Chapter 1 : Graduation
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It was the sunniest of days. The lawn should have been yellow from the draught that had been persisting the past two weeks, but it was remarkably green and gleaming, stretching up to the castle and its stone stairs. Draco was happy that the ceremony was to be held outside.
Asteria clutched his arm as they climbed the hill towards Hogwarts. She was not good with exercise, and the outdoors had never been kind towards her. She was still of a very slight build, too frail for her own good. Her blonde hair fanned out behind her as the wind guided them to their destination.
Fifty or so other parents were following their same path. Curious and disapproving looks were cast in the Malfoys’ direction. So few had forgiven Draco after the War. It was a good thing Lucius wasn’t here, Draco thought grimly, and Narcissa too. He made sure he kept his eyes on his shoes as they walked, eager to avoid confrontations on this particular day.
Asteria sighed next to him as they finally reached the rows of golden chairs. The front seats had already been taken. Draco guided his wife towards the middle. A stage had been erected on the outskirts of the lake with more rows of chairs balanced on it. Excited chatter sounded throughout the atmosphere, and hundreds of hands fanned inexistent air towards faces. Draco pulled his tie a little, his throat and lips dry with thirst and anticipation.
‘Why aren’t they outside yet?’ Asteria whispered tensely, sitting down and folding her skirt over her knees.
‘They’ll probably just be getting ready,’ Draco reassured her, a little perturbed with how unsettled his wife had been all morning. It had taken her long enough to get dressed, and even longer to consent to take a Portkey; she considered that Apparation would be less fuss, but Draco argued that it was not advisable over long distances.
Everyone had taken their seats by now. McGonagall, fantastically aged but still as formidable as ever, was sitting in the front row, a guest of honour in this tradition of old. There was a great outlet of excited squeals as the front doors of Hogwarts were opened and a long line of pupils emerged, led by Headmaster Longbottom. The pupils themselves seemed less anxious than their parents, and calmly climbed the stairs to the stage as if they had experienced this day a thousand times. Draco quickly caught sight of his son, standing out with his pale face and blonde hair. He was wearing the tie his father had bought him at the beginning of the year, red to match his Gryffindor uniform. His face was an assortment of happiness, serenity and anticipation. Scorpius found his parents quite quickly and gave them a wink. Asteria let out a proud sniff into her handkerchief, and even Draco had to blink the tears away.
‘Parents, friends, professors and, most of all, my dear graduates,’ Neville Longbottom was now saying, having taken to the stand.
He was more confident than Draco remembered. All he had ever been able to recall of Neville Longbottom was a chubby, round-faced, forgetful boy, fearful of bullies and professors alike. He found himself listening to him with interest. Even as he concluded the changes, other memories of the past were evoked. He should have been standing here himself, at seventeen, all those years ago, with a diploma in hand. But by seventeen, he was a Death Eater.
Draco shuddered a little. Asteria squeezed his hand, mistaking his discomfort for emotion. With a clench of his stomach, he tried to resist thinking about it. It was his latest tactic. Push it away by telling himself not to think about it. But even as he tried hard, her mane of bushy hair and brown eyes popped into his mind. He focused hard on Longbottom. The question that had been burning in his mind for the past fortnight burned stronger now.
Was she here?
‘What a proud day this is for everyone. Seven years of hard work – for parents and for children, not least to say for professors. Now is the time –‘
Asteria fidgeted next to him. Scorpius was sitting next to a fellow Gryffindor, a very pretty girl with flame-coloured hair and bright, red cheeks. Even as Draco watched her, the bookish expression on her face seemed to come to prominence in a remarkable way, and he felt his stomach turn again. This must be Rose.
So she must be here. Draco was seized by a terrible desire to turn his head and stare at everyone sitting behind him, for she was not in any of the seats ahead. He was imagining the burning feeling her gaze on him must produce. Would his back feel her glance? He should have placed himself and Asteria in the back row, he should have given himself ample opportunity to find her…
‘- which is why none of us could be more proud than we are today. I will ask the pupils to stand, please –‘
As Longbottom finished his speech, all the youngsters got to their feet. Rose almost matched Scorpius in height, for she had inherited her father’s tall demeanour. Professor McGonagall climbed the stairs to the stage and took the stand, holding up a long list not unlike the one she usually held for the Sorting. In the same prim, no-nonsense voice, she began calling names, not in alphabetical order, but by House. The Slytherin students received their diplomas first, which perhaps explained why the applause sounded particularly dimmed during the first ten minutes; when Hufflepuff housemates strode forward, it grew considerably louder. Finally, just the small Gryffindor group of about fourteen people were gathered in their red and black robes.
Draco found himself clutching Asteria’s hand when Scorpius’ name was called out. It seemed like their moment as much as his. He did not even care for the mutters around him, expressing shock that a Malfoy would be in Gryffindor; all he cared about was that it was his boy, his, that was finally ending this phase of life, and ending it greatly, before entering the next. Scorpius strode up to the stand with pride and took his diploma, shaking McGonagall’s hand. There was almost a little defiance in his seventeen-year-old glance around the crowd, as if he wished to tell them off for their arrogance and spite over a dispute that had lasted decades and had nothing to do with him.
Rose stepped forward, and it was then that Draco heard her. She was sitting behind him, perhaps three rows back, but her happy sob was so recognisable that she might have been sitting in Asteria’s seat. Rose glowed as she took her diploma. When she reached the other side of the stage, Scorpius took her in his arms and hugged her. Asteria and Draco exchanged a glance.
Everyone scrambled to their feet to find their child as the newly graduated pupils scattered. Scorpius reached his parents quickly. Draco took hold of his son with great affection, trying to express in his hug what he could not express in words. Asteria corrected his hair.
‘Mum, please,’ Scorpius laughed, fighting off her hand. ‘Here.’
He handed them his diploma, which Asteria put in her purse. Like so many emotional occasions, Asteria did not seem to know what to say, too strangled with sentiment. Draco drew up his chest and patted his son on the arm.
‘You best celebrate with your friends for a bit,’ he said, pulling out his wallet and handing Scorpius a few Galleons. ‘Go on, go to Hogsmeade, have a Firewhiskey or something,’ he grinned, ‘we’ll meet you later on for dinner. We’ll be in Hogsmeade too, don’t worry.’
Scorpius laughed again and pocketed the money.
‘Do you want to meet any of them?’ he asked, looking over his shoulder at the Gryffindors who were waiting for him. He was clearly not an unpopular figure.
‘I’m not sure their parents would like that,’ Draco said quietly, and sure enough, as usual, plenty of older figures were eyeing the Malfoys with great dislike.
‘Don’t bring that up now,’ exclaimed Asteria with distaste in her tone. She softened her expression. ‘Scorpius, that girl you hugged…’
‘Is just a friend,’ Scorpius said, looking over at Rose who was chatting to what must be a cousin, adorned with red hair too. Draco watched his son closely and was not oblivious to the way his expression changed. ‘Rose Weasley. She’s the cleverest in our year. Well, apart from me, of course.’ Scorpius grinned in a cocky way. ‘I’ll meet you later then.’
Draco nodded and watched his son join his friends. Scorpius reached out and pulled Rose out of her conversation, but she shook her head and pointed in another direction. Draco’s eyes settled on the place she was pointing at, only to land on the face and figure he had been tracing in his mind for unbearably long years.
Hermione Granger had aged well. She had tamed her hair for the occasion, and it looked bizarre to see her usual bushy mane thrown casually into an elegant ponytail. She was wearing a very smart green dress. Draco’s heart skipped a beat as it dawned on him just how much he missed her. It was something like an ache that he could not quite define: the only thing he knew was that, more than anything else, he longed, burned and wanted to touch her. In those few seconds of seeing her for the first time in years, he was certain that there was nothing he would not give to be able to take her in his arms and hold on tight. He was sure he could remember her scent.
One arm was resting on a younger boy, perhaps about fifteen, still taller than her. He was much more like his mother than Rose. Draco’s stomach clenched even harder, and for the first time that day, he felt a little sick. Hugo’s brown hair lay softly on his face, the features quite defined with high cheekbones and hollow cheeks. The pointy chin was nothing like Ron’s and far from Hermione’s. There was a happy expression on his face, and this comforted Draco slightly.
Nothing he had done had ever been able to convince Draco that Hugo was not his son.
‘Shall I get us a drink?’ Asteria suggested from far away, and Draco nodded.
He did not want people to notice him staring at Hugo, and yet he could not help it. The more he familiarized himself with the boy’s face, the easier it was to persuade himself that Hugo must be his. It had been far more difficult when he was born, devoid of personality as babies were; but this almost adult boy was a maze of clues and hints, and Draco was certain that if he managed to put them all together, he would reach the conclusion he had suspected for years.
What will it change, a small voice in his head said, it won’t give you Hermione back.
Depressed, Draco forced himself to look away. He knew that, at least, was true. Nothing would bring Hermione back to him.
He walked over to the edge of the Forbidden Forest in search of shade. He did not really care if Asteria would not be able to find him. He longed for solitude, and a cool breath of air, and clarity more than anything else. Draco could not think in this crowded, stuffy reception, with tense glances and angry whispers surrounding him.
It was much quieter by the forest. Draco leaned against a tree and closed his eyes for a moment, allowing his brain to clear and his stomach to unclench. He felt less sick now.
He had never felt guilty for cheating on Asteria. Denying his body what it wanted did not seem sensible, and giving it what it longed for had never seemed that wrong: he suspected that Asteria had had her little flings, too, in later years, bored of a husband that seemed bored with life. She adored him, but could not please him; she comforted him, but did not know to what end. How easy it could have been with Asteria had he tried a little harder, he thought, and for the first time, he felt a little uneasy.
But he had loved Hermione. The realization had been difficult to reach, but when it had been reached, it was clearer than anything else. What did it matter, then, about trying hard to satisfy his wife?
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ a voice hissed in his ear, and Draco felt his whole body fill with glorious, sensational, excited pleasure.
He opened his eyes to the face of Hermione and knew he was the luckiest man alive.
‘You’ve got to stop staring at Hugo like that,’ she said, her eyes round and a little frightened. ‘If anyone notices –‘
He could appreciate the differences now she was closer. The eyes had maintained the intoxicating wisdom, but the face was more worn, and the mouth devoid of pleasure, somehow, as if it had lost its will to delegate love and life and had settled on boredom. Draco suppressed an urge to let them experience his lips again and focused on her anguished expression.
Hermione shook her head, hanging it so her eyes fell on his shoes instead.
Draco let out a sigh that could not have told her more clearly how much he needed her. Before she could protest, he had enveloped her in his arms and hugged her as tightly as possible, burying his nose in her shoulder. She smelled exactly as he remembered, though he had never been able to identify what it was.
‘He’s not yours,’ she whispered in his ear, her words muffled because she, too, was grasping on to him so tight. ‘You have to believe that.’
‘I don’t believe that because I know it’s not true,’ Draco answered. ‘I can see it. So can you.’
‘It doesn’t matter. He will never be yours as he is Ron’s.’
They pulled apart. Draco started kissing her. She submitted, to his surprise. Her lips tasted of salt and alcohol. He drank her in. He was not sure he had ever felt pleasure like this before.
‘I won’t be able to stop,’ she whispered, burying her head in his shoulder again. ‘I remember.’
He ran his hand through her hair. He wanted to tell her to come away with him. He knew she would say no. He knew it was too late. It was a farce to ask her it now, almost comical. If they could suspend this moment in time, he would be happy, for he knew that it was all they had left: just moments, intervals, stops between reality and fantasy.
‘What’s he like?’ he asked her quietly, for he had been wanting to ask her for years. ‘Is he…’
Her eyes searched his curiously, until she seemed to decide that she could tell him.
‘He’s clever and he’s kind,’ she sighed, ‘he’s never said a cruel word to anyone and he’s the tidiest of us all.’ She paused. ‘He hates onions and chocolate.’ Hermione held Draco’s gaze firmly. ‘He loves his family.’
Draco nodded. He had let go of her hand and she began to shrink away from him. Desperate not to see her go, he searched in vain for other questions he could permit himself to ask. She had turned her back to him and was looking at the crowd in the distance. Draco could spot Asteria in the middle of it, looking around for her husband. Hermione’s shoulders seemed to drop.
‘Do you still love her?’ her voice said, darkened and trembling at the same time. He could guess her expression from her tone.
‘Not the way I loved you,’ Draco answered.
Hermione stayed still, silent, perhaps resolute. She turned her head a fraction so he caught a glance of her profile. He thought she might be crying, but was not sure. Before he could comfort her, she had turned her head again and started striding away.
Draco allowed himself a moment before he went to find Asteria. His body felt heavy. He felt old. He realized that this instance was perhaps the last between him and Hermione: there were no other excuses to see her. He no longer worked at the Ministry, and he had no more children left to graduate. He could never knock on her door and tell her he loved her, for she knew this already, and still she chose to do nothing.
No, that was not right. Neither of them chose. They never had.
‘Oh, sorry, sir –‘
Draco had bumped into someone. A drink had spilled on the grass all over his shoes. He searched for the person without anger, and felt himself age ten more years when he looked into Hugo’s glowing face.
‘That’s all right,’ Draco said, his voice faint and almost inaudible. ‘You didn’t do it on purpose.’
‘I shouldn’t really be going around spilling drinks on people, though,’ Hugo said humorously. Then, looking down, ‘Will your shoes be all right? My father will be happy to pay for them if –‘
‘No,’ Draco interrupted a little more harshly than he intended, ‘they’ll be fine.’ Seeing that Hugo looked a little confused, he quickly tried to make amends. ‘Getting your feet wet on a hot day like this can’t be the worst of things, can it.’
‘I suppose not,’ Hugo grinned, a ghost of a smirk on his face. Draco felt his heart skip a beat.
‘Dad!’ someone called a little away, and Draco turned to see Scorpius walking towards him. Hugo cast a curious glance between the two. ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’ve booked a room for you and Mum at the Three Broomsticks – Hannah Abbott said she had forgotten to put you two down, so good thing I double-checked. Oh, hi, Hugo.’
‘Hi,’ Hugo said, giving a smile. ‘Uh – is this your dad?’
‘Yeah,’ Scorpius answered, confused. ‘Why are your shoes wet, Dad?’
Draco could not answer. It was too surreal a moment to have both Scorpius and Hugo grouped here together, like his own boys squabbling at their sister’s graduation, perhaps. How close a reality that could have been. He looked over Hugo’s shoulder and caught Hermione’s gaze. She looked terrified, angry and devastatingly sad. He cleared his throat.
‘Don’t worry, Scorpius. I didn’t know you two knew each other.’
‘Yeah, we started hanging out properly when Hugo’s Uncle Harry hosted the Triwizard Tournament last year,’ Scorpius answered. ‘Rose put her name up for consideration, but it didn’t take. Hugo’s in Gryffindor too.’
Hugo nodded. Looking over his shoulder, he caught his mother’s expression. Believing it to be meant for him, Hugo gave a sigh and reached out a hand.
‘Have a good summer, then.’
‘You too,’ Scorpius said, taking Hugo’s hand and shaking it.
‘Nice to have met you, Mr Malfoy. Sorry about your shoes.’
Hugo had reached out his hand again. Draco gazed at it for a moment. He took it gingerly, pressing palm against palm, lifting fingers up and down, working a mechanism of politeness, all the while trying to work out whether this was the clue of clues. He was desperately aware that this could be his son, and desperately aware that they would never shake hands again.
‘Nice to have met you too, Hugo.’