Chapter 3 : III
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with this really ragged notion that you'll return...
- The Smiths, London
Draco had never liked Sundays. He would happily admit it, strange a dislike as it was. Sunday was a wasteland, a horrible stretch between work on Friday and work on Monday with only a sliver of Saturday to split them. He liked Saturdays – Saturdays usually involved staying out until the light came up and then sleeping until the afternoon. Like a teenager. Not that he’d ever really been one.
Friday evening was spent, as usual, in the pub. With Pansy. He’d always been a coward like that. He’d arrived fifteen minutes late, sour-faced and bleary-eyed, half angry at himself for sleeping on the job and half angry for giving in.
I can’t quite be bothered with this anymore.
Yet he went anyway.
It was one of the worst Sundays yet, he thought. As days went, it wasn’t bad – he could think of thousands of bad things that had happened on weekdays, Saturdays; thousands of curses and arguments, and about two years’ worth of bad days between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Days and years he wasn’t inclined to forget, but didn’t particularly enjoy remembering. Sundays were an exception though. Nothing exciting happened on Sundays. Sunday was a blank of a day, an empty twenty-four hour yawn of nothing.
This Sunday was as boring as ever. The cold he’d though he was catching on Friday hadn’t quite made an appearance yet, but his head had persisted to trouble him over the weekend. A dull, sticky, swollen headache – he could not think of any other way to describe it. His eyes felt sore. On Friday, Pansy reckoned it was from too many sleepless nights, even joked that he was turning into a regular insomniac. And she would know, wouldn’t she? Blaise had joked. She your personal Healer or something?
Maybe. He’d tried to be diplomatic. (We’ve always been best friends/friends-with-benefits/going out, his mind added, but he didn’t have the courage to say it aloud.)
‘You look like you could use a drink, you insomniac.’ Pansy had told him, her voice kind again, any annoyance of the morning forgotten.
‘I could.’ he’d replied. ‘Could indeed use a drink.’ Or a hundred of them. Or a thousand.
‘You’re a misery to spend time with.’ she’d said, much later on, when the table was crowded with a battalion of empty glasses. She’d said this before, but he could tell from her scowl that this time it wasn’t such a joke.
‘No I’m not.’
‘You are. You’ve spent the last-’ she’d glanced at her watch ‘-two hours complaining. If you hate your job so much, why not ditch it?’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘I do, Draco, and you forget that. Look, my house got taken off me too, I’ve got naff all in my Gringott’s vault, my job pays me about a knut a week for having to shovel beetle eyes all day, and I don’t complain half as much as you do.’
‘It’s not the same.’
‘Honestly,’ her voice had, at that point, become louder. Daphne had stared at them pointedly over the top of her glass. ‘You think you’re some sort of Saint or something, just ‘cause you had to do all that stuff in the war, and you think everyone in the world is against you – don’t bother denying it, you act like the world has a vendetta against you, and if you could take a second to drag yourself out of your self-pity you’d see that things aren’t actually that bad for us, yeah?’
‘Pansy, you’re shouting.’ (She wasn’t, but even two days later he was yet to think of a better comeback.)
‘You’re honestly the biggest killjoy I’ve ever met,’ she’d scowled. ‘I’m going home. See you all soon.’
He’d gone home a few hours later – or, rather, he’d let Daphne lead him home, her shrill voice permeating through his drink-fogged mind, although he couldn’t actually remember what she’d been telling him off. She’d left a note on his kitchen table, even though he had no recollection of her writing it.
Learn to hold your drink. You’re a prat. Love Daphne.
(He saved that note for years, putting it in his speech when she married – of all people – Theodore Nott. Daphne, do you remember this note you left? Am I still a prat these days?)
He didn’t see much of Saturday, given that he woke at two in the afternoon. Hungry, but sick at the thought of eating, he ended up leaning out of the window, breathing in fresh air to soothe his tender head. Fresh air until the traffic lights on the road below changed, and instead his lungs were flooded with soot and smog. That’s London! he thought, cheerfully, then his head reminded him of the previous night and the thought changed to screw this, I’m going back to bed.
He was up and dressed at seven that evening, remembering, rather guiltily, how his mother had always hated it when he slept in late and wasted the day. Pansy rang the door half an hour later, causing him to drop the headache potion he was midway through mixing.
‘What do you want?’ he asked, when she stepped into his flat.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Kind of alcoholic, why?’
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Daphne told me to come over and check that you hadn’t set fire to your flat or anything.’
‘Daphne’s a wise girl.’
‘Well, I’m here, and you’re obviously alright, except it looks like you’ve just thrown up all over yourself-’
‘That’s a potion for my head, Pansy-’
‘Not much use on your robes, is it?’
‘No, you made me drop it when you rang the door.’
‘Of course.’ she rolled her eyes. ‘Blame me.’
‘I’m not – oh, forget it. Cup of tea?’
‘I’d love one.’
She left at ten, Draco having firmly relegated her back to the ‘friends’ category in his mind. He though. He supposed. He wasn’t even sure. She’d done nothing more than perch on the edge of the sofa with a stone-cold cup of tea in her hands, talking. It was like being a fifth year all over again in the common room, only with a notable lack of Daphne, Crabbe, Goyle, Theodore, Blaise…Although, he supposed, they were nothing like the fifth years they were then. When he was actually just friends with Pansy and not…not…whatever he was.
You’re a prat. You’re a killjoy. Can’t see beyond the end of your own nose. Pansy and Daphne had said this much. They were the only women in his life – well, apart from Astoria and her tweed – and they were bound to know these things.
Stop wallowing in self-pity and get a proper job, if you hate the bookshop so much. Tomorrow. Look at the Prophet Classifieds, see what’s on offer.
He ignored Pansy’s advice and went for a walk instead. It was a Sunday. Hyde Park was deserted. It was late already by the time he left, dressed like a muggle so as not to be seen, trying desperately not to think of how his father would kill him for such behaviour. It was better than the alternative, though. Donning robes and walking through Diagon Alley always seemed to attract people from his past, and he hated the inevitable small talk he always had to make. It was the constant lying through gritted teeth, the forced Hellos that he despised so much. He didn’t have to see those Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors with their smug smiles to know that they were all doing better than him, and they knew it.
Bloody hell, they knew it. It was almost as if in the split second of awkward eye contact and muttered greetings they saw his mind open like a book, his soul laid bare. Nothing more than a sneer to hide behind. Yeah, my parents are in prison, what’s it to you?
Almost everyone else from Hogwarts had a high-ranking job, a marriage, kids on the way, nicer robes than him, nicer houses, nicer salaries…
It’s farther to fall when you fall from the top, Draco. Pansy had told him this a long time ago, back when they were nineteen and both ebbing along in the wake of the Trials. Remember that and stop being such a miserable bastard. Swear to Salazar I could kill you sometimes.
She was right. It was farther to fall, especially when you were pushed.
So he ended up walking in Hyde Park instead. Thinking about how much he hated Sundays. The day was already dimming; the sun was low, orange, the ripples of the Serpentine effervescent with colour. He passed only five people as he crossed the park, three of them out jogging. The other two were a young couple, clutching hands and dribbling sweet nothings to each other, voices lazy as the sun’s glow.
His head still felt dangerous. The fresh air was good; it was crisp, sharp as a knife, cutting through his choked thoughts with ease. It felt good to breathe in. He inhaled – one, two, three, four – and then exhaled for the count of nine.
Draco didn’t actually notice Astoria until she almost ran into him. He was too busy being blinded by the sun, and she, turning right from a path at a right-angle to his, had been hidden by an overgrown tree. At the sight of him she cursed and jumped backwards, hand over her Tweed-coated heart.
Swearing several times, she cast him a half-angry, half-amused look.
‘Nearly scared the life out of me,’ she laughed. ‘Sorry.’
‘Sorry.’ he said, automatically, a split second after she had. ‘Wasn’t looking where I was going.’
‘What brings you here?’ she asked. He could tell by the way she was looking at him that she was genuinely bemused – after all, she’d only ever seen him behind a desk before, in proper robes. He felt like her, masquerading as a muggle…except he hoped that he had a better dress sense than Tweed jackets with elbow patches.
‘Dunno,’ he shrugged. ‘Needed to clear my head.’
‘Nothing like a walk for that.’
‘What about you?’
‘Had to post a letter,’ she said. ‘I don’t own an owl, you see.’
‘Yeah. Er, Draco, could I ask you something?’
‘Have you seen my sister lately? Because, well, the letter I was posting was for her. We haven’t seen each other in ages, and she’s never in when I call round…’
‘I saw her on Friday night, actually.’
Draco distinctly remembered Daphne telling him that she avoided her sister on principle – a sister who was, in her words, dishonest, an embarrassment to the family. For the first time, he felt the slightest sympathy for Astoria – there was nothing outwardly strange about her, once you got past the Tweed and the overtime at the Muggle Liaison Office.
‘As well, I was thinking about that book I bought off you the first time I went into the bookshop…it’s not all that good, I might bring it back.’
‘Can’t remember which book it was.’
‘Defences of the Mind: A study of Occlumency.’ she recited, schoolgirl-like. ‘I only really bought it because I liked the typeface on the cover, to be honest…’
‘Oh. It’s alright if you bring it back…might make a few sickles more if I sell it on.’
They stood in silence for a moment. Astoria brushed a strand of hair from where it had fallen over her glasses.
‘Where are you headed?’ he asked.
‘That way.’ she pointed ahead of him.
‘May as well just walk with you then.’
They started to walk. Squinting, Astoria took off her glasses and stuck them in her top pocket. The lenses were filthy with finger marks.
‘I’m short-sighted,’ she explained, at Draco’s quizzical look. ‘Can’t see a thing in the distance for the life of me.’
‘My father used to wear glasses too, for reading.’
‘That’s the other one. Long sighted.’
‘Expensive, aren’t they?’
‘What, glasses?’ she asked, fingers going to her glasses again. ‘Yeah, thirty Galleons or something. Bit of a dent out of my salary. It’s cold, isn’t it?’ she added, suddenly, rubbing her hands together.
‘Best weather we’ve had all year, I think,’ she stared ahead at the sky. ‘And it is March already. February was rubbish. All that rain.’
She was speaking as if he was an amnesiac, as if he’d forgotten last month’s weather. He nodded again, unable to think of anything else to say.
‘At least they’re forecasting a nice summer,’ she said. ‘But, then again…’
‘This being England, we’ll be lucky to get one dry day.’
‘I’ll make sure I’m out on that one day then. I’m getting a bit fed up of the rain.’
They were almost at the gate of the park. ‘Heading home?’ Draco asked, casually, almost half-wishing that she had a house in Kensington and would leave him at the gate. His headache was returning. But, he thought, a jacket that worn doesn’t suggest a Kensington lifestyle.
‘Yeah. Suppose you’re off round there somewhere.’ she gestured to their left. He wanted to laugh; she was thinking exactly the same thing, possibly wishing that he would leave and go home to Kensington. Instead, he shook his head, mustering the politest smile possible.
‘No, I’m down by Stockwell. Over the river.’
‘Clapham South,’ she said, in a flash. ‘You’re not that far away from me.’
They carried on walking. Astoria tucked her hands into her pockets, complaining that they were numb with cold. Her eyes were scrunched up, squinting against the full glare of the sun, her lips curved in a frown.
‘Daphne was asking after you on Friday,’ he lied. ‘She wondered how you were.’
‘Oh,’ Astoria’s hand shielded her face from the sun. Draco could see that her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. ‘That was nice of her.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, hastily thinking of something else to say. ‘She said…she said she felt bad for not seeing you more often and she was talking about seeing you sometime soon.’
He felt proud of himself for a split second – what was a lie like that when it could make someone happier? But then Astoria shook her head, laughing.
‘You don’t have to lie. I know she’s avoiding me.’
‘Then why were you asking after her?’
Astoria looked as if she was about to answer, but then she shook her head. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’ she said, finally. ‘Daphne hasn’t made an effort to contact me for about a year.’
A police car shot past them, sirens blaring. Astoria watched it idly, stuffing her hands back into her pockets. They passed underneath the shadow of a building and she relaxed her eyes. Following her example, Draco tugged his sleeves down over his stiff fingers.
‘Do you ever wonder where all these muggles are headed?’ she asked, out of the blue. ‘I mean, not like the police, I know they’re off to an emergency, but just…ordinary ones. In cars. Seems like an awful lot of effort to travel.’
‘That’s coming from someone who can apparate, though.’
‘I can’t, actually,’ she said, wearily. ‘Everyone assumes I can, but…anyway, the muggles have it good – they’ve got buses and trains, haven’t they? More efficient than those things they insist on driving.’
‘I dunno. Never really thought about it.’
She laughed again. ‘I get paid to think about this sort of stuff. Muggles. It’s all a bit silly, really.’
‘What do you actually do with work?’ he asked, suspiciously.
‘Tell people off for using magic in front of muggles. Obliviate muggles. The first part’s dead dull, but the memory charms are fun.’
‘Ah. Your overtime.’
‘Yeah, that. Sometimes I wish people would be cooperative and break the law during office hours; it’d make everything so much more convenient.’
‘In an ideal world, perhaps.’ he smirked.
‘Wishful thinking, I know,’ she laughed. ‘How come you ended up in a bookshop?’
‘I’ve still got time,’ she said, consulting her watch. ‘Plus we’re still ages away from my flat. Go on, tell me.’
‘It’s not important.’
‘It’s not something I talk about.’
‘Can’t be worse than my story.’
‘Why, what’s that?’
‘Well, that’s fair, isn’t it?’ he said, the sarcasm in his voice a touch too biting for the light-hearted mood of the conversation. Astoria grinned and shook her head.
‘Nah, It’s not that interesting. Just an overwhelming lack of graduate jobs, that’s all. Suppose that got you too.’
‘Yeah, that and the Ministry.’
‘They’re a load of twats.’
‘Can’t you apparate either?’ she asked, changing subject again. ‘I’ve seen you Flooing home every night.’
‘No. Never passed my test.’ he lied.
‘Me neither. Never really got the hang of it.’ her comment was perfectly innocent, but there was a faraway look in her eyes, a nervous, impulsive jerk of her left wrist. He couldn’t help it; he almost thought he felt the Dark Mark burn again, but it was only a phantom pain, a fleeting ghost of a memory.
‘Yeah. Everyone else can just disappear like that,’ she clicked her fingers. ‘And I’ve got to Floo home, or walk if I’m not coming from work. Irritating, but, well, got to look on the bright side – at least I’ll never splinch myself across half the country.’
She’s a strange girl, Draco thought, as they lapsed into silence again. One minute she seemed like a bumbling, bookwormish apparition in a boxy tweed jacket, the next she was easygoing, mouthing off about the Ministry and an inability to apparate. He remembered her tattoo, the flat line of letters and numbers inscribed in the pale skin across her wrist. Girls who wear tweed aren’t the sort of girls to get tattoos. Girls who wear tweed don’t call the Ministry ‘a load of twats’. Girls who wear tweed don’t stop ex-Death Eaters in the street and- he stopped his thoughts, suddenly aware that Astoria was looking at him as if she could hear every word.
‘What’s your tattoo about?’ he asked, quickly. ‘The one on your wrist, I mean.’
‘Oh,’ she gave a forced laugh. ‘Stupid joke with a friend. Supposed to be a unique tattoo, you know, specific combination of digits and numbers…’ she shook her arm so that the sleeve fell down over her hand. ‘Doesn’t really make sense, I know, It’s pretty dull. Anyway, you were talking about how you got your job…’
The conversation veered off again. By the time they reached Stockwell tube station, the sky was ink-blue. Astoria was shivering, shoulders hunched inside her jacket to keep warm.
‘Gosh, it’s f-f-f-f-freezing!’ she stammered, voice broken with the cold. Her heavy fringed had fallen into her eyes, but she stubbornly dug her hands deeper into her pockets and refused to brush it away. The thought of it annoyed Draco, although he couldn’t quite bring himself to tuck it to the side himself. She was halfway through a lengthy tirade about the Auror Department (‘A bunch of effing idiots ‘) and her colleagues (‘Can’t see the wood for the trees, any of them’) when he interrupted, pointing over his shoulder.
‘That’s my stop,’ he said. Astoria squinted, pulling her glasses from her pocket. ‘It’s invisible to muggles,’ he explained, wearily. ‘Takes a while to get used to, I know, the spells really screw with your mind.’
‘Oh,’ she sounded impressed. Her eyes shifted over the dark sky behind them, and then widened. ‘Oh.’ she repeated. ‘I see it now. Impressive magic.’
‘Yeah, supposedly this was once a Wizarding community back in the day, but when London expanded a long time ago and the Statue of Secrecy was signed…it’s all very boring.’
‘No, go on.’ she said. Her eyes were taking in the tower block that rose out of the gardens of the houses behind. Sixteen storey’s worth of windows glimmered down at the street below, turning the building into a pillar of light. In the dark, it was difficult to make out the pollution-stained concrete and the obscene words scrawled on the front door. Three storeys above, Draco could pick out his flat. He had lived there for four years and wasn’t optimistic about the chance of moving somewhere nicer.
‘It’s not that interesting,’ he told her. ‘It’s basically a vertical hell that muggles can’t see.’
‘I live in a tower too,’ she said. ‘Sounds romantic, but the lift never works, the walls are thin and the couple in the flat next to me have a very active love life.’
‘Ministry housing program?’
‘You bet.’ she shivered again. ‘Although mine isn’t so swanky; muggles can see it.’
‘Dunno if it makes a difference,’ Draco said. ‘Doubt we’d get any trouble from muggles anyway.’
‘Aside from having a tower growing out of their back garden.’ she pointed out. Drawing her tweed jacket closer around her, she shivered again. ‘Well, best be off.’
‘I can’t make you walk home in the cold,’ he said. (‘It was an obvious attempt at chivalry,’ she added, much later on. ‘You weren’t fooling me for a second.’) ‘Would you like some tea?’
‘I probably shouldn’t.’
‘You’re freezing. I’ll lend you a scarf or something.’
‘Alright,’ she said. ‘Ten minutes, then I’ll go home.’
An hour later she was still in his flat, leaning against the wall in the narrow hallway with a mug in one hand, her other hand deftly picking out books from the shelf before her.
‘Read that one,’ she said, pulling out a popular thriller Draco had taken from the bookshop and forgotten to read. ‘It’s terrible. Now, this one is better, but parts of the plot are simply awful…’
Astoria had taken off the tweed jacket; it now lay folded over the back of a chair in the kitchen. She looked oddly bland without it. Her outfit seemed to be mostly grey, and her wrist looked thin and fragile under the bulky weight of her heavy silver watch. Her black hair was not dissimilar to Pansy’s, but her face seemed kinder, her movements almost silent, her voice softer.
Thinking about Pansy already? A snide voice in the back of his mind said. You’re desperate.
‘What about this one?’ she held up a book called Starlight; Draco vaguely remembered reading it some three years ago. ‘Won an award, although I think it’s quite pretentious. Centaurs and elves and such. Kid’s stuff, although my sister harped on about it for weeks.’
‘Don’t remember it.’ he answered, truthfully.
‘I’ll remind you.’ she said, tucking it under one arm. He followed her into the kitchen, rubbing his tired eyes. She was already flipping through the book, falling backwards onto the sofa with a heavy sigh, kicking off her shoes towards the corner of the room. He sat on the other end, watching us she hoisted her legs up onto the cushion, nestling into the worn fabric as if it were her flat they were in and not his.
‘Listen to this - As he stared above, the sky was reflected perfectly in his eyes. Like mirrors, the twin orbs showed the blanket of stars sprinkled across the vast expanse of the sky. She even thought she could see the glimmering spectrum of nebulae reflected there, but he blinked, and the colours were lost. She too turned her head upwards, and gazed, not for the first time, into the heavens. The stars were inestimably tiny, so far away, so cold to her...I mean, isn’t that ridiculous? It’s an obvious attempt to be deep about the whole thing. You can’t even see nebulae with the naked eye! Oh, but, whatever, they’re centaurs, so I suppose that explains it.’ She shut the book with a defiant snap. Draco stayed silent, unwilling to tell Astoria that he had actually quite enjoyed the book.
‘Anyway.’ She continued. ‘Much better stuff to choose from. Like this-’ she reached for a book that had been tossed onto the low table nearby, a dog-eared political thriller Draco was in the midst of reading. ‘This is a proper book. Really liked it.’
‘Only halfway through.’ He told her.
‘You wait until the end,’ she said, grinning. ‘Hell of a twist.’
The evening continued in much of the same way. Astoria took several books to pieces, dissecting plot, characters and dialogue just as her sister dissected gossip. It was one in the morning when she ran out of steam and yawned, her bleary eyes flickering shut of their own accord. Her head rested on his shoulder like a dead weight.
‘It’s been a nice evening,’ she mumbled. ‘Thanks...for the tea.’
The tea, stone cold and hardly touched, was still sitting on the kitchen table.
‘It’s no problem.’
He supposed that he must have fallen asleep around them, with his headache still raging quietly in a corner of his mind, his joints stiff from being curled up in the sofa at awkward angles to accommodate Astoria. The next time he looked at the clock it was three in the morning and she was hopping on one foot, two fingers jammed down the back of her shoe as she tried to pull it on.
‘Must be off,’ she said, hurriedly, shrugging her tweed jacket on, shoes scuffing on the floor. ‘See you around.’
‘Yeah, see you.’ He told her. She let herself out of the flat; by the time that Draco had gathered his wits and stood up the door had already clicked shut and her footsteps were echoing away down the corridor. He crossed the room and stood by the window, pushing shut a drawer in the desk that was open, thinking nothing of it. Drawing back the curtain, he stared out into the starless night.
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