Hermione sighed and took a step backwards, away from Draco's arms. He was so scared of letting go, but she moved towards her desk and laid both hands on it, her head hanging. He waited.
It was so typical of him. So typical to try and cling to simplicity, to convince himself that as long as they were together, there was nothing else. How could he let go like that? How could he permit himself that luxury?
Draco's thoughts were far from hers. In fact, they were surprisingly blank. It was natural that they should be together; the suggestion that they shouldn't was laughable, even here, in her office.
'And your wedding?' he heard her say. 'What about Asteria?'
Draco could have screamed in frustration. Instead, he walked over to the couch and sat down on it, laying both hands over his eyes as he quietly admitted:
'I don't know. I can't think anymore.'
'You have to. You have to do the thinking for both of us,' Hermione answered, and he was dimly aware of her approaching him and kneeling down next to him. She laid a comforting hand on his knee.
'I love you,' he said, finally looking at her. This admission was surprisingly easy. 'What else matters?' Her eyes were sparkles of pleasure, but she shook her head again.
'That's you,' she whispered, 'that's you. Sentiments, emotions, drive, desire. And reason? And honour and sense? Asteria will be scarred for life.'
'I'll be scarred for life if I don't have you,' Draco almost whimpered, clenching Hermione's hand. 'I can't fight this anymore - don't make me fight this, Hermione. I can't.' He pulled her up to him so she landed on his lap and he kissed her once more, desperate to prove his desperation. How was it possible that one kiss could erase everything else? If only he went on kissing her, then he would not have to think, he would not have to make that decision he knew was waiting. She pulled away from him.
'I know you, Draco,' she said fiercely, her eyes alive with fire, 'and you're not a coward, not anymore. She deserves the truth.'
He nodded, pulling her closer still, the softness of her body acting as a shield to protect them both. He buried his head in her curls.
'You won't go away, will you,' he murmured. 'No matter what happens, you won't leave me.'
Silence. All that could be heard was their heavy breathing and the faint chatter outside her office.
'Tell Asteria,' she whispered. 'Make a decision. Do the right thing.'
He looked at her in disbelief.
'You think the right thing is to marry her,' he breathed, 'but how can you? How can anything be right if it separates us.'
'Don't go there,' she said, mimicking his words. 'I think there lies satisfaction in knowing that you've done the right thing, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.'
'But we're the sacrifice, Hermione!' he suddenly shouted, getting up. Hermione put her hands on his shoulders and drew him closer in an effort to calm him down. 'We're always the sacrifice! We've been deprived of this for so long, why can't we just say to hell with everything else!'
'Because we can't be selfish!' she shouted. He grasped her chin forcefully and looked her right in the eye.
'Where has being selfless got us, Hermione?' he told her. Her lips parted doubtfully. She laid two fingers on his wrist and slowly lowered it.
The decision was his, he knew it. But how could he possibly make it?
Draco Apparated in front of Daphne Greengrass' house, snakes in his stomach as he imagined what he would say to Asteria. He tried finding the exact right wording that would avoid her suffering and make her understand why he was breaking up with her on the day of their wedding.
He couldn't find it.
He was resolute, determined; he did not care what anyone thought anymore, he and Hermione belonged together. They needed each other more than they had needed anyone else, and that was all that mattered. But he did worry about hurting Asteria - she had done nothing to deserve it. His heart heavy in his chest, he rang the doorbell.
The door swung open and the pale face of Daphne Greengrass appeared, her eyes wide in horror - not the right sort of horror, not the kind of a bridesmaid who sees the future groom before the wedding, but the very wrong sort of horror. A spark of relief replaced it momentarily before she grabbed him by the upper arm and pulled him inside.
'What's the matter?' he yelped. The atmosphere inside the house was dreadful.
'Thank Merlin you're here, Draco,' Daphne whimpered. He eyed her carefully; she was already in her bridesmaid's dress, a pale green frilly thing with a ridiculous amount of lace. He spotted her two teenage children seated in the far corner of the kitchen, browsing glumly through magazines. Looking to the left, he saw a spangled pair of lime green robes - the same shade of his own Healer ones.
'What's wrong?' he repeated slightly impatiently. Daphne was eyeing him with doubt in her expression.
'It's Asteria.' Panic fluttered in Draco's stomach. 'I think she should be the one to tell you. She's upstairs... the second room to the left... I'll show you,' she added helplessly.
Draco followed Daphne up the stairs, not even bothering to bombard her with the questions that were clouding his mind - he knew it was pointless. He and Daphne had never been close, and as far as he knew, Asteria and Daphne were never particularly intimate either, although he supposed this was simply because of their age difference and not their opinions, as was the case with him and Daphne. She had married a rich warlock, much older than she, who was constantly on business travels (a probable disguise for his mistresses), and being that she had no relationship to brag about, she nagged at others. Her concern for Asteria at present, however, seemed shockingly sincere.
They halted in front of a handsome mahogany door. A tall man with dark shadows under his eyes was writing something in a notebook. He scanned Draco.
'You must be Mr Malfoy. I'm Healer Ludmond. She's waiting for you.' Without adding anything more, he turned to Daphne. 'Nothing more I can do, I'm afraid, madam. She won't let me examine her further. In hysterics. I have to get going, anyway. Perhaps the boyfriend will have more luck.'
More confused than ever, Draco opened his mouth for an explanation, but Daphne, her brow furrowed, opened the door to the guest-room and shut it behind Draco as soon as she had pushed him inside; and there she was, Asteria, sobbing into a pillow, still dressed in her silky nightgown. Draco slowly approached her, the dread looming ahead growing ever greater. He sat down on the bed and stroked her blonde hair.
She raised her head, her face a blotched and teary mess; as soon as she saw who it was, she flung herself at him as a fresh attack of sobs consumed her.
'Draco,' she cried, 'Draco...'
'What's the matter?' he murmured into her hair, his arms around her as she shook against him. 'Asteria, what's wrong?'
She shook her head into his shoulder, still crying.
'I can't tell you,' she cried, her words muffled, 'you'll hate me.'
His stomach gave an odd leap. He lifted her head to face his. His expression was grave, hers petrified.
'You can tell me anything,' he said softly. 'Tell me, Asteria.'
She seemed captivated by his gaze. Her right hand stroked his left cheek as tears fell down on to the bed.
'Draco, my darling,' she said in a strangled voice, 'we lost a baby today.'
Terror invaded Draco's limbs and his mind for the body of an entire second as the world span - it was the very last thing he had been expecting to hear. He held on to Asteria like a drowning man while he struggled to regain focus; when he did, she was crying again, perhaps frightened by his pale face. He felt rather sick.
'How -?' he began weakly. He swallowed the lump in his throat, resisting the urge to throw up. 'How long have you known?'
'I found out when you went to pick up Scorpius,' she cried. 'I didn't want to tell you when he came home, it would have spoiled it. The Healer said I was seven weeks pregnant. Seven weeks, Draco. I thought it was stress... because of the wedding... But pregnant! I was going to tell you tonight... And then this morning...' A fresh sob overcame her. He firmly pulled her back into his arms, his hold strong as iron, rocking them back to and fro.
'There can be other babies,' he whispered in her ear.
How could he? What kind of a bastard was he? He knew there would be no children for him and Asteria, no marriage even; it was what he had come to tell her. What kind of piece of crap was he to lie to her this way?
'Can there,' he heard her cry hopefully, 'oh, Draco, there must. I wanted you so much this morning. Thank Merlin you're here. My darling, my darling.'
She held him tighter still, her body shuddering. He shifted her into a more relaxed position, his weight on top of her to force her to breathe more regularly; his Healer instincts took over completely in moments like these. She looked up at him, tears on her wet eyelashes.
'You're not angry at me.'
'No. No, of course not.'
'I should have told you.'
'Shh. Don't think about that now.'
'What will we do about the wedding?' she whispered in her strangled voice. Draco shook his head, covering her with the satin sheets, very conscious of the fact that she was shaking. He knew she was in shock.
'Let me take care of that,' he said quietly. 'Eat this.' He reached for a sugar lump lying on the breakfast tray by the night table; one of the coffee cups was shattered. He took a deep, steadying breath and watched Asteria shove the sugar lump in her mouth before getting up. 'I'll be right back.'
Draco briskly went into the adjoining bathroom and searched the cabinets for a sleeping potion of some kind; finding what he needed, he poured a few drops into a glass half-filled with water from the tap and re-entered the bedroom. He sat back down on the bed and gave her the goblet. She swallowed its contents and laid back down, closing her eyes. Her hand was a vice grip in Draco's, but loosened once the potion took effect and she fell asleep. Draco sighed, suddenly realizing that he was drenched in sweat. His body was protesting against the tension and he loosened his tie and took off his jacket.
He found Daphne downstairs, smoking a cigarette, her expression stony. She straightened up against the kitchen counter when she noticed Draco. Not knowing what to say, she waited for him to speak; but he was silent.
'I'm so sorry,' she finally whispered. Draco shook his head and moved towards the other end of the counter. When he could not stand it anymore, he thumped his fist against the hard table, banging his forehead on the surface as anger and injustice consumed him.
'Damn it,' he muttered, along with another curse word, though it was not meant to express his physical pain. 'For Merlin's sake, Daphne, how could this happen?'
She was not surprised by his outburst or his profanity, but she had not moved from her spot. She leaned over the counter and handed him her cigarette; he gratefully accepted it, taking a long drag, hoping against hopes it would take its effect as soon as possible - the better to forget, to repress.
'There is no how, no why,' Daphne answered meekly, 'things happen, that's it. She lost the baby. She'll have another one. You did tell her that, didn't you?'
'Yes,' Draco affirmed, running his hand through his hair, 'but why didn't she tell me... Why didn't she say as soon as she found out? Why not share her pregnancy? Did you go with her to the Healer?'
'That's Asteria's business,' Daphne answered sharply. Draco bit his lip, immersed in everything that had happened the past half-hour. Had it really been only this morning that he had held Hermione in his arms?
Daphne shook her head.
'Asteria was too hysterical to let the Healer examine her further. She needs to get proper care. She wanted you. How is she?'
'Asleep,' Draco said, finishing the cigarette. 'She has to be looked at as soon as she wakes up. I'll get a colleague of mine to come down.' He occupied his mind with these trivial things; it helped enormously. The gravity of what had happened was just waiting to sink in, and he was desperate to be somewhere else than here, with Daphne, when it happened.
He suddenly longed for Hermione's arms.
'I suppose the wedding is off,' floated Daphne's hoarse voice from what seemed to be faraway.
'Yes...' Draco murmured, 'yes, the wedding is off.'
The words he had been summoning the courage to say somehow sounded hollow.
Tristan Greengrass was the first of many wedding guests to be informed of the cancellation. He showed up on his eldest daughter's doorstep, red-faced and pompous, not even bothering to knock on the door but charging inside. He strangely resembled an enraged rhinoceros; but then he had suffered a dreadful embarrassment. Draco summoned up all his patience and faced him with a very formal and polite face.
'Daddy!' Daphne exclaimed, surprised, as Tristan entered the living room. Draco stood up from the couch where he had been trying, but failing, to take a nap.
'Hello, baby doll,' he muttered affectionately to his eldest daughter. Then he raised a fat finger and pointed it at Draco, who narrowed his eyes. 'What the hell is going on, Malfoy? What's all this nonsense your son has been telling me about the wedding being off? After all the thousands of galleons I've paid? There are going to be some very important people there!'
Draco allowed himself a moment before answering. His eyes lingered on Tristan's outfit; the fancy black dress robes, the blue-and-white striped silk scarf and the ring on his finger bearing the Greengrass family crest. It hardly seemed possible that a person could appear more self-important.
'Well?' Tristan demanded. 'I'm waiting.'
As calmly as he could, Draco drew himself up and parted his lips, prolonging the moment.
'We lost a child today, Tristan,' he said in a bleak voice. 'Asteria was seven weeks pregnant and she miscarried this morning.'
Tristan looked as if he had taken a blow to the face. He blinked stupidly, then grasped the couch for support. Daphne rushed forward to help him. She had changed from her bridesmaid's dress to a more comfortable attire consisting in a pair of loose lavender trousers and a cardigan set.
'So you'll forgive me if your important people will lack in their daily ration of salmon and champagne,' Draco continued coldly. Daphne shot him an extremely ugly look.
'That's enough, Draco,' she spat. She guided her father towards the couch. 'Come here, Daddy, sit down.'
'Asteria - pregnant?' spluttered Tristan, allowing himself to be pushed down on the sofa by his daughter. Draco could see the dent in the pillows when he collapsed on to it. 'Why didn't she tell me?'
'She didn't tell anyone, Daddy,' Daphne answered immediately, frowning. She passed him a cup of tea with plenty of sugar in it. 'Have some of this.'
Tristan accepted the tea cup, bewildered. He was still blinking as if the sunlight was shining right in his eyes. Draco turned away, wishing he was somewhere - anywhere - else.
'But where is she now?'
'She's upstairs, a Healer's with her just now, Daddy,' came Daphne's prompt response. 'Draco gave her something for the shock, she'll be all right.'
'I'm not so sure about that,' exclaimed Tristan. Draco could hear by his tone of voice that his energy was returning, and there was an eagerness there too - Tristan wanted to blame someone for this terrible loss. Rather, for the several losses he had endured, being not only the miscarriage of his grandchild, but also the cancellation of the wedding. 'Don't you have something stronger than this, woman?'
Draco turned around in time to see Daphne pour a shot of whiskey in a small glass. Tristan accepted it without words and downed it immediately. With an air of disapproval, Daphne continued to survey the two men.
'Who is this Healer? Anyone I know?'
'He's one of my colleagues, Tristan,' Draco said quietly, 'he's one of the best.'
'That's your assessment,' snarled Tristan nastily, 'although Merlin knows what kind of a Healer you are. Not even noticing that your fiancee is pregnant!'
Draco could feel it coming, the argument, the scandal, the crisis that would forever tear everything apart. He could feel it coming but had no wish nor inclination to stop it.
'What exactly are you insinuating, Tristan?'
'Asteria told me you were reluctant to have children again! And then she miscarries! And it's not as if she's in any bad shape or anything. Young girl, lively, always healthy since she was born!'
'Miscarriages aren't that rare, Daddy -'
'You didn't have one, baby doll, did you?'
Daphne stopped speaking, taken aback by the rage in her father's tone. Draco continued to eye him coolly. The man had never looked more grotesque. His face was still as red as ever and he seemed inflated, somehow, as if the whisky had doubled his weight and height.
'You were never right for my Asteria, Malfoy, never,' Tristan spat. 'I always had a feeling about you, but she had to have her way. And where has that brought her now? Lost a baby, cancelled a wedding that has taken her mother months to put together -'
'Daddy, you mustn't, your blood pressure -!'
'- And now I'll be the laughing stock of the Ministry because some old Death Eater decides to go gallivanting about and ruin my family -'
Daphne let out a soft scream; Draco had pounced on Tristan and pulled him up by the collar. As he slammed him against the nearest kitchen wall, his whiskey glass came tumbling to the floor and smashed. Draco had forgotten all about wands; he wanted to hurt this man, punch him, grind his face in dirt and make him realize that he was not to blame - that he should not be held responsible for anything.
'Draco, stop it!' he heard Daphne's high-pitched voice command, but he ignored it.
'Now listen, Tristan,' Draco snarled into the man's shocked red face, 'you're a guest in this house, as am I, and Asteria is upstairs trying to heal and rest and accept the fact that she has lost a baby. Having you point fingers and yell at the top of your voice down here doesn't solve shit, so either you pull your act together and act rationally, or I'll make you leave with or without my wand.' Tristan gasped and spluttered as Draco's hold grew stronger. Daphne's protests were getting fainter. 'Will you behave yourself?' Tristan nodded - or attempted to do so. Slowly, Draco let him down.
'Draco, can I have a word with you?'
With an air of approbation, Draco turned around to find his colleague, Healer Podwell, standing on the bottom stair, his forehead creased as he surveyed the scene with disapproval. As soon as Draco backed away from Tristan, Daphne hurried up to her father, leading him once more towards the couch.
'Yes, Kiefer, I'm sorry,' Draco said grudgingly, 'I know I shouldn't have made so much noise, but it was the only way to shut the man up.'
'That's all right,' Healer Podwell answered slowly, 'she's asleep for now. She'll be quite all right, of course, just needs to get over the shock of it all. I've told her there's nothing against her having more children. Poor woman seems dreadfully distraught - what a thing to happen on your wedding day! If there's anything I can do...'
'I appreciate it, Kiefer,' said Draco quietly, showing the Healer towards the door. He did not want anyone's sympathy. 'I'll make sure Asteria gets her rest.'
A/N: I cower before you, dear readers. I can imagine your grimaces of disapproval, of shock or (hopefully) of wonder. Some of you might be thinking that the story has taken a turn for the worse, others for the best; personally, I stand by the following statement: Asteria's miscarriage is a necessary part of the story. The story won't always be so tragic or so heavy, there is some comic relief ahead somewhere, so bear with me please! I hope you enjoyed the chapter regardless of Draco's loss.
I also found out recently that I owe Oh_Sugar_Quills a huge thanks for nominating 'A New Life' for Best Novella at the Dobby Awards - thank you so much, and I'm sorry for not noting it sooner!
Thanks for reading and special thanks to those who review!