Chapter 3 : Discomfort
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I am taffy stuck and tongue tied
Stutter shook and uptight
Pull me out from inside
Counting Crows, Colorblind
Draco Malfoy was having a rough day. He had put up with Hyperion Greengrass’ long tirade for hours on end, escorting him and his two daughters to lunch while keeping up with endless complaints about the new direction the Ministry was heading. Asteria had suffered from nausea all morning, and was exhausted by the proceedings in the court, but then she had insisted on going. Hyperion really was careless, cursing Muggles with little thought for Draco’s reputation.
And everyone knew that the Malfoys’ reputation could do with a little shining. Now that Asteria was part of Draco’s family, it also meant that Draco was part of the Greengrass legacy, and that legacy’s bad traits rubbed off on him.
It had been difficult enough getting a job.
‘Job!’ Hyperion had scoffed, while Lucius simply looked disapproving. ‘What do you want to work with those Mudblood-loving, bloodtraitor-embracing, pseudonym-intellectuals for? Me and Lucius have plenty stashed, live off of that!’
But Draco had refused. Merlin knew where their money had come from. Spending it would be like leaving bloody handprints everywhere. He knew Asteria got an allowance from her father, which she dawdled on useless things for the baby, but Draco’s income mostly got them by.
It was a dirty job, what Draco did. No official position, no fancy title – Draco was simply the sneaky bastard who cleaned up people’s mess. When there was something going on that the Ministry didn’t like, Draco managed to keep it quiet from the press. He was good at it. But he was disappointed that this was to be his way of life.
He couldn’t really blame anyone but himself. Nobody wanted old Death Eaters as their employees. The ugly brown-ish mark branded on his left arm was still widely exposed for everyone to see. Yet people did not need visual stimuli to confirm what had been reported in every newspaper following the Death Eater Trials – Draco had been one of them.
Asteria had been a breath of fresh air. Of course, he had known her in his Hogwarts days, but he had been so wrapped up in his own troubles to ever really notice her. She was so unlike her sister. Daphne was loud and imposing, proud and flashy. Asteria was a quiet little mouse, overshadowed by her sister.
Daphne had, according to Narcissa and Cinxia Greengrass, ‘married well’. Daphne had got into one of the larger Pureblood families of Europe. Her husband was German, and rarely home – his business was abroad, but Daphne insisted on keeping a home in England; a home which she never left. But Daphne was content. Cinxia often complained over the lack of children – but Daphne insisted, defensively, that it was good for her figure, and anyway, Janus didn’t really like children.
Asteria was frightened to death of her parents’ expectations for her. Draco had got re-acquainted with her at Daphne’s wedding. She was wearing a light yellow dress and her hair blew softly in the wind. When he took her in his arms and swayed to the first dance, he knew that she would eventually be his wife.
He did not know this because of sudden fireworks, or blinding passion, for there were very little. Draco simply surmised this because he could not see where else he would go, whom else he would marry, what else he would become. It had always been in the cards that he would gain a Pureblood wife, and not many were left now; most were either in Azkaban or too young for him. Perhaps Narcissa had known it all along – known that the Greengrasses were Draco’s salvation.
Asteria fell in love with him immediately, of course. A man such as Draco fulfilled all the qualifications her mother had listed for her, and she was too submissive a person not to follow that list. On top of that, he was kind to her. And he was trustworthy, dependable. It did not take much for Asteria to fall in love. Their wedding was held in the autumn, outside, under trees that were almost naked. It was a small gathering, in contrast to Daphne’s lavish affair. Neither Draco nor Asteria wanted their union to be celebrated by the world. Both the bride and the groom understood that the world did not want it to be either.
So it was very annoying to Draco when Hyperion repeatedly reminded the world about their existence in such blatantly ignorant ways. As humble as he had forced himself to become, Draco was ambitious, but his ambition was wrecked by Hyperion’s thoughtless acts.
‘I’m so tired,’ Asteria sighed, removing her shoes and running a hand over her tense neck. ‘It was hotter than ever today, wasn’t it?’
Draco nodded, watching Asteria as she walked into the open kitchen. Her blue maternity dress fanned out behind her when she opened the freezer door. She returned to the living room with a bowl full of ice.
‘Thank Merlin Dad got off easily,’ she sighed contently. ‘God, my ankles are so swollen.’
Asteria collapsed on the couch next to Draco, grabbing an ice cube and running it behind her neck. The wetness trailed and lingered, mixing with the moistness of her sweat. Draco eyed her gestures lazily.
‘I honestly can’t wait to pop this one out,’ she sighed, hitching up her dress so it stopped at her thighs. Draco grinned and pulled her feet up to his knees, running his hands over her ankles. She let out a groan of pain. Draco reached for a cube and handled it carefully over her hot feet. Asteria smiled.
‘That’s nice.’ She was quiet for a moment. ‘Why didn’t you say anything today?’
‘Didn’t I?’ Draco said absent-mindedly, watching the ice-cube melt into nothing.
‘You know you didn’t,’ answered Asteria in an obvious tone. ‘Aren’t you glad Dad got off?’
‘It wasn’t really a surprise, was it,’ was Draco’s resentful answer. He put her feet down carefully and stood up, retreating to the open kitchen.
‘Perhaps you’d rather he was in Azkaban right now?’ Asteria asked angrily. Draco shook his head, sighing.
‘Of course not, Asteria. I just think he needs to think before he does these things. Not everyone is so easily influenced by him. Things aren’t what they used to be.’
‘I know,’ Asteria sighed, fanning herself with her wet hands. ‘I’ll talk to him.’
Draco nodded, opening the fridge for something cool to drink.
‘Who was that woman, by the way?’
‘You know, the one staring at you. I couldn’t see her properly, but she looked a lot like Hermione Granger.’
Draco pulled out a beer and removed its cap with his wand, concentrating on finding a glass.
‘Yes, that was her. I think she works for Themis Finley. Do you want something?’
‘Orange juice, please, darling. Was that really her? Why was she staring at you so much?’
Draco had been asking himself the same question ever since she had released him from her discomfortingly penetrating gaze. It had been a long time since he had felt so inadequate, and he did not even know why. To have her simply watching him was so unnerving. She must have felt so indignant to see that Purebloods still had some influence. Strangely, he had wanted to tell her that that was not his case. That he disapproved – that he had been for a just proceeding. Before he had even been able to give her a civil gesture, she had disappeared.
Well. The woman had always been an insufferable know-it-all.
‘I don’t know,’ Draco said, shrugging as he poured his wife a glass of orange juice. ‘Reminiscing?’
‘Reminiscing,’ Asteria scoffed, grazing his hand with hers gratefully as she accepted the drink, ‘whatever does she have to reminisce about. You were ghastly to her at Hogwarts.’
Draco sat down, sipping his beer interestedly.
‘I was? Yes, I suppose I was. Can’t be that then. Who cares, really.’
‘She’s married now, isn’t she?’
Draco nodded. It had been no surprise when Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley stopped ‘living a life in sin’. Their wedding must have sold hundreds of papers – war hero and heroine live happily ever after! A stark contrast to him and Asteria.
‘She looked good,’ Asteria reflected. Draco felt an ounce of irritation hit him.
‘Can’t we talk about something else than Hermione sodding Granger,’ he sighed.
‘Granger-Weasley,’ Asteria corrected absent-mindedly.
Draco pretended not to hear her, getting up to refill his glass.
With every breath of air, Hermione felt the wind sting icily on her cheek. The warmth of Rose’s hand was concealed by a Molly-knitted mitten, as mother and daughter jogged towards Laura Madley’s Magical Daycare.
It had stopped snowing some time during the night, but the roads were covered in white. Someone had been efficient enough to salt the pavement, but Hermione’s grasp on Rose was nonetheless extra firm as they skidded to a halt in front of the cleverly disguised graphitized wall. Hermione picked up Rose and closed her eyes, stepping through the graffiti as if it had been nothing but thin air. Rose giggled with pleasure, still not used to the magic. Hermione, to Ron’s disapproving amusement, had been old-fashioned enough to limit magic around Rose, preferring her to be brought up in a Muggle-influenced environment.
‘Morning Mrs Weasley, morning Rose,’ Laura Madley greeted the pair cheerfully over the yells of a dozen children. Hermione smiled wistfully, resisting the urge to correct Miss Madley with a prompt ‘Mrs Granger-Weasley’.
‘Good morning, Miss Madley,’ she said instead, setting Rose down. Rose ran beyond the entrance hall and towards the playroom. A coat rack was waving at her playfully, as Rose gave it her coat and mittens with the most gleeful smile. Hermione could not resist grinning. Her father’s daughter, truly – Rose simply could not fight her magical abilities.
‘Rose really is getting big,’ Miss Madley sighed, watching Rose join her playmates.
‘Her father’s genes,’ Hermione answered, readjusting her briefcase in her hands as she checked her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was windswept and her make-up needed retouching. Mornings with Rose really were too hectic. ‘And how are things here, Miss Madley? Thriving as ever, I see.’
‘Funny you should mention it – we’re expecting a new little boy just this morning. Your daughter’s age, as a matter of fact.’
‘Really?’ Hermione said disinterestedly, checking her watch with no subtlety. ‘I daresay Rose will do her best to make him feel at home. I have to be off now, Miss Madley. Rose!’
Hermione’s call for her daughter died in her throat, for the door had just opened and the gust of cold wind it brought with it was nothing compared to the shock that electrocuted Hermione. Asteria Malfoy, elegant as the first time Hermione laid eyes on her, though minus a pregnancy, had stepped inside, a little blonde boy in tow. Hermione had no idea why, but what she took in first was Asteria’s clothes – her refined purple dress, the smart black heels and the grey cotton coat. Surely no one should look like this at eight in the morning, and certainly not on a snowy day.
‘Hello, Miss Madley,’ Asteria breathed when she reached them, and her voice was like the chiming of bells; soft, melancholic, cheerful. ‘I do believe this is your new addition.’
Was Hermione doing this on purpose? Was she romanticising Asteria, making her an ideal of beauty, because she felt so terrible next to her? Here she was, Draco’s wife, in the flesh – and what was worse, with her son. With their son. Hermione felt her breakfast rise to her throat. The heat flushed away from her cheeks, while her nerves tingled with guilt. Look at you, Hermione Granger. No better than a common slut.
She was real; Asteria was real. A woman just like Hermione. A mother. What was more, she was beautiful, charming, kind. There were no apparent flaws – no hideousness that Draco need run away from. There was no excuse that Hermione could turn to.
‘Oh, Mrs Weasley, this is the new boy I was telling you about,’ Miss Madley sounded from afar. ‘Scorpius Malfoy.’
Hermione came back to Laura Madley’s Magical Daycare with difficulty, focusing on the little boy before her. He had blonde hair like his father – like his mother, too – blue eyes and a small mouth. His stare was curious and exploring, while he kept closely to his mother.
‘Are you – Are you Hermione Granger?’ Asteria suddenly said, a little breathlessly. Hermione looked at Asteria, swallowing the bile in her throat.
‘Yes,’ she said, and she thought she sounded ridiculously shaky.
‘I’ve been wanting to meet you for so long,’ Asteria exclaimed, eyeing Hermione contently. ‘Is your daughter here too?’
‘Oh, I’m so glad.’
Hermione rubbed her hands nervously, feeling very cold and very desperate to leave.
‘Yes. I know it’s silly. But I’ve read so much about you, you see. And my husband… Well, I know you knew him at Hogwarts – and I – I always thought it was such a shame that…’
‘That you never reached some sort of catharsis. Draco used to talk about you, you know.’
It was too much; oh, much too much! That Asteria should talk about catharsis and friendship and forgiveness while the woman wrecking her marriage was right before her – inside a day-care centre of all places! How Hermione wished that Laura Madley had not abandoned them to look after other parents. Presently, Rose ran up to her mother and tugged her on the wrist.
‘Mummy, who’s that boy?’ she whispered loudly. Scorpius moved his lofty gaze on to the redhead.
‘Are you Rose?’ Asteria said kindly before Hermione could answer. Rose nodded. ‘This is my boy Scorpius. He’s new. It’s his first day here. Do you think you could look after him?’
Rose looked at her mother. Hermione nodded. Before either mother could say a word, Rose had run forward and grabbed Scorpius by the arm, dragging him to the coat racks. Asteria gave a tinkling laugh while Hermione simply watched her in morbid fascination.
‘I hope they’ll become good friends,’ Asteria sighed. She looked at Hermione suddenly, her cheeks glowing. ‘I would like for us to be, too. Do you have time for a coffee?’
‘No,’ Hermione said instantly. She felt as if she was drowning, and the negative response was her only hope at getting out of this alive. ‘I’m sorry, but I have to be at the Ministry at nine –‘
‘There’s an hour till then, do let’s –‘
‘No, I really can’t, I have to get there early.’
Asteria smiled again. Hermione was taken aback.
‘That’s all right. We could get one another time, if you want.’
Hermione nodded, avoiding her gaze. Asteria’s tone was so persistent, but Hermione had only one thought: leaving.
‘It was nice to meet you, Hermione.’
‘And you, Asteria.’
Hermione left before Asteria could hold out a hand. She felt that Asteria, of all people, would know what Draco would feel like on one’s skin, and the fact that Draco was on every part of Hermione’s would be found out easily with a handshake.
Hermione got to the Ministry painfully early. Her Head of Department was not there, nor was Lisa. A few all-nighters were reviving over coffee, and memos were flying about playfully, but otherwise Hermione was quite relieved to be left in peace. Her encounter with Asteria had been hell-ish. She felt exhausted and sick, hardly up to a day’s work.
Hoping that coffee would do the magical healing trick, she made her way to where the fresh pots were kept. She had brought her own mug with her from home; Ron had had it made as an anniversary present – a picture of Rose was magically enlarged on it, and she winked and waved with her china hands. Hermione was admiring her daughter while she poured the coffee, but as the smell reached her, the nausea suddenly worsened. She felt this morning’s toast rise uncomfortably to her throat and she dropped the mug on the floor so it broke in two pieces, coffee spilling everywhere, while she clapped a hand over her mouth and sprinted towards the bathroom.
Thankfully, there was not a lot in Hermione for her to vomit – she had not had time to eat much breakfast, hungry though she had been. Meeting Asteria really had been stressful – and then in front of Scorpius, in front of Rose! What would Draco say when Asteria told him that she had met Hermione? That she had wanted to go for coffee with her?
‘Are you all right, Hermione?’
Lisa looked at Hermione concernedly as she entered the ladies’ room. Hermione was hanging over the washbasin, dapping cold water on her face.
‘Was that you retching?’
‘Yes; I’m fine now.’
‘You look bloody awful.’
‘It’s just stress. And something I had to eat, I suppose.’
Lisa looked doubtful but did not inquire further. Hermione dried her hands with paper towels and straightened her hair, face turned towards the mirror to avoid Lisa’s inquisitive gaze.
‘Themis just left a memo, she isn’t coming in today,’ Lisa then said, as she waited for Hermione by the door.
Hermione frowned, surprised. The two women left the restroom together, entering the now busy floor. Lisa’s cubicle was situated closely to Hermione’s, and she pulled up her chair to Hermione’s desk.
‘Did Themis say why?’
‘No,’ Lisa sighed, ‘but then she’s not exactly the explaining type, is she?’
‘No,’ Hermione murmured thoughtfully, ‘no, she isn’t.’
Themis not being present meant only one thing to Hermione: she was in charge of the department that day. Admittedly, there was not a lot for either her or Lisa to do – being assistants of Themis and therefore lacking guidance without her – but Hermione organised Themis’ intray, sat Lisa to answering letters and inquiring about trial dates.
Her moment of glory was when a senior member of the Wizengamot knocked testily on Themis’ door. Hermione rushed up to her and, having memorized the Elders of the Wizengamot, recognized the formidable-looking lady as Madam Felice Falcona.
‘Madam Falcona,’ Hermione said breathlessly. The elderly woman turned around, her grey hair set in an elaborately elegant hairstyle. It was the first time Hermione had seen her out of her Wizengamot formal robes.
‘Do I know you?’ she inquired, confused. Hermione flushed.
‘I’m Hermione Granger-Weasley, Madam Falcona,’ she said, clearing her throat in an attempt at a professional manner. ‘I’m Miss Finley’s first assistant.’
‘Yes, I was just looking for Themis,’ Madam Falcona answered, showing an abrupt interest in Hermione as she took her in with her cat-like eyes. ‘The Wizengamot have to deal with an appeal this afternoon and our lead prosecutor is somewhere in Scotland, dealing with another case.’
‘Miss Finley wasn’t able to come in this morning, I’m afraid,’ Hermione said, trying to keep calm. ‘I can try and contact her for you –‘
‘Damn nuisance,’ Madam Falcona muttered, ‘this appeal is inherently important – can’t be re-organized – yes, please do try and get a hold of Themis. With no prosecution, I’m afraid our curse-loving Mr Nott really will go free this time.’
‘Theodore Nott?’ Hermione took the courage to ask. Madam Falcona nodded. She briskly swept a stray strand of hair off her face.
‘Thank you, Mrs Granger-Weasley,’ she said, even managing a small smile. Hermione tried to return it, but was so flushed and bothered that she was sure it seemed more a grimace than anything else.
Hermione spent the following hour trying to get a hold of Themis, but to no avail. Lisa did her best too; she also let Hermione know in flows of praise just how well she had dealt with Madam Falcona, a rather intimidating encounter after all. Hermione was flattered, but was far more focused on finding Themis.
Theodore Nott had been as unruly as his father, and as elusive as him too. The Nott family had escaped Azkaban after the War, surely, Hermione had thought wryly, due to a combination of the despicable ancient pro-Pureblood laws, bribery and corruption. Those Death Eaters who had avoided prison had all gone different ways – and there were only four great Pureblood families who had done so: the Notts, the Zabinis, the Malfoys and the Greengrasses.
The Greengrasses and Notts were grouped together, heading in that same direction of curses and disrespectful menaces toward Muggles. The Greengrasses were less eccentric – after all, the two girls were practically harmless – it was Mr Greengrass who caused the trouble. While the Malfoys and Zabinis seemingly stayed out of trouble, the Notts did something altogether different.
Theodore Nott took out his frustration of the failure of Voldemort by resorting to petty curses and misdemeanours alike. His father was always there to bail him out, but lately the Ministry had caught him in several semi-serious situations that had been tricky to buy him out of. Hermione had found it surreal, to be in a courtroom opposite this boy, this man, whom she had once treaded the same Hogwarts halls with. Here they both were, in a courtroom, on either sides, as if an invisible line separated them, the good and the bad. He had chosen bad; she, good. In this respect, things must be black and white.
But only in this respect. For things were so much more complicated with those who had not chosen to remain bad. Theodore Nott was bad, had always been bad, and continued to be bad: such simplicity was admirable. But Draco Malfoy? What of him? What of his spotless criminal record following the war?
And yet, people still despised him. Those who had lost at Voldemort’s expense took savage pleasure in blaming him. Forgiveness was inconceivable, even in view of Draco’s efforts. It had been no surprise to Hermione, five years ago, when she read that he had married Asteria – the only woman who could not blame him.
If only she had not met Asteria this morning, Hermione thought, feeling uncomfortable and nauseous once more. If she had not met her, she could have gone on believing that Draco’s wife was a wretched thing, a shadow of warmth, an ice cold bitch who did not give Draco what he needed.
But she was none of those things. Asteria was beautiful. It made Hermione wonder – doubt, really – why Draco needed her, Hermione.
As Hermione came to understand that their efforts of reaching Themis were useless, she prepared herself to face Madam Falcona. But she did not dare. Instead, she wrote a short, respectful memo stating that Themis was still unavailable. Her reply shook Hermione in a stupor:
Very well. In that case, you will have to do, Mrs Granger-Weasley. The Wizengamot gathers in two hours.
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