title: if you're still breathing (you're the lucky ones)

chapter title: the water creeps to my chest

summary: no one walks out of a war with clean hands. hermione, draco and the 8th year fic literally no one asked for.

dedication: tina, who will never read this but whom for the last three years has been the only person at work i can nerd with about hp. she is the best pal, you guys. i'm gonna be so sad not working together anymore.

if you're still breathing (you're the lucky ones)

It's a cloudy, humid day in late June when Hermione returns to England. She's tired, hours and hours of plane journeys curling in the spaces between her bones full of screaming toddlers, manic parents and fitful, nightmare laden sleeps. The whole way between Sydney and Singapore, Hermione had been afraid of falling asleep properly, afraid she would wake screaming from dreams she'd never be able to explain to the other passengers.

I lost everything, she almost wants to scream at them – though of course, it's not their fault, not their fault at all and would she really want them to know there are some out there still, always will be, who will want them dead or subjugated, certainly afraid, just for the fact that there is no magic running through their veins?

And she has not lost everything. Not at once. There was an hour or so, when she waited in the castle with the dead, for the final blow to come and she could not find Harry, not anywhere and she knew, she knew –

No, Hermione tells herself, as the landing gear comes down, as the plane glides to a smooth stop at the end of the runway. No. Do not relive that here.

Still, the fact remains: for an hour or so, she had lost her best friend to the darkness of the Forbidden Forest and she is still not entirely sure she has got him back. Now she has lost her parents twice over.

There are other losses of course, big and small and too numerous to name. She feels the weight of them all; here, in the middle of Heathrow and surrounded by indifferent muggles, it is too much to look at directly.

"Hermione!" a familiar – beloved – voice calls and she whirls, scanning the crowd with frantic eyes. The past year has taught her how to find them quickly in a crowd, always searching with an edge of panic pressing out from her ribcage.

She is in the circle of Harry's arms before she even registers her feet moving.

"Oh, I missed you," she breathes into the jut of his collarbone and he laughs, because all these years and all these summers apart and she's never actually said it to him. She'd written weekly long letters, sent him snacks and care packages and even a birthday cake that memorable year the Dursley's enforced that ridiculous diet on the mammoth cousin she'd like to slap – but had never said the actual words.

"I missed you too," he says, arms tight around her. He smells the way he always has since first year – like broom polish and spearmint toothpaste and she inhales it in greedily, the first time she's felt at home since sixth year, probably.

She has always built her home in other people. This is where they differ. Harry loves deeply and loyally, but he's still so self-contained, still the skinny boy she'd met when they when they were eleven with the shadow of the cupboard in his eyes.

Hermione pulls back and looks at him, tugs at a rebellious lock of inky hair. "It's getting so long."

"Ginny likes it," he says, laughing a little. "She says it makes me look dangerous."

"Hmmm." She is carefully non-committal, tucking his hair behind his ear and stepping away to pick up her suitcase. Of course most of her stuff is in her loyal beaded bag, but it would look odd to travel so far without hold luggage.

"How is she?"

Harry falls into step with her easily, steering her towards the exit. "Not great, honestly. I don't know what to say to her, there's nothing that will make it better. Maybe you could talk to her about it, you're good at feelings."

"I can sympathise, but I can't empathise Harry. I've never lost anyone that close to me."

(a lie, of sorts – she can remember how it felt, that crushing moment when she realised that Harry was nowhere to be seen, that he'd slipped away like fading stardust, that while she held Ron in her arms on the floor of the Great Hall he was walking towards his death)

"Just be – patient," she says, trying to believe the words coming out of her own mouth. Outside the air smells like jet fuel and the heat that comes off the tarmac in soft waves, a smell particular to summer and the muggle world she only half belongs in. There are tears building in her eyes, whether grief or weariness, she's not entirely sure, but Hermione blinks them back stubbornly the way she has been doing for hours days weeks –

It's ridiculous, this constant battle against the moisture in her eyes; how badly her spine wants to collapse in on itself, let this howl of misery in her ribcage out.

She cannot.

Not with Harry still battered from his brush with death, not with Ron still bleeding out from the ragged wound that is Fred's absence and Ginny, with her long silences and screaming nightmares.

"I'm glad you're back," Harry says, as they round the corner and prepare to apparate. What goes unsaid; we need you.

Hermione does not return to her parent's house, the real one – with the diamond paned windows and the yellow roses that grow every summer, without fail, on a white trellis. Her father loved those roses. He'd pruned them back carefully year after year; Hermione cannot face the sight or the sweet smell of them.

She will always think of it that way now; her parent's house, the house of her childhood, but not the home she grew up in. The way back is barred; she closed it behind her the day she took their memories. Instead she moves into Grimmauld Place and Harry doesn't ask questions, just as Ron, lost in bitter grief, doesn't notice.

He stays over sometimes, when he cannot bear to be at the Burrow – she curls herself around his spine, wraps her arms around him, matches her breath to his – and sometimes this breaches the chasm between them. Sometimes Ron is so far beyond her reach that nothing crosses that ocean of silence.

"Tell me what will help," she murmurs into the skin at the nape of his neck. "What can I – tell me."

"Nothing," Ron whispers back, "Be here."

I am here, she wants to shout, I'm here, you're the one who keeps leaving.

She and Harry eat breakfast together most mornings, toast and marmalade, orange juice and weak earl grey tea, both of them tactfully ignoring the other's tired eyes and the dark circles which speak of sleepless nights.

She does not know what to do with herself. None of them do; maybe that's the problem.

Pansy has known Andromeda Black's name all her life. It was a name spoken in whispers at the cocktail parties her mother threw year after year and carefully sidestepped at the famous Black family teas. There was a warning in those whispers; behave or you'll end up just like her, cast out and unwanted.

Behave or you could end up doing something unthinkable, like shaming your blood and your name and running off with a muggleborn.

It had seemed such a terrible thing then, to be cast out; blood-traitor. But Pansy has seen truly terrible things since then and knows it was only ever foolishness and fear, a tool to keep the children in-line. If the worst thing she ever does is disappoint her parents, she'll have a clear conscience.

Still. She's never actually met the woman and it's another thing entirely to turn up at her house, unexpected and unwanted, but Pansy is doing it anyway.

I have faced, she thinks, as the door opens to reveal a wary, tired face, scarier things than you.

Andromeda invites her in for tea with the same icy politeness that Pansy learned at her mother's knee and this – this is a language they both know in their bones.

Pure-bloods and blood-traitors both come from the same place after all.

"Miss Parkinson," Andromeda Black says, chilly as those first winter mornings at Hogwarts, when the floor of the common room stung with the cold, even through her thick stockings. "Won't you have a biscuit?"

The days pass and keep on passing. It might be June, or possible July – Draco has given up on counting the days – when his Aunt Andromeda steps quietly out of the fireplace and scares the life out of him because she looks, she looks so much like –

"Don't say it," Andromeda says wearily. "She's dead."

Draco picks himself up from the floor, suddenly aware of his dirty hair, his crumpled untucked shirt, the empty decanter of firewhisky lying on its side. She looks like Bellatrix, but she has his mother's expression of disapproval and it sobers him in a way nothing has since the trial.

"She's dead," Andromeda repeats, "and so is my daughter."

"I –"

Words – so many words – lodge in his throat and he cannot think of what to say to this woman, who shares his blood but not his name. In all his life he's only met her twice, quiet occasions when he was very small and Narcissa was not supposed to be seeing her sister.

How on earth can she bear to set foot here?

"Because despite everything, I did love my sisters," she replies and he realises that he spoke aloud. Whoops. He might be drunk; he might be really depressed.

"I don't understand how," he replies, voice scratchy and thick. "How could you still…after everything?"

"Oh, Draco."

She sounds so much like his mother then, steering him towards the closest armchair and settling him down in it with so much gentleness when he deserves the opposite. Her fingers around his wrist brush against the Dark Mark and he flinches.

"I suppose it's different for you," she muses, in a low voice. "You were always an only child. Always alone in this great, empty house. I grew up with Bella and Cissy. We shared blood, but also a childhood and that – that is not so easily forgotten. No matter what happened after."

"But she – she killed –"

"She killed Nymphadora? Yes. Yes." Andromeda breathes raggedly, sinks into an armchair of her own and looks down at her hands, elegant, the same hands that Bellatrix had. How she must hate to look at them.

"I loved my daughter more than anything – more than anyone, even my husband. And I walked away from my entire world for him. I've never regretted it, but love is not turned off like a tap. My parents disowned me, but I still loved them. Cissy could only meet me in shamed secrecy, but I never resented her for not walking away the same way I did. Bella killed my daughter, but I still – she was always my sister. Even now. I mourn them both."

Draco shudders, unable to look at her brittle expression, the way she folds her hands on her knee to keep them, he suspects, from curling into fists. The parlour is silent and still, save for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner.

"Why have you come?" he asks at last.

"You're my nephew, aren't you?" Andromeda says wearily. "Miss Parkinson came to see me last week. She seems to think you are having some trouble with guilt."

He could almost laugh. Bloody, bloody Pansy and her interfering little face. Imagining that little tete-a-tete is the best thought he's had in weeks.

"She came for tea," Andromeda adds. "Uninvited, I might add. She's got a lot of nerve."

"Pansy is a survivor."

"Yes. I got that impression. Sharp girl. She doesn't suffer fools, does she?"

"She never has."

"Hmm. But she played with the baby gamely enough and ate the right amount of biscuits. She'll be alright, whatever happens. I almost didn't like her at first. I didn't want to. Her family never committed one way or the other, just sat it out and waited without getting their hands dirty – Bella may have been wrong but she fought for what she believed in. Say what you will about her, but you can't say she wasn't dedicated. No, there two sides to this war and both sides have lost heavily. I can't stand the ones who haven't lost anything at all."

Andromeda leaned forward. "They will say the war was bigger than us and maybe that's true. But at its heart, it is families like ours that got torn down the middle, which have lost most heavily. The ones who fought against each other no matter the cost. You cannot hold yourself solely responsible for our family's sins, Draco. This started long, long before you were born."

Draco blinks rapidly, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat. "I didn't walk away."

"No. But you were only a boy raised on poison. Who knows what you have chosen if you'd had more time to grow up? I like to think if I'd not met Ted that I would still have chosen to leave, but the fact is I chose to leave only because I loved him, not because I believed my parents were inherently wrong. That came later, with time and a little less ignorance about the world."

The tears come out; he cannot stop them. More than anything, he Draco knows he does not deserve this kindness. He cannot fathom the grace it takes for Andromeda to bestow it, when she has lost so much, from such a young age.

You have lost too, a little voice whispers at the back of his head. You have, you have.

Andromeda conjures a silk embroidered handkerchief and delicately dabs the wetness away from his cheeks. "You didn't get a chance to choose," she says quietly, the light from the fireplace reflecting in her tired eyes. "If the Dark Lord had won, you never would, but he's gone and so are Bella and all the rest. They were the adults, Draco. Let the poison die with them."

The letter comes unexpectedly.

The day of Dumbledore's funeral, oh, so long ago it feels now – Hermione had known she would never have her seventh year. There might be a way to take the exams, if they were victorious, but she had known there would be no coming back to school for them.

Except –

"I'm not going back," Ron says shortly, throwing an identical letter down on the kitchen table and knocking over a half-drunk glass of pumpkin juice. Hermione watches as it spills over the table, as it soaks the parchment and the ink runs in emerald streams.

He gets up and storms out of the kitchen; a few moments later, they hear the front door slam. Harry, looking very tired, flicks his wand at the spilled juice and it vanishes.

"What do you think?" he asks. "Worth considering?"

"None of us got to take our NEWTS," Hermione says softly, gaze still trained on the kitchen door as if she can call Ron back. "I think it would be good to have them."

"It won't be the same."

No, it won't. She tries to imagine going back to class in the same place where so many of her school mates and their relatives have so recently died, where Fred's body lay on the floor of the Great Hall, where Voldemort had every intention of wiping them out and declaring victory. Hogwarts, she thinks, is no longer untouched. The enemies were inside the walls.

"Maybe it's time for something different," she says, trying for lightness. "Imagine what it will be like getting through the year without someone trying to kill you."

Harry laughs and rubs at his tired eyes. "A peaceful year! Merlin, that could be nice."

"I think we've earned it by now."

He nods, reaches for another bit of toast but the laughter is fading from his expression already. "I'll think about it," Harry promises quietly. "I'm pretty sure you've already made your mind up, yeah?"

"I – I haven't decided anything yet. Not for certain."

If she leaves, what will become of her and Ron? Something inside her knows that the fledgling relationship they started will not survive both his grief and her absence. It is too much, too raw –

For so long she has been the one holding them all together.

"Hermione," Harry says, very seriously. "You don't need to put us first anymore. If this is what you want, you should do it. Don't hold yourself back for us."

She looks down at her hands, hands that have cursed and shielded and never trembled, not once, in the face of all that death. All that fury.

"I thought it would be different than this," she whispers. "Winning. I thought – we'd be happy."

Harry sets his letter down carefully, as haunted as she feels. "I guess," he says, so, so quietly. "No one walks out of a war with clean hands."

And that's the problem, isn't it? The thing that history books cannot tell; that the end of a war feels less like a party and more like the aftermath of a tsunami, where the life you had before lies in tatters beneath the surface and you struggle to keep your head above the water. What do you go back to when the flood clears? Who do you try and save from the wreckage?

From his tired eyes and tired hands, she knows Harry understands.

It's okay, he seems to say, if the person you save is you.


notes: sacked off my toxic office job and wondering what to do with my life

notes2: was planning to go to asia this spring but you know. corona virus happened.

notes3: blame sarsaparillia for my love of pansy, it never would have happened if not for her spamming me with headcanons and also she writes brilliant HP fic