word she spoke. "How could I have known you loved me? You've turned me away at every opportunity. Any conversation that involves actually talking ends in a shouting match or in bed. But no words are ever spoken between us — nothing real, at least."

He was still as stone and said nothing.

"I've spent so much time doubting whether you cared for me at all. And now…now I don't even know what we are, Draco." She looked away from him, from the piercing gaze that seemed to bore into her soul. "I don't even know if we can be anything. What are we, if not each others' destruction?"

She fell silent then. She waited a beat for him to speak, for him to say something that would fill the chasm that only grew wider in the silence. Another beat passed and the silence felt almost palpable.

She let another pass before she left.

X

Her feet carried her outside. Melting snow peppered the landscape in hues of whites and browns as the muddied grass below was revealed, hastened by the sun's warmth as it peeked through the clouds. The property was surrounded by thick forest on all sides, tall trees with branches weighed down by the last of the winter's snow. There was a large pond a few dozen feet away, a small weathered dock perched at its edge. A man stood on the dock, a ray of sunlight illuminating his shock of red hair.

There was no mistaking that it was Ron.

The knot in her stomach tightened as she approached him. The sound of her feet crunching through the snow was not quiet, yet he did not move or acknowledge her presence even as she drew closer. She expected nothing less. She stopped beside him, watching the light breeze carry a broken sheet of ice across the water. He remained stiff and silent, the antithesis of all the tender softness she'd known in him.

It was Hermione who broke the silence. "I didn't know it would come to this," she started. There was no change in his demeanour. "The war was looming, and it was only a matter of time before I knew that we'd be on the run, fighting for our lives. When the Order came to me, I…I didn't expect to live out this war, Ron. It didn't matter enough for me to want to run or hide, though, because if it came out of the sacrifice for helping Harry win, for helping the next generation of Muggleborns live— then it's something I would have done a thousand times over. But Draco— he wasn't a factor that I'd ever considered."

Ron was still, frame tense and eyes still trained on the water before them.

"Ron…" she started before pausing, searching for a word that could encompass the pain she felt as she looked at him. "I love him," she said, whispering all the wrong words instead. "I didn't think I'd ever love him. But now he's everything, and it's all been mucked up and I don't know if we'll make it through this— but I'll never be able to say that I regret him, because I don't. I just know that now I'm so desperate to win, and to live, because—"

"When?" Ron was looking at her, eyes cold.

"Ron, you have to understand—"

"When?!"

Hermione swallowed. "Last year — after the Christmas holiday."

Ron's manic laugh echoed in the air, the leaves rustling in the bushes nearest them as something scurried away. "Over a year." He laughed again, the words hollow and disjointed. "You've been married — for a bloody year."

"I didn't expect them to come to me, I didn't expect any of—"

"Them?!" he spat, his features blossoming redder as he spoke. "You made a choice. And I—" he huffed out a sound that fell somewhere between a laugh and a cry, "— I would have waited for you— I would have waited forever for you."

Her stomach was coiled so tightly that it felt like she was simultaneously contracting inward and ready to shatter. "You didn't deserve to get caught up in any of this—"

"Then why did you let me be?!" His entire body was heaving with the force of his words. "Why did you let me hold on to hope like a bloody fool?! To me, you were—" He cut off, dragging his hands through his hair.

She touched his arm. "Ron—" He wrenched away and she turned to follow him only to pause mid-step.

Harry stood a few feet away, eyes blazing with as much fury as Ron's. "Why are you even here?" he asked, his voice low and cold. "Was it worth it? Was it worth abandoning us for him?"

"Did I mean anything to you?" Ron said, still dragging his hands through his hair. "Was it fun, fucking me and leading me on and getting married behind my back—"

Hermione clenched a fist. "I didn't know then, I never would have done that to you—"

"Never?" Ron spat. "If you expect us to believe a damn thing you say ever again—"

"That's not fair, Ron." Her chest grew tighter. "I never stopped fighting on your side."

"You think you deserve to say that after you told us that you're married to Malfoy?!" Harry exploded. "There was a time when we trusted you, and now I can't even look at you—"

"Fuck you, Potter." Hermione whirled to find Draco standing but a few feet away, his features dark. She hadn't even noticed his approach over the growing pounding in her head, clouding her vision with dark splotches at its edges.

There was a shift in Ron's tone when he spoke again, the void of anger suddenly filled with something much emptier. "You— you were with him at Grimmauld, the last time we— when you—" His face was white, quickly flushing red at the edges. "Was he there?" His eyes went behind her then, and she knew without looking that he could read the truth in Draco's eyes.

"You disgust me," Ron snapped. "You—"

A spell flew out of Draco's wand and singed past Ron before he could utter another word. "She's not yours anymore, Weasley—"

"ENOUGH!" Hermione was left heaving in the wake of her scream, her harsh breaths the only sound in the sudden silence. She sent Ron's and Harry's wands flying off into the snow with two quick flicks of her wrist. Ron's eyes were slightly wide as she stepped toward him, anger blazing through her. "I belong to no one. Do you think that it's been easy? That any of this has been easy?!"

She heard Harry scoff from behind her. "Fucking Malfoy was that difficult?"

"Damn you, Harry!" She bore down on him, feeling the spark of magic igniting on her fingertips. "You have no idea what I've been through to help the Order. I have never strayed from your side, not once!" Her body felt aflame with the rage that burned through her. "I have sacrificed so, so much fighting this war, and you try to talk to me about trust? About loyalty?"

She looked over at Ron, his expression still stony. "I have never stopped loving either one of you— never stopped fighting for you. But you will never, ever ask me to say that I regret him, because I don't." She looked around at the three men again, her muscles tensing further. "You have no right to speak to me that way after everything I've done for you. I have always chosen you, believed in you. And I am tired of being treated like this war hasn't upended everything I've ever known too — like this war isn't threatening to consume everything I love."

She turned and stormed into the house, letting the door slam in her wake.

X

She opened the door to the room — their room, she supposed — to find their trunks pushed against the far wall. Her eyes strayed to the bed, the weariness in her bones urging her to curl up in it and sleep for days. But her eyes were drawn to her trunk and what had lain buried deep within it for too long. There was a hollow pang deep in her chest, ringing with a familiarity she'd tried and tried to suppress by forcing down the memory of what she'd done.

She was pulling open the lid of her trunk moments later, for once dismissing the urge that told her to turn away. She dug through to the bottom of the trunk, feeling raw with pain as she peeled back yet another layer of what she'd been trying to suppress. The gleam of the silver box was visible even in the dark corner she'd shoved it in, and her fingers trembled as she lifted it out. The latch gave a small whir and released at the brush of her fingertips.

The first thing she was was the smiling faces of her parents as they hugged her tightly, their eyes squinting as the magical camera flashed. She had no more tears left to shed, but it did not stop her chest from shaking and spasming as she thumbed through the pictures and shrunken trinkets she'd stowed inside. Pain had become little but a stream that had formed somewhere in her mind, threatening to suck her into its dangerous undercurrent if she strayed too close. Today, she welcomed it. She let it drown her as she looked through everything, savouring each memory captured in the photographs and letting her touch linger on each item as she touched it.

She didn't notice them until she neared the bottom. She'd been lifting out one of the last photographs when something rolled out from beneath the pile, and she froze as she recognized it. A vial. Her lips fell open as she lifted the photographs to find more of them beneath. Seven total, each swirling with iridescent mist.

Not mist — memories.

Her parents' memories in their entirety. Everything she'd stolen from them intact and in her hands, while she'd spent the better part of the last year thinking them lost in the ashes of her home. Her knees buckled beneath her and she sank to the floor, her hands trembling as she clutched the vial.

The door clicked shut behind her, and she looked over her shoulder to find Draco standing there, watching her silently. She held the vial in her hands tightly as she stood to face him, her heart still racing.

"When?" she whispered, watching his eyes flicker to the vial and back to hers.

"The same day," he said. His voice was soft, tinged with the same weariness she felt. "Are they yours?"

She shook her head softly, rolling the vial gently between her fingers. "My parents'. It's… everything I stole from them."

She heard him let out a short breath. "You were protecting them."

"I thought I'd lost these forever," she said, looking up at him. "I don't know if words are enough to express my gratitude."

"Why did you give me access?" he asked, nodding toward where the rest of the vials sat in the box.

It had been a hasty decision at the time, but she hadn't been uncertain either when she'd charmed the lock to her husband's touch as well. "I thought that if something ever happened to me...that you'd save them."

"You hated me then. You didn't know what would happen between us, but you trusted me anyway."

She met his eyes, knowing her own were burning with emotion. "I trusted you because I just knew." She paused, her hand tightening around the vial. "Can you ever trust me again?"

There was a beat of silence before he answered. "Yes."

"I don't want things to end between us," she said. "But we can't continue as we are. We'll be each other's destruction if we do."

Draco remained stoic for a moment before he gave a short, nearly imperceptible nod.

She crossed over to him and took his hand in hers, wondering if she'd imagined the slight shiver that went through him at the touch. She sat down beside him and curled her fingers through his. The feel of his hand in hers was something she'd grown used to, but it had only ever occurred when they were rushing into or out of harm's way. Until now, she'd had no idea what it was to feel the weight of it as they sat idly, feeling the ridges of his warm palm against hers.

"Do you think we can survive this war?" she asked, feeling her own answer to the question echoed in the empty feeling deep in her stomach.

His hand tensed in hers. "No."

Hermione looked down at the floor. Every part of her wanted to see this through — live this through — for him. "Do you want to survive this war?"

She looked up at him to find his eyes already on hers, burning with the same intensity as the feeling in her chest. "Yes."

She lifted the hand that wasn't tangled in his and cupped his cheek. "I want to survive this— for you." She felt her chest constricting as she thought of how slim the chances of both of them living through it were. "You're all I have left, Draco."

Hermione's throat felt dry as she came to terms with the words. She might never be able to properly restore her parents' memories, or her friendships with Harry and Ron—

"Stop."

She looked up just as Draco's lips descended upon hers, neither gentle nor bruising as he kissed her. He pulled away only when she was near breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He caught her by the chin and pressed another slow kiss to her lips, pulling back just far enough that their lips barely brushed as he spoke. "I'm here."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Hermione listened to the steady rhythm of Draco's heartbeat through his shirt, her head pillowed to his chest. One of his hands played absently in her hair while the other held her to his side.

It had been hours, surely. The room had long since darkened as the daylight fled, its few furnishings, now shrouded in shadow, served as an inconsequential measure of the time that had passed. They'd spent the day wrapped in the same position, shifting only for the most pressing of needs before they'd found themselves pulled back toward one another. She'd last risen to excuse herself to the loo, only to open the door and find Draco hovering outside of it, his expression dark and eyes wild as she pulled him into her. Words hadn't been exchanged, yet she'd poured her reassurances into her subsequent embrace, gently pushing him back toward the bed and climbing in beside him, pressing herself against him as completely as she could.

When he went to get them food, she found herself hovering as he had. There was a sickening tug deep in her stomach, lurching as the timeless void they'd been in for the day disappeared as he pulled the door closed behind him. In its wake was left an endless stretch of it, every second they'd let slip away in their solitude returning with a cold vengeance, the newfound emptiness leaving a seeping chill settling in her bones.

By the time she heard his footsteps approaching down the hall, she'd already been pulling open the door. He'd seen something in her expression — something that had him spelling the two plates that hovered before him to go land with a loud clatter upon the dresser as he gathered her in his arms. The emptiness she felt in his absence was indescribable until he returned and she suddenly felt wont to burst with all the words that tried to fit the sense of completion she felt in his arms while still falling short.

Had she always been this lost?

He had been seared into her somewhere, branded deep in her spirit. She'd thought the bond had created an inextricable force, his presence lingering in the back of her mind. But this—

This had been her doing. And his.

She hadn't known what it was like just to be held by him, and now she lamented the thought of him ever letting go. They'd exchanged few words, each speaking only briefly before they'd retreat into silence, holding each other until one — or both — of them drifted to sleep. Even unconscious, she'd kept herself pressed to him, and awoke to find his iron grip holding her even tighter as she shifted. Even now as she curled a tense hand in his shirt and tilted her head to look up at him, she found the reflection of all that pulsed within her reflected in his eyes.

She was surprised when he spoke first after hours of silence. "I would ask how you did it, but I'd nearly forgotten that we keep the potions next to the tea," he murmured.

She tore her eyes from his, her fist curling tighter in his shirt as she recalled the hasty decision she'd made that had upended their relationship. Regret throbbed in her chest, burning through her body as thoroughly as the memories of her betrayal.

His arm curled tighter around her, and her racing heartbeat immediately began to slow.

A long silence stretched before either of them spoke again. "How did you find me?" Her voice felt overly loud in the quiet room.

She felt the shift in his chest as he sucked in a breath before he answered. "Your spell," he answered. He let out a short puff of air that could have almost been mistaken for a laugh were it not for the hollowed emptiness of the sound. "You bled— all over my shirt."

She paused, her throat tangling around her breath as she thought of the panic of his discovery. Her blood soaking his shirt as he lay immobile, struggling to compute what had occurred. Her traitorous presence lingering at the back on his mind—

She froze.

"Did—" her throat grew tighter as she tried to speak the words, "did you feel it?"

His chest tensed and then dipped before he answered her tightly. "Yes."

Her stomach roiled and lurched as she scrambled to sit upright, her mind assaulted with images of the blinding pain—

Draco caught her by the shoulders, halting her movements. "Granger," he said, "stop."

"You felt—" she cut off, feeling her stomach lurch again as she recalled the inferno that had torn at her from within, burning and tearing as it threatened to consume her whole. Her muscles twitched and spasmed as the ghost of the assault haunted her, descending upon her unbidden and drowning her in the abyss once more—

"Granger!" Draco snapped. His hand was at her chin then, forcing it up until she looked at him. "Stop."

Her breaths were low and shallow as she tried to quell the roiling in her stomach and the spasms that radiated through her, focusing on the look in his deep grey eyes.

It took several tries for her to speak. "Draco—" The word was empty and broken when she finally spoke it, ringing with the searing pain of the memory.

Her hands fluttered and spasmed before her as she tried and failed to banish the memory of Bellatrix's manic eyes glittering with malice before the inferno hit her, drowning her in its embrace as it pulled her deeper, and deeper still—

Draco's hands caught her wrists this time, his touch gentler but just as firm as he held her hands in his. "Granger— it's over."

Her heart continued to flutter and pound in her chest as she looked back at him, struggling to suppress the lump that had risen in her throat. A long moment stretched between them before she felt the tensed, spasming muscles in her back start to relax. When she shifted forward, he searched her eyes for a moment before he let her hands fall from his grip.

Slowly, gently, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close. She pressed herself close to him as her hands wrapped tighter, allowing herself to inhale his scent deeply as she did. "I— was so scared," she said, the lump in her throat swallowing the "for you" that was supposed to follow as she recalled how hard she'd chanted his name to herself, holding on tightly to the life that was no longer hers alone. "Were you?" she added softly.

There was a ripple through his form as he tensed for a moment before she felt his arms close around her back, closing the mere sliver of space that was left between them. "For you," he spoke into her hair after a moment.

Her chest tightened and contracted, and she let out a breathless sob as she buried her face in his neck, trying to ignore the way her fingers still trembled and spasmed.

She didn't know how much time passed before they found themselves in the same position they'd been in nearly the entire day once more, her curled into his side as he held her tightly to him, her fingers tracing lightly over his clothed chest.

"What are we going to do?" she asked, breaking the long silence.

She found herself feeling for the dip in his chest once more before he responded. "Survive," he said, his voice rigid.

"Long enough to kill her," Hermione added, finishing the words of their mission that had become so much more.

Her stomach hardened. There had been a part of her that had always known from the moment she'd said yes that she was plunging herself into the unknown, stepping into an uncertain future as she would try to navigate the marriage and the war that she'd swiftly and suddenly found herself in.

She entered it expecting sacrifice — sacrifice of her freedom, of relationship with Ron, of much of what she'd ever known. She'd held no affection for Draco at the time — only a desperate need to mitigate the inevitable destruction this war would affect upon them, even if it was just through securing an invaluable ally by way of bonding herself to one of the last people she would be able to save.

But Draco had somehow become the center of her existence, his very presence filling her with a desperate desire to survive. She wanted to live for this. For this and all of the moments like it to come, in a world where there was no more running, fighting, or hiding.

Draco shifting to look down at her pulled her out of her thoughts. What shone in his eyes made her realize that he'd felt all that she had gone through her mind at that moment, and her heart clenched as she raised her hands and ran them over his chest, eyes roving him as she memorized every part of him. How much time did they have before these moments would be gone forever, stolen and swallowed by the burdens of war?

"Granger." His voice was at once reassuring and saddening, leaving her feeling bereft within as she wondered how many more of these moments she had left with him. "Stop," he said, repeating his earlier words in a whisper.

She met his eyes once more and leaned in, pressing her lips to his in a gentle kiss.

X

A low rap on the door made Hermione stir, opening her eyes to find herself still curled into Draco's side. Dawn had barely begun to settle on the horizon, and the darkness had only just begun to fade. She moved to sit up and found Draco wide awake and doing the same, sliding out of the bed in a fluid movement.

There was another rap on the door. "Draco?" Andromeda's voice called.

It was strange, she realized, to hear his name being called by someone other than herself. The mere sound of it set her on edge, her body tensing as she watched him cross the room, wondering what would be requested of them.

Draco pulled open the door. Andromeda stood outside with a small, strained smile on her features. "I've come to speak with Hermione, actually," she said, peeking at her over Draco's shoulder.

Hermione sat up straighter. "Good morning," she said, her voice raspy with sleep.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your sleep," she said, and Hermione flushed as she recalled the other occupants of the home that had all but ceased to exist the previous day as she'd been aware only of Draco's presence. Andromeda's smile grew, yet didn't meet her eyes. "Kingsley has asked to meet with you."

A weight settled in Hermione's chest. She'd forced the wider repercussions of what she'd done into the back of her mind, and they had now come slamming back painfully.

"We'll go shortly," Draco cut in. There was an edge to his voice that dragged her out of her thoughts, and she caught the tension that had settled in his figure.

They didn't speak as they changed out of the clothes they hadn't bothered to leave one another's arms long enough to change out of the day before. The silence stretched even as they opened the small pouch with a portkey inside that Andromeda had left them. The solace they'd been built in the room had been shattered by the reality Andromeda's message had brought upon them. It was only just before he dropped the small coin into her palm that he took her hand and gave her a short nod before they were sucked away.

The portkey deposited them on a slushy patch of grass outside of a cottage. A biting cold still lingered in the air, and Hermione could see the small puffs of her breaths dissipating in the air as she observed their surroundings. They were in a small clearing in an otherwise densely packed forest. She forced her eyes away from where she'd already begun distinguishing the differences in the flora at the cabin she now called theirs, stowing away the memory as she turned and faced the door. It was a nondescript wooden door plastered with peeling paint, yet she felt the weight that had settled in her stomach growing heavier as she stared at it.

She caught Draco move beside her at the edges of her vision, still as stoic as he had been since they'd left Andromeda's. Something within her urged her to move toward him, yet she found her feet carrying her toward the door instead.

Draco caught her by the arm, halting her movements. She turned to find him strained and tense, his eyes flickering to the cottage and back to her.

"Draco?" she asked softly, raising her other hand to reach out to him.

He caught it mid-air. His grip was tight as he stared at her fingers, his eyes flickering to the cottage once more. She could see the outlines of his tensed veins as his grip grew almost painful. His eyes landed back upon hers then. There was a wild, almost feral edge to them, and she could almost see the reflection of her own wide eyes in them. She felt a warm brush of magic on her fingers, and forced her eyes away from his to look down.

"Oh," she breathed.

Her ring was now uncovered, sparkling at its full brilliance even in the muted sunlight. She looked down at where his other hand still held her arm and saw his own ring exposed. How long had it been since she'd seen it last? On the night they'd married she'd given it only the briefest of looks, but now seeing the twin brilliance of their rings uncovered sent a surge of emotion rising within her.

She watched as Draco's hand slipped from her arm to take her hand. He pulled her forward and stopped only when they reached the door. She allowed her mind to fold her wants deep away, her hand settling on the weathered edges of the doorknob and twisting it open.

She'd almost forgotten about the other members of the Order.

Her world had shrunken to accommodate the presence of so few that she found herself frozen in the open doorway as she looked at the dozen people that had paused and looked up at her entrance. At her, and the man that darkened the doorway behind her. She let herself register some of them — George, Hannah, Mr. Weasley, Dean, Parvati— before her eyes settled on Kingsley. He stood at the head of the room, a map with several glowing marks upon it dominating the wall behind him.

Draco's hand tightened around hers, and she felt the heat of him behind her as he stepped closer. His grip was so tight that it was near–trembling. She swallowed and open her mouth, not knowing what to say but knowing that sickening silence had to be broken somehow–

"Come with me," Kingsley said. His voice was low and his eyes inscrutable as he looked behind her and up at her husband.

The intense silence followed them as they fell into step behind Kingsley, following him out of the room and down a long hallway until they reached the darkened door at the end of it. Kingsley opened it and went down the steps without a word, stopping only when they reached the bottom.

Moody stood at the table that dominated the majority of the room, the walls of which were adorned with maps with glowing coordinates and torn pieces of parchment with notes jotted down on them alike. Moody's lips were flat as he appraised them from where he had been bent over the map, a quill still perched in his right hand that dripped ink onto the tabletop.

It was Kingsley who opened his mouth first, but the voice she heard came from behind her.

"Let us make something clear," Draco said from behind her, his voice dripping with disdain, "you will never summon my wife or I again."

Kingsley's lips flattened, and a tense muscle jumped in his jaw. "Your wife," he enunciated, "entered an agreement in understanding of the perilous circumstances this war has put us in. It is no fault of ours that you seem to be unable to do the same."

Her chest tightened and her fists clenched, but Draco spoke before she could. "And you seem to be under the mistaken impression that we are puppets to your every whim, whether it serves this war or not," Draco seethed. "You took advantage of her desperation and that bastard's manipulation to trap her into carrying out the missions that you would not let those most precious to you touch."

Moody slammed a fist on the table. "There are privileges to being a member of the Order that the likes of 'ye have not earned. Best learn your place –"

"I know my place!" Draco's tone was lower, yet more venomous than before. "You are under the mistaken impression that yours is somehow above it –"

"You knew what you agreed to when you came to us," Kingsley said. "Do you think that because your mother was the one who was begging that we didn't see your desperation, too?"

"Damn you!" Hermione shouted, feeling her figure start to tremble with rage. "It seems that you need a reminder that the privilege our marriage bond granted us is held by us alone," she said lowly, glaring between the two men that stood across from them. "You seem to think that we would never speak aloud what you have asked us to do, what you have tried to force us into throughout this war. The bond makes it so that we can never be compelled to reveal any of our dealings together, but it is and has always been our choice whether we speak of what you have forced us into or not."

"We have asked nothing of you that was not required of this war," Kingsley said. "Have you forgotten?"

"There hasn't been a day that has passed that she hasn't remembered that," Draco snapped from behind her.

Hermione felt her heart clench. "I agreed because I wanted to save the ones I love. I agreed because I wanted to fight with the Order, knowing that I was fighting for something – not to be tossed away and forgotten, called upon only in times of need. And the one time I show up, I am berated, thrown out, and forgotten. Did you think I hadn't noticed?" Not a word had come from the Order since her pregnancy scare, reminding her how useless she'd been deemed once they considered her too much of a risk.

"Yer task was to be called upon when you were needed," Moody said, his glass eye whirring as he narrowed it upon her. "And you've gone and revealed yourself, forcing our only spy out of hiding–"

Draco surged forward, stopped only by the way she held him tightly by the hand. "We have done enough," he said. His entire frame was coiled with tension, ready to snap at any moment. "This is the mess you made. Clean it up by your damn selves."

This time she allowed him to pull her with him as he turned and stormed up the stairs, leaving Kingsley and Moody to stew in silence.

X

She didn't say a word as she followed him back to what had become their room, watching him carefully as the tension that had been present since their encounter with Kingsley and Moody did not bleed away from his form.

"I'm sorry," she said.

He paused where he was bent over his trunk. "You have nothing to be sorry about," he answered.

She tried to ignore the gruffness in his voice as she spoke again. "About your mother," she said, ringing in her fingers together as she looked down in her lap. "Because of me–"

"Because of you she is no longer there — unprotected, doing specifically what I asked her not to–" his fists clenched at his side as he cut off.

Hermione crossed over to him and took his tensed hand between both of hers until he relaxed it. "Draco—"

"Andromeda— they haven't spoken in years. But I can see it in her eyes— she would raze the Order if they tried to put my mother out." He turned to her then and met her eyes meaningfully. "All you've done is force her to come where it's safest."

Hermione swallowed. "At the sacrifice of—"

"The only reason it took them as long as it did to find us was because of the wards," he said, his voice tight. "I know that you're aware. The longer we spent outside of the wards, the faster they found us, and in the end it was you alone—"

A sharp rap on the door interrupted them.

Hermione turned toward the sound, her hands tightening around where she still held Draco's before she let go and crossed over to the door.

She hadn't known who she was expecting, but who stood before her left her at a loss for words all the same.

Harry.

His eyes were dark and guarded as he peered past her and into the room at Draco for a long beat. Hermione forced down the swift wave of anger that rose within her as she caught the look he gave Draco, schooling her tone as she started to speak. "Harry," she said flatly.

His eyes seemed to darken further when they landed upon her. He said nothing for a moment, and instead lifted the book he held in his hands, letting the light fall upon the title. It was her copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, still dog-eared and stuffed with the notes she'd placed in it when she'd asked Kingsley to give it to Harry what felt like a lifetime ago.

"The war comes first," he said stiffly.

She stared hard at the book before looking back up at Harry. "Was it helpful?"

He gave her a short, sharp nod. "Yes." His eyes shot toward Draco once more.

"He knows everything," she said.

Harry gave her a long look that she met with a defiant look of her own. "Things are coming to a head. I can feel it. I can feel— him."

Hermione thought of the coil of tension that had been forming in her stomach for years, growing tighter each day as it grew closer to snapping. "I can feel it too," she said, her voice softer than before.

"We can talk tomorrow," Harry said, already turning and heading back down the hall.

"Tomorrow," she said after him, watching as he slipped into a room across the hall.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Hermione rapped on the door softly and waited for a response. None came. Instead, the door swung open to reveal an enlarged closet filled with piles of boxes. Harry sat atop one of the boxes, his fingers steepled under his chin as he glared hard at the wall across from him. Harry leaned against the far wall, watching them with dark eyes as they stepped into the room. Hermione's hand twitched backward toward Draco's warmth, and she felt the brush of his fingers against hers for a brief moment before she caught Ron's eyes snap to her. She paused and pulled back, the silence stretching on as Ron's eyes shifted to where Draco stood behind her, his eyes darkening further with each moment that passed.

Hermione cleared her throat and opened her mouth to speak.

"Let's get on with it, then," Harry said, standing abruptly.

Hermione met his eyes and nodded. There would be time for this — perhaps — if they somehow managed to survive this war. "I suppose we should begin with what you've done so far," Hermione started, pausing halfway as she realized how carelessly she'd spoken.

Ron's eyes snapped to her and he scoffed, the hollow sound filling what little air the tension hadn't yet consumed. "Is that right?" His eyes slid between her and Draco, as his face remained red, his features rigid with tension.

"This isn't about us, Ron," Hermione said stiffly.

"Isn't it, though?" It was Harry that spoke this time. "Imagine, where we would be if you'd been here as we needed—"

Hermione was acutely aware of Draco's heat behind her as he shifted. "Potter," he started, his voice low in warning.

Ron stood moved forward abruptly, knocking over a box that spilled out several shrunken items of furniture across the stone floor. "Malfoy," he spat.

"Did you read what I sent you?" Hermione cut in, her eyes on Harry.

Harry gave her a short nod. "Yeah," he said, the word forced through tightly clenched teeth.

"Did it help?" she asked. Her words felt like nothing more than something to fill the silence, forcing something out of the strange truce they had tried to form.

She expected another short answer, yet watched as Harry's entire demeanor shifted, seeming to deflate as her words hit him. "The deathly hallows," he said. "Do you remember them?"

Hermione was already nodding, knowing she'd already committed the entirety of the book to memory. "Your cloak," she said, recalling the night she marked the page. "I wasn't certain, but Dumbledore, and the description..."

"Dumbledore did everything by halves, didn't he?"

She almost laughed.

Almost.

There was a ripple at the corner of her vision, and Ron stepped forward again. "Is that all, then?" he said.

"Hardly," Hermione said. "We still need to discuss-"

"Horcruxes," Draco said. He stepped beside her, his knuckles brushing deliberately against hers as he looked Ron squarely in the eye.

Just the word had Harry twitching in a movement that mirrored Hermione's own. She watched as the tension flooded back into his form, his expression shuttering from troubled to cold in an instant. "Horcruxes," he repeated, his voice flat.

"Did my notes-"

"Substitute for your presence?" Ron cut her off. "Not at all."

Heat rose within her as her jaw tightened. "Speak, then, Ronald," she said, crossing her arms, "since you appear to be so well versed in exactly what I was doing."

This time, his scoff twisted into a manic laugh. "And you expect me to think that sleeping with this—-"

"I've met with you with the intention that we all speak freely," Hermione snapped, stepping closer to him, "but do not think for a moment that I will let you speak ill of my husband in front of me in any form."

"Quick, isn't it, how soon he went from tormenting you to—"

Four wands were brandished in an instant. Draco's was pressed into Ron's throat, while Ron's dug into Draco's chest. Harry's was a mere inch from Draco's temple.

Hermione's was pressed deep into Harry's chest.

"We won't do this," she said slowly, "because if we do we won't be able to stop and there are too many lives that we have to protect."

She dropped her wand and caught Harry's wrist. Harry's eyes flamed and she glared back, grasping the end of his wand with her free hand. "You know better than anyone that we haven't the time, Harry," she said. Her eyes traveled over his face, taking in the dark circles under his eyes and the lines of tension that she was certain hadn't been there the last time she'd seen him— seven months ago that felt like a lifetime—

Harry wrenched his hand out of her grip, interrupting her thoughts. "Drop your wand, Ron."

Ron's flush deepened even as he slowly lowered his wand, watching Draco's every movement as Draco did the same.

A split second later, Draco's wand was flying through the air.

Hermione whirled to glare at where Harry was lowering his wand, his glare trains on Draco. "Don't ask me to trust him. I never will. Don't ask me to apologize, because I won't."

"There is too much at stake for us to get caught in petty squabbles—"

Draco caught her by the arm, stopping her. "I let him do it, Granger. If it'll help us get a damned thing done, then so be it."

Hermione met his eyes, seeing the truth of his words in them.

Harry cleared his throat, making her pull back just as her fingers brushed Draco's. "I suppose we'll have to find somewhere to start," he said gruffly, crossing the room and nearly tripping over the box Ron had knocked over earlier. Hermione watched as he cursed under his breath before he started spelling shrunken furniture and trinkets she couldn't identify back into the box.

"Andromeda's last home was compromised," Harry said. "She had to move. Quickly."

Hermione nodded. "Have you been in safe houses since…?"

Harry looked away. "Mostly."

Hermione looked over at Ron to find him watching her, his eyes dark. "I put everything I thought you'd need in the bag—"

Ron laughed, the sound chilling. "Forgetting that what we'd needed most was you."

"She was never at your disposal—"

"Horcruxes," Hermione said, cutting Draco off. "Everything begins and ends there, so it's where we'll begin."

"No," Ron said, straightening. "We'll start with why you m—-" His jaw clenched as his fists tightened, "why he is here in the first place."

She knew it had been coming, yet found herself unprepared all the same. Her chest tightened as she sucked in a slow breath. "Dumbledore…" she trailed off, her fingers twitching toward Draco. How could she equate him when he was—- everything, to the circumstances that they'd begun with? She could feel a tight beat of tension thrumming where Draco lingered at the back of her mind, mirroring the way his fists tightened in her peripheral.

It was Draco who answered. "My mother is the Order's informant. Her price was my protection." Hermione turned surprised eyes to him in time to catch his low scoff as he looked at Harry. "What better way to ensure my protection than to bind my life to that of Potter's best friend?"

"He's more to me than where we began," Hermione said, finding her voice. "I know— I know that this isn't how you should have found out, but it's an irreversible truth. A truth that I wouldn't reverse if I could."

Hermione watched as Ron's jaw worked, but he said nothing.

The silence lingered several moments longer before Harry spoke. "Are you certain about the fiendfyre?"

Hermione blinked for a moment at his dismissal. "Yes," she said. "It works."

Ron crossed his arms. "And how, exactly, would you know?"

Draco stiffened. "We know because Bellatrix Lestrange is making Horcruxes of her own."

"She's…" Harry let out a strangled laugh. "I can't be surprised now, can I?" Hermione watched as he deflated, the weight of the war almost tangible as it weighed him down.

She took an instinctive step closer before pulling back. "We can destroy them, Harry," she said. "I swear it. We've already destroyed two. Draco understands— everything about her, and I've seen it myself."

"What do you mean you've seen it?" Ron asked.

Hermione ran a hand through her hair. "I've seen the horcruxes. I've seen...her, and I—"

Harry shot to his feet. "You saw her and you didn't kill her?!"

Draco tensed. "We have."

Hermione straightened. "How exactly did Voldemort come back, Harry?"

Harry's jaw worked as he flushed red. "Don't patronize me—"

"If we'd killed her, how could we know with absolute certainty that we'd gotten all of them? Can you trust that she can die before we find out if she'll be back in another decade, tormenting our own children?" Even as the words came out they felt detached, attributed to someone in another existence who saw a future beyond the days ahead that only seemed to be shortening.

"There is no one—" Draco spoke through gritted teeth, "no one that wishes her dead more than I. But I want her end to be final."

"Have you found any more?" Hermione watched as a look passed between Harry and Ron before Harry gave her a sharp nod.

"One," Ron said, reaching under his collar to pull out a necklace that hung around his neck. "This locket."

X

Hermione ran a finger through the light layer of condensation upon the windowsill, rubbing the wetness between her fingertips. She watched the moisture disappear into her skin until her eyes blurred. The silence of the room was broken only by the low noise of the shower running in the bathroom, and she noticed it only when the noise stopped. A few moments later, her husband emerged from the bathroom, wetness glistening on his skin as only the towel slung low on his hips covered his nakedness.

He was watching her. "Are you alright?" he asked, stepping closer.

Hermione nodded. "I'm just…" she met his eyes, and the words she'd wanted to use to brush it off died on her lips. "I'm worried about Harry and Ron," she said. "They wore a Horcrux for months— on their own and I…" she bit her lip.

"They're grown men," he said. "You can't account for their every movement."

Hermione sighed. "I know. It's just— they wore a Horcrux for months. And they almost got themselves killed. If the Order hadn't incapacitated Yaxley—" Her words died on her lips. It had been her, after all, who'd truly incapacitated the man.

Draco caught her by the hand. "None of this is on you, Granger," he said, his eyes meeting hers.

She reached up and brushed a hand through his still wet hair, wordlessly casting a drying spell on his locks.

Her fingers drifted down to his jaw, the drying spell following the path of her fingertips as it caught the stray droplets that lingered on his skin. The air shifted in time with his slow exhale that had his warm breath fanning over her fingertips. She shivered as her skin tingled, every inch of her suddenly thrown into the reminder of how long it had been since they'd last been intimate.

His eyes darkened as her fingers trailed lower, brushing down the side of his neck in the place that she knew made him shiver when she kissed him there. Lower still, and she raised her other hand to his chest, making their descent slow as she moved them over every ridge in his abdomen. She fanned her fingers outward as she reached the edge of his towel, her eyes never straying from his.

It took only a soft brush to make his towel pool at his feet.

His soft pink cock was slowly flushing red, hardening further as she grasped it. She lowered herself to her knees in one fell swoop, capturing his tip between her lips and touching her tongue to the salty wetness while her hands wrapped around his pulsing warmth—

A hard rap on the door froze her mid-movement. She looked up at Draco from beneath her lashes, watching the way his form shuddered lightly as everything in his stance shouted at her not to stop—

Another hard rap, and— "Hermione." Ron's voice was cold and flat.

She pulled her lips off of Draco's cock and let her hands fall away from the heat of him. She straightened, watching as Draco snapped his towel up from the floor.

"Wait—" He moved so quickly that she managed only to utter part of her protest before he was pulling open the door.

Ron was rigid, his eyes flicking between the two of them so quickly that it left no room for any of the explanations that came to and died upon her lips. Despite the fact that she was still fully dressed, she knew that Ron's judgments had been set before he'd set foot in the room.

Instead, she found herself straightening and clearing her throat. "Yes?" she asked, meeting Ron's eyes steadily.

Ron's eyes flickered to Draco before landing back upon her. "Come."

She nodded and crossed the room, grasping Draco's arm where it held the door open, blocking her path. She squeezed it softly and he stepped aside just enough for her to slip past. "I'll be back soon," she murmured, brushing his fingers as she passed.

Ron was already halfway down the hall. She followed him quietly, down the stairs and out the door and across the slushy ground. He stopped to look back at her only when he reached the end of the dock, and it was only a brief moment before his eyes were trained upon the water.

She stood beside him quietly, observing the stillness of the night as she waited for him to speak. Several minutes passed before he did.

"He has nightmares." Ron's words were so soft that they were nearly lost on the breeze.

"How often?" Her response was just as soft.

She heard him shift and sigh. "I've lost count. He sees...him."

Hermione bit her lip to stop it from trembling, steadying her voice before she spoke again. "Things are coming to a head, aren't they?"

"Faster than we can manage," Ron said. There was an edge to his voice, and she turned to him, reaching out to take his hand.

Footsteps behind them stopped her before she could. She turned to see Harry approaching them, his features barely visible in the dim light the sliver of a moon gave them. Draco was a mere dozen steps behind him, and she could feel the pulse of his tension stirring at the back of her mind.

"Let's get it done then," Harry said, nodding at Ron.

Ron pulled the locket out of his pocket and handed it to her wordlessly. "I assume you know what to do."

She ignored the edge in his tone as Draco stepped up beside her and transfigured a branch into a small raft. She placed the locket atop it and watched him lower it to the water.

"Godric's Hollow," Harry said. "There are answers there."

"Then that's where we'll go," Hermione said.

A moment later, a flaming snake erupted from the end of her wand, engulfing the small raft in its fiery embrace.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Hermione dipped two fingers into the shallow pot of glowing blue salve, watching as the thick substance clung to her fingers, featherlight, yet appearing heavy as it started to ooze down her fingers. She pressed it gently to the wound on her husband's back and watched as his frame rippled in a shudder, although he left no other indication that he was in pain. She bit her lip, thinking of the way her arm throbbed under her sleeve where it was covered by a bandage, still stinging from his application of the salve upon herself only minutes prior.

"Are you all right?" she asked, drawing her fingers downward as she spread the liquid across the wound that still looked fresh despite the days that had passed and watched it dissolve into purple foam that absorbed into his skin, leaving only a thin film as evidence that she had rubbed anything there at all.

"I'm fine," he grunted, jerking forward slightly as she pressed another dollop into his wound.

She leaned forward, pressing a soft kiss to his shoulder blade. "You don't have to pretend to be okay around me," she said.

He didn't answer, but took her hand and held it gently for a moment before she stood and picked up the glass bottle in which the rest of the bandages were soaking in more salve. He took it from her wordlessly, opening the bottle and pulling out a bandage. The salve had soaked it dark, the charcoal color of it standing out starkly against his alabaster skin.

She charmed the bottle to float air next to them and slid her hand to tangle back with his, using her other free hand to gently apply the bandages to his back. She finished a few moments later, but neither of them moved. His thumb was tracing small circles across the back of her hand, and her fingers tightened around his in response.

It was when the clouds shifted outside a few minutes later and moonlight illuminated the face of his watch that she reluctantly pulled away. "It's dry enough for you to shower now," she said. "I'll pack in the meantime."

He stood and turned to look at her for a beat before he nodded and headed into the bathroom. The shower turned on not a moment later, and she busied herself gathering what she thought they needed. Her beaded bag was frayed with wear, the underside of it missing entire rows of shining beads. The clasp was worn through, back showing through the silver enamel where she imagined it had been opened countless times over the months. Most things she'd put inside remained. The books she'd added because they were tangentially related to their mission were mostly untouched, while the most relevant ones had been perused, stuffed with notes in Ron's scratchy print or Harry's stiff scribbles. There were new things, too. Each carried a story she hadn't been privy to, a stone they'd turned on their own.

She didn't notice that the water had turned off until she heard Draco clear his throat. "Is that all then?" Draco was leaning against the bathroom door frame, watching her pensively.

"I'm just being cautious," she said, shoving a folded blanket into her beaded bag.

He cocked an eyebrow, looking beyond her at the neatly organized pile of supplies that lay at the foot of the bed.

She followed his gaze and gave him a pointed look. "I'm just trying to stay prepared," she said.

She paused and turned to him fully, her eyes slipping past the small smirk that played on his lips. She swallowed before she reached out, her hands stationary while a gentle tendril of her her mind curled towards was slow and gentle in her ingress into his emotions, pressing softly in question at the barriers he rarely dropped. She reflexively waited for his eyes to narrow and for the barriers to fortify. Instead, they slipped down slowly, his inner feelings suddenly within reach.

There was fear there, too.

She pulled out abruptly, crossing the room in two quick strides and wrapping her arms around him. She could feel his rigidity, his transition from closed to open anything but seamless. She held him tighter, breathing in the scent of him as her head pillowed into his chest.

"I'll be alright," she murmured.

She felt his hand pause where it was lightly touching her back, his fingers twitching against the thin fabric of her camisole. His hand tightened a moment later, crushing her closer to his body.

"We don't have to follow them," he said into her hair. "Godric's Hollow may mean something to Potter, but not to her. Not to him, either." His voice was low, and she pressed her ear to the rumble of it in his chest as he spoke.

"I know," she said. "It's likely that there isn't anything there at all. All we know is that he made his Horcruxes out of powerful things. Things that wouldn't be found there. But— it's still the place of his defeat. It means something to him, even if not something good—"

She felt the shift of his head as he shook it. "His interest lies in the grand. The powerful. Hers, too. She just had more of an affinity for what she found pretty than he."

Hermione shivered as she recalled the bust carved of glittering onyx, each facet filled with a hauntingly cruel beauty.

"It's close," Draco said. "I can feel it."

Hermione nodded into his chest, leaning more heavily against him. She could feel it too. The slow crescendo that had been building since the night Harry had come screaming out of the maze, each thrum of the impending devastation growing louder as they drew closer to this. It was a string pulled taut, threatening to snap with each moment that passed. It was an unavoidable climax, all that she'd known she would have sacrificed herself for.

She'd thought she had that night in Dumbledore's office. Yet now, now as she held everything, everything that nearly eclipsed the importance of all else, she clung to her life with a desperate fervor she never knew she'd had.

Their life.

Hermione pulled back far enough to look into his eyes. "If we have any chance of winning this, - of surviving this - "it's through Harry. We have to go where he goes."

X

They reentered the small basement room to find Harry and Ron waiting for them, their cloaks laying over the piles of boxes while each of them held flasks in their hands.

"Are you ready?" Harry said, eyes shooting to the bag that hung at her side.

She nodded before reaching into the inner pocket of her cloak, pulling out the book she'd found inside the bag earlier. The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, the cover read. Harry and Ron's eyes immediately went to the book, both of their mouths twisting into twin scowls.

She looked at Harry, softening her voice as she spoke. "I assume you've read it, then?" she asked.

Harry tensed. "I have," he said, looking away from her.

She opened her mouth and closed it again, shuttering away her empty reassurances. Who Albus Dumbledore was had been laid bare before her but a year prior, the memory of her confrontation of him in his office pulsing as sharply as the wound on her forearm. Harry's trust of the man had been tenfold that of her own, and she caught the flash of pain in his eyes as they cut towards the book before he cleared his throat and spoke.

"I trusted him," Harry said. There was an edge to his voice, separate from the angered detachment she had experienced from him since their return, yet devoid of sadness. It was devoid of anything at all, echoing of resigned acceptance of who the man he had grown to love as a father truly was.

"If you'd paid attention to anything about Dumbledore at all," Draco said, his tone biting, "then you would have understood this years ago."

Ron stepped forward, his face flushing red as he stared Draco down. "And what would you know about that, Malfoy —"

Draco laughed sharply, his voice cutting as he spoke. "He has done more to me in the past year alone than you could ever attempt to conceive —"

Ron's entire figure was tense as he took another step forward, near trembling as his eyes slid between Hermione and Draco. "Because you seem damned resentful about her, too, yet you both expect me to believe that this is love."

The sharp tension that was taut between them snapped in an instant. She snatched Draco's arm before he could lunge forward at Ron, the movement somehow stopping him in his tracks although she knew that he was more than able to shake her off if he so chose.

"And what have you ever done that makes you believe that you deserve her? What has she ever given you that made you think that she wanted whatever pitiful offerings had to give her?" Hermione felt his pulsing anger throbbing in her mind at the base of her neck, and she dug her nails deeper into his arm.

"Draco —"

He wrenched out of her grip, stalking closer to Ron. "You can busy yourself with whatever pathetic excuses you've conjured for why she may have left you, but you will never cast doubt upon what I feel for her again."

Hermione rushed forward, grabbing onto his arm once more. "We haven't the time for any of this," she said, looking between both men and ignoring the way her heart thrummed the wake of Draco's words, "we need to go."

Ron stepped forward, ignoring her words as he stepped closer to Draco.

"Ron —" she warned, moving forward in trying to step between them.

Ron shoved one of the flasks in his hands into Draco's chest. The gap between them ceased closing as quickly as they'd begun, Ron's arm stiffly occupying the gap as he pressed the flask into Draco's chest. Ron's hand tensed for a moment as Draco reached up and caught the flask in his own. Hermione's hand tightened around her wand as she waited for spells to fly.

Instead, Ron stepped back. "Just drink it. We need to go."

X

The frigid air nipped at her cheeks, biting with each swell of the wind. A few cloaked figures moved through the village, most of their movements cloaked by night. It was dotted with small, quaint homes, reminiscent of exactly how Hermione had pictured James and Lily lived for the short time that they had had together.

The thought made her turn to where Harry and Ron stood beside them,their polyjuiced figures hidden under the invisibility cloak in the darkness.

Harry had taken the form of a man shorter and stockier than he was, and her fingers felt strange in his thicker ones. "Harry?" she said softly. Her hand curled tighter over where she held his under the invisibility cloak.

He cleared his throat several times before answering her, yet the higher pitch to the tone that she knew had changed several octaves deeper after he'd drunk the polyjuice remained. "We should… start with the graveyard first," he said.

She fought the urge to lift the cloak and look into his eyes, already knowing what she would find there.

He pulled away without a word, the only indication of their movements the sound of their feet as Harry shuffled a few steps away with Ron.

"If you're finished making more noise than we ever needed to hear," Draco said, "then follow me." He jerked his chin toward a dimly lit street before them and set to walking, pulling Hermione with him.

Hermione's hand tightened in the crook of his elbow and she looked up at him and plastered on an enamoured smile. Draco's polyjuiced figure was shorter, thickly muscled with long dark hair that curled around his ears. Draco's eyes were only ahead of them, neither one of them giving any indication that they were anything but a random couple taking a late-night stroll. They passed only two lone figures as they moved through the evening, their pace frustratingly leisurely. There was a stillness in the air that made their silence nothing out of the ordinary, but filled her with growing trepidation as Draco led them forward nonetheless.

It was when they reached a wider road that they passed more people, all with heads held low as they passed through. In the corner farthest from them, there was low candlelight flickering around a carving of some sort—

The answer came to her before she could see it clearly. A memorial. They were close enough now to make out the names carved into stone, but Draco's path was clearly on the road past the memorial and ahead of them. "Harry," she whispered desperately, dipping her head into her sleeve as she feigned a cough. "We'll come back. I promise we'll come back. But we can't stop— not now."

Draco paused then, long enough to brush a soft kiss across her lips. Long enough for them to stand still for a drawn out moment. Long enough for Harry to look. Draco's kiss lingered for one beat, then another, and then his hand was snaking down to catch hers and they were moving forward once more. Not long enough, but something. There was a brush of silky fabric against her hand a moment later — Harry. Not long enough, she knew, yet he was alright all the same. He was still following, all the same.

Eventually, they started to crest a hill and the misty night parted to reveal the dark, looming crypts and mausoleums that dotted the cemetery moments before the rows of headstones became visible themselves. They continued to make their way toward the cemetery, careful not to slow their pace. Hermione's fingers tightened on Draco's elbow as she listened carefully for rustles in the air indicative of Harry and Ron passing them or stopping behind them. She scanned the headstones casually as they passed through the stillness, looking for somewhere unremarkable to stop.

It was by chance that the moonlight illuminated the symbol engraved on a headstone a few paces ahead. She tapped her fingers in a rhythm on Draco's elbow and they slowed their pace until she stopped them before the headstone beside it. She conjured a small bouquet of flowers and knelt placed them on the grave before her — in memory of one Ms. Emilia Johnson, loving wife, mother, and sister — all the while keeping her eyes trained on the engraved white stone beside them.

Draco stayed standing, placing a hand on her shoulder that surely looked comforting to any passersby. "They have two minutes," Draco murmured just loud enough for her to hear.

She tried to ignore the growing tension at the base of her neck as the time passed, the short window they had allowed for this trip quickly closing. She ran her fingers over the delicate petals of flowers she had just conjured, reading the words on the gravestone next to them as she tilted her head slightly. Ignotus Peverell, it read. And the symbol, identical to that of the one in the passage she had marked for Harry was engraved in the stone, identical and unmistakable.

Her heartbeat thrummed harder. There was something about the Deathly Hallows that Harry had not been wrong in focusing on —

Draco's hand tightened on her shoulder. She stood as quickly as she dared, raising a hand to feign wiping at a nonexistent tear as she looked up at him. He wasn't looking at her at all, yet she felt his growing panic at the base of her neck, saw it in the way his entire form was tensed.

Her stomach dropped the moment she followed the direction his eyes gone in. An elderly woman stood several dozen feet away from them, her entire figure eerily still. It would not have been out of the ordinary, except for the fact that she was staring intently at the empty space in the air a few feet ahead of her, where to any other observer nothing would've been standing there at all.

In an instant, she knew it was exactly where Harry and Ron stood.

Draco's wand was out a half-second before hers was. "Diffindo!" Draco shouted at the same time she shouted, "RUN!"

Draco's spell hit true, severing the woman's body in half.

Neither one of them expected a massive serpent slither around of the woman's remains, her severed form flopping into the snow as her serpentine inhabitant lunged forward towards the place the woman had been staring only a moment prior. Then Hermione was bounding through the snow, her feet pounding through its icy wetness as she screamed out a spell that merely slid off the serpent's body.

There was a figure falling to the snow then, clutching their head as they cried out in agony while another — the tall, slender, fair-haired man that she recognized as Ron — leaped forward, his wand brandished as he shouted out a spell. The spell ricocheted harmlessly off the serpent's body as it lunged forward.

The blast Hermione sent into its side only seemed to anger it further. It curved sideways for a moment before it began its lunge anew. This time, it hit true. Hermione screamed as its fangs sunk into Ron's thigh, the deadly curses she screamed hitting it harmlessly as it latched onto its target.

She kept running, her feet crunching in the snow and sliding along the thick layer of ice that lay beneath. Her spells continued to ricochet off the serpent's body, as it sank its fangs deeper into Ron's thigh.

"REDUCTO!" she screamed, pointing her wand at a gravestone that promptly exploded, its heavy fragments landing on the serpent's body. Its body jerked as the heavy stone landed upon it, and Hermione started to run faster, jerking her wand at the gravestones all around it and sending them exploding into shards that rained down upon it.

The frigid air was thick with dust and flying debris that she threw out of her way as she kept running towards them, still moving too slow — too slow —

Her feet gave way beneath her and she had a slick patch of ice, and pain exploded in her abdomen as she slammed into a gravestone that was sticking out of the ground, nearly completely concealed by the amount of snow that had fallen over. Her wand tumbled out of her fingers as she smacked into the ground, the pain in her middle blossoming further. She pressed her hand over her stomach and pulled it back only to find it sticky with blood. She gasped in pain, pressing her hand hard over her abdomen as she grunted a healing spell and scrambled to pick up her wand.

As she looked up, she screamed. She was close enough now to see the glimmer of the serpent's fangs in the moonlight as it unlatched itself from Ron's thigh and rose up. Draco stood closer to the serpent, shooting sharpened fragments of ice and gleaming metal at it.

The snake managed to rear its head up anyways, it's jaw open wide as it aimed towards Harry. Hermione watched, horrified at how slowly she moved despite running as fast as she could, at how Ron somehow managed to throw himself over Harry —

She was close enough now to hear what Harry screamed. "He's coming," Harry choked and cried, clutching his head as he writhed in the snow, "he's coming — he's coming now — he's almost here — he's —"

The serpent's fangs embedded themselves into Ron's side.

"REDUCTO! REDUCTO! REDUCTO!" Hermione screamed as she pointed her wand wildly at the gravestones surrounding the serpent, sending heavy fragments raining down upon it. It unlatched from Ron's side, rearing towards Harry once more. She snapped her wand, sending a column from a nearby mausoleum slamming into the serpent's head. Draco sent another pile of debris raining down on the serpent, burying it.

Hermione threw herself over their bodies, Harry's shouts echoing in a sickening fury while Ron lay still — too still— in the slowly growing pool of blood that seeped from his wounds. No — no — no — no no no —

"GO!" Draco's voice was far, too far, tinged with an edge of urgency that had her shooting up as straight as she could manage. Her mouth went dry. Draco stood a dozen feet away, and a dozen more behind him were four dark-robed figures, moonlight glimmering off the silver masks they wore.

Death Eaters.

Her heart spasmed in her chest as spells started to ignite the night, and the ground started to tremble — the serpent, still burrowing itself out from underneath a pile of debris they had buried it in — and Harry's screams, growing louder —

— It was too much, and Draco was too far —

A figure Apparated beside her, their wand out and a curse shooting out of their wand.

Hermione was quicker. She sent two precise slashes across his chest and arm, severing it at the root and sending a spray of blood across the bright white snow.

Two more appeared in the first's place, a burning curse singeing the skin of her arm as she ducked out of its path. The silver of their masks glinted in the night as she sparred with them, sweat dripping down her brow as she fought. Her next curse hit the Death Eater closest to her square in the chest. He screamed and stumbled backward as his skin bubbled beneath where his robes concealed it. Her other assailant fell forward with a spray of blood, revealing Draco who stood a few feet away, eyes blazing.

The ground was trembling harder now, the serpent's head forcing itself out of the rubble.

"Come!" she shouted, beckoning Draco as she stumbled toward Harry and Ron, volleying curses around them as she wove around the ones that were sent at her. A curse grazed her leg and she cried out, stumbling forward as blood spurted from the wound. She landed in a heap between Harry and Ron, the pain blossoming further. She needed to concentrate, concentrate on where they'd agreed to go, but the pain only radiated further, clouding her mind as she tried to form the solid destination in her mind. A hand gripped her leg and she screamed, ready to lash out until she recognized Draco mumbling a healing spell. The relief was instant.

She reached down and caught Draco's hands. The ground trembled harder, the serpent's head nearly fully visible now. "We have to—"

Two more Death Eaters Apparated behind him.

Hermione cut one down with a flick of her wand just as a curse whizzed past her, striking Ron's limp body. Hermione snapped her head around, a curse immediately shooting out of her wand and hitting a Death Eater directly in the chest.

"Harry!" she shouted at where the man still writhed in the snow, "We need to go—" She cut off as Draco's hand left hers.

She turned back to where he'd been a second prior to find him being dragged through the air. He hit a gravestone several rows away, the thump of it too low because he was far, too far—

The snow was stained red beside her as blood continued to leak steadily from Ron's wounds. She looked back at Draco just as he turned back to her, glistening blood leaking down his pale brow.

"GO!" Draco shouted, his strained voice barely reaching her. The last Death Eater stood a few feet from where Draco landed, raising their wand. Her curse hit the Death Eater's shoulder just as a shot of green erupted from the tip of it. The spell hit a gravestone instead, exploding it and sending shards flying.

GO! Draco's shout reverberated in her head, clattering in her mind in a sickening cacophony.

Ron was dying. But Draco— Draco could, too.

Her fingers trembled and spasmed as she grabbed Harry and Ron, her wand nearly slipping out of her blood–slickened fingers as she tried to focus herself on where she needed to go, and not on the man that every fiber of her being wanted to stay with —

The snake freed itself, streaking toward them.

The last thing she saw was Draco's back turned to her as he emerged from the rubble, screaming curses as the sky above them glowed a deep green where the Dark Mark hung high in the sky.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Hermione heaved, spitting out the mouthful of snow she'd inhaled as she'd slammed into the forest floor, still thick with a layer of snow.

She scrambled to her feet, her heart racing as she spun, looking around the small clearing they'd entered. The thick canopy of trees let in little moonlight, shielding the clearing's patch of slowly melting snow that was otherwise untouched, a sharp contrast to the flora outside of the trees' cocoon whose winter coating had already been melted by the emergence of spring. Untouched, save for the disruption caused by the sudden arrival of three bodies that had tumbled into it seconds prior.

Which was why she knew that he wasn't there.

That, and the fact that she could feel him at the base of her neck, a ball of tension that tangled with her own, to the point where she couldn't decipher which was which. But— he was alive.

He was alive. He was alive. He was alive.

She looked down where Harry and Ron's bodies lay in the snow, Ron facedown while Harry had managed to sit up, still clutching his head hard and heaving heavy breaths that filled the still air.

She stumbled over to Ron, turning him over onto his back with as gentle a spell as she could and laying him back onto the snow. She waved a hand over his mouth, feeling the gentle brush of his shallow breaths.

"Harry!" she snapped, already starting to stumble around the perimeter and muttering spells under her breath.

"What — what are you doing?" Harry said, his voice dazed. She heard him stand, his feet crunching through the snow behind her.

"You need to snap out of it," she said, still jerking her wand in intricate movements as she stomped out a perimeter around them. "Check where he's wounded. Ron could die— do you understand that?"

Her head was throbbing in time with her chest as a thousand scenarios ran through her mind, each as bright and destructive as the spells that had lit up the sky as she'd Apparated away and left her husband alone with a Death Eater and the serpent behind him—

Harry's voice cut through her thoughts. "Malfoy—"

Hermione whirled on Harry, magic sparking between her fingertips. "He's alive!" she snapped, heaving. "He's alive because if he wasn't I would be cold—" The words jumbled themselves as they tumbled out, panic colliding with the memory of the frigid cold that had seeped into her soul as it stole it— "and then I would be dead, and I'm not so he isn't and I need you to bloody focus—" Hermione cut off, the rest of her words tangling together and resulting in a single strangled noise.

There was a shift in the air, the sound of Harry sucking in a breath to speak near intangible yet deafening because she knew the words that would come before he said them— "Hermione— I don't think—- there's no way that he—"

Hermione whirled on him, precious seconds bleeding away as the wards she tried to cast fizzled out at the tip of her wand, her grip on it slipping in her twitching hands. "I know because I've felt it, because the time you almost killed us— it was cold." Each sharp word hit him like a strike, his body flinching and contracting slightly inward in response.

She whirled once more, nearly tripping in the sticky wetness of the snow as she stomped out the perimeter once more.

He was alive. He was alive. He was alive. The air at the altitude they were at was cool enough that she paused and stumbled several times as she threw up wards all around them, the chill making her pause and wonder if she would soon be filled with that creeping, frigid cold once more, if she would feel him go first before she followed soon after —

No. He was alive. Alivealivealive —

She heard Harry's footsteps stop a moment before she turned again, watching as he sank to his knees beside Ron. "Hermione—"

"Shut up."

Her chest spasmed and contracted as the sickening reel of all that could be going wrong repeated itself once more. The loop that had her taking heavy, labored breaths that came out long puffs of air before her—

Alive. Alive. Alive.

"He's alive," she snapped. Her eyes were on Ron's limp figure, but she was simultaneously elsewhere, memories of her husband's figure outlined against the green sky clawing at her mind like poison. "And that's all that matters. We can't go back yet. Can you be assured that we aren't being tracked? We need to be certain before we go back, and we need wards first." Wards. Ron. Tracking orbs. Him. She shouted the order in her mind, a feeble attempt at drowning out what the rest of her being screamed.

She collapsed in the snow beside Ron as she finished the last of the wards. "Take out the tent — we need it set up now."

Harry was already ripping the bag off of her shoulder, the chain shattering into several fragments that littered the snow. Finally, he moved with the urgency she'd had since they had arrived, summoning the tent from the bag filled with endless things and throwing it to the ground, watching as it unfurled itself. They were ducking inside a moment later, Ron's immobile body suspended between them as he lay on the cot they levitated between them.

She sliced his shirt open with a simple spell and paused. Blood and milky white venom oozed from the wound in his abdomen, each several-inch-long incision weeping the liquids steadily and soaking the cot beneath him. His skin was sallow around the wound, the outskirts of the paler whiteness tinged black.

The silence in the tent was stiller than the night outside.

"Hermione—" Harry said, his voice tight. "It's — it's bad —"

"I know." Panic clawed up her spine as her hands twitched and fluttered over Ron uselessly.

Draco had only taught her so much in the time since she'd made him start teaching her after she'd been faced with healing him from similar wounds. The irony of it all cut deep, and she clutched her chest as she felt it spasming once more as it started to collapse inward —

Her voice was wild and unhinged as she spoke, the words forced out as they twisted in her throat. "We have to call—" She cut off. Could they safely call Kreacher, who still haunted the compromised halls of Grimmauld Place? She almost screamed because she could call him herself, but she didn't know if it was safe, she didn't know, and she was only wasting time —

A sharp pop of Apparition sounded nearby.

She almost sobbed because the elf had heard her regardless, and if he'd come then they would just have to deal with it—

She froze. If the elf had heard her, he would have appeared by her side, because the wards would never have kept him from his master. That meant that it hadn't been an elf all that appeared outside. Her frenzied spells hadn't uncovered any tracking orbs that had been placed on them, but perhaps a more sinister way of tracking them had already been invented—

She met Harry's eyes, him having obviously come to the same conclusion she had. His voice cracked as he spoke. "Hermione—"

She sprang up, wand aloft. "Stay here," she said, her hand tightening around her wand as she tried to force it to stop trembling. The flaps of the tent moved gently in the breeze, revealing only darkness outside and not a hint of what lay beyond the wards.

She would fight. She couldn't send Harry back to the Order without knowing if they were safe. And Ron— Ron wouldn't survive another trip. If it was a Death Eater— if one had found them, then many would soon follow —

She froze. Her fingers trembled and twitched around her wand, her heartbeat flying erratically in her chest. Many had always followed the first without fail, every time—

But it had only been the one. Only one crack of Apparition, and stillness. Her feet started to carry her out of the tent and she burst through the flap, her eyes frantic as she searched their surroundings.

Draco stood a dozen feet away, staring intently at the empty place where she had erected the wards.

Her feet pounded in the snow as she raced towards him, her eyes traveling over every inch of him — every solid, seemingly uninjured inch of him — until she barreled through the wards, wrapping her arms around him dragging him back until they were in the safety of the wards once more.

She bit her lip to stop herself from sobbing as he clutched her back, her hold on him desperate and unyielding as she inhaled his scent and her hands roamed all over his body.

"I love you— I love you—" She pulled back only far enough to whimper the words before she buried her face in his chest once more.

Alive. Alive. Alive—

"Are you hurt?" The words were muffled as she spoke into his thick jumper, her hands tangling in the heavy material. Her question was redundant because she already knew that he'd gone elsewhere in the countryside first to heal the worst of them. He'd only made it here because he was well enough to, but nothing stopped her desperate need to hear him say it—

"Not badly," he answered.

She nodded into his chest before she pulled back, her eyes searching his as deeply as he searched hers.

"I'm okay," she said, knowing that she didn't need to vocalize the words that he could read in her expression but said them anyway. "But Ron— he's—"

Draco was already moving towards the tent before she could finish, his hand clasping hers as he pulled her behind him.

She hadn't thought it possible for Ron to worsen in the scant minute since she'd left the tent, but somehow he had. His skin was rife with a sickly pallor, the life bleeding from him before them as the steady stream of blood and venom she'd only barely managed to quell somewhat continued to seep from the wounds on his stomach and thigh.

Draco's jaw was set tightly as he bent before Ron, a complex weave of diagnostic spells appearing in the air before them in an instant. Her eyes tracked the way each spell pulsed and shifted, the colors and movements an intricate tapestry unfolding itself before her, whispering a conclusion that rattled in her chest before thudding down heavily into her stomach, nearly taking her with it.

He was dying.

She knew — without having to open her mouth and ask Draco, without having to take a second glance at where the life steadily seeped from Ron's body — that he was dying.

Hermione's head pulsed and throbbed, trickles of darkness seeping in and out of her vision. "Maybe— maybe we should call Kreacher —"

Draco's shoulders tensed as he cut her off. "No," he said, his voice tight as he worked, his hands flying over Ron in delicate movements. "He barely saved me. He may be bound by blood to the Black family line, but he would do whatever he possibly could to make a Weasley's recovery as slow and painful as he could. He wouldn't last."

Harry's voice was laced thick with confusion as he spoke. "How did you summon —"

"That's a story for if your friend lives."

Draco's words had Harry's mouth snapping firmly shut, his entire form rigid with tension. Hermione reached out and close to hand over one of Harry's trembling fists, stepping closer when he did not pull back.

They watched in silence as Draco siphoned tendrils of milky white venom and blood from Ron's body, sending it into empty bottles that hovered in the air beside him, each filling too quickly. The sets of gaping wounds were stark against his skin, several inches wide. Unbidden, an image of the serpent's long fangs flashed in her mind's eye, and her head throbbed harder, the dark tendrils of panic seeping further into her vision.

He'll live, she wanted to assure Harry. She swallowed the words instead as he pulled away a moment later, sinking heavily onto the ground. She pulled out her wand, forcing her eyes away from where Draco worked as she assessed their priorities. Wards. Ron. Tracking orbs. Her movements were robotic as she uttered every spell she'd learned from the Order as she swept their belongings. She let her minds eye focus only on the spells and their complex incantations, carrying her as the minutes slipped past.

It was when she'd checked everything thrice that Draco stepped away from Ron. "The potions need to keep working overnight. We'll take him back to the Order in the morning."

Harry shot up from where he was on his knees at Ron's side, still Ron's hand tightly. "So he'll live?"

Draco gave him a short nod. "Probably." He crossed over to her, searching her eyes wordlessly.

Hermione let out a long breath, giving him a soft smile. Draco's arm dropped to her waist, holding her tightly into his side as though he felt how she was wont to collapse. Her heart continued to flutter, but she knew that it would subside soon with the knowledge that Ron would live comforting her.

"And you?" Hermione looked up at Harry's question, her mouth open in response until she realized that he wasn't looking at her at all. "Are you… alright?" Harry asked Draco, clearing his throat.

"Yes," Draco answered stiffly.

The room fell silent once more. Draco moved back to continue tending to Ron a moment later, working in a fluid silence. Hermione found her way over to where Harry had sat on one of the cots against the wall, sinking down onto the cot beside him.

"How does he know all of that?" Harry said, waving his hand at where Draco was applying a salve onto Ron's wounds.

Hermione tensed. "Certain circumstances made it necessary," she answered carefully.

Harry let out a short huff of air and she turned to him, feeling the wave of exasperation she'd been suppressing rise up, ready to lash out at him. She paused with her mouth half-open as she looked at him, the tension marring his features stark in the light of the candle that hovered next to them.

Her touch was soft as she lifted her fingers to his wound on cheek and then down t the gash on his collarbone. He winced but said nothing, gritting his teeth and sucking in a sharp breath as she murmured a cleansing charm. She stood up and stepped in front of him, wordlessly summoning a salve and dabbing it onto the wounds she found as she searched him.

Harry hissed, pulling back as she probed at a cut on his hairline. "You could be gentle," he grumbled.

Hermione quirked an eyebrow. "I could just not help at all," she shot back. Her eyes roved his form, now seeing how heavily his wet cloak clung to his form. She raised her hands to the tie, having only barely managed to tug at the string when a hand caught her by the arm.

She looked up to find Draco standing beside them, his eyes dark as he glared at Harry. "The Weasel still isn't dead," he said, jerking his head behind him.

Harry stood, making her stumble back a step. "I know that," he snapped, storming off towards where Ron lay.

Hermione turned to Draco, running a hand down his arm and clasping his fingers in hers for a brief moment before following behind Harry.

It was then that she realized that Ron was awake. He was sitting up, a hand pressed over a bandage wrapped around his middle.

Hermione sprang to her feet, rushing over to Ron's side. Her hands fluttered over him anxiously, her breath catching as she saw the way a patch of blood had still seeped into his bandage. "How do you feel?"

Ron's voice was gruff. "Alright."

Harry let out an awkward huff of air from beside her as if he had meant to laugh in derailed himself at the last moment. "Gave us a good scare there, mate," he said. A light tremble undercut his words.

Ron looked down, wincing at the small movement as his abdomen contracted. "Got me real good, didn't she?" There was a false smile playing on his lips that died away as quickly as it came as his eyes fell upon where Harry stood beside her once more.

Harry tensed suddenly, his entire form strung tight. His eyes were downcast, his hair long enough that it curled down to his eyes, covering his expression.

Hermione stepped towards him. "Harry—"

Harry pulled away, lifting a hand to his face and gently probing under his hair, pressing the spot where his scar lay. "I've seen her before," he said. "His snake. She was hunting me, not you."

"I know." Any traces of humor were gone from Ron's voice now, instead replaced by weariness. Weariness, and an edge of determination as he spoke again. "I couldn't let her get to you."

She didn't know what she'd been expecting, but it wasn't for Harry's eyes to flash as his face flushed red, anger lighting up his features as the fear that had been tying up his form fled. "So that I could have lost you too?" he snapped. "How many more people have to die for me?"

"Harry…" Ron faltered, wincing as he tried to shift forward towards Harry.

"We've already been down one for the better part of the year," Harry said, the disdain in his voice unmistakable as his eyes flickered to her, "and you thought it better that you die there? He was coming."

Something inside her twisted and burned, her mouth opening and closing as she wondered if speaking or not speaking would hurt them more. But the silence hung heavy in the room, the implication of Harry's words hanging thickly in it, forcing the words out of her before she could think on it further. "I didn't — I wasn't doing nothing," she said. The fight fled her voice as she looked down at Ron, seeing the way he shuddered with each breath he took. Not nothing, yes— but there was always more. There always had been more.

Obligation and choice had collided at some point during the months she'd spent in the cabin with Draco, the tangled mess of what duty and requirement had become at the center of the tangled mess her relationship with Harry and Ron had become.

Despite his struggles with even a simple breath, this time Ron forced out a hollow laugh. "It will always feel like nothing," he coughed and wheezed, "when you were anywhere but where everyone expected you to be." His eyes cut to Draco with his last words. Hermione watched his chest contract as he forced his jaw shut, his muscles straining under the cough he suppressed.

Heat flushed through her body. "He saved your life."

Another short, hollow laugh, followed by a wince of pain. "I'd already sacrificed it." His eyes cut to Draco once more, disgust radiating off of him in waves. "But you made your choice — you already sacrificed yours, too."

It was then that she recognized that the ball of angry tension rising within her wasn't her own, and her eyes shot Draco, where he was tensed to spring. She caught him by the forearm, holding him tightly. The tension within him didn't snap, but it didn't continue rising either.

Hermione's teeth ground together. "It's a marriage, not a death sentence."

"'If he dies, I die too?'" Ron mocked, spitting each word out like an accusation, "isn't that what you said?"

"Weasley—"

Hermione cut Draco off with another squeeze of his forearm. "How many times will we have this conversation? How many more times will you push me to apologize for him until you realize that I can't because I'm not—"

Ron's next laugh was hollower, darker. "But I've realized that maybe it isn't him at all." His tone shifted, pitched lower now. "He's part of it, surely. Everywhere you go — he's always just there, hovering. You're not even your own person anymore, and you don't see it. You're a part of him. Every movement you make involves him too, every step you take is in perfect sync as if you didn't know how to move before — as if you didn't know how to exist without him. But—" He coughed and clutched his chest, eyes burning as he never took them off of her.

Because I can't, she wanted to say. The words felt useless spoken aloud now, as the way Ron faltered said everything they'd left unsaid anyway. Draco shifted and her hand tightened on his. Ron's words hung in the air between the four of them, the truth of how irreversibly broken their trio was laid out before them. "Ron…"

He cut her off with another chilling laugh. "We always knew who he was, though." Ron's voice was hoarse as he continued, yet somehow carried more bite than it had in the moments before. "We knew exactly who he was because he's always shown us. But you— I thought I knew you."

"You did. The war changed things for a lot of people. I'm no exception."

"You killed them. Did you even notice?"

She expected the shame and distress first. What she wasn't expecting was a burning tendril of anger, propelling her next words forward before she could process them as all she'd been suppressing burst free at once. "They tried to kill you. A dozen times over. You almost died anyway— but that doesn't matter to you, does it?" She clutched a hand to her chest, a feeble attempt to stop the way she was unraveling inside as the truth she'd tried to ignore lay between them.

Ron's eyes flashed. "You're lethal. You cut them down in seconds without even a thought—"

"My thoughts were on you!" Her words echoed in the stillness. "My thoughts were on if you would live or die, because if you died, Harry would be next, and if Harry died then this would all be for naught. Do you think I'm the first? Do you think I'm the only person that's had to make that choice? If you do— then you don't understand a damned thing at all." She turned and moved toward the open flaps of the tent, fingers twitching at her throat as she found herself suddenly desperate for a breath of the fresh night air.

When Ron spoke again, his voice was softer but no less biting. "I don't — I don't know you 'Mione. Not anymore."

She finally turned back to him, meeting his blue eyes steadily. "No," she said, a hollow, empty laugh slipping past her lips, "I suppose you don't."

She turned and left the tent.

She walked and stopped only when she neared the outermost edges of the wards she'd erected, the canopy of the trees thick above her. She sagged against a tree, the weariness that she'd been steadily holding off for hours starting to take root.

A crunch of snow sounded nearby. Her head shot up, her body alert once more as her hand flew to her wand.

Her arm slackened as she recognized the figure that stood in the darkness some feet away. She didn't think she could recall when it had come to the point that she could recognize him by his outline alone. That, and the gentle brush of his presence nearing that she felt within, her body humming at the indication of his proximity.

Draco was silent as he moved forward, save for the sound of his boots moving through the snow as he moved closer, each step faster than the last.

"Dra—" She cut off as he descended upon her, drawing her into a hard kiss.

She gasped into the kiss, drawing him closer and lifting her arms to wrap them around his neck. His lips were hard against hers, near-bruising as he backed them into a tree. She slammed into it, cushioned only by his hand on the back of her head. His hand rose up and palmed her breast roughly as his lips moved to nip and suck at her neck.

"You're—" he sucked harder before pressing a soft kiss over the same spot, "you're good. You're so good—" He grasped at her shirt, roughly squeezing her breasts.

She moaned. He pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses down her chest, cutting open the front of her shirt and brassiere with a whispered spell as he went. A light breeze passed, blowing open the shirt and making her nipples pucker a moment before Draco's mouth closed over one of them.

"Draco," she gasped around another moan, fingers tangling in his hair. "Draco—"

"You are good—" His hands were gentler then as he cupped her bare breasts, thumbs brushing over her nipples, "you've never been anything but."

He caught her by the chin, forcing her to look at him. "You are good." Their breaths were heavy as they intermingled, their heavy pants the only noise around them. "Do you understand me?"

She nodded, her hand reaching up to cup his cheek for a moment before she dragged him back into a kiss more desperate than the last. She clawed at his shirt, dragging up the material and helping him pull it over his head. She took the breath of a moment that their lips were separated to mutter a warming charm before his lips were on hers once again. It had been long— too long— and her fingers were urgent as she tore open his trousers, managing only to grasp his pulsing hardness for a moment before he moved to shove the ripped fabric of her shirt off her shoulders and dragged her leggings down.

She kicked them off and he grasped her by the hips, wrapping her legs around him and backing them into a tree. He pressed his forehead against hers, one hand supporting her while the other brushed his cock against her, dragging it back and forth between her lips and down to her entrance. She moaned and ground herself against him, lips falling open at the sensation of his wet tip rubbing against her.

"You are— so good," he said gruffly. He shoved his cock into her in the same breath, ramming her back into the tree as she gasped and mewled. His hand caught the back of her head before it could slam into the tree, but she didn't care because he was so good, so good

"The best I've ever known," he said, breathless as his cock slammed into her over and over and over again, their skin slapping together as he sped up his thrusts. "I swear it."

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Draco pressed slow kisses along her shoulder, fingers tracing across the path of his lips. She moaned, leaning back into his touch as he continued to kiss her heated skin.

"Please…" she moaned louder as his other hand delved deeper between her legs, two fingers gently parting her folds and swirling slow caresses around her clit. They lingered only a moment before they curled deeper, gathering the moisture along their path as he gently pressed his spend back inside her.

"Don't waste it," Draco murmured into her skin.

She twitched and shuddered, her uncontained moans stifled by silencing charms as her fingers grasped at the thick blankets their transfigured clothing had made. He pulled his hand out of her cunt and she let out a low whine as he traced his slick fingers over her skin and turned her onto her back. She watched him quietly as he braced himself on an elbow above her, starting his exploration of her body anew. He started at her collarbone, eyes following the path of his hands. She took in the way his brow furrowed in a way that was both familiar and unfamiliar, focused yet relaxed, eyes almost twinkling whenever his fingers found a spot that made her gasp.

When caught a nipple between his fingertips and pinched lightly, she arched up, eyes fluttering open in time to catch the moment a shadowed figure ducked out of the tent in the distance.

"Draco!" Her cry of alarm was warbled around a gasp of pleasure, but he paused as she caught him by the arm nonetheless, his eyes following in the direction of her own.

Harry moved across the clearing and toward the trees, far enough away from them and their cocoon of silencing and concealment charms that her heartbeat shouldn't have spiked the way it did.

"He's going to pass the wards," she said, shuddering as Draco started to slowly circle his thumb around her nipple once again, teasing her as her arm slackened. "We— we should—"

"He's fine," Draco murmured, his strokes growing bolder, more deliberate. "And he can't see us. But if you want to…" he started to trail his finger lower as he spoke, "...then ask me to stop."

She tried to think through the haze of pleasure she caught another movement in the corner of her eye. She turned toward it, half-expecting a creature to scurry off through the bushes when she froze.

The silver-white glow was unmistakable as it moved through the night, simultaneously corporeal and ethereal.

A silvery doe patronus, standing a few dozen feet away from them in the night.

A few feet beyond it, Harry's shadowed figure moved toward it, matching the doe's measured steps with his own.

"We should follow him," she started, forcing the words out over another moan.

"I've seen it before," Draco said, gently spearing his fingers in her cunt now, "in the trees. Outside the cabin— several times. It knew us— knew we were there. It's safe." He pitched his voice lower as he eased his cock into her, sweat clinging them together as he pressed his weight down upon her. "I promise."

Hermione barely managed a nod before she let her eyes fall shut, only able to focus on the way he started to grind his hips into hers steadily, creating more delicious friction against her clit.

"Look at me." His command was little but a whisper, but her eyes shot open to meet his nonetheless. His eyes narrowed as she did, his hips snapping into hers in the same instant. The choked moan she let out in response propelled him forward again and again, amplifying her pleasure while she tried to stifle her moans.

"Don't," he said, snapping his hips forward once more before rolling himself in a slow grind directly against her clit, "let me hear you."

X

"Draco," Hermione raised an eyebrow at him as she held her hand out expectantly.

Draco said nothing, his eyes continuing to slowly rove her body as he held her freshly transfigured brassiere and shirt in his hand. Her nipples had already puckered in the light breeze, hardening further under his gaze.

There had been a time when she would have dressed hastily and retreated to the bedroom. Another time, still, where neither of them would have lingered, instead focusing on the mission at hand. Now, though, she stood still and watched him watch her. There was something beyond desire in his eyes, something raw that simultaneously made her heart clench.

It was him who eventually stepped forward, dressing her slowly as his fingers swept over her most sensitive parts in slow, deliberate movements. When he fixed the hem of her shirt, she pulled him into a deep kiss. "We should check on Potter," Draco said as she pulled back. Although the words had left his mouth, his fingers had yet to untangle from hers.

She felt the pressure of his grip tightening on hers while her own eyes were trained on the tent where the flaps still swayed lightly in the breeze, as calm as the night around them. It was the antithesis of what lay beyond them, Ron a storming enigma within. "I have to talk to him," she said. "Maybe everything that's meant to have been said has been said, but I knew him once — not this him, but who he really is — or was, but I just need to…"

She trailed off as Draco's grip on her slackened, his fingers slowly dropping hers. "Go."

She searched his eyes for a moment, seeing the sincerity reflected in them. "I'll be okay," she reassured him, feeling the low, almost infinitesimal pulse of his buried tension curling within him.

He nodded. "I'll find Potter."

X

She stepped quietly into the tent, half-expecting Ron to be fast asleep. She paused when she realized that he was sitting up, his eyes on her as she straightened.

The silence felt thick, cloying as it clawed at her lungs. His eyes didn't move from her form, leaving her feeling trapped as she stood there, unsure if moving would force a break in the silence — unsure if a break in the silence was what she wanted at all.

Still, it was her that forced out the first words. "I'm not in the mood for anymore insults or you degrading me in any fashion," she said, taking one step forward and then another as the anger she'd suppressed flooded back into her form. "If there is anything that you would like to say, the only thing I will tolerate is a thank you."

She had already made several more steps toward her trunk when he spoke. "Thank you." Ron's words were low, yet unmistakable.

Her back was already to him, and she tensed as she spoke her next words, predicating whether she would turn to him fully or not on the next answer he would give. "If you're only saying it as a precursor to a but, then I do not want to hear it —"

"I am," he said, his voice stronger now. "Full stop."

Something in her buckled as she turned to him, feeling aflame. "Then why? Why this, why now?" She stepped closer to him, and as she stepped into the light a part of her buried beneath her broiling anger felt immediate relief to see the way color had fully blossomed back in his features. "I'd thought — foolishly, perhaps — that when you sent that letter, that when you acknowledged that it really, truly wasn't our time, that you believed it. That you would move on. That you could try, even though I know that I'd broken your heart over and over again. I felt selfish, for so long. And then when I came back and saw pure hatred in your face —"

"— I never hated you —"

"You did!" Her voice boomed across the tent, her outburst taking her by as sudden of a surprise as it did him. For a pregnant moment, the only sound that filled the tent was that of her labored breaths. "You did," she repeated as she continued. "You did. Because at first I'd thought it was only the locket, but tonight — tonight it felt like any progress that I thought we had made, any chance that I thought we had had to salvage something of our friendship has just been dashed away as if it hadn't happened at all." She paused then, still breathing heavily with the force of her words.

"Lavender's dead," Ron's voice broke over the words.

Another silence, this time devoid of any sound at all.

"When?" Hermione breathed. Her mind whirled as she remembered the night she had snuck into a safe house, when the first thing she had seen was Ron slumbering in an armchair, Lavender wrapped in his arms —

"We — I made a mistake," Ron said, lips trembling. "She wanted to come on a mission with us. We said no a thousand times, but she was persistent. Said we couldn't do it alone — said we needed someone. We could've taken anyone else. Gone back to the Order for someone with the training and experience that we needed, but I just — caved. I was trying to give it another go, and I thought that keeping her close to me would be best for the time being at least. In case we ever ended up on the run…" He mashed his lips shut, his entire form seeming to tremble.

She stepped closer, reaching out to him. "Ron —"

He held up a hand, stopping her. "We figured out where the locket was. It was at the Ministry, wrapped around Umbridge's neck. It was hard, getting in at first. There was a point where we thought we would make it out. But I made a mistake. I—" I he cut off with an open sob, matching his mouth shut once more as he swallowed it.

She forced herself to remain silent, seeing his need to finish out what he was saying despite how badly she wanted to go to him, to hold him, checking his vitals, at the very least —

"— I made a mistake," he repeated. This time, his voice was devoid of all emotion, hollow around the words he spoke. "I Apparated to Grimmauld as we tried to get away. I didn't notice that Yaxley was holding onto her. I panicked. I tried to swat him off first, but he managed to get out a curse before we shook him." He took in a shaky breath. "It didn't seem that bad, at first. We took her to Pomfrey once we had gotten back to a safe house and were certain we were safe. She hadn't seen anything like it before, so she did some research. By the time we Checked back on her an hour later, the curse was already going up her arm. All of her veins — they were turning black."

Hermione sucked in a sharp breath and she remembered Seamus' mother's blackened veins, the empty look in her eyes.

"By dinner, they'd cut it off. She had a hard time at first, trying to live without it. We tried to regrow it, but nothing would work. She had a hard time sleeping at night, and Pomfrey said that they were normal. Phantom pains. It wasn't until someone else was hit by the same curse that we realized that they'd modified the curse she thought she had identified. This one — it wasn't reversible. Cutting off her arm only made it worse. It was six months before she took her last breath. The way she suffered—" His voice broke as he forced out his next words, "it shouldn't have lasted more than six days."

Hermione's heart thudded in her chest as she recognized the raw despair in his eyes. Her hand ghosted over her chest, clutching at her heart as she had so often in the days that she had been all but catatonic after she'd first encountered the curse herself.

"I swatted at him," Ron said. "Harry shot a stunner, but it missed him by inches. But I was closer. If I could've killed him —" his voice broke again. "I could've killed him in that moment before he shot the curse. It was the longest second of my life. I thought that being good men was not doing it — I thought that being good meant that killing someone would be the hardest thing I could ever do. You did it, though. So easily — with a flick of your wand and he was dead. Just so that you could save my life, when I didn't even want saving."

"Ron," Hermione's voice was as tight as her chest, "anyone could have made that mistake. Anyone." I could have, she said, swallowing the words as she once again felt the everlasting burn of all the could haves and should haves she'd uttered of late.

He looked up at her then, a tear slipping down his bruised cheek. "She told me — she told me that she wasn't ready to die. Not yet."

And Ron broke. She watched it in slow motion— the way he collapsed inward, his chest heaving as he let out a loud sob.

"Ron," she whispered as she caught him in her arms, wrapping her arms around him in a feeble attempt to soothe a wound she knew would never truly heal.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Sunlight filtered in through the open tent flaps as a cool breeze drifted through the tent. Ron shivered as the breeze picked up for a moment and brushed over his exposed skin.

"Would you like me to close it again?" Hermione asked, her hand pausing where she was rubbing salve into the wound on his abdomen.

"No," he said. "It feels good."

Hermione looked up at where Draco had paused his analysis of Ron's vitals above them. Draco gave her a short shrug and resumed, his eyes moving rapidly over the pulsing lines and numbers suspended in the air before him. Harry stood at the end of Ron's cot, frowning slightly.

"I really am fine, mate," Ron said, his voice lilting as if he were trying to inflect it with a joking ease that instead fell flat. "Are you?"

At that, Harry and Draco exchanged a stormy look. Harry worried a hand through his messy hair, sighing. "Last night, I — well…" He reached out a hand, looking deeper into the tent. "Accio sword!" A gleaming sword encrusted with jewels flew into his grip half a moment later.

Hermione's eyes widened. "The Sword of Gryffindor? Is that what it showed you last night?" She paused for a moment as she took in the sword's beauty, yearning to reach out and touch its glittering hilt. She furrowed her brow as she remembered the tension between Harry and Draco as they'd returned to the tent the night before not long after Ron had fallen asleep, tension simmering between them. "Then why were you wet —"

Harry scowled while Draco cut his eyes at him. "I'd rather not discuss it," Harry answered stiffly.

Draco scoffed as his fingers started to jab at the vitals spells before him.

"Griphook assured me that it was in Bellatrix Lestrange's vault. Clearly it was not, or else it wouldn't have been at the bottom of a bloody lake —" Harry cut off, his lips thinning into a white slash. "Anyway, I think the vault is where the next horcrux might be hidden. If we are right, then —"

"It's gone," Hermione and Draco said in quick unison.

Harry blinked at them. "We can't very well know if it's gone unless we check the vault ourselves, as difficult as that may be. We just need to figure out a way to get in around whatever Griphook has been scheming —"

Hermione cleared her throat. "It's gone because the vault is gone."

Ron's eyebrows shot up. "How could an entire vault just disappear, exactly? It's bloody Gringotts, there's no way—"

"Because we destroyed it. And everything in it. If there was a Horcrux left in there now — I can promise you that it has been thoroughly destroyed." Draco looked over at Hermione, and she forced herself to paste on an impassive look even as her fingers started to tremble over where she continued to rub salve into Ron's wound.

She felt the burn of Harry's gaze on her. "Hermione," he said softly, "is that why…At the Manor—"

"Yes," Draco snapped. "So the topic is closed. Where else do you think that one would be hidden?"

Draco's words were unnecessary, and the four of them exchanged long looks as Harry's next words hung in the air between them, unspoken for a drawn-out moment before he said it quietly: "Hogwarts."

X

Hermione crossed and uncrossed her legs, shifting awkwardly on the hard sofa. She could've easily reached for her wand and cast a cushioning charm on herself, but the simple movements she'd already made and only served to make her even more hyper-aware of all the eyes in the room that were on her. On her, and on Draco who sat beside her, stoic and unmoving since the moment they had set foot into the sitting room.

The safe house they were in wasn't unlike the others she had seen, save for the enlarged room they sat in now. Just as it were, there had already been a dozen other occupants when they'd entered, and a few more had filtered in in the minutes since they arrived. They had timed their arrival seemingly perfectly to be but a minute before the meeting was due to start, but she now felt foolish. Punctuality, after all, was likely the last on their list of priorities during a war.

It was as the thought crossed her mind that Kingsley stepped into the room exactly four minutes after they were due to begin, his approach signaled by the telltale scrape of Moody's wooden leg across the hardwood floors as he followed behind him.

Kingsley spared only a short glance over the room's occupants before he began. "We received word that Rhodes and Davids didn't make it," he said.

He paused slightly, and Hermione darted her eyes around the room, gauging the reactions of its occupants. There was barely a ripple. She wondered how many times similar announcements had been made in this fashion, how quickly it had taken them to become desensitized to it all. Her eyes stopped as they landed on Parvati. She hadn't expected the woman to be looking back at her and found herself frozen, feeling trapped in the woman's gaze. They'd been roommates for six years, but they had never been close. Still, as Hermione looked into the woman's eyes, seeing the emptiness reflected there, it felt even more foreign than the already distant relationship they'd had.

She had used to think that she understood what a blank stare was, but now, looking into Parvati's eyes, seeing nothingness — perhaps this barest hint of recognition, layered under heavy layers of emptiness, she realized that she had known nothing of it at all. She'd once seen something similar in her own gaze, she supposed, but now that she looked at Parvati — color drained from her skin, its golden undertones faded to a sallow grey – she realized that she had yet to see much of this side of the costs of war. They hadn't been shielded from horrors while sequestered in their cabin, but it was only now that she realized how much they had been shielded from — seeing the hollowed despair they'd felt reflected in the eyes of those around them.

It was only Kingsley's voice that got her to turn away despite the way she still felt Parvati's eyes burning into her. "We don't know how much fight there is left to be fought, but we can only hope that we are nearing the end of this," Kingsley said soberly. "Nevertheless, we need everyone to be as alert as possible. We have no room for mistakes, nor do we have room for any more losses."

Kingsley turned to Harry then, and she watched the way Harry's throat dipped and devastation flashed through his eyes as he scanned the room before looking back at Kingsley.

"Harry believes that the final battle lies at Hogwarts," Kingsley continued. "I doubt this comes as a surprise to any of us. We all knew all of this would be leading here, to this."

Hermione jerked as she felt a sensation on her lower back. She froze in the same second as she realized that it was a finger, slowly tracing circles along her lower back. Draco. She sank back into the sofa, leaving him room to continue his ministrations while she continued to listen to Kingsley listing off strategies before them.

She had expected it to be longer, she supposed. It was barely an hour before everyone was filing out of the room, faces of classmates she'd once been at least acquainted with looking almost unfamiliar with the grief that lined their faces. Her eyes landed on Hannah and Neville stood across the room, talking in hushed voices while others filed out around them. Hannah straightened suddenly, head snapping to where Hermione realized that she'd been staring from. Hermione moved to stand, her movements awkward as she looked between Hannah and Neville. Neville gave her a soft smile while Hannah's eyes darted between her and where Draco still sat on the sofa, silent.

The room was quieting as others exited, and she hovered before the sofa, unsure if she could approach them or not. Unsure of what she could even say if she did. The decision was made for her moment later when Hannah ducked out of the room, turning away from her without a word. Neville managed to shoot her a final sad smile before he followed after Hannah.

When she turned again it was to see Draco standing beside her, tensing. Hermione caught one of her fists in her hand. "It's all right, I —" she froze as she caught movement in the doorway beyond them as a figure stepped into the room.

Seamus Finnegan stood several feet away, watching them quietly.

"Seamus," Hermione said softly, his name as painful to utter as the memories of blackened veins and crimson blood that resurfaced themselves.

"Hermione," he acknowledged with a small smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Malfoy," he said, nodding at Draco.

Draco grunted back, and there was a brief suspended silence as the three of them stood there, staring at each other.

"I would ask how you're doing," Seamus said, running an awkward hand through his hair, "but…"

The silence felt all the more palpable the longer they stared at one another the emptiness of the room, almost stifling now whereas she'd thought only minutes prior that the full room had had the same effect. Now she wished for nothing but someone to come in and shatter what was suspended between them — her awful guilt at what she'd been unable to prevent.

"Can we talk?" he asked. His fingers twitched as he continued to worry them through his hair. "If you don't mind, I mean —"

"I don't," she answered quickly, trying to quell the tremble from her voice.

Draco caught her by the hand. "I'll stay, if you need it," he said just softly enough for her to hear.

"I'll be alright," she said, squeezing his hand.

It was only a moment later before she and Seamus were left alone once more. "It's spring now," Seamus said, nodding toward the large window across from them where the snow was half-melted outside. "If you don't mind a walk?"

Hermione nodded solemnly. "A walk sounds nice."

She followed him silently as they stepped outside, starting a slow, circular track around the safe house. This safe house was larger than the others, made up of whitewashed wood and large windows. The paint was cracked and peeling with age, and some of the quickly done patching was evident in the way certain shingles were slightly off-center, or where the paint was fresher in some places than the others. All done out of magical necessity, thrown together by an unpracticed wand with the aim of utility, not beauty. Her heart ached as she recalled the beauty of the cabin that had been supposed to be hers, burned by her own hand. She wondered if there would be an end to this, if any potential end could lead to another era where meticulous attention to beauty was valued once more.

"I'm sorry," she said, breaking the silence. "I'm sorry that I couldn't save them."

She couldn't look at him, not fully, but she still caught the white of air out of the corner of her eye as he exhaled. "What makes you think that you didn't?" His voice was an octave deeper, punctuated by grief.

Hermione raised a hand to her temple as she recalled the pain of the days following their deaths and what she'd done, the nightmares she'd had of skeletal bodies and blackened veins. "I…" She trailed off, at a loss for words.

"Did they suffer?" he asked, his voice quieter than before.

Hermione let out a shuddering breath as the words twisted in her mind, melding with the memories that she'd been trying to banish for months. There was a lie, somewhere ready near the end of her tongue— "Yes," she breathed instead, her voice breaking over the word.

Seamus was silent for a long moment, the only sound the soft squelch of their boots in the muddy earth as they walked. The air was fresh and clear, yet it felt thick as it all but suffocated her, the cool air suddenly frigid and biting. Her hand fluttered to her chest as she tried to breathe, wondering why she'd answered at all, reminding herself that what this was beyond what they could've predicted, beyond what they could've ever imagined.

Seamus grabbed her arm. "It isn't anyone's fault," he said. There was an odd tone to his voice as he said the words, each one seeming to linger on his tongue and in the air long after he'd spoken them. "That's what everyone says, right?" he finished, several beats after he'd begun.

"Yes," she said again, unsure if she was able to utter anything else even if he asked.

She listened to him suck in a slow breath before he spoke again. "I don't know if I can describe it." She watched as his hand twitched as he hovered above his chest, pressing a fist over his heart. "It's like — there was something whole there, once. Now it's just pain. Something shattering and exploding, twisting and breaking and melting over and over again every day." He stopped walking then, his breaths coming out in harder puffs of air.

She forced herself to look at him fully, even as she felt herself starting to collapse inward once more. The expression on his face was so raw, so foreign, that it only served to break her more. "I'm sorry," she choked.

Seamus searched her eyes for a moment, tears gleaming in his own as a loan one streaked down his cheek. "It's not the pain I fear anymore. It's time. I just don't know when it will stop — if it ever will." He reached out her hand in his. "I am mad at so many things. So many people —"

"I'm so sorry," she said, still struggling to stifle her sob, "so sorry —"

"— But not you. I want you to understand that even though I'm hurting, it's not you. You tried. You didn't torture them, and with what we know about that curse now, we know that we never would've been able to save them, either. I'm grateful to you — and Malfoy — for saving them from whatever would've come next, because what they'd already done to them is already beyond my nightmares."

Hermione pulled him into a hug, letting his tears wet her shoulder as she held him as tightly to her as she could.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Hermione held out her hand, stretching it past the awning of the porch just far enough to catch some of the misty rain in her palm as it fell.

"What are you doing?" Draco asked from behind her. He'd been silent since he'd followed her out, hovering just behind her.

"Memorizing it," she murmured, rubbing the wetness between her fingertips. "The feel of it. How tranquil it is right now, with just the sound of the rain falling," she said, forcing herself to stifle the part of her that wanted to add and the sound of you to her thought.

She'd known, after all, that the day they'd been bonded was the day the count down had begun, their borrowed time rapidly flowing toward a close with each moment that passed. She'd once thought it a punishment that she'd been married to him at all. She now knew that the true punishment was the fact that she'd wasted that time hating him and not knowing him, when every inch of him was now more precious to her than her own life. It felt almost perverse, now, how the moments of happiness she'd stolen during this time had felt like a sacrifice in the face of all they fought for, only to become the biggest sacrifice of them all.

He stepped closer until he could wrap his arms around her from behind. He was warm, warmer than she'd thought he could be where they stod outside, exposed to the cool spring breeze. Yet despite the breeze, all she felt was him through his thin jumper, his heat leaking through her own. "I know when you're lying," he said. "I can feel it, even when you don't want me to."

It was one thing she hadn't accounted for — their bond growing stronger over time. Their affection slowly tearing down the walls they'd erected between themselves, love blossoming in the form of an explosion that tore the walls down nearly completely. It almost hurt, now, to shut him out.

"Can you feel it?" she whispered. "Harry wasn't wrong." It was intangible yet ever present, the knowledge that the war was rapidly drawing close to its climax, the end they'd predicated their beginning upon.

She felt the slow release of his breath as warm air fanned over her neck. "Do you want to run?" His fingers tightened fractionally around her.

"Yes," she breathed, the words only barely audible to him because his ear was next to her mouth. The wind carried it away a second later, and she forced her eyes closed, pretending she hadn't spoken the word at all.

"I know," he said. "As well as I know that you'd never actually do it."

It was what hurt the most. First she'd imagined a perfect world, them sneaking off to capture the few souls left on this earth that they cherished more than each other, stealing away somewhere far beyond the war's — far beyond the world's — reach.

She twisted in his arms suddenly, curling her fingers in the fabric of his jumper. "I used to think that I was ready — but now all I can think of is you." Her hands slid upward until she could cup his cheeks, searching his eyes as thoroughly as he searched hers.

He pressed his lips to hers, lips soft and probing as he kissed her gently. She sighed into the kiss, her head swarming with her desperation to relish in the moment alongside the pain of realizing that each moment felt like a countdown—

They were interrupted by the screen door opening across the porch from them. Kingsley stepped out, scanning the way they were tangled together for a moment before he moved toward them. Hermione pulled away from Draco, but he kept his fingers curled tightly around hers even as the space widened between them.

"I'm tired," Hermione said. It wasn't what she had meant to say, but even as she processed her words, the vicious rebuke she'd been prepared to say retreated from her lips and dissipated.

Kingsley paused a few steps away from them, and she was surprised to see a small smile ghost across his features. "As am I," he said. His voice was an octave deeper and gentler than it usually was, exhaustion commingled with something she couldn't place lacing it.

"I have many words for you," Draco said slowly, "but I'll give you one chance to leave now and reserve them for a later date."

"Your mother asked for you," Kingsley said, his voice still gentle. "She returned to her safe house to await you there."

Hermione squeezed his fingers as she caught the way his eyes flashed at Kingsley. "Go to her. I'll be alright."

Draco moved only to search her eyes, and it was a drawn out second before he gave her a tense nod and retreated. Hermione watched him until he disappeared into the tree line, looking over his shoulder several times as he went. Even after she could no longer see Draco, the silence between her and Kingsley stretched.

Kingsley let out a slow sigh as he turned to lean against the weathered railing, looking out toward the trees beyond them. "I never intended to become your enemy."

"We don't see your intentions, only your actions," she answered stiffly.

"I know."

His words were spoken in a tone so profoundly laced with resignation that Hermione paused and analyzed him. It had been months since the first time she'd seen it, but she now once again spied the puckered scar that twisted down his neck and into his shirt, evidence of a deep wound that hadn't been properly healed. She could almost see the intangible weight of his duties hanging over him, forcing down the tensed sag of his shoulders as he tried to hold himself upright.

"It hurts, doesn't it?" she murmured. "Carrying the burden on the war on your shoulders."

Kingsley let out an empty sound that was almost reminiscent of a laugh. "I'm not sure I understand pain anymore. Only duty."

Hermione found herself echoing the same noise he had, an edge of derision tinging it. "Is that what you call what you've done to us?"

"It wasn't a utilitarian decision, although I suppose that would be the natural conclusion of the burdens I've put upon you throughout this war."

"You don't even look at me," she said, watching the way Kingsley tensed at her words.

"Hermione —"

"Don't call me that!" she seethed. "Not now. Not after you've pretended I didn't have a name at all for this long. Was it Dumbledore that told you about the loophole that would allow you to force us into becoming your assassins? Or was it you and Moody who decided upon it one day, bent over your maps and strategizing while using us like nothing more than pawns to shift over your map?"

Kingsley's eyes were still firmly upon the tree line. "Does it matter?" he said lowly.

"Have you ever thought of me as a human being? Even for a moment?" she snapped, thinking back to the time when she had known Kingsley only for his kindly smile and peaceful demeanor despite the demands of his position as an Auror.

It was then that he finally looked at her, pain radiating through his features as he searched her eyes for a long moment before speaking. "I always did."

"Lies." Her hands had long since curled into trembling fists that she forced to stay planted against her sides. "Is that one of the many things you try to tell yourself so that you can sleep better at night?"

Kingsley straightened, giving her a sad smile. "I know it means little in the light of all that has transpired," he said softly, "but I am sorry."

"I think I'll hate you forever," Hermione started slowly. "I think I'll hate you forever not because of what you did to me — because I knew that in choosing not to run that I would be sacrificing many parts of myself. But what you did to him —" Her eyes burned as they met Kingsley's, ablaze with all the vitriol she'd held within herself over the months. "What you did to him is something I will never forget. You promised to protect him and instead you did this to us. And for that — no matter how noble your intentions of protecting the greater good are — for that, there will never not be a part of me that wants you rot in hell."

X

She'd stormed back into the house, anger propelling her forward until she'd stopped short in the sitting room, hit with the sudden reminder of how foreign being among the Order once again had become. It was only moments into her debating whether to return to Andromeda's alone before she heard the telltale noise of footsteps coming down the hall.

Panic clawed at her chest as she recalled the derision she'd seen in Hannah's eyes, the blank stare in Parvati's, the cautious acceptance at best from all the others who had attended the meeting—

She found herself rising, legs carrying her quickly toward the opposite entrance to the room as she feld. She banged into something the second she stepped through the threshold, the clattering sound of metal hitting tile as a haphazardly thrown together pile of pots and pans scattered along the ground created a sudden cacophony of noise. She stopped short as she looked around at what she now realized was the large, dimly lit kitchen, panic short-circuiting her brain as she realized that she should never have come back into the safe house at all.

Fred, George, and Bill Weasley were crouched over a series of maps spread out on the long wooden table, all three blinking up at her in the aftermath of the noise. The stifling silence suspended in the air for several long beats, and then —

"You never fail to make an entrance," George quipped, his mouth lifting slightly at one corner despite the exhaustion she saw reflected in his eyes.

There was a scrape of wood on tile as Bill pulled out a seat and gestured toward her with a small smile. "Come," he said, the stark whiteness of the scars that marred his features stretching as he smiled at her, "sit."

Hermione's brain processed the words slowly, her knees locked into position even as she tried to comply. She stayed awkwardly in the doorway instead, barely registering the sound of the pots and pans clattering together as someone spelled them back into place.

"Hullo," Fred said, his voice soft, devoid of the boisterous energy she'd grown used to over the years. She might have placed his tone as almost concerning, but the intangible barriers she'd erected had her forcing herself not to think too deeply about what remaining friendliness may or may not have been lingering there beneath their stilted greetings.

"So," Bill said, clasping his hands before awkwardly letting them fall to his side, "how have you been?"

She almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Almost. Instead she remained frozen, eyes sliding to the floor, tracing the smudges of dirt that had accrued over time. Their niceties were lost in the chasm that distance and awkwardness had formed between them. They'd once been family, and now —

"Hermione— about the shop—" George started before faltering.

At that, Hermione's eyes shot up, her voice finding itself in one fell swoop — "We broke in, I'm sor—"

Her sorry was swallowed as Fred uttered the same word. Hermione blinked up at him in confusion, seeing the guilt that shone in his eyes.

"We're sorry," George repeated, his voice hoarse. "The wards — they were designed not to hurt you, but the powder had to be kept under stronger curses. It's been stolen for worse uses before and…" He cut off, his eyes flashing with guilt as he looked at her.

"Not to hurt...me?" Her words were slow, clinging to her tongue like thick molasses as she tried to process what he'd said. It almost pained her, how ironic it was that she'd brought the very person they'd likely been trying to keep out back inside. But — but he'd also said — "I don't understand," she said, her voice barely an octave above a whisper.

"Hermione," Fred said, standing and starting to cross the room slowly, tentatively, watching her carefully as though she would scurry away at any moment. Perhaps he wasn't wrong to do so. "You're family. Why wouldn't we be sorry?"

"Family?" She started trembling, her heart doing something that was the opposite of shattering that was equally painful nonetheless. "Sorry for—?"

"The curses wouldn't have hurt you," Bill repeated. "I inspected them myself. The wards would have recognized you, so they shouldn't have set anything off. But when you brought someone else, and then touched the powder— it set some off. Not the nasty ones, but—"

Blood pounded in Hermione's ears as she processed their words, her head twisting in slow increments as she looked around the room. "I don't— I don't understand," she said softly, their words slowly connecting in her head. They'd designed the wards not to hurt family.

Not to hurt her.

"Oh," she breathed.

There was a sharp intake of breath, but she couldn't differentiate which of the twins it had come from through her blurring vision. "Oh, Hermione—"

"—you didn't think—"

"We never stopped thinking of you as anything but—"

She couldn't cry. She truly couldn't— something in her had dried out long ago, leaving her able to only let out dry, choked sobs reminiscent of what she'd shared with Seamus earlier. She was silent now, her teeth nearly cutting into her trembling lips as she pressed them shut.

But as the three Weasleys wrapped her in their arms, drowning her in whispered words of love and reassurance— she knew she would have, if she could.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Hermione stepped out of the bathroom some hours later to find Draco standing silently across the room, his back to her.

"Draco," she said as her eyes found him. His back was to her as he looked out the far window. "I waited, but—"

"It's alright," he said, his back still to her. "The Weasleys told me that you left." He turned to her then, and she caught the way tension riddled his entire form.

Panic rippled through her. "What happened? They were— they were fine when I left—" They had been more than fine, really, for reasons she still didn't understand.

"They're fine," Draco answered, his voice tight. "Can you get dressed? I need to take you somewhere."

"Is it your mother?" Hermione pressed, her fingers working faster over her hair as she dried it. "Is she w—" Hermione swallowed the word well, almost cursing herself for the redundancy of it given their situation. "Does she need you?" she settled on instead, searching his eyes.

"No. She's fine, I promise." The tightness in his expression didn't waver despite his words. "Just get dressed."

Hermione nodded, dropping her robe and spelling open her trunk, eyes never leaving his face as she pulled on her clothes.

He caught her by the hand the moment she put on her cloak. "Come," he said, leading them out of the room. He pulled her behind him gently, leading her out of the house and into the yard, soon stepping into the trees. There was a small path nearly completely hidden by the trees, the thick canopy of foliage shrouding it in shadow.

"Draco," she called, breaking the stillness around them. "Talk to me. Where are we going?"

"Trust me," he said, leading her onto the path.

The silence stretched, punctuated only by the sounds of them moving through the underbrush. She was so preoccupied with her anticipation that she paused as she registered the abrupt end of the tree line and the wide clearing that appeared before them. In the middle of the clearing stood the tent they had camped in with Harry and Ron only days prior. She felt a soft tingle of magic as Draco waved his wand, letting the wards around the clearing admit them.

She turned to Draco, the question on her lips dying as she realized he was already looking at her. "Everyone is gone today. Potter and Weasley had some other business, too." he said, his words so low that the light breeze almost carried away his words. "But they'll be back tomorrow, and in the evening..." He trailed off as the reminder that they would be sneaking into Hogwarts the next day hung heavily over them once more, the weight of it immeasurable as they were reminded of their time together rapidly flowing to a suspected close. Her fingers tightened over his, the gesture as much for herself as it was for him.

Hermione swallowed, following him as he pulled her toward the tent. She stopped short as he pulled the flap aside and guided her in, wide eyes roving their surroundings. The light of dozens of floating candles cast the tent in a warm glow, floating gently past as she took a shaking step forward. Rose petals in vibrant hues of scarlet and to pure white littered the ground, the space nearly completely emptied of what it had been cluttered with. The only thing that remained was the plush bed made of a pile of blankets and furs that dwarfed the middle of the tent.

The silence stretched as she looked around the tent, her fingers clutching Draco's tightly.

"You're— romantic," she said, her voice breaking over the words in time with the way her chest tightened, "I didn't know."

He grabbed her hand before bringing her fingers to his lips, gently kissing each one. "I love you," he murmured, eyes never leaving hers.

She hadn't internalized it yet— the fact that he hadn't yet said it aloud until that moment. She hadn't needed him to say it before, not when his feelings bled through his every action. But now that the words were there, amplified in the air around them, her throat spasmed as she attempted to say anything back.

"I never thought I'd know what it was like again—" her throat constricted around the words once more— "to want to live this badly." Her every breath was a slow shudder, pain rippling through her form. "It hurts. It hurts so much—"

His lips found hers in the same instant, swallowing her last syllable. The moisture of tears smeared between their cheeks as their kisses grew hotter, more desperate with each second that passed. Perhaps she'd been wrong altogether on the notion of of her tears having dried out— or perhaps the tears were his, or both of theirs—

Nothing mattered anymore. Nothing but him and the heat of him crowding her as he pressed her closer to him.

"I love you," she whispered, "I love you— I love you—" she repeated, each word punctuated by moans as he kissed down her throat.

She ripped at his cloak and let it fall to the ground behind them before clawing at his jumper, their lips parting only for the time it took for him to pull it over his head and discard it. Her fingers were at his trousers in the next moment, freeing his length. It was flushed with heat and pulsing with need, heavy in her hands as she pumped him. She looked up at him through her lashes as she descended to her knees, tongue snaking out to touch the salty wetness weeping from his tip—

He dragged her back up in the same moment, his breath hot as he breathed later before capturing her lips once more, slowly backing them up until he pressed her back into the mound of soft blankets and furs. His lips drifted to her stomach as she lifted her shirt off, travelling lower as his hands worked down her trousers, taking her knickers with them. His eyes were dark as they travelled slowly over her body, drinking in every inch of her bared skin. She could feel his need flaring, colliding with her own in a storm of tension.

He kissed her hips, a small smile ghosting across his lips at the way she tensed and trembled.

He planted a final slow kiss to her mound, watching her through his eyelashes as she had him a minute prior. "Later," she breathed, dragging him up as she echoed his earlier word. There would be time— later—

The word lingered between them like an echo, caught in the thick tension in the air. She watched as Draco's expression shattered, raw emotion melting past his stoic exterior as he hovered inches from her lips, his glassy eyes searching hers.

For them, there was no later. They'd entered into their arrangement expecting it to end in death, neither realizing how painful their end would truly be. Hermione's chest shuddered as she sucked in a pained breath, only then realizing that she'd stopped breathing at all. The pain was stifling, the impossible weight of what lay ahead of them crushing her, consuming her—

Draco's lips found hers once more. The wetness of tears smeared between their cheeks once more, their kisses growing more desperate. "I love you," he whispered against her lips as he caught a breath. "I— love you—" The words were punctuated by his low moan as he eased his cock into her, rolling his hips against hers.

She gasped into the skin of his shoulder as he buried his face in her neck, fingers clawing at his hair. She felt ablaze, the heat of him against her consuming yet simultaneously the only way to truly quell the flames that burned her from within. She clung to him desperately, trembling as he ground himself against her, as his cock slid into her—

—he was everywhere, and he was everything— everything—-

Her moans grew incoherent as tension rose within her, her words stuttered as she cried out— "Draco— Dr— Draco—" They were a mass of slickened skin and warmth and love and devastation pouring over and colliding. Their emotions were indistinguishable as they erupted together, the fire within her burning brighter in the onslaught—

The tension that burned in her core pulled taut, tears stinging the corners of her eyes as she twitched and shuddered her release and forgot all but him for a precious suspended moment.

X

Draco's fingers traced delicate circles on her side, his eyes on hers. They were nestled among the blankets and furs, their coverings tangled at their waists as they watched each other. The low candlelight seemed to only enhance his beauty, and she lifted her own fingers to trace the sharp line of his jaw. She'd committed him to memory a thousand times over, yet desired nothing but to do it a thousand times more. He caught her hand as her thumb started to trace the softness of his lips, still swollen from her kisses.

"I would have liked to know what it would have been like," she whispered, her voice breaking, "to just be your wife."

"I'm sorry," he murmured, fingers dancing up her skin to cup her cheek, "for many things. You are—" His voice caught, brimming with more emotion than she'd ever heard from him. The air was thick with raw tension, their despair bare between them. "You're everything. I would have given you everything— if I could."

He kissed her the breath of a moment later. She relished in the press of his lips and then his cock as he pressed her onto her back and eased himself into her once more, mouth moving gently over hers as he whispered his affection against her lips. She clawed at his back, moaning desperately as his cock brushed her most sensitive parts. He knew every inch of her so completely that not a single stroke missed, each one only drawing out her pleasure further as he moved in her. She wrapped her legs around his waist, earning a satisfying hiss from him against her lips as she pulled him closer. It took only moments for them to shudder out a mutual release, filling the tent with gentle moans.

Later, it was her pushing him onto his back as she climbed astride him, grinding her hips down upon his as she chased her release. Later still, she watched him draw his lips over every inch of her frame until his lips closed over her cunt, drawing her to a swift completion. They slept for short intervals, finding themselves back in one another's arms the moment they awoke. She devoured him as he did her, desperation reminiscent of starvation as they drank up every moment they had. They slowed as the hours stretched, frenzied lovemaking turning slow and passionate as the day darkened to evening and then night before the sun rose once more.

It wasn't enough.

Every moment she spent drinking him in only made her yearn for a thousand more, the pain gripping her heart in a vice that blossomed further as the next day drew nearer. She felt his pain as acutely as she felt her own. Pain collided with pleasure and they consumed one another, and what little Occlumency they did to ebb the constant flow of it fell apart the moment they climaxed, drowning themselves in the tragedy of it all. She had once read that the tragedy of a bond like theirs was the mutual death, leaving behind the lives they had built in a moment's notice. For her, it was a relief. A relief knowing that the pain she felt now as she tried to conceptualize living without him would never come to fruition. A relief that brought pain that was just as acute, a constant reminder of how desperately she wanted a future for him, because it was only a fraction of what he deserved.

The final time they made love, their pain hung so thickly in the air around them that her every breath felt labored, her chest weighed down as her heart splintered into heavy fragments.

All too soon, evening fell once more.

Chapter Text

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."