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Rush Hour by peppersweet
Chapter 1: Rush Hour
There was nothing more humiliating for Draco than his morning commute. Like most things in his life these days, it was dictated and governed by the Ministry of Magic – the Magical Law Enforcement office, more specifically – and, also like most things in his life, it was tedious and frequently disappointing.
The muggle integration schemes (as they were called) had popped up quite suddenly after the war. One minute they’d been discussing budget reform on the wireless and the next there was a special report from the Minister himself to say that, from this day forth, there would be no more robes, no more blood status registers, no more prejudice: open up the doors of the magical world and let all the muggle-borns in!
The world changed overnight. Robes were the first to go, suddenly out of fashion; muggle import shops sprang up all over Diagon Alley, a whole new trade emerged for those who liked to tinker with muggle goods. All of a sudden, witches and wizards everywhere were talking about driving tests, aeroplanes, electricity; Draco was understandably perplexed when a man in a purple pinstripe suit turned up on the doorstep of the Malfoys’ inherited townhouse to sternly warn him that, should they ever wish to sell it on, it would have to be fitted with the appropriate up-to-date gas and electricity systems.
He didn’t especially mind once he’d turned nineteen. His parents had become something of a nuisance to live with. They stubbornly refused to adapt to any of the new Ministry reforms, no matter how much Draco reminded them how precarious it would be to wander down Diagon Alley in robes, spouting the same Pureblood agenda that had been on their lips for over a quarter of a century. Above all else, it was an invitation to be mugged and beaten and left to bleed in some dark alleyway as you so often read about in certain newspapers.
Draco could hardly say he agreed with his new policy of total integration – a muggle was a muggle and that was that – but decided it was all for the best if he just kept his head down and got on with his life. He hadn’t dared to return to school as so many of his fellow students had. He was universally disliked; to one side, he was a bad guy, to the others, he was a coward and a cheat. He’d turned his back on his friends and, when he rented a flat in the West of London at the age of twenty, he turned his back on his family too.
There were all sorts of threats. The inheritance would be cut off - as if there was an inheritance left to give after the compensation, the court costs, the repossession of the manor! They’d never speak to him again - as if there was anything to say to each other! Disinherited. Disowned. Disappointment. The only thing he would keep would be the Malfoy name, which had been dragged back and forth through dirt and was worth no more than the family it identified. But, in a way, they’d sown the seeds of that disinheritance as far back as his sixteenth year, when he’d been turned assassin as a means of restoring family honour. Dishonour. It was hard to sit at the breakfast table and sip tea opposite the parents who had so gladly sent you off to war.
It was not an easy escape. The past did not stand in his favour; there was evidence to prove that he had cast two of the unforgiveable curses, although not the most unforgiveable of all. Evidence to prove that he had been implicit in torture, kidnap, arson, murder. Evidence to prove, as someone had once spat at him late at night in Diagon Alley, that he was the unmitigated little bastard everyone thought of him as. There was a brief court appearance and then, simply, a lot of paperwork – a suspended sentence, a ban on apparating, community service, and a thick black cuff stamped with M.O.M that he was forced to wear at all times.
The cuff was a perplexing and painful reminder of his punishment. It was a magical trace, a spell, and the cuff, in fact, held no enchantment whatsoever. The spell was on him. The cuff was designed to remind him of that fact. The Ministry owned him.
It also reminded him that - really - he deserved it.
With a ban on apparition (a small matter, as he’d never had the chance to take his test) and an order from the court to rid himself of his prejudices, to embrace the society he’d been brought up to hate all his life, he had no choice but to take the Underground to work.
The commute was awful. Used to portkeys and apparition, he could not, for the life of him, understand why muggles would voluntarily spend so much of their precious time jammed into filthy train carriages like sardines in a can, breathing sooty, recycled air – the London underground, where there was a gap to mind and no such thing as personal space.
There was the commuter newspaper, though, possibly his favourite thing about his entire workday. It was free, it was flimsy, and it kept him from having to make eye contact with his fellow passengers. Sometimes Draco felt he would fight tooth and claw just to get the last, crumpled copy of the newspaper, even one with the crosswords filled in and the cartoons ripped out. It was a barrier and a blindfold to the outside world. And, occasionally, the puzzles page provided mental stimulation for his lunch breaks as, frequently, his colleagues had no desire to talk to him.
He never paid much attention to the trivial opinion pages at the back of the paper, nor the lonely hearts ads or classified that followed it. But one day when he found his seat at Ealing Broadway and swiped a copy of the paper from behind a seat, he opened it to find that someone had gutted the thing and made off with most of the editorial content. Inwardly, he seethed: vandalism of his reading material! How could he last to St Paul’s?
So he had no choice but to read the most muggle section of all.
People often wrote in about their fellow passengers. There was a column to thank those who had retrieved lost handbags, fixed broken shoes, a column for so-called ‘shout-outs’, and, finally, the column headed Rush Hour Crush.
This, to Draco, seemed the most bizarre of all things to write into a newspaper about. It was a gallery of pseudonyms where boys in ill-fitting suits hunted the girl with the Walkman they’d been too shy to speak to on the Northern line, where blondes and brunettes chased tattooed men who got on a Peckham, where passengers became defined by their little quirks and eccentricities. Boy with the newspaper, look up! Nervous girl is trying to catch your eye!
He played a little game that morning, taking fellow commuters one-by-one and mentally dissecting them so they could be reassembled as caricatures of themselves. They were all regulars he recognised well, workers on their way into the city – the man beside him was terribly fond of aftershave from Shepherd’s Bush. Opposite him could be fringe girl for the way she was always sweeping it out of her eyes. Diagonally opposite was could be Gilderoy Lockhart’s brother and, by the door, was face only a mother could love, who sat beside angry train lady, a woman who’d once been seen screaming herself hoarse at the ticket barriers.
Draco was a little smug with his little game until he turned it on himself. What name would he go by? Posh twat or total arse if the post-courtroom crowd had been anything to go by. But this was a very muggle train in a very muggle part of London and nobody knew who he was. He was the blonde who got on at Ealing Broadway and read the newspaper for the whole journey. Black suit, white shirt, black tie, shined shoes, brown briefcase, the look of an undertaker. Anonymous and funereal.
It took a while, but it hit him eventually. Boy with the newspaper, look up!
He raised his eyes and cast a surreptitious glance at the carriage about him. Three different people were looking at him, although two quickly looked away. The third was fringe girl. She met his gaze for a moment, then her eyes snapped back down to her lap where her hands were neatly folded over the strap of her handbag.
It was a moment quick as a breath, but it made him so self-conscious he almost tripped off the train at St Paul’s in his haste to leave it.
Draco Malfoy had never been in love. He had once been in a relationship, but the certain type of relationship that only naïve teenagers can have – a relationship in name only, for he’d never got further than holding Pansy’s hand. They’d really only existed to bring out the worst of each other. He was still in touch with her. She had a fiancé, a cat, and a little terraced house in Manchester. She’d outdone him already.
He could never say he’d loved Pansy. He’d been fond of her but, mostly, he’d felt like casting a permanent silencing charm on her. When she moved back to her hometown and he went to London, in a way, it was a relief, the knowledge that he would not feel obliged to visit her any more, that they could, from that point forward, communicate through letters alone. He did not love her now and he never had. Love was some unfamiliar concept that hid, cryptically, in books and songs, and evaded him at every turn. He’d never bought a girl a drink or even been kissed, something he was careful to keep quiet about in the presence of his peers.
He’d simply never had the time. And so the idea of possibly being one of the ridiculous nicknames printed in the Rush Hour Crush column both baffled and alarmed him – he knew it may not have been him, for whoever had written in had omitted the station or even the line, but, somehow, he couldn’t shake the thought that someone, somewhere, had been watching him read the newspaper every morning and been compelled to say something about it, however anonymously.
Each morning when he took his seat he would do a cursory scan of the commuters about him, half-looking for nervous girl, half-hoping he would find some other boy who read a newspaper day in, day out, so that he could put his mind to rest. Angry train lady seemed, of course, too angry. Fringe girl did not seem nervous in the slightest, but sat straight-backed, prim, her hands folded in her lap and her neat shoes always shined and polished. There were various women he thought of by hair colour alone – the blonde, the brunette, the redhead, but no nervous girl, no girl that matched the character he’d shaped in his head, no girl that bit her nails or fidgeted or tapped her feet like he imagined she might.
There was, however, an incident a week after he’d seen the column. He got off the train at St Paul’s as usual, fought his way along the platform and towards the escalators – and then there was a tapping at his shoulder and he turned to see fringe girl behind him with her neat handbag over her shoulder, blinking her fringe out of her eyes.
He could feel his heart pounding in his ears and wanted to ask if she was nervous girl, if he really was boy with the newspaper and obviously it had been one big misunderstanding – how could a Pureblood ever associate with a muggle? - when she carefully tugged the pristine cuff of her shirt aside and held her wrist into the light; a thick black band gleamed like oil in the dimness.
‘When do you finish work?’ she breathed, and he barely caught her voice over the clamorous commuter crowd.
‘Meet me at the Leaky Cauldron,’ she said. ‘Okay?’
His voice was barely audible. She disappeared back into the rush a moment later without another word, and all the things he wanted to ask her burned upon his tongue but never quite formed into speech; he was struck dumb in St Paul’s.
Fringe girl was remarkably like the only girl Draco had ever been fond of: she had black hair, a cat, and a small terraced house in Manchester, although the cat was a visiting stray, the house was the family home and there was a notable lack of fiancé. She was also a witch, and she also lived under the shackles of the same suspended sentence that had been handed down to him.
Her name was, in fact, Astoria, and she was far more familiar to him than he ever could have guessed. A Ravenclaw, and two years younger than him, but the sister of his schoolfriend Daphne, who he’d last spoken to in the Winter of nineteen-ninety-seven. Almost an entire lifetime ago. Astoria, who reminded him inextricably of Pansy, who was a Greengrass and could not apparate, could not do Wednesdays because that was when she did her community service, could not care about blood types anymore because the war was in the past and she was a changed person now, she swore. Swore it on her life: it was all different now that the war was over.
She had noticed him at school because other people talked about him a lot, but she’d admitted that the secondhand stories had never quite matched up to the glimpses of him she caught in the corridors. You were always so pale, she said. So pale and so thin; sometimes I worried about you. But she didn’t even know him. Her memories of him were borrowed from other people, and she had not fought alongside him in the battle, although she’d gone back to the Death Eaters with all the other good Slytherins.
Taken out at the Quidditch pitch, she said, no more than half an hour into the fighting. It had seemed so pointless, so ludicrous, especially when she’d woken the morning after with her hair trodden into the dirt and her limbs blossoming in a palette of blues and blacks; she wondered momentarily if she’d been to a party and had drank her memories away. The Ministry officer who’d found and arrested her explained everything quite succinctly, and she spent a few hours in custody before they worked out she was underage and Daphne had arrived to bail her. Daphne was the pristine daughter, pure and unbroken by battle, evacuated before the fighting had begun. Astoria, however, was the favourite daughter. So she’d gone back to fight.
‘It was so pointless and I was so stupid,’ she kept saying. ‘Our parents kept lying to us, but why would they?’
He barely talked, except he told her that he thought they were trying to protect them. But they’d sent them off to war, and that was inexcusable. He drank a little too much and, at the end of the evening, told her that, if he had a son, he would want him to grow up modest and healthy and free from fear, not proud, not conceited and arrogant, as he had been – but most of all, he did not want to have to send his son off to war.
It was a little too much for a first meeting, but she seemed to have woken in him some long-dormant feeling that was a sort of hatred mixed with regret mixed with longing mixed with love – he could not, for the life of him, pin it down, but he knew he’d felt it before and felt it again when the darkness pinned itself to the windows of the Leaky Cauldron and Astoria - oh, the shock of it – bought him another drink, for she was the one leading the conversation and it had been her idea to pin him dumb in the middle of the train station and then pin him to his chair in the pub and resurrect all these forgotten sentiments that, primarily, he felt for his parents, but felt for the world that he’d grown up in. Heartsick was a good word for it, because there was a sort of dull ache in his chest, a numbing burn at the back of his throat, a stopper in his lungs. But it was childish to think so; his heart worked fine. It was beating faster, if anything. And, after all, it was only a muscle and incapable of such human trivialities.
He did not remember much of his first meeting with Astoria, except that she mostly talked and he mostly sat in mute silence. Except, possibly, she didn’t talk much at all, but the evening was a series of drawn-out pauses, little rests, commas, full stops.
‘I was sure you were the only one who’d understand,’ she said. ‘I see you on the train, every morning, in a muggle suit, reading a muggle newspaper…’
‘I never noticed you until last week.’
Another pause, another one of those thick silences. Silence was more than the absence of sound, but a tangible, unyielding presence in the air, a gauze that stifled them.
She drummed her fingers on the table; the nails had been painted blood red.
‘Are you nervous girl?’ he asked.
‘Nervous girl. Did you write in? Am I the boy with the newspaper? Did I look up at the right moment?’
‘What? Oh. No,’ she said. ‘Must be someone else. Different line, probably. I know we’ve got to adapt to muggle society, Draco, but I wouldn’t use their post system even if you paid me.’
They kept meeting in the train station. Because Draco had never been in love, and because all ideas of love he owned had been formulated from books and songs, just as Astoria’s perception of him had been shaped by gossip and anecdotes, this seemed so prosaic, so mundane, he was convinced from the moment he realised he wanted her that he’d done something wrong.
She kept dragging their conversations down into the dirt of the past. Kept returning to that same topic: our parents and why they lied to us. They loved us, but they sent us off to war. We were not soldiers. We thought it was all for glory. It was her obsession, her focus, as if she lived and breathed for some sort of vindication. She lived backwards, her eyes always on the past.
He told her that the glory was in coming through it with one’s life. To think that, even after all these years, they still had some chance of assimilation and normality, because all the newspapers could talk about was how society had to progress, how the muggle model had to be adopted, how blood status should be erased indefinitely. It was not glory to hate ones’ parents and live, permanently, with the legacy of the war upon one’s shoulders. It was glorious to keep living. And one had to learn how to hide if one wanted to keep living. Why else would he take the train and wear such an anonymous black suit?
‘Draco,’ she rolled her eyes. ‘That suit is not anonymous. You look like you’re on your way to another funeral every day.’
He kept bumping into her. They often sat together on the train, although he missed reading the newspaper sometimes. He half-wanted to know if anything had come of nervous girl and boy with the newspaper, now that he knew it wasn’t him and Astoria. He almost had half a mind to write in himself and offer to buy Astoria a drink. He never quite managed to say it in person, and he knew she often checked the paper on her way home. There was no way he could go on letting her buy the drinks. It wasn’t chivalrous in the slightest and, besides, the code of etiquette his mother had taught him forbade it.
The thing was that when he saw her, his head was full of signal changes. Trains of thought were derailed or diverted all too easily – delayed, sometimes, even, leaving him sitting with a thousand words rushing through his head and not a single one of them on his lips. He was more disappointed than he should have been that it hadn’t been her who’d written into the newspaper. Although, deep down, he felt he should disapprove of something so muggle, the thought of her being compelled to write a letter about him was quite enchanting. It suggested she’d noticed certain mannerisms about him beyond the undertaker’s suit. But Astoria had noticed him because his face had triggered some half-buried memories about a past they'd never even realised they shared.
So they would meet in the station, go to the Leaky, and she would buy the drinks. The conversation would inevitably return to the war. But, then again, he wasn’t sure what else there was to talk about. Besides, the war had reduced his voice to a machine that produced the most insincere and generic of platitudes. He didn’t know what love was and so he wasn’t sure if he loved her or not but, anyway, he didn’t think he would have been able to tell her.
Then there was one day when they both must have been late coming back from work – and it was peculiar because they only met in the evenings when they planned to – coincidentally, late at the same time, both rushing down the left-hand side of the escalators in a bid to make the train. It was waiting for them at the platform, packed out, doors screaming, shutting, closed – and when the train lurched out of the station and left empty track behind, Draco found himself staring at the billboard on the facing wall.
It was a gimmick, a poorly-realised advertising concept he didn’t quite get; a mirror stretched from top to bottom, made of cheap plastic, distorted and warped. The reflections in it were little more than abstract blurs, saturations of greys and blacks and the off-white of the tiles walls. He saw himself, opposite, little more than a black suit with a pale blur on top. The suit was so dark it seemed to draw tone from the shades of grey around it and make them paler and more insignificant, and so his funeral suit dominated the left-hand side of the mirror.
On the right, there was a singular, bold flash of arterial red, a bright, rich burst that reminded him of poppies – a smudge of red so luminous it seemed to hover on the greys like a fresh bloodstain. His mind pieced the two reflections together and, at first, it seemed macabre, to have the mirror reflecting these singular prints of black and red upon the usual canvas of commuter grey. He realised that that flash of red was the brightest thing he’d seen all day and smiled.
Astoria’s winter coat. She’d done the buttons up all the way to the neck against the wind. He caught her eye from along the platform and waited for her to walk up and meet him. Signals changed in his head, and he meant to tell her that the sight of her had made his day.
Instead: ‘Good evening,’ he smiled.
It was a long time before he built up the courage to do it and an even longer time before he managed to commandeer the correct supplies and postage from the Muggle Liaison office, but he eventually did it.
Girl with the red coat on the central line: sorry I’m not much of a conversationalist. Can I buy you a drink?
a/n: back to writing draco/astoria, my OTP :3 a wee bit inspired by lily's (aiedail) magnificent draco/astoria 'electric pow-wow', which I most wholeheartedly reccomend. also, the 'rush hour crush' column actually does exist in the Metro, which is the brit commuter paper - the inspiration for this one-shot came from a classic case of mistaken identities on the morning commute...but that's another story for another day. thank you for reading & I hope you liked it! ♥