"This doesn't change anything, Granger. We're not friends." Draco said.
The dark forest was not particularly dark in the area where Hermione nimbly stepped over fallen branches and around rocks. In fact, the late summer Sunday sun was dappling cheerfully through the canopy and the air was thick with beams of light making little flying insects glow red and yellow as they flitted in and out of the rays. Hermione was musing with a light heart about how easy it had been to get Hagrid to give away the location of the large cropping of puffpinks she needed for the extra credit potion she intended to brew for Potions. Snape always took every opportunity to deduct points from Gryffindor and from her. She was also certain that being Head Girl would only encourage him to look for excuses. Though it was still early in the term, she intended to get the top marks in the class. Her paper bag was full now and clutched loosely in her hand as she made her way back towards the castle.
In her peripheral vision, a sudden movement on the ground caught her eye and had her whipping out her wand and standing stock still, breath stuck in her throat.
She could see a sliver of black among the maze of tree trunks. It stood out in the green forest as something unnatural that didn't belong. No sound gave away any information and she carefully peered around the trees to get a better look. Wand trained in front of her, Moody's cries of "Constant vigilance!" repeating in the back of her head, she nearly dropped her bag and her wand when the scene was fully revealed.
Draco Malfoy was sitting on the ground against a tree, head folded down onto his knees, his inky black robes speckled with a few dead leaves picked up from the forest floor. And he was…. crying?
Her first thought was that it was a trap. Her head turned left and right, even above, scanning the area for Death Eaters waiting in the shadows. Finding nothing, she looked back to Draco. His shoulders were shaking rather violently and he seemed totally unaware of her presence. The lack of sound suggested that he'd put up a silencing charm and suddenly she remembered. She was ashamed with herself that she could have put it out of her mind so easily and quickly. It was that morning, for crying out loud! The headline of that morning's Daily Prophet bellowed in large black letters, "MALFOYS DEAD". She'd shared a heavy glance with Ron and Harry, and none of them said anything. They may hate the Malfoy heir from his precious hair right down to his cultured drawl, but none of them was heartless enough to wish a fellow student's parents dead. She'd scanned the article quickly, not willing to spend much of her energy on the Head Boy. Lucius had escaped from Azkaban two nights prior and returned to Malfoy Manor in the early evening. He had taken Narcissa, forcibly it seemed, from the mess found by aurors the next day, to Voldemort. A study of her body indicated that she had been killed with repeated exposure to the Cruciatus curse. A study of Lucius's wand suggested that it had been at his hand. An Avada Kedavra had killed him within the following hour. No sign of an Imperious curse was evident on the senior Malfoy. Both bodies had been returned to Malfoy Manor.
She remembered looking over to the Slytherin table seeking out the Head Boy, but he was no where to be seen and upon further searching, she saw that Snape and Dumbledore were also missing. "Good," she'd thought, "they must be talking to him." With that, she'd dismissed the whole situation entirely, glad to not think about Malfoy. The only downside to being Head Girl was having to work with him but she had been prepared for it for months and, as it was so early in the new year, they'd hardly interacted at all.
Now here she was, standing in front of a sobbing Malfoy, not really sure how to proceed. She should probably just leave. She was sure that Malfoy would not want to be discovered like this. In fact, he would probably be merciless in his retribution if he knew that she'd seen him. But her instincts prevailed over her reason. Mortal enemy he may be, but he was obviously distraught and she just couldn't ignore him, no matter what he had called her or done to her before. She stepped closer, inside the circle of his silencing charm. His sobs bouncing loudly off the trees were gut wrenching. Any hesitation she'd had was gone instantly. He looked up then, and his face was so filled with anguish that Hermione gasped aloud. His normally pale porcelain face was a harsh, blotchy red right up to the roots of his white blonde hair and down his neck, and his eyes were so puffy and bloodshot that the barely visible silver of his irises glowed. However, the runny nose he was neglecting was all the evidence needed to show that he was completely beside himself. They faced each other, both frozen in their own embarrassment.
He would lash out at her, yell at her to leave, maybe try to hex her, and who knows what else, and she waited for it. But she wouldn't leave. She would take what ever he had and hope it helped him feel a little bit better.
Hermione had never seen a man cry, and only a few boys at that. Even Harry, who had more reason to cry than most, had always held back his tears. When Sirius died, she had never witnessed him break down. Draco was seventeen and no longer the boy she'd started school with six years ago.
Watching the most controlled, masculine, albeit arrogant, man she knew, break down made her feel small, awkward, and a little frightened. It was much, much, much worse than when a woman cried.
Staring motionless at each other, she steeled herself internally for his onslaught of anger and was surprised (and relieved) when he let out another guttural cry and dropped his head back down into the cradle of his arms. She dropped to her knees beside him and tentatively put her hand on his back. This only seemed to make him sob harder, but he didn't remove her hand or push her away. After a couple minutes, he lifted his head again and looked sideways at her. He didn't wipe at the snot running dangerously close to his red, wind burned-looking mouth, nor did he rub his tear stained cheeks or eyes. Hermione reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a white square of fabric, handing it to him. He took it, wiped his nose and crumpled the fabric in his fist. He looked raw.
An unspoken understanding passed between them then. For right now, all bets were off. Just for now, the past has never happened and they were just two people. "My father tortured my mother…to death. He fucking killed my mother." His voice was raspy and broken and his expression pained and pleading. Hermione's face reflected his, eyebrows furrowed in sorrow, empathy etched into her warm amber eyes. I'm so sorry she said with her eyes, unable to speak past the lump lodged in her throat.
Draco's jaw tensed as he searched her eyes for an answer she didn't have. Hermione watched his lips press into a hard line and his chin quiver as he tried to hold back. She shifted to sitting cross-legged, her knee nudging leg, and slowly began to move her hand in a circle on his back. The dam broke and he dropped his head again, cradling his face in the cup of his hands. She murmured quiet shhhh shhhh's to him and gently pulled him towards her. He followed and let his heavy, tense body fall against her, head in her lap, and lay curled on the forest floor shaking and weeping. Hermione smoothed her left hand through his soft hair, sweeping it away from his burning face and continued the circle on his back while she rocked.
Draco's mind was stuck in a loop, "He killed her. He killed her. He killed her." But, he was glad his father was dead, it saved him the trouble, though it did deprive him of the chance to inflict his rage on the man he once idolized. All he was left with was the emptiness and sorrow of having his mother taken from him forever. She was the only person in the world he loved, and more, the only person he'd ever felt really loved him. He'd feared his father, admired him when he was younger. He wanted to be like him. Strong, powerful, and master of his domain. But things changed when his father had been captured and sent to Azkaban. He thought he would be livid, or feel dishonored, but he felt free - for the first time in his life. It had been a startling revelation and he spent many hours in contemplation over it. He even braved writing to his mother about it. They shared a closeness that Lucius couldn't touch, not that he'd tried. His mother wrote him long letters and confessed that she too felt released. When she had married Lucius, she was young and she had been impressed by his commanding presence. He appealed to her aristocratic, well-bred, high-society upbringing, but when he aligned himself with the Dark Lord, he'd done so against her wishes, but there was nothing she could do. The Dark Mark was for life. As he gained favor in that shadowy world, he became consumed with the pursuit of power. Narcissa's once bright, fiery spirit gave way to fear and she retreated within herself. So she lived for her son and secretly prayed that she would find a way to save him from his father's plans. She doted on the young boy in his father's frequent absence, laughing and letting him know, in every way she could, that she loved him. She wanted to do more, to infuse her values in him, even if it was covertly, but her young dragon idolized his father and she feared Draco would - unknowingly - inform Lucius of her betrayal. She knew Lucius would be merciless in his punishment and all her efforts with Draco would be lost. All she could do was love him and make sure he knew it.
When Lucius was captured at the Ministry of Magic, her very soul seemed to sigh with relief. She began to let her true thoughts and feelings slip into her letters. Slowly at first, but after Draco wrote to her about his own doubts and confusion, she let it all out. She had always held Draco closely, but now their bond was cemented. Every ounce of suffering she had endured as the wife of a Death Eater had been worth it when Draco told her, in no uncertain terms, that he would never take the Mark.
Draco thought about the stack of letters from his mother, written on fine parchment and secreted in a beautiful walnut box in his trunk, and a fresh bout of anguish gripped him as he realized he'd never receive another one. He currently owned every precious letter that he ever would. And it wasn't enough.
Draco was inconsolable. His agony hung in air just above their heads like an invisible blanket punched with holes. He shook violently in her lap and lamented, "Oh God!" and "He killed her" and "Mum" and struggled to take deep gulping breaths. Hermione continued to run her fingers, over his smooth forehead and through his hair, raking his bangs away from his face and watching them fall into place once more. Always more at home in the world of intellect, she had never felt particularly maternal, but instinct took over and she knew exactly what to do. Her sense of disbelief – that she was sitting on the ground in the dark forest holding her nemesis in her lap and comforting him – was suspended for the time being, as she concentrated on soothing this human being's sorrow.
A soft breeze rustled the leaves overhead and cooled the warm forest air. Hermione shifted slightly a few times so her legs wouldn't fall asleep, and wondered how long they'd been out there. It was two o'clock when she'd gone to Hagrid's earlier and now the sun had begun it's decent. Looking up through the canopy, Hermione guessed it was around five. Dinner would be in an hour. After the first hour or so, Draco's shoulders had softened and he'd quieted a bit. Every once in a while, a new wave of greif would over take him, she guessed, with a new memory. Looking down at him now, she could see that his face was returning to its alabaster hue and his cheeks were marked with long, dried streaks, though his eyelids were puffy and still red. His nose was bright red from being rubbed with the crumpled, wet cloth. His breathing had become deep and slow and she thought he might be sleeping. Hermione's stomach balled up at the strange sight of her own golden brown fingers running through his silky, light hair. She had never seen him this close up and it was a bit unnerving. Her mind began to run through a jumbled series of memories of him. His cruelty, his hateful sneer, his haughty posture, the taunts and jibes of a twelve year old, the way he managed to ignore her and still get their initial Head duties completed. And then there was his damning smirk. God, she hated that smirk. It made her insides twist. She had once, a very long time ago, caught herself thinking that smirk was sexy as hell even though it had been intended to make her feel beaten, and she had never forgiven herself for thinking it.
What would happen now? She was not naïve enough to think everything between them was going to be sunshine and roses now that Draco Malfoy had cried in her lap. And she certainly wasn't going to forget all the hate he'd thrown at her. He'd made her life hell for almost six years and, even if she was being nice to him for the moment, she had every intention of continuing to detest him. She sighed deeply and tried to prepare for the biting words he would probably spew at her the moment he regained his footing. His gargantuan ego would never allow him to be civil to her, especially now that she'd witnessed this naked emotion from him. She wondered if he had ever cried in his entire life. Well, maybe, she thought, when he didn't get his way, he probably cried like a spoiled child. Which he was. Or, rather, had been.
She let out another sigh and a low groan floated out with it. Draco stirred and sat up slowly, pushing up on one arm and looking away from her. He took a deep breath and pulled his knees up so he sat the way she had found him, but now looking off unseeingly in to the trees in front of him. She unfolded her legs and stretched them out on the itchy leaves and twigs, unsure what to say and wondering if his worst self would come out now to rescue his pride.
His worst self, however, was too exhausted to do anything. His pride was beaten into the ground and vaporized. As far as he could remember, it was the first time in his life he had ever broken down. And he hoped it never happened again. Not like that, especially. But, his thoughts were thick and muddled now as he tried to think of what to say, what to think about the fact that fucking Granger! of all people, had seen him like that, and worse, that he'd let himself be enveloped in her, and comforted by her soft caresses. What would she want from him now? How would he keep her silent? God, if she fucking told Potter… Would she use this against him? Probably not. She may hate him as much as he hated her, but her impeccable morals would have her taking the high road. Thank God for small mercies. But, would she expect him to be nice to her?
He groaned and broke the awkward silence that was filling in between them. He stood up and snuck a glance at her sitting on the ground before turning away from her to leave. Her robes were rumpled and there was a dark spot on her thigh. He flushed with shame at a trail of shiny dried snot stretched over a small area near the spot he'd obviously wet with his tears. Looking towards the castle, he said in a low rasp, "This doesn't change anything, Granger. We're not friends."
His hoarse voice sent a dull, slow ache through her. "I know." She said quietly with her face turned towards the ground. He took a step and hesitated, then continued back to the castle.
Hermione sat unmoving, listening to his retreating footfalls. She felt pretty certain that, in fact, it changed everything.