"Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."
It started with Hermione Granger trying to prove a point.
When Draco Malfoy was announced as the Potions Specialist on their research team, it came as a shock to no one. After all, with Snape dead and Slughorn in hiding, it's not like there were any other Potions Masters of his caliber gallivanting around Wizarding Europe. It turned out that Malfoy's marks in Potions back in Hogwarts weren't entirely due to Snape's infamous nepotism; the slimy git did have some talent.
The news, however unsurprising, was met with a uniform expression of malcontent and irritation across the board. Even Luna, whose normal state was one of placid imperturbability toward everyone and everything, scrunched her nose and said: "Ugh. Draco Malfoy? Can you imagine?"
Hermione could imagine. She was, in fact, bestowed with the gift of an overreaching imagination. She could already picture it in her head: the attention-hungry strut, the sharp top lip poised to sneer at any moment, that set to his jaw that informed everyone that being allowed to breathe the same air as him was a highly-prized benediction. The very image brought a fresh wave of indignation down her spine, which was highly hypocritical of her, Hermione Granger—Stalwart Swot of Gryffindor and Former Knitter of House Elf Liberation Beanies—who often chastised her friends: "Come on, that was agesago. Just drop it, okay?"
But Draco Malfoy had always been a special case.
In her head, he deserved nothing but her scorn.
Given that they were researching a potion—the Mortality Prognosticating Potion—it was inevitable that Malfoy would become a central contributor to their discovery and that all of them must at some point subject themselves to his fatally honed tongue and his acid superciliousness. Before he even arrived at the lab, everyone had already made up their minds against him. Hermione was no exception. Despite the fact that they were now co-workers, she found it odd to see him in such close proximity to her, and she kept waiting for that big black line to pop up between them and divide their respective territories.
In her head, Malfoy's smirking features went right along with things like lines, and categories, and labels. She on one side, he on the other. Glaring at each other across an uncrossable chasm.
What was surprising, as they soon noticed, was that Malfoy no longer went out of his way to fling his wealth and privilege at anyone within earshot. This was possibly because his name was now synonymous with the words 'coward' and 'turncoat.' There were rumors of pitifully attenuated coffers, of a House gone to ruin (Those fucking albino peacocks? They're all dead, Dean Thomas claimed, smiling with malicious glee), of 'probation conditions,' of Malfoy Senior being in a very bad way, and of Narcissa Malfoy having died a penurious death. A disreputable death that all of them had to look forward to.
Hermione hadn't seen him since that day that ended the war, when she saw him huddled with his family, their faces petrified in identical looks of pale, pointy disbelief, as though they did not know whether to count themselves among the winners or the losers. She'd met Malfoy's eyes that night, a watery, red-rimmed grey all the way across the Great Hall, and she'd had to force herself to look away. She'd felt something yank at her gut—something that left her feeling cold and ashamed today. She did not know if it was anger, or disgust, or resentment, or spite. A vindication at seeing him so humiliated after he'd told her, for years, that her place was under his heel. A sanctimonious satisfaction at seeing the world work its justice. It was probably all of those.
She remembered writhing on a cold floor, the awful scent of clean, clean, reprehensibly clean marble branded forever in her brain, her joints locking, her bones melting into her bloodstream, as those same pale, pointy faces looked on.
More than the pain... They had seen her beg for it to stop.
In her head, none of them deserved peace.
Anyway, Malfoy kept mostly to himself now. Oh, he was still nasty, still quite rude, still called her names like 'swotty cunt' or 'know-it-all bitch,' but the point is that he no longer went out of his way to be those things. No longer called her the big M word either. Shucked of his ingrained carapace of money and influence and cronies, he was just another boy who'd had to find his way out of the morass of the war. He was taciturn now, more inclined to walk away abruptly from a conversation than to goad his co-workers into a righteous snit.
He'd 'gone soft,' Ginny had once told her.
Even bullies had to grow up sometime. Hermione knew this all along.
Something about the way Malfoy was powerless against his misfortunes turned her stomach. She thought she would enjoy it. Relish the sight, even. Merlin knew she had a tendency to ruthlessly cling to grudges.
But seeing it in the flesh in front of her made her feel... bad for the guy. She refused to call it compassion. She refused to let herself be carried away by her bleeding-heart tendencies just because here was another underdog whose plight tugged at her sympathies. Malfoy was—and is—an arrogant, self-satisfied, craven little bugger, and a part of Hermione felt that this was the price he must duly pay for his sins.
But when her teammates discovered that Malfoy shied away from confrontation, that they could provoke him with impunity because the conditions of his probation prevented him from vindicating himself in any way, they started getting brazen around him. At first it was funny. They were just giving him a hard time, but it wasn't anything dangerous.
Then the snide commentary got more personal, the little pranks got a lot more serious. They taunted him about his dead mum, his dad's hair falling out, his Manor remaining unsold despite being on the market for a good two years. They put mild irritants in his food. It turned out that he was deathly allergic to Bundimun Extract and one of the potions they'd put in his tea—a boil-inducing concoction—put him in anaphylactic shock. Hermione still remembered the sight of his white-knuckled fingers clutching at his throat, his mouth opening and closing around a breath that did not make it to his heaving lungs, his entire face a swollen, angry red, twisting and grunting on the floor as her teammates laughed. He stopped eating at the office after that.
One time she'd seen him, late at night, trying to scrub something off his door with a cleaning brush. The very sight of him with a cleaning implement in his hand had struck her, not to the core, but pretty bloody close to it. He gave up after an hour. When he'd gone home, she went to his door to find the word 'Mal-fuck' smeared in tar all over the door. It smelled like battery acid, and it had been solidified with a Stick-On Charm. Malfoy's scrubbing only spread the letters out, the f blending into the u and the c into the k. It was still readable, though.
In her head, no one deserved this degree of mistreatment, not even nasty little buggers like Malfoy.
To his credit, he never missed a day of work. Of course, that could just be another condition of his probation.
It made her sick.
"Why do you let them?" she'd asked him one day, bursting into his office and on the verge of tears. Screw the lines, she'd told herself.
His office was little more than an airless cage stuck right into the area with the most foot traffic. Passersby routinely banged on his door as they went through. In the dim, suffocating, dishwater-tinged light, his hair emitted a faint glow. She'd wondered once, a long time ago, if it was as soft as it looked.
He'd taken one glance at her and sneered. The movement stretched taut the skin on his gaunt face, the elegant secrets of his skull made known.
"Don't pretend you aren't one of them, Granger."
That one certainly stuck with her.
She'd had to sit still for a few moments to think about things. And she was forced to the conclusion that if the war had taught her anything at all, it was that prejudice went both ways. Just because they were the good guys didn't necessarily mean they were always good people. It wasn't anything profound, but it caught her by surprise nonetheless. She'd never liked seeing herself as the bad guy in any situation. She didn't mind so much that he saw her as a competitor, a plague, an adversary or a thorn in his side, but she would not be his tormentor.
The next day she brought him a plastic container of spaghetti bolognese she'd made the night before. She barged straight through his door, which was never locked as per his probation conditions, and slammed the container defiantly on his desk. As she whirled out of his office, she thought she caught him looking at her with a puzzled expression twisting his mouth.
Of course, it wasn't that easy. He left the food there. She came back for her container two days later to find it as full as she had left it, the spaghetti starting to moisten and congeal into a sour-smelling mass. This—Hermione leaving food that Malfoy left untouched—went on for two weeks until just recently when, as she returned to grudgingly collect her rotting oblations purely as a matter of principle, she was confronted by the glaring fact that Malfoy was hungry. Deathly hungry, if the high-pitched whine emanating from his stomach was any indication.
"Leave it," he'd nodded sternly at the container of steak and kidney she'd taken home for dinner at the Weasley's. She was a little miffed that the first food he'd get to taste from her wasn't actually made by her, but she was mollified that she'd pushed him and he gave. Just the tiniest bit.
By this time, however, she'd long forgot the point she was trying to prove in the first place. She wondered if it should have bothered her somewhat, the fact that she was no longer being friendly to him only because she felt sorry for him. She decided not to analyse it too much. After all, Malfoy didn't seem to give much of a damn for her motives.
This was another thing that was surprising. That he wasn't as mistrustful of her as she thought he would be. That he didn't automatically jump to conclusions about her based on first impressions. Maybe he had grown up in the war.
They had an understanding: he answered her questions curtly but correctly, she brought him food from home, he pretended that it was beneath his notice, she left him alone. She usually approached Malfoy with her questions: he was coldly professional, disdainfully direct, and more intelligent than anyone she'd ever known. An ugly truth she would never admit, not even to herself.
She noticed that he'd taken to clearing a spot on his desk—the top left corner, where she usually left the food.
Once, when she got caught up talking to Angela Lansing on her way to his office, she saw him stick his head out of his door and cast his glance around the hallway as if he was looking for something. When his eyes met hers, he raised an eyebrow as if nonverbally castigating her for her lateness. She apologised to Angela, who gave her a cheeky, knowing grin, and hurried off to Malfoy's office. On his door, only the large, uppercase M and the c remained.
They did not eat together. They were not friends. Neither of them mentioned it out loud, but she always got her containers back—shiny-clean and stacked neatly like some sort of pagan Tupperware pillar—at the end of the week.
On Wednesday morning, Hermione walked into Draco's office to inquire about the Dirt Nap Potion, so christened by Luna, whose sense of humor was as childishly obvious as they came.
There was no need for the farce of pleasant banter with him. She expected to walk in and have her answer within five seconds and be able to leave for the cafeteria for lunch with Angela. Perhaps make it in time before they ran out of those strawberry-iced petit fours they only served on Wednesdays.
She came upon his door ajar—which was unusual in itself, as he rigorously employed any and every method of privacy he could get away with—and Malfoy, holding a letter loosely in the fingers of one hand, a smoking cigarette in the other. The air was warmed and dank as if passed through a million sets of lungs before it got to hers. It smelt of smoke and confinement and quiet, quiet despair.
"You can't smoke in here," she said, having thought of nothing else to say to him. She set the insulated lunch container on the corner of his desk. Today's was sesame chicken.
"Malfoy?" she asked, when he made no move to acknowledge her presence.
She was breaking their tradition, she knew, but something in the lines of his mouth told her that this—whatever this smoking and staring and brooding episode was—wasn't a normal occurrence for him. She was frightened.
She remembered hearing of a betting pool going round her team.
When d'you reckon Malfoy's gonna crack? Three weeks? Five months? A year? Think he's gonna kill himself?
Who, Malfoy? Nah, he hasn't got the guts.
Couldn't do it to Dumbledore even if it was to save his family. Couldn't do it to himself.
Slytherin, remember? Their lot lives to survive—and nothing more.
And—whether feeling guilty on behalf of her irreverent co-workers, or beneficent due to the recent breakthrough they'd made on the Dirt Nap Potion, or perhaps she was just in a hurry to get to those petit fours—she went ahead and asked the question that was exactly on the forefront on her mind, something that she should have known never to do around Draco Malfoy.
"Are you… Are you alright?"
He looked at her with potent disgust distilled in stone grey. "Fuck off, Granger."
Before he spelled the door to slam shut in her face, a glint of gold caught her attention. It was his name written in punctilious script on the back of an envelope sitting on his desk.
And she thought: oh.
A yellowed bilge of smoke followed her out into the hallway, curled into itself, and disappeared. Later in the cafeteria, as Angela informed her that the Dirt Nap Potion had passed all three stages of live testing and that they should be getting their own letters today, Hermione caught a whiff of that singed nicotine-and-tar odour clinging to her hair.
Hermione did all her shopping in a tiny, out-of-the-way grocery store in the middle of nowhere. Its stock was more often than not incomplete, and there was the cloying smell of stale fruit that hung about and was layered over by a piquant tinge of cleaning fluid, but it wasn't too bad. There was almost nothing she enjoyed less than running into acquaintances when she was in a hurry, exchanging awkward small talk and chasing dead-end inquiries of well-being into the ground. She would much rather Apparate into the damp back alley of Grimbucker's sixty kilometers from her flat than answer any unwanted questions.
That afternoon, while trying to decide whether the dates were looking particularly sinister because they've gone bad or because of the forensic glare of the single, fluorescent rod flickering above, she spied a familiar head of hair making its way past the dairy aisle and into the bread area.
The uncanniness of spotting a familiar object in the beige-and-green blandness of Grimbucker's grabbed her attention, and she found herself staring most unbecomingly.
The head was, predictably, attached to a body which, despite the absence of nubby charcoal wool trailing behind it like a cloud of gloom, was made recognizable by its drawn, acuminate movements. Like a man who'd learned to walk within the confines of a tight box. Like a man who went through life trying to take up as little space as possible.
And—yes, there it was—there was the telltale hitch in the right leg, a foreshortening of the step that hinted at some old injury.
What were the odds that she would run into Draco Malfoy in Grimbucker's of all places?
She really should have known that her luck would turn out this way, considering that it was Wednesday.
The very word filled her with a vague sense of sprawling dread and an urge to abandon her purchases and hole herself up in her flat. Wednesday was an ambiguous day: clapped right there in the middle of the week like a lost and unwanted child, Hermione never knew how to feel about it. It was far enough from Monday that she didn't have the excuse of being plunged unceremoniously back into the workweek to complain about (not that she ever complained about work), and far enough from Friday that she couldn't quite look forward to the weekend just yet. To be honest, she would much rather be miserable on a Monday, or lonely on a Friday, just anything—as long as she knew what it was she was feeling. She'd have none of this discommodious… ambivalence.
With a proper label, anything—anything at all—could be sorted and thus repaired. Never let it be said that Hermione Granger didn't like her labels.
But being who she was meant that she couldn't just leave the prospect of finding out what type of bread Malfoy preferred (she had him pegged for brioche—yeasty and pretentious, just like the man himself) to eat. She dumped the dates into her trolley and wheeled it around to the direction she saw him disappear to.
If she were honest with herself, she would admit that her voyeurism was fueled, in part, by a vengeful streak that was as much a part of her personality as her curiosity. Though she knew he'd received his Dirt Nap Dispatch today, she was still secretly smarting from that brusque fuck off.
She parked her trolley by the cheese stand and watched as Malfoy, looking surprisingly taller in Muggle clothing than he did in his robes, examined Grimbucker's bounteous offerings in the sliced loaf department. He looked the same as he did at work—his top lip tense and drawn as if preparing to form itself into that blade-thin sneer at the slightest provocation, his fair brows drawn together in a forbidding v, his arms crossed in front of his chest. His nose, straight and perfectly-formed (as Hermione grudgingly admitted to herself), was wrinkled ever so slightly in faint disgust. This was what kept him relatively safe at work. When face-to-face with Malfoy, most of her co-workers found that he could still put up a good fight.
Behind him, a little old lady glared at the back of his head as she tried to get a crack at the loaves that his body blocked from her view. The lady cleared her throat. Malfoy remained unmoving. Finally, the woman, having had enough, reached around him and clutched at a plastic-wrapped loaf without checking to see what it was.
Hermione was prepared to laugh at Malfoy's reaction, wondering if he was enough of a bastard to unleash his acerbic tongue on an elderly woman. Already the moment was forming itself into an anecdote in her head, one she could share later with her friends. So I ran into Malfoy at Grimbucker's, her story would begin. Understanding or not, she and Malfoy would never be best friends, and she always appreciated the opportunity to have a good laugh once in a while.
Hermione was, however, completely unprepared for what came next.
It wasn't a particularly memorable event, from an objective point of view. In fact, close to nothing at all happened.
Malfoy jumped when the woman's arm brushed his. From Hermione's spot half-crouching behind the refrigerated tubs of cottage cheese, she could see the tendons in his forearm leap beneath his skin, the muscles stirring as if they were agitated and did not quite know what to do with themselves. His right hand closed into a fist, knuckles protruding sharply, and with his other hand he grabbed at the spot where the woman's skin must have touched his. On his left forearm, faded like a watered-down painting but still visible, was the imprint of a past that marked him forever as forsaken by everything he once called his own.
And then, Hermione saw it. His lips barely moved, but she saw it.
"Sorry," he muttered. The woman walked away primly, pretending not to notice.
Draco Malfoy, one of the most obdurate, most bull-headed people Hermione knew, was apologizing to a Muggle. As if he was sorry that he was there. As if he was sorry for letting his tainted skin come within the immediate vicinity of hers.
And Hermione felt that familiar head rush of righteous indignation coursing through her body and straightening her spine, tightening her grip on the handlebar of her trolley. And her breath caught on a lump in her throat because she found herself in the midst of one of those painfully obvious epiphanies that were all collectively called 'growing up.'
Suddenly it was more than just Hermione-and-Draco anymore, more than just The Order and The Death Eaters, more than just the Mudblood and the Pureblood. It had been easy, so easy, to think of it in those terms: Hermione being the kind, conscientious girl extending a hand of friendship to her childhood tormentor, the halfway-fallen, possibly-repentant sinner.
But real life does not make itself so amenable to such simple categories. Real life was so much more than labels. Just like she wasn't just a too-big brain concealed beneath a bramble of bushy hair, he was more than a monied sneer hiding a very real anger problem. And wasn't that the most surprising thing of all?
They were just two human beings, she and Draco, Draco and she, two barely-adult people, each with their own share of shame, and doubt, and painful pretense, and furtive transgressions. Each with their own secret insecurities. Each throbbing with their own unfulfilled distant imaginings. Each of them as tremblingly alive as the other. Just a couple of kids whose faces had been shoved deep into those parts they had in themselves that they could not learn to love, but had to live with anyway.
She decided that the sight in front of her—Draco Malfoy purchasing bread, alone, to eat,alone—was not funny at all, but was, in fact, rather sad.
And maybe, just maybe, what he deserved was not someone to give him handouts of pity, of sympathy, of compassion, like spare coins ringing hollow and forlorn in an empty can. Maybe what he deserved was someone willing to wade through the shit he dished out and give him a decent shot.
My, my, would you look at that. Hermione Granger, Stalwart Swot of Gryffindor, finally grew up.
Breathing out a huff of air, as she often did when trying to fortify herself against a seemingly insurmountable task, she braced her elbows against her heavy trolley and pushed, making as much of a clatter as she could to alert him of her presence and give him time to compose himself accordingly.
Hermione pretended not to see him at first. She looked around ostentatiously, critically examining the bread as though her life depended on it. She did not, after all, want him to think that she'd followed him there. After an interim of five seconds, she affected a casual glance, then looked away, then swiftly turned her head back with pleasant surprise etched into every line of her face.
"Malfoy! Fancy seeing you here!" she said loudly, making vague patting motions at her hair. She was gratified when he turned to face her looking unperturbed. The sight of him apologizing had unsettled her deeply, and she wished to vitiate the memory, to disguise it with images of him in top form, sneering and snarling and gritting his teeth, his pale cheeks pinkening, the veins in his temple pulsing with his ire.
"Granger," he stated flatly. The wan lighting stole what little colour his face had. He looked bloodless, younger than he was. Too young. The shadows played at expressions in the lines around his mouth.
She'd never been this close to him before, and she knew that he probably thought that she was in her element, considering they were in a Muggle store, but the truth was she felt as discomfited as he must have himself.
This close, she registered that the top of her head came level with the knob of his collarbone. And that his throat was long, slender, white, and lacquered with a sheen of sweat from the unregulated air conditioning settings of Grimbucker's. And that his shirt, while it did not cling, elucidated the wiry lines of his torso more clearly than his robes ever did. Almost as if for her edification. This is Draco Malfoy's body, it seemed to spell out.
It felt… indecent. And so she focused her eyes on the tip of his nose instead.
"You like my cooking, don't you?" she barreled on. She was painfully conscious of the thin ice she was treading: this was the first time either of them had ever openly referred to their information-for-food arrangement. Before he had a chance to correct her, she felt her mouth moving as if it had a life of its own. "Well, I'm having a little get-together at my flat tonight. Nothing fancy. Just people both of us know. It's to celebrate the Dirt Na—I mean... the erm... the Mortality Prognosticating Potion. I'm making a bunch of stuff. It's a full-on five course meal, actually, and I have no idea why I'm doing it, but Ron convinced me that I could pull it off and I think he's right. And anyway it's worth it: we've been at that potion for, what, three years now? But I suppose I don't have to tell you how long we've been working on it since you worked on it right along with me, ha-ha..."
A muscle in his jaw quivered and jumped.
"Well, I'm cooking," she said redundantly, topping it off with a self-conscious little gesture to the contents of her trolley, "And, erm... You should come. I'd like you to come."
He raised an eyebrow at the loaf of bread he was holding in his hands (Pumpernickel, not brioche). Is this what it meant to take a chance, to give someone a shot? To put yourself in a position to be rebuffed?
She bit her lip. "You don't have to, of course. I know we're not really friends, and you don't really like me, bu—"
"Will this... get-together involve proper drink?"
"Oh, yes! Lots and lots of it!" Her grin continued to dangle off her mouth by sheer force of inertia.
The raised eyebrow was turned to her. "Alright."
And there it was. An echo of his old smirk spanning his lips. What a difference it made in his face. She blinked twice.
"Did I stutter, Granger?"
"Oh, okay! I thought you might have been joki—but nevermind. I'll see you at eight thirty, then!" She wheeled her trolley away, eager to pay for the boatload of food it contained and go back home, where she could hopefully drown herself in the drudgery of cooking for half of Wizarding Britain and forget how bloody stupid she just made herself look to Draco Malfoy.
As she Apparated with a pop into her sitting room, Crookshanks glaring at her for disturbing his nap, she vaguely registered that she'd forgot to give Malfoy her address.