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Growing Up by peppersweet
Chapter 1: Growing Up
Of all the things Colin liked about his birthday, he thought that, best of all, he liked the fact that he got to share it.
It was by some element of good fortune that the week his mother came home with him bundled up and swaddled, a newborn, she caught sight of the removal van outside the no-longer empty house next to theirs. She hastened towards the door, Colin still wrapped up warm in her arms, and knocked once to greet their new neighbours.
‘A new family!’ She’d exclaimed to her husband that night. ‘With a daughter, born the same day as Colin!’
They’d sat there, wine in hand, and agreed unanimously that this was fantastic news, that it would be great for Colin to have someone his own age to play with. Smiling, pacified, Mrs Creevey gazed over at the door to Colin’s room, standing slightly ajar, where the sleeping curve of his head was just visible through the bars of his cot. He slumbered on without a sound. She idly remarked that she wondered how well the new family next door, the Greengrasses, were getting on. She was answered by the muffled crescendo screech of a wail that issued, faintly, through the thin walls that split the houses in two. Mr and Mrs Creevey exchanged worried looks, but Colin didn’t stir once. He was a peaceful sleeper. The Greengrass girl was not.
This was the story that Colin had been told hundreds of time since he was old enough to talk, although not before he was old enough to listen. Usually, it was told with Astoria at his side – that was the Greengrass girl’s name – and over the years it morphed and mutated into a fairy story, a bedtime tale featuring all manners of sorcery, heroic knights and evil villains. In most, Astoria became a beautiful princess with her inky black locks curled into bouquets of flowers and gemstones; Colin was a knight in armour that shone like polished silver. Through Mrs Creevey’s words, the two of them became like butterflies, emerged from the caterpillar shell of the original tale. A simple chance meeting became an epic fantasy, until the letters arrived – at the window, with an owl – and magic really existed, and the story didn’t seem so fantastical anymore. It felt old, bland.
Astoria had known all along. He could have hit her for not telling him.
Astoria was a meek girl, timid, with dull-black hair and icy grey eyes, wide in her pale face. Her limbs were skinny, her movements quick, sharp. She was very clever. She used to write extensions to his mother’s fairytale at night, fold them into tiny paper aeroplanes, and send them sailing from her second-floor window into his garden, where he’d pick them up and read them when the dawn came, her neat handwriting blurred by dew.
He suspected that Astoria spent all night writing. He suspected that she never slept. She’d always been a light sleeper, and the wall that separated them was flimsy, as if it were paper, not bricks and mortar. His bedroom was on the opposite side of the house, but if he listened hard, he could hear the slight sounds (laughter? Crying?) of the Greengrass family going about their daily business. The sounds always scared him; when the room was dark and the sounds of disembodied voices drifted through empty air, he often thought of ghosts.
They used to go to Hyde Park together, to the fountain that Astoria would stare at, slack-mouthed, enchanted by the billowing streams of water and the clouds of vapour that drifted lazily towards the sky. Colin’s happiness was simpler; he liked the ducks in the pond. He liked it when Astoria would bring bread and help him tear off tiny fragments to toss to their snapping beaks. He liked it when they went to the play park and swung higher, span faster, laughed louder than every other child there. He liked it when she held his hand on the way home, her vacant eyes staring off into the distance. Probably dreaming up new endings for their story. Her hand was always cold. She used to go back to his house, where his mother would cluck and tut over them and hand them cakes, sweets, juice. Colin’s mother called Astoria names like honeybunch and darling, which made her blush. Colin somehow didn’t find it strange that he was never invited back to her house. The sounds he heard at night were enough to frighten him away.
Astoria stopped writing stories when she was eleven.
He supposed it was Hogwarts that did it. She’d given up on Father Christmas and Fairies years before, long before he caved, and he supposed the enticing promise of real magic ruined her illusion. She went back to the first draft and destroyed the fantasies of the years between.
‘Silly, Colin.’ She told him. ‘We just moved in around the same time as you. No princesses or anything. It’s just a stupid fairy story.’
It was like she’d grabbed a sword – his sword, for he was the knight – and cleaved his dreams in two. A bloodless death. He tried not to think about it. Her aeroplane messages became more matter-of-fact and about her life. Sometimes, he wondered if the words were blotchy not because of dew, but because of tears.
Things looked worse the older you got, the more you understood. Her refusal to let him visit, her sleepless nights, the noises from her house after dark; all things became clearer, as if growing up was like blowing dust off the surface of an old mirror and seeing the real, unblemished reflection beneath.
His mother carried on making them birthday cakes with iced princesses and knights, continued her restless doting on Astoria as if nothing was happening. But Colin just knew. He knew that something had changed with her. He wondered how many sleepless nights she could take before she snapped. Her house was as small as his was; he thought that it might explode with the sheer weight of the atmosphere that seemed to rest within, seeping through the thin walls to grip him like a disease.
He demanded to visit her house when they were twelve, home from Hogwarts for the summer.
‘It’s not fair,’ he whined. ‘You always come to mine, I want to see your house.’
‘Well,’ she told him, haughtily, without preamble. ‘You can’t.’
He guessed it died from there. Those noises at night – oh, Merlin, he definitely understood them by the time he was thirteen. He figured out his mother’s worried habit of biting her lip in the evening, her restless doting on Astoria. The truth of it sickened him, but what could he do about bruises when she hardly even talked to him anymore? She’d slipped into relative obscurity; retreated into the bell-jar of her own home. The paper aeroplanes ceased to fly. He heard her crying in the darkness, and dreamed that his room was full of weeping ghosts.
It was different at school. In Hogwarts, they treated her like a queen. As she grew, the skinny limbs and pinched face became shapely, slim. Her black hair was smooth, brushed into sleek curls; the wide, vacant eyes and absent smile became a sort of beauty. The Slytherin colours suited her perfectly. While she rarely talked to Colin, she spared few of her words for the boys of their year. Her mystery, her glacial intrigue; that all became part of her allure, and by the time she was fifteen she held daily court at the Slytherin house table, surrounded by girls and boys alike. She hadn’t even thought to spare Colin a glance since third year.
He got on with it. No point crying over spilt milk and broken fairytales. It was all part of growing up; you had to lose some people along the way before you really became yourself. He embraced his new life in magic, his father’s old camera, and the celebrity of a boy called Harry Potter who was a real knight in shining armour, a real-life version of Colin’s fairytale. He’d even saved a princess, back when Colin was in first year...
Colin’s life played out perfectly. His younger brother became a Gryffindor like him, and his dad got promoted and became head of the local dairy industry. His mother baked him a cake with a castle on it for his fourteenth birthday, remarking how sad it was that Astoria couldn’t come. He didn’t mind. It wasn’t like they talked.
Astoria’s life, it seemed, was hewn in two parts. In Hogwarts, her light, soft voice carried gossip through the corridors. At home, her cries split the night like electricity, and Colin ignored her in both worlds. It wasn’t his business to meddle in either. Bruises were bruises and cuts were cuts; they healed. Broken friendships did not.
They stopped by the time she was fourteen anyway, because they’d got her father in prison by then, and his temper could do no more damage to her skin or bones. He tried telling himself this over and over again, as if it excused him for not saying anything about it for all that time.
Bruises are bruises, he told himself. They go away.
He’d always thought himself as a good person, but what could he do? He was a skinny boy with a camera and too much enthusiasm. No match for a Death Eater, as he later found out. He had the DA to think about, anyway. Studying. Astoria joined the Inquisitorial squad in fourth year and gave him enough hell to justify it. She seemed to enjoy her cruel revenge; each time she handed him over to Umbridge, she was grinning like mad. Oh, he felt the pain of that quill’s cuts as if Astoria was carving them in herself.
Cuts are cuts, he told himself. They heal.
But fifth year came and went without a word from her. She was unusually grim that year, her hair often unbrushed, although she still held the same power over her fellow Slytherins as she’d done before. She swept along the corridors, a Death Eater’s daughter, the bruises already faded from her skin.
Then there was the summer, and Dumbledore’s death already seemed a lifetime away. It was July, and he was older, wiser, more serious about his camera now, carrying it tucked in the crook of his arm as if it was a small child, like his mother had done sixteen years previously when she noticed the new family moving in. He spent his days strolling the city, revisiting the old fountain in Hyde Park, developing the photos in his darkened room at night. Statues. Flowers. Strangers he saw wandering around, looking lost, and happened to stray into the viewfinder of his camera and inspired his finger to depress on the shutter; they nearly always jumped at the click-whirr noise it made.
It was a Thursday, and it was late. She was sitting on her doorstep. He couldn’t resist talking to her. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, her elbows balanced atop them, head sunk in her cupped palms. Staring into the dark, unseeing.
‘Hello, Astoria.’ He said. She jumped and stared up at him, lip curling, exactly the way they’d taught her to do it in the Inquisitorial Squad. There was a twig in her hair.
‘What do you want?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. We haven’t talked for a while.’
‘I wonder why.’ She said, that usually absent voice dark, forceful, drowning in sarcasm. Her eyes were glittering with the orange glow of street-lamps.
‘Sorry, I just wondered how you were...’
Her pretty mouth had twisted into a sneer. ‘Took your time, didn’t you?’
Colin couldn’t think of an answer. Astoria stretched her legs out, scuffed her shoe on the pavement, kicked at a stone that rolled into the gutter and through the bars of a drain, a small splash signalling the end of the drop. Her head bent downwards, and the shadows cast her face into an eerie, skull-like darkness. Her eyes looked hollow.
Cuts and bruises healed, broken friendships did not.
‘Sorry,’ He said, hand already flat against his door. ‘I’m sorry for trying.’
He was a master of excuses. She doesn’t cry at night anymore, at least. It’s not my business. I’d just get into trouble. It’s all over now. Her dad's in prison.
How was he to know it’d been her mother all along?
* * *
Of all the things Astoria hated about her birthday, she thought that, worst of all, it was the fact that she had to share it.
Well, she’d liked her birthday before the war anyway. Before her birthday had become a battle, then milestone in Wizarding history, then an annual celebration of the defeat of Lord Voldemort. Or, for her family, an annual mourning party for her father’s life prison sentence, the death of half of her friends, and the ugly scar across her face that had been a birthday present from an Auror that’d knocked her out not thirty seconds later.
All in all, it had not been a good birthday. She’d woken up in St Mungo’s to find a Healer dabbing at the bloody wound that struck across her face like lightning, saw the dawning light outside, and remembered that she was seventeen. Then she remembered where she’d been, where the scar had come from; the memories rushed into her mind all at once, as if they’d been an angry crowd, jostling each other behind gates. Once those gates had opened, there was no sending them back.
After the memories of the actual fighting came the memories of the deaths. Deaths in the plural. Theodore Nott’s cousin, crushed in the crater of a giant’s footprint. An unknown Ravenclaw face down in a pool of blood that seeped between the cracks in the marble floor. Colin Creevey’s glassy, marble-like eyes.
He would have just turned seventeen too.
At the memory of this she’d felt sick, physically sick, and her stomach lurched and twisted, an empty core, and she retched pitifully over the side of the bed, causing the Healer to jump away in disgust. Fresh blood broke through the surface of her skin and ran down her face, pooling in the folds of her grubby school jumper. It took a few weeks for the wound to completely heal. Different from all the others she’d had before.
Not a good birthday at all. She’d had a venomous dislike of May the second since then, going to extreme lengths to avoid. Fleeing the country. Feigning illness. The year she turned twenty-two, she’d even orchestrated her sister’s wedding to coincide with her birthday. She just didn't think she could face that day anymore.
Colin’s family moved out of the little red-brick house when she was twenty-one. Astoria supposed they’d never got over the death of their son...but then again, she hadn’t seen them since she was about sixteen. She hadn’t even caught a glance of them since the war had ended; she tended to avoid leaving the house in daylight. Her scar didn’t show up so much in the dark.
In her twenty-fourth year, Draco finally proposed to her. On her birthday, typically; she’d been in a bad mood all day, berating him for making her leave the house. He said he’d planned to take her somewhere nice, somewhere fun, but she’d put her foot down and point-blank refused. Nice and fun meant people, and people meant staring at the angry, dull-red snarl on the left side of her face. In the end, they walked through Hyde Park in the dusty, blue-black dusk, until he got down on one knee and brought out a tarnished old ring he said was special because it had been his grandmother’s – or, as Astoria suspected, was the only option, seeing as he was flat broke.
While the six months in Azkaban had been a fair and just punishment (or so the papers said, anyway) it had done nothing but bring bad luck to both his inheritance and his employment prospects. Astoria was, secretly, dreading having to spend her life being the breadwinner in her marriage to an ex-Death Eater, of all people. A Malfoy, of all people. A family in disgrace. She wasn’t even sure she loved him enough, but who cared? Not many people were prepared to look past the scar, the name sullied by her father’s imprisonment, the fact that she’d left Hogwarts early without an N.E.W.T to her name.
Things had changed since those fifth-year days.
She wished she’d had the courage – no, not the courage, but the decency – to talk to Colin’s family before they left. She supposed she was one of their last ties to Colin’s magic world, and even though she hadn’t made a paper aeroplane in fifteen years, even though she hadn’t even thought to smile at Colin in the corridors since she was fourteen...well, she felt she owed them something. Condolences. Apologies. Truth be told, the house felt smaller, lonelier somehow without the knowledge that there was someone just like her on the other side of the wood-chip wall. Someone to keep her safe when the darkness fell; someone who’d unfold her planes and see the sum of her misery on the page and still not say anything about it.
She almost wished she hadn’t been so cruel on that Thursday all those years ago. Almost, almost wished she had a chance to say something more like a proper goodbye to him, rather than the years of frosty silence she’d granted instead.
The thought of it sickened her. He didn’t even have any business being at the battle. The ministry had banned muggle-borns from the castle, and he never appeared for seventh year. She supposed he must have snuck in. He was underage, of impure blood, too scrawny and short to be part of any sort of battle plan. Only sixteen, just as she was. She ran with the evacuation call but never really fully made it, and somehow ended up in the heat of a duel with her sister at her side. She’d only been throwing spells for a minute when the pain split the side of her face.
She was only conscious for a few seconds afterwards, but it was enough time to see Colin Creevey fall beside her. Dead.
He died before he lived. He would be the boy that never grew up; he would be like a statue fixed in time, never changing, never passing seventeen. Not like her. She felt sorry for him, in a way. She thought. Or maybe she didn't think. She just didn't know anymore.
He’d had the happier life. He always did. Growing up had made him blind to her bruises, and she, in turn, had made herself blind to the very sight of him.
An eye for an eye. It was only fair, wasn’t it?
It was a Sunday. Two o’clock. A few days after her twenty-fourth birthday, and she was, unusually, outside. A gathering of her sister’s friends had driven her out into the street, the incessant jabbering and chit-chat like a drill to her ears. It was unusually cold for May; a bitter northern wind swept past the buildings and sent old newspapers and crisp packets into dizzying spirals. Jet-streams crossed the sky like old scars on skin; she drew her threadbare scarf a little further up her neck, tucking her hair safely into the style she’d figured out to fall across her old wound and hide it entirely. The wind soon undid it, however, and she resorted to pressing a hand to her face, holding the hair flat to the skin, keeping her head turned to the floor so that she wouldn’t be seen.
She walked all the way to Hyde Park, hoping, slightly, that Draco might still be there – standing in the dusky shade of a tree where she’d left him on the night of their engagement – with that unsure smile still fixed across his face. Astoria had vanished so fast that he’d still been caught between happiness and confusion when she’d turned tail and almost ran from the park, ring in hand, the word ‘yes’ hanging from her tongue like an anchor. The ring was still warm from the curl of his hand, and it fitted on her finger just perfectly. It was almost too perfect to be true, she was stunned, shocked into silence at the sudden proposal, and, without warning, her mind had foisted those images of the dead on her again and she’d had to run before she cried aloud. She had a horrible habit of remembering, at the most inappropriate times, what Colin Creevey’s corpse looked like.
If she hadn’t been the sensible girl that she was, she would have thought that he was haunting her. Or, if not haunting, then punishing her at least. Oh, how she almost wished they hadn’t fallen apart, how she almost wished they’d made peace before he died...
She made it all the way to the fountain before she stopped walking. She drew up short, breath coming in short, heavy gasps – she hadn’t realised how fast she’d been going – and stared at the sprays of water that played around old stone statues, the wind sweeping white, incandescent clouds of droplets into the air. A few children rushed past her, wrapped up against the threatening storm.
She’d played there once too, with Colin...
Idly, she crossed over to the edge of the fountain and sat there on the frozen stone. She looked up and stared into the sky; the clouds were a murky grey-blue, undulating and rippling with the winds. One hand trailed in the water as she stared; peculiarly, the freezing water wasn’t a shock to her fingers. She supposed they were already cold.
A child’s scream drew her attention back to earth. Her eyes drifted, slowly, back to the fountain again. Suddenly, a gleam of gold fixed in the stone caught her sight...
Colin Creevey, 1981 – 1998.
Before she knew it her feet had hit the ground and she was running. Running away from him.
He was seventeen when he died, and now he was seventeen forever.
In the end, she returned.
She wasn’t surprised to feel tears blossoming in her eyes, budding like flowers and bursting into life as they spilled down her cheeks like vines or creepers, the sorrow taking root in her heart until she felt the sob burst through and choke her. The children turned to stare; she pressed a hand to her face to hide the tears, hide the scar that now defined her as her popularity had defined her all those years ago. When Colin had still known her...
She glanced up, still thumbing tears from her eyes, to see Draco standing there, head dipped to one side, looking confused and scared all at once. His eyes drifted to her twisting hands and the engagement ring. They hadn't even spoken for at least a week.
A million things were wrong. She was scarred, bitter, sour, a birthday-hating shadow of her former self. Engaged to a man she didn’t particularly love. Wounded, with an angry snarl of a scar that scared off children, her mother, her sister, friends. Plagued by the dead’s visits, the flashing, ephemeral glimpses of their bodies and blood, and Colin’s eyes...
And now she knew she wished she’d made peace. Colin was dead, and haunting her. The cold clutch of the water around her hand was, in her mind, like skeletal fingertips. The bitter wind was a corpse’s breath. The sky was in turmoil; even heaven was revolting.
But then Draco’s hand fell upon her shoulder. She looked him in the eye, expecting to see fear, or disgust, as was the norm, but instead saw concern. Something she’d never seen before. With his spare hand, he swept her hair away from her scar and tucked it behind her ear, his eyes never once drifting over to the ruined skin. Always fixed on her eyes. The water didn’t seem so cold anymore.
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing at all.’
She let him kiss her, and Colin was there in her mind. The boy who never grew up.
A/N: Astoria and Colin. Yes, I know. Odd pairing of the century. Written in about two hours flat because I found a beautiful banner on the UFG section at TDA and just HAD to write a piece to go with it, so this is what I came up with. Forgive the sloppiness/poor quality.
Piece inspired heavily by the song 'Disco 2000' by Pulp. Everything you recognise belongs to JKR.