The Delicate Task of Acting One's Age
"I'm poor," someone moans sadly near Hermione's feet. Or at least, it's probably supposed to sound sad; it mostly comes off as pathetic with a heavy influence of pouting and self-pity. Hermione frowns and glances down, a little unnerved. She hadn't noticed anyone nearby.
The frown becomes troubled and disbelieving when she notices Draco Malfoy morosely nuzzling the stone steps of the building she has just left. His hair is slightly mussed, and his face is contorted into a perpetual wail; he looks like he's melting.
"I'm filthy," he snivels, his nose still buried in stone.
Hermione stares; her hands are frozen around a stack of papers. Malfoy is nowhere near filthy, almost so much so that she nearly feels self-conscious—she is presentable, but on the high road to disheveled.
"Could you ever bear to spare some ch—"
He sweeps his head upward as he says this, and then locks eyes with her. His words die, die, die, like they are on fire.
"Oh, Christ," he says, horrified.
Hermione feels the tingle of motion return to her fingers again, and she is overwhelmed by the desire to understand the situation in which she has found herself.
"What. Are. You. Doing?" she asks, slow, calm, clear, and very non-judgmental. This, after all, is the best way of handling things, especially when what one thinks is happening might not actually be happening at all.
Malfoy isn't blinking. Nor, it seems, is he breathing. He simply continues to clutch onto the stairs, his mouth looking like the letter D sunning itself on its back. D for Draco. D for dead.
"Malfoy?" she prods, still maintaining an even tone. A patient, friendly sort of smile pokes its way out across her lips, hoping to be made useful.
When even his own name elicits no response, she sets down her papers, clambers up the steps, and tries to swat him lightly about the shoulder. This entails somewhat of a balancing act, as there's a patch of ice on the second step she's got to avoid, and avoiding it means splaying her legs out awkwardly on the sidewalk as she crawls up on her hands. But that doesn't quite reach, so she stretches out her arm, quavering beneath layers of clothing and scarves and coordination, and just barely manages to whisk her fingertips across the seam of his heavy, wintergreen coat. And then, all swatting and attempted swatting complete, she collapses onto her stomach with an undignified, "Oomph."
Malfoy seems to notice her then.
"Granger!" he squeaks like a hiccup.
"Malfoy," Hermione says slowly, nodding. Something is very wrong. Very wrong, indeed.
He looks at her for another moment more as she straightens herself out again, and then nods back. "I'm poor," he declares. "Destitute." He shifts slightly so that he's more upright.
"Shut yer whingin'!" someone shouts from the street, and tosses a knut at his head. It hits right above his left eye, but Malfoy fumbles with it as it falls, and pretends that he caught it squarely. He doesn't bother with a thank you, Hermione notes.
"Hm," she says. "Not so poor now, I see."
"Laugh all you want, Granger," he tells her delicately. His frown is the small, upside-down U of a petulant child. "I am well on my way to—" He falters, eyeing her suspiciously. "To where I want to be."
"And where is that?"
"None of your business."
Hermione huffs into the cold air. There is no point in trying to converse in an adultlike manner if the person one is trying to converse with refuses to act like an adult. That is, his age.
That is, most likely somewhere around twenty-three.
"Well. That's fine with me." She bends down to pick up her papers; the bottom layer is slightly soggy from the snow, but it's nothing a well-placed spell can't fix. No harm done by stopping. She turns to leave, boots crunching upon the cold ground.
She can hear him scrabbling to stand up, and she glances back. Two knuts, one sickle, and a handful of Muggle pennies tumble down the steps to chase after her.
"What?" Her patience is a well that runs only just so deep before going dry.
"You can't just—"
She continues walking, and he jogs after her.
"You can't just leave me here!"
She stops so abruptly that he collides with her, scattering the top half of her stack of papers about their feet. "I can," she says brusquely. A quick wave of her hand, and the papers jump right back up to their proper place. "And it seems I just have."
All civility thereby flying out the window.
"But Granger," Malfoy says, "I'm poor."
She takes another glance at his coat, probably twice as expensive and three times as warm as any collection of things in her own closet. She then examines his dragon-hide leather gloves, fitted exactly to his hands and decorated with silver embroidery, and raises an eyebrow at his polished black shoes. There isn't so much as a snag in his very classy, questionably functional scarf.
"Yes. So you've said, and I'm certain you must be."
"Don't patronize me."
"I wouldn't dream of such a thing."
Hermione finds that sarcasm has lately been the soup du jour, and there is some solace in it. Exciting and new, yet familiar.
Malfoy, however, doesn't seem to bask in the beauty. He hops out in front of her, holding out his arms and flinching as if he's attempting to stop a train, not a woman more or less his own size. It's all very sudden, though, and another "Oomph!" is forced out of them both as they collide for the second time. The corners of her papers are now bent upwards and downwards, depending on where they are in the pile.
"What are those, anyway?" he interrupts, apparently finally noticing that her hands are occupied.
"Those" are, in fact, a stack of leaflets.
"None of your business," she says pleasantly, just to be spiteful. She's all for second chances and inter-house unity, even when Hogwarts is a lesson in the past, but there's something so deliciously wonderful about being difficult every once in a while to someone who's always tried to disrupt her life. Maturity is quickly factoring itself out to follow Civility.
Out the window, that is.
He gets a sly look in his eyes that she doesn't much like. "I'll tell you my business if you tell me yours."
Another bargain between children.
She sighs. "Please do try to grow up."
She half expects him to say, You first.
Thankfully, though, he doesn't. Instead, he snatches up the topmost leaflet, and holds it to the grey sunlight, examining it.
"Really, Granger?" he asks after a long pause.
Hermione snatches it back.
"No, I mean, really. Is there good money in this?"
"In volunteer work? No. Why are you so concerned about money, Malfoy?"
He keeps his lips pursed, a smirk twitching at the corners and attempting to undo his handiwork. Mine for yours, mine for yours, mine for yours, she can imagine him chanting—right after he pulls her pigtails.
"You know you want to tell me," she says, trying to sound convincing. "That's why you're following me, instead of pretending to freeze to death on the stairs."
Malfoy frowns. "I'm not pretending," he informs her. "I am freezing to death. Or I will be, if I can't make my fortune, and fast."
Hermione clicks her tongue. "What, you can't afford to feed your peacocks anymore? Poor. Things."
"Poor me," he says. "We've nearly had to eat the stupid things, because of people like you."
This time, it's Hermione who frowns. One of them has gone too far, and it makes her nervous that she isn't sure which. "You mustn't joke anymore," she says. "Really, Malfoy, I'm tired of it. What do you want?"
"I. Want. My. Fortune. Back."
"Well, that wasn't exactly clever, going out and losing it like that, was it?"
"Now who's joking?" he snaps. "And I didn't lose it; it was taken from me. Me, and my family. War reparations. Your lot. Your fault."
"My fault? Your problems are hardly my fault. If your family had just donated like we asked you to, I'm certain—"
"Well, pardon me for not feeling so giving after having my home taken over by Death Eaters."
"Well that's not my fault either, is it?"
"Well it certainly wasn't mine."
Hermione sighs, looking down a little. Perhaps that was going a bit too far.
"Sorry... So... You believe begging is the best way to continue on, then?"
Black mood lifting, Malfoy straightens out the collar of his coat. "Yes," he declares, alarmingly pleased with himself. "I have decided to become... a charity case."
"You are no such—"
"And you like charity cases very much, don't you, Granger? Perhaps it's lucky that I ran into you after all."
"I've as well as told you, if you're looking for money, you'll not find it with me." She hugs the stack of papers closer to her chest.
"But surely you've got connections, Granger, being Harry Potter's brainiac sidekick."
"Surely all of your connections weren't seized with the entirety of your estate."
"They don't have the manor."
"Your lot did not seize my house."
She arches her brows. "So you're not homeless, then?"
"But you are bereft of all your belongings?"
"No, no... They didn't raid the house, either."
"Then it's all of your fortune that they took."
"Half..." He fidgets with his hands, not quite looking up. "Maybe half..."
Hermione scoffs. "Oh, right. And here you had me feeling almost sorry for you, when you can probably still afford to purchase a small country, can't you?"
"Just..." Here more fidgeting. "Just Monaco."
"It's near France."
"I know it's near France! And I was being sarcastic!" She narrows her eyes. "You are not poor, Malfoy, and I hardly think Monaco is at the top of your grocery list."
"Of course it's not. However would we pay the servants if we bought Monaco?"
Giving up at essentially everything, Hermione throws her papers to the ground, narrowly missing her own feet, but not missing the dirty puddle that splashes up onto Malfoy's ankles.
"You. Are. Not. Poor," she says, very slowly, very distinctly, so that there's no chance of a misunderstanding. "I doubt that anyone would ever mistake you as such."
"Now please. Leave. Me. Alone, and get back to making a fool of yourself, or whatever it is you think you're going to accomplish in the next five years of your lifetime."
She starts walking briskly again, and if only the crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow beneath her feet were Malfoy's head, or fingers, or something else to which she could bring violent harm.
When she is far away, he scuffs his boots against a patch of ice, nearly slipping, but catching himself just in time. Even so, it's enough to draw out a deeper frown, and start his heart pounding wildly in his chest. Stupid, wintry weather. Stupid Granger.
If she weren't so proud, she'd have realized she left her leaflets behind.
The doorbell rings at precisely four o'clock the next Saturday evening. Precisely two hours late. Frazzled, Hermione smoothes out her skirt, and checks her hair in the hallway mirror before making her way to the front door, and opening it.
"Better late than—"
With a little gasp, she stops. Music filters through the doorway, breaking down the invisible but very present wall between outside and inside. Malfoy is wearing a blue coat this time, no scarf, but similar gloves; she can't tell whether or not these are different shoes. He's carrying a small plate of fine cheese samples, no biscuits in sight.
"Surprise," he says. "Aren't you going to let me in?"
"No, I'm not." Malfoy steps forward, and her hand shoots out to bar the way. "And what are you doing with that cheese?"
"I'm bringing it to the party, of course. Isn't that what you peasants do? Feed each other? I'm only trying to assimilate."
"You're not a peasant," she snaps, "and neither am I, for that matter. Now please go away, you're keeping me from my guests."
He stands on tiptoe, peeking over her. "I don't see anyone."
She sidesteps to block his view. "They're all in the other room."
"Why can't I come in?"
"Because you weren't invited."
He shifts the plate of cheeses into his left hand, and digs about in his pockets with his right until he pulls out a folded piece of paper, which he then shakes out with a dramatic flourish.
"'The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare cordially invites you to a benefit gathering this Saturday, December sixth, at number seventeen Willowlong End. All are welcome. Please contact Hermione Granger for further details.'"
"Well, congratulations," she frowns. "You've managed to find one of my leaflets."
"All of them, you mean."
This catches her attention. "What are you talking about, Malfoy?"
The smugness in his expression is infuriating. "You left all of your leaflets with me."
"The other day. Don't you remember? You set them down and stormed off. That's why no one turned up."
Her face is growing red, and it's hardly from the chill. "I told you," she says through gritted teeth, "I have many guests, and they're all waiting for me in the other room. So I would appreciate it very much if you wouldn't keep me from them any longer."
"You're possibly the worst liar I've ever—"
But whatever sort of worst liar she is, she doesn't care to find out, and with an irritated noise, she slams the door. Hopefully in his face. On it. Wherever. As long as he remains out on the snowed-in front porch, he can knock on the door all he likes; she won't be answering it.
Hermione rubs her eyes wearily, and, with her back against the wall, surveys her empty house. Malfoy is right, of course. Although, there's really no "of course" about the matter, because Malfoy has never been right—except this once.
The long table, draped with a modest red cloth, is heavily laden with full platters of hors d'oeuvres, and other such party snacks; all uneaten, untouched. Cold, even if they weren't made to be eaten that way. Music plays for no one, the songs making their way through a second repetition. Hermione spent days cleaning her house from ceiling to floor, decorating every space in between, and there is no one here to see it.
She sinks down into an armchair and sighs. She does not forget things, not like this; not a pile of abandoned papers; not her passions. This is simply the normal effect of Draco Malfoy on the average person, and really, he ought to be locked up for the sake of humanity.
Just as she muses on this, already feeling better at the thought, there is a rap upon the window in the next room. Hermione starts a little, and then draws her wand as she quietly creeps around the corner to investigate.
But of course, it's only Malfoy with his nose pressed against the frost-covered glass. Hermione wonders what would happen if he got stuck. The moment he spots her coming, he squishes his face forward further, as if he expects to slide right through into the den. He's taken off his gloves, and is marking up the window with his grubby fingerprints. He's also spelled out "Let me in!" in the frost, but he's forgotten to write it backwards so that she can read it properly.
Hermione can see him mouthing the words, but she certainly can't hear him; more effective than thick walls and double-paned windows, she's cast a spell on the house to keep unwanted noises out. It makes for a more peaceful existence when there are so many other things to worry about.
She stands a good distance away with her arms crossed. He looks more frantic now, and even bothers stepping back, turning on his heel and trying to Apparate in, but of course, she's got wards up to prevent that sort of thing from happening. One never can be too careful, even when all the evils of the world seem at least temporarily vanquished.
She smirks quietly. Playground wars can go on all day, really.
And then he begins throwing cheese at the window.
"Hey!" she cries out.
Bucherondin, Chaumes, Roquefort, and Fiore Sardo all fly at lightning speed and hit the glass with a visible SPLAT. Many of the more lightweight slices stick like creamy post-it notes.
Childish, childish, childish!
Hermione abandons her passive stance, and flicks her wand at the onslaught. A particularly large wedge of Gouda stops a mere centimeter from the window, and then changes course, flinging itself back at Malfoy, who yelps and ducks. This is a sound she wishes she could hear, alongside the subsequent utterances of distress he elicits when the remainder of his cheese platter turns against him.
Cheese wars, Hermione thinks with dismay. She has reduced herself to someone who partakes in cheese wars.
Without another moment's hesitation, she Banishes the assailants into a pair of nearby rubbish bins.
Malfoy, fortunately, does not pursue them, and leaves shortly afterward.
"I was lying, you know," he says, and Hermione nearly jumps out of her own skin. She's been in the park for the past two hours, walking about and putting up posters—not leaflets this time, posters, larger and surer to be seen and distributed—and thus far, no one has disturbed her; she hasn't even been asked the time by a random passerby. But here Malfoy is again, apparently seeking her out.
"Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" she demands, clutching her hand to her chest. Her breaths come out in short, gasping clouds for an entire minute until she overcomes the shock of broken solitude.
"Not this time," he says, quite matter-of-factly. Apparently, there have been other times.
She finishes with her current poster, and then turns to face him; there are three more—only three more—left to put up.
"Don't you want to know what I lied about?" he asks at length, seemingly insulted that she hasn't asked of her own volition.
"I only assumed it was a given that you've always lied about everything."
"I'm not laughing."
He scowls. "Well, you shouldn't be. Now ask me."
"Ask you what?"
"What I lied about."
She rolls her eyes. "What ever did you lie about, Malfoy? This time, I mean."
He pouts. "Cruel. Always so cruel, Granger, I hardly deserve it."
"Just answer the question."
Annoyance flickers across his face, but he concedes. "My fortune," he says. "We can't actually afford Monaco. Or servants."
"The Ministry seized most of our gold, not half—though I was being truthful about the war reparations bit. We were permitted to keep roughly ten percent."
Now the annoyance is more than a flicker. "'Hm?'" he echoes. "I'm pouring my heart out, Granger. I'm telling you the most shameful Malfoy family secret, and that's all you can think of to say in that horrifyingly large brain of yours?"
It's another minute or so before she speaks again.
"Well... You're still above the poverty line."
"So? We're poorer than any Malfoy has ever been in the last eight hundred years."
"What you mean," she says slowly, "is that now, you're just like everybody else."
"But we're not."
"Yes," she insists. "Yes, you are." He's so stubbornly elitist, it's almost saddening, like an abandoned puppy that watches with brightened eyes as its master leaves it behind, because it believes, in its heart of hearts, that nothing will ever change. Footsteps grow farther and farther away, and then the world changes without the tiny beast ever knowing. Once realization strikes, it is left forever to wonder what it's done wrong.
The comparison is enough to cause a hitch in her breath, and Malfoy looks at her oddly. Best not to think of abandoned puppies; her week has been disappointing enough.
In spite of herself, she can feel kindness rising into her voice. "Becoming a charity case won't magically bring back your fortune, Malfoy."
"Well, you see, being a wizard, magic—"
"You've got to earn it. Work."
"But that's what—"
"What normal people do, yes."
He looks at her suspiciously. "You don't work. You said it yourself: there's no money in volunteering."
"I don't just volunteer," she sighs.
He doesn't get it.
She goes on. "I'm currently a part-time research assistant, and with what spare time I do have, I campaign for the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare to become integrated into the Ministry's Department for the Control and Regulation of Magical Creatures."
He seems impressed that she's said all of this in one breath.
"I've already petitioned for it, and have written numerous letters. But before they seriously consider my proposal, the Ministry has to be certain that I am serious, and am actively pursuing the movement myself."
He scoffs. "You make house-elf rights sound important."
"They are important."
"And there's money in importance?"
"There can be." She pauses. "But I'm not doing it for that. Not everything is about money, Malfoy."
"So you like being poor?" He's staring at her with genuine curiosity.
"Nobody does, but if it brings about justice, and fairness, then I'm perfectly capable of getting by."
And this, he suddenly thinks, is why Gryffindors are always called martyrs. This is why everyone's always admired Golden Granger and her ethics and ideals.
They're admirable, and they're persistent.
He finds himself feeling very befuddled, indeed. Things somehow made more sense when he was being attacked by an angry mob of gourmet dairy products.
And though each of them doesn't quite expect it of the other, they both walk away from their encounter deep in troubling thoughts. Lucky for them, thinking things over—that is, thinking before acting, instead of acting rashly without thinking—is an extraordinarily helpful way to come to an understanding. Perhaps even a mutual one.
Perhaps even if the two parties involved haven't quite begun to realize it.
Draco Malfoy goes home to his parents' quiet manor, brooding more than usual and avoiding just as many questions as is customary. He thinks about Hermione Granger, who's also home now, trying to read an article in the Evening Prophet, and becoming frustrated when she can't seem to process the words because she's so preoccupied. She thinks about him, about how, near the end of their exchange, he seemed to be hearing her differently, how the contempt and spite dropped from his expression. He thinks about her, and how she always has something to say, and maybe even how pretty she looks when she gets all worked up about something she likes.
They have both changed, and yet they haven't changed at all.
Sleep comes slowly tonight, especially to those who most need it.
The next time they meet, once again on opposite sides of Hermione's front door, she's almost surprised that Malfoy doesn't try to rush past her into the house, or throw something new at the windows—or her face. There is a brief moment during which she wonders if he'll try to fit down her chimney. It's odd, though, to find herself suddenly musing about how he will get inside, and not why he wants to try. Something inside of her has accepted his newly-found interest and attachment. It's a something that makes her step aside and say resignedly, "Come in, then," though not before he stamps the snow off his shoes.
He has the sense, at least, to not say anything about the size of her house, or the furnishings, and she has the sense to keep her wand close by, just in case. She motions him into the den, but they don't sit.
When she opens her mouth, he expects another speech.
What she gives him is a revelation.
"Look," she says, "I could use some help. Loath though I am to—don't gloat, Malfoy, I'm trying to help you—loath though I am to admit it, I don't think I can do this alone. I'm willing to pay you fifteen sickles an hour to put up posters and hand out leaflets, or whatever it is that I give you."
"I know it's not much—at least, it's not what you want—but if you do manage to grow up, and are willing to work, I'll do what I can."
Malfoy blinks at her. "You want me," he starts slowly, "to help you with your campaign for house-elf rights? And you don't find anything slightly amiss with that?"
She straightens to her full height. "No. And if you don't, either, just think of the sort of message that it will put across."
"Right. Don't vote for Granger."
"No," she sighs. "Honestly, even with all the mucking about your father's done in politics, you certainly haven't learned much, have you?"
Another blank look sent in her direction.
Another sigh to accompany it.
"All right, Malfoy. Think about it. If I gain the support of a family like yours—"
"Hold on, I didn't say anything about my—"
"Be quiet. If I gain your support—you coming from a wealthy—"
"—a wealthy, Pureblooded family entrenched in old wizarding traditions—it will bring more credit to my campaign. If someone like you has managed to change his beliefs, then surely, everyone else can, too, and there must be some valid substance to the idea."
"There are two problems with that," Malfoy interrupts, holding up two rigid fingers for emphasis. "The first being that, in case you haven't noticed, I haven't changed my beliefs. I like house-elves, but only when they're fetching my afternoon tea. The second being that this doesn't in any way benefit me."
It's like wading through pudding, but for some reason, her temper is still in check.
"Of course it benefits you," Hermione says. "It gives you credibility. Right now, your family has a bad name—in most respects. If you publicly begin to make amends, society will trust you again. You're more likely to be respectably- and well- hired in the future with a good name than a bad one. So you will get to benefit yourself, but in doing so, you'll benefit so many others, as well. I'm certain something like that ought to be able to change your beliefs for the better."
Malfoy crosses his arms and scrutinizes every contour of her face. "Something changed your beliefs," he says bluntly after his examination is complete.
She looks startled, and heading once more down the path of weariness. "I've always believed in equal rights," she says.
He seems to half-understand, and he cocks his head, perhaps unintentionally, to the side. "I don't mean about elves."
Ah. There it is.
Hermione almost smirks, but she isn't sure why. "You mean about you." She pauses. "Muggleborns, Purebloods. It shouldn't matter, what a person or being is, but whom, and who a person was, and who a person is—well, they're entirely separate matters. You have potential, Malfoy. You don't have to be a spoilt little brat your entire life." Then she smiles. "Besides which, I can't stand for even you to embarrass yourself any longer by begging on the streets. You make a very unconvincing pauper. And, if you work with me, you'll be getting a raise in pay—at least, from what I saw before. Unless, of course, you'd prefer to continue collecting pennies."
He looks thoughtful. "Is that what those are?"
"Unfortunately worthless to you."
He coughs. "Well. I'll have to think about it."
She's still smiling. "Don't rush yourself. All that maturation you may or may not be about to undergo could be potentially hazardous for your brain."
Malfoy shoots her a scowl. "I suppose, if I did agree, you'd still insult me every day."
"Well, it's only natural, since I expect nothing less from you, and I'm hardly going to keep quiet about it. Some things just won't change."
"Even though you want them to."
Hermione chuckles. "Be yourself, Malfoy... Just don't be a prat."
Her inspirational speeches may be on the decline, but this one strikes home, carving an upward, almost-genuine-and-not-ironic turn into one corner of his mouth. Even as she looks at him again, he's becoming clearer and clearer.
It makes a difference, somehow.
At first, there's little difference between handing out leaflets on street corners and begging on them; people still ignore him, or shoot him dirty looks. But they've at least stopped throwing things at his head. Therefore, by the literal definition, working is the less painful of the two experiences. And eventually, he settles into a routine, wherein sign-waving and making an informative nuisance of oneself—house-elf rights, get your house-elf right here!—is the norm.
He feels rather like he's reached his epilogue. That is, he's endured a sequence of unfortunate incidents long enough to locate what may very well be a happier ending than previously expected.
Hermione has even let him into her house more than once.
Which is, of course, a definite improvement. Not that he's allowed upstairs, or anything of the sort.
But he's working on that. Maybe.
"So?" Hermione asks eventually, coming to meet him on the corner with her hands deep in her pockets. "Have you learned your lesson?"
Malfoy arches his brows. "Am I being punished for something you neglected to inform me of?"
She shoots him a look.
"I'm sorry. Are we being serious now?"
"We're always serious."
"You mean, am I no longer the delicately self-centered creature of our beloved childhood days, and if I'm not, then have I learned such skills from your carefully-instigated plans for turning me into a well-balanced citizen-slash-menial laborer?"
She may or may not be suppressing a smile. Either that, or she's about to explode into a million little pieces. She can't quite tell, herself, that distinguishing line between fondness and exasperation. "Something like that," she offers at length.
Malfoy shifts the sign in his hands so it can be better seen. "Then not a chance, Granger," he smirks. "Not a chance."
Hermione puts her hands on her hips. That, coupled with the wildly windblown frizziness of her hair possibly trying to consume her face, makes her look a bit intimidating. Or, at least, she'd like to think so.
"Uh huh," she says. "Clearly, you've always been this hardworking and charitable, and my entire perception of you can be best explained away by delusion."
"Oh, honestly." She rolls her eyes. "Get back to work."