London, December 1937
George Mortimer resisted the urge to check his watch, knowing full well that Mr Lloyd was late, and that confirming that fact would only serve to aggravate him. This was what came from dealing with these sorts of people, and he would never know what had persuaded His Majesty to request a Royal Command Performance at the Fortuna Major — dingy, classless place that it was — when he could have had his pick of any London theatre. Nay, when he could have had his pick of any theatre in the empire! George Mortimer was sure that many a savage in far less civilised a land would not have kept him waiting for what was now well above five, no, ten minutes.
As it turned out, Mr Mortimer could well imagine what had led the King to make such an unorthodox choice. Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth had spoken of nothing else for weeks but of one Miss Granger in the role of Mabel in Seaside Delights, which was said to be the rage all over London, and wouldn't it be just the thing to see the performance? She was sure she could not conceive of a most delightful plan. Mr Mortimer was sure he could. It may well be that Princess Elizabeth would one day be queen and rule supreme over the land, but she wasn't wearing a crown yet, and he saw very little sense in indulging the fancies of eleven-year-olds.
The King was of a different mind, alas, and so it had come to pass that George Mortimer was at that very moment in the deserted atrium of the Fortuna Major, where a matronly woman had left him to go in search of John Lloyd, the upstart son of a brothel owner who fancied himself a theatre manager.
Other people offered their children toys for Christmas. It was Mr Mortimer's lot in life to work for someone who had both the means and the inclination to present them with misguided, culturally-bankrupt, damned inconvenient performances.
Just then Mr Lloyd came barrelling out of a side door.
"Mr Mortimer, sir," he said, out of breath. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting long."
"Not at all." In older, more civilised days, he would have had him drawn and quartered. "I trust all the preparations are underway?"
"Yes, sir. We've completely refurbished the Royal Box, though we had to close for two full weeks, which— Well, it's no matter. I'm confident you will be happy with the results."
Mr Mortimer felt no such confidence, but he still followed Mr Lloyd to what could only very generously be called a "royal" anything. He barely had time to assess the many shortcomings of his surroundings, however. From the second he walked into the box, he was transfixed by the action on stage, where a number of people were engaged in what he could only imagine were rehearsals.
Mr Mortimer had been privileged in his youth to see Sarah Bernhardt perform, and the woman on stage put him greatly in mind of the Divine Sarah, though they could not have been more different or the roles less alike. The woman's attire, which included a top far too revealing and a skirt far too short, would normally have invited the censure of one who prided himself on his rigid sense of decorum, but he barely even noticed, too taken in by the grace with which she moved around the stage, by her strong, crystal-clear voice and by the charm and playfulness of her performance.
The old gentleman allowed himself the private, never-to-be-voiced reflection that maybe Princess Elizabeth was on to something.
Mr Lloyd, who had been prattling on about fabrics and furniture and security arrangements, quickly realised that his exalted guest had stopped paying attention, and joined him closer to the front of the box.
"Stunning, isn't she?" he asked with pride. "There aren't two like her in the whole of Europe. And that over there is Mr Black, the male lead."
The man who had just run onto the stage was a fitting partner for the siren who had just made Mr Mortimer forget that he had set out to be entirely displeased by everything and everyone at the Fortuna Major. They moved as if one, with movements so perfectly in sync that it was if they shared one brain. Everyone else on stage, accomplished performers though they no doubt were, paled in comparison with the two leads — their movements a little less delicate, their dancing a little less polished.
And then Mr Mortimer's goddess of perfection tripped over a sailor-attired man directly behind her and the spell broke.
Hermione caught herself in time to avoid ending up sprawled on the floor and used the momentum of her spin to shove the idiot who had tripped her — again.
"Phillips, are you fundamentally uncoordinated?"
"Lay off him, Granger," Malfoy drawled, bored. "It was an accident."
"Don't even get me started on you, Black." He smirked at her use of the name. "You came in late. Again."
"The devil I did."
"You did. Maybe you're too hangover to follow your cues, but don't expect the rest of us not to notice. Let's take it from the top."
"We've been at it for three hours," a petite blond protested.
"And unless everyone starts to focus, we'll be at it for three more."
"Enough," boomed a voice from the audience. "Granger, are you directing this production?"
Hermione bit back the retort that first came to her lips, settling instead for a sullen, "No, sir."
"Didn't think so." Mr Green, a portly, middle-aged man, got up and frowned at his performers. "We're taking a break. Fifteen minutes, everyone. And wipe that smirk off your face, Black. You were late."
At the back of the theatre there was a door that led to a small courtyard, where performers often went if they wanted to grab a smoke during breaks. It was there that Peter Phillips could be heard bitterly complaining about the infamous, unfair and ignominious treatment he received at the hands of the stuck-up harpy who thought herself above her company just because her name was written in bigger letters than the rest.
"And who the bloody hell does she think she is? I'm telling ya; what that bitch needs to loosen up is a good f—"
"No one asked you, Phillips," Draco cut in, leaning against the door. He, for his part, did very much think himself above his company.
"Come off it, Black," said Dan Taylor, an Oxford drop-out who had tumbled out of academics and into the performing arts. "I've heard you say plenty worse. And little wonder — she gives you a harder time than anyone else. How you stop from strangling her, I'm sure I don't know. But you're in no position to moralise."
"My dear boy, if I have something to say to Granger, I say it to her face. I don't whine about it behind her back like a child."
"Now hold on a moment—"
"And what's more, Phillips, she's not wrong. Get your head out of your ass and stop fucking around. You're wasting everyone's time."
And with that he turned and went back inside, utterly unconcerned with the fact that Peter Phillips was probably at that very moment carping on about the insufferable toff who thought he was better than everyone else just because he came from money. Draco did not think he was better than everyone else just because he came from money. That was simply a happy coincidence.
He was entirely unsurprised to find Hermione still on stage, going over the steps of one of the numbers. She might be a stuck-up harpy, but she was a stuck-up harpy who worked hard for her top billing. He watched her for a few minutes from the wings. There was no music now and the deck was empty except for her, but that did not bother the witch. She smiled and flirted and danced around the invisible cast, her voice dipping and rising with a chorus only she could hear.
Draco waited for his cue and then joined her on stage, his strong tenor voice a pleasing counterpoint to hers. She betrayed no surprise at his arrival, but smiled at him with a delight that was all Mabel smiling at Ralph, the Pirate King's bastard son. He took her hand and she spun in place before melting into his arms — Mabel was smitten, however little Hermione shared in the sentiment.
As the song drew to an end, Ralph would have kissed Mabel, but Draco stopped just short of it, his smile turning mischievous.
"See?" he said, his lips brushing hers. "Perfect entrance."
Mabel's mask of sweetness fell and Hermione snorted.
"Even a broken clock is on time twice a day."
Draco let go of the witch with a dramatic sigh.
"You wound me, Granger."
"Were it that I could."
Green's timely arrival prevented hostilities from escalating, as they no doubt would have. It was a never-ending game between them — who could be the most unpleasant, who could pretend to care the least. She won, mostly, but Draco took comfort from the fact he let her win, it being the gentlemanly thing to do.
It puzzled the rest of the company. Hermione could be difficult — driven, demanding, perfectionist to a fault — but she was not petty. A little terrifying, sure, but not spiteful, except when it came to him. When it came to him, she was more than happy to play the prima donna to its full effect. And Draco, not being hindered by any great sense of restraint, was normally only too happy to humour her wish for a fight.
With the rapid approach of the Royal Command Performance, emotions were running high. Everyone was tired and irascible, a mood in no way alleviated by Mr Lloyd's constant reminder that this was their Big Break, and that the "entire future of the Fortuna Major" rested on their shoulders. The rehearsal was rare where no one burst into tears or stormed off in a fury — sometimes at the slightest provocation.
Other times there was significant provocation.
"You're being an insufferable, tyrannical bitch."
"Better that, Black, than an undisciplined, talentless hack."
"One of these days, Granger—"
"You will what? Run home and tell daddy on me?"
His hand flew to the pocket where he kept his wand before he had the good sense to remember the Muggles all around them. Hermione smirked knowingly, which only made him consider the merits of risking an Azkaban sentence for the pleasure of wiping that smug smile off her face.
It was with great relief and no small amount of surprise that the day of the performance finally dawned on them without anyone coming to blows.
"Breathe," Draco whispered as they waited on the wings for their cue.
Hermione did not reply, too busy fidgeting silently in place. It never failed to amaze him how nervous she always was before going on. The great Hermione Granger, the golden girl of the London stage, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. He had seen her face a troll with more composure.
Her nervousness didn't last, however. One moment she was next to him, looking as if she was about to puke, and the next she was on stage, looking for all the world to see as a picture of poise and grace.
Draco allowed himself a moment to enjoy her performance. For all that Hermione was the most aggravating woman he had ever had the displeasure to meet, she was also bewitching. When she stepped in front of an audience, she was transformed into a creature made of light and loveliness and charm, and he would have forgiven much and more for the privilege to share that stage.
It started out well. Even without all the extra rehearsals, they had been performing those roles for over a year and it showed. Once the curtain went up, all nervousness melted away and they started to relax and to enjoy it, playing off each other and feeding off the energy of the audience. It was a thrill like no other. It was why they did it. And it mattered very little whether there were kings or princes in the crowd. That theatre was their playground; it was their home. During that first hour they were on top of the world.
And then, right before intermission, they came tumbling back down to earth.
There was a point in the performance when two of the pirates lifted Mabel on a chair above their shoulders and carried her around the stage. It had always gone off without a hitch, and this time would have too, except that Phillips tripped, causing him to lose his grip on his side of the chair. Hermione tried to jump clear off, but landed badly, her legs buckling under her.
Her grimace of pain was quickly replaced by a look of shocked outrage, and Mabel glared up accusingly at the pirates.
"Why, gentlemen," she said, her voice steady and clear, "is this any way to treat a lady?"
The audience roared with laughter as the pirates knelt before the fallen Mabel, begging her forgiveness with their forehead to the floor, offering to cut off their own nose as penance for such an offence, or could they maybe interest her in a ear instead. They had two of those.
Draco marched across the stage and shooed them away, helping Mabel back up. Her hands tightened on his arms when her right foot touched the floor, and she shifted her weight to the other leg. None of this showed on her face, however. Mabel beamed at Ralph, her voice rising with his in a reprise of their earlier duet. They would normally have walked off stage together, but in a feat of brazen familiarity that Mabel's Major-General father would no doubt have thought impertinent, Ralph literally swept her off her feet, carrying her off in his arms.
It was the end of the first part, and rather timely too.
When Draco put Hermione down backstage, she bit back a yelp, her face gone deadly pale. Mr Lloyd was a picture of misery, and even Mr Green, normally unflappable, looked grim.
"Cripps," Mr Green called, catching the eye of Hermione's understudy in the crowd that had gathered. "Go change."
"Josephine, do not go change." Hermione sat down, taking off her shoe. "I'm going to finish the show."
"You can barely stand," Draco said. "How do you propose to dance?"
Hermione snorted. "Do you think it's the first time I've danced on a sprained ankle? I'll manage. I just need a minute."
Mr Green looked doubtful, but Mr Loyd was ready to grasp at the flimsiest of straws. "Excellent, excellent. I must go find Mr Mortimer and see if anything is needed. Green, you've got this?"
There was nothing to be done but carry on. Everyone dispersed and Draco watched in silence as Hermione limped to her dressing room, shoulders squared and head held high. She might just make it through the night on sheer stubbornness, but he wasn't counting on it.
Whatever. It was no business of his.
He made it two steps towards his own dressing room before turning back and heading towards hers. Male performers were not technically allowed on that section of the backstage area, but Mrs Carter was too busy organising wardrobe changes to tell him off.
Hermione's door was open, and Draco found her sitting down on a tattered old sofa, her hands around her ankle. Her lips moved silently in what someone else might have thought a prayer, but Draco knew better. He could feel the magic around her — faint and weak and aimless. Old stories spoke of great wizards who could perform wandless magic, but such skill was not for mere mortals like them.
He crossed the room and knelt in front of her, reaching for his wand.
"It's not a fix," he warned, feeling around the ankle with his free hand. "When it wears off, you will be in a world of pain."
She nodded without a word, closing her eyes for a second when he cast the spell.
"Mr Black." Mrs Carter walked in carrying a dress. "You know perfectly well you cannot be here. Out. Hermione, dear, you need to change. And what in heaven's name have you done to your make-up?"
Draco was almost at the door when Hermione called out to him.
"Malfoy." He turned towards her, surprised. She never called him that, never acknowledged that they had known each other before. Once upon a time, in a different place. In a different world. "Thank you," she said simply.