The Road to Nowhere
Gift Fic for TruantPony
At midnight, tears
Run into your ears.
Disclaimer: I'm not J.K. Rowling; I'm only visiting her universe for nonprofit fun and edification. (No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended).
Dedication: To TruantPony, reviewer and beta-reader extraordinaire, in thanks for keen insight and encouragement in my life mission of Frightening the Horses.
Draco Malfoy knew that it didn't take magic to be invisible, if everyone decided that you were.
After the war, the Malfoys had wriggled out of it again. They had stood trial, all three of them, and been saved by the testimony of Harry Potter, and to Draco's great surprise, the corroborating witness of Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as well, to the effect that he personally had not turned them over to the Dark Lord.
Which was a mixed blessing, in its way, because what they had said, between the two of them, was that he had done the best that a cowardly, vacillating person of absolutely no personal convictions and a great deal of malice could do, under the circumstances. And in the Room of Requirement, he had not been the one to cast the deadly Fiendfyre curse.
No, not he, but Vincent Crabbe, swept away on a tempest of flames, nothing left of him but the memory of his death-scream, which echoed down the corridors of Draco's nightmares every night.
As did the screams of Potter's logistics officer. Yes, all unknowing, Bellatrix had tortured a general… who had been as unyielding under Cruciatus and the knife at the throat as Bellatrix herself, immured in Azkaban. He did not think that Azkaban would break Hermione Granger, either.
As for the others …
After the war, the Malfoys kept their money, and (after a rather vigorous tour of inspection by the Ministry) their Manor, and (once they had dug up the mass graves from the First War and re-interred the inmates elsewhere) the grounds thereof.
They kept their money.
After a decent interval, Lucius Malfoy discreetly approached the officials of St. Mungo's about a donation – anonymous of course – to the rehabilitation of the war wounded. In the name of healing, and reconciliation.
The donation was refused.
Others stepped forward to fill the role of chief medical philanthropist: there was Potter, of course, who was heir to the fortune of the House of Black, as well as his own parents' assets; Finch-Fletchley, whose Muggle wealth, converted to Galleons, was Pureblood enough for the coffers of St. Mungo's; even the tight-fisted northern matriarch of the Longbottom clan stepped forward with donations.
The political rehabilitation of Slytherin House proceeded apace after the war; there was a return to the old days and old ways, that's how they framed it: a series of articles in the Prophet about the uses to which cunning and ambition could be put, outside of torture and genocide, a statistical survey of the professions in which the denizens of the House of the Snake had sorted themselves after leaving Hogwarts, highlighting the predominance of Healers among them: the Smethwycks and the Derwents and the Pyes, all the Healer families whose origins stretched back to the time of Salazar himself, and beyond; the Derwents, it was said, had first made their mark as Healers in Druid times, and indeed the consultant in charge of the St. Mungo's spell damage closed ward, one Boudicca Derwent, was a lineal descent of Dilys Derwent in the female line, and had served as a medic in the Grindelwald Wars. She had been at Hogwarts with Tom Riddle, and she, along with other Old Boys and Girls, gave an interview about what she had known of the boy who became the successor to Grindelwald in the line of Dark Lords.
Nowhere in that reckoning were the Malfoys mentioned… well, that wasn't strictly true, but the one who was chosen for prominence was Messalina Rookwood Malfoy, Draco's great-great-grandmother, who had rendered conspicuous service to wizarding and Muggle Britain alike, and died in the line of duty, in the last incident of weather-working in the British Isles, in June of 1944. Of course, the articles then went on to outline her heartbreak as the mother of a defector to Grindelwald, and (all unknowing, for it had unfolded after her death) the grandmother of a parricide and Death Eater. It was now more or less openly alleged that Lucius had poisoned his own father, Abraxas.
All of this was retailed as the dark background against which the virtues of the sixty-years-dead Malfoy matriarch shone, a small wavering candle of conspicuous virtue in the lowering gloom of Dark tendencies.
And she'd only been a Malfoy by marriage, after all.
Draco wandered Diagon Alley, looking into shop windows and shivering as the glances of passers-by went straight through him. Like Potter's cloak, he supposed, except his cloak was made not of magical fabric but of disgrace. He turned in at the side-door of Flourish and Blott, under the signboard with a stack of tatty volumes, leaves flapping in the pictorial breeze, shadowed by the letters "A. Tonks, Bookseller"; the volumes rested on a pedestal with the graven legend, "Purveyor of Muggle Books & Novelties".
He shrugged the collar of his cloak up around his face, and hunched his shoulders. He had been hiding in this place, another magical shop very much deeper and higher than the front premises would suggest. There were staircases and back-rooms and aeries stuffed with old books, leatherbound volumes cheek-by-jowl with tatty paperbacks and slick new volumes still in glossy jackets, with those terrifyingly flat and frozen Muggle photographs or paintings on them.
He climbed the narrow staircase, walked between the close shelves, and found his corner, where he tucked up his knees like a small child, and took down the volume that he had been reading before: Tom Brown's School Days. An odd sort of book, about a Muggle school, but the antique wordiness lulled him. Sometimes he fell asleep in the corner.
There was conversation down below.
"There's a peculiar smell to a bookshop," said one voice, with a Northern lilt. Oh gods, it was that oaf Longbottom.
"It's the smell of burning." That voice he recognized: Granger, the know-it-all. She went on to explain that Muggle books had been printed on wood-pulp paper, for the most part, since the late eighteenth century, and that smell was the slow destruction of that paper in its own acid, along with a touch of mildew, of course.
"Unweaving the rainbow again, eh Granger?" No, he definitely didn't know that voice. He peered through the stacks; down below, stood that bushy-haired girl (whose mane flourished in even more luxuriance than ever, as if by token of the ascendance of the Lions these days…)
The other was an earnest dark-haired fellow in spectacles—no, not Potter, for the hair was too neat—vaguely familiar, not a Gryffindor…
"Analysis is enchantment, Anthony," Granger said. "For some, anyway. I think Keats was a sentimentalist." She laughed.
Another bloody Muggle-born. Anthony Goldstein, yes, the name came back again. Muggle-born, because in the post-war one didn't use the old word.
He shrank back when the proprietor came out to greet the three below. Regular customers, he would guess, but he didn't like the woman. She looked far too much like his Aunt Bellatrix.
Well, for a good reason, he knew: she was his mother's disowned sister, and the sister of Bellatrix as well.
Granger and Goldstein and Longbottom were talking about their walking tour in Lancashire, and some sort of business with ropes and carabiners and caves, for Merlin's sake, which he was very sure he wanted to know nothing about. Mugglish, the lot of them. Longbottom was the worst, because he was a Pureblood who conducted himself as a Muggle—never traveled by broom, hardly ever used the Floo, and the lot of them had gone up to Hogsmeade on the Hogwarts Express, for old times' sake.
Ropes and carabiners. He knew a bit about that, though in a rather different connection.
The voice that sounded too much like Bellatrix said, "Come this way; it's upstairs."
"Gran lost her whole collection when the Aurors raided our house during the war," Longbottom was saying.
Andromeda Tonks replied dryly that she had an idea. The shop had been fired by the Death Eaters shortly after her own daughter had been purged from the ranks of the Aurors. Blood-traitor Half-bloods need not apply, after all.
They were upon him before he could shrink back or even cast a Disillusionment Charm.
Granger's mouth quirked in an odd expression. "Malfoy, I presume?" she said. "Fancy meeting you here."
The expression on the face of the proprietor was carefully neutral, but the features were his terrifying aunt resurrected. That was a recurring nightmare, when he wasn't dreaming of her death he was dreaming that she hadn't died. No thought of his would ever be safe – In pre-trial detention, they'd given him the choice of Veritaserum or Legilimency at the hands of a St. Mungo's consultant. He'd chosen the Veritaserum and interrogation by the same consultant, who had been horrified and had referred him for post-spell-damage treatment.
He hadn't gone.
They stood on the narrow stair, Longbottom's shoulders blocking his view of the premises below. He felt claustrophobic for a moment, and cornered.
"Nineteenth-century school stories," Andromeda said from below. "We've got a cache of that sort of thing up here. All the classics…"
Draco had not had to forego his copy of Tom Brown, but they'd smiled ironically, Granger especially, without admitting what was so amusing.
The world was on fire, but the flames were black, smothered in darkness, and they hissed all around him. He was tangled in them, and her voice grated against his ear as her nails dug into his wrist. "You're marked," she said. "You'll always be marked. They'll find it on your bones when you're dead." Well, that was true. They'd turned up the corpse of the Death Eater Travers in the bowels of Gringotts, in the deep vault level where the oldest families kept their caches of wealth, and what was left of the flesh on his forearm was still twisted into the shape of the Mark. Draco could feel the dull ache of the snarled scar that still pulled on his bones even thought its maker was dead and interred in a mass grave at Hogwarts these fourteen months. Rotten, succumbing to the decay of all mortal flesh, mortal after all.
She said, "I'm marked too," and on her left forearm a scar spelled out the dread epithet Mudblood, what nobody said any more because it wasn't said, not after the pictures in the Prophet, not after the unsealing of the archives of the Muggle-born Registration Commission, not after the suicide of Umbridge…
He was in the nightmare world, where his aunt had not merely died but disappeared in a crumpling implosion of black ash, as if there never had been anything there but void.
He had seen Granger's forearm that afternoon in the bookshop: it was paler than her bronzed shoulders and upper arms, and unmarked. But that was the other world, not the one in which she lowered over him like an incubus and rasped her teeth on his neck and he was helpless, tangled in black flame and tied in place like a pagan sacrifice.
She held a knife to his throat, cold and glassy, black obsidian, and lectured him pedantically about how the Aztecs had cut out the hearts of their living sacrifices, but she wasn't going to attempt that because he had no heart and that would offend the gods. Instead, she was going to cut his throat, and see if pure blood ran as red as her own.
The cold edge of her blade pressed against his jugular and he screamed. The knife and the scream merged together, and light came through the black flames, razored through them as if they were silk or smoke.
He bolted awake, tangled in the sheets and covered in cold sweat, his heart pounding and his body roused both for survival and for sex. Not that there was anyone to take care of that for him… but himself. He groaned and kicked the sheets to one side so that he could deal with matters efficiently.
Since the war, everyone had been rehabilitated, except for those sent to Azkaban, and an Azkaban without Dementors, at that. There was a sharp-tongued columnist in the Prophet who signed herself 'Viridian'. He was quite sure it was she, because Pansy Parkinson was and ever had been female, and he read between the lines of her malicious wit that Skeeter had taken her on in the character of an apprentice. Skeeter was a Pureblood who'd be the Right Sort if she weren't so screamingly vulgar. Though there was something about the way she'd eyed him when he was a student… Skeeter that is, as if he reminded her of something pleasant. He wondered if she and his father had had something on the side.
He was having all sorts of thoughts like that lately, about who might have been having it off with whom else, his parents included. It was actually rather conspicuously awful, because it left thoughts on the inside of his head that nothing would scour: even the polite exchange between his mother and the Ministry emissary, when the keys of the Manor were restored to her… a Weasley, though thank Merlin not Weasley the elder but his son, the one who'd worked in the Ministry.
Why he had the picture of his mother and Percy Weasley having it off, he didn't know. But there were all sorts of gossip articles in the Prophet: Potter and his fiancee, of course, and that odd triumvirate of Granger, Goldstein and Longbottom (it turned out that Longbottom and Goldstein were cousins, by way of a Squib relation too obscure to trace) and then there were speculations about the Minister himself, the ex-Auror Shacklebolt, and the widow Tonks, the very one who kept the bookshop. Draco didn't know why he read that stuff, because it reminded him of his own rather too persistently single state.
No, to be brutally frank: his persistent and undesired celibacy, unless one counted wanking. And he was grateful to Viridian for not mentioning him, and in particular not mentioning what they had done together in secret at Hogwarts, and what they had not.
Particularly, what they had not, although that may simply have been a matter of his invisibility, and the column inches that the Prophet wasn't going to devote to the non-existent sex life of a failed assassin, conspicuously incompetent evil-doer and thoroughly disappointing baby Death Eater.
In the dream, the Dark Lord had mustered all of the students in the courtyard, and asked them to choose a side. Draco had walked across that yawning space and joined the Death Eater side, alone of all his contemporaries; but really, he had gone to his mother's side, and buried his face in her neck, and pointedly ignored his father. He dreamed that over and over, as if it had happened that way, under the grey and lowering skies of the Scottish dawn, among the shattered ruins of what had been their school.
In waking life, he knew that he and his parents had huddled in the Great Hall, hoping to be inconspicuous, and that their wish had been granted, in the long post-war. In the dream, he and his parents walked out of Hogwarts, along the road to Hogsmeade, inexplicably neither noticed nor pursued. In the post-war that bid fair to stretch his entire adult life, he walked the road to nowhere, between ranks of the living who stared right through him.
In his dreams, Granger hated him, and threatened him with her obsidian knife as he lay staked out as a sacrifice on the high altar.
In waking life, she was indifferent, as if he really didn't matter. She'd smiled at the sight of him reading quaint old Muggle boarding-school stories.
Longbottom had been somewhat less fond. "Flashman," he'd said, and then said, "Of course you wouldn't have been borrowing from something you'd never read, but evil is rarely original."
Goldstein muttered something about remedial Muggle studies, and Granger shushed them both, just as she'd done with Potter and Weasley more times than he'd like to remember. (He'd have had them in detention or worse if she hadn't held them back, and, time was, that was one of many reasons for his powerful dislike of her.)
That was a smack in the teeth. Longbottom had animus, and true to his name, persistence. No one had bothered to explain to Draco the virtues of the dish served cold; in spite of their icy mien, the Malfoy men were hotheads, and if he were ice-cold in examining the record, rather less brilliant than one would have expected from the lords of creation.
The excursions to his renegade aunt's bookshop were the merest taster of his perverse exploration of things Muggle. Actually, the books he read there were relatively innocent, Edwardian children's stories that granted an escape to a world very like the one he thought he had inhabited, a world in which the Right Sort and the Wrong Sort both kept their place in the Great Chain of Being and no breath of change disturbed the foliage of cloistered gardens.
There was plenty of money to spend on his diversions, because no one in their world would take the Malfoys' money in exchange for the services formerly rendered. He changed his Galleons at Gringott's, keeping his head down even though it was perfectly plain that the Goblins recognized him and stared through him just as the witches and wizards did, only with something more acidulous. They held grudges over their centuries-long lives, grudges that made human vendettas look like mayfly whims.
There was the gauntlet of Diagon Alley to be negotiated, the looks that made him invisible, and the studied avoidance, the twitch of a lip or the flare of nostrils as if at a whiff of ordure. Then there was the cool dimness of the Leaky Cauldron, with old Tom at the bar and his apprentice Hannah Abbot levitating cases of bottled ale from the storeroom. It was the slow hour after luncheon; some of the staff of the Prophet chatted in a booth, looked over at him and looked away as he walked through.
The light ahead, through the doorway, was Muggle London. The vast preponderance of London, actually, for what he knew under that name was but a tiny corner, even with its distortions of space and time.
The foreign currency weighed heavy in his pockets, the pockets of the uncomfortable Muggle garments he had donned in secret before leaving the Manor that morning.
He could as well have done all this at the Manor, but … but the thought of his mother or father walking in on it, no that wouldn't do.
The electric light made him shiver, when he stood just inside the door of the hotel room. Glaring, even when it tried to be soft, even when filtered through lampshade or bounced off a white ceiling, it partook neither the frank radiance of the sun's light nor the tremulous red-gold of candlelight nor the green were-light of magical boundaries. It was unnatural in his scheme of things, and the waking counterpart to the black flames that bound him in the place of sacrifice.
He knew that electrical contrivances did not work at Hogwarts or at the Manor, because of the heavy atmosphere of magic. Hogwarts in particular was nothing but magic, and Muggle gadgets failed there within hours. Here, he had learned that he could do a bit of wand-work to set in motion what he needed, without too greatly interfering with the Muggle setting that was all too critical to the whole business.
Somewhere in all this business, with his repressed Pureblood upbringing and then the war, and the yearly humiliation at the hands of Potter and Granger and Weasley, Draco Malfoy had gotten his wires crossed in a really serious way.
That was a Muggle metaphor, he knew. He didn't know what those wires were or what they did under normal conditions, but that didn't matter, because there was nothing normal about the last fifty years.
He'd learned Occlumency as quickly as he had because there were thoughts he didn't want his fanatic Aunt Bellatrix to reach… nor her beloved Lord, either. He still remembered the Mudblood slapping him, the shock that snapped his head to one side and the sting, and the way his cheek had burned for hours after, or so it seemed.
Oh yes, and the backswing had had knuckles in it, and he'd tasted the salt of his own blood. He'd been baiting her, because he knew that the game was rigged in his favor and ever would be, and the hippogriff to which he'd taken a dislike was doomed to fall under the headman's axe. He told her as much, delighted at the notion of her working herself to exhaustion in her notion of the cause of justice. He'd seen the purple bruised circles under her eyes, and had rejoiced as if they were bruises in earnest.
Until she struck him, and he couldn't think of what to do, so he ran.
And then—what he didn't admit to anyone, not even himself—he found himself hard and tremulous, and hid behind his bed-curtains to stroke himself raw with one hand, with the other feeling the heat on his cheek. The reaction made no earthly sense, nor did the other things that happened in dreams. He gave her a wide berth after that, well, except for that business at the World Cup… he'd watched in fascination as the Muggle family was lofted into the sky and tormented, and then he'd seen her, and the first words out of his mouth had been a warning: to keep her bushy head down if she didn't want to be up there showing her knickers.
And then it occurred to him that she might do the same to him… as indeed she did the next night. In the dream he was in full traditional regalia, and she had manacled his hands so his robe and under-robe and long shirt all flopped over his face and half-smothered him while exposing everything … everything there was to see. Of course… in front of everyone, Vincent and Greg and Pansy, and mild quizzical Theo, and then of course Potter and Weasley and Granger.
And his father said, a girl of no wizarding family whatsoever… and that confirmation of his utter humiliation also pushed him over the edge, and he came so hard that he woke up thinking he'd broken something inside.
Oh gods, was he twisted.
And the war hadn't helped matters.
Standing at the threshold of the anonymous room, he was already quivering from the forbidden excitement of being on their ground, and the scenario he was about to enact… well, solo, because it wouldn't do to reveal it to anyone in their world. And it was said that one could hire Muggles… no, he didn't want to go that far. Obliviating the other party to the transaction wouldn't help because he would remember that there had been a witness.
In the dream, well the dream he'd had since the war, he was bound in the place of sacrifice, and all eyes were upon him. In his pre-war dreams, it had been his humiliation they were set on, but the war had raised the stakes. It was his death they meant, and they were staring, all of them.
He did not dream of death by fire, when he was on the high altar. Certainly there were the nightmares about the Room of Requirement; in the first months after the war he'd nearly drowned himself casting Aguamenti, half-asleep and having some notion that he could put out a fire at that scale. No, the dreams of sacrifice were something different, and there was always a high priest to cut his throat or tear out his heart. Why he was dreaming the ritual of dead empires half a world away or a thousand years ago, he didn't know.
Nor did he know why the priest always removed his mask to reveal the face of Hermione Granger, and he didn't want to think about why he always woke from those dreams both terrified and aroused.
Hermione sat at the table with her elbows firmly planted, though her mother would have told her it was uncouth, and stared into the glass of butterbeer. She didn't remember when she'd lost her taste for it, and kept forgetting that she had, ordering it because it was what they'd drunk back in student days.
Before the war. Well, before the war was out in the open, at any rate.
Across from her, Neville stared at his glass in much the same way, and finally said, "I used to like this stuff."
She nodded. Anthony lifted his cup of tea to his lips, and made a wry face. He was still contemplating that plane ticket to Jerusalem, she realized, because he'd temporized about the next expedition to go rambling in the North. He had an invitation to visit his uncle, who lived in the Old City of a metropolis that had been ancient when London was a Roman camp on a barbarian river.
Neville said, "So how are things at the Ministry?"
She made a face. Six months back, that would have been a happy topic. "Not so good. They're making a show of things, but really it's more or less the same as it ever was. The Half-bloods are making out like bandits in the post-war." She stopped and said, "No, I didn't say that right. I mean the political opportunists who happen to be Half-bloods. Very nice for them, I'm sure."
Anthony put his cup down on the table, and swallowed his mouthful of tea. He said, "You're braver than I am, Hermione. I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to be sitting across from those people at meetings and eternally wondering what they did in the war."
She looked at him, and said, "It's plain enough what they did in the war, the successful ones. They went along. Percy Weasley's in disgrace, not for what he did in the war as for what he did at the battle, which is to say joined it at all, and on the wrong side."
Neville said, "And it doesn't help matters that he was the one to take down Minister Thicknesse." He took a sip of his drink, made a wry face as if it had been bitter, and put the glass down rather heavily. "The Purebloods pretend that the Malfoys were the problem, and everything's fine now."
Hermione said, "Ostracism. They were acquitted in the trial but they're as isolated as if … as if the body had just encysted them. Sealed them off in a bubble, nothing to do with us, and now we can go back to business as usual." She rubbed her neck absently, the place where that scar could barely be felt, where a knife had raised a bloody welt in the skin. Under her fingertips she could feel the pulse of the carotid artery.
Neville pushed the glass away. "I don't know why we keep coming here."
"Because you said we'd have a Statute of Secrecy problem if we sat at a table in the Rose and Crown and carped about the Ministry for Magic." She leaned forward, and stared at the table. "At least Ron and friends haven't been through here."
Neville patted her shoulder and she wanted to cry, but really it had been months since Ron and Bill had taken up their visits to St. Mungo's, and she'd been abandoned for a disfigured war hero. Lavender Brown. Well, Ron wasn't as shallow as she'd suspected him, but it was cold comfort now that things had rearranged. "You weren't happy this afternoon," she ventured.
"I'm never happy to see Malfoy," he said. "It's all supposed to be fine now, but I don't forget what he did." He glowered; Hermione had to admit that his scowl was rather impressively thunderous. "They all say, 'oh you're a big handsome lad now, and a hero, and you won.'"
"All the girls making offers." Hermione felt her eyebrow go up. "Don't look at me in that tone of voice," he said, sounding rather frighteningly like his Gran, "they didn't even see me when I was the little podge who couldn't defend himself. It's Big Handsome Hero they want, not Neville bloody Longbottom." He said, "Between Malfoy and the Weasley twins, I used to lose sleep wondering who was going to ambush me next." He made a sour face. "At least when it was Malfoy, I didn't have to pretend it was all in good fun."
Hermione followed his example and took a drink of the butterbeer. It was sweet and cloying and much too rich, like someone's idea of what children would find a treat on a cold day. She wished they'd gone to the Muggle pub near Longbottom House, where you could get a pint of something bitter and refreshing.
She said, "The war's over and we're relatively unscathed." She didn't say, I've got my parents back, because Neville didn't have his. She ran into him at St. Mungo's every week or so on his way back from visiting hours in the closed ward, after which the war veterans' group met with the Healer and the Muggle psychologist that Minister Shacklebolt had arranged.
She added, "And nothing, absolutely nothing has changed. It's all window dressing."
Neville said, "And the worst of it? I could thrash Malfoy, but it wouldn't be sporting." He pushed the glass away. "He's pitiful, and he's smaller than I am. And he's everybody else's whipping boy, so I'd just have to queue up and keep orderly." He patted the parcel of books, wrapped up in brown paper and tied with twine in the old-fashioned way. "Gran will be happy, at least. I found her everything on the list."
Hermione looked at Anthony, who had been watching both of them with a wry expression. He took off his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. "That's why my uncle's side of the family moved to Jerusalem," he said. "After the war. They'd lived in Paris, and there was always the question…"
Hermione nodded. "What the neighbors did in the war. I wish it weren't such an old story."
Anthony said, "But even my Muggle aunt's volunteering at St. Mungo's, to do her bit. Truth and reconciliation." He took another sip of tea. "So I feel just a bit of a coward thinking about leaving altogether."
They stared at their barely tasted drinks while Anthony finished his tea, and then Hermione caught Hannah Abbott's eye, so they could settle up and depart the Leaky for their walk on the other side of the border.
After that, they went their separate ways, Neville back through the Floo for the second time that day, to bring his Gran her package; Anthony and Hermione through the gateway to Muggle London. Anthony was to meet his parents at King's Cross, and Hermione thought she would walk for a bit before she caught the commuter train…
… because, in truth, she didn't want to go home just yet. It was too quiet there; her parents wouldn't be back from work for simply hours, and she didn't know what had possessed her to take a day off work at the Ministry, except that she had done enough work and the sight of her Pureblood and Half-blood workmates dawdling around the office, swapping gossip and rearranging each other's desk toys, was more than she had been ready to face for another day. It was like school, except that the idlers were rewarded. She was not related by blood or marriage to Senior Undersecretary Thus-and-So nor Special Assistant What's-her-name.
And all of her reports and investigations and special initiatives were sitting, completed, in the in-box of one functionary or another, and until something dislodged them… well, it wasn't likely that anything short of an earthquake would. Her efforts would still be gathering dust when she returned, and she'd already done more than enough lobbying.
It began to rain, of course, and she was out in London without an umbrella; and neither Impervius nor a bubble-head charm were likely to be sufficiently inconspicuous, given the way the water was coming down in very stair-rods. My luck, she thought, and made note of the reflexive cynicism. It wasn't good.. She was probably going to need another day off work, she thought, as she ducked into the lobby of the hotel.
She was so absorbed in the search for a place sufficiently discreet to permit a little impromptu magic to dry herself off, that she didn't even see the man hurrying out of the hotel bar until he collided with her.
She hadn't even opened her mouth for the ritual apology when he huffed self-importantly—oh gods, a horrible little self-important git like Malfoy, she thought, looking at the rather too expensive shoes (you could see your face in the shine, she decided), indignant at the rest of us breathing his air—and she steeled herself to do the courteous thing anyway.
He recoiled, and stepped back to stare at her, and finally her eyes focused enough to understand why.
It was Malfoy, slumming it in Muggle London for reasons of his own. He didn't look happy about being recognized.
Draco stared, not quite believing his eyes. Yes, he'd had one or two glasses of the Muggle stuff in the bar, but the problem, he realized, was that it didn't work quite as advertised, not on a wizard's metabolism. Just enough to make him aware that he'd imbibed something mildly toxic, not to feel any more distant from the circumstances.
Particularly not with Granger staring at him.
No, this was not one of his disquieting and humiliating dreams. It was disquieting and humiliating reality, one downside of which was the pacing. If this were one of his dreams, he'd already be tied up with a knife to his throat or hanging upside down in the Great Hall.
"You might apologize," she said.
"Whatever for?" She already had hold of his elbow and was steering him out of the way of traffic. "You were the one not looking where she was going. Such a hurry, too…"
In the shadows by the grand ballroom, she flicked her wand once, twice (barely visible) and her clothes dried and straightened themselves. She didn't pocket it after that; it vanished up her sleeve, into some sort of holster. He stared. The war wasn't over for her.
"So, what are you doing here?" she asked.
"It's not your territory, Granger. And no one told me I couldn't go where I pleased." He couldn't help the bitterness. "Much good it does me."
"Your father was uncommonly fond of Muggle-baiting."
"And that got him so far, didn't it?" He really didn't want to talk about this.
He folded his arms over his chest, hoping against hope that his narrowed eyes and hostile glare would drive her off. Worse luck, because he'd reserved the room, and it was waiting for him upstairs. He'd arrived in time to set everything up, and gone down to the hotel bar to knock back a drink or two.
His parents expected him back some time in the evening, and it wouldn't do to raise any questions in their minds about where he was. They both were frantically protective in the post-war.
So even if he'd been of a mind to carouse in the post-war, he still had a curfew. Which rather put a timeline on his planned use of that room…
She was still standing there, hands well in sight, poised discreetly in case of need. He'd seen Aurors standing so.
She did something or other at the Ministry, but he was fairly sure it wasn't that…
… Oh gods, that would just be the capper, wouldn't it?
Finally she said, "Malfoy, your father is walking free."
The tone was utterly reasonable but the glare was murderous. Eye contact… well, he'd started it.
And if she were a Legilimens, she'd have the whole contents of his head sorted out … but he didn't feel that push against the barriers. No. Either that wasn't in her repertoire, or she wasn't feeling so inclined.
And if it were… then he'd give her a show.
How would things go from here?
She was looking at him.
She was looking right at him, and no one had made eye contact with him in months. His mouth went dry, and he swallowed.
If she could see into his mind…
How would this story go from here?
She'd push him, and jab the tip of her wand under the jawbone, right into the tender flesh there, and push him in the direction of that lift.
She'd follow him all the way to that room, and then stand there, arms folded, while he enacted the usual ritual…
… No, in waking life he could not imagine her going as far as she did in his dreams, because this was Hermione Granger, cold and measured and reasonable, the one who'd held back Potter and Weasley from responding to his provocations for five or six years.
The only one she hadn't thought to restrain was Longbottom, and that was a surprise to all concerned.
Probably Longbottom included.
And of course, herself, on that one occasion…
He remembered, and the blood rushed to his face—and elsewhere.
Muggle clothes were damned inconvenient. His physical response was probably visible. He had the momentary urge to curl in on himself and hide it… with what? Any gesture of concealment would only call attention to it.
His face burned; he could feel the flush prickling like sunburn down his neck, as if the satin-fine surface of his shirt collar were burlap sacking.
She raised an eyebrow.
"I must say I'm surprised."
He opened his mouth, and closed it again.
"I've never seen you at a loss for words."
Her gaze flickered down, then up again.
She said nothing further, but her facial expression shifted: there was a kind of ironic appraisal in it. It made him feel as if he were already naked.
She wouldn't threaten him; oh no, that was the whole point of that gesture, wasn't it? That slap. She likely knew the whole repertoire even at fourteen. Didn't she spend every moment of waking life in the library, and it was rumored, evenings in the Restricted Section? She knew, she bloody knew, and she restrained herself.
So she'd take out her wand, but only to trace the line up his thigh, tickling lightly through the fine wool trousers, barely disturbing the drape of the fabric, then up to where his own involuntary response was spoiling the line… he felt it twitch in response.
No magic. Using the bloody thing as a pointer.
And then up the midline of his body, to the tip of his chin…
To tilt his head back.
He fell against the wall, his knees buckling under him.
The wall was cool against his back. He could feel his legs trembling. He'd never gotten so hot so fast in his life.
Muggle perversity, oh gods, he'd never thought of that angle, using one's wand as if it were a Muggle implement… There was a piece of his mind that went spinning off, thinking of possibilities, while the sane part (distant, cold, tinny as a voice on the Muggle wireless) reminded him of where he was…
… No, not to think of Muggle things. That made him squirm and twitch, and come perilously close …
… To something he'd never done outside of dreams, to lose control without even taking off his clothes.
He turned his head and opened his eyes, as if she'd snapped them open with a string.
There was an odd expression on her face.
It took him a moment to identify it: concern was warring with the perverse temptation to laugh.
"And here I thought it was Harry who obsessed you."
The thing she didn't say, "And I thought that Ron was the only one who could get hard from a good argument." What else she didn't add, "And you are a twitchy little ferret, because that wasn't much of an argument."
She stared. Yes. There was Malfoy, half-collapsed against the wall of the shadowy hotel corridor, face flushed and mouth half-open, and unmistakably roused. He'd gone from combative to swooning in record time, which was downright weird.
Of course, it was Malfoy.
And Merlin only knew what went through that pointy-faced head in the best of times.
That bit about Harry, that wasn't even her thought: Lavender and Parvati had joked about it, time out of mind.
Parvati looked demure, but that girl had a perverse imagination. (She could still remember her saying, in an insinuating tone, "So every year Malfoy gets himself trounced on the Hogwarts Express. I bet he thinks about it all summer.") Hermione had pulled the bed-curtains and covered her ears with pillows, more than once…
… Until she remembered that she was a witch, and there was a whole repertoire of spells to cover that situation, more or less politely.
The problem was that she found it difficult to voluntarily cut herself off from a source of information.
She said, in her most sensible tone, "Malfoy."
He looked at her and groaned.
Concerned didn't work so well, as his eyes locked on hers in a way that made it quite clear she couldn't make the polite pretense that he was having some sort of fit.
She tried censorious. "Malfoy, you're making a spectacle of yourself." (And tried to suppress the laugh at the absurdity of a wizard being picked up by the police for … whatever it was, when you behaved like that. Some sort of public indecency. She didn't read the tabloids, for the most part. Perhaps that was a lacuna in her reading that she should correct, now that the war was over.)
Get a room, Parvati and Lavender would have said.
Well, that was an idea.
"Do you have a room?" she said. "Because, really, you can't do this here. Muggles frown on public sex."
He shivered, and nodded.
"Then I think you should go there."
She took his arm and dragged him toward the lift. He stumbled. "You have your keycard, don't you." He patted his pocket. "Good." The plan was simple: find the room and shove him into it, and depart…
They were in luck with the lift. She let him take up his position on the opposite wall, and discreetly unholstered her wand. No, she wasn't taking chances.
He leaned against the wall of the lift, listening to the machinery hum as it rose. The vibration communicated itself to him, oh, that was difficult, very difficult to resist squirming visibly. He hadn't thought of this. It was like having sex with the machinery, letting it thrum through his body.
Something about Granger's presence gave him ideas that had never occurred to him before. He'd already known that the Muggle world was full of perverse possibilities, but this brought him right to the edge.
"No," she said sternly. "You may not."
She didn't specify the verb. She didn't need to.
He wasn't going to last long once he had permission. Once she granted permission. But that thought belonged to fantasy, and he knew it.
The doors of the lift opened, and he stumbled through them. That masterful hand once more caught his elbow.
"What room number?"
He muttered it in an undertone, and lurched off in more or less the right direction.
He dropped the keycard twice. His hands were trembling. Everything was trembling. As he lined it up for the third try, she took it out of his hand, swiped it, pushed the door open…
… And gasped.
Everything was in readiness, fully visible.
It was her turn to drop the keycard.
He took out his own wand, to close the door so as to hide all of that from the hall, and she was in combat stance immediately.
"I was only closing the door." It wasn't going to be long now. "You can be going now," he said, with some of his customary waspishness (though he heard his voice tremble).
To his surprise, she stepped inside and closed the door behind her.
"Are you quite sure all of that is safe?" she said.
He glared at her. Safe. He was right on the edge of disgracing himself if he didn't get his clothes off, and she wanted to know if the whole rig was safe.
"I read the instructions, if that's what you meant," he said. "Now may I…" He started pulling at the knot in the necktie to unknot it, though that certainly wasn't the most urgent matter. That ought to be an unmistakable hint, without being vulgar about it.
"If you pull at it that way, you're only going to tighten it," she said. "And I certainly hope that auto-asphyxiation isn't your intent, because that's risky." She added, with unnecessary emphasis, "You could die."
She reached over and with one or two deft tugs, had the knot undone.
The sheer shock of it took the tension up a notch.
"I can manage the rest, thanks," he said, in as sarcastic a tone as he could summon. On perverse impulse, he added, "Unless you're planning to stay and watch."
She didn't move.
He threw the tie on the bedside table, shucked his jacket, threw it on the chair on the far side by the window. Very well, then. She'd get a show, just as he promised…
… Well, he hadn't promised except inside his own head, but that didn't mean it wasn't real.
He turned to face her, and stared into her eyes as he unbuttoned the shirt.
She didn't move, and he couldn't read the expression on her face.
He shrugged out of the shirt, and then realized he'd pinioned his arms with the tangled sleeves, because he'd neglected to undo the cufflinks…
… Onyx and emerald with silver fittings, which he tossed carelessly on the bedside table alongside the tie.
No, he wasn't going to repeat that by tripping over the trousers, no, he was going to untie these ugly Muggle shoes and kick them off (one resounded against the baseboard), yes, and not slip on the carpeted floor in his socks, and he would take the socks off because there was nothing less erotic (even to himself) than standing there naked except for socks…
…And the thick plush of the carpet felt luxurious against his bare feet. He looked up to her censorious glance, and followed it. The socks had gone astray where he'd tossed them, one by the bedside table and one under the bed…
… Well, it wasn't as if he had a house elf to mind these things. Not that she'd approve of that. And it wasn't as if he were going to be leaving them here.
He unbuckled the belt and unzipped the trousers, relieving some of the pressure. The weight of the heavy silver belt buckle dropped the whole business to the floor once he'd eased it over his hips. He stepped out of it, and then hung it over the chair.
He was civilized.
No, she wasn't flinching, either. He could feel the cool air on his bare legs and the silk boxers. It raised gooseflesh on his shoulders and arms, reminding him of the engorged heat elsewhere.
He didn't break eye contact with her, even as he brought the last of it to his ankles in one smooth motion, stepped out of it, and folded it before placing it on the seat of the chair.
He gave her a long defiant look: Leave now if you don't want to see the next part.
But he didn't say it, and he was fairly sure now that she wasn't a Legilimens.
He went to the bed, and then remembered the wand in the trouser pocket, and flicked it to start the whole thing…
…And was tied in place, unable to move, when he remembered the last detail, the most important of all.
"Granger," he said, "turn on the light."
She hesitated at the switch plate.
"Electric light, in my eyes." He hissed, trying to restrain himself. "Atmosphere. As bright as possible."
She turned the lights on, and switched the illumination level as high as it went.
He could turn his head, and there was the room service tray. "And bring me the butter knife."
It wasn't obsidian, but it would do for the purpose.
Hermione wasn't sure what impulse had kept her from leaving, but she definitely had the word for what came next. Well, there were several candidates: shock was one, but if she were honest with herself, morbid curiosity was more precise.
She was surprised that no mirrors were involved, because Malfoy had always struck her as narcissistic to the point of solipsism, and the whole thing was very artistically arranged, well, artistic of its kind, brightly colored climbing ropes and gleaming carabiners, and really, the whole solution was over-powered, even if he was going to do what she was fairly sure now…
… And (absurdly) strong electric light.
She stood a little closer to the bed, feeling absurd herself, with the butter knife in her hand. The clean one. She was fairly sure he hadn't meant the one with the butter and jam on it.
Staring at the figure composition on the bed…
… Baroque with more than a touch of S & M, if she were going to give it an art-historical classification.
(And art-historical classification was much preferable to the thought Draco Malfoy naked on a hotel bed. Entirely leaving aside all the rest of the picture. There was something really creepy about the juxtaposition of the Dark Mark, on a pale wiry forearm, and high-tech climbing rope.)
She wondered if Malfoy had consulted a comprehensive guide to Pureblood kink, or if this were his original contribution to the literature.
Dissociation. Now that was the right word for her current state of mind. Yes. A lay diagnosis, of course, and on herself no less, underlining the urgent need of a second opinion…
"Don't just stand there, Granger." His head was thrown back, emphasizing the sharp point of his chin. "Put the knife to my throat."
She stared. He glared at her and blew a strand of pale blond hair out of his eyes.
"As if you meant to cut it."
Her hesitation was met with a full-body wriggle of indignation, making certain things bob disconcertingly. The grey eyes narrowed at her. "Surely you know how it's done."
He didn't need to say, Bellatrix.
She had the knife to his throat, and his hair in her other fist, pulling hard. Almost involuntarily. She saw tears sparkle under his closed lashes.
"Ahhh," he said. It was an unexpectedly tender sound, like a small child settling into bed after an exhausting journey.
She kept her grip on his hair, somehow. That seemed to reassure him. She watched a tear trickle from the outer corner of his eye.
At midnight, tears / run into your ears.
He whispered, "May I now?"
A sharp jerk, and his hair swung loose, brushing against her forearms where she did not have a firm grasp on it at the scalp.
She kept the knife in place. Carefully, so that the blunt edge would not press too hard on the carotid artery and induce unconsciousness.
She nodded, throat dry, and then swallowed and said firmly, "Yes. By all means."
At the end, the cry was unexpectedly long, somewhere between scream and song, and completely out of sync with the bucking of his hips, bowed backward in midair like a ribald imitation of an angel in flight, or a man under torture.
After the end, the whole thing collapsed like a fallen balloon around him, he lay on the bed, sticky and chilled and shivering under the cold light and the last aftershocks—the best of his life, one voice told him—with his scalp still under tension, for Granger hadn't let go his hair—the worst of his life, said another, which was contradicted by yet another, that threw up the images of Bellatrix, and her Dark Lord (not his) and the sensation of having his thoughts violated, over and over again—and heard someone sobbing, as if their heart would break, and felt his chest shudder with the effort of it, and realized at length, as the tears burned his eyes, that they were his.
Someone placed his wand in his hand, and loosely curled his fingers around the grip. The tenderness of the gesture set off another wave of tears (some obscure involuntary response, but no less mortifying for that). This time he had to sniffle, just to breathe. He sat up, and the tug on his scalp disappeared; with a feeble twitch of his wrist, and a subvocal mutter, the mess was gone, and the ropes banished, nicely coiled and wrapped and packed away in the elegant valise he had been carrying when he'd signed for the room.
Granger put the butter knife down on the room-service tray.
She said in a sensible, level voice, "Don't ever provoke me like that again."
He sat up. She sat in the bedside chair, the grip of her wand in her hand. "You could die doing that. Because I don't have a sense of humor on the subject of your late aunt." She narrowed her eyes. "Any more than Neville Longbottom does."
He shivered, and kept eye contact. It felt good, to have another person's eyes on his. He felt real. It would be hard to leave here, and to be invisible once more.
"I dream about that," he said. "I dream that you're holding a knife to my throat."
She moved her fingertips on the grip of her wand, as if she were rehearsing a tune on the flute.
"Is that a recurring dream?"
He nodded, feeling the heat on his face. Nothing below—that was thoroughly exhausted—so it was only humiliation, and not arousal.
"He did horrible things to you." Flatly stated, with no need to specify whom she meant. "And so did she."
Of course. All that was a matter of public record, the humiliation that had bought his freedom.
"Things come out sideways in dreams." Odd contrast between her adamantine face and her dreamy tone. "And you're playing yours out in daylight." She shaded her eyes, and got up to turn off down the light. "Under electric light."
"I'm the sacrifice," he explained.
He'd involved her in the ritual, and accordingly owed her whatever boon she asked.
She nodded. "So you were." He stared at the card that she had put in his hand.
"I'm not going to St. Mungo's."
"Not to the veterans' group," she said. "Go to the doctor. She has hours at St. Mungo's, but she's a Muggle. No history."
Miriam Goldstein, the card said.
With a string of letters after the name, whatever Muggles did by way of NEWTs and OWLs, he supposed.
Granger corrected herself. "No history with the wizarding world."
"Anthony Goldstein. He's Muggle-born."
"So his relatives are Muggles."
He pocketed the card, and said he'd think about it.
Author's Note, at some length (The Grendel's Mother of All Author's Notes):
On 31 July 2011 I wrote to TruantPony offering her the gift fic of her choice. Here's what she wrote back:
"The quote that stuck out to me the most in DH was when Harry asks Dumbledore whether their conversation is taking place in his head or whether it is real and Dumbledore answers of course it's in his head, but what makes him think that it isn't real. I can't remember the exact wording.
"So request ideas: Perhaps a Draco who is teetering on the brink of crazy? Inbreeding can do that, and at least on the maternal side of his lineage, psychosis seems to be something of a family trait.
"A psychological tale of sex that leaves the reader wondering is it real? Or is it in his head? What is reality/perception? Throw in some delayed gratification, ruined experiences, the use of a completely off the wall/unexpected Muggle thing as a sexual aid (like an insistence for fluorescent lights to set the mood instead of candles)...
"Does that sound a little too mad?"
Oh no, it sounds like a beautiful, horrible prompt.
I added a few ingredients of my own:
* The challenge to include scenes from the film Deathly Hallows part 2, by way of dream sequences.
* Reference to the WWII subtext of JKR's original story.
* Kink as ritual gateway to enlightenment. (My inspiration was TruantPony's Body/Soul, in the Bleach fandom, and innumerable stories by Kelly Chambliss in the HP fandom.)
Other payment of debts:
* The epigraph is a complete poem by Louise Bogan.
* "After the war, the Malfoys had wriggled out of it again." Paraphrase of J. K. Rowling's answer to an interview question about the post-war
* Anthony Goldstein's uncle in Jerusalem, by way of SwallowB.
* The notion that the Half-bloods made out like bandits: TruantPony
* "What did you do in the war?" – Thanks are owed to the Muse of History