There were many things worth knowing about Draco Malfoy. He was a former Death Eater, for one. He still bore the twisted, scarred blemish of a Dark Mark on his left arm, for another. He had been raised and indoctrinated by incurable racists, espoused pureblood supremacy ideals, participated in torture and plots of murder, and followed a megalomaniacal nose-less madman to near doom. All true. All things worth knowing about Draco Malfoy.
But really, the most important thing to know about Draco Malfoy, the one fact that made him comprehensible and worth knowing at all, was this: that he had changed. Eleven years after the war, at age twenty-nine, Draco Malfoy was no longer a Death Eater. No longer a sniveling sycophant who couldn’t think for himself. No longer a racist pureblood supremist. Once, yes. But former! Changed.
It was the one fact about him that mattered.
It was also the one fact about him that no one particularly cared to notice, learn, or acknowledge.
And yet, much as the drudgery of it all pained and exhausted him, he was determined to put that essential part of himself on display nevertheless. As he did every weekday at noon on the dot, Draco heaved himself up from his stiff desk chair and set aside his quill and parchment forms. His lower back ached, so he stretched it, cracked his neck with a pop, and rubbed at his eyes. Bleary vision and a minor tension headache were common side effects of the long hours he spent studying tariffs and import fees, looking for discrepancies in taxes owed versus paid, as a collector for Her Majesty’s Magical Revenue and Customs.
He was a tax man. That was something worth knowing, too. Draco Malfoy, son and heir to the richest wizarding family this side of the Atlantic, brilliant prodigy child in Potions who excelled in all academic subjects, rebel with a dark and violent past, made his living as…a tax man. For the Ministry. Rather embarrassing, he had to admit. (More embarrassing, that he was quite good at his job. Most embarrassing, that he actually rather enjoyed it.)
After Draco pulled on his gray, thoroughly respectable work robes over his matching trousers and crisp white button-up shirt, he drew in a breath, straightened his spine, and readied himself for the quiet, humiliating battle he faced daily: reminding society at large of his own existence. With a flick of his wand to turn off the desk lamp, he strode out of his tidy little cubicle.
A low susurrus of murmured voices, whispers of shuffling parchment from enchanted memos that flew overhead, beeping from the message alert systems, and the click of heels on tile filled the Revenue and Customs work hall with a soft chaos of noise. Snippets of conversation from within each cubicle floated out to him as he walked past, his robes billowing gracefully behind him, his head held high. An older colleague walked past him in the other direction, eyes deliberately glued to the parchment form in front of him so he wouldn’t have to look at Draco, or, Merlin forbid, greet him in any way. A few steps onward and Lavender Brown popped her curly head out of her cubicle door, looked around for someone, and startled when she saw Draco. “Oh. Hey, Malfoy.”
Her tone was nasally and saccharine, too sweet to be sincere, but she was one of the few colleagues who pretended to be cordial to him, so Draco always made it a point to pretend to be cordial back. He smiled, nodded a greeting, and continued on his way.
In the lobby of the department, a few decorative potted plants made a valiant effort at cheer but ultimately fell short of their noble goal. With dusty old carpet, eggshell paint peeling off the walls, and failing enchantments in the window illusions, the office was less than welcoming. The only redeeming aesthetic detail was the photo and placard that hung on the wall beside the door: in golden embossed letters on dark wood, Employee of the Month – Draco Malfoy, and below that a copy of his Ministry photo ID picture. The Draco in the picture lifted his chin and gazed out at the room with regal detachment, severe and serene. The Draco in real life couldn’t help the proud little smile that tugged the corners of his mouth every day so far this month at seeing the display. Silly. Sentimental. But hard earned, by God. With perfect punctuality, long hours, and an unparalleled track record for identifying threads of tax abuse, Draco had earned this spot on the wall six times over his seven years working for the department.
The other aesthetically pleasing detail of the front office was Margery, their colorfully dressed octogenarian secretary who guarded entrance to the floor like a dragon wrapped around a precious horde. Her bright pink, bejeweled spectacles magnified her round eyes and gave her the appearance of a strange bird, some sort of owl-flamingo hybrid. As he did every day, he asked her, “Anything from the canteen today, Margery?”
He didn’t break stride on the way out the door because she, as always, said in her creaky old-lady voice, “Nothing today, Draco dear. Maybe tomorrow!”
She wouldn’t want anything tomorrow. She never wanted anything. Draco didn’t even entirely know how the exchange had started, but he knew that now it had gone on long enough to be tradition and so he kept at it. Malfoys loved a good tradition. That, and Margery was the one person in the office who seemed to actually like him a bit.
On his walk through the long, twisting Ministry hallways, people clipped past him, kept to the opposite side, kept their gaze down, avoided acknowledging him at all. For the most part. A few stared. In the lift, when Draco squeezed his way into the crowded car and reached to push the button for his floor, a large man in purple robes refused to budge out of the way. Instead, he stared at Draco, particularly at Draco’s left arm, with a sort of distant, brute hostility in his beady little eyes. Draco bit down a complaint, an insult, the rising snap of emotion he’d long ago learned to control, and smiled pleasantly while he contorted himself into a pretzel shape to reach the damn button without shoving anyone.
No one said anything, though. No one had in years. Not to his face, anyway. Of course, there were still complaints behind his back but even those had faded to nothing more than malcontented grumblings. Draco was determined to keep them that way, and to lessen them if he could. He was determined to make something of himself in this world, to earn a place here. His father would have blasted and charmed his way up the rungs of the Ministry, bribing and blackmailing his way back to the top. But his father was in prison, so that told Draco more than enough about the efficacy and staying power of such a strategy.
That was another thing worth knowing about Draco Malfoy: he was a far smarter, more patient man than his father before him.
No, Draco knew that the only way to the top, the only path worth anything in the long run, was a slow, inexorable climb, with diligence and dues paid every step of the way. They might not like him. They might want an excuse to be rid of him. But they couldn’t stop him from doing that.
Which was the purpose of this daily charade, this unpleasant routine, this public self-martyring. His least favorite part of the day. The part that made him want to step out in front of the Knight Bus rather than face it once more.
A wave of sound blasted against Draco in a rush as he pushed open the cafeteria doors. At least a dozen pairs of eyes pinned on him and followed his deliberate steps up to the food queue. He fought down the urge to fidget and straighten the front of his robes. Perhaps he could just go out and get something different today. Or run home. Maybe, from now on, he should pack a lunch and eat at his desk. Or out front, with Margery. Or in the park across the street, with the pigeons. Or down in the sewers, with the rats. Literally anything would be better than this: subpar food eaten with the painful awareness that half the Ministry was staring at him, some with suspicion and some with hate.
These inner arguments were also part of Draco’s daily routine.
He joined the end of the queue, ordered a bowl of soup and a breadstick, and thanked the canteen staff. With his tray balanced in both hands, Draco turned and peered out over the wide room. Clusters of Ministry employees talked and laughed and ate together. A group of Unspeakables in their navy blue robes bent over a table full of notebooks and Shepherd’s Pie and murmured with each other. A gaggle of barristers and law clerks, a few of them still wearing their ridiculous wigs, argued back and forth over a stack of sandwiches. Very few tables remained open, but Draco snagged one near the front of the canteen, close to the queue. He set his tray down on the wooden surface with a thunk, and then sat himself down.
Draco Malfoy: former Death Eater, tax man, and the only person out of hundreds who ate lunch alone. It shouldn’t bother him. He was a fully functioning adult, for goodness sake. But still, he felt the pressure of eyes on his solitary figure. It prickled the back of his neck, set his spine on edge as he dipped his spoon into the thick soup. Even now, as an adult, he felt the sting of embarrassment and loneliness that came with eating alone in a public space, like he was fourteen again and desperate for an audience to prove his worth in the Great Hall of Hogwarts. It was silly. Probably, he only felt this way because the ministry had a cafeteria, wide open and echoing with hundreds of loud conversations, with his table visible from every sight line. What he wouldn’t give for a proper restaurant. Awful.
Awful, rather like the soup. The thick, creamy orange concoction slopped in the bowl as he stirred his spoon through it and then took a bite. An attempt at some sort of spiced sweet potato. Not to his taste or standards, but…well. Some people liked it. Some people would call it their favorite thing on the menu. Some people looked forward to Tuesdays in particular, because this was the soup du jour. Some people had no taste, but still Draco found himself ordering this same bowl of gritty, under-seasoned slop every Tuesday in the hopes that it would improve with age. He forced another bite, though it was thick in his throat. Though half the Ministry watched and waited for him to dribble orange goop down the front of his white shirt.
Let them watch. He gulped another bite and patted the corner of his mouth with his napkin, his movements precise and deliberate. That was exactly why he forced himself through this public display every day: so people would watch.
It had been years since the war, years since the hunting torment, years since anyone had treated him badly or spit on him or attacked him for walking down the street. Years. But he still had an undeniable sense, an intuition, that insisted if ever he decided to hide, if ever he ducked his head too low, then the whispers behind his back would grow too loud. Draco had traveled a bit after the war, just for a while, just so he could teach himself how to breathe again. In America, hiking in the Pacific Northwest, he had read a survival guide with advice on what to do in the event that a hiker ran into a mountain lion. Stay still, it said. Maintain eye contact. Don’t turn around. Don’t run away. Because the second someone turned and ran, the mountain lion would seize that moment of fear, that moment of weakness, and rip out the hiker’s cowardly spine. Draco had grown rather fond of his spine in the years following the war, underused though it had been in his youth, and he could finally say with pride that he was no coward. Too many people wanted to rip him apart and see him bleed, see him rot. He would not give them the opening. He would not turn and bare his vulnerable spine for the tearing. Instead, he stayed locked in this quiet, subdued battle of eye contact. He let people watch him. See him. That was his approach to public life, the essence of his philosophy: that if he maintained a presence, a quiet and unblinking one, it would keep the rumors and the anger at bay. His entire life was balance. Careful. Considered. Constructed. Quiet. It had been that way for years. He had built that for himself, from the rubble of his broken reputation after the war. He was in control of his public image, and it had taken a lot of effort to get to that point.
So he sat in the crowded canteen every day and let suspicious Ministry employees watch him eat soup. And pity on any fool who thought for a second that he would dribble it on himself, because he was raised as a Malfoy, dammit, and that meant impeccable table manners!
“Fine, but you’re buying the first round of drinks at the pub this Friday, Potter!”
Draco inhaled the contents of his spoon and promptly choked. Coughed. Cleared his throat. His face burned with embarrassment and lack of oxygen, and he quietly sputtered to himself and tried not to make a scene while he asphyxiated.
A troupe of Aurors, all clad in glorious red regalia, thundered into the canteen. Messy and sweaty, the group of them looked to have just come in from morning field work. A successful mission, too, if their tired grins were any indication. Wisps of Chang’s long black hair pulled loose from her braid; Weasley had a smudge of dirt, or maybe a bruise, under his left eye; and Johnson-Weasley favored her left leg while she walked. But each of them smiled and laughed and clapped each other on the back, entirely too jovial and familiar with each other for the workplace, in Draco’s opinion. And at the head of them all, leading the charge, as always, was Harry Potter.
His grin was wide and bright, but he looked tired, with dark smudges under his eyes. And too thin. Always too thin, wiry, buzzing with energy like the core of a wand stripped of its wood casing. The look of him always sent a shiver up Draco’s spine.
Draco blinked and caught himself with a little shake. He was staring at Harry Potter. In the middle of the Ministry canteen. Again. He ducked his head before anyone could catch him in the shameful act.
Soup. Very, very interesting soup. Fascinating stuff, this soup. He stared at that instead and blinked a few times. Lifted his spoon. Forced a tasteless bite.
“Yeah, yeah.” Potter shook off Weasley’s attempts to muss up his already atrocious hair as the group made their way into the food queue. “I’ll get the first round if you get your paperwork in on time today.”
No, soup was no good. Perhaps if he kept his head down at an angle, he could lift his eyes alone. There! Perfect. The position strained the backs of his eyeballs a bit, but no one could tell he was watching Potter rock back and forth from foot to foot as he made his lunch selection.
Antsy. That was Potter. Always moving. He crossed his arms over his chest. Uncrossed them. Swung them back and forth. Maneuvered his head to peer at all the food on offer, even though it was Tuesday and he always got the same damn thing every Tuesday. Draco kept his head down and watched his endless movement, watched the sharp, edgy lines of him. His figure was cut in vibrant reds from his form-fitting uniform, and inky rich blacks in the soft, messy layers of his bit-too-long hair. Dramatic.
And thin. Too thin. Not dramatically so. Not starved. Nothing like the desiccated inferi look he’d sported by the end of the war, after months with no food. Potter worked out, kept himself in shape for Auroring. He looked good, some would say. The papers certainly seemed to think he looked good. But he had never quite lost that hungry glint, the one he’d had his whole life, even as a child. Potter looked like someone who worked just a few too many hours, skipped just a few too many meals, and smoked just a few too many cigarettes. Through the red fabric of his tight robes, Draco could see the knobs of Potter’s spine.
After a long moment of posturing and fidgeting and rocking back and forth, Potter said the same thing he always said on Tuesdays. “I’ll have the soup, please.”
Draco rolled his eyes. So predictable. Potter and his damn—
“I’m so sorry dear, we’re fresh out!”
“Oh.” Potter stilled. His shoulders slumped. Disappointment radiated off of him. “Then I’ll have…er…”
Draco grimaced and clamped his teeth in irritation, his eyes flitting back and forth between Potter and the lunch lady. How could they have run out of the soup of the day, not even halfway through the lunch service? That was poor logistical resource management, if Draco had ever seen it.
Give him yours. A little voice in the back of Draco’s head suggested it, but Draco shook it off. Ridiculous. He couldn’t go around giving bowls of half eaten soup to the childhood nemesis he’d barely spoken to in years.
“Um…could I get…” Potter bit his lip and scanned all the offerings again and again, though none of them seemed suitable. Some of the light had dimmed out of his eyes. He shook his head, frustrated, and waved Weasley forward. “You guys go ahead of me. I need a minute to decide.”
Give him yours. Give him your soup.
The lunch lady, with her white robes and the netted cap over her hair, at least had the decency to look apologetic. Potter chewed on the inside of his cheek and glared at the lunch options while Weasley stepped past him and advised, “The pasta’s pretty good, mate.”
Potter shrugged that suggestion off, as well he should, since it was terrible and thoughtless, showing a complete disregard for Potter’s preferences. Potter hated eating heavy meals midday. Didn’t Weasley know that? He always preferred to have something lighter, like soup or a sandwich.
Give him yours. Give it to him.
Draco flinched. Maybe he should. Maybe he should just offer—
He shut the idea down before it could take hold. No. He couldn’t, wouldn’t give Potter his half eaten lunch. That was an awful idea.
But…what if it wasn’t? What if it was the right thing to do? Some instinct inside him tugged at his gut and insisted it was probably the right thing to do. Maybe he—
No! Dear Merlin, no! Draco forced the thought down, cut it off completely.
In instant, vicious response, a wave of nausea swelled through him, a startling and greasy lurching that heaved his stomach and spun his head. An uncomfortable tightness clenched his skin, like his skin had shrunk and the outer layers no longer fit him right. He hunched in on himself while his head lowered towards the surface of the table. Sweat popped along his hairline. And the random, completely unacceptable idea that he share his lunch with Potter grew louder and more insistent in his mind. Give it to him. Give it to him. Draco argued with himself and struggled to shut the intrusive thought down, but the more it swirled through his head, the more it filled his whole core.
Those things couldn’t be connected. He couldn’t possibly be sick at the thought of denying Potter his lunch…
An angry knot twisted his stomach and saliva flooded his mouth as bile crept up his throat. He pressed a fist to his lips, gagged and swallowed it down. Quietly. Merlin, he hoped no one noticed. Under the zing of panic that seized him, the confusion over what was happening, Draco still maintained a desperate need for decorum. He struggled to keep his head down and remain unobtrusive, uninteresting, even while about to vomit all over the table.
All because, apparently, something in him desperately wanted to give Potter his food.
Maybe he should.
Draco sucked in a long breath as the nausea suddenly eased, like a grip unclenching. He sat up straighter.
“What sort of sandwiches do you have today?” Potter asked. The lunch lady gave him two completely unsatisfactory options: a tuna melt, which Potter hated, and a cucumber and watercress, which wouldn’t do at all since Potter had a mild allergy to cucumber. His red-clad shoulders, too thin-too thin, slumped further at the news.
Give it to him. Give it to him. Give it to him. Give it to him.
No! He would not! A headache burst behind his sinuses, sudden and stabbing. Draco grunted and pressed his thumb and forefinger against his eyes to ease the pressure. It did no good, and still the intrusive thought grew louder and stronger, commanding him. Give it to him! His hand twitched. His core tensed, ready to stand, entirely against his own will.
What in the name of Morgana’s saggy tits was happening to him?!
He fought. Or perhaps not. He was suddenly of two wills. On the one hand, he couldn’t give Potter a half-eaten bowl of soup. That simply was not a done thing! Ridiculous! Unseemly! But on the other hand…
It felt like, maybe…maybe he had to. Something in him, some deep and buried instinct that knew him best, swelled and took root. Something that insisted this was important, and perhaps it would be best if Draco went along with it. Draco’s instincts had rarely steered him wrong, so perhaps…
Dammit, no! He slammed his hand back down against the tabletop, and in response the headache flared with white spots at the edges of his vision. The crowded room swallowed up the noise of the impact, but it rattled his metal spoon against the porcelain bowl. Why was this happening?
Give it to him. Give it to him. Give it to him!
Really now! To be fair! This was all the lunch lady’s fault. Harry Potter was the hero of the wizarding world, and this soup was his favorite soup. They couldn’t save a bowl for the hero of the fucking universe? How hard was it to feed the savior a decent meal once in a while? Was that so much to ask, really? No! No it was not!
GIVE IT TO HIM. GIVE IT TO HIM.
Dejected, Potter ordered a limp, pathetic looking salad and trudged away from the counter. Though he tried to hide it from his friends, his eyes held such a sad, kicked-puppy look that Draco’s head nearly exploded with the surge of pain, of pity, of need. Another punch of nausea rocked Draco’s body and the insistent, demanding voice in his mind screeched in violent crescendo:
GIVE IT TO HIM GIVE IT TO HIM GIVE IT TO HIM GIVE IT TO HIM GIVEITTOHIMGIVEITTOHIMGIVEITTOHIM!!!!
It was right! Merlin, the instinct was right!
How could it be right? It was madness!
But Draco took one look at the silly little unspoken sadness in Potter’s eyes, and a fierce and burning need, stronger than anything he’d ever known, tensed every muscle in his body. It surged up from his heart, flared through his blood.
He had to give Potter his lunch. Had to! There was no other option, no other course in life, nothing left for him to do but obey the commands of the tyrannical impulse, the gut instinct, the burning need. He needed to feed Potter, needed to give him this bowl of soup like he had never needed anything in his entire life!
No! He screamed inside his own mind, which had been commandeered. What are you doing? This is insane!
But the need, the drive, the instinct was too strong. The feeling of warm, desperate empathy at seeing the disappointment Potter tried to deny, tried to hide, overwhelmed him. As if under imperius, his body filling the need while his mind panicked and struggled to catch up, Draco stood.
What was he doing?! Why was he doing this?! It didn’t matter! He needed to. Needed to! Needed to!
With a panicked, garbled cry that ripped from the swirling chaos in his brain, Draco grabbed the bowl, flailed his arms…
And threw soup all over Harry Potter, in the middle of the crowded Ministry cafeteria.
Draco and Potter both froze. The now-empty soup bowl, along with Potter’s tray and salad, clattered and crashed to the floor in a burst of noise that startled the cafeteria. Everyone looked. All around them, tables full of people fell silent and stared in horror, in confusion.
Draco’s mouth unhinged and flopped open while his eyes went wide. His heart stopped, skipped three beats, and then raced to catch up. Heat flooded his cheeks, shame flooded his chest…and soup flooded every inch of Harry Potter’s person.
What had he done? Jesus and Merlin, what had he just done?
Potter blinked and sputtered while heavy glops of orange sweet potato soup dripped out of his soaked hair. He lifted his arms out tense in front of him, his fingers clenched and twitching as if searching for something to throttle. A massive stain covered the front of his red robes, and a thick rivulet dripped down over the line of his black leather belt and inched towards his trousers. For that one moment, Potter paused, too stunned to react.
It didn’t last. Fury flamed in Potter’s eyes as he caught sight of Draco, pinned him in place with an awful look, and shouted, “What the fuck, Malfoy?!”
What the fuck, indeed. What the fuck had he done? What the fuck was wrong with his brain?
Mortified, Draco stared at his awful handiwork and did the only thing he could do in that moment. He laughed. “Ha! Haaaa…ha ha. Ha!” It came out deranged and too loud, too slow, an insane sound even to his clearly insane ears. Could an insane person know they were insane? Draco felt confident he had gone insane. But there was nothing for it but to drive ahead. Wide eyed, face locked in a grimace, throat and eyes burning with near-tears while he tried not to break down and cry right there in front of the entire Ministry, Draco forced a mocking tone. He let his inner fourteen year old rescue him in the only way he knew how, some other instinct, long buried. “How’d you like that, Potter? Got you good, I did!”
For a long moment, Potter stared at him with a look that concurred Draco was indeed completely fucking insane. Then, he scoffed and shook his head. “Whatever, Malfoy.” He shoved against Draco’s shoulder with his own as he stalked off, muttering obscenities under his breath and dripping soup with every step.
Whispers hissed to life all around him and then grew to murmurs. Before they could turn to shouts of rage, before Draco’s face set itself on fire, he fled the canteen. The whole long walk back to his office, Draco’s chest heaved with panicked breaths, his heart pounding. His stomach clenched tight enough to nearly double him over, all twisted up in a hot, heavy knot of shame and messy organs, while bile burned up the back of his throat. Somehow, he managed to make it back to his office even though all he wanted to do was run right out the door and never stop running.
Another thing worth knowing about Draco Malfoy: he loved Harry Potter. Had done all his life, from that first meeting with the scraggly, lost little green-eyed boy in Madam Malkin’s. That love got all twisted up in other things, of course. In rivalry. In jealousy. In hurt. And then, later, his love for Potter got twisted up with existential, passionate hatred, an opposition that built in Draco’s head until there was only him and Potter, and all the world must bend into submission behind one of these two diametrically opposed foes.
Then, old snake nose moved into his home and Draco’s delusions of grandeur shattered—Potter was grand and epic, while Draco had only ever been a side note. That was how it was.
After the war was done, with a few years’ distance, all the other things, all the hatred and jealousy and rivalry, all the fantasy and grandeur and grateful obsession untwisted. All that was left was a simple, plain, unassuming, really rather boring sort of love. An unrequited love, of course. But that was alright.
All of it was alright, really.
It was alright when Potter saved his life, grabbed him from fire and flew him to safety, Draco’s heart pounding for days afterward at the soaring sensation…and then, after giving Draco the most brilliant, painful, transformative moment of his life, he promptly forgot about him and never spoke to him again. That was alright. Because Draco was a side note. And that was alright. Potter never spoke to him, and that was alright. Potter would never love him back, and that was alright. Draco also loved going for long walks in fresh powdery snow. He loved the feeling of tedious, disciplined accomplishment that came when perfecting a potion. He loved his father, or the husk of him that remained after years in Azkaban. None of those things loved him back, but that was alright. Loving Potter was a bit like that.
But love Potter, he did. He loved the steady brightness of him, that competent, powerful brilliance that made him a hero even before the war. He loved that Potter never demanded respect, obedience, attention—but that he gained those things regardless simply because his aura, his presence, quietly insisted that he was a person worth respecting, obeying, paying attention to. It came effortlessly, so effortlessly that he didn’t quite know he had it, and Draco loved that. He loved Potter’s vibrant grin, his sharp white teeth that gleamed just on the right side of a bite too wild. He loved how Potter wore nearly every emotion on his sleeve, on his face—his love and passion and anger and joy and pride. But not every emotion, because his loneliness and his weariness he kept close to the chest, hidden, tucked in, difficult to recognize. Draco saw those once in a while, though, in moments when Potter thought no one was watching, and loved him more for it. Loved the glimpse at Potter’s tender imperfections, yes. But also loved seeing the shields lowered, because that meant Potter was not the loose, carefree, emotionally open person he portrayed, but that his openness was scripted and controlled, was situational and deliberate. A choice. He wore a mask and controlled his public persona. It was something they had in common. Draco wondered if anyone else got to see him in those quiet, unmasked moments, and he didn’t bother with impossible nonsense like wishing it could be him.
It didn’t affect his day-to-day much. It was rather like having a condition. A low level of chronic pain, perhaps, that he had learned to work around and live with.
Something Draco Malfoy would prefer no one know about him: he had occasional flare-ups of irritable bowel syndrome. Most days were fine. But sometimes certain foods would mutiny against his stomach with such immediate and unseemly violence that he’d have to clench his arse cheeks together while running for the loo. Sometimes this was unpredictable. Other times, he could grasp the pattern and take measures to avoid foods likely to trigger his sensitive bowels into a state of irritation while out in public. He loved coffee, but never drank it at work, only saved it for weekends at home, because of the potential for shit-related emergencies.
It was embarrassing. Something he’d rather not talk about with anyone. Something to be handled in private. A condition that always lingered in the background, but only occasionally flared up and required attention. A pain in the arse. But, all in all, a simple fact of his life that he managed, mitigated, and dealt with quietly.
That was what it was like for Draco Malfoy to love Harry Potter.
At least it was, until the day he lost his fucking mind and threw a bowl of hot soup at him in the middle of the ministry cafeteria.
“What the fuck? What the actual fucking fuck? Fuck…what the…” Furious, Harry grumbled under his breath and ripped handfuls of his own hair as he leaned over the sink. His reflection in the mirror glared back at him, mouth snarling and severe, eyes narrowed behind his glasses. He dragged his fingers through his front fringe and sluiced out a glop of hot, orange soup. The creamy mess of it slathered his hand, and he glared at it before he flung his wrist in disgust. It slopped against the side of the sink. Still, there was an abundance of mother fucking soup all over his person. All in his hair, drenched down to his scalp, stained up and down his uniform. He snatched the sink tap and spun it around a few times. Water creaked through the old, outdated Ministry pipes and then gushed out in uneven, sputtering spurts. Harry wet his hands and leaned further over the basin.
The door to the loo creaked as it swung open behind him, and a flurry of noise spilled in until Ron stepped inside and shut them up in solitude once more. Harry flinched, glared at him over his (soup covered) shoulder, and went back to scrubbing his hair in the sink. Glops of the stuff flopped out of his hair in clumps. The thick, orange goop mixed with the tap water and spun in lazy circles around the drain. A few chunks of sweet potato got stuck in the filter, and the whole basin slowly filled with a swirl of dirty, orange-tinted water.
Harry cursed and grumbled and swore under his breath. He’d gotten most of it out of his hair, but it left the locks all sticky, with a tacky sort of feel that would all clump together and crust as it dried. Disgusting. And he hadn’t even gotten started on his uniform. Furious, Harry scrubbed his fingers through his hair and groaned.
“You do remember you’re a wizard, right?”
Harry paused. Slumped. And shook his head. The frightful edge of frazzled anger receded a little with the reminder. He looked back over his shoulder at Ron, who tried to hide a smirk. “Yeah. Right. I…” He reached for his wand, but flinched and stopped himself at the last second. His hands were still sticky with sweet potato. “Could you…?”
“Yeah, sure!” Ron lifted his wand and hit Harry’s uniform with a scourgify, and then blasted at his hair with a startling and abrupt gust of wind. Harry blinked and righted his off-kilter glasses. When he glanced at the damage in the mirror, he had to shrug. No more soup. The stain had disappeared, and his hair was clean, despite looking like he’d come out of a hurricane. Everything was fine. Fine, even though the anger and confusion of the event still zinged in his veins.
Harry glared at his own reflection, his nostrils flaring. As if the whole debacle wasn’t infuriating and confusing enough, that had been the particular soup he’d wanted to eat for lunch. Had Malfoy overheard? Did he know, and he threw it at Harry just to spite him? Just to have a laugh about how Harry couldn’t have the thing that he wanted? He grit his jaw and shook his head, forced himself to take a breath. “Fucking Malfoy.”
Ron clapped him on the back and nodded, sympathetic. “Yep.”
Harry hadn’t seen, spoken to, or interacted with Malfoy in years, other than the odd passing in the halls of the Ministry. He certainly hadn’t spent any time thinking in depth about the blond, pointy, Death Eater git in the years since the war. Not since he’d done his duty and spoken at the trials, at least. But now, in the aftermath of the bizarre and humiliating encounter, all of Harry’s old habits rose to the surface and came to his aid. He whipped his head around to look at Ron and asked, “Do you think he’s up to something?”
It was like an instinct. A pattern rusty and long buried, but still there when he suddenly needed it. In the old days, back when he cared, Malfoy breathed and Harry assumed the worst. Rightfully so, often enough. It wasn’t so absurd to think something was up with the bastard now, after the sudden public attack.
Ron rolled his eyes, though, and muttered, “Merlin help us, not this again.”
“What?” Harry glared, eyes wide. “You saw what he did! He attacked me! Out of nowhere! In the middle of the…of the…” He cut himself off and shook his head to fight down the choke of anger that built in his throat.
“Yeah.” Ron nodded and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Also saw that he looked completely mortified about having done it.”
Harry rolled his eyes and scoffed. “So?”
“So? Mate, I think it was probably an accident.”
“An accident!” Harry huffed a laugh and nearly screeched, “Ron, he threw a bowl of soup at me! How could that possibly be an accident?”
Maybe it was a ploy. An attempt to lure Harry somewhere, to get him to try to chase after Malfoy and then get caught in…something. Somehow? It didn’t make sense yet, but Harry would figure it out. His brain spiraled through the possibilities, the steps. He had half a mind to march right down to wherever Malfoy worked and demand he answer for this right now. His hands balled into fists.
“Yes, Harry. An accident.” Ron shook his head. Slow and exasperated, the way he talked to Rosie and Hugo when they were throwing a tantrum, he said, “Probably, there was a spider on his bowl and he panicked. Didn’t want anyone to mock him for screaming about it like a little girl, so he pretended it was supposed to hit you all along.”
Harry grit his teeth and stared down at the dingy black and white checkered tiles on the floor. Ron stepped in closer and wrapped an arm around his shoulder to ease him out of the loo, and he dragged his feet against it.
“Come on, mate. Back to work.”
Harry glared out of the corner of his eye, his mouth pursed in a tight knot, new and old anger all hot inside him. His eye line was barely at the top of Ron’s shoulder. Ron had always been tall, but he’d filled out with meat and muscle, too, and wore it all with an air of settled, competent confidence. When they went out on weekends, Ron was the one people snuck a second glance at these days. It wasn’t just his looks, either. He was calm and patient, with an endless supply of wry humor and rational thought. Parenthood did that to him, Harry supposed. And in moments when his best friend, all six-fit-fucking-foot of him, towered over him and talked to him in a soothing tone about how he was being ridiculous...Harry grit his jaw.
Next to Ron, nearly-perfect Ron, he was short, and scrawny, and irrational, and buzzing with nervous energy, and unsure about where he fit in his own life, and prone to fits.
Sometimes it made Harry feel like he was one of Ron and Hermione’s kids. The ugly one, to boot. Because Rosie and Hugo were gorgeous. And were both bound to end up taller than him!
Fucking Malfoy! All this was because of him. He swallowed down his irritation at his best friend, because it really was misplaced. Why be mad at Ron when he had a perfectly good reason to be mad at Draco Malfoy? Annoyed, and confused, and hungry, dammit, because he didn’t get to eat any of his lunch, he let Ron drag him back to work.
“Just try to ignore him,” Ron said.
Harry nodded in agreement, but that was a joke if he’d ever heard one. Harry had learned to ignore a lot over the course of his life: the press, stares while out in public, the occasional times his employees skivved off an hour early from work, the leaky faucet in his downstairs loo that he probably should have fixed years ago, Teddy’s occasional use of bad words he’d learned from his godfather, Mrs. Weasley’s frequent hints that he should find someone nice and settle down, feeling lackluster compared to his brilliant best friends, an incessant nagging in the back of his mind that he should probably take better care of himself and his godson, the loneliness and despair that crept up on him some nights to insist that it didn’t matter if he took better care of either of them because soon Teddy would leave anyway and Harry was broken and unlovable and he would probably die alone…A lot! Harry Potter could ignore a lot of things!
The one thing in his life he had never been able to ignore was Draco Malfoy.
A knock on the flimsy wall of Draco’s cubicle made him flinch, his bones nearly spasming right out of his skin. Three hours after Soup-pocalypse, Soup-mageddon, Soup-tastrophe, whatever people were undoubtedly calling it behind his back, and Draco was still tense and shaky. An unusual number of colleagues had passed by his office and glanced in through the open doorway, and an unusual number of whispers hissed around the department floor. Now, knocking. A mob, come to kill him for assaulting their hero, most likely. Or a team of doctors from Saint Mungo’s, come to tell him he was to be Gilderoy Lockhart’s new roommate. He braced himself and turned his chair.
Lavender Brown stood in the doorway, one high-heeled shoe crossed over the line into his office, a forced polite smile on her face. She was the sort of girl who was effortlessly beautiful, with golden brown eyes and a tumble of lovely honey hair, flawless light brown skin, and pleasant curves. Even the scars on her face added to this, and made her look a bit dashing and mysterious. Yes, effortlessly beautiful. But then, on top of that, she put effort into her appearance. And that ruined it, in Draco’s opinion. Always, she wore stylish robes and a smart pencil skirt, with heavy make-up. Always, high heels. Always, it annoyed Draco, and he thought her rather pretentious and vapid.
“How can I help you, Ms. Brown?”
She tightened her smile, and it squinted her eyes. “Just came to see if you needed any help with the Slug & Jiggers file?”
And fake. Draco forced his polite, distant look to stay firmly in place. She was so transparently, painfully fake. For too long, Lavender had been waging a secret war against him. Oh, she played nice. But that was her tactic. She was out to take credit for Draco’s work, he had no doubt. Often, she dropped by his office just to see if he needed help with a file, or to ask his opinion about one of her own. It was a ploy so obvious, she might as well just announce that she planned to steal his work to make herself look good.
“No, thank you.” Draco gestured at the stacks of parchment open on his desk, the file in question. Slug & Jiggers was one of his accounts, and a tedious one. Line by line, Draco checked their records for inconsistencies or corners cut on international imports. Not today, of course. After Soup-pocalypse, he’d done nothing but sit and stare at the parchment, the awful incident replaying on a loop in his brain while he weighed the merits of drowning himself in the Thames. But other days! Other days, he could handle the account without any help. “I have it under control.”
“Okay, great! That’s a rough one. Just let me know if you need back-up!” Chipper and sweet, she continued to smile and stare at him, her eyes piercing. She did not move from his doorway.
Draco blinked and stared. “If that’s all, Ms. Brown…”
“There was something else, actually.” Her face fell and she took another step further into his office, her heels sinking into the small Persian rug he’d laid out to liven up the space. Voice low, she leaned in close and asked, “Malfoy, are you alright?”
A flush rushed into Draco’s cheeks and he turned away. It certainly didn’t take long for news to travel, did it? Nor for Lavender to come to gloat, the harpy. “I’m certain I don’t know what you mean, Ms. Brown. I’m perfectly fine. I don’t know what rumors or gossip you’ve heard, but--”
“Heard? No, no, nothing like that!” Lavender’s eyes went wide, and then narrow again as she tilted her head to one side in thoughtful pause. “Oh, you mean the gossip going around about how you threw your lunch at Harry Potter? That’s unfortunate, but also none of my business. No, I mean…”
Draco attempted to gulp with a dry throat, and he gave his head a little shake. Something else was wrong with him? Or was this just a ploy to get close to him, get some new details right from the source?
“I just mean…” Nervous, Lavender smudged her lipstick as she chewed on her bottom lip, but then seemed to come to some decision. She gathered up that rash, Gryffindor courage, leaned in close to Draco’s ear, and hissed a whisper. “You smell a bit odd.”
“I…” Draco sputtered and went red in the face, while he fought down an abrupt urge to sniff at his own underarms. “I…I beg your pardon!”
“No, no, no!” Lavender waved her hands. “I don’t mean like that, I don’t mean in a way anyone would notice. Or…that anyone other than me would notice, anyway.”
“Oh.” This did little to calm Draco. A relief, he supposed to hear he was not a smelly lunatic, and only a normal lunatic. But still, if Lavender’s werewolf senses noticed something strange…could it have something to do with that terrible sensation, that pressing and nauseating urge that came over him at lunch? “What do you mean?”
Lavender shrugged and sent a few curls bouncing. “I noticed this morning. Your scent is different, all of a sudden. Not bad. Just…strange. Normally, that only happens when someone falls ill, or if they get cursed. I just thought I’d check and make sure you were alright.”
So she could laugh at his misfortune and gossip about it if he wasn’t, no doubt. Draco lifted an eyebrow and considered it. He didn’t feel ill at the moment, and he hadn’t been cursed. None of this made any sense, but clearly something was wrong with him. He sighed and shrugged and let himself slump a little lower in his stiff chair. “I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a brain tumor.”
Lavender looked horrified. “Merlin, that’s awful! I’ve never scented someone with a brain tumor before, but if you’d like, I could go to the hospital and see if I can check any patients to get a comparison.”
“What?” Her earnest gushing knocked him off-kilter. Damn Gryffindors. No sense of appreciation for macabre humor. “No, Ms. Brown. It was a bad joke. That won’t be necessary. I’m sure everything’s fine.”
“Oh. Alright.” She studied him for another long moment while Draco fiddled with his quill and squirmed under the attention. “Do you think it might have something to do with your episode in the cafeteria?”
Draco blinked. “My…episode?”
“When you threw your food. All over Harry Potter. With everyone watching?”
“Yes, yes,” Draco hissed. “I am aware of the incident you refer to. I just hadn’t realized that’s what everyone was calling it.”
Although, to be fair, it had been an episode. Hopefully, a unique one. Draco dearly hoped that this was simply a freak occurrence, the result of stress or not enough sleep, that would never happen again.
He did not need to be the sort of person who had episodes, plural.
Lavender’s nose scrunched up as she faked sympathy. “Most people are calling it a plot, actually.”
“A plot?” Draco’s eyes narrowed and his forehead crinkled in unseemly lines, near wrinkles. This was the last thing he wanted to talk about, and nearly the last person he wanted to talk about it with, but the sliver of information proved too much to resist. “How could it be a plot?”
“Death Eater plot. You’re scheming, planning to tear down the new Ministry and wage a reign of terror as our new Dark Lord, and you’re starting by attacking Harry Potter and marking him as an enemy.” Lavender shrugged, and the corner of her mouth twitched in a hidden smile, the nasty little gossip. Draco completely ignored her, ignored his need for constant propriety and face-saving, and groaned as he hid his head in his hands.
All his hard work…all his years of careful presentation and reputation rebuilding…all of it undone in one absurd moment.
Hot, angry tears burned up the back of Draco’s throat and he gulped around the lump of emotion.
“You know how the Ministry is. All gossip, no sense.” Lavender’s sardonic, sympathetic little smile looked almost authentic. “If you were feeling bad or embarrassed about throwing food at Harry, it might help you to know that a lot of people aren’t even sharing that part of the story. Last version I heard, there was a battle and you shot a curse at him. Some people are even saying it was an AK.”
Just barely, with great effort, Draco managed to keep in the twisted, high pitched shriek of horror and wretched bemusement that wanted to rip from his throat. He nearly choked on it. “Oh, is that all?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure it will pass before the week’s done.” She gave a little flip of her hair. “Or lean into it! Embrace your new Dark Lord status.”
“I don’t want to be a Dark Lord,” Draco sighed miserably.
“Might not be the worst thing, to be honest. If you took over the Ministry, at least the government would stick to a budget for once. You would be a very fiscally responsible overlord.”
Draco sucked in a long breath and peered at her. Was his jealous, credit-stealing colleague actually trying to goad him down a path of violent government overthrow? Or, equally as bizarre, was she joking with him? Bewildering, in either case. It was a compliment of sorts, and Draco assumed he should perhaps say thank you? But he pulled his social armor back on just in time to recognize that whatever he said, Lavender would probably twist and whisper to anyone who would listen. So instead, he just stared at her and felt terribly confused and broken and desperately in need of a long nap.
With a shrug and a smile, bright canines flashing, Lavender pointed once more at the Slug & Jigger’s file open on his desk. “Let me know if you change your mind about wanting a hand with that. See you, Malfoy.”
Which left Draco alone to contemplate his shattered reputation, his deep humiliation, and the potential curse or brain tumor that had led him down this awful path.
He did not finish the file that day.