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Chapter 6: six.
Sometimes Astoria would clean her dishes by hand because she found that this was an easy way to think about things. Nobody, not even she, could be too interested in what was actually happening with the soap and the remains and the water to think much about it.
She sometimes would think that it was such a twist of life, the life that had always seemed to want to swallow her, had been the thing to triumph over her own desires for herself and her place in the world--if she had actually been able to avoid the Leaky on that day with clear skies she would have never talked with him, would have never shared in something that was happening despite all odds. That was a horrible feeling. Mostly because she didn’t know if it was relief or embarrassment or something like her whole world was, again, falling apart and she had no idea how to reconstruct it.
It had been a month since that day, give or take one or two, and enough had happened in that month to render the rest of her graduated life almost entirely worthless. She’d moved, finally, to the East End, into a dingy flat with minimal lighting and a single room, kitchen, and toilet. There was a fireplace, though, and the rent wasn’t high, and she was much closer to the places that she loved to be. She had found a job at the library shelving books, had enrolled in a couple of classes at the community college nearby, and had found somewhat of a solace in the friendship she had stepped into with Draco.
She had convinced him to take these classes with her, but he had moved to East End on his own, without knowing that was where she had also been headed--they lived a block apart, which was convenient for meeting to Apparate to the college, for running into each other on their way home from the market on Tuesdays, for making arrangements to meet at the Leaky, although, considering their habits, this was nearly superfluous. Still, Astoria thought, shining a teacup, it was an excuse to be together in the frigid air, which was as invigorating as any trip she could make by foot in the wintertime.
They realized that they were still in that selfish love, the kind that sometimes never went away, but that was so appealing because it offered, in loving, trepidatiously, another person, there was hope for the redemption of one’s own flaws--Draco was much more loving, easier to smile, first to take a guess. It was nothing like she should have thought knowing him only from Hogwarts, where he had been silent, pressured by his premature responsibilities, sleepless, often grey-faced, pallid, withdrawn, dependent more than ever on his faithful sidekicks. Astoria had not paid him more attention than any other girl had done but that was still a lot, because everyone knew a half-story about him, and everybody knew that he was untouchable in that halfness.
She had known that he was gone from anywhere anybody could find him a lot; she had never had a run in with him in a strange part of the castle like some others had, who would come back to the common room and tell everybody how they’d seen him on the seventh floor, or near one of those ugly busts, looking out of breath and withdrawn. She’d never looked hard enough to see that his humanity as a station above all was plainly inscribed about his features and she hated to think that if she had looked harder she might have had the presence of mind to find out more about him earlier and maybe helped him--but the thought was ridiculous, because Astoria had had the task of focusing on her own relationships.
“I heard from somebody you tried to save Harry Potter’s life,” she said to him one day as they were taking the bus home from a history class.
Draco was quiet for a while then smiled at her. “He saved my life,” he said. “That changes everything for somebody.”
“But you were at the manor,” she said, and his body passed into a momentary darkness as he seemed to allow himself to relive a memory, “when he got caught. His face was swollen, but you knew it was him, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s not easy to hate somebody for years and then not recognize when you finally have a clear advantage over him.” He straightened and fixed his grip on the silver railing. “Things were becoming…real. People were dying. I couldn’t have that be my fault, not so directly.” He shifted so that his body and hers leant against each other, unobtrusively steepled, as if it were a gesture meant to reassure that they were in each others’ lives. Astoria sighed.
“I was just thinking about it because I know that we both wold have loved to get out of our homes earlier than we did,” Astoria mumbled, clutching her textbook to her stomach protectively. She watched a couple of people breathing heavily, nearing sleep, their heads lulling to the turns and quick stops of the bus on the road. It was strange to think that they were here together, he who had experienced so much more than she in that space of a few years, the cotton of their Muggle shirts mingling as natural as air.
Draco and Astoria spent time doing many things together that when they had been younger they could never have imagined. They rented a car once and drove it through the city, they went and toured a Muggle bank, they continued in their classes that had nothing to do with anything magic, they began a collection of antique Muggle inventions, like old television boxes, electrical wiring, and Draco even bought an antique pistol, which he hung above his fireplace.
They walked through corporate buildings and made sure to point out to each other that every light they saw ran on electricity, and all the lifts, and the heating and refrigerators. They’d go to bridges and bring their notes from maths, trying to understand how an entire world got on without the luxury of magic for conceivably all of history; they’d feel lucky again to have what they’d sought to leave behind them.
On a windy day when she hadn’t been able to do anything with her hair Astoria stopped in at the Leaky thinking that perhaps Draco wouldn’t be there, and it wasn’t that she wanted to get away from her, it was just that she had never stopped wondering why Hannah had looked at her and Draco that sunny day he’d led her inside. She had verged on asking the kinder woman several times what it was she saw there, feeling like she was going to consult a Seer for some kind of prediction, but every time she had realized that what she had, whatever it was, was sitting as an entity right here and right now, so there had never been the need to ask.
Draco had been strangely absent from her life for the past few days and she had felt his lack more than anything, especially the way that she’d gone absent from the Leaky recently. He had said that he had somebody to visit in another country, farther away, and Astoria had been too unsure to ask where, and he hadn’t invited her, and she had not felt that it would be pertinent to ask to come along. They were separate people although it was easy to forget that sometimes when they were doing all the same things in life and going, at least in a finite sense, the same places, seeking things in each other that the world just couldn’t offer.
Astoria walked into the door and her body immediately reacted to the warm and dry atmosphere, her eyes taking kindly to that green, wavering light. She walked with a quick and sure step to her regular seat at the bar. There were not many people here today, the way that it usually was, and Hannah was not long in coming with her regular butterbeer.
“Haven’t seen you in a bit, Astoria! It’s wonderful to see you round again.” Hannah beamed at her from the other side of the bar and Astoria felt horrible for having abandoned this place and this woman for so long.
“It’s great to see you, too, Hannah.” She wrapped her hands around the warm drink and leaned forward on her elbows. Hannah looked pointedly at the empty stool next to her and Astoria shrugged, trying not to smile too widely.
“He’s gone someplace, I don’t know where exactly. Said he’d be back in a couple days.”
“Ah,” Hannah said, but she didn’t say anything else. Her face was kind and Astoria realized for the first time that Hannah must have been at Hogwarts at the same time as she had herself. It struck her as odd that all the people in her life who were important to her had that in common--a background steeped in magic. She wondered if any of them she didn’t know so well, people like Hannah, ever wanted to look beyond that, understand things magic couldn’t explain.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Astoria began, feeling very shy. She tucked a curl behind her ear and tried to pat down her hair, pulling off her mittens. Hannah waited patiently. Astoria sighed, slumping back down in her seat and leaning forward. “That day--the sunny, rainless day that was very crowded here, a few months again--the first time I came in with--with Draco,” she stuttered his name; it was so strange to be talking about him to somebody else like she knew him well, because even though she did it felt almost forbidden, too good for her.
Hannah didn’t seem surprised, or make any visible reaction. Something about her person seemed to emanate understanding, and Astoria blundered on, “you knew something. Is it anything--that you can tell me? Is it wordable?” She knew it didn’t quite make sense but that Hannah understood her anyways.
Hannah sighed, and Astoria thought, she’s Draco’s age, I remember now. “Not quite something I can say in a small way,” she said. “I think some things are meant for feelings, and not words. But I was just feeling that you two made sense somehow, the same way I always felt that Neville and I made sense.” She tilted her head at Astoria, her golden hair a greenish, swimming light, and Astoria knew that all this woman had to offer her was truth, and wondered suddenly what her life had been like when she was younger. What had her hope been in? What had she staked her life on, to eventually have come to such a way of understanding life, and what could be love? What was she doing right and how could Astoria be like her?