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2012 Writer's Duel: A New Kind of Love by HPFF United
Format: Short story collection
Chapter 12: Charon's Obol by GubraithianFire
Author's Note: In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman who takes the dead down the river Styx. Charon's obol is the payment the dead are supposed to give him for his service.
Her last words to her husband were these:
“Just don’t bury me, or I swear on my grandfather’s soul, I will haunt you until you can join me.”
Draco obeyed. Three days after his wife’s passing, he and his twelve-year-old son watched her body go up in smoke. Scorpius had to be taken aside by his grandmother because of the panic attacks. He didn’t want to breathe in his mother’s pancreas, or her large intestine, or her femur, or her skull.
There were three carriages in the funeral entourage; Malfoys were always buried in somber style, as long as there was a body to bury, and Narcissa Malfoy saw no reason to change that for a cremation. The first held Draco, Scorpius, and Draco’s sister-in-law; there was another for Scorpius’ three grandparents; a third, the plainest, was for the selection of people who were closest to the small, made smaller, family. Draco’s father-in-law, Honorius Greengrass, had raged against not being in the first carriage, but Draco had been firm: Scorpius wanted his aunt with him. Even the boy knew his mother had held no affection for her parents in life, and he would not dishonour her by letting her father ferry her down the Styx of the well-kept-but-hardly-used magical thoroughfare that crisscrossed this part of Wiltshire.
On the carriage ride home, Draco tried to force his son to at least hold the urn of his mother’s ashes. He protested as violently as he could without upsetting the small silver coffin of a jar.
It was Daphne Nott who ended up persuading her nephew to hold it. “You know how clumsy your father is,” she said. “D’you think your mum would like it if she thought there was the slightest chance he might drop it? Here, you can help me. Together we’ll have a good hold on her.”
Scorpius took the left handle, Daphne the right. Draco leaned forward and patted his son’s knee in what passed amongst Malfoys for affection and moral support, and let his hand hover there, perhaps waiting for Scorpius to take it, to form a bizarre circle between them all: the widower, his son, his aunt, and her dead sister. But Scorpius didn’t take it, for he needed both hands to hold his mother. The boy did not trust himself or even his aunt to be able to keep her steady while the carriage threatened to upset the fragile equilibrium of his world after that last farewell.
The funeral procession reached home, although Draco had not thought of Malfoy Manor as home for decades, in good time, but disembarked slowly; the second two carriages were empty by the time Daphne and Draco emerged, and they had yet to coax Scorpius out. It was Daphne’s turn to bat away the indignantly bereaved grandparents: Scorpius wanted his father. The boy had no place for his grandparents’ version of affection. In his twelve-year-old boy way, he doubted he would ever allow affection to fill the hole in his heart ever again.
“I have her right here,” Draco said, the urn cradled in the crook of his arm. “She’s safe, Scorpius. Come on, now, you have to come inside.”
The boy narrowed his eyes. “She’s dead, not safe.”
Draco did not respond with anything but his coolest tones. “Come into the house.”
Daphne, for her part, took her nephew’s hand in hers and, much to her brother-in-law’s dull surprise, hoisted herself back into the carriage and announced, in answer to his stare, “I’ll keep him company.”
Narcissa tittered in the background, in the disapproving way that to Draco meant old crones, backs bent with bitterness, smiles warped by time and bad luck. Narcissa’s back was still straight and her smile the same it had been when Draco was a boy, but her face was lined and her mind dulled; her mutterings reminded him of senile house-elves, who thought they could not be heard and quietly, secretly, dearly wished they were.
He turned his back on his son and sister-in-law and took the great steps of Malfoy Manor two at a time, his mother and in-laws scrambling after him. Honorius muttered a scathing comment about the constitution of his only grandchild, and though his wife curled her lip in disgust, he went unpunished. Draco ignored the jab and led everyone inside, for there was a funeral party awaiting them. Astoria had, in the days before her death, begged him to not hold a wake, but this was something Draco could not bluster his way out of.
Malfoys always were sent off in somber style, as long as there were physical remains to honour, and Narcissa saw no reason to change the rules for her daughter-in-law.
The grandparents and family friends and even the house-elves all tried their respective hands at persuading Scorpius out of the carriage still parked in the Manor drive, but nothing worked; no bribes were accepted, no carefully worded threats about the family honour were heeded, no gentle reminders of what his mother would have wanted him to do were enough. Daphne stayed with him the entire time, but it was only when the guests and grandparents and the sun left that Scorpius consented to hop outside. Daphne clambered after her nephew wearing only a black sheath dress, having left her mourning robes in the carriage, and nearly tripped over her heels before impatiently kicking them off at the foot of the steps.
She found Scorpius in the drawing room, having planted himself in front of the fireplace. It was the smaller of Malfoy Manor’s receiving rooms, used for Sunday brunches and weekday teas. It was in here that this great mausoleum of a house came closest to reaching intimacy, the closest it could come to feeling like home.
Daphne glanced around, aware of how smooth the area rug was under her bare feet. This was a rug her sister had picked out, the first change she’d made to Malfoy Manor when she first moved here. It had not been a welcome change. “I don’t know. Shall we go find him?”
“No need.” Draco reappeared through the door they’d entered from with a tin of biscuits in his hand. “Good to see you out. Hungry?”
Scorpius shook his head, eyes fixed on his mother, but Daphne padded backwards, as quiet as anyone could be here, to steal back to her brother-in-law. “He needs to sleep,” she hissed under her breath, taking a biscuit for cover.
Draco didn’t answer her. “Maybe you should change.” Now that the guest mourners were gone, he himself had back to his pyjamas and dressing gown. He didn’t care that Daphne was still around to see him like this, even though the dressing gown was a shoddy thing by now, worn with use and washes.
Scorpius tore his gaze away from the polished bit of silver that had usurped his mother’s place in the geography of the house and maybe the structures of life and family he had built up in twelve years to look back at his father. The boy blinked and was astonished by how strange it was to see another witch standing next to him.
His mother had always stood to his father’s right, and her hair was fair, like spun gold, and once or twice Scorpius had noticed that his father’s arm snaked around her waist, a black-sleeved circlet, an ivory bracelet to adorn the figure that looked nothing like that of the other mothers he knew, a secret gesture of… intimacy, at least. His aunt, on the other hand, was taller than his mother had been, and her hair was dark, although he had noticed that she’d missed the grays at the roots when she was dyeing it, and she was standing on his father’s left, and they did not look like they had ever touched. It was like the inverse of what had been real life.
The boy swallowed his confusion and said, in a steady voice that brought a pang of parental pride to his father, “I think I’ll go to my room now.”
Daphne, with the bitter taste of concern in her mouth, started forward to accompany him as she had all day, but Scorpius shuffled away before she could catch him. The two adults listened to his steps recede into the hall, and when they couldn’t hear them anymore, Draco let the biscuit tin crash to the floor and strode again to the fireplace. Daphne stayed at the threshold to clean up, then came to sit down on one of the armchairs facing the mantle. She balanced the tin on the armrest and kept eating while Draco stared.
“I should have scattered the ashes.”
Daphne blinked and let the wrapper of her biscuit fall to the soft carpet, and waited for the crinkle of its impact to fade away before asking him, “Why bother?”
“Maybe I should scatter them anyway,” Draco mused, ignoring her. He fell back to the loveseat, nearly tripping over Daphne’s wrapper, but righting himself before any more damage could be done to this family. “When Scorpius is older, I guess.”
“You could do it now if you really wanted.” Daphne began to massage her temples. She’d spent so much time with Scorpius, comforting him, holding him, patting his hair down when it he fussed with it too much, smoothing his collar when Grandfather Greengrass came to see him, that she had not had time to mourn for herself, not just for her nephew. “He’d understand. You saw what he’s been like all day.”
All day? Draco had seen him all his life. Some might have liked to undermine his and his late wife’s and his world’s style of parenting, but it was all he and she and they had known, and it was all they had a hope of living through this with. He leaned forward and took a biscuit. “Theodore brought these,” he added, for the sake of having something to say.
Daphne had thought so; she remembered Theodore and his wife bought them in bulk, to satiate their monstrous little daughter. “Nice of him.”
“Do you want tea or something?” The lord of Malfoy Manor stood, seemingly on unsteady legs, and made a motion that brought a house-elf scurrying forward. His small custom-made tunic was black, as were the tunics of all of the house’s servants, no longer slaves. “Bring us some tea, would you?”
Servant or slave, the elf still knew not to speak to his master when he was in this state. He hurried away through his elf-passages to leave the great aristocrats to themselves again.
Daphne spoke once the elf was gone. “Scorpius told me he wants to go back to school on Monday.”
The widower did not take long to react. “Good for him. Better than moping around here.” Hogwarts had nothing to do with his mother, after all. It would be easier to sleep there, where he knew his mother’s remains were not waiting for him to come see them in the morning.
“You don’t want him home?”
“I want him to do whatever he wants. If that’s going back to school, I won’t stop him. It’s not like I should keep him here anyway.” He exhaled heavily just as the elf came back, balancing on his back a silver tray that matched the urn. The elf set it down on the table, bowed low to the master and the late lady’s sister, and left without a sound. Draco thanked the air where he had been before pouring. “My mother wants to move back in now, Daphne. That… that would be worse for him than not having his mother here at all, you know that.”
Daphne bit her lip. “But he’d have you, remember, if he stayed home, and me. And, really, your mother’s not that bad when she’s not hysterical for both your sakes.”
She did not refer to her own parents. They loved their younger daughter more than they did their older, and that love applied to her son as well. Theirs was not even Narcissa’s brand of love: it was more suffocating, more unforgiving than that. It was a wonder to Daphne that they had not disowned her for her divorce, and she only barely managed to keep their hints about remarriage at bay. She couldn’t imagine what they would do to her, say to her, now that they had lost their favourite.
Draco knew why she didn’t talk about her parents. He remembered the early days of his marriage, and he remembered Astoria telling him why she did not want to invite her mother to tea or her parents for dinner, why she did not want them babysitting her son, why she wanted them far, far away from her new home. He had heard the stories way back when, in his and Daphne’s school days, but marriage shed light on them in a very different way. In a much more unsettling, ethereal way. Just as, he suspected, tragic death cast a more unsettling, ethereal light on the life of the deceased.
He held out one of the delicate porcelain cups–he hadn’t seen this set for a long time, not since before Scorpius was born–to her, and kept the other. “Astoria was happier when he was at school,” he sighed between sips of his tea. “She wanted him to have a better idea of the world.” Black, without sugar, honey, anything to alter its nature. “What else did he tell you today?”
Daphne, finding that the tea was too strong for her, sprinkled sugar over it as if it were for decoration instead of taste. A lot of life in this house and this society was like that, really. Ornamentation. “Not much,” she said after she had stirred in the sugar. Now, she rather thought, there was too much. “I told him stories about her growing up, when she was his age, that sort of thing. He liked those. He said… let me think…” She broke off, took a sip, and then balanced the cup on the other armrest. “He’s got a girlfriend, I think. Some Ravenclaw. He’s going to dump her when he gets back.”
Draco barked out a laugh, his first today. “And she’s why he wants to leave?”
She shrugged and unwrapped yet another biscuit. “I just think he can’t handle a relationship right now. Could you have?”
Ron Weasley had warned his daughter about Scorpius before school started. Draco remembered that when they got home, Astoria had immediately and not without glee announced that she had already chosen a colour scheme for the wedding. She had said she rather liked the idea of her son marrying a Weasley, but Draco suspected she would have been upset if it ever did come to pass. Marriage, even to a Weasley, would not give her son the escape she craved for him. In this world, marrying off a son is not a loss. Scorpius, after all, would not be the one to surrender his name.
Draco, now lost in thought, now tried to remember to whom he would have to write thank-you letters in the next few days. As if this had been a wedding. The Golden Trio, as the epithet went, had come, and with them had been Draco’s second cousin, tagging along out of respect, or pity, for the family he had but never wanted. “Andromeda’s grandson–Ted, I mean–he seemed to get along with Scorpius.”
Daphne hadn’t noticed, but she understood why her nephew would like him. “Well, yes. Ted makes Scorpius’ loss seem… easier to bear. It could be worse. Like I said, he still has you.”
Tonight was not the first time the idea that perhaps fate had stolen from Scorpius the wrong parent occurred to him, and it would not be the last. “I suppose.” He finished his tea and sighed. “How are you holding up, anyway?”
Daphne had been on the receiving end of this question for days, but she imagined this was nothing compared to how it was used against the widower and his son, as an armed fortification against despair deeper than extended sympathies. This seemed a bit unfair to her: it was her sister was on the mantle. They had never had the best relationship, even when the news first came out, but Daphne had sworn to her sister on her deathbed that she would never leave her son the way she had left her husband. In a way, she felt, though this was probably just the grief and the extended time spent in an enclosed space with a motherless boy getting to her, that there would never be another man she would love as much as she loved Scorpius. There was no one who deserved her more.
She knew what grief was: she had grown up watching children get killed and Muggles slaughtered, but the loss back then had been a shared one, the grief of a generation. In peacetime, if this could be called peacetime, death, though the same it had been twenty years ago and millennia before that, seemed a sharper pain. A lifetime of bloodletting could help one understand the mechanics of death, perhaps even prepare for it, but it was never enough. People were not supposed to die when all was well. Not here.
Then again, this was Malfoy Manor. The basement had been a dungeon, the drawing room a torture chamber, the halls led to execution, doom. Evil lurked in this house, corruption nestled in the cobwebs like it owned them, death framed mirrors and portraits and bedrooms. Sugar and time were precious commodities here. Decoration to hide the bloodstains, the ashes, the bitter tea, underneath.
“I just don’t want him hurt.”
“A bit late for that, Daphne.”
“I don’t want him crippled by his hurt.”
Daphne smiled a soft, sad little smile. “She was as good as dead to me for a very long time, Draco. I can’t imagine it will be much different now that it’s true.”
Draco had never been crippled by his hurt, only drowned by it. There were times even now when he woke up in the middle of the night and felt the Mark on his left arm burning, burning. Astoria hadn’t been able to help him then. Sometimes he even woke up wondering if she had helped at all, if settling down had been the right thing. And then he would pad to his son’s room and look upon him, and to his vague horror, even this was not enough to reassure him that everything had been worth it after all. Perhaps the new world order was nothing of the sort.
Perhaps it was just the old one, with sugar on top.
“I’ll be fine.”
She was two years younger than him. She was supposed to survive him.
“But God, the house is going to be empty when he leaves.”
Daphne cast her eyes around the drawing room, and wasn’t sure if she was avoiding the urn or if she had forgotten it was there at all. “It always seems empty to me.”
Draco, however, could not forget that it was there. The urn seemed to match the tea set. A trifle of an idea occurred to him, that perhaps this wasn’t an urn at all. Maybe it was from this very tea set, a twin of the sugar bowl. In essence, a coffin after all.
But what it held was not her body. Not her soul. She wasn’t really in an urn; she wasn’t even in this house. Draco had never for a moment believed that the dead lived on in the hearts and souls of the living, that memory and legacy were enough to render one immortal. He would not be able to function today, if he was functioning at all, knowing that witches like his elder aunt or wizards like her overlord were immortal because they were remembered, because they still haunted his dreams and danced over his skin like shade. Draco was not ready to be a vessel for their continued glory.
His wife was most assuredly dead.
“It usually is,” he said. “Maybe once Scorpius goes back, I’ll take some time off. Get out of here for a bit.”
A smile tugged at the corner of her lips again. “And your mum can watch the house while you’re gone.”
He did not mention that he was half-considering never coming back. “You know, for someone who hated Wiltshire so much, she never much said where she did want to go.”
“Probably because she knew she wouldn’t get out.”
A rueful smirk played on his mouth, almost an echo of the expression that had been his signature decades ago. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Daphne shrugged. “Just that we both know we aren’t going anywhere. We can’t–won’t–get out. This place… I know it’s your home, but it might as well be mine, or my parents’, or Theodore’s, or anyone else’s. It represents the same thing, doesn’t it? You can holiday all you want, but… You were born here. Your son grew up here. Draco, my sister died in a sickroom in this house, in front of her twelve-year-old son.”
Astoria had railed against her son being at her deathbed, but Scorpius defied her demand. As the hours passed, she had come around to the idea, even reached with the last of her strength to take his hand; Scorpius had been afraid accepting it would destroy her. She had gasped out her last words to her husband with her butterfly-ephemeral grip fixed on her son’s shaking hand. She had blessed him with her last bloody coughs, her last breaths, and his eyes widened to drink in, drown in, all that he could of what was left of his mother while there was something of her that had not yet forsaken him.
Draco had watched.
He now cleared his throat. “Just don’t bury me, or I swear on my grandfather’s soul, I will haunt you until you can join me. Those were her last words.” At her lack of response, he added, “I thought you deserved to know.”
Daphne hadn’t cried yet today, but if anything could have reduced her to tears, it might have been this. “He was killed by Grindelwald, you know, our grandfather. He was ambassador to Bulgaria. Stayed in Sofia until the end, when Grindelwald invaded and killed him.”
Draco was taken aback, and felt a vague sense of the macabre descend down his spine. This conversation, whatever it was, seemed to be reaching for something greater than mere death, mere morbidity, and he wasn’t sure he liked it. Death was not macabre. That honour fell to life. “Funny she was thinking of him at the end.”
“Well, no, not really. There wasn’t a body to bury then, either.”
But there had been a body, and she knew it. It had been sent from Sofia nearly a century ago, brought to rest in the Greengrass family’s Cornwall crypt the very day it arrived, a marble coffin, freshly tilled earth. Roses at the headstone.
When she died, Astoria had not thought of the grandfather she never met. She had not seen herself as the messenger that was supposed to be spared death, who had no quarrel with its authority, but was slaughtered anyway. Daphne knew this because she had spent hours with just grief and a twelve-year-old boy whose mother had become ash for company. This boy had not spoken very much to his aunt, except for when she told him stories about her dead sister. He had liked those, she thought. And then, just before he finally jumped out of the enclosed space with grief and a woman in the late afternoon of her days, he had told her a story of his own.
His mother’s last words were these:
“I wish it were you instead of me.”