Yeah, breathing, that was the key. Breathing, he considered, was so difficult all of a sudden. 'Course, he always had trouble breathing when she was around, but now it was painful. So painful. Not a sharp pain, not a dull pain - just explicit, undiluted pain that made his head spin. He felt ill and cut all over.

A week ago, things had been different. No less complicated or hard, but things had been drastically, radically, beautifully different. Things hadn't been so fucking tragic, so fucked up. Things had been insane and angry and cold and so damned secret, but at least they had been right. He was sure of that now; things had been right.

She is hard at work, and he stares at the back of her head with a feeling of settling hopelessness. The Slytherin in him begins to rise, and this time, it is not an act, it isn't pretense for anyone who might be listening or watching. This time, he has no reason for it other than the fact that he wanted to quell the overwhelming emotion of misery she had caused.

"So," he says in a hard voice, "this is it."

She doesn't say anything, only hunches her shoulders, and he is about to speak again when she says in a low voice, "Just be quiet so we can get this done with, and you can go to that - Jocelyn." She says the name derisively.

He doesn't feel like telling her the truth now. He narrows his eyes. "And that bothers you, doesn't it? Knowing that she's the one who'll be with me?"

She remains silent. This gives him hope. He breathes in deep, noiselessly, and smiles weakly, prepared to follow through with this hope that she can be swayed.

And then she crushes it again, easily, effortlessly. Quietly and calmly, like maybe she had planned it. Maybe she had. Her words cut too much to have been thought up on the spur of the moment - or maybe they had been, and that thought terrifies him even more. He is unaware of his face, with his attractive, banished angel patrician looks, falling. But fall it does because he is so readable now, to her.

"Draco," she said detachedly, like she had already let go, like she had let go, "Just go. It's over. We don't have to pretend anything anymore. I'm not going to keep crying and having nightmares, and you won't have to keep comforting me. I don't need you anymore. Please don't feel guilty. I won't."

He thinks, how can you say that? How? Because he bled guilt. This guilt and sympathy was as dry as dust, but that was all he seemed to eat. He was choking and dying from it, had been for months now, ever since that wintertime.

When she kissed him, he swallowed the pain from her, and by the strength of his guilt, he went back for more. Mouth to mouth, he breathed the shadows from her. While he set her on the road to recovery, the malicious armor around him faded, the vicious ripostes lightened. He became weaker and weaker until here he was - as empty as before, only this time, this emptiness bothered him.

How can she say that?

He tries again. "Ginny, please, just listen. There wasn't anything else I could have done."

"I don't want to talk about this," she says swiftly.

"Well, I do," he tells her, frustrated. "We have to talk about this."

"No," she says, slamming her book shut angrily and rising. "You have to talk about this. Talk away, but I'm not going to listen. It's just to make yourself feel better."

His eyes widen slightly, and he wants to strangle her, to force away her breath as she is doing to him. How well does she wound; how well has she learned.

His cool gray eyes become shuttered, and he leans forward, and he shakes her, hard, by the shoulders, wanting to break her in favor of smashing something.

"You don't know what you're saying," he glares, seething. "You have no idea - I - are you accusing me of using you?"

She stares wildly back at him. "Am I? Maybe I am. Were you?"

"You used me," he says through gritted teeth, shaking her with each word. "I let you use me." Did she know how hard that was? "I was trying to help you."

"You wouldn't have had to," she spits back, "if you had helped me in the beginning! But you didn't. You stood there, and you just - and it was worse, later, it's worse now," she cries, slim shoulders shaking with the force of her emotion. "It's worse now because all I know is that you felt bad. All those things you said to me - it wasn't real. You didn't mean it. It was just your idea of therapy. You know what I thought? I thought you wanted to be with me. I went to sleep every night thinking, Draco Malfoy, Slytherin Head Boy, wants to be with me. And then later on, Draco likes me. And then, Draco - "

He shakes her hard again, wanting her to stop. His face is as anguished as hers, and all he knows is that he wants her to stop.

She keeps going anyway. "Draco loves me. I can't believe it." She draws in a trembling breath. "And I love him too. I love him, so, so, so much, I'm scared. But then he's so wonderful; I'm not frightened anymore. I'm never frightened when he's near me. I used to be so afraid of him, and I don't know how I could have been." She stares at him with crystalline brown eyes. "That's what I think every night before I sleep. That's what I thought."

He reels back, stricken. As his grip on her loosens, she jerks back, wrapping her arms around her.

His mouth opens, but he doesn't know what he will say. How did it come to this? How did he lose reason and calculated judgment?

He remembers with desperation a time before when he was the one with the power. He knew how to push her buttons, how to persuade her, how to make her stumble into him, how to make her need and want him. He fought her for that power, but Ginny, with her Gryffindor-bred courage and redhead temper, fought him back in her own ways. For every inch he gained fighting, he lost another twelve to her, and it showed.

It showed in the way he would become distracted when she entered a room. It showed by the way his head snapped up when he heard her voice. It showed by the way he would tremble by her hand, her lips, her voice, her presence. It showed in his voice, how the silver-tongued Draco Malfoy would become a stammering boy at the look in her eyes. It showed when he was so patient, oh, so patient when he helped her with her homework. It showed when he had to fight to let her go in the morning, when he would always convince her to linger a while longer in his bed.

He fought and he fought for those precious inches, even as he sought to help her and repair the damage. He fought, and he fought standing, until he was beaten back to his knees, until he fell, conquered, at her feet.

"I never lied to you," he says numbly, dizzy. He's so bloody dizzy.

She only looks at him.

"Is this about forgiveness, then?" he raises his voice. "Is this about not forgiving me?" Desperation slips uninvited into his normally commanding, knowing, sure voice. He hates it, but he doesn't mind it now. "You're not going to forgive me."

"I don't know. I don't know. You don't know what I felt back then - " She gazes at him with obvious helplessness, and he feels angry.

Couldn't she see? Didn't she know? She was the one with the power now. Her hands are so small and fragile, but that doesn't matter much because with the snap of her finger, she can tear him apart. All it takes is the turning of her head away from him, the tiny frown upon her lips, the hooding of her eyes - and he can be crushed, crushed and broken so easily beneath her heel, beneath her hand, beneath her mouth. It doesn't take much to break him, he realizes that now. Her breath on his face is enough to bend him to her will; it wouldn't take much for her to snap it.

His chest tightens. Breathing, he reminds himself, that's the key.
To Be Continued.
applecede is the author of 11 other stories.
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