Title: A Thousand Words (ch 29) - The Final Threshold
Word Count: 3300
This is it.
Those three words raced through Draco’s mind as he mechanically went through the process of changing the colour of his hair, donning Shadow’s clothes, and affixing his mask to his face. Every few seconds, he would glance down at the unfurled letter lying on his bed, and each time he saw the otter-shaped seal, broken neatly in half, he would turn away again, unwilling to keep the hateful thing in sight for too long.
Never before had he felt more terrified. His hands shook violently as he tried to straighten his mask, and he was sure his legs would soon fail to support the weight of his upper body. Finally, unable to delay the moment any longer, he dashed over to his bed and snatched up the piece of parchment. He tried to scan the familiar words for the thousandth, or perhaps millionth, time, but gave up half-way through the first sentence, for lack of concentration prevented him from reading any further. Frustrated, he crumpled the letter up in his hand and flung it at the wall.
The clock above the window now read 5:01 pm. Sure that Starlight had specified five as their meeting time, Draco cursed himself for not paying attention to the time and, without a second’s delay, Disapparated out of his room.
Hermione’s entire body shivered from a combination of cold and nerves as she paced back and forth behind her and Shadow’s bench. Where was Shadow? She stopped momentarily to check her watch. 5:02 pm – he was late. Hermione’s insides squirmed uncomfortably. This had never happened before; Shadow had always been on time for their meetings. Did this mean he had decided against coming?
For a moment, Hermione dared to hope that they wouldn’t have to reveal their identities after all. Maybe then everything can stay the way it is right now, she thought, almost relieved. After all, Shadow was the only one she had left, and the last thing she wanted was to lose him too.
Hermione spun around on her heel, prepared to resume her pacing, when suddenly someone from behind her cleared his throat. She leapt back, only to realise that the person standing there was Shadow.
‘You frightened me,’ she said, trying to smile but only managing a small grimace. ‘How did you know I was here?’
‘It’s a good thing you’re not a dark wizard on the run,’ said Shadow with a crooked smile, gesturing down at the footprints Hermione had left in the snow.
Hermione laughed nervously. ‘I’d be a right failure at covering my tracks, wouldn’t I?’
Shadow said nothing in response to Hermione’s weak reply. Instead, he silently walked over to the bench and sat down.
Trying to ignore the pounding of her heart in her ears, Hermione followed and sat down next to Shadow. Hating the silence but unable to think of anything to say, she instead twisted a stray strand of hair around her index finger, trying to pinpoint when exactly it had become so difficult to breathe in Shadow’s presence. When did every detail of every moment become so important to me? she wondered.
‘What are you thinking about?’ he finally asked, his voice even lower than usual.
‘Us,’ said Hermione without thinking. As bold as the statement was, she didn’t want to keep any secrets between her and Shadow. ‘I’m thinking about how it feels right now to see you again.’
A slight tensing of the shoulders was the only noticeable sign of movement Shadow exhibited. ‘And how does it feel?’ he asked after a brief pause.
Hermione hesitated. ‘It feels…different.’
She inhaled slowly, carefully, willing her racing heart to calm down. What was he doing to her? Was she really that scared to show her face to him, to say her name out loud while he listened?
‘I…I’m getting married,’ she finally said. Yes, she thought firmly, I’m going to marry Ron. I have Ron. From now on, Ron is the most important person to me.
Hermione swallowed with some difficulty. If he wasn’t going to say it, she’d have to. Biting her lip, she blurted out, ‘Shadow, are you really sure about this?’
‘Why not?’ he inquired, picking up on the implied meaning behind Hermione’s question. ‘Didn’t you say you wanted to?’
His voice sounded oddly tense, as if his throat were constricted, as if…he were holding back tears.
‘I don’t know anymore,’ said Hermione truthfully. She clasped and unclasped her hands in her lap. ‘I thought about it, and I know it’s the right thing to do; not because I’m worried about what things between us will be like if we go through with it, but because I can’t…I can’t keep this going now that I’m engaged. He – you know what he’s like.’
Instead of addressing Hermione’s worries, Shadow said quietly, ‘It’s snowing.’
Hermione looked up and saw that Shadow was right. Large white snowflakes, illuminated by the fading light of the sun, were drifting lazily towards the ground. She smiled in spite of her qualms. It was beautiful.
‘It’s going to turn into rain,’ she observed. ‘It’s not cold enough for the snow to stick.’
‘I’m glad to hear that. I’ve never liked the snow very much.’
‘Why?’ Hermione asked curiously, temporarily abandoning her efforts to get to the purpose of the meeting.
Shadow looked over at her, his grey eyes hard and void of emotion. ‘It was the only thing colder than me.’
‘I see,’ Hermione murmured, not knowing what to say to this. She clenched the bench under her tightly, trying to gain a hold of herself. This was not the time to be discussing the weather. They had met here for other purposes.
‘Tell me,’ said Shadow, finally turning around to fully face Hermione, ‘is it possible to both hate and love someone at once?’
‘What do you mean?’ Hermione asked, confused.
‘She…that is, I can’t help but hate her because I love her, because she made me fall in love with her. I want to hurt her so she’ll understand that she needs to stay away from me, but by doing so, I’m hurting myself even more.’
Hermione felt tears prick at her eyes. Who was she? The one Shadow was in love with? Could she really be so important to him that he was torturing himself like this over her?
‘Tell her,’ she whispered, remembering the way Draco had brushed her off so coldly just two days earlier and how hurt she had been. No, that’s not the case here…it’s entirely different with Draco… ‘Tell her,’ she repeated in a louder voice, trying to ignore Draco’s unrelenting presence in her mind. ‘If you don’t she’ll find someone else.’
‘She already has someone else,’ he said bluntly. His eyes bore into Hermione’s while he said this, as though he believed her to be withholding a better answer to his question. ‘But I understand how she feels even better than she does. Even though she tells herself that she loves the idiot, deep down inside she knows she’ll never be happy with him.’
‘Then you should take the chance,’ Hermione said softly. She placed her hands over Shadow’s. ‘Tell her you love her before she completely convinces herself that her feelings for her boyfriend are stronger than her feelings for you.’
Shadow clenched his hands beneath Hermione’s. ‘She doesn’t love me. Someone like her could never feel anything but pity for someone like me. You’re…she’s…you’re both blinded by pity.’
Hermione drew back, stung by Shadow’s accusation. Why was she reminded of Draco every time Shadow said something like this? They were so similar, separated only by Shadow’s aptitude for opening himself up to her.
‘That’s not true,’ she finally said angrily. ‘You mean so much more to me than you think, Shadow. But...but you’re just like him – the man I mentioned in my letters. Always so bitter and unmoved by everything around you, never believing that someone out there could care for you…’
Shadow clenched his jaw. He seemed to have been offended by what Hermione had said, for he too moved away and turned his back to her.
Silence fell between them, a stifling silence that was only made more uncomfortable by the thick sheets of sleet now showering down upon them. At last, when Hermione could no longer stand the tension, Shadow spoke up.
‘If you care about me as much as you claim to,’ he said with his back still turned to Hermione, ‘take off the cloak.’
Draco was sure she would say no. He had known it all along, known that she would back out of her own proposition. He’d never been able to understand how Hermione had been placed in Gryffindor, what with the self-assurance and general courage she lacked when she wasn’t battling dark wizards.
Despite his confidence in his theory, however, he had inwardly hoped – no, feverishly wished – that she would agree to it. If she could overcome her fear of losing Shadow…if she could do that just to prove that she cared…
Draco stiffened. ‘Very well?’ he slowly repeated.
‘I’ll do it,’ she said quietly. ‘If it means you’ll believe me, I’ll do it.’
Draco’s insides writhed in agony at her words. Why? Why was she so foolishly submissive? He wanted to twist around and shake some sense into her. Where had her beloved logic and reason flown off to? The true Hermione Granger wouldn’t love and trust him so blindly. Were Starlight and Hermione the same after all?
Of course they are, he thought angrily. Hadn’t Hermione demanded that he trust her and that she cared about his well-being just the other day? The two were identical in every feature; they had to be the same.
‘Will you show me who you are afterwards?’
Draco said nothing in response to her question. Did he intend to show himself to her? He didn’t even know.
By now the sleet had turned to rain. Everything around Draco was grey, wet, and cold. He shuddered. The atmosphere seemed to reflect the turmoil brewing within him.
Suddenly, Draco felt Starlight's weight lift off the other end of the bench as she stood up; seconds later, her hands appeared out of the thin air before him, her fingers clenching the unseen material of the Invisibility Cloak that shielded her from Draco.
For a fleeting instant, Draco was overcome by remorse. He could no longer deny that he loved her, whether she was Starlight or Hermione. But if it was true, was it his place to be forcing her to act against her will like this? Guilt welled up inside him. Unable to stop himself, he stood up hastily and said, ‘No, don’t –’
But it was too late. Starlight had already let go of the cloak. It fell away from her ungracefully, landing in a heap on the slush-covered ground, instantly revealing the figure it had masked so well for so long.
There was no turning back now. Deep inside Draco had known it along, yet despite having had his suspicions recently confirmed, his blood still froze in his veins at the sight of Hermione Granger standing in Starlight’s stead.
‘Hermione,’ Draco finished. The word felt foreign on his lips. ‘Hermione Granger. You’re Hermione Granger.’
‘You know me?’ she whispered, staring up at Draco from beneath a curtain of wet hair. She looked terrified.
‘I’ve watched you…’
Her eyes widened. ‘You mean…?’
‘I can’t say I’m surprised,’ he said, avoiding her question. ‘Hermione’ (for he could no longer hold back from saying her name now that he had overcome the obstacle of using it for the first time), ‘what are you doing here?’
‘What about Ron Weasley? He’s the one you love, isn’t he?’ Draco asked, his voice quavering from the effort of trying to rein in the rage that had risen up within him at the very thought of Ron. ‘Why are you with me when he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want you to see me anymore?’
Her eyes flashed defiantly. ‘It’s not up to him to decide who I spend my time with.’
‘You’re stubborn,’ Draco observed coolly. Inside, however, he was burning…burning with the longing to tell her…to explain…
‘Please,’ Hermione suddenly blurted out, reaching out to grab a fistful of Draco’s robes, ‘please, Shadow, take off your mask. Who are you?’
Draco’s fingers involuntarily curled around the handle of his wand. With one simple spell, he could do it. He could get rid of the hateful mask. She would see his scars and…and it would all be over.
The scrap of hope Draco had dared to nurture for that short-lived moment of desperation crumbled away. How could he possibly convince himself that he was worthy of a happy ending? No, he didn’t deserve one. That was that. He relaxed his grip on his wand and let his hand fall back to his side.
And suddenly, everything around Draco disappeared. He no longer felt the gusts of wind numbing his flesh and bones, no longer heard the deafening sound of the torrents of rain beating down upon the earth…all he could see was Hermione – Starlight – standing there in front of him, imploring him to answer her.
Powerless against the emotions controlling his reasoning, Draco found his hands reaching out to seize Hermione’s wrists and pull her towards him of their own accord. Though he was shivering uncontrollably, he nonetheless felt her heart beating faintly but rapidly through the soaking wet fabric of both his and her robes – or perhaps that was his own heartbeat?
No, he thought feverishly, that doesn’t matter right now. What was important at that instant was Hermione and her being there with him in spite of her better judgment. Blinded by the deliria this knowledge threw him into, Draco found he could no longer restrain himself with reason alone. There was no use resisting; he had abandoned thought and surrendered to desire.
He had crossed the final threshold. There was only one thing left for him to do now.
Gently, he lifted a trembling hand to her chin and tilted her head back. He could see in her eyes a silent plea for him to stop, but that was impossible now. Without thinking, without even considering the weight of his actions, he sealed the remaining distance between them and pressed his lips to hers.
His lips were cold. No, that was an understatement; they were like ice against hers. Still, at the exact same time, it was as though long-smothered flames had burst into life within her. Never had she felt like this; like she was falling, falling into eternity; drowning in the sound of her own heartbeat, with only Shadow’s existence to hold onto. It didn’t matter that she was drenched to the core. All she wanted was for Shadow to hold onto her forever.
The kiss was like nothing she had ever experienced. It was reckless and cautious, harsh and tender, passionate and sweet – all at once. The saltiness of what she presumed to be his tears mingled with the droplets of rainwater clinging to their lips, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth; still, she hungered for more. Though she struggled to pull away, she couldn’t gather the will to, and instead ended up leaning further into the kiss.
When they finally did break apart from one another, Hermione found that her cheeks were also streaked with a mixture of rain and tears. As the haze in her mind started clearing away, she continued to cling desperately to Shadow, sobbing for no apparent reason into the front of his robes.
At last she asked shakily, ‘Who are you?’ Pulling away slightly, she touched his mask then slid her fingers down to the exposed lower half of his face. ‘Why won’t you tell me?’
Shadow turned his head to the side so that Hermione’s hand fell away. ‘Don’t touch me,’ he said in a strangled voice. ‘Don’t…’
Hermione withdrew her hand and pressed it to her chest, which ached as though someone had thrust a blade through it. ‘Why?’ she asked, tears welling up in her eyes again. ‘What are you trying to do to me?’
Shadow glanced at her over his shoulder, and she instantly felt the knife in her heart twist. She had never seen such an anguished expression. In his eyes there existed all the sadness of the world, and she couldn’t help but feel as though it was directed at her.
‘Shadow…’ she said weakly.
He turned away. ‘I can’t,’ he said, his voice suddenly callous and emotionless again. ‘I can’t tell you for now.’
Before Hermione could open her mouth to protest, he walked away. As if trying to ensure that she wouldn’t call after him, he Disapparated out of sight after a few steps.
Hermione collapsed to the ground next to the fallen Invisibility Cloak. ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ she mumbled into her mud-smeared hands. ‘Why is this happening to me?!’
He had kissed her. Shadow. Was she the one he had spoken of so reverently? No, it couldn’t be. Yet he’d said that he had been watching her. Had he known all along? Why had he kept it a secret if he had known? And why had he kissed her?
Despite all the questions flooding Hermione’s head, she couldn’t get rid of the image of his eyes…those eyes filled with such unimaginable sorrow…they were so much like Draco’s.
‘Draco,’ Hermione whispered through chattering teeth, testing the name on her tongue. ‘Draco…’
He was the one her mind strayed to despite Shadow and Ron and everyone else in the world. Above all, she wanted Draco’s forgiveness. She would do anything for it, even get on her knees and beg. He had endured so much pain over the course of his life, and she would rather die than cause him anymore.
‘I’m sorry, Draco,’ she sobbed, hunching over and burying her face in her arms. ‘Forgive me…’
The moment Draco arrived back in his flat, he stumbled down the hallway and to the sitting room. There he collapsed on his litter-strewn sofa, too weary and sick of everything around him to even bother reversing his disguises.
He hated her for making him feel so needed. The way she had clung to him like he was the only person she had left in the world; the way she acted with such unfailing compassion towards him regardless of what he said to her.
‘I hate her. I hate her. I hate her.’ He clutched at his head. ‘I hate her. I…’
He couldn’t say it anymore. In truth, he loved her. He loved her so much that it hurt to keep on loving her, so much that he had to force himself to hate her just so he could breathe everytime she smiled at him. Or perhaps he simply did it out of fear of losing the ability to conceal his emotions he had perfected over the years, because when it came to her, detachment was impossible.
Would he ever muster up the courage to reveal himself? Was he capable of willingly bearing those hideous scars that damned him to a life of cowardice and hatred? No, he didn’t think so. With Shadow, he could hide. He could kiss her and walk away and still have a means of escaping the consequences of his actions in his real self.
‘I’m sorry, Hermione,’ he muttered, recalling the sight of her, the feel of her, the taste of her even as he said her name. ‘Forgive me…’
Next chapter: Draco comes to terms with his feelings while trying to deal with the sudden suspicions of the rest of the Ministry of Magic.